Even in defeat, Sanders showed the way forward for Canada’s New Democrats

Bernie Sanders reminded us it is possible to change the ground rules of politics by backing up a revolutionary platform with the hard work of movement building
Photo: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen
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This week, Bernie Sanders formally conceded the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden by suspending his campaign. Coming days after Keir Starmer’s accession to the U.K. Labour leadership, the end of the Sanders campaign marks the close of an era (2015-2020) when Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn stood as standard-bearers for a resurgence of the socialist left in electoral politics.

Those of us in and around the New Democratic Party who drew inspiration from this moment can now no longer easily point to these examples when we debate electoral strategy in Canada. As Karl Bélanger argued in 2017, “the tough political reality is that both Sanders and Corbyn lost.” No doubt, Canadian liberals — and some centrist New Democrats — will be eager to affirm that they were right all along. The public is not ready for a “democratic socialist” candidate in North America.

However two successive Sanders campaigns have inaugurated a new era in U.S. politics.

Sanders shifted the political mainstream, with a majority of Democratic Party members now supporting key policies like Medicare for All.

The Sanders campaigns grew in symbiosis with a new and dynamic American left. People who volunteered for Sanders always understood that we are in a political moment that requires much more than electing one person to the presidency. They built up networks like Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America, and turned thousands of average people into experienced campaigners. Their impact has registered on elections across the United States, and produced a wave of radical parliamentarians including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and others. This electoral insurgency has taken place alongside increased labour militancy in places like Los Angeles and vigorous climate activism across the continent. The political mainstream has shifted accordingly, with a majority of Democratic Party members supporting key Sanders policies like Medicare for All.

The new American left will not disappear with Bernie Sanders, and neither will its lessons for Canadian activists.

Among Canadian pundits and columnists, there seems to be a broad consensus that the NDP can be split into two camps. On one hand are the “pragmatic” New Democrats who understand that the most effective path to forming government is through strategic political marketing to as broad a range of voters as possible, without alienating too many of them by appearing radical. On the other hand are the hopeless romantics who are interested in protesting rather than power. They only wish to be the “conscience of parliament” or “keepers of the flame.”

The Sanders campaigns have reminded us that there is no contradiction between pursuing power and pursuing a socialist agenda.

The Sanders campaigns have reminded us that there is no contradiction between pursuing power and pursuing a socialist agenda. Empirical data repeatedly indicated that Sanders was well placed to win over Trump voters, independents, and non-voters in battleground states. Sanders only came near victory because he was dead serious about winning the presidency, and his delegates at the Democratic National Convention may yet exercise some meaningful influence on Biden’s platform.

The NDP and CCF won substantial policy victories as socialist third parties in the postwar decades because they were correctly perceived as a threat. Medicare for All was a radical idea in Canada until Tommy Douglas won power in Saskatchewan and suddenly made it mainstream.

When New Democrats have embraced “pragmatism,” they have often failed to achieve a lasting impact. Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP won government, but backed down on major platform commitments and implemented austerity, only to see the rest of its legacy erased by Mike Harris’s neoliberal “Common Sense Revolution.” Alberta’s Rachel Notley was a louder voice for pipeline expansion than the federal Liberals in a time of climate crisis, only to give way to Jason Kenney and a United Conservative Party that is undoing her modest progressive achievements.

The so-called pragmatism of NDP strategists has long worked precisely against building the kind of dynamic national left that is taking shape in the United States.

Moreover, the so-called pragmatism of NDP strategists has long worked precisely against building the kind of dynamic national left that is taking shape in the United States. The Ontario NDP is only now arguably recovering from Rae’s alienation of the labour movement and other traditional constituencies. John Horgan in B.C. has set himself in opposition to demonstrators across Canada by ramming fossil fuel projects through unceded Indigenous lands. Notley did incalculable damage to the federal party’s possible credibility among voters concerned about the climate crisis, who buoyed the Green Party’s fortunes this past October.

As Nora Loreto argued in 2018, the future of the NDP lies in grassroots organizing and solidarity with social movement activists. Some local NDP campaigns have understood this, and have won seats by embracing a Sanders-derived big organizing model that focuses on building an army of inspired volunteers to win voters over to an ambitious programme. This kind of orientation has also been successful for Québec solidaire, a party whose growing momentum contrasts sharply with the NDP.

Bernie Sanders has reminded us that it is possible to change the ground rules of politics by backing up a revolutionary platform with the hard work of movement building. The new American left is not going away.

The old Canadian left never quite disappeared, and it still has a world to win.

Bruce McKenna is an Ontario NDP activist, former vice-president of CUPE 2626, and former Ontario NDP constituency assistant.

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