The idea that Bernie Sanders might mount a third-party or independent run has little basis in reality. Sanders himself has said as much. He’d have to fight a legal battle to gain access to the ballot in “sore loser” states or others that throw up barriers to third-party runs. And seeing how the Naderification of Sanders has already begun, it’s hard to see what benefit there is to Sanders to split the Democratic vote and help elect Donald Trump.
There’s a salient point, however, that the Sanders campaign could foreshadow a party that flanks the Democrats on the left. And if there were ever time to lay the groundwork for a real labor party in the United States, it would be now.
The Sanders coalition, despite statements to the contrary, is not dominated by white men. Rather, according to the Reuters Polling Explorer, it revolves around a high level of support among 18- to 29-year-olds that translates across racial and gender lines. As the respondents get older (and more wealthy), his support wanes across all of these groups.
In order to even build this base of support, Sanders had to run as a Democrat; even as a United States senator well-known on the left, an independent run would, at best, produce a similar result to Ross Perot in 1992. It’s no secret, however, that Sanders doesn’t exactly have love for the Democratic Party. To even get this far, with wins in 21 contests as an independent self-described democratic socialist facing one of the party’s de facto leaders for the past 23 years, has been an incredible run.
With such a young, energetic base of support, however, it’s easy to see why his supporters have been so frustrated at the process throughout the primary. The elected officials who run the party and overwhelmingly support Clinton either helped form the Third Way tradition that has dominated Democratic politics for decades or became politicians in that mold.
Put simply, it’s apparent that the Democratic base of the future is rapidly changing into something farther to the left than it has been in the past. The problem is that these people, like their candidate, don’t trust or like the Democratic Party much at all. For good reason — who can blame a coalition of millennials and poor people for being jaded about a two-party system that hasn’t produced much of a positive impact in their lives?
The party has to see this, which may be one reason why on Monday, they gave Sanders so much control over the party platform. If they’re able to adapt to the change at least better than the Republicans adapted to the Tea Party, maybe they’ll be able to keep the coalition together and happy enough not to depose its leaders. The bulk of Sanders’ supporters could see it this way as well, that the Democratic Party is worth saving and shaping into something more palatable to the left.
As both pundits and backers of both candidates have said, Sanders and many of his supporters aren’t really Democrats anyway. A third party, however, would provide the opportunity to build a new left party from the ground up, one that provides an alternative to both a batshit-insane Republican Party and a Democratic Party that’s truly satisfied with implementing change at a slower rate.
This wouldn’t be easy, of course, but neither is changing a party from within that, in its modern era, has only really made substantial progress on issues like LGBT rights, and is only recently starting to show signs of life on welfare and criminal justice reform. And given how the party rolled back progress made in the New Deal and Great Society to become more viable in the post-Reagan years, there’s no guarantee even a relatively modest trend of progress will continue.
Take the Democratic primary for Florida’s 23rd District seat, for an example of the disconnect between the two wings of the Democratic Party.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, aside from being a controversial figure in the primary, has also been a reliable Third Way Democrat. Wasserman-Schultz represents one of the safest seats in one of the most liberal districts in the country, even as she has made a number of questionable votes disagreeable to progressives.
She’s being primaried by Tim Canova, a law professor who was, on Tuesday, endorsed by Sanders, and like some of the other candidates Sanders has endorsed, has far more in common politically with the Sanders coalition than the Clinton wing. In a more welcoming scenario to the challenger, Canova would face Wasserman-Schultz in the general, where turnout is guaranteed to be higher. If Canova won the seat, he’d caucus with the Democrats (like Sanders has in the Senate) while the party or coalition he represents builds itself up.
Canova, for his part, is not shy about his opinion of the Democratic Party. “This is a party that has gone way too corporate in recent years,” Canova, a former Paul Tsongas staffer, told the New York Times. “It’s turned its back on the working class.”
The work of building a party from the ground up is incredibly hard and would have to be managed better than, well, any other attempt in modern American history. In the past, third parties have operated mostly as vehicles for independent presidential candidates (or, it has to be said, racists like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace), and have gone away once the personality at the top of the ticket (Theodore Roosevelt, Ross Perot) isn’t there to carry it. And judging by what we know about Nader and the blame he’s received for George W. Bush’s election, Sanders running as an independent would doom any momentum a burgeoning socialist movement has.
For a party that’s really built to last, the work would have to be done from the bottom: in school boards, city councils, state legislatures, and Congressional seats around the country, challenging safe Democrats in cities along with entrenched Republicans in rural areas, and working in a coalition if it means building power.
This is a rare moment in American history where the opportunity presents itself for a party on the left. For Sanders, who has spent his whole life railing against the two-party system we have, lighting the fire would be a fantastic legacy for his campaign.