Often it’s tempting to compare the Democrats to parties such as Labour, founded to further working class interests in parliament. But the vicious attacks on Sanders are further evidence that the Democrats are different.
One high profile supporter of Sanders, Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), recently said that “Democratic Party is not a left party” but a “centre or centre-conservative party”.
Many socialists have looked to changing the Democrats. But history also shows that the party has been a shock absorber for movements pushing for radical change. It has policed the parameters of what’s acceptable on the left and reined in and sometimes suffocated social movements.
The 1960s is a warning about what happens when socialists funnel their energies into the Democrats and don’t focus on building a working class alternative to the two-party system.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Democrats were largely based on business and agricultural interests in the South and implacably in favour of segregation between white and black people.
In the 1930s splits in the US ruling class saw the Democrats become a broader coalition of sections of big business, trade unions and the Southern establishment known as the “Dixiecrats”.
After the Second World War the Civil Rights Movement took on the racist Jim Crow laws that had maintained segregation in the Democrat-run Southern states.
In the 1950s Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the black churches organised resistance. A second wave in the 1960s saw black students in the forefront of the struggle.
The movement showed immense bravery. But the non-violent strategy was based on being backed up by the violence from the US state and trying to force it to intervene against the Southern racists.
At the same time many Civil Rights leaders, union organisers and socialists looked to a strategy of “realignment”. This meant working to force out the Dixiecrats in order to make the Democrats an alliance of left wingers and trade unionists.
From 1960, the Congress for Racial Equality (Core) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Sncc) mounted a serious challenge to racism in the South. In the face of racist violence and death threats activists organised “freedom rides”, bus journeys into the Deep South to challenge segregation laws.
A huge campaign for the total desegregation of Albany, Georgia, saw cops lock up over 1,000 people. Activists ran voter registration drives in states that excluded black people through discriminatory laws and violence.
In 1964 Core and Sncc sent 150 organisers into Mississippi to set up the Freedom Democratic Party. This was a direct challenge to the state’s ruling Democratic Party, which only allowed whites to join.
President John Kennedy and his brother, attorney general Robert Kennedy, wanted to bring the black vote into the Democratic Party coalition. Kennedy had only narrowly beaten Republican candidate Richard Nixon in 1960 and black voters had helped to swing it.
But the Kennedys were only willing to support the Civil Rights movement up to a point and tried to push it away from civil disobedience.
Civil Rights activist James Farmer recalled a meeting between Robert Kennedy and Core and Sncc leaders. Kennedy said, “Why don’t you guys cut all that shit, freedom riding and sitting-in shit, and concentrate on voter registration. If you do that, I’ll get you tax free status.”
As the Kennedy administration prepared a Civil Rights Bill, it tried to stop the movement organising a mass demonstration in Washington.
But the strength of the mass movement forced Kennedy to agree it should go ahead—on condition its leaders blunted its militancy. Sncc leader John Lewis, for instance, was lent on to water down his speech criticising the Kennedys for not enforcing civil rights laws.
After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, vice president Lyndon B Johnson took over and signed the Civil Rights Act the following year. This didn’t mean the fight was over and Southern states continued to viciously discriminate against black people.
The Democrats’ two-faced strategy was shown up at the 1964 Democratic Party national convention.
Sncc members had risked their lives that summer registering voters and building the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was set up to challenge the existing racist branch of the Democrats. When it came to the national convention, the state’s racist party was instead given all of the delegates.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was offered a couple of token delegates as a compromise.
The move was backed by King and other black leaders. They wanted to avoid a split that could have let in the Republican party’s candidate, the hard right Barry Goldwater.
The young delegates refused to be bowed and walked out of the Democrats in disgust. But King and other black leaders wrote Johnson a blank cheque in the 1964 presidential election.
The episode showed the gulf between the Democrats and the movement.
Another key flashpoint came at the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. While the Dixiecrats might have been on the way out, the Democrats remained hostile to anything outside the mainstream and firmly committed to defending the capitalist system.
The Civil Rights Movement had come alongside other mass movements, in particular against the Vietnam War. Kennedy had sent troops to crush the Vietnamese national liberation movement and after his assassination, his successor Johnson massively escalated the war.
There was huge radicalism on campuses. One of the main organisations, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), had begun by wanting to work within the Democratic Party, but had greatly radicalised and now looked beyond it.
Johnson had been expected to stand for reelection in 1968. But the Vietnamese resistance humiliated the US that year and Johnson said he would not seek the party’s nomination. Vice president Hubert Humphrey was set to be his anointed successor.
Eugene McCarthy, a little-known senator, stood as a challenger. His aim was to “restore belief in the American political process” among those who “make threats to support third parties or other irregular political movements”.
Some of the youthful activists cut their hair, dressed respectably and threw themselves into backing McCarthy under the slogan, “Go clean for Gene.” And sections of the movement called for a mass demonstration outside the Democrat convention in Chicago to support McCarthy.
Many others spurned such an approach. SDS sent people to the demonstration to argue with McCarthy supporters that they should build a movement outside the party.
Demonstrators were met with brutal police violence, which meant that some people went to Chicago hoping to transform the Democrats and came away as revolutionaries.
However, many of the Civil Rights and anti-war leaders would be back within the Democrats by the early 1970s. A socialist alternative that looked to working class people relying on their own self-organisation didn’t emerge out of those movements to break with the Democrats.
The pressure to collapse into the Democrats has been the experience of movements since.
Today we urgently need radical change to deal with climate catastrophe, exploitation and to tear out the roots of oppression.
The Democratic establishment fears Sanders because he has tapped into a deep anger in US society. He reflects social movements that demand radical change, such as the Sunrise climate strikers, the Women’s Marches and a rebirth of working class militancy.
But what happens if Sanders isn’t the Democratic presidential nominee now?
Will socialists arguing for realignment of the party break with the Democrats or line up behind the corporate warmonger Joe Biden? That would mean writing the Democrats another blank cheque and diverting the movements into getting out the Democratic vote.
The lesson is to break with the Democrats, build movements that have the power to challenge the system and continue to fight for a socialist alternative to both the capitalist parties.