Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, journalist, commentator and a Marxist intellectual. He is Professor of International Studies at Trinity College. The questions and answers below have been published in various publications including Alternet, Counterpunch, the Indian magazine Frontline, and the Turkish newspaper BirGün.
1. Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” has certainly brought questions of radicalism to the table – including of course of democratic socialism. You have said – “You can’t really have a revolutionary campaign inside a counter-revolutionary party.” Could you elaborate on this?
The Democratic Party and its major office holders – with few exceptions – are funded by predatory corporate interests: too-big-to-fail banks, fossil fuel giants, war profiteers, for-profit prisons, Big Pharma and the like. With corporate funding providing its life blood, counter-revolution is hardwired into the Party.
Over the past many decades, the Democratic Party has repeatedly offered up progressive presidential candidates, but consistently sabotaged those campaigns to prevent them from winning the nomination. After anti-war advocate George McGovern won the 1972 nomination, the party created super delegates (conservative insiders providing a ~20% margin of safety for status quo candidates) and super Tuesdays (which tip the playing field by requiring large sums of money for multiple simultaneous primaries), to safeguard against future grassroots rebellion.
Where necessary, the Party has used smear campaigns and back stabbing to take down its reformers. Anti-war candidate Howard Dean was disabled by “Dean Scream” ads portraying him as a madman, while Jesse Jackson was marginalized by a smear campaign painting him as anti-Semitic. Dennis Kuccinich was denied admission in to the debates, and then redistricted out of his Congressional seat.
While the Party marginalizes its rebels, it benefits from the illusion of progressive figureheads – even as the party becomes more corporatist, militarist and imperialist by the year. So these presidential campaigns that lift up the best of the party actually enable it to fake-left but keep marching to the right.
Prior attempts to reform the Democratic Party have been futile. Riding the groundswell of the civil rights movement, labor and civil rights leaders Walther Reuther (United Auto Workers) and Bayard Rustin (March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom) led the campaign to create a social democratic party out of the Democrats. The effort succeeded in pushing Dixiecrats out, but floundered with Lyndon Johnson’s Viet Nam war, which forced “reformers” to defend the party’s irrepressible militarism. Instead of moving the Democratic Party to the left, the reformers were moved to the right.
The Party’s dependence on the economic elite not only shuts down radical messengers. It also keeps transformative solutions – representing real threats to its corporate funders – off the table. Thus the Sanders campaign has the liberty to support free public higher education, but stops short of calling for the cancellation of student debt. Sanders rightly calls for breaking up the big banks, but is silent on executive action that could actually accomplish this in short order by instituting minimum capital requirements. Sanders has spoken out against disastrous US foreign policies of the past, but has not taken a clear campaign stance against the current catastrophic $6 trillion dollar, 15 year “war on terror” that’s produced ever greater extremes of organized terrorism. Nor has he called for cutting the toxic, bloated military that’s made us less secure, not more secure, while devouring over 50% of the US discretionary budget – bankrupting us financially, morally and spiritually. And while Sanders calls for a ban on new fossil fuels on public lands and offshore, what our survival actually requires is an emergency program to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2030 – well beyond Sanders’ goal of 80% by 2050 – in addition to an immediate ban on all new fossil fuel development.
Despite these limits, Bernie Sanders is far ahead of nearly all Democratic politicians, who overwhelmingly practice the economic neoliberalism and foreign policy neoconservatism that the Clintons exemplify. Thus a President Sanders would face not only a Congress full of Republican intransigence, but also Democratic resistance.
While the Sanders campaign shows that majorities supporting progressive economic reforms will come out and vote for a candidate who articulates them, the danger is that this progressive movement will get co-opted inside the Democratic Party, fighting with the corporate-financed power structure and losing its identity as a distinct alternative.
This is the core paradox of the Sanders campaign. It has been essential for jump starting the revolution. But inside the box of the Democratic Party, the revolution cannot grow.
That is why our Green alternative is imperative – providing a revolutionary campaign in a revolutionary party in which the movement can continue to build. As the Democratic power structure moves to shut down the Sanders campaign, we provide a lifeline to continue the fight to November and beyond.
Sanders supporters have come too far to throw in the towel now. Even if a revolutionary candidate were to win the 2016 presidential election, this struggle will only have begun. We need a revolutionary vehicle that will not allow this hard work to be disappeared into the neoliberal/neocon Clinton campaign and the counter-revolutionary Democratic Party. This is the time to grow our newfound power like our lives depend on it, because they do.
2. In this era of economic instability, social toxicity, wars of aggression and the perils of climate change, the Left has re-emerged in parts of Europe as an antidote to the Extreme Right. In fact, what we see is the demise of the what Tariq Ali calls the Extreme Center – the Third Way – and polarity at the Right and the Left, somewhere between the fascists and Syriza-Podemos-Corbyn. Such a shift has not occurred yet in the United States. Sanders’ movement seems to have not so much broken with the Extreme Center as delivered the base of the Left to what you call a “counter-revolutionary party.” Would you agree with that assessment?
The bipartisan American center is indeed a wasteland. Concentrated wealth degrades and disrupts virtually every vestige of democracy on the political landscape – from the stranglehold of big money over campaign finance, to industrial scale lobbying and the corporate-government revolving door, to the assault on the right to vote, corporatized media, restricted ballot access, and deceptive debates. Bipartisan politicians of the extreme center have not only lost the ability to govern. In large numbers they’ve lost the ability to think, and by most appearances, to feel. In exchange for their corporate sponsorship, they have sold their hearts and souls.
Faithful to their corporate sponsors, the bipartisan extreme establishment has produced austerity at all levels of society. So it’s no surprise that 50% of the electorate has divorced the Democratic and Republican Parties. This new breakaway political force, surging through the Trump and Sanders campaigns, is bursting at the seams of the establishment parties – which are holding on for dear life.
There’s no doubt the Democratic Party is counting on the Sanders base for the Clinton campaign.
Currently, a third of Sanders supporters say they will not vote for Clinton if she is the nominee. Our campaign is working hard to get the word out so all Sanders supporters know they have a plan B, and that they needn’t be intimidated into voting against what they fear, instead of voting for their deeply held beliefs. Because the politics of fear has delivered everything we were afraid of. And the lesser evil in fact paves the way for the greater evil, because people quickly tire of voting for the lesser evil, as shown in the 2014 midterms when the Democratic base stayed home producing widespread Republican victories.
So when Bernie Sanders steps up to the podium to pledge allegiance to Hillary Clinton, as he has promised to do, we hope to give courage to his supporters to stand by their convictions, to reject the lesser evil and keep fighting for the greater good with our campaign.
3. It is now clear that the Democratic Party will nominate Hillary Clinton to be the president. Sanders will be under pressure to bring his supporters behind her. This will be abhorrent to sections of Sanders’ supporters, who would not like to get behind a Wall Street candidate. It is unlikely that Sanders will ruffle the feathers with a third party run. What kind of initiative will the Green Party take to organise the Sanders’ base so that it is not disillusioned, giving up on politics entirely?
Many Sanders supporters have long straddled both campaigns. As the Democratic Party moves to sideline his campaign, Sanders supporters themselves are getting the word out that the revolution continues here, inside our campaign.
Our outreach is not targeted at Sanders supporters per se. But several of our key constituencies are no doubt well represented in the Sanders campaign. A major priority is young (and not so young) people in debt – 43 million in fact, which happens to be a winning plurality in a 3-way presidential race. Fortunately, millennials are perfectly positioned to self-organize around debt through social media, as they have often done successfully on other issues – like saving the internet, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, and fighting the 2013 Monsanto protection bill.
Student debt is an especially galvanizing issue. Not only because its victims have the numbers to take over the election. But also, because the President has the power to enact a quantitative-easing bailout (like what was used for Wall Street) through the Federal Reserve, without requiring an act of Congress. As word gets out that millennials can effectively cancel their debt by coming out in sufficient numbers and voting Green, that message is spreading like a wild fire. The explosive growth of our social media in recent weeks suggests the word is indeed getting out.
Likewise we are getting the word out to Latinos and other groups concerned about immigrant rights. They have seen that Republicans are the Party of hate and fear mongering. And Democrats are the Party of deportation, detention and night raids. We are the only campaign opposing border militarization, pointing out that the most important solution to the immigration crisis is to stop causing it – through predatory trade deals, the war on drugs and US military and CIA supported coups and regime change. US immigration policy effectively criminalizes millions of refuges fleeing the poverty and violence resulting from misguided US policies.
Our goal is not simply to plug people into a presidential campaign, but to build the Green Party as we go – as the vehicle for political empowerment for the long haul. We are working to organize campus chapters, to engage frontline struggles on the ground, to spread the word through social media, and to push the progressive media in particular to end the blackout on our campaign. We are also working through the courts where the Green Party is part of two law suits to force the Commission on Presidential Debates to include the Green and Libertarian candidates who are on the ballot for the majority of voters, and that voters therefore have a right to hear about.
4. The two party system suffocates politics in the US. The Republicans have become a proper Extreme Right party, while the Democrats capture a large space that runs from Center Right to Center Left. Whatever remains of the Left is fragmented and has become irrelevant to US politics. Is this a fair characterisation of the political landscape? Michael Denning, a scholar of the United States, said that this left sectarianism mirrors the culture of schismatic religions in the US. I also think it has a great deal to do with the lack of mass fronts, where people with hard lines can work with the people on concrete issues.
Considering the long-standing war on independent politics in the US, it’s no surprise that the American left has been in dire straights. Independent, non-corporate parties have been fear-campaigned and smear campaigned as “spoilers”; restrictive ballot access laws have kept opposition parties off the ballot since the anti-war Socialists were suppressed following World War I. Media blackouts keep the public in the dark. Steep fundraising disadvantages deprive opposition parties of resources. And the “first past the post” voting system denies them representation they would have in Europe with similar levels of support. So the playing field is steeply tilted in the US against opposition politics.
But recently there have been some very encouraging developments. Greens and Socialists have been collaborating in electoral campaigns, such as the joint Green-International Socialist Organization ticket of Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones for Governor and Lieutenant Governor of NY. We’ve also worked together on frontline campaigns including living wage campaigns, pipeline protests, and struggles against police brutality, environmental racism, coal trains, and fracking towers.
For my presidential campaign, the campaign trail lives in font line communities – in campus fights against student debt, at mobilizations against high stakes testing and school privatization, rallies for the $15 dollar minimum wage, protests against police violence, immigrant detention centers, fracking wells and pipelines and the poisoning of water supplies, the theft of indigenous lands. We are working on the ground to lift up the voices of community struggle, while building political solidarity with social movements for the long haul.
As the one party of the left with national scope, Greens regularly make our ballot line available to left candidates outside the Green Party who are running for office. And a number of Socialist groups are helping our current ballot access drive to ensure our campaign is on the ballot providing a choice for as many voters as possible. In 2012 we were on the ballot for about 83% of voters. With the help of other left parties, we hope to provide even more voters with real choice this year.
By working with community mobilizations on the ground and with other left parties – on frontline struggles, ballot access and political engagement – we are laying the groundwork for a unified social movement with a political voice. This is essential for the transformational change we need to put people, planet and peace over profit, so we can survive into the next century.
5. The Green Party has a view that running candidates in local elections after working in localities is one way to build the party and its relevance. At the presidential level, it is very difficult to have any impact on the electorate – not the least because the candidates are not taken seriously by the media. This is your second run for President. Why have the Greens not been able to appeal to the fragmented Left as well as to the kind of “Sanders’ constituency” and have a breakthrough? What are the kinds of conversations being had about the strategies to effect a breakthrough?
This was largely addressed above. Would add that hundreds of US Greens have held local elected office over the past decade or so. An example of Green governance is provided by former Mayor Gayle McLaughlin of Richmond, California, an impoverished post industrial city of 100,000 in the San Francisco Bay area. Under her watch, small local businesses thrived, crime rates fell, police violence was minimal, and the Chevron refinery was forced to address massive safety violations. In addition, Mayor McLaughlin pioneered the use of eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages from banks and resell them to homeowners at market value, keeping homeowners threatened with foreclosure in their homes. This strategy now being fought in the courts. Gayle McLaughlin’s tenure in Richmond demonstrates the profound impact that Greens can have in local government.
6. You have called for a Green New Deal. Could you tell our readers about this?
The Green New Deal is the centerpiece of our campaign agenda. It is an emergency program to fix the two major, converging crises of the modern era – the unjust, failing economy and the collapsing climate. It’s like the New Deal that got us out of the great depression… but with a green focus in order to fix the climate as well as the economy. It creates 20 million living wage jobs as part of a wartime level mobilization to green our energy, food and transportation systems, and restore critical infrastructure including ecosystems. It does so in the needed time frame – by achieving 100% renewable energy by 2030, and by implementing an immediate moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure and exploration. The result will be to revive our economy, turn the tide on climate change, and make wars for oil obsolete, which enables us to cut the military budget to pay for the project. In addition, the Green New Deal pays for itself simply in health savings from preventing fossil fuel-related diseases that are so costly to our health – asthma, heart attacks, strokes, cancer and emphysema. So this is a win-win-win solution that propels us toward a just, sustainable and healthy future.
7. Finally, the range of candidates running for president continue to believe in the idea of American primacy in world affairs. Perhaps Sanders has indicated otherwise, although his foreign policy statements have been few and far between. What should US foreign policy look like from a Green perspective? How would President Jill Stein tackle the formidable crisis of ISIS?
A Stein administration would go back to the drawing boards on foreign policy. We need a foreign policy based on international law, human rights and diplomacy, not on global military and economic domination, which has been catastrophic. This policy has cost us $6 trillion dollars, ($75,000 per American household) over the past 15 years. Over a million people have been killed in Iraq alone, which is not winning us hearts and minds in the Middle East. And tens of thousands of US soldiers have been killed or maimed. And what do we have to show for it? Failed states, worse terrorist threats, and mass refugee migrations that are tearing the EU and the Middle East apart.
More of the same failed war on terror is not the answer. It’s time to stop ISIS in its tracks and end the Wars for Oil with a Peace Offensive. This includes a weapons embargo to the Middle East, where we are currently the major supplier, having sold nearly $100 billion in weapons to the Saudis over the past decade. The Saudis in turn have been distributing weapons to terrorist groups, including groups closely allied with Al Queda. Effectively the US and its allies have been aiding and abetting the terrorists with one hand while we’ve been fighting them with the other. With US weapons sales arming all sides, we’ve been putting a flame thrower to the region. Consequently, we have the power to initiate a major arms embargo, which we must also work to engage the Russians in, as well as all of our allies.
The Peace Offensive also includes freezing the bank accounts of countries that are funding international jihadism, including the Saudis, who funded the 9/11 attacks, according to Senator Bob Graham, head of the 9/11 Commission. (The 28 redacted pages of the 9/11 report must be released so the public can understand who the real terrorist threats are.) The Saudis were also identified as the leading funder of terrorism worldwide in a State Department cable signed by Hillary Clinton in 2009, released by Wikileaks.
The Peace Offensive must also be accompanied by expanded peace negotiations including civil society, human rights and pro-democracy groups.
As part of this new principled foreign policy, we would also end the supply of arms and funding to governments that are massively violating human rights and international law. This includes ending support for and collaboration with the Saudi monarchy that is committing war crimes in Yeman and horrific human rights violations of its own citizens, including mass beheadings and executions. We would also end $8 million dollars per day of military support for the Israeli government that is committing war crimes and massive human rights violations, including periodic massacres, occupation, home demolitions, collective punishment, and apartheid. We must also put pressure on Erdogan to end Turkey’s attacks on the Kurds when they have offered peace with a confederal relationship.
For a tiny fraction of our dangerously bloated military budget, we could become a super-power of peace and human rights, eliminating hunger and building hospitals, schools and homes instead of destroying them. Importantly, we can lead the way on demilitarizing national budgets around the world, and redirecting those resources into greening all of our economies, thus eliminating the current major driver of conflict world over – the competition for fossil fuels and routes to transport them.
A just foreign policy is essential if we are to create an America and a world that works for all of us, a world that puts people, planet and peace over profit. The power to create that new world is not just in our hopes, not just in our dreams. Here and now. It’s in our hands.