Bernie, We’re in a Bind: An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders From Jacqueline Salit, President,

Bernie, We’re in a Bind: An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders From Jacqueline Salit, President,
Jacqueline Salit

Dear Bernie,

I write to you today because you and I are both in a bind. Maybe together we can find a way out of it. At least I hope so.

I start with yours, as it is infinitely more public than mine. You were the person, the sole significant leader who challenged the Democratic Party to produce a candidate to run against Hillary Clinton. Party leaders had planned to virtually forego a primary and coronate her. Never mind that economic and social destabilization — the result of many things, including policies of the first Clinton Administration — had risen to dangerous levels. Never mind that Clinton-style “reform” had failed to rein in special interests. You were willing to run, not against Hillary in some personal sense, but against the compromised nature of the political system itself.

After deliberating on whether to run in the Democratic Primary (47,000 petition signatures) or as an independent (1,390,000 signatures), you chose to run in the primary, careful to promise you would not “bolt” at the end of your run, if you were not the nominee. Some independent leaders asked to meet with you during your deliberative process. I was one of them. You turned us down. No hard feelings.

You began your long shot candidacy 50 points behind. But as you say, your message resonated. We cannot allow our country or our political system to be captive to special interests. We cannot allow the production of wealth to accumulate in the hands of the few, at the expense of the many. And as you said poignantly on the night of the Nevada caucus, “It is a tough message because it speaks the truth of the American society today that a lot of people just don’t want to address.” Yes. Political corruption is hard to look at. Poverty is hard to look at, let alone live in. A rigged system is hard to look at. But we have to.

You nearly won Iowa, you crushed it in New Hampshire and came within a hair’s breadth in Nevada. How? By carrying independent voters who chose a Democratic ballot by huge margins. Sixty-nine percent of independents in Iowa. Seventy-three percent of independents in New Hampshire. Seventy-one percent in Nevada. That’s where your competitive margin is coming from. On the night of the caucuses in Nevada, one TV commentator observed that you are doing great, but you only won 40 percent of Democrats. “How does someone win the Democratic nomination without winning among Democrats?” he asked.

I’m not a statistician, nor a Democrat. I’m an independent, so that’s not my question. You have a lot of smart people working for you. I imagine they are figuring out how much you can leverage your popular vote against the superdelegate system, much of which is pledged to Hillary. To state the obvious, the superdelegate system is one way that the system is rigged. My question is a different question. What do you plan to do with all those independents? They want much of what you want for this country. But they don’t want to be Democrats.

I’m not a political novice. I’ve been around the block. I’ve done battle with the Clintons (Bill in 1992, Hillary in 2000) and Clinton surrogates (the nonpartisan elections fight in New York City in 2002 and 2003). I know how they roll. I know the second that you acknowledge the importance of independent voters to your campaign — and to this country — you will be attacked for not being a loyal Democrat. That could hurt you with the Democrat base.

Independents care deeply about our identity. In states where independents are forced to join a party to vote in a primary, there is anger about this. Voters of all persuasions believe this is unfair. Even so, independents who choose to vote on the Democrat side (in states that allow it—many states lock independents out altogether) are putting that aside in order to vote for you. They want the systemic change you promise. After all, we independents gave Barack Obama his margin over Hillary in 2008. Now we’re back, fighting Clintonism again, but independents have toughened up since the Obama run. We still want a change in politics-as-usual. How do we get there? Systemic change is key.

So, here is your bind. You need independents to win the nomination. In Nevada, the organizational strength of the party machine was called upon to save Hillary. It did. Still, that machine is weakening. And independents are lifting up those who are challenging the machine. And yet you can’t speak out for us, for opening the primaries where they are closed, for creating a new political coalition that goes beyond the boundaries of Democratic Party norms. You are committed to supporting the Democratic Party nominee and “unifying the Democratic Party.”

If you are the nominee, our wish is that you will speak out loudly and clearly for a political restructuring that takes into account the new political realities. Forty-three percent of the country are independent. Many are young. Growing numbers are in the communities of color. Nationally, 31 percent of young African Americans identify as independents. Not for nothing, in Arizona 41 percent of Latinos are independents, and they won’t be allowed to vote on March 22nd, not even for you.

You said recently that you support competition from third parties. That’s good to hear. But four in ten voters don’t want to be in a party at all. Why? Because parties have become special interests — perhaps the biggest special interests of all. Your support from independents — and, I would add, Donald Trump’s support from independents — are expressions of that very thing. Trump is a one-man wrecking ball aimed at the Republican Party. He does not care about the party, that’s one reason independents like him. In South Carolina this past weekend, the number of independents who voted in the Republican primary more than doubled as compared with 2008. Turnout for the Democrat caucuses in Nevada was down, as compared with 2008, including for independents. Democratic Party belief in its own supremacy could be costly in the end.

Contrary to the public spin, I believe this election is less about “extreme ideology” and more about the nature of the political system itself than any election since the Perot uprisings of 1992 and 1996. At that time, the political revolution took place outside the parties. Today, at least for the moment, it is taking place inside the parties — propelled by independents.

You are a catalyst and a beneficiary of that political uprising. And you will also be called upon to figure out how to contain it, if you are not the Democrat nominee. I vividly remember standing outside the Democratic Party convention in Atlanta in 1988 with independent presidential candidate Lenora Fulani and a crowd of 4,000 on the day that Jesse Jackson was rejected as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate though he had polled nearly 30 percent of the popular vote and energized millions of new voters. He was informed of this insult by a reporter at an airport. Party leaders hadn’t bothered to call him. Fulani said at the time, “Jesse, you are a great leader. But you have led us to the wrong place.”

Now to my bind. I’m an independent, I lead a national organization of activist independents. We are the progressive wing of the independent movement. Our mission is to transform the political system, to open up our democracy, to level the playing field for all voters and to effect a transfer of power from the parties to the people through structural reforms of the electoral system. We believe that independent voters deserve respect, recognition and reform. Open primaries. Nonpartisan redistricting. Independent election supervision. Campaign contribution disclosure.

The issues you frame your campaign around are essential, and I have applauded your success in the primaries and encouraged independents to keep lifting you up, to use their voting power to help you put an end to Clintonism, which is really just another name for putting party ahead of people. I plan to continue to do so. (For the record, I don’t think Hillary is a bad person. I think she has bad politics. She has been corrupted by the system. This has put her in a different kind of bind. I wrote a play called Votes that opens at the Off-Broadway Castillo Theatre on April 1st which offers her a way out of her bind. There are tickets waiting for you and Jane at the Box Office.)

Here’s my bind. I don’t know how you intend to translate your independent support into a movement for the kind of systemic electoral change that our democracy requires. The parties are not the be-all and end-all of representative democracy, and Americans everywhere are chafing at the constraints of parties, partisanship and ideology. Your bind ties you to the party system and all the ways it is rigged. This limits my ability to move independents in your direction. Taken together, our respective binds hold back the political revolution.

In 1996, when California voters first attempted to free themselves from party control by enacting an open primary system allowing independents to vote in all elections, the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the results. No less a figure than Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the Court’s majority opinion in 2000 that parties had the constitutional right to exclude certain voters: “Representative democracy in any populous unit of governance is unimaginable without the ability of citizens to band together in promoting among the electorate candidates who espouse their political views. The formation of national political parties was almost concurrent with the formation of the Republic itself.”

Concurrent, yes. But endowed with a special privilege that rises to the level of governmental status? No. And yet, that is what has occurred in America. This is what the American people are rebelling against. This is at the heart of the political revolution. It is not simply a matter of big money in politics. There is big money in all of American life. The more pervasive problem is that we now have self-interested political institutions — the parties — that are considered “too big to fail.” Are we supposed to protect them and their refusal to share power with the people at all costs?

Bernie, we’re both in a bind. You need the support of independents to succeed. We are giving it freely. We need your support for a true democratization of American politics. Can you play that role? Can we find a way out of this bind?

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