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Cornel West & Former Sanders Staffer on Movement to Draft Bernie for a New “People’s Party” in U.S.

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As Donald Trump approaches his 100th day as president on Saturday, his approval ratings are the lowest any president has had at this stage in generations. A recent poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found just 40 percent of Americans approve of his job performance so far. Trump took to Twitter to call the poll “totally wrong.” This comes as former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has emerged as one the country’s most popular politicians. The Hill reports a Harvard-Harris poll shows 57 percent of registered voters view him favorably. Meanwhile, some former Sanders supporters have launched a movement to “Draft Bernie for a People’s Party,” urging him to start a new progressive party and run for president again in 2020. We speak with Nick Brana, the former outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. His new piece in The Guardian is headlined “The Democrats delivered one thing in the past 100 days: disappointment.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Boston. Juan González is in New York.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as Donald Trump approaches his 100th day as president on Saturday, his approval ratings are the lowest any president has had at this stage in generations. A recent poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found just 40 percent of Americans currently approve of his job performance. Trump took to Twitter to call the poll “totally wrong.”

This comes as former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has emerged as one the country’s most popular politicians. The Hill reports a Harvard-Harris poll shows 57 percent of registered voters view Sanders favorably. Out of a field of 16 Trump administration officials or congressional leaders who were included in the survey, Sanders was the only one who was viewed favorably by a majority of those polled. Sanders has drawn massive crowds at stops on his recent speaking tour with new Democratic National Committee head Tom Perez as they push to reform the Democratic Party. On Sunday, Sanders spoke to Face the Nation about how the Democratic Party needs to change.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The model of the Democratic Party is failing. We have the—we have a Republican president who ran, as a candidate, as the most unpopular candidate in modern history of this country. Republicans control the House, the Senate, two-thirds of governor’s chairs. And in the last eight years, they have picked up 900 legislative seats. Clearly, the Democratic Party has got to change. And in my view, what it has got to become is a grassroots party, a party which makes decisions from the bottom on up.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, some former Sanders supporters have launched a movement to “Draft Bernie for a People’s Party,” urging him to start a new progressive party and run for president in 2020.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Nick Brana is the former outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign. He has joined with former Bernie staffers and volunteers to launch the campaign. We’re also joined by Dr. Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. He served on the Democratic Party’s Platform Committee during the 2016 election. Now he, too, has joined the movement to draft Sanders, his new piece in The Guardian headlined “The Democrats delivered one thing in the past 100 days: disappointment.” In it, he writes, “The distinctive feature of these bleak times is the lack of institutional capacity on the left—the absence of a political party that swings free of Wall Street and speaks to the dire circumstances of poor and working people. As the first 100 days of the plutocratic and militaristic Trump administration draw to a close, one truth has been crystal clear: the Democratic party lacks the vision, discipline and leadership to guide progressives in these turbulent times.”

Professor West, Nick Brana, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Professor West, this is a point where Donald Trump is at his lowest popularity rating of any president in U.S. history at this point, as we come on the hundred days of his presidency. Talk about why you’re focused on getting Bernie Sanders to run, not as a Democrat—he’s going around the country with the head of the DNC right now—but for a third party.

CORNEL WEST: Well, I was blessed to spend some time on the inside of the Democratic Party looking at the ways in which we could come up with some vision. And I was convinced that the Democratic Party was milquetoast, moribund. It lacks imagination, gusto, doesn’t have enough courage. It’s too tied to big money. The duopoly stands in the way of democracy.

Now, when Brother Nick gave me a call and said that he and the others have been coming together looking for a way of breaking the duopoly and trying to allow for poor and working people’s voices to be heard, I said, “Count me in.” And that’s why appreciate my brother that’s working. We’re trying to get Bernie and the others to jump on board.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Cornel, the country has had a history of third-party attempts. Mostly, the third-party candidates on the right have gotten significant support. But they’ve—on the left, we’ve seen the examples of Ralph Nader, of Jill Stein and others in the past, some of which you were involved in.

CORNEL WEST: Sure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Why do you think it would be different this time if Bernie Sanders did take that step?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I think the Democratic Party is in a crisis now that’s quite unique. And I think that when you have somebody like a Bernie Sanders or a host of others behind him who are hungry and thirsty, and especially the younger generation—you know what I mean?—especially the younger generation, and that’s why I think, you know, Brother Nick playing a crucial role here, among the others, is what excites me, because I’m desperate—you know what I mean?—as a progressive, real progressive, not no neoliberal centrist. I’m desperate. And we’re celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald, born a century ago. That’s freedom. Can the younger generation build on that kind of freedom? And that’s what this third party is all about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nick Brana, what about all those young people who were supporting Bernie Sanders and came out in armies across the country? Here he is, going around with Tom Perez, urging people to run for office through the Democratic Party, reform the Democratic Party. What’s the debate among the former Sanders supporters that you and—what your wing represents?

NICK BRANA: There is an amazing hunger for this, especially among young people. It was 91 percent of millennials, people under 29, who actually wanted a major independent choice in this past election. And the majority of Americans actually wanted it, as well, and still do—57 percent. And so, those are staggering numbers in favor of a new party.

And we’ve reached the point where, to address what you were saying earlier, is that what we’re trying to do at Draft Bernie for a People’s Party, the group that we’ve founded to get Bernie to start a new party, is fundamentally different than what the Green Party, Ralph Nader, tried to do, in that it follows a successful model in our own history of starting a major party that can displace an existing establishment party. And that is, pulling politicians who have built a large following within an old regime party, getting them to show the limits of that party and what it’s able to do, and then having them come out, start their own party. That’s exactly what Lincoln and others did in the 1850s, when they started the Republican Party. That’s how the Republican and the Democratic parties began, is when they actually reached the limits of what people were willing to tolerate—in particular, with the formation of the Republican Party, displacing the Whigs at that time over them having approved a pro-slavery platform in the 1850s, and coming out, taking that base and forming a new party. That is what we’re trying to do here again with Sanders. Sanders has the tens of millions of followers. If Bernie starts a party, that party begins with tens of millions of followers. And in my view, Bernie already built the party. He did it during the primaries. That coalition that he brought together, that’s the party. It’s just about formalizing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cornel West, some might say the Republican Party is in disarray, that this is a perfect time for a strong Democratic candidate, like Bernie Sanders, to run. I mean, polls show, including, I even think, one Fox one, the incredible popularity of Bernie Sanders and that he could have won—

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —the actual presidential race, if he were running against Donald Trump. So, why not push for him to be within the Democratic Party?

CORNEL WEST: Well, there’s no doubt that Donald Trump devastated the Republican establishment for a few weeks. As soon as he moved to the White House, he brought them right back. He brought back Wall Street. He brought back Goldman Sachs. He brought back the billionaires. And he brought back the military-industrial complex. And so, what has happened is that a consolidation of a far, far-right wing—because let’s just be honest about it: Donald Trump, you know, he’s a gangster in character, and he’s a neofascist in the making, so he’s very dangerous.

We do support a multiracial coalition against Donald Trump, but, at the same time, the Democratic Party refuses to engage in self-examination, refuses to engage in soul searching, wants to do the same thing over and over again, keep the same personnel and leadership, and therefore the last thing we need is another neoliberal, technocratic centrist running for the Democratic Party, when the Republican Party is in trouble. And, therefore, we have to have a Bernie Sanders figure or Bernie himself or somebody—we’ve got a number of people who are thinking seriously about this—not just on the national level, but state and local levels, to say, “You know what? Poor and working people need to be put at the center, and we need a critique of militarism. Dropping all these bombs on these Muslim countries, killing innocent people with no serious accountability, that cannot stand.”

NICK BRANA: As Dr. West wrote so brilliantly, the defining feature of this time is that we do not have an opposition party. We don’t have an actual institution in which progressives can build, grow power. And looking at the lessons of the movements that have come before us, there are, for example, the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement was a quantum leap in consciousness—

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

NICK BRANA: —in the United States.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

NICK BRANA: But it did not succeed in formalizing that power into an institution. And so, when we see all of this energy in the Women’s March, March for Science, the climate march, there’s this incredible awakening, palpable awakening, progressive awakening, but our task now, I think, is to put that into an institution, in where—where we can actually build strength. And we’re at the point where something like that could really break the two-party system.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask about the—you raise the issue of other people also considering a third-party approach, because, obviously, the question becomes—a political party is not just at the top. It’s at the local level. It’s at the state level. It’s in the city councils, in the state legislatures. How do you break the hammerlock of the duopoly of these parties that, when it comes to candidates, they mobilize their forces in every county and every town to assure their candidate is victorious? How do you build that structure?

CORNEL WEST: I think when you unleash the energy of everyday people, it’s hard to know exactly who’s there. I think—I think we’ve actually gained a significant slice of the Democratic Party on the local and regional levels, because they’re critical of national leadership. They know how lethargic national leadership has been. They know how tied to big money they are. So you’ve got a number of local folk who say the only thing in town are Democrats. If a people’s party comes in, my god, they’d be open to it. But we’d get a number of other persons spilling over on not just the local, but the regional and national level. And that’s what’s exciting about what Brother Nick and and the others are doing. And I’m just proud to be a small part of this new development.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nick Brana, the other big segment of the Democratic Party are the organized labor unions. How do you see the response of organized labor and their enormous financial clout and organizational strength on this debate?

NICK BRANA: Well, some of the labor unions actually tried to start their own party, the Labor Party, back in the '90s. One of the, I think, lessons to learn from that is that they did not try to run candidates themselves; rather, they said, “We're going to stay kind of within the Democratic Party model.” And that—I think we need to learn from that lesson, as well, and say, “No, this is a full party that is going to run candidates at every level.” And if Bernie were to do this—I think Dr. West is absolutely right—there would be people who would switch affiliation across the board—in Congress, at the local, state level. You would have just an amazing transition.

One of the reasons that we decided to do this was we looked—we’ve looked over the past few months at Bernie. Bernie is working furiously to change the Democratic Party, you know. And, unfortunately, what we’ve seen is that the Democratic Party is still losing supporters. That’s incredible. The most popular politician in the country cannot stem the tide. He compared it to the Titanic. Bernie compared it to the Titanic, a sinking ship, recently, the Democratic Party. And he’s right. And once you realize that people continue to leave the Democratic Party, you see that Bernie’s role is not necessarily as being able to bring people into the party. None of us can do that. People recognize that the party doesn’t represent them. Rather, what he’s doing is he’s slowing the dissolution of the party.

And if Bernie were instead—the momentum is towards an independent alternative. That’s why people are leaving the Democratic Party, even with Bernie there. If Bernie were to switch sides, join—go with the populist progressive current, the party would collapse. And that is something which would allow a genuine opposition party, progressive populist party, to arise, because right now the Democratic Party is blocking something like that from emerging.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Nick, what is Bernie Sanders’ response to this? Nick and also Professor West—you’re very close to him. What does he say about starting a third party, or even running for president on the Democratic ticket in 2020?

NICK BRANA: That’s right. So, this is something that we’re trying to convince Bernie, actively, to show him now is the time to do this. Now is when—now is when people are ready, tens of millions of people, the following that you built. You can actually bring this into a new party at the time. And that’s why I’m really excited, actually, to make an announcement on Democracy Now! and to announce that Dr. West and I would like to invite Bernie Sanders to a town hall at which we can discuss this issue and other issues facing the progressive movement. I think it’s time for the progressive movement to discuss this question openly, Amy, about whether it’s time to have an independent alternative.

When we started—when we started this process six months ago, about, after Donald Trump won the election, I don’t think if you would have asked progressives, is the—you know, in six months’ time, the party establishment is going to pick Perez, who was saying we should stick a fork into Bernie, in the narrative that he actually appeals to minorities, and actually—and be siding, voting for Trump’s nominees, and opposing overwhelmingly things like single-payer healthcare, I don’t think progressives would have said, “You know what? That’s how I think reforming the Democratic Party should be going,” and that that should be going well. And so, Dr. West and I—I’m very happy to have you, Dr. West, in inviting Bernie to that town hall, so that we can discuss this, this issue about where the movement should go.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor West, there has been some interesting controversy. I wanted to ask you about Senator Sanders’ support of Omaha, Nebraska, mayoral candidate Heath Mello. Sanders spoke at a rally for Mello last week as part of the Democratic National Committee unity tour. While serving in the Nebraska Legislature, Heath Mello sponsored anti-choice legislation. He was endorsed by the Nebraska Right to Life group in 2010. In an article for Rewire, Imami Gandy wrote, quote, “Bernie Sanders and many of his supporters seem perfectly content to categorize reproductive rights and abortion access as a social issue—a distraction from economic justice and reforming Wall Street, which they deem the so-called real issues. And that simply doesn’t work, because reproductive justice and economic justice are inexorably intertwined,” Imani Gandy wrote. Can you respond to this?

CORNEL WEST: No, there’s no doubt that when you talk about social issues—white supremacy, male supremacy, homophobia—these are not marginal issues. At the same time, class issues, economic justice, also militarism, imperial policies, Israeli occupation and so forth, these are all integral elements that constitute a progressive viewpoint, and therefore we ought to be critical of those who want to pull back on one set of issues and be strong on another. Same is true with our identity politics. We can talk about racism, sexism all we want. But if we don’t have a critique of Wall Street, if we don’t have a critique of militarism, if we don’t have a critique of the way in which class formation is so fundamental, and the increasing wealth inequality, then we have to be critical of each other. But it’s also true that all of us, in some sense, are going to fall on our faces. We just want to bounce back.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. Professor Cornel West, now a professor back at Harvard University. I feel like we switched places, Cornel. You’re in New York, I’m here in Boston. I’ll be speaking at Harvard Science Center E this morning at 11:00—

CORNEL WEST: Ooh, wonderful, wonderful.

AMY GOODMAN: —as we continue our tour around the country. And thank you to Nick Brana, who is part of the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party. He is spearheading this. And we’ll continue to follow your movement at democracynow.org. Stay with us.

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