Bernie Sanders and the Graveyard of Social Movements Part 2: Will it be different?

A bit over three years ago, I published “Bernie Sanders and the Graveyard of Social Movements” on this site, the day of the Iowa caucuses. It represented my evolving view of the Democratic Party, as I went from a 2008 Obama campaign volunteer to a 2011 Occupy activist, to a 2014 member of a Marxist organization most known for electing a socialist as a socialist, outside the two party hegemony. I decided to revisit the post and see how my analysis panned out, given what we know about the 2016 primaries, and the development of a social democratic/democratic socialist presence within the Democratic Party that has never been as loud and disruptive to entrenched party power.

To begin with, here’s a quote I pulled for the article by Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History:

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The 2016 primaries came in a markedly different economic and social period than the 2008 election. Democrats benefitted greatly from the Bush administration’s quagmire in Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and the swift economic collapse that began in earnest about three years before Election Day, and rapidly intensified during the party primaries and the general election campaign.

By 2015, when candidates were announcing for the election the following year, there had been eight years of President Barack Obama. His ultimate legacy is difficult to pin down- it’s too early, and he benefits from being sandwiched between two historically terrible presidents. But while there was at some level an economic recovery- unemployment dropped steadily through his entire presidency- there were still severe and systemic problems.

Job recovery was largely part-time, contract, and freelance work with lower pay and benefits than the jobs that were lost in the Great Recession. Deindustrialization and the loss of blue-collar (and often unionized) jobs continued. Urban areas continued to feel the effects of Clinton-era welfare reform that made people ‘time-out’ of benefits, or never be able to get them in the first place. And while the ACA did improve coverage for some and reduce the overall uninsured rate, it failed to achieve price stability or affordable, usable insurance for those that could only afford the low-level plans. Deportations skyrocketed, despite Bush still being seen as the anti-immigrant president. Obama never withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving the country in the same violent stalemate that defined his predecessor, and indeed the post-9/11 era as a whole. Drone warfare was escalated in several countries, particularly Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

The response to the crisis by the Democrats was neoliberalism with a human face- progressive rhetoric masking a policy package marked by cuts and anti-labor practices. Into this void stepped Donald Trump, who made promises that this would all go away- the legacy of Obama would be swept away, the jobs would come back, and everything would return to some vague past encapsulated in “Make America Great Again.”

Returning to the article:

This is a meandering way of getting to the relationship of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp writes today, the inner core of the Party has been nearly unanimous in endorsing Clinton, or at least not endorsing Sanders. Even second and third-tier primary candidates of elections past got at least a small handful of national figures, even if they never polled in the double digits.

Sanders is far from the first major candidate that the leading cadre have despised. The Democrats did have a chance to move leftward (to essentially the social-democratic politics that Sanders triumphs) in the late 60s and early 70s, but conflict with the conservative establishment caused so much chaos that there was little time to, ya know, campaign and win elections. If you’re wondering whether the Party will ever embrace a truly different direction, ask whether the people that control it would benefit from higher corporate taxes, more regulation, and eliminating industries like private health insurance.

This still holds true. The Party leadership remains firmly against the social democratic programs Sanders advocated for, even as more Democratic politicians (and even more so, the party base at large) embraces them, at least in form if not in substance. Sanders in the 2020 race will still have to contend with low levels of prominent party endorsements, and a leadership that aims to stymie his political programs. We can see this in Nancy Pelosi’s attitude to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. No matter what polling says, Sanders will never be a frontrunner in the classical sense. The party leadership will not rally around him now, and there is a non-zero chance they will never do so. The spectre of a moderate Michael Bloomberg or Howard Schultz torpedoing Sanders in the general election remains real. Finance capital has made it clear what the acceptable spectrum of candidates. Sanders (and possibly Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard) are not in that range, and they will face an uphill climb the whole way unless they capitulate.

Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat and has never been one. I’ve run into plenty of people for whom party identification is a core part of their personal identity. They are Democrats. Their parents and grandparents, going back to the New Deal, were Democrats. Partisanship has an ideological component, but it also has the same nationalist substitute you get with sports teams and Kirk v. Picard. The instant Sanders decided to run as a Democrat he entered foreign turf that he doesn’t fit into well.

The 2016 primaries definitely did see that many people were willing to vote for an independent in the Democratic primary. But the establishment in the media and among party loyalists still do not trust him- and they will use this as a cudgel when possible. That the question of party affiliation came up in the CNN town hall (which, given how it was stacked with party officials and lobbyists, represented what will become standard among attacks on Sanders’ program and character) indicates it remains unresolved.

If history is our guide, the Sanders movement is not going to fundamentally change the structure. My stance on the Party has been consistent to the point that friends are surprised when someone else invokes it- “the graveyard of social movements.” The radicalism of groups since the 19th century has been neutered to the point that once the most militant of working class organizations run away from any genuine progressive politics. Clinton, who has never supported a $15/hr minimum wage, won the endorsement of the SEIU. Currently, their signature campaign is Fight for 15. Much of labor has been so institutionalized that its leadership will choose party loyalty, even if it undermines fast food workers who have lost their jobs advocating for $15.

This is the meat of the thing. Anecdotally, the Sanders supports I know have made strides in becoming party delegates and influencing (or outright taking over) local and state party committees. However, there are still hard limits that have not been overcome. The DNC core is still much like it was in 2016. There was no Bernie-esque left challenge to Nancy Pelosi, despite her great power and opposition to most social democratic programs. And while more modest ballot referendums on the minimum wage and marijuana legalization have fared well, the ones that Sanders and his supporters invested the most time into, like Proposition 61 in California (2016) and Issue 2 in Ohio (2017) that aimed to control prescription drug prices, and Proposition 10 in California (2018) on rent control, failed. In the latter two, quite badly. If the progressive left of the Democratic Party wants things that can be reconciled with capital (like marijuana legalization), they will find a relatively easy path. If their policy goals directly cut into profits, look only at the $100,000,000+ spent by industry on the two California propositions.

Inertia should always be considered:

The best predictor of the future is the past, and the Democratic Party has been around for about two hundred years now. American party politics has flipped multiple times, but the Democrats were never radicals.

The Sanders insurrection, and the new figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that continue the spirit, are not trying to take the party back to some sort of mythic progressive past. They lionize the New Deal, but the New Deal was an attempt to stymie further radicalism. It was a compromise with capital that has since been mostly reversed. A true social democratic (or, gasp, democratic socialist) Democratic Party would be a heretofore-unseen force in American politics. It would be by far the biggest shift in American politics since the Civil Right Movement.

It would. But will it?

Can Bernie Sanders end up President, and not in the graveyard of social movements?

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The practical constraints of “voting power”

A few weeks ago, I was at a union conference for shop stewards in Oakland, CA. As you might imagine, the union was 100% committed to the election season. The union had long since endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic slate nationally and statewide. The “hype lady” (is there a formal term for this in fundraising?) led a chant that I found very troubling, given what else I know about this union. It goes something like this:

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER?”
“Worker POWER!”

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER? Voting POWER!”
“Voting POWER!”

Things trundle off into the weeds at the end. It feels strange to ask a room to lead in a chant about voting, given that a significant portion of the stewards (and a huge number of regular members) are not citizens and cannot vote. Some are undocumented or otherwise not on a path to citizenship. On UC San Diego campus, meetings of the union are conducted entirely in Spanish, because the custodial staff are overwhelmingly Latina immigrants.

It taps into a larger issue I’ve had with political communication this cycle in general. It presupposes citizenship. It makes voting an essential part of political participation. It’s a manifestation of privilege- non-citizens cannot vote, much like people of color cannot expect the protection of law enforcement. People like me were handed the vote at birth post-dated eighteen years.

This might seem a bit petty, but modern American unions overwhelmingly focus on electoral politics and lobbying. Non-citizens can still work campaigns, but there is an inherent two-tier system that develops. The speaker was right though- unions have worker power. What that is, and what it is used for, depends on the vision and direction of the particular union. Social justice campaigns that center participants in being a member of a community, rather than citizen or non-citizen, allow workers to use their power in a context of equality. The broader the political vision, the more inclusive it will ultimately be, and the better served its membership.

Stein, vaccines, and the new, better Green Party

Jill Stein has gotten some negative media attention due to an answer in a Reddit AMA regarding vaccines.

Part of her statement:

“I think there’s no question that vaccines have been absolutely critical in ridding us of the scourge of many diseases — smallpox, polio, etc. So vaccines are an invaluable medication,” Stein said. “Like any medication, they also should be — what shall we say? — approved by a regulatory board that people can trust. And I think right now, that is the problem. That people do not trust a Food and Drug Administration, or even the CDC for that matter, where corporate influence and the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of influence.”

followed up later with this, mentioning controversies with the use of hormone replacement for menopause, and treatments for Alzheimer’s that backfired:

it’s really important that the American public have confidence in our regulatory boards so that all of our medical treatments and medications actually are approved by people who do not have a vested interest in their promotion.

and clarification on Twitter:

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Snopes also lists the claim that Stein is anti-vaccination as unproven.

My mother, a psychiatrist, was concerned about Stein’s take on vaccines, so I did some research to make sure I had all the needed context.

The Washington Post story, which is the norm among large, nonpartisan media outlets, takes a skeptical look at Stein’s claims, assuming that the formal independence of the FDA more or less as true.

The closest Stein gets to anti-vaxx arguments is here:

“There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”

Pretty different from what her remarks were being portrayed as. At its core, Stein doesn’t believe that vaccines have any of the purported negative effects that are common currency among anti-vaxxers. Nor does she see any existing issues as overriding the massive public health necessity of vaccination. In fact, she specifically says vaccination rates need to go up in light of Jenny McCarthy and others. As she said on Twitter, the issue is that government agencies have a credibility problem. Even if their statements are 100% true, the intensive lobbying by pharmaceutical companies, and a revolving door between the FDA and private industry, invites skepticism. And indeed that is part of why parents may choose to ignore warnings about things like vaccinations. Even if “the FDA is a tool of Big Pharma” is unrelated to “vaccines are essential for public health,” it can muddy the waters.

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The pharmaceutical lobby is incredibly powerful. A 2005 piece by the Center for Public Integrity pointed out over $100 million annually in lobbying. To quote, emphasis mine:

The industry’s multi-faceted influence campaign has also led to a more industry-friendly regulatory policy at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that approves its products for sale and most directly oversees drug makers.

Most of the industry’s political spending paid for federal lobbying. Medicine makers hired about 3,000 lobbyists, more than a third of them former federal officials, to advance their interests before the House, the Senate, the FDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other executive branch offices.

A 2015 story in TIME about the now-current head of the FDA, Robert Califf M.D pointed out that he was making six figures in consulting fees annually from pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical companies were instrumental in the passage of Medicare Part D, which is a cash cow because it has no price controls unlike most government health programs. Pharma is also the only part of the health system that was not impacted by the Affordable Care Act, trading perks in exchange for not blocking the bill.

I’ve been a registered Green from mid-2009 until today, minus the time myself and many others registered independent to vote in the Democratic primary this year. In years past, Green ideology was a complete mess. It was sort of socialist, sort of capitalist, and alternatively enthusiastic about and skeptical of science. Going to a party conference, I was frustrated by the lack of coherence and a tendency towards conspiracy theories and quack medicine.

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This election cycle is different, because the primaries have manufactured a large disenchanted bloc of voters who see Stein as an answer. This has had the effect of making Green ideology more consistent, and pushing out its more kooky aspects. An amendment to the 2016 platform was passed by the National Committee to make the Green Party explicitly anti-capitalist and move towards eco-socialism. This would resolve the ambiguous take on economics in Green politics and give the party something to stand on. The party this year also voted to remove support for practices like homeopathy. I do believe that Jill Stein has been part of the solution rather than the problem- her status as a doctor makes outsiders more likely to listen, and since her run in 2012 there has been pressure to move beyond a niche party.

Your vote in November is yours alone. Don’t let people bully you into a decision. If you are in a swing state, it’s a tough decision and in some sense I’m glad I don’t have to make it. If you live in a safe state, a vote for the Greens would be huge. A large result would secure millions in public funding, improve ballot access. Minor parties spend more money on litigation to get on the ballot than anything else. And even if Clinton wins, a 5%+ for Stein shows that the Sanders movement against politics as usual has survived.

Enough is enough. Vote Stein.

Ten million reasons to vote for Jill Stein, M.D.

The Democratic National Convention has catalyzed a new, much stronger debate about voting Democrat or opting to support the Green presidential nominee, Jill Stein. Dan Savage produced perhaps the “To Be or Not to Be” of misguided anti-Stein arguments a few days ago. The response by Green national co-chair Andrea Mérida Cuéllar was a comprehensive defense of the Green Party ideology and strategy, also highlighting how Savage is against bullying unless the victim is a third-party politician:

We Greens are also well acquainted with Savage’s rhetoric of entitlement regarding Democratic candidacies—for example his violent remarks aimed at Green Pennsylvania congressional candidate Carl Romanelli in 2006, who was challenging Rick Santorum and Bob Casey.  At that time, Savage said about Romanelli, “The idiot Green? . . . Carl Romanelli should be dragged behind a pickup truck until there’s nothing left but the rope.”

Perhaps not the greatest imagery given the murder of James Byrd Jr.

Bernie campaign people are evaluating what to do next, with many not wanting to play the spoiler.

But here’s a secret that isn’t mentioned in many of your friends’s Facebook monologues about unity and the lesser evil: most American voters can’t play the spoiler. The US doesn’t use a national popular vote like many other countries. Only four states in 2012 were within five percentage points. In my home state of California, being the 3,000,000th insurance vote for Clinton isn’t terribly useful.

People like Savage, who profess interest in real opposition to the two major parties, know nothing of how the presidential race can create opportunities for change. Ballot access is essential for providing real choice. And Stein doesn’t need to win to move the cause forward. I don’t mean this in the abstract “changing the conversation” sense. Getting 5% of the national vote gives a party access to funding for the next presidential cycle. This means over $10 million in cold, hard cash in 2020:

5% of the vote nationally is another important threshold. If the Stein campaign reached it, the Green Party would qualify for general election public funding in 2020 that will be worth over $10 million. The public funding for minor parties that qualify (5% to 25% in the previous election) is based on the ratio of the percentage received by the minor party to the average percentage received by the major parties.

Since the Greens contest offices at all levels, a few thousand dollars scattered around here and there could mean Green city council members, mayors, and even state representatives. For Sanders supporters looking to continue his “political revolution”, a vote for Stein is a meaningful step in the right direction.

Caught in the Brexit chess game

Capital in the UK can move with ease to other locations since the Brexit vote. Regular people? No, they’re pawns in a much larger game. In a matter of days we’re now at the point where the EU is threatening the status of UK citizens, and the UK threatening the status of EU citizens.

The macro question of how Brexit will affect the national and international economy has no certain answer. But even if on the aggregate nothing changes, there are thousands of individual stories of tumult, not business as usual.

Brexit: more hate crimes, and the same austerity

The spike in hate crimes following the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom is not surprising. It also shows how democratic structures can be used to propel intolerance. Psychologically, the 52%-48% vote for leaving the European Union is giving people the feeling that their actions are sanctioned and justified. This is an issue with majoritarianism- there are too many Remain voters for their camp to treat the referendum as the final say. But the majority requirement allows a radical policy shift despite many key parts of the country rejecting Leave- often by a larger margin than the overall vote.

A halal butcher firebombed by a white arsonist after the UK’s Brexit vote. 

Since the late-90s Labour administration, the UK has become an increasingly federal system. The devolved parliaments and self-government creates a serious legitimacy crisis. In concrete terms, I think a vote that fundamentally changes the domestic and foreign policy of the whole country should have to win a majority in each of the components of the UK- Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Only the first two voted Leave; Scotland has the biggest gap of the four- Remain won by 24 points. To use an American example, a constitutional amendment (per Article V of the Constitution) requires 2/3 of the national legislature, followed by 3/4ths of the states to ratify. States are given equal weight in this case, so even though California has almost one hundred times the people of Wyoming, the interest of the latter matter just as much.

 

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Credit: Chappatte in “NZZ am Sonntag” (Zurich)

It says something that despite immense conflict and terrible austerity, Greece never left the Eurozone, let alone the EU. They saw the worst that the EU has to offer- its stern demand for failed economic models, and the great financial power it has on struggling member states. The United Kingdom had the privilege of high status, with major benefits of membership. Such perks are now becoming clear in their likely absence going forward. Leave could have been motivated by a good reason- austerity. Instead the campaign was more about those gosh-darned immigrants and their problems.

The bizarre thing is that the vote is actually a vote against austerity in disguise. The core of working-class areas voting Leave is a result of deindustrialization and unending Tory cuts to services and housing. The one force that has actually been in favor of real solutions is Jeremy Corbyn. His reward is a coup against his leadership- despite Labour voters supporting Remain more than the Conservative party that called for the vote. It’s a convenient excuse, and it remains to be seen whether short of ballot-stuffing the right wing can actually win a leadership election. That’s because grassroots activists and regular working people see in Corbyn what they actually want- not the bullshit about the UK’s standing in the EU.

Much like after the general election, I see nothing but meaningless word salad from the mainstream opposition. Any person with the slightest insight could see that Labour lost in 2015 just like it did this week- it failed to provide an alternative to austerity. It says something about neoliberalism (which even the IMF is now admitting doesn’t work as advertised), that a party based on working people didn’t think to talk about schools, housing, food, legal aid, investment, job training, etc. To the casual voter, Labour’s plans have devolved to a semantic difference while talking about everything the Conservatives want to talk about- debt, spending, and the deficit. The first rule of politics is offer voters something they want. That the party leader who wants to do that is voted out by his colleagues after a year is absurd. A genuine component of the SNP’s pitch for an independent Scotland is that an inept, corporate Labour is never going to defeat Tory rule. Their anti-austerity chops, though not amazing, are enough that they may very well get something the party wants- independence- by offering voters all the obvious things regular working people want.

And that’s a hell of a better strategy to win a referendum than whatever happened this week.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.