So we enter the final week of the Obama Administration. The 2016 election saw key components of the Obama coalition either not turn up or defect to Donald Trump. Mixed with a very underwhelming response to GOP voter suppression by Democrats, Republicans won both the presidency and several easily winnable midwest Senate seats. Whatever the outgoing President was, in symbol or ideology, there is a good chance that much of his planned legacy will be overturned.
What I will remember about the eight years of Obama is the same in America as in other countries. Progressive politics cannot exist in a climate of austerity. The two are mutually exclusive, and failing to oppose and undo austerity will doom progress on economic issues.
On the domestic front, politics was dominated by the budget sequester, cuts to welfare programs, a complete lack of methodical spending on infrastructure, and harsh austerity at the state and municipal levels. Some of this austerity is now decades old, such as freezes on cash payments to families, but most of the action on these issues was towards regression.
Now, the traditional defense is that Obama wanted to reverse austerity, but conservative opposition in Congress prevented that. But I think many people are now looking back and thinking of how much more could have been done at the executive level, but was not. Obama only had two years of a Democratic Congress, but he had six years of a Democratic Senate. He couldn’t be impeached until early 2015. So there was a space for radical action, with the understanding that improving things for working people would translate into political support given time, but that wasn’t in the cards. Obama, and the Democratic Party, are too institutionalized to reverse austerity. They take too much cash from the banks and corporations that benefit from privatization and deregulation. I didn’t expect the kind of economics that showed up in first drafts of Democratic policy proposals. The GOP obstruction defense is a smokescreen, distracting from the shortcomings of Democratic leadership.
And as we have seen in other countries, opposing austerity works. The 2015 UK election saw Labour act much like the Democrats- supporting a less-ghastly version of austerity than the opponents. Their destruction in Scotland by the SNP came because the latter actually talked about social spending rather than budget deficits and cuts. This middle place- not going whole hog for austerity but also not opposing it- has no political base. No party can hold onto power with it, because their results aren’t good enough to keep support, and they’re vulnerable to conservatives outflanking them. Donald Trump’s anti-austerity points on trade left the Democrats surrounded. In the end, that flank was enough to swing several states to Trump, and cause Democratic Senate candidates to underperform and lose in places like Wisconsin and Indiana.
There is no such thing as a progressive austerity. And in the end, what will we fondly remember Obama for, thirty years later? What is his legacy as a progressive? As a president?
(these posts will be dated based on days since the 2016 Election. Tuesday, Nov 8 is T-0.)
It is a huge mistake to think that the election marked the birth of a new era in American politics. In the past two years there have been arson attacks on black churches (including one at the beginning of November in Mississippi). Police violence against protesters in particular, and people of color in general have never died down. But the election is still an important line of demarcation.
This series, the Trump Era (TE), is devoted to how the climate is changing. In particular, how the election has provided a de facto justification for white supremacy. The Obama administration had many incidents of vigilante and police violence against unarmed civilians. But the administration did establish that such things were not okay, and there should be consequences to violating the human rights of others.
Since Tuesday, friends of mine have been arrested. One was beaten up by police. Two men have been arrested and charged with attempted murder after a shooting on the Morrison Bridge in Portland. Swastika graffiti is ever-present: schools, religious buildings, dorms, sidewalks. Given that the Trump campaign has often encouraged harassment and the use of force against dissent, these situations can always escalate. And communities should be prepared for that.
Of course, there are still people alive who remember a time when national leaders were proudly fascist. The hope for a progressive era- in which society continues to improve from the nadir near World War II, may now be increasingly naive. Things can always go backwards. The core of Trump supporters once had superior status and power to people of color. They lost this, and to regain this they necessarily have to take the country back in time. When someone says they “want their country back” they mean so in a possessive sense. This means marginalization and regression.
David Neiwert published a book in 2009, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right. Its thesis is that conservative media and politicians were moving supporters in a dangerous direction. Opponents were not only wrong, but an existential threat to the American way of life. Vigilante attacks are a symptom that eliminationism is becoming an increasingly mainstream ideology. Donald Trump will be the first modern eliminationist President.
“Wait and see” or “giving him a chance” is a white privileged luxury. For people of color, the costs of being unprepared are total. Liberals who castigated Trump for a year and a half are hypocritical if they stop now. In this situation, unity means submission, since the Trumpists have preached us vs. them.
Trump will not become president until January 20, 2017. But his era has already begun in full. His supporters will not wait for legal sanction. They will attack because they can. And communities must consider to what degree to they respond.
Long before he ever announced running, going back to the 2012 primaries, it has been hammered home that Donald Trump is incredibly unqualified for high elective office. But he managed to power through his opponents, despite most experts across the spectrum assuming he would burn out.
The disparity comes I think because Donald Trump is very well-suited to running for President. If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, Trump is the Teflon candidate. His public image and private life have been raked over the media for decades, such that we became desensitized to traits and actions that should be a huge deal. By 2016 all of it congealed into this buffonish likability, where faults strangely morph into assets given enough time. Hillary Clinton has Teflon aspects, but she never had the pop culture exposure that elevates someone from a (flawed, vulnerable) politician and not a character.
Thus the zombie campaign. No matter how many shots are fired, there has never been a real dip in poll numbers for Trump since the beginning of the primaries. The only thing that would really have a serious impact, if we think primarily about his business and rhetoric, would be a full leak of his tax returns. But since he can keep tight about that until after the election, only a well-timed Wikileak is going to make that a reality.
This is why I feel the speech by Khizr Khan at the DNC, along with tons of follow-up media and a Washington Post editorial by his wife Ghazala, are really a tuning point against Teflon Trump. The usual criticism has lost its impact. He has no record in elected office. And his long-term political history is eclectic, since he was socially moderate and friendly with Democrats until recently. But that speech hit a fresh vein. Candidates are often criticized for not serving in the military, or for getting cushy posts away from the frontline. Personally, I don’t equate military service with patriotism and vice-versa. But going into the concept of sacrifice, which means so much more. And it’s a new way of looking at Trump’s wealth and privilege. If public servants are supposed to be selfless, then any good candidate should have had to sacrifice something. Trump has indeed sacrificed nothing, anything, while the Khan family lost their son.
When this speech went viral, Trump had a response that was unusually poor. Trump often says too much, or the wrong thing in public, but this always went back to the well-tread criticisms America had grown used to. He came off not only as an asshole, but unprepared to deal with the accusation that he has not known sacrifice. His plans to ban Muslim immigration came into new context, and he lacked the self-assuredness that allows his (usually half-baked) ideas to stand as legitimate policy planning. Instead of Teflon Trump, we saw a house of cards.
All of this should be surprising. Another late night monologue about his marital history and Trump Steaks seems trite. Khan in a few minutes managed to dig through Trump the character, the pop culture celebrity, and expose him as the racist, petty, vapid man he truly is. This needs to happen more. Trump is not a joke, he is a menace, and has made discrimination and harassment of non-white groups somehow acceptable to his supporters.
In my decade on social media, there has been no reaction like this. As the Democratic primaries finished, and especially since the first day of the DNC last week, the battle over voting Clinton versus an alternative has never been addressed by more of my friends, for a longer sustained period of time with such emotion. I have no doubt that there has been a Great Unfriending, much like there is after a mass shooting or a young black person killed by police. The zeitgeist gets encapsulated in one particular event or process, and usually friendly individuals tear themselves into pieces.
Great Unfriendings are not always bad. They can help flush bigoted and ignorant people to the forefront, and it allows us to match our perceptions of friends, co-workers, and allies to their behavior. Social media, being so casual, also helps us understand privilege, and who we are when we don’t wear such a complex mask.
The DNC was a pivot point. The options and opinions have shifted. For all of Sen. Sanders and his talk of “political revolution”, the question until recently was about picking one of two people to be the Democratic Party nominee. The rhetoric had always been that Sanders supporters were part of a social movement rather than a straightforward election campaign. But that had never been tested. I personally thought that many Sanders movement activists spent far too much time on the primaries, if a grassroots revolution on all levels of government is the idea. And I wondered if people would stay together as this movement, or would they either get discouraged or shift to campaigning for Clinton.
Now the question is much bigger than the individual people will vote for in November. It’s about how much each of us is willing to follow political custom, or stand in opposition. It’s not the primary coming up on Tuesday. Now it’s about what our democracy should be. How a vote for Clinton, or Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump changes the status quo. It’s a much harder conversation to have, and many people have never had it before. Previously it was “Issue X: is Clinton or Sanders better?” Now there are no straightforward comparisons. Stein and Clinton have very different foreign policy agendas, but only one belongs to a party struggling to get on the ballot. It’s irrelevant whether Clinton gets 271 electoral votes or 350, but what Stein and Johnson receive determines whether voters in dozens of states will have alternatives to vote for. Ballot access through the Presidential vote is crucial, because third parties spend so much of their limited money and people tied up in litigation. Access, plus the millions of federal funds available to those that poll at least 5%, changes the entire dynamic of party politics going forward.
There have been deep questions about privilege and identity. Is supporting Hillary an act of privilege. Or is rejecting Clinton ridiculous, and a luxury for those who have little to lose from President Donald Trump? I’ve seen friends of color take both stances, and I’ve seen friends, both white and not, denounce them. Ultimately, I’m not certain. I have my own personal plan, but I really don’t wish to invalidate the opinions of people who, it is true, have much more to lose in November than I do.
This new stage is more radical and open-ended. And we learn more about those around us. This should be a positive. I’m not asking for civility for civility’s sake. But this moment should be appreciated as one of the most open periods of political discourse in recent history. Presidential elections make even apathetic people care about politics for a little while, and the Democratic primary battle, along with the rise of Trump. It’s a golden moment for organizers and social change. And it would be a shame if this moment were underutilized because we talk when we should listen.
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.”
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.
The Sanders campaign understands transformative politics. His supporters have not, at least yet.
Transformative political movements need to be able to adapt and respond to social crises. They need to see criticism as valid and important. We now live in the post-Seattle Sanders campaign. What has happened in the last three-plus days with the Bernie Sanders campaign shows the candidate and his staff are willing to evolve and transform. His base of largely white progressives have not taken interruption and criticism well at all, and has fallen back on arguments that I frankly find insulting.
The campaign has hired Symone Sanders, a black woman with a background in justice system activism, as a national press secretary. Also brand-new is a racial justice campaign platform that I think is pretty comprehensive. It divides violence against people of color into four distinct categories (a structure that as a sociologist I appreciate for its clarity), and deals with police reform, mandatory minimums, voter disenfranchisement, the War on Drugs, all tied into the established (but previously whitewashed) economic policies.
I think besides him lagging far behind Hillary Clinton in campaign staff diversity, Sen. Sanders and the core, experienced people who are running his campaign get it. The activists who interrupted the Seattle event and those like them know that. They target Sanders because he was the most likely candidate of either party to respond to their concerns. They were right, and a bunch of activists have said that the Democratic candidates have been in touch about incorporating racial justice into what they do.
One would hope that this process will be a learning experience. An example of how parts of the social justice movement can combine to become stronger. The wider base of Sanders supporters has made me discouraged though. Without the people who will ultimately decide his fate in the primaries accepting Black Lives Matter as an integral part of the process, this will just be a wise decision from the top with no larger social currency.
My friend Chad posted this picture up. He’s a Socialist Alternative member who moved from San Diego to Seattle recently to work with a local SEIU chapter. He took this during the period of silence in remembrance of Mike Brown, after the planned event was interrupted.
Adding “There was a mix of fists in solidarity and middle fingers raised in defiance.” So the the two fingers here were not isolated but widespread.
My friend Max, who has deep connections in the Democratic Party machine, added in the aftermath “many consultants and strategists I know are saying that isn’t Bernie’s poll numbers or lack of $$$ that might doom him, it could very well be his strongest supporters.”
The level of discourse in the last few days has varied wildly, but I’d like to isolate some things being said that are both insulting and short-sighted.
There was a lot of talk of the Seattle interruption being part of a conspiracy. Who was behind it varied- I saw people claiming Hillary Clinton’s campaign was behind it. Others said the GOP. One person specifically said it looked like something Karl Rove would do. This talk, almost all from white people, is denying black autonomy. It is saying that these two black women are paid agents of white people. There are few ways to be more demeaning and offensive.
There was a lot of talk about the tactics being used are counterproductive. I wrote this just after the Seattle event.
There was talk that Bernie is the “best ally” of black people and it’s self-defeating to target him. It ignores that being the best of a poor lot on racial justice is not an excuse for leaving him along.
There was talk of why Black Lives Matter activists don’t interrupt Clinton events, or GOP candidates. There is plenty of pressure on Clinton, but she also hasn’t been drawing the massive crowds that give exposure like Sanders does. Targeting the GOP is useless because they don’t care and never will. Activists are intelligent people and can make estimates of how much can be gained with a finite amount of time and resources.
There was gratuitous mention of Sanders’ background in civil rights- SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr. That is all well and good, but that was forty-seven years ago. Mike Brown was killed a year and two days ago. This is a new civil rights struggle that requires a re-commitment to justice and equality.
There was a discussion of how inconvenient the interruption was, and how people came to see a program that involved Sanders speaking. These white progressives are either ignorant of history or fine with being hypocritical. Protest is inconvenient, that’s what separates it from regular day-to-day activity. What happened at Stonewall was a violent riot against the New York police. Civil rights activists shut down a lot of Birmingham for over a month in 1963. Black resource centers and academic curriculum came from events like the Cornell takeover, where radicals fought off a fraternity attempting to violently drive them out of a occupied hall, compelling the occupiers to bring in firearms to defend themselves. I helped shut down the Port of Oakland in late 2011. That cost a lot of people millions of dollars. Do I think that makes my action unjust? Not even a little bit.
Finally, there was just plain mean, borderline racist shit. It’s weird to see white progressives attack conservatives for calling black activists “thugs”, but then use similar language whenever black women do the same kinds of actions.
Sanders will not win the primaries by just getting the non-white vote. But he will lose them because people of color don’t show up in numbers to back him. Clinton has many advantages, including the overwhelming approval of her husband among Black Americans.
Since Peyton Stever wants modern data that says the same thing, I’ll link to this story that shows Hillary with a new +68 rating. The Clinton brand has always tested well, during and after the Clintons’ stay in the White House. Sanders has to build name awareness with a supporter base that’s a ready source of ammunition when the primaries actually close in. How will social media screenshots of racist talk from people with Sanders logo profile pictures play in black-heavy media outlets? Anyone remember how racist Hillary supporters were a massive headache in 2008?
Just because Sanders promotes policies that would economically help people of color doesn’t mean they will automatically vote for him. He needs to be responsive and show that he genuinely cares. His campaign is on aggregate doing a good job as of late. The large amount of volunteers scattered around the country, on the other hand, need to open their minds.
As Robespierre once said during the French Revolution- “Citizens, did you want a revolution without revolution?” A revolution is a very particular process. This is a very far step from status quo Democratic Party politics. Going to events, reading media accounts, talking with supporters, it is not surprising that many are unable to see this as an opportunity to run something distinct from the Hillary campaign, or the Obama campaign in 2008. Sanders wants a grassroots movement to change the country. What I see is a grassroots movement to get Sanders elected, with very little outside of that narrow goal.
Thus when there was a negative reaction to how the Seattle event went down, I was not surprised. A political revolution involves liberation struggle. The business-as-usual tack was to insult these women, tell them they were self-defeating, and place their actions in the confines of two-party partisanship. I saw a lot of that. I just passed my six year anniversary of deregistering as a Democrat. This fiasco is a big part of why I did so, even before I became a radical in the proper sense of the term.