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 next Donald Trump

We are now forty days from the 2016 election, and the result is still very much in doubt. The collision of two unpopular, ill-liked candidates has created something approaching competition. On the Wednesday after, talking heads will find their own way of saying “the losing party would have won if they had ran anyone else as their candidate.”

So perhaps we are heading into a Donald Trump presidency. The effects of this, domestically and internationally, are in the air. But one should expect regression and an increase in everyday hostility towards non-whites as a start.

This post is not about the 2016 election. It’s about the next Donald Trump-like candidate to gain a mass following in the United States. And the one after that, going forward into the indefinite future.

A common error in conventional thinking is to mix up structural and particular events. That is, is Trump emerging from a large, stable movement in society, or is he a man with a particular skill set that is not easily replicated? Sociologists like myself think the former explanation is better, while conventional Republicans would like to think the latter is true.

The debate about Trump harkens back to debates about the rise of populists and fascists in the modern world. That is, were Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, or the Khmer Rogue a special type of evil that is so tied to their being? The unsettling reality, which explains why so many believe that, is that monstrous figures emerge from society. Any political leader or force that has existed can return in a similar form. That means that we, collectively, have the potential to both build and destroy.

Deindustrialization, outsourcing, stagnant wages, underemployment, falling unionization rates, rising healthcare and education costs. All of these, beginning around 1970 and continuing until now, are serious structural forces. They impact a wide swath of society, but for conservative populists, working class whites can be utilized to gain power. Much of the country is at least partly segregated, making racial appeals effective. A massive recession hit the bulk of society head on, and the recovery has only benefitted the rich elite. These days are the crucible of radical politics, which has reached a more complete form on the right, though the Sanders campaign and Jill Stein indicate movement towards the left as well.

Remember that Hitler attempted to seize power first in November 1923 with the Beer Haul Putsch. The Enabling Act, which gave the Nazis unchecked power, came a full decade later. But in that time, the Weimar Republic struggled with hyperinflation, economic stagnation, and political paralysis. The persistence of this particular structure is what made far-right politics possible. As long as crisis reigned, there was always another chance.

And that’s what we should expect going forward from the 2016 election. Structural issues will persist, and a Clinton presidency is not going to solve core economic problems (remember when her husband destroyed welfare and funded prisons instead?) or help communities of color to any meaningful degree. Deadlock in the Senate, demagogues in legislatures across the country. There can always be another Trump. When they come, we should not be surprised.

In solidarity with Melissa Harris-Perry

Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC host and noted Unitarian Universalist (she wrote the foreword to the newest edition of the UU Pocket Guide), has walked off her show after being preempted again and again in favor on endless election coverage.

She said she had not appeared on the network at all “for weeks” and that she was mostly sidelined during recent election coverage in South Carolina and New Hampshire. (She was asked to return this weekend.)

In her email, Ms. Harris-Perry wrote that she was not sure if the NBC News chairman, Andrew Lack, or Phil Griffin, the MSNBC president, were involved in the way her show was handled recently, but she directed blame toward both.

“I will not be used as a tool for their purposes,” she wrote. “I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. I am not owned by Lack, Griffin or MSNBC. I love our show. I want it back.”

Prof. Harris-Perry is one of the few black women with a major position in TV news. Often the “election coverage” that pre-empts her show is just showing stump speeches live and other things that could be ignored or condensed.

I stand in solidarity with lack of respect for her show and the work she does. Her show has by far the most people of color as guests.

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News shouldn’t just show candidates yelling at each other. it needs to explore how their policies and ideologies will affect communities of regular people. Only through diversity can that be analyzed.

From @existentialfish (link)

Sanders and his supporters: transform or perish

The Sanders campaign understands transformative politics. His supporters have not, at least yet.

Sanders rally in Los Angeles 8/10/15. Credit to Maximilian Cotterill
Sanders rally in Los Angeles 8/10/15.
Credit to Maximilian Cotterill

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.

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Additionally in tonight’s massive rally in Los Angeles he allowed Black Lives Matter activists to open up the program. Most (perhaps all) other candidates would likely have just beefed up security.

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.

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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.

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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.Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 10.32.57 PM
  • 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?

nfd1iw-im0odafqmuzac7gJust 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.

Pyrrhic victory: Labour wins in 2014, loses in 2015

Source: metro.co.uk (http://metro.co.uk/2015/01/27/map-this-is-what-scotland-might-look-like-after-the-general-election-5037563/)

A new set of data is out predicting a Scottish National Party (SNP) sweep in the national elections, to be held throughout the United Kingdom in May. While the SNP holds a majority in the Scottish Parliament, they have never done well in general elections. There is a very real possibility that they will hold the balance of power after an election that seems set to produce no majority party.

Since the September independence referendum, Scottish politics has been perplexing. On the one hand, the three major parties united in support of a No vote, and won a convincing majority. On the other hand, all the growth in party membership has been in the SNP, along with the Greens and the Socialist Party- the three important parties to support independence.

So why is all the momentum for a party that recently lost a serious defeat? The Yes voters realized that they have work to do, and mobilization on a fuller scale is needed. This energy means more resources and manpower dedicated to supporting the SNP and its allies, to the detriment of the parties that backed No. Since there is a feeling that another referendum is going to happen in the next decade, making the national parties pay for their opposition is a great way to keep them out of any future independence campaigns. And to ensure a referendum, making the SNP a kingmaker is key.

Voting against, rather than voting for

Here’s a somewhat different perspective on American electoral policies: what happened last month was not an election. It would be defined better as a referendum. In an election you vote for a candidate. In a referendum to accept or reject a person or issue.

The term election encompasses referendums (here are some definitions) and other forms of democratic election, but voter mentality is firmly against one party and thus for the other.

In a two-party system, all elections inherently boil down to either accepting or rejecting the incumbent party. A certain portion of voters are ideologically for one party or the other, but the swing demographic that decides power mostly votes on a core sense of frustration.

Why do midterm elections almost always go bad for the party which won the presidency two years prior? It can’t be a radical shift in policy, but rather a realization that election promises are more symbolic than anything else.

The greatest encapsulation of the see-saw elections of modern states like America comes from a Canadian progressive leader named Tommy Douglas. Douglas was the mind behind universal healthcare and was named by voters as the greatest Canadian of all time. The parable is called “Mouseland”.

November 4, 2014 is the latest in a line of mice choosing cats to hold power over them. That deep sense of anger, that most people are getting screwed over, comes from the government of cats. Some may be red, some may be blue, however the key issue is that they are cats- they will always do wrong because that’s what cats do to mice.

Two things are needed to begin the process towards a more authentic democracy:

1) Money must be removed from politics, and the system of lobbying based on sorta-bribes eliminated. A series of steps could help make politicians look more like their constituents- racially, culturally, and economically.

2) Multi-party democracy must come into existence. This relates to the first party in that big, money-laden political machines help suppress alternatives. Much of this stems from an electoral system that values entrenched interests. If there are several viable parties, elections becomes less of a referendum and more about ideas. Whatever issues the German system may have, their five main parties represent the spectrum from anti-capitalism to classical liberalism to Greens to social conservatives. In America a liberal have two options in most cases when they are frustrated- vote Republican or abstain.

Whatever form and function a democratic gains, it is clear that the people need something to vote for rather than vote against. For all votes against a certain person or policy is a vote rooted in fear. And as one of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms stated, in a good society there must be freedom from fear.

2014 Midterms: Something about nothing

The 2014 midterm elections were boring. They fit into a long historical trend of midterms going against the president’s party, and one only needs to look at the distorted ratio of Democratic seats in the Senate that needed defending to Republican ones. Gerrymandering makes the House increasingly predictable and dull- any interesting results occur months earlier in primaries.

Something was learned. Something about nothing. Because nothing was the Democratic Party’s platform going into the elections.

Their economic policy plank was insubstantial. Little effort was dedicated to big-picture ideas, the sort that might override voter cynicism and record-low approval ratings for Congress. Broadly speaking, the Democrats had a reactionary campaign. Rather than defending the president’s agenda or the liberalism that will always be tied to the party, they ran away and tried to find shelter, either with local issues or populist conservatism.

In the end, moving yet further to the right is not going to win elections. If people wish to vote for a conservative candidate, that’s what the Republican Party is there for. Polls show that the public wants economic justice and ending elite privilege. But that’s ignored, so the plan instead is to ignore empirical evidence and go with pundit wisdom. 2014 shouldn’t be thought of as the voters choosing R’s over D’s, but rather a mass of people that saw nothing worth voting for.

As someone outside the two-party mindset, I have no anticipation that the Democratic Party will see the error of its ways and become some great progressive engine worth supporting. But even in the limited spectrum in the United States, it’s clear that there’s no winning scenario at the end of all this. The Republican Party has coalesced around a selection of bold, simple, and terrible ideas. They have an agenda worth hating. There is substance. Democratic Senate candidates fled substance, and often latched onto GOP ideas in the absence of anything else.

Personally I’m glad that Proposition 47 passed in my home state of California. It is a great step towards ending prison overcrowding and the mass incarceration culture. It’s also the sort of sensible policy that isn’t getting passed in Congress anytime soon. A bit of direct democracy is the only respite from gridlock.