The political center, the Democratic Party, and taking racism out of the shadows

1.  The notion that Democrats are clinging to the political center strikes me as problematic. Things are clearly changing in the Democratic Party and across the country, and have been for a while now. The party’s election platform reflected these changes as did Hillary’s campaign. Free trade, unregulated banks, and austerity aren’t the toast of the party as they had been. Instead, the conversation is trending in a progressive direction, even if what is doable legislatively is very limited for the moment. And without question, Bernie Sanders and his campaign had a considerable hand in this process.

Furthermore, at the local level, new faces and energy are filling the rooms at Democratic Party meetings. And perhaps to the surprise of some, the party’s leadership in Congress has conducted themselves quite well in difficult circumstances.

That said, much still needs to be done. And the immediate challenge is to unite its various currents against the Trump-right-wing-authoritarian juggernaut — and especially in next year’s elections, while, at the same time, contesting in a cooperative spirit over program, policies, and priorities and rebuilding the Democratic Party in urban and rural America alike.

What isn’t of any value is over-zealous efforts to call out the “center” or to isolate the “left. The unity of one with the other, notwithstanding political tensions, is especially imperative in present circumstances.

2. It is said by some on the left that the political center in U.S. politics has disappeared. Some say it is “imaginary.” I find that to be a harmful notion if taken seriously. The country is polarized in many ways, but it doesn’t follow that tens of millions comfortably fit on the progressive-left end of the political spectrum. I wish that were the case, but I don’t see the evidence for it. In my own interactions, which I realize can’t be generalized, people hold very contradictory — some disturbing — positions on a range of issues. Few possess a consistent and articulated progressive-left worldview. Many are of mixed, even warring, minds. Most don’t like Trump, but more than a few are suspicious of “big government,” worried about taxes and terrorism, and on issues of race, gender, and immigration the conversation can become problematic.

To say otherwise in my view comes from a radicalism that is in too much of a hurry and too anxious to reach its final destination as well as isolated from everyday working class life. It fails to understand that the maxim”haste makes waste” can ring true in politics.

Now don’t get me wrong. Progressive messaging and candidates are a indispensable piece of the puzzle, but only a piece. It will also take millions of conversations on people’s doorsteps and elsewhere and involvement in seemingly mundane day to day struggles — not to mention a left that has majoritarian politics on its mind.

3. Bernie Sanders’ speech at the recent People’s Summit in Chicago sounded a lot of right notes, but I couldn’t help noticing that he largely reduced racism to simply a tool of division and disunity in the working class movement. I have heard others on the left, usually advocating a progressive populism, do much the same.

What goes unmentioned in this narrative is that racism is also a material reality that leaves people of color in subordinate positions and discriminated against in every sphere of life. What also is missing is any mention that racist ideas are pervasive, crude as well as subtle, reach people in both direct and roundabout ways, and rest, in the last analysis, on the systematic reproduction of the conditions and substance of racial inequality. Without the latter, the popularization of racist thinking would have an infinitely harder time finding a receptive audience.

It also dodges the relative, but real, advantages conferred on white workers due to their whiteness, even in this period where broad decline in living standards across large sections of the population, including white workers, has been a defining feature. This isn’t to suggest that racism doesn’t confer by far its greatest on the 1 per cent nor that white workers aren’t disadvantaged in innumerable ways due to racism, but to understand its durability any analysis can’t stop here. It has to take into account as well the relative advantages received by white workers and people for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Finally, an appreciation — let alone a deep one — of the unmatchable political experience, political/strategic clarity, and dynamic role of people of color — and especially African American people — in the working class and broader people’s movement over time is nowhere to be found in this narrative.

How do we explain this blind spot? If it is simply an oversight, it is easily correctable. But if it expresses a political-class strategy that considers issues of equality other than divisions along income lines a hindrance to the formation of common class interests and a broad popular coalition against Trump in the near term and corporate capitalism in the longer term, it’s a much more serious problem that should be squarely faced.

For unless it is, it becomes virtually impossible not only to grasp the present moment and how we arrived here, but also how to extricate the country from the current mess and onto a new political trajectory.

4. In his review of the production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” now staging in Central Park. New York Times op-ed writer, Ross Douthat writes that Trump’s presidency is but the latest expression of “a creeping Caesarism in the executive [that] has been a feature of our politics for many years.” I find this highly misleading and disingenuous. Trump and Trumpism constitute a break from past politics – a rupture. Trump constitutes a danger to democratic governance that we haven’t faced ever before. He’s not typical, but atypical. Trump may be a symptom of the larger crisis and longer term trends, but his combination of megalomania, authoritarianism, and plunder with no governor of labor and the earth’s natural systems, is his unique staple and our worst nightmare. If he is a creature of anything, it is, first of all, the rise of the right and its racist, nativist, misogynist, anti-democratic, homophobic, and anti-working class posture and politics. But, at the same time, he is a unique and unprecedented threat to the fundamentals of democracy and life itself.

5. Speaking again of Douthat, in another oped in the NYT he argues that both sides of our polarized political climate are to blame for the violent rhetoric and violence. He mentions Kathy Griffin in the same breadth with Sean Hannity. On its face it may sound sensible to many readers, but if set against the actual record of the past 40 years, its intellectual dishonesty and political opportunism is unmistakable. No one — and Douthat has to know this — comes remotely close to approaching what the extreme right has done to poison the atmosphere and politics of the country. Its stock and trade has been racism, misogyny and sexism, nativism and anti-immigrant incitement, homophobia, anti-unionism, hyper nationalism, and violence.

 

Authoritarian rule, the implosion of class understanding, and other loose ends

1. I have come to realize that the rule of law should never be taken in a cavalier way. It isn’t simply a superstructural phenomenon that obediently dances to the tune of the economic base and assiduously follows the dictates of the dominant class in a social structure. Nor by the same token does it enjoy full autonomy from the economic and class relations that shape society.

The rule of law is, instead, a contested terrain. On the one hand, it can, and usually does, sanction awful practices. Evidence of this reality abounds in our country’s history as well as the histories of other countries, capitalist and socialist alike. But, on the other hand, it can protect individuals and people from arbitrary power from above as well as expand and deepen the formal and real boundaries of freedom. Both sides of this phenomenon should figure into our thinking and practice.

2. The testimony last week by former FBI Director James Comey was a dramatic and chilling piece of evidence that Trump and gang are a clear and present danger to the rule of law and the institutional structures of our democracy. It is easy at such moments of high drama to either become an onlooker parsing every twist and turn in Washington politics or to consider all of it a distraction from current battles on the streets — over income inequality and wage stagnation, immigrant roundups and deportations, health care legislation, racist police brutality, and the like.

But we have to resist this temptation. The battle to defend democracy and its institutional structures against an authoritarian president is of overarching importance. It doesn’t eclipse other democratic and class struggles, but, by the same token, how it is settled will either expand or narrow down the parameters that will frame them. Imagine, for example, if Trump were able at his whim to replace sitting judges. Or delay elections. Or declare Washington a protest free zone. Or revoke voting rights for whole sections of people. Or suspend investigations of White House wrongdoing, as he attempted to do in his meeting with Comey.

Thus, Trump’s attack on democratic governance isn’t an issue for Washington insiders alone. It bites us all. And it requires no less than an aroused and massive movement to resist any efforts – even the smallest — to hollow out our democracy and its institutional structures.

3. Movements in an authoritarian direction are far easier to resist and reverse in their early stages than later on when they gather steam and momentum, sometimes as a result of an invented crisis or sudden shock. Our job, therefore, is to keep Trump and his motley crew on the defensive, while being prepared at the same time to respond quickly and demonstrably to any power grab by them. And, hopefully, the support of people in high places, the corridors of power, and the mass media will do likewise.

4. Comey is against Trump, and I’m happy about that. While Comey is a member of the “deep state,” as I’m frequently reminded by commentators of the right as well as the left, he is also a patriot, as he understands that term, and a defender of bourgeois democratic governance and institutions. Both put him at loggerheads with Trump and his authoritarian brand of politics. Sometimes we forget that politics is messy and full of contradictions – a place of peculiar and impermanent bedfellows who find common cause, even if they don’t share the same motivations and aims. An opponent one day can become a friend the next.

In fact, during periods of progressive advance in the 20th century, social movements utilized such contradictions and temporary alliances to good effect. If we are smart, we will do much the same in these perilous times.

4. A recent article in the Washington Post returned to the much discussed subject of the makeup of Trump’s voters. The authors in their analysis stitch together statistical evidence to make the case that the majority of Trump supporters in last year’s primary and general election were other than working class.

“In short,” they write, “the narrative that attributes Trump’s victory to a ‘coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters’ just doesn’t square with the 2016 election data. According to the election study, white non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters. That’s a far cry from the working-class-fueled victory many journalists have imagined.”

What I found interesting here is that even if their analysis is spot on, (and one could quarrel with their methodology), what goes unaddressed is the qualitative dimension of white workers’ voting decisions, that is, what accounts for the fact that a substantial section of white workers across income and education lines cast their ballot for Trump?

Not since the arch-segregationist George Wallace ran in the Democratic presidential primary in 1968 has a presidential candidate – now president – been so outspokenly, brazenly, and defiantly racist, misogynist, and anti-immigrant. So much so that to suggest that Trump’s message of in your face, unfiltered hate didn’t figure into the voting calculus of white workers who supported Trump bends credulity.

Some of these voters, I’m sure, agreed with every word that Trump uttered; others only with some of the hateful notes that he struck in his speeches; and still others, while not signing on to Trump’s vile message of hate, liked what he said on other matters. What stands out here isn’t a class in revolt, but an implosion of class understanding and retreat into white, nativist, masculinist identity and thinking. Even among the group who were motivated to vote for Trump for reasons other than his rhetoric of hate and division, they were still objectively throwing significant numbers of their class brothers and sisters under the bus.

In doing so, they, along with the other white workers who hitched themselves to Trump, violated an elementary maxim of the labor movement: An Injury to One is an Injury to All.

Or to put it a little differently, if we understand that class consciousness isn’t some ill defined anger at “elites” in high places, but rather is a mode of thinking that at its center includes, among other things, a keen awareness of the organic interlocking of class and democratic struggles (against racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, and more), one thing seems obvious: the class understanding of this group of white workers was nowhere to be found in their political and voting calculus. No supporter of labor should attempt to sugar coat this in the name of a specious partisanship.

Moreover, it is wrongheaded to argue that Hillary and the Democratic Party are singularly responsible for this turn of events. Such a posture is of little help, eliding as it does such things as the rise of the right and its reshaping of public discourse in a backward direction, the atomizing and disaggregating role at the mass level of neoliberal financialization and globalization, and the decline of working class collectivities — robust democratically driven unions in the first place.

Nor does such an analysis factor in the impact of relative advantage of white, male, and U.S. born workers in the workplace and society over workers of color, women workers, and immigrants, the intractability of segregation — especially in housing and education, the backlash to the breaking of long standing racial, gender, and sexual barriers, and the migration of workers and their families from the Global South in search of a livelihood to the core countries of capitalism.

Finally, consideration has to be given to the long term marginalization — partly self-imposed — of the left since the 1970s.

I would add that any hope of escaping the nightmare of Trump’s presidency and resuming the forward march of the working class and progressive movement will turn in no small measure on squarely facing the reality of the rise of retrogressive thinking among too many white workers and the confluence of factors that explain it.

5. The latest terrorist attack in London should be a reminder that the broad democratic and progressive movement (from Democrats to the radical left) can’t yield the issue of terrorism and its interpretation to Trump and the right in general. It must offer its own analysis and practical solutions. To cede this ground to the far right, who have turned the exploitation of senseless human tragedy and people’s understandable fears into an art form to promote their backward, inhumane agenda, would be a huge mistake. Terrorism isn’t likely to go away soon.

6. Left-center unity is a key strategic concept of STRUGGLE. It isn’t a final destination or a resting point. To the contrary, it is a dynamic vehicle to turn broad popular and working class unity from a wish into reality.

7. I have said before that fascism isn’t around the corner. In fact, the journey down that path isn’t easy, smooth, or inevitable. A lot of ducks have to be in a row at the level of the state and society. And it carries great risks and consequences. But this hasn’t stopped loose talk about the fascist (or neo-fascist) danger being imminent. This wouldn’t bother me too much were it not for the fact that it removes from the public conversation what is a more likely, that is, a push toward some intermediate position between where we are now and full-blown fascist government. It is this danger and the ways to prevent it that should preoccupy us.

 

Trump’s devil’s bargain

A first take: Yesterday’s disastrous — no hyperbole — announcement to withdraw from the climate change accord is of a piece with other retrograde statements and policy decisions over the past month by Trump and his acolytes. Trump, after some mixed signals in his first 100 days, appears to have made, not surprisingly, a devil’s bargain with the likes of Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, and other right wing authoritarians in his administration and a fraction of the capitalist class, especially connected to the fossil fuel and military and military related industries.

While it’s never easy to divine what’s going on in Trump’s head, it is obvious that in decisively casting his lot with these miscreants he is endangering the lives of tens of millions and the sustainability of the planet. He is also taking a sledgehammer to our democracy. In his immediate crosshairs is the well being and safety of immigrants, people of color, and the poor. No deed is too dirty for Trump and his motley crew.

Meanwhile, his trip abroad last week — not to mention his long standing connections to Putin — gives every indication that his intention is to align his administration with right wing authoritarian, militarist, hyper-nationalist leaders and regimes in the world.

Fascism isn’t around the corner in my opinion. In fact, the journey down that path isn’t easy, smooth or inevitable. Among other things, it would be sure to meet massive resistance, as is evident from the current opposition to Trump coming from varied quarters, classes, constituencies. But at the same time, tendencies in that direction are unmistakable.

What makes things worse is the obsequious role of Republicans in Congress, although that is changing a bit and could change more under the impact of mass pressures, events, revelations of wrongdoing, and any erosion of Trump’s base.

If anything positive can be teased from this situation, it is this: the recent political thrust of Trump — his doubling down in a backward, reactionary, authoritarian direction — will come back to bite him sooner than he realizes. He doesn’t understand that what he is doing will likely greatly energize and broaden the opposition to his presidency and policies.

What to do? More of the same for sure. But that isn’t enough in these new circumstances. The struggle against Trump has to be raised to a new level. People not yet active have to be drawn into practical actions of one kind or another. Preparations for next year’s elections have to be stepped up. The vote has to be protected and expanded. The investigations into Trump-Russia ties and election manipulation has to be continue without White House interference. The immediate targets of Trump’s policies have to be defended. Coordinated mass actions on a bigger scale have to be organized. And, not least, anything that narrows down the opposition to Trump has to be rejected.

 

The rise of Trump and the global right and other loose ends

1. In the last two decades of the 20th century, two seismic events occurred. First was the rise of the right in the U.S. and the ascendancy of neoliberalism across the capitalist world, which became the grease for the retreat, transformation, and taming of social democratic and liberal politics. The other was the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been the mainstay of the communist movement and world socialism from its inception.

Looked at another way. the two main political currents of the working class movement – communism and social democracy – that challenged capitalist power to one degree or another in much of the world in the last century took a drubbing. It was a setback of the first order. Neither was down for the count, but historical initiative passed from their hands.

The winner in this contest was their common adversary — capitalism. And its cheerleaders took every opportunity to crow about its success. But its victory was short lived. Capitalism in its neoliberal form, resting on a turn to finance and unchecked financial and capital flows, the explosion of debt among investors and consumers alike, a punishing austerity and inequality, the dramatic expansion and spatial redistribution of global labor, and the atomization of the working class and other oppositional social constituencies, grew for sure. But at the same time, its performance was sullied by its inability to recapture its old economic dynamism of earlier decades and spread its bounty to broad sections of wage and salary workers and other social constituencies – especially people of color and women.

This lackluster performance, however, turned into a catastrophic condition when a world-wide economic crisis struck in 2008 and shook the foundations of capitalism, while spreading hard times to people everywhere.

Not surprisingly, this massive implosion triggered a surge of mass anger and popular resistance, and undercut capitalism’s legitimacy worldwide. And into this breech stepped progressive and left people and organizations — old and new. But the right, already a dominant actor in U.S. politics and a growing presence elsewhere in the world, seized this moment as well, and actually with greater vigor than a left that was the fractured and less politically coherent. Presenting itself as an outsider and defender of the nation and its “culture,” zealously employing xenophobic, racist, nationalistic, and even anti-capitalist rhetoric, and enjoying the financial and institutional support of a bevy of deep pocketed moneybags in finance, industry, and real estate, the right captured the imagination and shaped the thinking of millions, including sections of white workers.

Meanwhile, U.S. imperialism, free of its Soviet foe after a half century, paradoxically had a hard time exploiting its new advantage in the international arena. The overnight erasure of its global rival and the establishment of a military network that encircled the globe gave U.S. imperialism new latitude to maneuver. But that was quickly squandered in endless wars, beginning in Yugoslavia and then moving to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and horn of Africa.

In each bloodland, the projection of asymmetrical military power came with massive unintended consequences that even now show no sign of easing. If anything this display of force revealed the limits of the use of U.S. military power to shape the world according to U.S. interests in the 21st century.

Indeed, U.S, global power brokers still confront an at times (and now increasingly so) reluctant Europe, formidable regional competitors (Russia and Iran especially), and as it gazes across the Pacific, it sees a potential global peer and competitor in a rising China.

U.S. imperialism isn’t yet in a terminal crisis, to use the term of the great social theorist Giovanni Arrighi, but its hegemonic status on a global level, projecting out into the 21st century, is far less secure than some suggest. Moreover, It is in this significantly reconfigured national and global context that Trump’s candidacy and Electoral College victory — not to mention the rise of the right in Europe and elsewhere –is best understood.

2. Any accounting of successes in restraining Trump has to go beyond the seemingly obligatory invocation of the “Resistance Movement.” Give it its due for sure and find ways to expand its reach and depth too.

But an analysis should also include the positive role of the Democratic Party and the mass media, the rifts, even if small, in the GOP, and the discontent with Trump that is growing in elite circles in the state, courts, and economy — not to mention Trump’s breath-taking incompetence, indiscipline, out of control ego, and habit of putting his foot squarely in his mouth. In some ways, he is his worst enemy.

Which goes to prove once again that the process of social change is complicated, contradictory, and full of surprises and paradoxes. It doesn’t come, as much as we might wish, in pure and neat forms. Not one class — the working class — here and another class — the capitalist class — there. Not the people at one pole and the elites (and “establishment”) at the other. Not actors with impeccable credentials and unimpeachable aims on one side, while nothing but bad actors with scant possibility of a change of mind on the other.

In other words, if we are looking for simple and cut-and-dried explanations and schemes, we aren’t going to find any. And if we do, we would probably do ourselves (and others) a favor by digging a little deeper.

3. In an interesting article, Nate Silver writes that Trump’s high floor of support — thought by many to be set in stone — is eroding. According to Silver, his strongly approve numbers have fallen significantly, while those who strongly disapprove of Trump have tracked upward. This, Silver says, could turn into an “enthusiasm” advantage for the Democrats in next year’s elections.

“Trump,” Silver adds,” has always had his share of reluctant supporters, and their ranks have been growing as the number of strong supporters has decreased. If those reluctant Trump supporters shift to being reluctant opponents instead, he’ll be in a lot of trouble,3 with consequences ranging from a midterm wave against Republicans to an increased likelihood of impeachment.”

“So while there’s risk to Democrats in underestimating Trump’s resiliency, there’s an equal or perhaps greater risk,” Silver concludes, “to Republicans in thinking Trump’s immune from political gravity … If you look beneath the surface of Trump’s approval ratings, you find not hidden strength but greater weakness than the topline numbers imply.”

All this is music to my ears. Yours too, I’m sure.  And I also hope that it will give new momentum to the far flung and varied coalition that opposes Trump.

Memorial Day: Honoring fallen friends, not war

I post this every Memorial Day to recall my friends whose lives were cut short in the Vietnam War. Let’s continue to lift our voices against the insanity of war and insist that peace be given a chance. Too many flowers have gone. SW 

Today, I will again lift a pint of ale in memory of my three friends and their comrades who died in Vietnam.

I honor them without honoring the aggressive and unjust war in which they fought.

I don’t know what their motivations were to join the military, maybe it was simply that the draft gave them no choice, but it really doesn’t matter. What I do know for sure is that their lives were unnecessarily cut short.

As a young peace activist in the late 60s, I probably didn’t always make a distinction between the soldiers fighting the war and the war itself. The soldier and the general were equally responsible as I saw it.

But I don’t make that mistake now. I place responsibility for war on its architects in high places and a social system – capitalism – whose logic is to expand, dominate, and make war when necessary.

Ricky, Tuna and Cotter were at the bottom of this hierarchy of war making, nothing but cannon fodder, working class kids whose lives didn’t count for much in our government’s war plans. None of them were born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

I will always wonder what kind of lives they would have lead. With no heroe’s welcome, no jobs, no counseling waiting for them, would they have had the internal resources and family support to come to terms with the war and to live productive lives?

I easily (perhaps unfairly) doubt it, because each of them was not that different from me, and I have no confidence at all that I could have made that adjustment either. It was hard enough to grow up in the 1960s without the ghastly war experience on my emotional resume.

I wish, though, that they had a chance. I wish that their sweetness wasn’t wasted doing things that no one should be forced to do. I wish that they had the opportunity to live long and happy lives.

I miss them. I celebrate them. They were “my buddies.” I wish they could join me at the Bronx Ale House today for a pint in their honor, although knowing them, I suspect, a single pint wouldn’t quite satisfy them, which would be ok with me.

I also wish that we could toast to the millions in our generation who opposed the war. Some of them lost their lives, some of them went to jail, and some of them were scarred by the experience. They, too, deserve to be honored. It was our generation’s “finest hour.”

Finally, to top off the afternoon, I would like the four of us to clink glasses to the people of Vietnam who suffered so much during and after the war and who are now rebuilding their country in conditions of peace and mutual relations with our country.

Maybe that is too much to expect from them. Unfortunately, I will never know. They will join me only in memory this afternoon. I wish it were different, but I will treasure the memory anyway, as I wash down my pint of ale.

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