(This may sound like beating a dead horse, but I’m going to beat it anyway because the horse in question is still alive and its performance in the future does matter, especially in the face of the retrograde gang that now dominates Washington. SW)
The left has spent the past two months mostly pointing fingers at the shortcomings of others in the 2016 elections. At the top of its list is Hillary Clinton and her team. It seems she didn’t do anything right, even though she won the popular vote by a substantial margin as well as the majority of working people and even larger majorities of people of color. And had the FBI not intervened, she would likely be president, the first woman ever in that position.
What I find interesting in this critique is that one political actor escapes any negative comment – the left itself. The consensus seems to be that it did everything right, or nearly so.
But is this the case? Did the left measure up to the moment? Did it adequately respond to the challenge of Trump’s candidacy?
I don’t believe so. Most people on the left cast their vote for Hillary in November, but that isn’t a good measure of its performance (or lack thereof) in the elections. The left, after all, calls itself an ideological and mobilizing force. It prides itself on putting the “move” into movement. Its cachet is organizing from the ground up.
By those measures, the left underperformed, especially in the crucial stretch between the Republican Party convention and Election Day. When it came to registering new voters, or door knocking, phone calling, and interacting with prospective voters, or contrasting the positions of the two presidential candidates to voters, or identifying and then bringing Clinton voters to the voting booth, the election ledger of a considerable chunk of the left was blank. If they engaged in the elections in that stretch, it was primarily on social media, and there many took the opportunity to constantly remind others of Hillary’s flaws – tied at the hip to Wall Street, fierce war hawk, neoliberal in Bill’s image, bourgeois feminist.
Few yelled “Lock her up,” but the left’s talking points too often echoed the relentless attacks on her by Trump, WikiLeaks, and the right-wing media.
Moreover, the avalanche of sexist and misogynist attacks directed at Hillary Clinton were in too many instances met with the “sounds of silence.” And the fact that she would be the first woman to sit in the Oval Office was either reluctantly acknowledged or out of hand dismissed.
In other words, too many on the left generally locked Hillary into a political straight-jacket. No matter how much she moved away from old positions, or embraced the progressive platform of her party, or challenged Trump’s politics of hate, or warned the country of the outsized role of the right and alt-right, she could not catch a break from many on the left, even when it became clear that Trump would be her opponent.
Instead, she was seen as an evil and a danger, albeit a lesser one, in an election where the very real possibility of right-wing extremist domination of the federal government and a narcissistic bullying, hateful, reckless megalomaniac at its head should have blown the categories of lesser evil and lesser danger out of the water.
It wasn’t until the final week of the campaign that some on the left urged others of like mind to support her, but not without reassuring their comrades one more time, as if it was necessary, that they had no “illusions” about her.
And, were she to win, they avowed in the next breath to be the first on the streets keeping her “feet to the fire,” while smugly declaring, “I will vote for her while holding my nose.”
Finally, many on the left never considered that Hillary embodied in imperfect ways one side of a larger, high-stakes political clash between contending and powerful class and social forces and coalitions. And, furthermore, depending on the outcome, this clash would have far reaching implications for either social progress or social devolution.
How do we explain this dismal performance of the left? Was it simply a matter of poor execution of a well conceived strategy? The answer is no. The execution, actually, was nearly flawless, a seamless extension of the left’s problematic overall approach to the elections.
Much of the left framed the elections as a contest against neoliberalism and its two political gatekeepers – the Democrats as well as the Republicans. It was a struggle against “the Establishment” or “corrupt elites” in Washington and Wall Street.
And in the candidacy of Bernie Sanders they found a candidate to put some flesh onto this strategy. From his announcement of his presidential bid to the Democratic Party convention in August, Bernie’s main message was “class against class.” He threw both parties under the bus, located them equally in the swamp of corruption, and advanced the brief that Democrats were as indifferent as Republicans to the hardship of working people, purveyors of extreme economic inequality, and cheerleaders of unchecked globalization. Little room was left to entertain the possibility that the Democratic Party (home to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Black Caucus, Latino Caucus and most progressive organizations on our political scene) was any different than its Republican counterpart, or that Hillary’s presidency could be anything other than Act 2 of “The Clintons in the White House.”
This approach engendered excitement among a cross-section of people, especially millennials, liberals, and progressives, who are understandably anxious, as we all are, to move the political needle in a progressive-left direction.
A section of white workers embraced his campaign as well, but against the backdrop of Trump’s victory in the general election it isn’t completely clear what motivated their votes for Bernie in the primaries. Was it class politics or something less noble? Or both?
As for people on the left, nearly everyone embraced Bernie’s campaign, thinking that it would bring closer a day of reckoning with the elites on both sides of the aisle and in corporate suites.
But here’s the problem. While the fissure between “establishment” and “anti-establishment” fractures political life and shapes popular thinking more and more, it didn’t and doesn’t replace the main political division we confront today: between right-wing extremism on the one side and a broad, diverse, multi-class, multi-racial, multi-ethnic people’s coalition on the other.
Furthermore, the Democratic Party – its leadership, candidates, and social constituencies – is an integral part of this expansive coalition, while the Republican Party on the other hand is part of the political bloc dominated by right-wing extremism.
But this fundamental cleavage in U.S. politics went unmentioned by Bernie Sanders and many on the left during the primaries. If you had just arrived here from another planet, you would think from listening to their sound bites that the governing practices of the two parties were much the same, that their attitudes toward democracy and democratic rights, equality, job creation, climate change, the social safety net, criminal justice reform, Supreme Court appointments, and other issues vital to tens of millions were different only in slight degree.
To be fair, Bernie changed his tune at the time of the Democratic Party convention, and subsequently energetically stumped for Hillary in the fall, sharply contrasting her positions to Trump’s. But by that time, some damage to her candidacy, if we are honest, had been done, and it was compounded when many on the left didn’t follow his lead. They criticized Trump, to be sure, but had nary a good word to say about Hillary and did little, if anything, to mobilize voters for her in the fall.
If the rise of the right in the U.S. was a new phenomenon as it is in Europe, it might be understandable why the left was off point. But this isn’t the case.
For the ascendency of the right to a formidable position in U.S. politics dates back to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Much has happened since then – financialization, globalization, austerity, unprecedented inequality, economic crisis and stagnation, the “war” against terrorism, military interventions in the Middle East, the rise of China, and the acceleration of global warming. But the role of the right over this expanse of time in structuring politics in a rightward direction, limiting political possibilities in a democratic and progressive direction, and negatively shaping public discourse, has been a constant.
This gang of right-wing wreckers, if we need reminding, never fit on the normal spectrum of U.S. “bourgeois” politics. By temperament, outlook, and practice they are authoritarian and anti-democratic. They rail, in racially coded language, at “intrusive” and expanding government that rewards the undeserving and dependent while punishing hard working Americans.
Freedom in their worldview is equated to the unfettered right of capital to extract profits and roam the globe, while blowing up domestic production sites in big and small towns alike.
When “union” is mentioned, they go “beast mode,” while their commitment to restoring a racist caste system – a White Republic – is hot wired into their mentality, words, and actions.
Women’s “proper place” is supine and subordinate in the home, the workplace, and every other social sphere. And they furiously resist women having any control over their bodies or reproductive decisions.
Their hatred of immigrants, especially from the global South, is visceral. At the same time, when the conversation turns to undoing the rights revolution and cultural shifts that began in the 1960s and continue to this day, they get an adrenalin rush.
Climate change is a fiction, and science and facts are fake news in the rendering of this gang.
And they righteously embrace a far nastier brand of neoliberalism than their Democratic counterparts – one that pushes to the extreme neoliberalism’s tendencies to shift wealth and power to the wealthiest, deepen and widen inequalities, curb democracy and democratic rights, entrap tens of millions in a web of debt and consumerism, divide, dislocate, and disperse working people, and restructure the state to the complete advantage of the top layers of the capitalist class.
This nasty worldview, moreover, is mixed with religious zealotry, a bullying mentality, and the racist notion that the country is in a steep decline and passing into the hands of the “other,” as the trend toward a majority minority population and culture continues to transform the country.
It is hard to see how anyone could minimize this undiluted concentration of anti-democratic, right-wing class power. And yet much of the left did precisely this. In their desire to confront neoliberalism and both parties head on, they treated the struggle against right-wing extremism as a political detour, a maneuver to let Democrats off the hook, and a dead end strategy. In short, a retreat from class and radical politics.
But is it? By no means. The reality is that dislodging this nasty incubus of anti-democratic political and class power from its powerful perch is an inescapable way station on the road to ending austerity, reversing growing inequality, and checking the outsized role of big capital in general and Wall Street in particular.
Acknowledging this strategic task, moreover, doesn’t mean that class realities have to be buried until some later day, or that confrontations with corporate power in the streets or at the workplace have to be eased, or that the battle against neoliberalism has to wait to a more propitious moment.
Nor does it mean that Bernie Sanders’ bid for the presidency or the issues he articulated were wrongheaded.
But it does mean that the overarching necessity of defeating right-wing extremism should have informed how Bernie and the left pressed their vision and agenda in the elections, how they strategically framed their approach, understood their tasks, and evaluated candidates on both sides.
Both Bernie Sanders and much of the left should have demonstrated greater awareness of the political-strategic exigencies of this moment and, in turn, acted on that basis.
But, to invert a common aphorism, the past doesn’t have to be prologue to the future.
In the case of the left, a strategic break and reset is possible and necessary. But it must go beyond an acknowledgement that Trump and the right wing are an existential threat to democracy, peace, economic security, equality, and planetary sustainability.
It also has to embrace more expansive concepts of struggle and unity, if it is going to assist in what is strategically necessary – the formation and unification of a broad, diverse, multi-class, multi-racial people’s coalition to resist a broad scale, deeply reactionary, anti-democratic political-legislative offensive that is already beginning. As I write, Trump and Republicans in Congress are repealing Obamacare.
A first task in this regard is to reach and activate in myriad ways the nearly 70 million Clinton voters as well as the voiceless, the marginalized, the hungry, the unemployed, the single mother, the undocumented, the poor, the abused, and the targeted – disproportionately people of color because of racism – who will soon feel the weight and pain of this reactionary offensive.
This is a huge undertaking, but it’s not as if it has never been done before in recent years or in the past. In escaping a massive economic crisis and constructing a new political economy and social compact in the 1930s, in overthrowing in the 1960s a many layered and deeply racist system, sanctioned by law, custom, and violence, and in electing the first African American president in our nation’s history in 2008, disparate people, organizations, classes, and political tendencies and formations joined hands in pursuit of a common objective. And the Democratic Party, albeit a reforming one in each instance, was part of this, as well as labor, people of color – especially African Americans – women, youth, and new social movements that captured the political imagination of the under- or unrepresented, while infusing new energy and fresh ideas into the larger coalitions.
The left in each of these transformative moments chose not to stand apart from the galaxy of people, social organizations, and political formations that comprised these coalitions. On the contrary, it interacted with diverse forces, found common cause with “reformists,” and engaged in the electoral and legislative process. This engagement didn’t weaken their cause or their brand or their mobilization from below; instead it opened up new opportunities to enhance each.
Some on the left surely had hesitations, but this did not stop them from rethinking and creatively adapting their politics to the challenges of those moments. They bade farewell to political purity, to small-universe ideas, to reflexive scorn of the people, organizations, and parties making up the center of political life, and to insurrectionist dreams. Instead, they embraced a politics that allows for stages of struggle, a dialectic between immediate and longer range struggles, the art of compromise, working with unreliable and conditional allies, retreat when circumstances dictate, and an understanding that – call it what you want – forms of oppression or issues of identity or democratic rights (broadly understood) are organic to class formation, consciousness, and unity, not to mention democratic and popular alliances and coalitions.
In the end, they realized that politics of “principled” oppositionism and outrage, of fast forwarding to the future, of entertaining nothing but the most radical positions, and of relentless criticism of moderate and liberal leaders and organizations, is like a drug. It brings a momentary high, and it may make a difference here or there, but it has no transforming potential; it offers no pathway for the left to reach higher ground.
Isn’t it time to leave those politics behind? Had it been done last year, the election’s outcome, who knows, might have been different.
In any case, someone once asked long ago, “What is to be done?” And then answered: Put an end to the past period. Seems like good advice for today.