Contending Views on Bernie, Hillary, and the Elections

Below is my reply to Randy Shannon who commented on my recent post, Hillary Clinton, Frederick Douglass, and imagination: A lesson in dialectics. And Randy’s comments follow. Both appeared on the list serve of Committees for Socialism and Democracy (CCDS).

My reply, I admit, is a bit caustic. And my only defense is that I increasingly find some – by no means all – of Bernie’s supporters a bit too righteous in their understandable enthusiasm for his candidacy. But with Trump the Republican nominee and Hillary, barring something unforeseen, the Democratic Party standard bearer, that righteousness should be tempered by the fact that the elections are entering a new phase and thus require some adjustments by Hillary and Bernie alike. This doesn’t mean that Bernie should pack up his campaign, but it does mean that a spirit of compromise and unity should figure more prominently in the modus operandi of both camps, as they contest over the platform, rules, delegate seating, and Bernie’s role at the convention.

Furthermore, assuming Hillary wins the California primary in early June, Bernie, I believe, should graciously concede the nomination to her, while at the same time pledging to join with her and millions of others in a common effort to defeat Trump and the Republicans this fall.

Here’s my reply to Randy:


In reply to your comments on my article.

(1) I’m glad that you know what Frederick Douglass would do in today’s circumstances, and not simply in a general sense, but nearly moment to moment as the current campaign unfolds. I have to admire such insight. I can’t think of a historian – and I have read some really good ones – who possess such an acute ability to read the past into the present. Although to be honest, I momentarily doubted your reading of Douglass when you didn’t allow this great abolitionist a hint of concern about the fact that African Americans, other people of color, and women have voted so far in substantial numbers for Hillary, not Bernie.

Or, when you didn’t provide him with some space to raise an eyebrow over the playing down of the significance of the primary results in the South by Bernie and his team or, the fact that Hillary counts a million more votes than Bernie in the primaries so far.

I was also surprised that you didn’t give this political giant of the 19th century a little latitude to wonder about the wisdom of Bernie’s zeal to cut the “Establishment down to size” to the point where the main strategic task of this election – the decisive defeat of Trump and the right wing – becomes a secondary matter at best.

Hopefully, you will give me a little slack for entertaining these thoughts. I’m not sure what came over me. Again my only defense is that I was too quick to assume that the Douglass that you constructed, while correctly noting that Bernie has won several primaries, energized millions of people, brought large numbers of youth into the political process, popularized the struggle against neoliberalism, and made Hillary a better candidate (all of which I agree with), would also be alarmed by the narrowness of Bernie’s voting constituency and his lack of fluency in explaining the dialectic between the struggle against concentrated right wing political power and a full scale assault on neoliberal corporate power.

Moreover, I have to guess, if I can also employ, as you did, the device of reading the past into the present, that Douglass would argue, based on his own experience, that only a broad, diverse, multi-racial, old and young, working class grounded people’s coalition, organized, in the first place, around the necessity of defeating Trump and the rest of the Republicans down the ticket, is the only pathway to win this fall and set the plate for a new burst of freedom, democracy, and anti-corporate people’s power.

(2) Maybe this isn’t fair, but you don’t mention the historical irony that a hesitating centrist – Lincoln – who gets the nod at the Republican convention to the great dismay of the abolitionist movement – goes on to become (in the minds of many) the greatest president in our nation’s history. This should remind us to avoid the construction of political categories that are so tightly wound that they don’t allow individuals space to change under the impact of wider events and new understandings of those same individuals, not to mention the voices and actions of classes, peoples and political movements from below.

Douglass, who was very critical of Lincoln’s hesitation and slowness to act, especially to declare a general emancipation of the slaves, didn’t make this mistake. As Lincoln adjusted his policies due to wartime pressures, anti-slavery agitation and, no less importantly, his own political and moral evolution and his unusual – genius like – capacity to think strategically and broadly, Douglass altered his views of Lincoln accordingly. In fact, by war’s end, he greatly admired Lincoln. I’m not suggesting that Hillary has the same capacity to change, but it is a mistake in my opinion to throw her into a political mold that is frozen shut to the larger political dynamics operating now or in the post election period, in the event that she is elected the next (and first woman) president. Such a posture, among other things, is too rigid and static. If we follow it to its logical conclusion, we are left with, among other things, the implicit, if not conscious, admission that the people’s movement, and the progressive and left forces that are a part of it, are powerless to change what she thinks or does.

(3) Not sure if this fits, but seems to me that the American people, if they are united and purposeful this fall, can come out of the elections positioned to move the politics, economics, and culture of the country in a progressive and left direction, to make major advances. But that will happen only if they/we – all of us on the side of social progress – seize the moment, accent the struggle for unity, and give Trump and the right a big, big drubbing in the voting booth in November.

(4) Every social movement, especially ones with transformative aspirations, needs a self-reflective capacity if it hopes to fulfill its promise. I say this out of my own specific journey in left politics, but I also suspect it has application elsewhere and at the present moment.

Here is Randy’s reaction to my initial post.

I believe that if Frederick Douglass were alive now he would be a Bernie delegate. He wouldn’t be talking about supporting Hillary. The reason is that Hillary has not been nominated. She isn’t the nominee. The “Vote for Hillary to Defeat Trump” was floated a couple times, but now the corporate elite feel that this is the time so its really being pushed.

It interesting how the same idea can be a right wing idea up to July 24th and a left wing idea after July 29th of our time. The political struggle with which Frederick Douglass would be engaged is taking place within the ranks of the Democratic Party. Usually the Nominee has been declared by now. Clinton and the media are putting up a show that its over. But the Nominee has not been declared and it isn’t over.

Instead of a united convention or a convention with a defeated minority feeding at the corporate trough there is a qualitatively different convention. A sizable minority of pledged delegates or, perhaps after CA, a majority of pledged delegates to the Democratic Party Convention will struggle for the Convention to nominate Sanders by conducting a political struggle in the Convention. The Bernie delegates will fight to change the rules to eliminate superdelegates, to add to the Platform Medicare for All, free tuition at public colleges, an infrastructure jobs program, action on climate change; and then nominate a progressive VP.

Saying not a word, but quite aware of this, the Clinton campaign and the Convention Committee of the DNC are excluding Bernie delegates (almost half) from any role in conducting the convention. The Hillary delegates may think things are running just fine, but the DNC’s intention is to shut down any discussion of rules, program, etc. in this convention. The Convention Rules Committee has not one single Bernie Delegate. This is undemocratic and this struggle is a direct confrontation between billionaire political puppet master and an aroused democratic mass.

Frederick Douglas would be with Bernie because Douglass understands that the revolutionary energy, the hope for the future is in the Bernie delegates because they represent the overwhelming majority of voters under 45 years old. Bernie’s campaign is funded by the people. Hillary’s campaign is owned and run by Wall Street;, maybe that wasn’t her choice but it is.

Frederick Douglass would be organizing his fellow Bernie delegates in Maryland to demand that the Maryland State Democratic committee immediately abolish Superdelegates and allot them to the July Convention proportionally. Douglass would be introducing a resolution in the Maryland State Democratic Convention calling on the National Convention to make Medicare for All its number plank in the platform.

After the Convention, if Bernie weren’t elected, Frederick Douglass would be joining his allies in the community and labor to stop Trump. Of course he would vote for the Democrat.

Frederick Douglass was a strong supporter of Seward for the Republican nomination. He supported Lincoln after he was nominated. By supporting the politician that was an abolitionist at the convention Douglass strengthened the ranks of the abolitionists in the Republican Party. The nomination of Lincoln was not a defeat for Douglass even though he supported Seward. It was the opportunity to mobilize enslaved people to rebel and support the Union Army and spur the Republican Party continually further from compromise with slavery.


Hillary Clinton, Frederick Douglass and Imagination: A lesson in dialectics

Asked about the significance of Lincoln’s first election to the presidency in 1860, Frederick Douglass, the great people’s leader of the 19th century, said:

“Not much, in itself considered, but very much when viewed in the light of its relations and bearings. For fifty years the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty, and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been the masters of the Republic. Their authority was almost undisputed, and their power irresistible. They were the President-makers of the Republic, and no aspirant dared to hope for success against their frown. Lincoln’s election has vitiated their authority, and broken their power. It has taught the North its strength and the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States.”

“Mr. Lincoln’s election,” Douglass went on to say, “breaks the enchantment, dispels this terrible nightmare, and awakes the nation to the consciousness of new powers and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage to an ignoble fear” (Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2, p. 528, Philip Foner).

My purpose, in quoting Douglass at such length, isn’t so much to suggest an analogy between the elections then and now, or between Abe and Hillary, although some analogous features can be found. Instead, I want to bring attention to Douglass’ wide-angled, reality-grounded, and dialectical method of understanding events and personalities in his time and suggest that a similar methodology would come in handy today.

But to bring some heft to this point (rather than simply assert it), let me go into Douglass’ thinking in more detail.

Douglass wasn’t over the moon about Lincoln. He wasn’t the first choice of this great abolitionist. After all, Lincoln wasn’t a consistent anti-slavery candidate. While he opposed slavery’s expansion to new territories, he expressed no desire whatsoever to challenge this odious system where it existed.

If Douglass had had his way, the Republican Party would have fielded someone who supported the complete and immediate abolition of slavery. But the Republicans, who gathered for their convention in Chicago, had other ideas. They chose Lincoln over his rivals, including the abolitionist Salmon Chase.

Douglass could easily have thrown up his hands in despair over the nomination of the inconsistent Lincoln, but he didn’t. His deep appreciation of the dynamics of the historical process, and his political imagination, allowed him to anticipate that the slaveowners would not tolerate a president who had anti-slavery inclinations, and certainly not Lincoln, who, as mentioned above, resisted efforts to bring slavery into new territories and states.

Subsequent events proved Douglass’ right. For no sooner had Lincoln been elected – and before his arrival in Washington for his inauguration – a process began that resulted in southern secession and rebellion, civil war, and the eventual abolition of slavery. What probably surprised Douglass was how quickly this happened.

But more than a few abolitionists didn’t appreciate this dynamic. Unlike Douglass, Lincoln’s less-than-sterling antislavery credentials were their singular focus. Nothing else mattered to them. Not the reaction of the slaveowners. Not the posture of the larger anti-slavery movement in the North. Not the millions who would vote for a president with “an anti-slavery reputation.”

As a result, these abolitionists missed the bigger picture and sat out the 1860 elections.

Is any of this relevant today? Can we glean any insights from Douglass’ method of analysis that have application to the current election campaign?

Clearly, I say yes.

One insight is that it is a mistake to decouple Hillary Clinton and her candidacy from the wider dynamics of this election. But that is what is happening in much of the progressive and left social media. It is awash with criticism of Hillary that is narrowly-framed, and often really nasty. Traces of male supremacy are noticeable too. Some critics compare Clinton to the presumptive GOP nominee Trump; a few say she is worse.

For these commentators, broader considerations rarely come into view. Not the real threats presented by a Trump presidency. Not the danger of a right-wing takeover of the entire federal government. Not the readiness of tens of millions of struggling people and their social organizations to support the Democratic Party nominee. Not the capacity of the people’s movement to move a Clinton presidency in a progressive direction.

In short, they look at Hillary Clinton alone, apart from the larger dynamics, social forces, and stakes of this election.

Is this smart and strategic? Shouldn’t the entire range of factors that surround Hillary and her candidacy be taken into account? Shouldn’t any critique be embedded in the dynamics of this election? And isn’t the overarching imperative to defeat Trump and right-wing extremism? Maybe some don’t think so. But tens of millions do, because their very lives depend upon it!

Keep in mind, it isn’t the force of criticism that ultimately wins elections and makes social change; it is the force of a united and very broad people’s movement.

The Beer Barrel and The Chi-Lites

Heard this song today in a coffee shop after my morning swim. Brought back a flood of memories of Friday night in the Beer Barrel in the west end of Portland, Maine in the early 1970s. It was a small, dingy place and the gang that gathered there were mainly young workers, prone to drink and smoke (in a double sense) too much, and most of us were so clumsy socially that we could only hope to identify with the Chi-Lites’ beautiful lament – “Have you seen her” – on the juke box. That said, we bonded and had a lot of fun in that west end bar. But, oh my, the next morning did we ever suffer – hangovers and pockets emptied of our meager paychecks. Of course, that never stopped me and others from “buying the bar.” (full disclosure: a bottle of Bud was 50 cents and it was, as I said, a small place.)


On this date in 1970, four Kent State University students were shot dead and nine wounded in Kent, Ohio, by the National Guard during a protest against the Vietnam War and the newly revealed U.S. invasion of Cambodia by the Nixon government.

The four martyrs were Allison Krause, 19 years old; Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20; Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20; and William K. Schroeder 19. (From People’s World)

Share This