Looking forward, Looking backward

1. Politics, it is said on the left, is about power, usually with the P in the upper case. Fair enough. But it doesn’t follow that power should be either the point of departure or end game of left politics. What should? Vision and values.

Especially in these times when someone sits in the White House who is demonstrably without so much as a hint of an uplifting and noble vision, humane values, or a moral compass. If he has a lodestar, it is the accumulation, consolidation, and reckless use of raw power for vile and anti-democratic purposes as well as personal aggrandizement and enrichment.

In these circumstances, isn’t the embrace of a politics that gives pride of place to vision and values imperative for the left? This approach doesn’t ignore power. Power does matter. And in the strategic and tactical conversations of the left and the larger movement, it matters a lot. But it shouldn’t be primary and determinative, anymore than it was for the vision- and value-driven civil rights movement, led by the great revolutionary-democratic visionary Martin Luther King.

And it wasn’t as if King wasn’t mindful of power. How could he not be in the Jim Crow South, where racists used unchecked power and violence to enforce and sustain a system of racial subordination, oppression, and exploitation.

In the communist movement in which I spent most of my adult life, vision and values didn’t always frame political action. In too many instances they were expendable to the exigencies of power. And this was nowhere more so than in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries in Eastern Europe where the ideals of socialism were no match to the desire of power and privilege for the ruling strata. This practice eventually caught up with them, resulting in the sudden and unexpected implosion of these pioneering socialist societies and the dramatic weakening of the communist movement worldwide. Some big parties disappeared; others became a shell of their former selves. Few fully recovered. As for me, it was, if not immediately, a wake up call to take a critical inventory of my understandings of socialism, marxism, politics, and the place of vision, values, and democratic accountability in my thinking.

In recounting my experience in the communist movement, I don’t want to inadvertently suggest that the subordination of values and vision to the requisites of gaining and consolidating power was peculiar to the communist movement alone. It wasn’t. Only its most egregious expressions were. This dynamic, in other words, has a broader history and application. Moreover, it is something that any left aspiring to assist and lead a movement of millions to the citadels of governance and power has to be mindful of.

2. The role of the left isn’t to take power in toto or “in chunks” from those who have it and then share it with those who don’t. There is no historical evidence to sustain such a position. Nor is a theoretical rationale found in most readings of Marxism. Shifts in power that realign politics in a progressive or radical direction are invariably the handiwork of millions. Movements of the left have a hand — sometimes a considerable one — in the process of change, but they are no substitute for expansive popular coalitions, majoritarian movements, and mass spontaneous eruptions from below.

If the left alone could take power, as a dear and deceased friend, co-worker, and Communist Party leader George Meyers was fond of saying, the left would have done it long ago. But it can’t. As essential as the left is to any thrust to the left, the power of its ideas and organizational know-how are no replacement for a larger popular movement.

The left is on an upswing at this moment and politics is shifting in a positive way, but we still have many a mile to go before King’s “beloved community” comes into view. In present circumstances, the challenge for the left is to redouble its efforts to assist as well as lead, where positioned, the diverse coalition of people, social constituencies, mass organizations, and the Democratic Party in resisting Trump and the extreme right. At the same time, we can have say in constructing and advancing a forward looking agenda on a political landscape that is more favorable as a result of the midterm elections.

In other words, the role of left isn’t to substitute for the purposeful action of millions. Rather its mission is to situate itself, as many on the left are now doing, among those millions and their organizational forms. In the course of doing so, it can share its vision and values, its understanding of the dialectics and imperative of unity, and its strategic and tactical insights.

3. If I had to single out one thing that will shape the contours of politics over the next few years, it wouldn’t be Trump and Trumpism or the polarization of the electorate or the impressive growth of the left. It would be the many layered, loosely organized, heterogeneous coalition that resists Trump at every turn and successfully at the ballot box a few weeks ago.

One of the social constituencies of this coalition is women. From the Women’s March to the just completed elections, the sustained actions of women as organizers, candidates, activists, opinion makers, and voters, have been, well, off the charts. In this, the participation of women of color and young women is particularly notable and inspiring.

But this should come as no surprise. After all, women, because of their multiple roles, identities, lived experiences, and understandings, are uniquely equipped to play this role.

Furthermore, when this dramatic intervention of women is aligned with the front ranking African American community in particular and communities of color generally and a labor movement pursuing a progressive agenda, it becomes, as we saw in the midterm elections, a powerful obstacle to right wing authoritarian rule, not to mention the material and ideological underpinning of a progressive turn in politics.

4. The conventional wisdom is that the country is permanently polarized on a left-right axis. The moderate center has disappeared, pundits say, leaving one half of the country at loggerheads with the other half. To make matters worse, one side of the divide is trapped in a political silo, complete with its own media outlets, websites, and alternative facts. Moreover it’s implacably hostile to what it considers “fake news” and uncomfortable facts, while hanging on Trump’s every word.

There is some truth here, but if taken too far can obscure some other competing truths that are germane to the nature of the divide in the country and to seeing a way out of the present impasse.

First of all, the division isn’t straight down the middle. A significant majority oppose Trump. And this has been the case since his election. In the midterms, the spread between Democrats and Republicans in the raw vote was nearly 9 million.

And, let’s not forget, this spread doesn’t include suppressed and discouraged voters who in all likelihood would have either voted for Democrats or did vote Democratic, but had their votes thrown out (sometimes literally) by Republican chicanery.

But this isn’t all. According to Democratic Party pollster Stan Greenberg (and some other recent polling), Trump voters are less permanently encamped in Trump’s bubble than many of us have thought.

Across much of the Midwest, Greenberg shows, that some Trump supporters migrated back to the Democratic Party in the midterm elections. Other pollsters show that Trump’s support in rural America, where the conventional wisdom is that he has an unbreakable lock on this constituency, showed some erosion too.

It is also common knowledge that suburban women up and down the income ladder crushed Republican hopes of retaining control of the House as they cast their votes for Democratic candidates in formerly held Republican seats.

How big a deal is this?

Plenty big! It suggests that the Trump bubble isn’t quite as solid and impenetrable as we may have thought. If we despaired that it was resistant to the growing contradictions between Trump’s outrageous demagogy, behavior, and policies on the one hand and the lived experience of his supporters on the other, including the much talked about and often analyzed, non-college-educated, white working class voters, we have to make some revisions in our thinking.

If these fissures grow wider, which they easily could, the ground will be set to beat Trump decisively in 2020 and throw the country on a democratic and progressive trajectory.

5. Trump’s lock on his mass base as well as control over important levers of governmental power enables him to act independently not only from his own party, but also from his closest advisors and those sections of corporate capital that support and, might in some circumstances, restrain him. This makes him free to act simply on own angry impulses and resentments. This should scare any sober minded person regardless of their political affiliation.

6. The center of gravity in the Democratic Party is shifting in a progressive direction, but it is far too early to conclude that the space for moderates — some say the center — has nearly evaporated as a broad current in the Democratic Party or the country. Thus, it is a mistake, even as a first cut, to reduce the Democratic Party or the democratic coalition to two wings, one corporate and the other progressive. That characterization not only misses the complexity, multiple tendencies, and heterogeneity in Democratic Party and the larger democratic coalition, but also blurs, even misconstrues, the tactical challenges facing progressive and left people in the near and longer term.

7. In any accounting of the resistance to Trump much of the major media and its brave and thoughtful journalists can’t be left out, not to mention some prominent civil servants and appointees — still serving and retired — in governmental institutions and the courts. Trump is well aware of this, even if we aren’t. Probably none of them would call themselves progressives, forget about left, but their role in the resistance to right wing authoritarian rule and white nationalism shouldn’t be dismissed.

8. For the past two years we have been fighting from a defensive position. The midterm elections changed that to a degree, and that is a “bfd.” But not so much that the strategic focus on resisting Trump and Trumpism should change. It remains the main challenge. Thus, the tactical emphasis on unity of the many and the diverse shouldn’t change either.

9. Can we in the wake of the elections jettison the notion, long embraced by many on the left, that the terrain of electoral politics is an inferior form of struggle? I hope so. In my view any hope of transcending the present moment and positioning the country to move in a democratic and progressive — not to mention socialist — direction will depend in large measure on what happens in the electoral arena in 2020 and beyond. Since the 1960s, too many on the left have been captive to insurrectionary, anti-electoralist politics, a product of either one or another revolutionary tradition or simply inexperience in practical politics.

The good news is in the just completed election, many on the left set those politics aside. It was hard not to. In the face of a rising right-wing, racist, authoritarian danger, it became obvious that participation in electoral politics and on the Democratic side of the two party system was crucial, if we have any hope of transcending this moment and resuming our struggle for a more humane, just, equal, peaceful, and sustainable society and world.


A note from Arizona

I received this note from an old friend, Joe Bernick, who lives in Tuscon and remains very active in politics there. I thought you might find it interesting as I did.

Good analysis of the election, but you got Arizona (AZ not AR) wrong. There are no recounts planned, at least not for the Senate race. Sinema, the Democrat is already leading by 2% AND WILL END UP with a 3 or 4% lead by the time the votes are counted. A full one third of the ballots statewide were not counted by Thursday morning, and they won’t be finished until later this week. The Democrat always gains 3 to 4 percent after the election night, and this year it could be 5%. This is nothing new – it happens each election.

The reason is that most Arizonans vote by mail with the ballots needed to be received by election day. Some half million voters turned in their mail-in ballots on election day by bringing them into the polling station. They didn’t have to stand in line – just drop them off. Plus many more arrived by mail that day. All of these need to be verified first than counted, which takes much longer. Many others who had received mail in ballots showed up at the polls without their “mail in ballot” . They were given provisional ballots so that election officials can make sure they didn’t also mail in a ballot b4 the vote is counted. Others had provisional ballots for other reasons usually involving having moved. A few thousands could not be read by the machine, like if they had a coffee spill so the election worker has to copy it onto a blank ballot b4 feeding it into a machine. All these ballots that are counted after election night take longer to verify so the process is slow. I California the ballots s only needed to be postmarked by election day. Anyway most people whose votes are counted late are poorer, urban, younger and includes more blue voters.

On election night when we found out that Sinema was one percent behind we went to bed knowing she would win.

AZ had nine candidates running statewide and it looks like four or five have won – all women. None have won for a decade.

Dems also did well in legislative and local races. AZ legislature will be 41% women.

Willie McBride

A song that remembers the bloodshed of WW I and its failure to live up to its promises — a war to end all wars. Some call it Willie McBride, others Green Fields of France. Written shortly after the conclusion of WW!.

A new political landscape

1. Trump looked a little ragged and unhinged at his press conference earlier this week. His mood was dark, his tone angry, his words laced with racism, nativism, misogyny, and bullying, his attachment to reality barely discernible. He spoke as if he was living in an alternate universe. In the face of a beat down of him and his party the night before, he refused to accept the fact that the Democrats had won a decisive victory. Indeed, in a flight from reality, Trump claimed that he and his Republican counterparts were the winners. He boasted of the successes of Republican Senate candidates in states that were heavily red to begin with.

But this ripple of red, most analysts agree, pales before the wave of Democratic gains across the country at the federal and state levels, including in unexpected places. Furthermore, as late results come in and as recounts take place in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia, the blue wave keeps getting bluer and bigger, while the red ripple loses its luster.

In the face of what should be a sobering reality one might think Trump would consider some changes in his tone, message, and policies, but nothing he said or did at the press conference suggested he would. And, as if to put a punctuation on his refusal to make any adjustments to new political realities, he announced an hour later the firing of Jeff Sessions.

His firing had been expected after the midterms, but I don’t know if anyone thought it would be so quick. Maybe even Trump didn’t. But in his desire to change the national conversation, show that he is still boss, and knee cap the Mueller investigation, sacking Sessions and replacing him with a complete lap dog became in his mind an opportunity to be seized.

This reckless action presents an immediate challenge to Democrats and the entire democratic coalition. It could trigger a constitutional crisis. In any event, stormy days are ahead. Stay tuned. And stay active.

2. When we take into account the gains in the House, approaching 40, the quantum leap in the representation of  women in general and women of color in particular, the outstanding showings of Democrats at the state level, especially in the Midwest, the passage of many ballot initiatives, the contested and still top close to call results in FL, GA, and AZ. Beto O’Rourke’s near miss in TX, the tens of thousands of campaign volunteers, and the tidal like explosion of women onto the terrain of electoral politics, it was a very impressive night for Democrats and the broader democratic coalition, not to mention an affirmation of the decency and democratic values of a majority of the American people. It wasn’t a political realignment, but the landscape shifted in favor of Democrats and democratic renewal.

And it happened in the face of the most racist and nativist campaign in modern American history, on a gerrymandered electoral map favoring Republicans, and in an election scarred by significant voter suppression.

3. Everyone is saying that winning of control of the House is a big f…ing deal. And it is!

But I would add three other factors that are of great importance and will shape the political trajectory of the country in the next two years and beyond as well. One is the activity of a broad, diverse, and growing coalition of people and constituencies that left its imprint on and gained confidence in the course of the elections.

Another is the shift in the center of gravity in the Democratic Party in a progressive direction, not across the board and not on every issue, but unmistakable nonetheless.

Finally, across the Democratic Party and the broader democratic coalition, an appreciation of the imperative of unity was palpable in these elections. And that’s how it should be in these times when right wing populist authoritarianism is in a full court press to hijack our democracy and country.

4. Much of the Rust Belt became the Blue Belt on election night. This immensely complicates Trump’s reelection in 2020. If they remain blue, what is his path to a second term? Not easy to see.

5. The high profile candidacies of Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, and Beto O’Rourke, even if each ends in defeat, grabbed the national spotlight. What they did and where they did it is earth shaking and is cause for optimism now and in the future.

6. I still wonder if we yet fully appreciate the role of women as a central organizing and political force in this election and the struggle against Trump generally. Much of what they did was below the radar screen, outside of traditional organizational forms, and spontaneous in many ways. And of them, middle and older aged women, some seasoned by a lifetime of struggle, others new to politics, made an enormous contribution in a practical/organizational as well as a political sense.

7. Some strategic and tactical fine tuning is necessary in the wake of the election, but not much more than that. Trump and Trumpism remain the overriding danger to people’s well being and democracy. That doesn’t preempt lively conversations in the Democratic Party or democratic coalition over policies, priorities, pace of reform or long term vision, but the necessity of broad unity should frame those conversations.

8. Both the role of racism and anti-racism, set against the background of the elections and the new terrain of struggle that obtains as a result of them, has to be examined soberly and from many sides.

In the aftermath of the election of President Obama, we understandably celebrated his historic accomplishment, but in our moment of celebration, we missed the other side of the dialectic of Obama’s victory, that is, millions of white people felt that the social rug of white supremacy, on which they had organized their entire lives and worldview, had been pulled from underneath them. And out of this came a ferocious right wing, anti-democratic counteroffensive, animated by vile racism, that gave birth to the Tea Party and in time landed Trump in the White House.

A similar reaction that minimizes the danger of racism and an accompanying counteroffensive is much less likely today. The level of awareness of the outsized role of racism in shaping the dynamics and contours of the country’s history, politics, economics, culture, and discourse in general and the irredeemable white nationalist politics of Trump and his supporters in particular, is, ten years later, much more keenly appreciated by significant numbers of people.

9. When things started to turn against Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams in the early evening Tuesday, I couldn’t help but wonder ( or dread) if I would have to endure a reprise of 2016. That made me blue, but luckily the feeling of dread passed quickly as results in other states where Democratic candidates were victorious were announced. After a big sigh of relief, my spirits brightened considerably.

10. With the election in our rear view mirror, a challenge for the left is to avoid a return to old formulas such as the streets are the singular arena of mass struggle. Or the Democratic Party is the captive of neoliberalism. Or struggle within the Democratic Party and democratic coalition takes center stage in the elections’ aftermath. Or that militant minorities are a substitute for majoritarian movements. Or socialism or even radical reform, is on the immediate action agenda.

Home stretch

1. The unspeakable murders of 11 Jewish people have bubbled to the surface what has garnered too little attention up to now — the outsized role of anti-semitism in animating Trump’s supporters and Trump himself. And the left bears some responsibility here. We haven’t adequately explicated (or opposed) the toxic and, (as we now know too well) lethal mix of racism, nativism and anti-semitism deployed by Trump and the right wing media.

2. If anyone thought that anti-semitism was a relic of an earlier era, the horrible shooting in Pittsburgh proved otherwise. While its animating power and reach may have shrunk over recent decades, the bloody events in Pittsburgh this week reveal not only that it remains as potent as ever on the right and the stuff around which the right weaves its dark conspiracies, but also — and this is my main point — that it can, when given a green light by the president and the right wing media, reactivate and command a much larger audience — already marinating in a stew of real and invented resentments — than most of us thought possible.

Next Tuesday we can not only take control of Congress out of Republican hands, but also begin to put this pernicious and deadly ideology and practice of hate and division on its heels.

3. I am canvassing door to door this week. I hope you are too. For me, it is the place where the rubber of my politics and values meets the road of practical action. With less than a week to go, it is hard to think of anything we can do that remotely approaches the importance of canvassing or phone banking or similar things that turn out voters on election day.

4. Is there a danger of full blown right wing populist authoritarian rule? Of course! To believe otherwise is not only naive, but also disarming and dangerous.

Moreover, it will grow exponentially if the Republicans retain their control over both chambers of Congress next week. But even in that case — which I think is unlikely — the terrain for popular struggles and broad political engagement, even if narrowed, will still exist and will surely be utilized by a disparate coalition of constituencies, classes, organizations, and peoples who wlll not ready to yield up our country to hands of these executioners of democracy and democratic rule as we have known it.

This is no time for despair. The task now is to get out the vote, while the task on Wednesday of next week is to resume our righteous struggle on what will be new ground no matter what the outcome on election day.

5. This article in my opinion gives a better picture of what the country would look like if Trump and Trumpism isn’t successfully resisted than the frequently cited references to Hitler’s Germany or Mussiline’s Italy or Pinochet’s Chile.

This may seem like an abstract, idle debate with little or no significance attached to it. But that isn’t the case in my opinion. Its resolution, actually, has a major bearing on what we do as well as where and how we do it in the near and longer term.

6. At one time, universal suffrage — voting — was seen by communists as no more than a “gauge of the maturity of the working class,” no matter what the circumstances. That changed decades ago, even as communists still remained suspicious of the electoral terrain of struggle and its place in the transition to socialism.

Other sections of the revolutionary left held the same view. In fact, suspicious doesn’t quite capture their attitude. Disdain is closer to the truth.

But what makes this moment interesting is that significant numbers on the left, in an about face, are fully participating in the efforts to get out the vote for Democratic Party candidates.

That’s progress in my opinion, and if it holds, it bodes well for the future. Voting is much more than a measure of the maturity of the working class and the electoral terrain is more than just one other terrain of struggle. Both are key components of any strategy that hopes to reverse the growing right wing, populist authoritarian danger that we face at the present moment, while at the same time, expanding and deepening working class and people’s democracy and thus facilitating in the longer term the struggle for socialism.

The insurrectionary image of politics and the transition to socialism that has no or little place for electoral politics and the electoral path of struggle never served its proponents in the communist movement and left well.

7. Across the world in general and Europe and the U.S. in particular, we are seeing the rise and spread of right wing authoritarian populist movements. Some have captured control of state/governmental institutions in their respective countries by electoral-political means. Others are not yet wielding the levers of political power, but command a considerable mass following and in some cases are only an election away from such power.

While much could be said about the origins, features, and prospects of this exceedingly dangerous political phenomenon, I would only mention for the moment two things. First, this existential danger can be averted by aroused people, movements, and parties that, when equipped with expansive and flexible tactics, near inexhaustible energy, and a compelling vision, have the wherewithal to defend and expand democracy, democratic rights, and democratic governance as they turn the tide against this ascending retrograde and reactionary phenomenon.

Second, this phenomenon, even if it has some resemblances to past fascisms, isn’t yet fascist, which. by the way, has nearly as many meanings as interlocutors. Is it moving in that direction is quite another question. It may well be, but my own guess — and it is only that given what I consider the contingency of politics at this moment and thus the possibility of alternative paths — is that something like Putin’s Russia is a far more likely resting place for these movements than Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy or Pinochet’s Chile.

In any event, the stakes are exceedingly high — never higher in my lifetime — for anyone who hopes to live in conditions of democracy, equality, peace, and planetary sustainability now and in the future.

8. Efforts from the left to minimize or, worse yet, explain away the fact that a significant section of white workers embrace Trump and Trumpism is very misguided. It likely rests on a cockeyed view of partisanship and an equally cockeyed (and old) understanding of class and class politics.


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