Eric Foner Gets it Wrong

In a recent post to The Nation magazine website, the distinguished historian Eric Foner suggests that “Whatever the outcome of this election, one lesson of our history is clear: No progressive movement in this country can succeed without a significant base of support in the black community.” In fact, the Sanders campaign demonstrates the opposite.

To see why it is important to recognize that it is not only African American institutional leadership which has rejected Sanders. Another pillar of the Democratic Party coalition was probably more significant, namely, organized labor which has, with a few notable (albeit small) exceptions, aligned behind Clinton.  Major unions, the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, SEIU and others might have been expected to support “the most pro-worker pro-union presidential candidate I have seen in my lifetime,” as Peter Knowlton of UE referred to Sanders in his endorsement.  They did not, with possibly decisive consequences for Sanders’ delegate count.

Foner’s piece is based on a demonstrably false premise: that Sanders could not have won without African American support.  The fact of the matter is that he could have had labor chosen to exercise its waning but still formidable power responsibly(1).  Of course, it would not be desirable for Sanders to win without a majority of AA votes. However, it would almost certainly be far preferable to what is now almost certain to materialize: the continuation of neoliberal dominance and with it, massive suffering of the traditional constituencies which have been at the core of the Democratic Party coalition, including organized labor and African Americans.

(1) I discuss some of the factors behind labor’s tragic complicity with neoliberalism in my chapter in the recently released book Empowering Progressive Third Parties in the United States.

A Note to My “Friends” (in four parts)

1. Most people I know use social media to keep in touch with friends and sometimes to establish and cement new friendships.

My Facebook account is somewhat unusual in that, with some exceptions-and they know who they are-my real life friends are pretty much absent from it.  This is a consequence of a conscious decision on my part a couple of years back to use Facebook primarily as a political organizing tool, to find out about political allies, familiarize myself with their perspectives and activities and possibly use it to work with them on areas of shared concern.

It follows that insofar as there is a lack of fundamental agreement on how we view politics, there is no grounds for Facebook “friendship” for my purposes. This is the logic behind the action which I’m about to take, which is to defriend and block many of my previous “friends”.

2.  That some of my “friends” are in no way allies has become apparent in their relation to what has become the most consequential political issue of my lifetime: the first significant political challenge to neoliberal hegemony since it began to be asserted during the Carter administration initiated by the Sanders campaign.

Support for Sanders’s insurgent candidacy is a fundamental litmus test for a variety of reasons.  Foremost among these is that it serves as a gauge of an individual’s relationship to the kind of mass movement which is required to realize concrete political gains.  A leading obstacle to this materializing are those deeply invested in the left’s continuing irrelevance and insignificance, something I first became aware of in working on the 2000 Nader campaign.  Based on my experience then, those opposing Sanders now are all too familiar to me in displaying their enthusiastic embrace of losing politics and their resistance to the left moving beyond it.  Whether these attitudes have their roots in the fulfillment of the need to belong to a marginal cult, a sociopathic incapacity to relate to others outside of self-selected confines, or simple crankiness, I’ll leave to social psychologists.

Whatever the reasons for their position, the left has long understood that which side are you on matters.  The Sanders campaign is one of these moments when it is clear that it does: if you are on the wrong side you are not an ally-and will almost certainly never be able to function as one in the future. Those embracing the politics of sectarian loserdom are as much an obstacle to the left’s progress as a Clintonite neoliberal or a Ayn Rand libertarian, and their objective function-to prevent the left from moving forward- is no different.


3. Furthermore, a few have shown themselves not only not friends but distinct enemies, actively undermining the Sanders mobilization by circulating Clinton administration smears (e.g. that Sanders’ supporters are “white supremacists” or “Berniebro” misognynists ), Clinton talking points (“Clinton’s victory is inevitable”, “Sanders has no chance to win””), or ultra left sectarian idiocies (“Bernie is not a real socialist.”)

While it has been easy to ignore them, on a few occasions I will admit they have made me furious. The most notable of these was a piece from some months back where one relatively high profile left journalist gaseously implored his readers not to “become a campaign volunteer, do phone banking, door knocking, get the vote (sic.), and certainly don’t send him a dime of your money.”
Needless to say, many of us have entirely ignored his diktat while often making considerable sacrifices to do the exact opposite.   That our investment is paying substantial dividends-precisely the opposite of what he was then predicting- is by now painfully obvious to anyone with a minimal capacity for objectivity.   But, as is typical of journalists of all ideological persuasions, his reputation depends on the illusion that his opinions have more authority than those of us who support ourselves in other lines of work.  Admitting error would undermine his authority to issue pronouncements such as the one above to dispense a steady stream of attacks on the Sanders campaign and those of us investing in it.

My criticizing his remarks and attitudes as misguided and offensive precipitated a back and forth in which I misquoted him-though, as those who are interested in the exchange will discover, I did not significantly misrepresent his position on the point under discussion-indeed it more accurately represented it which was my point in doing so.  (I mistakenly left out parentheses around the name in question).

Even so,  that was wrong on my part; I shouldn’t have misquoted him.

4. Doing the wrong thing usually requires an apology, but in this case I’m not going to offer one.  The reason is that one doesn’t apologize to enemies and a high profile mouthpiece for dishonest attacks on Sanders and his supporters is just that.   The constituency he reaches is, fortunately, marginal.  But in a close election it’s not impossible that his consistent efforts to ridicule and undermine the morale of Sanders supporters could turn out to be consequential.

I will, however, extend an apology to those who will remain my friends, those who read what I write and take it seriously.  They should be assured that this is the only time in 20 years of writing that I have misquoted a source.   I did it out of annoyance and frustration.  And while it was buried deep in the comment section of a thread which probably very few read, Facebook is a public forum, and basic standards of rhetorical discourse apply there as they do anywhere else.

I believe my writing speaks for itself and clearly attests that what I did was a one time lapse.

It will not happen again.

Getting Mad and Getting Even: What Bill Knows

In a recent CNN appearance, Van Jones suggests that Bill Clinton “knows what he’s doing” by blowing a tune on the “super predator” dog whistle. But he fails to answer what it is. Here are two things Bill knows.

1) He knows that Alicia Garza and others in BLM disparage “mainstream politicians” (including Sanders) and regard elections as no more than a “corrupt game.” Consequently, they didn’t register to vote or devote their energies to helping others to do so. And, having made that decision, they now have no influence on the only thing that matters to Bill: whether Hillary is able to obtain an electoral majority.

In other words, Bill knows they can’t get even, they can only get mad. So he’s snickering under his breath as he baits them. Jones is too clueless to see through the charade.

2) Bill knows-or thinks he knows-that Hillary’s got the nomination in the bag, so he’s rolling out the November triangulatory strategy, again expecting to peel away Republican moderates by offering a slightly less aggressive variant of the racist victim blaming the other side is offering. Of course, by doing this, he is moving the political center towards something alarmingly similar to fascism.

Likely, Bill understands this.

Does he care? Hard to say.

Bhaskar Sunkara: An Electoral Middle Ground?

More or less along the lines of the previous posts, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara on KPFK’s Beneath the Surface with Suzi Weissman (4/1/16).

“I think there’s a tough decision that people are going to have to make with the Clinton campaign, particularly if she’s going up against someone as reactionary as Donald Trump and the social forces that he represents. I think there will be two dominant positions at first: one will be an unfortunate ‘Progressives for Hillary’ (tendency . . . arguing) that we all need to unite around Hillary Clinton to beat the far right which will neutralize a lot of what was unique about the Sanders campaign, the unique message and the battle against the democratic establishment.

“On the other hand, I think there’s going to be a move to just dismiss people’s fears about Donald Trump and to encourage them to go down the avenue of just voting their hearts, even in swing states, and not considering the option of going with Hillary Clinton. I think our position should be not to rally behind Hillary Clinton but also not to tell people that no matter where they should under no circumstances-Virginia, Ohio, Florida-consider voting for her tactically.

“We should have that middle ground where we are not aloof from the concerns of people but that we’re also aware of dissolving the energy and message of the Sanders campaign into the Clinton campaign.”

Bernie or Bust/Performative Leftism (revisited)

When I posted on the Bernie or Bust tendency a few days ago, relatively few outside of the far left had much idea of what it was. Now, following Susan Sarandon’s MSNBC interview with Chris Hayes, the thing, if not the phrase, has become a fairly common topic of discussion-or at least what passes for one during an electoral season.

To be clear, Sarandon was not within the category of those who I was characterizing as performative leftists. The reason is that unlike those whose decision to withhold their support from Clinton is exclusively and proudly affective (“I am revolted by Clinton” “I don’t vote for mass murderers.”, “Shillary is a liar and a crook who should be in jail.” etc.), Sarandon is clear about the consequences of failing to support Clinton in a Clinton/Trump or Clinton/Cruz matchup. Specifically she envisions the possibility that the election of Trump “will bring the revolution immediately . . . if he gets in, things will really explode” and she regards these consequences as potentially favorable or at least benign.

Sarandon’s position, like any other advanced during a political campaign, needs to be evaluated on two distinct albeit interactive grounds: factual and rhetorical. Most prominent of those in the first category is whether, in fact, as Sarandon suggests, “the revolution” precipitated by a far right victory is likely to result in tangible improvements in the quality of life of most Americans, including the most vulnerable.

The answer seems to me relatively certain: as a historical matter, periods of far right governance tend not to lead to revolutionary upsurges, but to intensified repression which has the effect of strengthening the hand of the neoliberal opposition which will be able to promote itself as the lesser-evil “reasonable” alternative. Furthermore, it needs to be always kept in mind that the victims of this repression will not be from the most privileged groups, but the most vulnerable. For them a Trump presidency is likely to be catastrophic.

Take, for one example, undocumented immigrants: while it is, of course, impossible to know who will staff governmental agencies under a Trump administration, Maricopa (Arizona) County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a Trump favorite and a possible or even likely pick as ICE commissioner. It is in no way to defend the storm trooper tactics of the deporter-in-chief Obama’s ICE to note that under Arpaio they would be much worse. Anyone who denies this either is ignorant of who Arpaio is or refuses to look beyond their nose to see an oncoming train.

It’s with examples like that in mind that the other set of questions, those having to do with the rhetorical merits of the Bernie or Bust position, needs to be asked. These begin by taking for granted (probably contrary to fact) that the “revolutionary” backlash against a Trump victory would eventually benefit the most vulnerable and dispossessed sectors. Even if this were so, for this to become a viable political stance requires that they are able to convinced that it is. For example, will undocumented immigrants and their families be convinced that they have little to fear from Arpaio in charge of ICE? Will African Americans who have been verbally and physically assaulted at Trump rallies expect protection from killer cops? Will Cruz’s promises to repeal Obamacare and eliminate Social Security not intensify already metastasizing rates of poverty and homeless in African American communities?

To ask these questions is to answer them, it will be obvious to pretty much everyone. Among these are Clinton loyalist, Times columnist Charles Blow who has already denounced Sarandon’s “dangerous, shortsighted and self-immolating” speculations, which, according to him “smack of petulance and privilege.” But now, rather than having to lie, obscure or dissemble he has been provided with actual facts on which to base his usually baseless assertions about Sanders and his supporters.

It remains to be seen whether Sarandon’s statement was only a minor gaffe which will have little impact on Sanders’s increasing success with African American, Latino and other minority constituencies or something more.

But the general lesson should be clear: not only must the left build its foundation among the most oppressed and vulnerable groups, they must not leave themselves open to the perception, stoked by neoliberal propagandists like Blow, that they are doing the opposite- above it all elitists who are unconcerned or unaffected by the policies we claim to support.