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Jane McAlevey on Electoral Politics

Interview on KPFA’s Against the Grain.  Transcription lightly edited
“Here’s why I really obsess about leftists needing to embrace electoral politics: Because if you don’t get yourself into a contested fight where you win or lose something, you will never know if you’re winning. So part of my argument about local politics isn’t (just) that we need a bench, you have to have timelines and you have to have yes or no contests. Part of why the left has to embrace local elections is because you need to put yourself in a yes or no voting context to know if you’re really winning or building power.

“(E)very time I meet progressives of lefties who want to check out of the Democratic Party or check out of the electoral system, I’m like, ‘That’s cool. But if you can’t prove to me that you can win anything, that you can win demonstrable majorities and do something, how do you know if what you’re doing is winning anything?’ We have to win. And for our army to grow . . . first we have to raise the expectation among ordinary working folks that we can win again. And as soon as people sense that they can win again, they are off and running.

“(O)ne part is getting people way more involved in local races. Forget the congressional races, go for school boards, water boards, there’s all the commissions and committees that we just leave to the developers and the Donald Trumps and his kids and their ilk and the right and we should be taking all of them . . . Don’t just go to demonstrations . . . figure out what are the next set of local elections coming up. Then figure out what it would take for you to run-either you-or if you’re more like an organizer to go recruit a team of people in your neighborhood or your precinct. And it’s not because you’re entranced with the idea of electoral politics but because you need to figure out how you can build some power. Are you winning something? Did you win or lose by a lot or a little? Do you lose everything you’re doing.”

Congressman John Lewis: Let’s Talk

John Lewis is known as the conscience of the Congress, his tenure there embodying the values of compassion, justice, and non-violence learned directly from his mentor Dr. King.

This was particularly conspicuous during the 90s when Lewis held the line against the triangulatory gambits of the Clinton administration, one of only four members of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote no on welfare reform, the crime bill and drug war legislation.

Doing so put him in direct conflict with first lady Hillary Clinton who actively lobbied for these policies, in doing so notoriously referring to a generation of black youth as “superpredators” needing to be “brought to heel.”

Two decades later, it was understandable that, in the face of a terrifying far right juggernaut, Lewis was willing to accept Clinton’s expressions of regret and, in the interest of party unity, endorse her as the party front runner. What did take many aback was Lewis’s advocacy crossing the line into negative attacks on Clinton’s progressive challenger Bernie Sanders.

These occurred at a crucial moment in the campaign when Sanders, coming off strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, was competing in southern primaries.

There, African American voters would be decisive and Sanders’s supporters had reason to be hopeful. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Sanders had served as Vice President of the UC chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality and had on two occasions been arrested demonstrating against segregated housing. In contrast, at the time Clinton was a supporter of reactionary Republican Barry Goldwater.

It therefore was a considerable shock that Lewis’s response to a reporter’s question about Sanders record in the civil rights movement conveyed the exact opposite of the truth:

“Well, to be very frank . . . I never saw him, I never met him,” Lewis said. “But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.”

Lewis would later claim that he “never intended to disparage Bernie Sanders” or meant to suggest that he had met Clinton at the time. In fact, it would be more than a decade until he would make her acquaintance, he admitted.

Lewis’s dismissal of Sanders not only raised questions about Lewis’s integrity, it also cast doubt on his commitment to core progressive values. In rejecting Sanders’s plan for free college education, Lewis argued that it was “the wrong message to send to any group.” That’s because, according to Lewis

“There’s not anything free in America. We all have to pay for something. Education is not free. Health care is not free. Food is not free. Water is not free. I think it’s very misleading to say to the American people, we’re going to give you something free.”

These right wing “skin in the game” nostrums would be expected from the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, or Paul Ryan, but not from an acolyte of Dr. King.

***

Graduates at Bard College where Lewis will deliver the commencement address this spring are plenty aware of the price they pay for developing their skills and talents.

Forced to repay five figure student loans in a depressed economy, for them, “skin in the game” looks a lot more like a pound of flesh. They were understandably thrilled by Sanders’s call to revamp education financing, passionately supporting his campaign.

And they were profoundly dispirited by Democratic leaders such as Lewis having assiduously worked to undermine it.

They have already too many experiences of boomer icons whose failures paved the way for the wreck of a world they will be forced to inhabit.

They are in desperate need of hope that one of the few remaining direct links to Dr. King can provide.

Lewis should use the occasion to recognize that it was Sanders supporters who embodied Dr. King’s vision, and Clintonite neoliberalism which has been the main barrier to its realization.

He should recognize that it was the grassroots activists carrying out Dr. King’s legacy within Sanders’s campaign who provided the only hope to defeat the reactionary right while the corps of elite pundits, high priced consultants and Democratic Party functionaries advising Clinton were hopelessly at sea. And he should make clear that party leaders will place them at the center, not relegate them to the periphery, as they have for two political generations.

A livable future depends on Lewis and others recommitting themselves to Dr. King’s radical vision and acting on it.

Three Comments on Ellison’s defeat 

1) While obviously disappointing, the relatively close margin of Ellison’s loss for DNC chair indicates that a victory was in reach-just as much as Sanders’s primary win was. That means we need to learn lessons from it by asking the question what we (as a movement) could have done to have tipped the balance. Here it seems fairly clear that the grassroots outreach to/pressuring of the voting members of the DNC was insufficient. For example, I didn’t even know who I should call until the morning of the DNC vote and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. That there was not a sufficiently well organized national mobilization is an indication that we are not there yet as a movement-getting there, but not yet there. Constructive self-criticism is a crucial component of the process. 

2) These sorts of defeats invariably trigger a barrage of reflexive vendettas from those who claim that they are “done with the Democrats”. The obvious rejoinder from DNC hacks is the perennial Clint Eastwood one: “so what are you gonna do about it, punk?” “Exit” the party by registering as an independent? That only accomplishes disenfranchising yourself from closed state primaries, such as in New York. In fact, the NYDP was probably grateful for those who had done so in the past in that the difficulty with re-registering as Democrat significantly drove down Sanders vote totals insuring that their preferred candidate would win. Those doing so, and that includes me, willingly enlisted in the Dems voter suppression effort. Same with registering Green which accomplishes nothing since they have never staged a primary-one of many indications of their organizational structure which can only be described as beyond dysfunctional.

That said, if the hashtag “#demexit” means organizing locally and building up the infrastructure required to compete for and win local seats with independent third party candidates, then great-more power to you. I’ve done it myself and I’ll be glad to help. But my experience is that those fulminating most loudly are the least likely, the least able and ultimately the least interested in taking meaningful action along these or other (productive) lines. They’re blowing smoke and thinking with their slogans, not their brains-a common enough affliction on the “left” as previous postings have noted.

3) The predominant response among the most informed and rational leftists has been to note that by yet again insulting and humiliating the party’s newly ascendant grassroots base, the Perez win will  set the Democrats up for yet another round of “failures” in 2018 and beyond.  They are almost certainly right, though I’d suggest that their assessment is based on a misunderstanding of what success and failure means for party elites. It is crucial to keep in mind that winning elections is of secondary importance to them. That’s because their main goals are twofold.  First, to insure that neoliberal elements remain in control of the DP and, second, to prevent any significant independent, left third party from getting enough of a footing to offer serious competition to it. In these respects, they have succeeded brilliantly and will continue to do so until we have shown that we have a strategy for combatting them-something we have notably failed to come up with, as should be obvious to anyone with their eyes open.

This is, of course, a pretty cynical view which some will blanch at.  Unfortunately, if the past decades have anything to teach us is that when it comes to the Democratic Party, even the most cynical explanations are not cynical enough.

We’re best off assuming that as our starting point to direct our strategy in the future.

Angela Nagle on the Contesting the Alt-Right

From Angela Nagle’s appearance on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News:

“Whatever your feelings about free speech and violence, part of your political project must be to convince people of your position. And I feel that too many people on our side feel they are above actually doing that because they’re around people who agree with them.

“As a result people become intellectually lazy and they don’t know what to say when they are challenged.

“So, to give one example, Milo was often on TV talking about the wage gap. Liberal British feminists would go on (with him) just taking it as a given that women are payed less than men for the same work and so on. And he would say with absolute confidence ‘this is a total myth’ . . . and the problem is that there is truth to what he is saying. That’s not the nature of the wage gap-that men and women are being payed differently for the same work. But it’s also a position that makes no sense because he’s also saying that it’s not because they’re women but because they get pregnant, (and) of course they’re a connection between them getting pregnant and being women.

“And those women were totally not ready for that challenge. Because, to them, anyone who would question this is just a total idiot and there’s no point in even doing much work thinking about it or being prepared to be fundamentally challenged.

“Far too many people on our side think they don’t have to argue for anything and haven’t really questioned basic assumptions.”

On Punching Nazis

 

Over the past couple of weeks, social media has filled up with breathless accounts of far right leaders having gotten their comeuppance by being physically assaulted or, in a recent case, murdered in an act of domestic violence.

While it’s hard to have much sympathy for the victims, some of us are disinclined to celebrate. One should never express pleasure in killing or inflicting violence, no matter how loathsome, dangerous or “deplorable” the victim is. Or so the story goes, one whose roots go back to the enlightenment.

To be clear, that does not mean that violence is never justified. For example, it was probably necessary to kill Nazis-possibly even to kill millions of them. It was also entirely legitimate for the African National Congress to militarily engage the South African army, and to kill as many of them as possible just as it was for the Sandinstas to target the security forces of the Samoza dictatorship. 

But publicly proclaiming one’s joy in having done so-or, even worse, to have made jokes about the tens of thousands incinerated in Dresden, the necklacing of government informants, or retribution against landowning families in retaliation for their generations of predation-this is in a different category.

Insofar as the movements did so then, they sacrificed their claim to moral authority and the same can be said for those doing so now. In some cases, it was no more than the usual  suspects attempting to harness a viral meme to promote their own agenda or sects. One would hope that those considering enlisting with them will think seriously about who they are getting involved with. Those celebrating violence perpetrated against views they regard as beyond the pale have only a small step to take to justify retaliation against those with whom they have less extreme disagreements. If they were in charge, many of us would find ourselves on the receiving end as did the leftist opponents of some of the left regimes they look back to with some nostalgia.

****
Of course, not all of those excited about “punching Nazis” were pursuing an agenda. Whether we admit it or not, many of us will experience a visceral thrill from seeing our enemies getting pounded on by our friends. Indeed, this would appear to be a hard wired response to a stimulus, similar to a dog salivating when it sees a bone, moths attracted by a light source, or our leg muscles flexing when we receive a tap on the knee cap.

Accepting that we have involuntary reactions, however, doesn’t require that we act on them. We might want to blurt out an insult when our boss or spouse annoys us just as certain testosterone addled males will be inclined to grab an attractive woman “by the pussy.” But it should be obvious that these sentiments are best left unexpressed, either in our actions or our words.

The same goes for public statements with respect to acts of violence undertaken in the heat of the moment. We should disassociate ourselves from them, making clear that our positions are based on a considered assessment of the facts rather than our immediate emotional reactions to some real or manufactured outrage.

**** 
All this should be painfully apparent to the left now more than ever since the reason why we are confronting an emboldened far right is, in part, because of our failure to sufficiently control our emotional reactions only a few months ago.

All of us knew, or should have known, that preventing a far right victory involved transcending our feelings of disgust at having to vote for yet another lying neoliberal warmonger. Instead, too many of us capitulated to them with the result that white supremacists and neo-Nazis and their sympathizers now have significant influence in all three branches of the federal government.

That the left needs to learn to act strategically using the entirety of its brain rather than its amygdala in responding to political reality is a lesson that we fail to learn at our, and the world’s, peril.

Assuming that we can win arguments with our fists rather than our words is just another sad indication of our continuing failure to learn it.

Will Hippies and Hardhats Protest Mulvaney Appointment?

At this writing, it looks like Trump’s appointment for Education Secretary, right wing fundamentalist billionaire heiress Betsy De Vos will be confirmed.  Though it is unclear when the vote will be scheduled, it will almost certainly require Pence to break what is expected to be a 50-50 tie. This will be nearly unprecedented-a majority party not being able to assemble a majority to confirm their own president’s cabinet appointment. I’m not big on symbolic victories, but not entirely unreasonable to chalk this up as one.

That said, as important as this is, it and many other recent right wing assaults (the immigration ban, Milo Yiannopolis, Gorsuch for SCOTUS) strikes me a bit of a sideshow. To recognize what the main act is, it is important to remember that Trump’s top priority-as it would have been Clinton’s-is to further enrich those who are already rich beyond their dreams of avarice. Yes,  more than a few lobbyists are employed by the companies who stand to benefit from what is euphemistically referred to as Ed Reform of the sort championed by De Vos-as well as the Obama administration, as Diane Ravitch reminds us. But in relative terms this is small scale.

Those at the top of the pyramid, including the six Goldman Sachs executives in Trump’s cabinet, have their sights set on much bigger game.  The prize they are trying to claim, and very well might, is Social Security and Medicare, the privatization of which will channel hundreds of billions of dollars into Wall Street banks and investment houses. Their likely battering ram for this, Trump’s appointment for OMB,  has attracted relatively little attention thus far.  And that’s a problem since Mick Mulvaney is an anti-entitlement, privatization zealot, much as DeVos is a charter school, privatization zealot.

If we had a fully functional movement, we would be out on the streets and in our senators’ offices opposing his appointment, as much or even more so than we are to protest the immigration ban and Nazis speaking on college campuses. Furthermore, those joining us would be those who voted for Trump who, after all, pledged to protect Social Security and Medicare many times, as Sanders continually points out.

***
But we don’t (yet) have a fully functional movement, so likely the Mulvaney appointment will sail through. Obviously, I have no power to will a protest movement into existence. If I did, however, I would wave my magic wand to make this happen.

The reason why I’m optimistic that it wouldn’t require magic is that, as I’m old enough to remember, something like it happened once before. While a lot has been written about the antipathy between hard hats and hippies in the sixties and seventies, what gave Nixon fits was the potential, sometimes realized, for anti-war activism to unite under one banner all of those who saw through the insanity of sending away American boys to die in a war which even its strongest advocates recognized was a mistake.

Here is one instance when it did: the radical peacenik icon Pete Seeger appearing at the hardhat shrine the Grand Old Opera invited by Arkansas dirt farm balladeer Johnny Cash.

It seems there’s plenty dividing “deplorables” and those referred to in a recent presidential tweet as “professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters” on the streets in the past few weeks.  But they are all united on one point: no one wants to subsist on a cat food diet in old age or die of a treatable infection-which is exactly what Social Security and Medicare cuts and/or privatization means.

Our job is to unite them again.  Only when we do will we wipe the smirk off the face of the plutocratic vulgarian who, as much as we might want to deny it, remains in control of the political narrative and is inflicting vast suffering on hippies and hardhats and everyone else.

Weaponized Multiculturalism: A Word to the Wise

In the second week of November 2008, the anti-racist educator Tim Wise took to his blog to issue a “Screw you!” to “those who say this election means nothing, who insist that Obama, because he cozied up to Wall Street, or big business, is just another kind of evil no different than any other.” According to Wise, our “cynicism had become such an encumbrance as to render (us) all but useless to the liberation movement.” “In serious risk of political self-immolation”, Wise concluded, our “burning” is one we “will richly deserve.”

Before discussing what Wise, and many others, were wrong about, it should be noted that he was entirely right that those who thought the election meant nothing were mistaken.

Among those who would agree is David Dayen whose recent Atlantic piece describes how the financial crisis constituted “an extinction event for the black middle class” disproportionately represented among the “9.3 million American families who have lost their properties since the housing bubble collapsed.” They were among the “more than 20 million people, forced to uproot their lives and find shelter.” For them, the 2008 election of Obama certainly meant something: it meant suffering “the greatest disintegration of black wealth in recent memory.”

That brings up the second point on which Wise was correct which has to do not with substance but with rhetorical style. The “evil” of the Obama administration was indeed “different” from that represented by previous neoliberal Democrats: Whereas atrocities such as welfare reform, the crime bill and the war on drugs were the product of mostly white technocrats presided over by the Clintons, within the Obama administration policies devastating black america were advanced by black americans. These included Obama himself and the head of the Justice Department Eric Holder whose failure to prosecute the marketing of fraudulent loans in inner cities was a crucial element, as Denvir notes.

As the the left slowly emerged from its dysfunctional and self-destructive obsession with the first African American President, it has become clear that these two points were connected. What had been a signifier of the potential for change, now became a bludgeon by which those critical of neoliberal policies would be attacked. Among surrogates wielding it were Mellssa Harris Perry, Joy Ann Reid and Michael Eric Dyson who were quick to dismiss the mere mention of shortcomings in Obama’s policies as motivated by white supremacist tendencies expressing themselves in a deeply ingrained resistance to respecting black leadership.

As I noted at the time, whether or not he was aware of it, Wise was among those involved in defending Obama’s neoliberal agenda whether through his service to Teach for America, attacking the white privilege enjoyed by Occupy Wall Street activists, red baiting “white Marxists”, denouncing Edward Snowden as “full of crap” and smearing Glenn Greenwald for “never hav[ing] sa[id] shit about racial profiling, or surveillance of POC/Muslims.”

***

In the years since, Wise has, in various ways discredited himself to the extent that he is mostly no longer worth bothering with.

His views, however, are useful in one respect in functioning as a reference point helping us to negotiate the fraught topic of Identity politics. This recently received a spike in attention due to Bernie Sanders having referenced it in response to a question following a speech a couple of weeks ago. Before discussing what Sanders said, it is worth noting what he did not say, which is that he did not, as was repeatedly claimed by Clinton surrogates, “urge his supporters to ditch identity politics.” Rather, Sanders suggested that “one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”

As several activists pointed out, going beyond means does not mean ditching, rather the opposite: it means building on its foundation. Those claiming that Sanders’s supporters wanted to move backward rather than forward on racial justice initiatives were reiterating by this point a familiar Clintonite attack, most recently taking the form of Michael Dyson charging that Sanders was “prickly about race, uncomfortable with an outspoken, demanding blackness.”

That this was always a cynical canard should by now be well understood thanks to a Reuters poll which provided the relevant data. In fact, contrary to what was routinely claimed, Sanders supporters had substantially more progressive views on racial justice in comparison to those who had supported Clinton. This is no surprise given Clinton’s history of having referred to black youths as superpredators and having played a leading role in pushing for the drug and crime bills of the 1990s which led directly to the mass incarceration catastrophe still with us. Furthermore, as Adolph Reed noted, on virtually every substantive issue of concern to African Americans, mass incarceration, health care, free university education and prosecution of police misconduct, Sanders’s positions were far stronger than Clinton’s.

Sanders’s program embraced the politics most responsive to the needs and aspirations of those who identify as african americans, as latinos, native americans and as women. For that reason, in the substantive sense of the term, Sanders was correct that he fully supported identity politics.

That said, as Tim Wise demonstrates, the term can be construed in a very different sense, namely, as a politics which is based on unquestioning deference to black leadership, even when this leadership is in service of regressive neoliberal objectives, as it has been for the past eight years. That Sanders is aware of this, he made apparent in the next sentences of his response. Politicians need to be judged on the objective content of their performance in office, whether they would “stand up with the working class of this country, and . . . take on big money interests.” The litmus test for our support needs to be whether they would have “the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.” “It’s not good enough for somebody to say ‘hey I’m a Latina vote for me’” or “I am a woman vote for me.”

For those such as Wise, identity politics was based on the assumption that identity WAS good enough: Obama’s election was not to be seen as another in a line of neoliberal presidencies financed and controlled by corporate elites, but rather a cause for celebration with all those who failed to uncritically rejoice deserving to be “burned”.

The result was the tragedy of the Obama presidency, one in which elites pursued their agenda with impunity almost entirely unhindered by the only force which could combat it: mass protest undertaken by an organized opposition.

Elites recognized that the reflexive tendency among the left to defer to black leadership provided them with a weapon which they deployed with devastating effectiveness and at the cost of an “extinction of the black middle class”, not to mention that of much of the white middle and working class.

The Sanders movement has served notice that the days are numbered whereby neoliberalism will be able to legitimate itself through multiculturalism and sell its goods to an overly credulous left.

By now, it should be painfully apparent which side they are on.

Pierre Bourdieu: On Racism of the Intellect

(Translation of Bourdieu’s 1983 Racisme de l’intelligence republished here.)


It is necessary to understand that there is no such thing as racism. Rather there are racisms-as many racisms as there are groups which need to justify their status, which is the usual function of racism. It seems to me therefore very important to apply the same analysis to forms of racism which are undoubtedly the most subtle, the most elusive and therefore the most rarely denounced, possible because usually those making the denunciations are themselves inclined to this form of racism. I’m referring to the racism of the intellect.

Racism of the intellect among the dominant classes is distinguished in several ways from that which one typically designates as racism, namely, the petit bourgeois form which is the target of most critiques, most notably beginning with that of Sartre.

This form of racism is characteristic of a dominant class whose maintenance depends to some extent on the transmission of inherited cultural capital understood as inherent and therefore natural and innate. Racism of intelligence is that through which elites aim to produce a “theodicy (rationalization) of their own privilege”, as Weber characterizes it, which is to say a justification of the social order which they dominate. It is this which makes elites convinced of their own inherent superiority.

All forms of racism are based on essentialism and racism of the intellect is the rationalization of the social order characteristic of the elite class whose power resides in the possession of credentials which, as do scholarly credentials, are supposed to confer the possession of specialized knowledge. These have taken the place of aristocratic titles of previous epochs in many societies-and confer access to positions of economic power-in the same way that the latter did.

Did the Left Throw the Election to Trump? No but . . . .

The first response to be made to the question posed above is the obvious one: the overwhelming responsibility for the Trump presidency lies with the Democratic Party. It was the Democratic Party, or more precisely, the elites in control of it, who engineered the nomination of a candidate widely and justifiable detested for her role in implementing policies which destroyed the lives of countless millions here and abroad. And it was the same elites who undermined the candidacy of Sanders, whose calm, informed, and articulate advocacy for the 99% would have been the perfect foil for, and, according to all available evidence, would have competed much more effectively against, the deranged billionaire who is currently plunging us into a new dark age.

But, as any child or parent knows, the fact that the primary responsibility lies with one person does not mean there is no more blame to go around.

And while some will lose their temper when it is suggested to them, it is apparent to anyone who followed politics over the past few months that the left, or at least significant elements of the left, needs to accept its share.

 

Did the Left Oppose Trump?

That might seem paradoxical. If the left is to blame, that must mean that it did not actively oppose what was possibly the most dangerously reactionary presidential candidacy in the nation’s history. But that many leftists either recommended or condoned not voting in swing states where the outcome of the election was decided is abundantly clear to those of us who attempted to argue against them. Not only did we encounter intense resistance from many quarters, even highly respected leftists urging opposition to Trump were ridiculed as “Clinton supporters” and “Democratic Party hacks” for doing so.

Furthermore, as was also apparent, some leftists went beyond failing to oppose Trump. Some actively endorsed him as preferable to Clinton.

Included among those who did was Rosa Brooks who took to the mainstream journal Foreign Policy to argue for Trump as “a peace candidate.” Others making the anti-interventionist case for Trump included Consortium News’s Robert Parry as well as veteran left journalist John Pilger, longtime critic of U.S. militarism William Blum, and physicist Jean Bricmont. A second category of left Trump endorsements derived from those who took on faith Trump’s populist pseudo left rhetoric. Among those doing so was well known economist Michael Hudson who predicted that Trump would initiate a “class war of Wall Street and the corporate sector of the Democratic side against Trump on the populist side . . . tak[ing] on Wall Street, reinstat[ing] Glass-Steagall [and] put[ting] American labor back to work on infrastructure.” An even more forthright endorsement came from Walker Bragman in Salon, whose “Liberal Case for Trump” notes that Trump, having been “consistently to the left of Clinton on trade [and] medical marijuana,” could reasonably be expected to “run to Clinton’s left on the economy.” Also conferring credibility on Trump as a stealth progressive was Vijay Prashad who held out the possibility that Trump would appoint Bernie Sanders Commerce Secretary.

Left Trump endorsements were generally arrived at from cherry picking a few superficially reasonable positions from the stew of contradictions, incoherence, and lies which was the Trump campaign. But even the most charitable assessment could not have failed to notice that the bulk of what Trump was offering was simply abhorrent. When the worst could not be ignored, Trump’s most retrograde and frightening statements did not serve as a warning. Rather they were deployed within a jiu jitsu that turned them back on Clintonite neoliberalism and the Democratic Party. Thus, Trump’s policies on immigration were inevitably counterposed to Obama’s two million deportations. Trump’s global warming denialism was counterpoised to Clinton’s having sold fracking as Secretary of State and Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy. Trump’s connections to racist hate groups would be dismissed with a reference to the Clintons’ role in fomenting the Superpredator myth and in the mass incarceration policies of the 90s.

These comparisons would form the basis of the widely shared sentiment among the left that it “was under no obligation to support Hillary Clinton,” the title of a statement circulated by 74 members of the Democratic Socialists of America published in In These Times. Along similar lines, Political Scientist Alex Gourevitch accuses Clinton of having failed in her “responsibility for making [her] case to [the] citizens.” Insofar as that is so, “we have no responsibility to vote for them,” according to Gourevitch. In highlighting the concept of obligations and responsibility, the DSA members and Gourevitch performed a useful service, though not that which they evidently intended. By pointing to the uncontroversial fact of Clinton shirking her responsibility they were, consciously or not, shining a light on their own. As noted above, just because X is mainly responsible does not imply that Y is not. The gap in logic is plenty familiar to any parent: “It was all Jimmy, Billy or Hillary’s fault. Don’t blame me.”

We wouldn’t accept that excuse from our own children and we shouldn’t accept it from ourselves either, particularly when the consequences may have been the end of the capacity of the planet to sustain our species.

 

Anti-Bernie Bernie or Busters . . . for Trump?

Whether they would express it by voting for Trump, a third party candidate or not voting at all, those pledging to withhold support from Clinton would join what would become known as the Bernie or Bust movement. Their membership in it, however, was problematic in an important respect: Bernie or Busters were former Sanders supporters who were retaliating against a primary process manipulated by party elites to insure the victory of its pre-selected neoliberal candidate. Many of those opposing Clinton, on the other hand, were not Bernieites at all in that they had opposed Sanders from the beginning.

Among those with a longstanding hostility was the familiar alphabet soup of Maoist, Leninist and Trotskyite sects for whom Sanders’s brand of socialism was fundamentally fraudulent. Granting themselves the exclusive right to define who is and who is not a socialist, Sanders would be rejected by them on this no true Scotsman basis. Also in the anti-Sanders camp were Greens who, correctly or incorrectly, assessed that Sanders’s success within the Democratic Party posed an existential threat to their brand as the 3rd party alternative to the Democrats. Their preferred denigration of Sanders was as a “sheepdog” doing the bidding of the party elites by herding the left back into the fold. The notion, predicated on the assumption that Clinton and the Democratic Party actively welcomed Sanders’s attacks on Clinton’s service to Wall Street, her longstanding support for jobs destroying trade agreements, her failure to support a $15 minimum wage and her voting for bankruptcy reform, by now hardly passes the laugh test.

Other attacks emanated from high traffic websites such as Counterpunch which ridiculed “St. Bernard” and his cult of Sandernistas often recycling the David Brock manufactured epithet, the now notorious Berniebro smear. Somewhat more substantive was the moral witness critique of leftists such as Chris Hedges and David Swanson who denounced Sanders’ failure to advance a sufficiently forceful repudiation of U.S. imperialism and militarism. Stripped of its unctuous sanctimony what their position reduced to was the familiar “the lesser evil is still evil” posture. This was accompanied by the unspoken moral sanction that those supporting Sanders were participating in evil. Whatever its academic or ethical merits, highly questionable as noted here, it now seems rather incredible that a lesser evil defense was required of the most substantive and effective challenge to neoliberalism ever to have assumed a viable organizational form.

As we know now, and was apparent then, by previously working to remove Sanders from the field, anti-Sanders leftists were helping to eliminate the candidate who would offer the strongest competition to Trump. Sanders, after all, based his candidacy and indeed his entire political career on opposition to the greed, immorality, and shamelessness of the billionaire class — a fact reflected in polls showing him doing far better than Clinton in a head to head match-up with Trump. By advocating opposition to Sanders in the primary, those on the left doing so made a de facto investment in a Trump presidency, one which they would double down on by supporting Bernie or Bust following Sanders’s defeat.

 

Ends and Means

The problematic status of anti-Sanders forces in the Bernie or Bust coalition raised an additional question. The primary reason for the Bernie or Bust rejection of Clinton was her central role in advancing regressive neoliberal policies. But for the anti-Sanders Bernie or Busters this could not have been the reason. They had, after all, rejected Sanders candidacy, one which was at its core based on a fundamental rejection of neoliberal premises, on taxation, education, Wall Street bailouts, Social Security and on virtually every major issue. If they were not trying to advance the movement to challenge neoliberal austerity by restoring a significant government role in regulation and social welfare what were they trying to achieve by their opposition to both Sanders and Clinton?

Part of the answer, provided in a recent Counterpunch piece by Andrew Levine, was that they were not attempting to achieve any tangential benefits for the traditional working class constituency of the left. Rather their immediate objective was purely political, namely, according to Levine, to create mass defections from the Democratic Party with the main beneficiary being the Green Party and its standard bearer Jill Stein. With sufficient numbers, the Greens could secure a 5% vote total thereby qualifying them for federal campaign funds in subsequent elections.

Of course, the Greens missed the mark by a factor of five and Levine uncategorically (albeit uncharacteristically) admits that he was wrong in suggesting that this goal could be reached. Given that Levine has, apparently, little experience with the Greens, it is understandable that he would fail to recognize that it never had a chance. As Adolph Reed trenchantly noted in his critique of the “if we build it, they will come” theory of politics assumed by Green Party supporters, the Greens have repeatedly demonstrated their lack of political and organizational capacity. Now moving into their fourth decade without a single state level official, a scant 130 local office holders of the nearly 1 million positions potentially available and an almost totally dysfunctional local infrastructure, it was eminently predictable that Stein’s showing would be an embarrassment.

Furthermore, had the mass defections actually materialized, it is a safe bet that no serious or useful activist infrastructure would have resulted from attempts to join what is essentially a Potemkin quadrennial party incapable of maintaining, organizing or mobilizing the energies of those who attempt to enlist and function within it.

Presumably, in the absence of the Greens succeeding, what Levine and others probably had in mind in their attempts to induce mass defections was that even if those exiting the party weren’t able to find a viable organizational structure in the Greens, the pressure for a new party to emerge would eventually develop so that one would have to come into existence. How or when Levine doesn’t say, nor does he provide any indication of being interested in the discussion which others have had on the subject.

A longer term objective was also political in that it involved demonstrating to Democratic elites that their anointed neoliberal candidates would face certain defeat from defections by the party’s left wing. While it is impossible to know how they will respond to Clinton’s defeat, if the past is any guide, they will not take this as any kind of lesson. Defeats of centrist neoliberal candidates Mondale, Kerry and Gore were assumed to have resulted not from their having distanced themselves from the New Deal liberal base of the party, but from having embraced it. That this remains their guiding philosophy is consistent with the name most frequently mentioned as the preferred candidate of party elites, a loyal servant of the Wall Street wing of the party, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Booker’s promotion signals little change other than the recognition that neoliberalism must be invested with a sufficiently multicultural hue to insure requisite turnout from those African American who conspicuously failed to support Clinton.

What this shows is that if neoliberalism is repudiated it will not derive from party elites having had their hand forced by Bernie or Bust or similar threats. Rather it will result from precisely that which the anti-Sanders left opposed, namely the development of the Sanders forces both within the Democratic Party and within the independent organization which Sanders set up to advance his agenda, OurRevolution. By repudiating these efforts, the left functions as an obstacle to progress.

 

Third Parties: Strategy vs. Tactics

A particular instance where left unity or the absence of it could tip the balance is apparent in the first major test the Sanders bloc is now facing, its attempt to install Keith Ellison as DNC chairman. If it succeeds against the vehement opposition of the party establishment this could lead to the beginnings of a shift in the institutional mechanisms of the Democratic Party. Will it? No one knows. However, the fact that Sanders regards it as promising should not be dismissed. Sanders assembling a network of 13 million supporters blindsided much of the left, but it did not come as that much of a surprise to those who know of his decades-long record of political victories. His having done so is a testimony not only to his longstanding commitment to a progressive program supported by a large majority but, more importantly, his understanding of what is required to build political capacity and political organization. While deference to leadership needs always to be combined with appropriate skepticism, Sanders has provided solid grounds for faith in his political judgements, particularly compared to those of his left critics whose track record of actual accomplishment is underwhelming to put it mildly.

The anti-Sanders left which rejects on principle any attempts to work within the Democratic Party will be necessarily AWOL from this and all subsequent struggles within the DP. They will argue that as one more iteration of the Sheepdog strategy where activist energies are channeled into a party that has served as “the graveyard of social movements,” an obstacle to all but the most superficial political reforms for decades. For them, it can’t be reformed but must be undermined with a new party built on the foundations of the old.

In this they assume that they are advancing a long term strategy, but in doing so, they are making a category mistake. As Michael Lighty of the Nurses Union wisely observed, political parties should not be fetishized as part of a strategy but rather should be seen as a tactical vehicle through which particular objectives can and cannot be achieved. In certain circumstances, pushing for minor party candidates can achieve important gains, forcing concessions from the major parties. In very rare historical circumstances, the potential for a radical reorientation of an existing party structure is possible with an opening provided for a minor party to assume major party status.

Having said that, it should be clear that, for reasons mentioned previously, we are not in one of those periods. There is no third party on the horizon that has even the beginnings of a significant political capacity or organizational structure. To pretend otherwise, as elements of the left do, is to foment an illusion, either out of ignorance or opportunism, one which will impose significant costs on the credibility of the left and on the progress of the movement itself.

 

Conclusion: Is there a Path Forward?

It will be noticed that the question posed in the title goes unanswered in the above. That is as it should be since it is unknowable whether the combined forces of the anti-Sanders and/or anti-Clinton left have sufficient numbers and sufficient influence on other voters to have made a difference in the three main battleground states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Furthermore, to engage the question is a diversion from the topic which should be on the minds of everyone — probably a large majority of the population — whose sympathies can be defined as “left.” How is it that we have been excluded from participation in the political process by the bipartisan drift towards neoliberalism and what is about the tactics and strategies we have adopted that have insured that our efforts to respond have been so feckless. What we have seen over the past few months, as discussed above, provides many of the reasons why, for those who are able to face up to the facts.

In the weeks following the debacle it has been routine to ignore or dismiss those who have attempted to issue criticisms or even mention how the left conducted itself during the presidential campaign as uselessly settling scores or convening what is reflexively and lazily referred to as “another circular firing squad” on the left. All this more than a little contradictory and disingenuous when it comes from leftists who regard the capacity for issuing “a ruthless criticism of all that exists” to be at the core of their politics, provided, it seems, when it does not apply to themselves.

But worse than that, to fail to ask questions is suicidal.

If any serious opposition to the now dominant reactionary right and the neoliberal center is to emerge, it must be directed towards the most promising paths to political power. If the left refuses to learn from its mistakes it is sure to proceed down yet another dead end, with catastrophic results not just for ourselves but for the species.

On Grim’s Law

Writing a few days before the election, Huffington Post Columinist Ryan Grim broke a longstanding taboo by advancing what I will refer to (with apologies to my linguist friends) as Grim’s Law.

The pundit, according to Grim, is “endowed by (the) creator (with) the inalienable right to be consistently wrong and never apologize.”

It hardly needs to be said that the days following the election provided nearly ideal laboratory conditions for assessing the predictive accuracy of Grim’s Law.  An astounding number of pundits were consistently wrong on the election in so many ways that it will take a veritable encyclopedia to document their errors.

Among the most egregious were those who predicted not only a Clinton victory, but denied even the possibility that the race could be close.  For those doing so from the left, the certainty of the result became grounds for attacking “soft leftists” urging swing state votes for Clinton.  According to them, we were capitulating to the “climate of fear” manufactured by the Democratic Party of “hippie punching” those who had the courage to resist the calls to help prevent the disaster of the Trump presidency.

In retrospect, it now seems incredible that these charges would be levelled, but they were more or less routinely in the weeks and days prior to the election, not just by random internet bloggers but by bona fide pundits-those with access to substantial major corporate media perches.

Indeed, one of these left pundits, hereafter LP, showed up in the comments section of this very blog to issue a snidely personalized attack on Chomsky and myself for our article advancing swing state lesser evil voting.

“Congratulations John, this post will be used relentlessly to bash everyone an inch to the left of Democrats. As was surely it’s (sic.) intent.”

This was followed up by a rather stunningly confident assertion of what he took to be fact of the matter:

“By the way: Trump cannot win. This election is not close. It has never been close. The notion that it was ever close was always a fantasy sold by a media that needs to perpetuate the idea that it’s close.”

At the time, as I pointed out in response, most polls indicated that Clinton was ahead but that the election was close, with a few polls putting Trump in the lead.  But this was too much for our LP to bear and he invented his own reality, using it as the grounds to launch an attack against me and Chomsky.

“And in 2020, they’ll nominate another conservative Democrat again, and you’ll make this identical argument again. Every presidential election of my lifetime, the Democrats have lured soft leftists like you to hippie punch with this argument. And they will never stop doing it.”

It has now been two weeks since the total bankruptcy of LP’s comments was revealed, sufficient time for us to assess the validity of Grim’s Law namely, its prediction that when a pundit, in this case LP, is embarrassingly and incontrovertably wrong, they “never apologize.”

I can personally attest therefore to Grim’s Law having been confirmed.  For not only would LP not apologize, he would double down on his attacks on me in a facebook thread hosted by Astra Taylor in which he accused me (bizarrely) of blaming Jill Stein for the Trump presidency, something I neither believe, nor have I ever suggested.  In short, another invention on his part providing the grounds for an attack.

It would be easy for me to put this aside if it were not for LP’s most recent performance.  As I mentioned, P is clearly moving up the ranks, now in a position to inform Washington Post readers that, contrary to what Clinton supporters have repeatedly asserted, “Sanders could have won” . The piece was approvingly circulated by Sanders sympathizers who assumed that the pundit was giving voice to their views.  

Probably few were aware that rather than supporting Sanders when it mattered, LP was not just neutral but hostile, having reminded his readers that he has “repeatedly and publicly said that I won’t vote for Bernie Sanders due to his stances on Israel, immigration, and guns.” Some months later, he would shift to becoming, in his words “a lukewarm supporter”, making clear that to those who were deeply invested in the Sanders campaign, donating whatever they could afford to, putting in countless hours canvassing, phone banking that they were investing in a “highly flawed” candidate who would almost certainly disappoint them.

Yet again, Grim’s Law is confirmed.  In no way did LP provide any evidence that he held these prior views, he now sees himself as leading the parade: dictating how the left should respond to the attacks on its core institutions which will define the Trump era.

As a pundit, he sees himself as having the right to do so, but with complete certainty and blithely dismissing questions as to whether his past analytical failures and factual gaffes should raise any doubts.

Those of us who do so without the benefit of his platform will, as Thucydides remarked, “suffer as we must”, our rejoinders, relegated to the fringes of what now passes for discourse in the new media age.