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.