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.

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