The Left Leader Fetish: More Lessons from the Sanders Campaign

The results from last night’s primaries require that a couple of things be kept in perspective.  First, delegates are awarded proportionally, so the fact that Missouri and Illinois were narrow losses for Sanders is practically indistinguishable from their having been narrow victories.  Had Sanders won, there would have been more enthusiasm today, but there would have been no more grounds for it than the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth we’re seeing now.

That said, the one slightly unexpected result was the size of the loss in Ohio. What this means is that the margins by which Sanders will need to win the large states coming up, New York and California, will need to be larger–in the 58%+ range. This is unlikely but not impossible. To achieve this, Sanders will need strong endorsements from the one set of institutions which still have the power to swing votes in the necessary range, and that is the labor unions.  That they have not supported what would likely be the most pro-labor administration in recent U.S. history and, by virtue of this fact, probably the only chance to arrest the decades long slide of labor into now almost total irrelevance is an utter scandal.

What is also striking is that they have largely escaped criticism for having gone AWOL, Hamilton Nolan being one of the few to have raised the issue of labor having “fucked up” in a largely ignored Gawker piece. Nolan’s observation gets to a deeper pathology within the left which is the assumption that, warts and all, organized labor, by its very nature can never be part of the problem.  Rather it must be, according to this line of thought,  at the core of whatever challenge the left is able to mount against the neoliberal corporate state.

For that reason, labor leadership has largely not been held responsible for a string of suicidal decisions made in recent years. Among the most glaring of these was its decision to withdraw its support for the Wisconsin State House protests of 2011, throwing its weight into a failed recall effort which Governor Scott Walker easily survived and which ended up strengthening his hand.  The direct result of the union’s failed strategy, for which they largely escaped criticism and accountability, was the Walker administration’s successful attack on public sector unions, organized labor’s last remaining stronghold now joining private sector unions in the race to the bottom.

Labor’s failure to support Sanders should be seen in a similar light: perhaps the last chance to staunch the hemorrhaging wounds inflicted on it by both parties and which may, by the end of the next of a series of anti-union administrations, result in the end of labor as a significant force in domestic politics.  This lesson should be learned, but given that Nolan’s piece is the only one to have mentioned it, it is reasonable to conclude that it won’t be. The same labor leaders who endorsed Clinton will be the last rats to leave as the last of the ruins of what David Montgomery called “the house of labor” are finally swept aside.

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An analogous analysis applies to another widely discussed result of the primaries.  As has been widely discussed,  black voters, particularly those in the South, could have turned the tide in Sanders’s favor.  Instead they functioned as a firewall ensuring that neoliberal governance-and its attendant destruction of what remains of working class, African American communities-will continue more or less unabated.

Many leftists were blindsided by this but they shouldn’t have been. As Lester Spence has noted, what was perceived as the triumph of Obama has also resulted in the triumph of Obamaism as a dominant philosophy within African American communities.  What Spence means, and has demonstrated, is that African Americans are more likely to endorse that which Adolph Reed described in 1996 as Obama’s “fundamentally bootstrap” variant of “vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics” along with its routine denigration of Cousin Pookie eating fried chicken while watching the TV.  What these vile racialized stereotypes serve to obscure are the structural factors which are at the root not of the alleged “culture of poverty” but poverty itself, which substantially increased during the Obama administration. But when they are mouthed by a widely admired African American president, they would become reified as conventional wisdom.

Given that Sanders has for three decades repeatedly expressed his hostility to blame the victim/culture of poverty explanations promoted by the right, it makes a bizarre sense that his candidacy would be rejected by the community which had been brought to finally accepting them by one whom they see as one of their own.

Connected to this, in the context of the primaries, is the central role of African American churches in get out the vote and voter registration efforts.  This carried with it the consequence that the more conservative sectors of the African American community, those more likely to endorse the philosophy of Obamaite neoliberalism, would be disproportionately represented at the polls.  Add to this felony disenfranchisement of many millions of African American voters in the South, victims of the Clinton era crime bills and drug wars, the relative failure of Sanders’s explicitly left/socialist candidacy becomes less mysterious.

Finally, there is another similarity worth mentioning.  Just as the left has fetishized union leadership, so too has its reflexive tendency to “respect black leadership” undermined its capacity to create a serious opposition to neoliberalism.  In what should be a major lesson, the age of Obama has been defined by objectively reactionary policies which would have provoked huge protests had they been implemented by an executive manifesting the usual phenotypical characteristics.  These were imposed while the left largely sat on its hands finding itself unable to criticize, protest, or, until the very end, “challenge black leadership”.

The willingness to “respect” and to defer to black leadership applied to the 2016 primaries as leaders from the NAACP to the National Urban League, to a virtual who’s who of black elected officials lined up in support of one of neoliberalism’s foremost avatars, or at best, failed to align themselves with Sanders’s challenge to it.

A representative figure would be Rev. Jesse Jackson who, had he campaigned for Sanders, as Sanders had for Jackson in 1984 and 1988, could very well have made a difference among the older African American congregations in the south which ended up voting overwhelmingly for Clinton.

Jackson not only failed to reciprocate, but, so far as I know, almost entirely escaped criticism for not doing so.  While some, such as John Lewis, may have received  some mild criticism by circulating the most outrageously dishonest smears of Sanders, others will find themselves welcomed back into “progressive” circles, their service to corporate neoliberalism regarded as water under the bridge by The Nation, Democracy Now!, and other left establishment media outlets.

The left’s dysfunctional relationship with these and other leaders who have shown by their actions which side they are on is one of many lessons the Sanders campaign has to teach us.  Fortunately, on the other side were Sanders’s tens of millions of supporters-willing to pull the lever, contribute money, phone bank, and man the polls for an explicitly socialist candidate.  The core of Sanders’s support was from a younger generation, who, in getting their hands dirty with retail politics, learned invaluable lessons in how to organize,  strategize, and operate the profoundly corrupt but still significantly functional political system to their advantage.  They could have been successful but were abandoned by us- their elders, including much of the soi-disant “radical left” which turned out to be worse than useless, its saving grace its legendary and by now comical incompetence.  They will, hopefully, never forget our treachery and nor should we as  they begin to move forward without us.

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3 thoughts on “The Left Leader Fetish: More Lessons from the Sanders Campaign”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, John.

    Democracy Now! needs to have you talk about these issues on air.

    Some years back I suggested to Democracy Now! that Glen Ford be invited to talk on air, and he was given time in a debate. It would be worth the effort for everyone concerned to suggest that they invite you. They do try to balance when nudged.

    So let’s nudge Democracy Now! with a few messages on their contact web page.

    1. Hah! I take it that was Ford’s legendary DN appearance-where he obliterated Dyson. Thanks to you, Glenn, for your role in making that happen. I do hope that these issues-which have been taboo in left circles (more or less the point of the piece)-do begin to be discussed, by me or anyone else who is trying to raise them. I’d be grateful if you and/or anyone else makes an effort along these lines.

  2. My message to Democracy Now! follows:

    Please consider inviting John Halle, of Bard College Conservatory, to talk about the Sanders campaign and the new generation gap.

    [email protected]

    http://www.johnhalle.com/?p=884

    “The core of Sanders’s support was from a younger generation, who, in getting their hands dirty with retail politics, learned invaluable lessons in how to organize, strategize, and operate the profoundly corrupt but still significantly functional political system to their advantage. They could have been successful but were abandoned by us- their elders, including much of the soi-disant “radical left” which turned out to be worse than useless, its saving grace its legendary and by now comical incompetence. They will, hopefully, never forget our treachery and nor should we as they begin to move forward without us.”

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