by Jay Monaco
Midnight, Suicide Wednesday. These, the opening moments of the depressing slog that inevitably follows Super Tuesday returns, are made all the worse by the fact that those returns offered up iron-fisted testament to the supreme domination of one Donald Trump on one side and one Hillary Clinton on the other. Unless you’re a white male who fears the future and fosters pseudo-fascist tendencies or a soulless connoisseur of crumbs from the table, there is no party tonight, only a sad and frantic drowning of the sorrows. The less sober-minded among us declare loudly that a general election waged between a maniac right-wing populist reality television performer and a morally bankrupt neoliberal almost-neoconservative triangulator whose half-century career has been built on the backs of the poor to be a surefire sign of Apocalypse as though torn directly from some lost chapter of the Book of Revelation.
Perhaps they’re right – but then again, let’s not get carried away, here. This is no time to succumb fatally to Panic or Despair. Playtime is over. Debate club doesn’t run this late at night. I meant it several months ago, when I suggested it was time for the Left to get it together, and I really mean it now. Back then, we still had a few minutes to fiddle around and figure things out, and now time’s up. Now, the Left is needed more than ever. Can we deliver? Or are we – all of us – just talk?
That magic moment
There was a minute, a bright shining moment not too long ago, when Bernie Sanders was acting like the sort of total madman who half-planned to win this thing. If this guy was a sheepdog, he sure wasn’t being a very good one.
In that fleeting second, it appeared that perhaps efforts by the DNC to limit the number of debates between the candidates and to schedule them in weekend slots with traditionally low viewership may have proven too transparent too soon. When the party brutally punished the Sanders campaign for an infraction involving a glitch in third-party voter database software, temporarily crippling the campaign’s operations, Sanders’ numbers and donations went up. This polling trend continued as Sanders suddenly pulled out the sharp blades, ramping up his criticism of Clinton and the elite who back her.
On the strength of this aggression, his tie in Iowa, coupled with Clinton’s bad coin toss optics sent the front-runner’s surrogates into conniptions. He reaped the benefits of this in New Hampshire. While it’s true that some late polls accurately predicted Sanders’ 20-point victory in the Granite State, it’s the details of the landslide that are most unexpected and most indicative of a longer-than-expected fight ahead. The demographic data is stark, with Sanders winning every age group but the very oldest and every income bracket but the highest. Beyond this, however, Sanders not only carried the state, nor only all the state’s counties, but won in nearly every single city and town. In 2008, PBS called out eight such cities and towns in which Clinton’s domination was particularly acute. In 2016, Bernie Sanders defeated her in all eight, in many cases quite convincingly. This result, supported subsequently by pushback against Clinton from Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Erica Garner cast serious doubt on the conventional wisdom – which I embraced no less than anyone else – that a Sanders defeat was inevitable.
As The Polemicist put it in the second of two brilliant pieces to run ahead of Iowa, “Bernie Sanders is the dog who’s about to catch the car. We all thought it would pull away too quickly, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. If he catches it, he’s going to have to turn into a helluva ferocious beast, or let it go.”
Polls following New Hampshire were promising. This was serious momentum. He was never going to win in Nevada or South Carolina, but the numbers seemed to be narrowing. The same was true of Super Tuesday states. Coming off such a big NH win, Sanders had a large point spread within which he could claim plausible “victory” even in losing the next two contests. If he were to have followed that up with a respectable, delegate-rich showing on Super Tuesday, it seemed like all bets might be off. Even if Sanders originally intended to lose, handing his gift-wrapped supporters over to Clinton, the DNC, and their donor class backers, it was becoming less and less clear he would ever be capable of doing so. With every additional moment sent stoking his supporters with talk, not of hope and change, but something he calls “revolution,” it grew less likely that his ultimate endorsement of Hillary Clinton was going to mean anything.
It’s here that The Polemicist proves even more prescient:
“From the second the polls close on a clear Sanders defeat of Clinton, the Democratic Party will begin to split in an obvious and serious way that will intensify exponentially through the primary season, and the general election if Bernie wins the nomination. To be clear: That split will happen, not because Bernie won’t support any of the candidates and the eventual nominee of the Democratic Party, but because a lot (most?) of the Party establishment will not support him.”
If, on the other hand, Bernie is not willing to cause the Democratic Party to split in his quest for the Presidency, other measures might have to be taken:
“Under any circumstances, it won’t be hard for Sanders to lose, and it will be very difficult for observers to discern whether he was just defeated despite his best effort, or let some chances slip away to avoid damaging the party. It would be devastating to his supporters and damaging to the Party to think the latter, or to think that the nomination was stolen from him. This Bernie Sanders would not allow himself to get so far ahead as to engender such suspicions. It will be very important to him, if he withdraws for any reason, to keep his supporters’ enthusiasm alive for the Democratic nominee.
This Bernie will drop out for the same reason he did not run as an independent in the first place: because his purpose is to keep discontented progressives in the Democratic Party.”
And indeed, what is that that transpired between the roaring high of New Hampshire and yesterday’s utter devastation? It’s hard to say, exactly. One might observe that Sanders’ attacks were quieter – still there, but less forceful, less targeted toward media narrative, more like going through the motions. Then there was Sanders’ complete abandonment of standard campaign election night optics the evening of South Carolina and then again on Super Tuesday itself. As the quote above points out, it’s difficult for we observers to discern clearly whether Sanders pulled his punches or went down fighting.
Is the Left all talk?
At some point, however, this speculation turns into pure intellectual exercise. The outcome is what we have to work with, regardless of the means that brought it before us. Sanders’ huge February fundraising haul means he can hang on for a few more weeks, but continuing will grow increasingly difficult in the face of the inevitable barrage of calls from Democrats of all stripes to drop out “for the good of the nominee.” Now is the time we keep talking about, the moment when all of us on the Left – including, now, the DSA and all those Sanders supporters unwilling to support Clinton – must turn our efforts and attention toward calling out the corrupt capitalist apparatus that engineered his defeat.
All this time, the pro-Bernie vs. anti-Bernie debate has become both the greatest and most loathsome theoretical battle of the decade for the radical Left. Each side accuses the other of being all talk. The pro-Sanders crowd insists the Marxists just want to sit in their reading groups, isolated from the people and averse to actual victory, talking about purity and theory. The anti-Sanders cohort (mine) argues that the “practical” strategies of the other side are ahistorical and undialectical and amount to a lack of seriousness toward actually defeating capitalism.
The ISO, which in my view has held the correct stance on this issue from the beginning, summed it up Monday in the Socialist Worker, declaring firmly:
“From all this, we should conclude that the Democratic Party cannot be a vehicle for the kind of social change that is attracting people to Bernie Sanders today. The Democrats have been the primary mechanism that capital uses to incorporate and dominate social movements and trade unions. For our votes to be meaningful, working people need a party that fights for our own goals, our unions and our social movements.”
This isn’t just an argument anymore. If the DSA and others fail to make the pivot toward opposing both capitalist parties – in the general election and beyond – it will represent a confirmation of the accusatory notion that supporting Sanders was an unprincipled waste of time and energy for anyone with a serious opposition to capitalism. Otherwise, beyond the bland and questionable concept of “awareness”, what has actually been gained, here?
No substitute for radical organizing
On the flip side, if the ISO and other Sanders-skeptics fail to engage in a meaningful and organized alternative approach, we prove ourselves just as abstentionist and impotent as some critics have charged. Again from SW:
“[V]oting for a politician, even a good one, can never replace the need for union drives, strikes, occupations, mass protests and more. As the late historian Howard Zinn once said: ‘What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is ‘sitting in’–and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.'”
Where are we on this?
The strange times in which we find ourselves are not the result of Sanders himself or even the pseudo-renegade character of his campaign, but the result of the material conditions in which people find themselves. (To his credit, I do not believe Sanders would claim otherwise.) It almost goes without saying that the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent bank bailouts, high unemployment, recession, and austerity have laid the inadequacies of capitalism bare before the public. For those born middle class and now experiencing downward class mobility, this is no longer a matter of intellectually grasping exploitation so much as a deeply felt economic betrayal. Trust in our economic system is no longer assumed. Bernie didn’t make socialism popular among the youth, it’s been measurably so since at least 2011 – quite possibly before, given that the Wisconsin uprising began the February prior and led not-indirectly to the Occupy protests that fall.
The notion that Barack Obama substantively addressed these needs is laughable, while his touted health care reform has charitably had mixed results among those at the lowest end of the income spectrum. The energy made manifest by the recession, its fallout, and the associated movements, as well as the energy brought forth by racist police brutality and murder over the last two years, hasn’t gone anywhere. Why should it? And for all his faults, Sanders is the only one actually talking about the needs of the dispossessed and exploited, and promising plainly to address them. This isn’t Bernie’s wave, he’s just riding it.
Now it’s our turn.
But even if we all agree that an independent working class third party is necessary, we must also then accept that, for such a party to be sustainable, it cannot be primarily based in the campaign for President of the United States, however distracting and all-consuming such campaigns might be for two-year stretches at a time. For all his talk about needing the backing of a people-based movement in the streets, Barack Obama quickly dismantled his organizing apparatus after his victory, with such things quickly forgotten. Sanders has called, repeatedly, for the same thing, but this time, if the notion is again forgotten, it’s on us, not the candidate. Some of the die-hard Sanders supporters may be tempted to give in to apathy in the face of the inevitable disillusionment to come, but those of us who understand these unfolding events have a responsibility to provide avenues for continued work.
Independent local organizing for radical issues and municipal candidates, particularly doing so without institutional support and resources, can be decidedly frustrating and un-sexy overall. But there are no shortcuts to revolution. Organization, from the ground up, is necessary, and only the socialist left is positioned to hit the ground running with such efforts and programs.
This requires existing socialist parties to prioritize cooperation, coordination, and strategy over recruitment and dogmatic squabbling. There’s an extremely important place for formal membership and cadre-building, but we must be eager and willing to work together in all areas of substantive agreement. None of the small parties of the 21st-century US can, by themselves, consistently provide deliverable opportunities for collective struggle competently and with maximum impact.
Some may accuse Trotskyists and others of being abstentionist, averse to practical political victories, but the back-to-back electoral victories of Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant to Seattle’s City Council, coupled with the groundbreaking SA-led victory in winning a $15 minimum wage in that same city, should serve as significant examples to the contrary. That being said, these victories must be followed up with regional and nationwide strategies to run slates of independent left candidates in many cities. Though that has not been the case thus far, for that to change with 2017’s municipal elections, we must begin such plans now.
Continued wage fights must be organized everywhere, not just the big cities. Campaigns against racism and police brutality must be waged in every diverse community. When labor struggles emerge, whether traditional union-based activity or surrounding non-union service sector employees, workers need to know they can count on everyone on the Left to get behind them, not just with words or policy positions but with actions, bodies, and whatever material support we can scrape together.
Regardless of position on the particular topic of Bernie Sanders, it will require the pooling of all of our collective resources to make any of these things happen, much less all of them. Above all else, however, it’s crucial that we all recognize that the conditions for such mass action (“political revolution”?) are present and palpable, here and now, today.
To be sure, until the conclusion of this election season it will be difficult in most cases to generate substantial mass enthusiasm for anything else. Yet even in the longest scenarios, that conclusion approaches rapidly. We can begin the preparations now and be ready to take this political energy to the next stage, or we can all just continue to talk.