In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way.
By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.
In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Senator Malcolm King. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.
Senator King, you were born in 1985. You were an avid student of history by schooling but an assembly worker and cook by early employment. You became a political candidate and ultimately a U.S. Senator. Many think you will be President in a few years.You were attracted to RPS and became a member, then a prominent activist, and thereafter ran for office within the Democratic Party in Massachusetts. Later, you became the first highly placed national elected office holder and used your position and abilities to propel the RPS platform. I have to admit it is strange to be interviewing a sitting U.S. Senator, but I thank you for the opportunity. And I wonder, can you remember what precipitated you becoming radical?
Please, call me Malcolm.
I was fascinated by history and that gave me great sympathy for those fighting against oppression and also considerable understanding of the institutions that create the ills. When I got out of school I couldn’t get a history related job so I worked as an assembler and also as a short order cook.
Suddenly I wasn’t looking at working class conditions as subject matter. I was living them. I like to think that even had I gotten a teaching job at some elite institution, my life path would have been like it has been. But, I know the odds are slim, so I am thankful for what I horribly resented at the time – that I had to enter working class life and endure its injuries. Doing so ensured my radicalization.
Can you also tell us which events, campaigns, or moments in RPS history were most moving for you personally?
Well, as you might expect, my becoming Senator of Massachusetts in 2032 changed me greatly and immensely affected my daily life. But, honestly, personally, I think two other moments jump out in my memory, to answer you here, on the spur of the moment.
First was when Bernie Sanders died. I know, he wasn’t literally in RPS and his politics, at least publicly, never rose all the way to RPS fullness. But for me, his life and particularly his Presidential campaign were pivotal to my own history, and his handling of himself, his way of engaging, his sense of proportion about his own role, his compassion for poor and working people were all highly instructive and inspirational. Anyway, when he died, I was seriously distressed. The slogan, don’t mourn, organize, is fine for a dying revolutionary to intone as advice to others. But, honestly, for those who are still around, for those who really cared, while it may be good advice, it falls far short of reality. So I mourned, quietly, for Sanders. And that was an important period for me.
Second, during the campaign for Military and Prison Conversion in 2028, I happened to give a speech at a U.S. military base in Texas. After, I sat around with some soldiers and we talked about their experiences and motives, and what the campaign might mean for them. I was greatly impressed by their thoughtfulness, concerns for the country, and concerns about themselves and their families, albeit encountering even at that late date massive confusion about underlying facts.
The proximity of change for the base and thus their lives, the sober calm and scope of the campaign, caused our exchanges to be heartfelt and sincere. They went for many hours and covered incredible ground. The lessons I took about the need to hear their actual reasons, not those imputed to them from a distance, and to relate to those reasons in ways that could create solidarity rather than fear and antipathy made my interactions not only with those soldiers but with lots of different constituencies thereafter much wiser.
Looking back, and getting back on sequence, what do you think fed into the early boycotts and many other such projects and campaigns emerging when they did?
Like many others, I think the proximate cause was energy that spread outward from the March on Wall Street. But I also know that earlier there was the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and still more broadly, the Sanders campaign and aftermath, and of course the stupendous turn out of women and their supporters to kick off the sustained massive resistance to Trumpism, and so much that followed. We could go further back, also, to earlier outpourings of resistance, and not only in the U.S., where I was, but around the world. And of course the anti Trump opposition persisted and grew greatly. I experienced all that, and all that contributed to what I and others became. I guess at bottom I realized if you don’t stand for what’s right you you are likely to fall for what’s wrong.
I also came to realize that a single effort at change rarely wins much, but when carried through well, a successful effort provides lessons and sentiments that lead to another effort, and then another. The result is never a continuous, uninterrupted piling on of desires, capacities, and gains. It is, instead, at best, win some, lose some. Learn from the losses so the gains accumulate and feed off each other.
Many activities before RPS aroused worthy desires. Many taught useful skills. Many conveyed needed confidence and overcame time worn biases. But not everyone involved at each stage experienced all such changes. Many would gain new inclinations for a time and then lose those attributes due to the pressures of having to return to the daily humdrum of filling current social roles to survive. Their lives would begin to end when they became silent about the things that mattered – but in time many could, and did, reanimate and return. Others would retain various lessons, skills, feelings, and hope, and bring those gains to a next round of activity. That is what mattered most, a forward trajectory of change.
If a movement hits a pretty high point but fails to keep growing, then as far as winning change, it is deficient. A movement has to be continually busy being born, or it will be busy dying. It is always the right time to do what is right.
This was true not only for earlier struggles that ultimately died, but also for the immediately pre RPS arms boycotts. There were campuses where at times twenty or thirty percent of the students and faculty were vigorously active and as much as eighty percent agreed with ending war research. As the dust temporarily settled, sometimes with total divestment, sometimes partial, sometimes with oversight for projects, most of those who had been involved went back to their prior approaches of going to classes and getting along. Getting them more deeply re-involved was one priority.
Malcolm, can we consider the 2016 Elections? What role did those pivotal elections play in RPS emerging?
There were a number of then recent electoral precursors of RPS, but the Sanders campaign was certainly most important. Sanders ran for President as a Democrat. His speeches, writing, and platform, far more than any other candidate in decades, leaned toward RPS positions though they also stopped well short of where RPS would arrive. He got tens of millions of voters to think and hope at a far more ambitious scale than in the past.
With tens of millions of people supporting Sanders and many thousands contributing their time and energy to his campaign, one of the main things his electoral effort did was to give a large array of people confidence in communicating with others and in arguing for dissident views, plus willingness to undertake such efforts.
You can’t overestimate this. You don’t win change simply by having good aims and a good heart. It takes immense outreach and great efforts at building organization and infrastructure, and the Sanders campaign gave people diverse skills useful for that path. Going door to door, phone banking, raising funds, conducting meetings, working together. These mattered.
Some of the controversies of the 2016 election campaign also proved instructive, though not without considerable travail. For example, Sanders sought the Democratic Party nomination against Hillary Clinton, who won it, and who then tried to become the first woman U.S. president.
During the campaign Sanders’ team turned out huge, passionate crowds. Clinton’s giant old time machine utilized all the rules and mechanisms that had earlier been added to U.S. election law precisely to benefit wealthy, elite-connected, party-favored candidates by isolating and marginalizing dissidents.
Getting the nomination was supposed to be a cakewalk for Clinton but became a major fight. Sanders so bested Clinton among young voters and independents in the Democratic primaries, that he won everywhere such crossover was allowed, especially if late registration was able to offset that before campaigning Sanders was essentially unknown. Clinton won overall because the Democratic Party stacked everything in her favor as well as because of minority and especially Black votes, a very strange dynamic that befuddled many.
I have wondered about that myself – did you later arrive at any conclusions?
Even now I don’t fully understand the early Black vote. Yes, the Clintons had a reputation of personally treating Blacks as equals in direct interactions. And yes, Hillary Clinton was rhetorically not bad and sometimes even pretty good on direct issues of her own personal race relations. But Sanders’ positions and inclinations were clearly vastly better choices for Black and Latino advancement, and lots of the young voters in those communities knew it, and some astute older folks knew it too.
But the Democratic party apparatus, with all its benefits to hand out, played a big role. And an even bigger factor was how the Republican Party scared older Blacks and Latinos, and plenty of young ones too, very nearly to death. Warranted fear of troglodyte Republicans, and particularly of Trump, plus fear, whether legitimate or not, that in a general election against a thug like Trump, despite that the polls said he would easily win, Sanders would in fact not have the apparatus and energy to campaign sufficiently and would be too vulnerable to red baiting and defection by Democratic Party elites, made the Black community vote for Clinton. With that primary vote in hand, and with the media and Democratic Party apparatus torpedoing Sanders at every turn, Clinton got the nomination. But then came a big controversy, whose resolution was another factor that contributed to the emergence of RPS not long thereafter.
The controversy was should a serious person who favors a Sanders style program or even further left aims, and who views Clinton as a war mongering corporate agent, which she certainly was, vote for her anyway to ensure that Trump didn’t win the election? This was called voting for the lesser evil and was applicable only to contested states.
Alternatively, should such a Clinton critic even in a contested state not vote, or vote for a third party candidate who certainly wouldn’t win, as a way to be true to self, to show the scale of dissent, and even to build a third party for future gains, believing either that Trump wasn’t worse, or that opposition would keep Trump in line?
Why was that controversy important for RPS emerging?
My take on this may be idiosyncratic but I don’t think the key was the actual issues and claims that were strenuously debated. For me the lasting heart of the matter was that for decades very few people on the left had taken seriously the idea of actually winning a new society. Left activists gave nearly zero time to thinking about, discussing, and trying to agree about what a good society should contain and what its institutions should look like. Some said this would be a waste of time when urgent battles needed attention, or it was beyond them, or it wasn’t their priority or responsibility, or it wasn’t even appropriate. But I think the main reason was people didn’t believe, deep down, that winning was possible. If a new society was impossible, thinking about the features a new society should have or about a path to reach a new society would be like thinking about a round square.
If you are not going to win, why are you radical? For decades I think the answer was you were radical to be right, to be moral, to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. You were radical as a kind of moral high ground life style. You weren’t’ radical for income, since income for activists was low or non existent. And beyond a young age, you weren’t radical for fun, either. Activism, especially when you weren’t winning, had too much tedium, trouble, and sacrifice, not to mention the possibility of being repressed.
My take was that for decades people became active for short and intense upsurges out of anger and frustration, They hoped for quick gains. They became active for longer durations to feel morally worthy. “Be on the side of the angels,” was a common phrase. It meant be radical, be virtuous, despite that you aren’t going to win. Do it to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. Winning wasn’t in people’s calculations, which is why people’s calculations rarely addressed what would enhance prospects of winning.
So Sanders awakened hope?
Yes, for a great many people Sanders’ unprecedented and completely unanticipated returns undid fatalism about the possibilities of reaching a large audience and galvanizing lasting support. He also showed the fragility of the Democratic Party. He amassed huge support while talking about revolution. Another question arose. Why did so many people on the far left, as compared to folks then just getting involved, dismissively disparage Sanders? I think two factors contributed to that because I don’t think Sanders’ actual choices remotely merited even a fraction of the hostility many felt.
The first factor was a kind of self defense. In just a few short months Sanders and his supporters arguably did more to move the national psyche in positive ways than radical activists had achieved in the prior twenty or thirty years. Of course, many factors contributed and Sanders built on what went before. But people who had been around and active for a long time and who had vested much, had difficulty acknowledging just how much Sanders accomplished. It was less painful to one’s self image to dismiss him, or even to rail at him, than it was to acknowledge his achievements and what they said about left activity in prior years. A very few people acknowledged this, but nonetheless, I think it was quite real.
The second factor was about Sanders’ supporters, particularly the younger ones. When Clinton sewed up the nomination, Sanders didn’t reject her, or even abstain. Instead Sanders supported her, albeit without much enthusiasm. He made clear his goal was to stop the neo-fascist Trump. He kept emphasizing the need to organize more broadly on behalf of what he called a political revolution, and he even worked toward building an organization to that end, but for many of his supporters, spurred on by quite a few more experienced writers and activists who certainly should have known better, it smelled like nothing but sellout.
They couldn’t abide Sanders saying folks should vote for who he had run against, for who had used media and Democratic Party rules to defend the system against his onslaught. Many of his supporters were a bit like slighted lovers. They felt vindictive. Many did not even contemplate that maybe this guy they so loved yesterday hadn’t changed. Maybe his call to beat Trump made good sense in a crappy context as a way to further an agenda they all believed in. Maybe Trump was that bad. And maybe if the left legitimated doing anything other than voting against Trump in contested states, Trump would win. Maybe they ought to pause a minute and think about Sanders’ recommendations. For that matter, I think perhaps the one test Sanders didn’t ace was to more forthrightly and effectively address his own supporters.
Okay, but what was the impact or meaning for RPS?
Heading into the 2016 election, if you were seriously fatalistic about ever winning more than modest gains you were in the habit of not wasting time seriously assessing long term strategic effects. You were accustomed to ask, what is the moral thing to do? What is the radical thing to do? What matches up well with my radical identity? What do I want to do?
You didn’t ask, what increases prospects to win a new society? And with the former type feeling driving choices, the answer for many was, quite naturally and understandably, and quite contrary to other rationales verbally laid on to make it look better, that you should vote for a third party candidate or for no one at all, but not for a war criminal like Clinton, even in contested states that Trump might win.
This was called by its advocates voting your conscience. Advocates felt it was true to self, whereas they said that voting for the lesser evil would be denying self. It was understandable, of course. But mainly, I think in the course of these disputes about voting, two insights that mattered to the initial stages of RPS grew and made headway. They were blunted momentarily when Trump won, only to resurface and become predominant later.
First, came a reassessment of what being true to oneself meant. Why was it more true to oneself to say “I hate both Trump and Clinton so I won’t vote for either one,” than it was to say, “I hate both Trump and Clinton, but I believe Trump would be far worse for many constituencies, and for the whole planet, so I will vote for Clinton wherever it is close enough that Trump might win, just to stop him, though not out of any belief in her”?
Why was downplaying the importance of the effects on others and emphasizing attention to expressing “self” a worthy approach? Why was being driven by one’s personal hate for Clinton more moral than addressing the plight of those who would suffer more under Trump?
Of course there were other factors, not least assessing the impact of different approaches and outcomes on prospects for later organizing. Some emphasized, accurately, that a Trump win would yield more quick activism. Which was predictably true, of course. Others replied that Trump-related activism would focus on preventing rollback of past gains and even on preserving sanity, but not on winning new relations. With Clinton we would have had to actually work harder to generate activism, yes, but it would be forward seeking.
I think the earliest days of RPS heading toward Trump’s defeat in 2020 were perhaps its most important. People managed, against the odds, to help the anti Trump opposition become more than a temporary upsurge seeking only to regain civility and sanity and gain some ameliorative reforms. They took the opposition, or parts of it, at any rate, slowly but inexorably beyond the new social democratic rhetoric of the new Democrats. Beyond the moment, early RPS ratified the idea that politics required moral choices but also ratified that morality requires paying attention to more than one’s own personal feelings.
The slow shift on this issue pushed assessments to become more strategic than reflexive. It highlighted long term effects over short term feelings. It pushed focus beyond oneself and especially one’s current ideological self image. It undermined cynicism about the prospects of winning. It elevated taking responsibility for one’s choices, not striking a pose.
You said another factor was thinking about what was good for future organizing. What was that about?
I think many people gained at that time two key insights and a third set of concerns about future organizing, all of which had powerful repercussions for RPS.
First, we all saw that it was possible to finance a campaign from the grassroots and it was possible to nearly win the Democratic Party nomination, since Sanders did both, and by extension, perhaps even to win the Presidency. After all, had Sanders won the nomination, and we could all see quite plausible ways that could have happened, we all thought he would have severely beaten Trump. So, the idea of running for President to win was back on the table as a conceivable and even promising thing to try. This lesson was imbibed by RPS, which became positive about people running to win, and I think it is fair to say Sanders is as responsible for my now being a Senator as I am responsible for it.
Second, in the debates about voting Clinton versus voting Trump, in addition to getting beyond people’s warranted dislike of Clinton to oppose the greater danger that was Trump, the point was repeatedly made, and finally gained power, that having a Democrat rather than a Republican as President was desirable for organizing purposes and not only to suffer fewer pains. First, a Democrat would be more hampered in repressing opposition. Second, and more substantial, dissent against a Democrat in the White House would be about positive aspirations and seeking new institutions in a new society, whereas dissent against a reactionary in the White House would be about preventing going backwards and rebutting insanity. It would not think about much less seek new institutions. Ironically, it would be dominated by militant Democrats.
Those who din’t vote for Clinton even in contested states, for example, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where a total of 70,000 votes elected Trump, understandably wanted to avoid ratifying the Democratic Party as a vehicle of social change. The wanted to avoid movement energy being coopted. Trump’s election, however, did precisely what they wished to avoid, by elevating Democrats like Warren and others to militant guidance of the opposition, whereas Clinton’s election would have galvanized movement energy against not just Republicans, but also Democrats as a party, and for more basic change.
I remember how evident this was, how unavoidably obvious, but that it took a long time to get across. What made it so evident was that it was happening even while people were discussing it, even before Trump won. Not only was mainstream media constantly over crowded with articles about Trump, so was left media. You could cull from the latter ten, fifteen, and sometimes even twenty different articles a day about what was wrong with Trump and about warding off Trump. On the other hand, the number of articles about systemic problems was modest and the number of articles that even alluded to, much less emphasized, seeking new defining social institutions was nearly none – at least for a time.
When one stared into an abyss of going backward, one quite understandably and quite rightly tried to toe the line against reaction. Nonetheless, some took another step. We saw the need to go forward but also saw it wasn’t matched by achievements. We argued harder for going forward and we started to see the obstacles and started to agitate to overcome them. This fledgling dynamic arguably became RPS.
A more complex matter was the efficacy of developing a third party approach to electoral politics. Of course it would make sense after a switch in the electoral system away from winner take all voting toward proportional power sharing to have a third, fourth, and fifth party. But before then, there was a huge complication. Such a third party, while unable to fully win, could, in closely contested states cause the worser of two main candidates to win. This was evident well before 2016, of course, but made obvious, then.
Some said, let’s not bother with third party politics at all. We should contest only within the Democratic Party. Others said, we have to build a third party because the Democratic Party is a graveyard for progressive aspirations. We need to survive the period during which we can’t win and grow our alternative, however we are able, however slowly, so in time we can win. A compromise position was to support third party development whenever one could do that without ushering in a worse overall context due to victory by a more evil candidate. Without going on too long about this, which was argued endlessly at the time, there was another more subtle side of the issue that also impacted RPS.
Running for office is a very muddy affair. You are, one hopes, trying to be honest, trying to speak to hearts and to minds, trying not to have bad side effects, trying not to undermine other efforts. But the pressures on candidates of trying to do as well as possible become enormous. And the Green Party candidate of 2016, Jill Stein, endured that pressure, and displayed its effects not only in her dismissing a safe state approach which she could have adopted to avoid benefitting Trump at small or no loss and I suspect even at considerable gain for the Green party, but in her becoming more than a little confused or manipulative in saying she was going to win or at the very least make a very good showing despite the obvious fact that she was certainly not going to win or make a good showing. It is that kind of impact on people, almost impossible to ward off, plus the tremendous pressure to minimize everything other than the campaign and then, about the campaign, to focus only on winning votes and raising money, that RPS noticed.
From that RPS took the lesson that it should welcome third party activism, and it should also welcome sincere activism inside the Democratic Party, assuming that each had good values and intents, but it should not itself be a host of and home for electoral efforts. The narrowing and distorting affect on an organization that fields candidates had to be avoided, and, indeed, when I ran for Senator it was as a Democrat even though I of course have never in my life had a single positive thing to say about the heritage of Democratic Party politics, and similarly for a great many others who support RPS and have by now also won office, sometimes as Democrats and sometimes as Greens.
Why did anyone, much less so many people, support Trump before and even after his sexual braggadocio meltdown? When you think about it, Trump being on a path to receive about half the votes cast in 2016 even if he had lost the Presidency certainly didn’t seem like an indicator that in the next 25 years the country would see the incredible outpouring of social activism and shift in mentalities and commitments we have enjoyed. What was the nature of Trump’s initial support – was it not support for his racist misogyny?
During the run up to voting many looked at the situation as you say – what a horrible harbinger of disaster Trump’s support augured even though they thought his support would collapse, due to him, by election day. But others looked and said, hold on a minute, what about the incredible support for Sanders, just months back? That augured incredible potentials. And while Trump’s support is partly about race and gender, isn’t it also very much about working people suffering immeasurably and trying to get change?
Well, whatever one thinks about that face off, I think there was another learning experience aspect of the 2016 election bearing on what possibilities it augured.
Trump was buffoonish and grossly racist and sexist. And he indeed would have ultimately succumbed to those failings when he paraded the latter full tilt, if there was not a perfect storm of factors that gave him his victory. Trump’s utterances even before the worst revelations were really quite disgusting and well beyond familiar sugar coated support for injustice like Clinton and other presidents routinely delivered. And sure, that was some of Trump’s early appeal for some people. Indeed, from my experiences then, and from studies later, It is fair to say that virtually every racist neo-Nazi and otherwise fascistic group in the country supported Trump. So too did many besieged men who felt women making gains meant men taking unjust losses. But that was just a modest part of Trump’s early support. His support that mattered more for what happened in the then future came from disaffected workers. So the important question was why did so many disaffected workers vote for Trump?
Trump was a billionaire. He was known for his horrible treatment of workers. But, he was also the opposite of a typical button-down calculating politician. Most of his votes came from people who felt that his turning everything topsy turvy offered more hope than preserving the aspects of life they found horrifying. These working people had real hatred for their declining circumstances. They were sick of feeling denigrated and denied. They were tired of joblessness and drug torn neighborhoods. And their feelings were warranted. Trump managed to attract a lot of angry workers even though he was, in fact, no working class hero but exactly the opposite.
Okay, but how did he do that?
Partly he scapegoated others and benefitted from myth plus racism and sexism. Partly he lied and manipulated. Partly he benefitted from a media trying to profit, but not communicate honestly. Partly he benefitted from some leftists and Greens creating a climate in which many felt voting for Clinton was a sellout and voting for Stein or not voting at all was a responsible choice. But for our purposes now, I think there is something else to look at.
Years earlier another politician with immeasurably less talent for it, though also considerably less proclivity for disastrous stupidities, had done something pretty similar. It wasn’t yet the age of TV posturing and this other fellow wasn’t remotely the showman Trump was, but Spiro Agnew had also tapped a class anger to galvanize support for the right and hate for the left. He did it by ridiculing and distancing himself from what he called bullet-headed liberal intellectuals – and the word that was key in that was not “liberal,” but “intellectual.”
Agnew tapped justified anger at what were then called professionals but what RPS later called the coordinator class. And Trump did the same thing. Working people felt Trump was one of them, not establishment, and when he got into office, they thought he wouldn’t ignore them, he wouldn’t forget them, he would be their tribune.
This perception of Trump was devoid of reality, as subsequent nasty history showed, but voters’ desperate desires to reverse working class decline were real. And that was why the working class support that Trump surfaced, once organizers and activists got over their tendency to look down on working people and instead listened to them and learned from their desires regarding their deteriorating circumstances, pushed RPS from being isolated from working people to being an expression of working class desires.