This is chapter Four of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. It is available via Amazon, if you would like your own copy. In the fourth chapter Senator Malcolm King discusses the 2016 Election.
Malcolm, I know it was a quarter century ago, but it was right before RPS got going so before we address RPS history, can we consider the 2016 Elections? For example, what role did they play in RPS emerging?
Twenty five years ago Bernie Sanders ran for President as a Democrat. His speeches, writing, and platform leaned toward what would become RPS positions. He got tens of millions of voters to hope more ambitiously than in the past and his campaign gave tens of thousands confidence defending dissident views. It taught going door to door, phone banking, raising funds, conducting meetings, and working together.
During the campaign, Sanders’ team turned out huge, passionate crowds. Clinton’s machine used rules that had earlier been added to U.S. election law precisely to marginalize dissidents.
Getting the nomination was supposed to be a Clinton cakewalk but Sanders so bested her among young voters and independents that he won many primaries. Clinton won overall because the Democratic Party stacked everything in her favor, as well as because minority, and especially Black voters supported her, a strange dynamic that befuddled many.
I have wondered about that. Can you explain it?
The Clintons had a reputation for personally treating Blacks as equals, Hillary was rhetorically good at addressing personal race relations, and the Democratic party apparatus, with all its benefits to hand out, played a big role. Grassroots ignorance of Sanders, largely due to media mendacity, also contributed. Still, Sanders’ positions were clearly better for Black and Latino advancement, and lots of young Black and Latino voters knew it, and some older folks did too. Yet Clinton won and I suspect the Black community voted for her over Sanders mainly fearing that in a general election Sanders would suffer media assault plus red baiting defection by Democratic Party elites allowing Trump and other extremist Republicans to win.
At any rate, with Black support in hand, and the media and Democratic Party torpedoing Sanders at every turn, Clinton got the nomination. Should a serious person who viewed Clinton as a war mongering corporate shill vote for her anyway to ensure that Trump didn’t win the election? Doing so was called voting for the lesser evil and was applicable only to contested states. Alternatively, should a Clinton critic, even in a contested state, abstain or vote for a third party candidate to be true to self, to show the scale of dissent, and to build a third party, believing that Trump would lose anyhow or wasn’t worse, or that opposition would keep Trump in line?
Why did that choice matter for RPS emerging?
For decades few activists had taken seriously winning a new society. We gave nearly zero time to thinking about what a good society’s institutions should look like. Some said thinking about vision would distract from more immediate concerns. Others said vision was beyond us, or vision wasn’t our responsibility. But I think we mainly avoided vision because we didn’t believe winning was possible. If a new society was impossible, thinking about the features of a new society or about how to reach a new society, would be like thinking about a round square. If you can’t win, why try? But in that case, why are you radical?
We weren’t radical for income, since income for activism was low or nonexistent. We weren’t radical for fun, since activism had too much tedium, trouble, and sacrifice, to be fun. For decades I think we had been radical to be right, to be moral, to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror. We were radical as a moral high ground lifestyle. We were radical to express rather than bottle up outrage. We sniped at power never even thinking about taking power.
For decades angry, frustrated people had become active for short upsurges seeking quick victories. Or patient people became active for longer durations, to “be on the side of the angels.” For them, “Be radical” meant “be virtuous, despite that you aren’t going to win.” Do it to respect yourself. They weren’t trying to enhance prospects of winning unattainable fundamental change.
And Sanders awakened hope?
Yes, Sanders’ accomplishments legitimated reaching a large audience and galvanizing lasting support. Sanders also revealed the Democratic Party’s fragility. He amassed huge support while talking about revolution.
But then why did many people on the far left, as compared to folks then just getting involved, dismiss and disparage Sanders?
In just a few months Sanders and his supporters arguably did more to move the national psyche than radical activists had done in the prior twenty years. Of course, Sanders built on what went before, but people who had been active for a long time had difficulty acknowledging just how much Sanders accomplished. It was less painful to one’s self image to dismiss him than to acknowledge his achievements and what they implied about our prior activity.
The second factor was when Clinton sewed up the nomination Sanders supported her, albeit unenthusiastically. He emphasized stopping Trump. He also kept highlighting the need to organize on behalf of a political revolution, and he even worked toward building an organization called Our Revolution. Yet to many of his supporters – spurred on by some writers who should have known better – it smelled like a sellout. These folks didn’t contemplate that maybe the guy they had loved yesterday hadn’t changed. Maybe beating Trump was necessary to further an agenda they all believed in. Maybe if the left did other than vote against Trump in contested states, Trump would win.
Okay, but what was the impact for RPS?
Heading into the 2016 election, if you were fatalistic about winning more than modest gains you were accustomed to ask, what is the moral thing to do? What is the radical thing to do? What fits my radical identity?
Many answered, “even in my contested state I want to vote for a third party candidate or for no one at all, and I will not vote for a war criminal like Clinton.” This was called voting your conscience. Its advocates said it was true to themselves, whereas voting for the lesser evil would deny themselves.
But why did that matter for the initial stages of RPS.
First we reassessed what being true to yourself meant. Why was it more true to yourself 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 way worse, so I will vote for Clinton wherever it is close enough that Trump might win, to stop him, not out of any belief in her”?
Second, we wondered why downplaying the importance of the effects on others and emphasizing attention to expressing “self” was admirable at all? Why was being driven by one’s personal hate for Clinton more moral than addressing the plight of those who would suffer greatly under Trump?
Other factors also played a role, for example, assessing the impact of different approaches on prospects for later organizing. Opponents of voting the lesser evil in contested states emphasized, accurately, that a Trump win would accelerate immediate activism. Proponents of lesser evil voting replied, accurately, that anti-Trump activism would focus on preventing rollback and ignore winning new gains. With Clinton as President, we would have to work harder to generate activism, but it would be forward seeking.
In the earliest days of RPS, heading toward Trump’s defeat in 2020, future RPSers managed to help the anti-Trump opposition become more than a temporary upsurge. We took resistance beyond the social democratic rhetoric of progressive Democrats. We ratified the idea that politics required moral choices, but also that morality required paying attention to more than one’s own personal feelings. This pushed us to highlight long-term effects over short-term feelings. We had to assess beyond ourselves. We had to take responsibility for our choices rather than striking a pose.
What did thinking about what was good for future organizing involve?
First, we saw it was possible to finance a campaign from the grassroots, to win the Democratic Party nomination, and even to win the Presidency. After all, had Sanders won the nomination, and we all saw quite plausible ways that could have happened, we all thought he would have trumped Trump. So, the idea of running for President to win was back on the table as a conceivable, and even promising, future possibility. 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 much responsible for my now being a Senator as I am responsible for it.
Second, in the debates about voting for Clinton versus voting for Trump, the point was repeatedly made that having a Democrat rather than a Republican as President was better for organizing. A Democrat would be more hampered in repressing opposition. Also, dissent against a Democrat would pursue positive aspirations and seek new institutions in a new society, whereas dissent against a reactionary would be about rebutting insanity to prevent going backwards. Dissent against Clinton would be against Democrats whereas dissent against Trump would be led by Democrats.
Railing against Clinton reduced opposing Democrats?
Those who didn’t vote for Clinton even in contested states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where 70,000 votes gave Trump the presidency, understandably wanted to avoid ratifying the Democratic Party as a vehicle of social change. They wanted to avoid movement energy being co-opted to Democratic Party agendas. Trump’s election, however, elevated Democrats to militant guidance of the opposition, whereas Clinton’s election would have galvanized movement energy against Democrats and toward more basic change.
Yes, but I remember how evident it was, how unavoidably obvious, though 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 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. 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 institutions was nearly none. When activists stared into the Trumpist abyss, we rightly tried to toe the line against going backward. Some of us also saw the need to go forward and saw the obstacles and started to agitate to overcome them. That fledgling dynamic became RPS.
A more complex matter was the efficacy of developing a third party approach to electoral politics. Of course it would make sense to have a third, fourth, and fifth party after a switch in the electoral system away from winner take all voting toward proportional power sharing. But before attaining proportional representation and related innovations, a third party 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 was made blatantly obvious in 2016.
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 radical aspirations. We need to survive the period during which we can’t win by growing our alternative so in time we can win. A compromise position was to support third party development whenever one could do so without ushering in a grossly more evil candidate.
Running for office is complicated. You try to speak to hearts and mind. You try to avoid bad side effects. You try to support other activist efforts. But the pressures on candidates to minimize everything other than their own campaign and to focus only on winning votes and raising money become enormous. RPS learned to welcome third party activism and also sincere activism inside the Democratic Party, but to avoid the distorting effects of itself fielding candidates.
Why did so many people support Trump before and even after his sexual braggadocio meltdown? What was the nature of Trump’s initial support – was it not support for his racist misogyny?
Many looked at the situation as you say. But others looked and said, hold on a minute, what about the massive support for Sanders, just months back? And while Trump’s support is partly about race and gender, isn’t it also about working people suffering immeasurably and trying to get change?
Trump was buffoonish and grossly racist and sexist. Trump’s utterances were not only disgusting but also well beyond familiar, sugarcoated support for injustice of the sort that Clinton and all past presidents routinely delivered. And, yes, virtually every racist, neo-Nazi group in the country supported Trump. And so did many besieged men who felt women’s gains imposed unjust losses on them. So that was one part of Trump’s support. But what mattered more for what happened later came from economically disaffected workers. So the important question was why did so many economically disaffected workers vote for Trump? Saying he had more upper income support was true, but it was his worker support we had to understand.
Trump was a billionaire. He was known for his horrible treatment of workers. But, he was also the opposite of a typical calculating politician. Many of his votes came from people who felt that Trump turning everything topsy turvy offered more hope than Clinton preserving what they found horrifying. Working people hated their declining circumstances. They hated feeling denigrated and denied. They hated joblessness and drug-ravaged neighborhoods. And Trump managed to attract a lot of justifiably angry workers even though he was, in fact, no working class hero but exactly the opposite.
Okay, but how?
Partly he scapegoated others. Partly he lied and manipulated. Partly he benefitted from mainstream media trying to profit by keeping him a big story. Partly he benefitted from some leftists and Greens saying voting for Clinton was a sellout and voting for Stein or not voting at all, even in contested states, was wise. But I think a different factor was decisive.
Decades earlier, Spiro Agnew had also tapped into class anger to galvanize support for the right. He did it by ridiculing and distancing himself from what he called bullet-headed liberal intellectuals – and the key word was not “liberal,” but “intellectual.”
Agnew tapped into 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 rather than establishment. When he got into office, they thought he wouldn’t ignore them and might even be their tribune.
This perception of Trump overlooked reality, but voters’ desperate desires to reverse working class decline were real. And that was why the working class support that Trump surfaced, once radical organizers 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 expressing working class desires.
Did Sanders’ campaign impact your later becoming a candidate?
After college, I was very radical and not interested in pursuing a lucrative career disconnected from people’s needs. I got an assembly job and then worked as a short order cook. My focus was organizing my workmates and trying to get involved in worker-based community organizing. I was very anti war and very angered by ecological concerns. I detested electoral politics but Sanders got me to see that as rigged, alienated, corrupt, and mindless as the electoral system was, it had room to fight, and even to win. Sanders got me thinking about elections being part of winning major change.
I saw that among many routes to contributing to change, due to my history and circumstances, I was most likely to have electoral impact. I think many folks came away from 2016 with that thought, and while our hope was temporarily obliterated in a haze of recriminations and fears when Trump won, it quickly resurfaced. Of course not all who were inspired to run for office succeeded, but many are now in office, doing excellent work. If Sanders were here, I would thank him profusely.
There was another factor for me. My working class background and especially my time as an assembly worker and short order cook taught me just how hard it was to not explode at customers in suits and ties using erudite language who so clearly looked down on you, or who didn’t even do that since, to them you were less consequential than a five minute delayed dinner.
Agnew had exploited justified working class anger long before, and now Trump did the same thing. The anger often embraced racism, sexism, and a kind of macho defense of an impoverished situation, but I avoided that path, though I understood it and I could empathize with it enough to talk to folks without being hostile. I could hear their misery and frustration and convey to them meaningful hope and program.
I took workers’ views and desires seriously because I felt much of what they felt. I could also talk to coordinator class types. I didn’t pretend to like where they were coming from. I didn’t condescend to, suck up to, or manipulate them. I challenged their harmful views even while clearly understanding their motives and rationales.
I wonder whether Obama’ victory affected you.
Of course, though neither he, his program, or his administration informed my beliefs based on anything they said or did. Quite the opposite. I was a harsh critic. But in 2008 I was 23, black, working class, just out of college and working on an assembly line. My politics were instinctual, not RPSish. I did not become liberal due to being ecstatic to see Obama win, but his victory did show me the country could rally around a black man. I think it is possible that had Obama lost, I would never have become a candidate. Sanders’ affect on me may have been less than enough, had not Obama earlier affected me.
Did any technical, organizing-related issues emerge?
Yes. In Massachusetts, Sanders had roughly 120,000 people volunteering. He got about 600,000 votes. How many of the 600,000 would have voted for Sanders if he had had no one making phone calls and going door to door? 400,000? 500,000? Let’s suppose only 300,000. If so, then 120,000 volunteers contributing many hundreds of thousands of hours of effort, attracted 300,000 votes. In this generous accounting, on average, each volunteer added 2.5 votes.
The question arose, was their time well spent? Were they talking to prospective voters in the most useful ways? Couldn’t a volunteer, in ten, twenty, or more hours over a few months enlist more voters than that? We are talking about Sanders volunteers talking to future Trump or Clinton voters and winning them over. The time Sanders volunteers spent chatting with people who were already going to vote for Sanders because of his talks, views, ads, or whatever, wouldn’t win new converts, though it might certainly have other virtues. There was a lot to think about in all this for future campaigns. How could we more effectively address confusion among potential voters, and, even more, how could we better address doubt and despair.