Chris Hedges latest article, “Bernie Sanders’ Phantom Movement” has caused quite a stir. Over the last couple of days, several friends have sent me the article and I’ve seen it posted on social media outlets by thousands of people.
Overall, Hedges raises many important points in his essay, and since he is undoubtedly one of the most important and prolific public intellectuals of our time, we should carefully examine his observations and respond accordingly.
To be clear, I don’t expect Chris to respond to my commentary, nor is his response required. I’m not seeking an ongoing debate – I simply hope to add some meaningful reflections to what will undoubtedly be an ongoing debate about how the Left should interact with Sanders’ campaign.
To start, Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric is much different than Barack Obama’s or Jesse Jackson’s, although it should be mentioned that Jackson had much more radical views on American foreign policy, particularly with regard to Palestine. That being said, Sanders’ rhetoric on class issues and the role of the state is much more concrete and progressive than Obama’s superficial slogan of “Hope and Change.”
Now, whether or not Sanders’ rhetoric is adequately radical is a completely different question, and something that Hedges addresses later in his essay. Nonetheless, to say that Sanders’ rhetoric and platform are simply a repeat of Obama’s 2008 campaign is a lazy analysis and factually incorrect.
Furthermore, electoral campaigns accomplish much more than simply “raising political consciousness.” Most importantly, people learn basic organizing and social skills during electoral campaigns, such as how to talk to each other. Yes, we’re living in a time when people have a hard time speaking to each other about serious issues. Additionally, they learn how to speak to the media, write press releases, how to create independent media and properly utilize social media platforms; they learn how to compile contact information (emails, addresses), knock on doors, set up fundraisers and organize neighborhood events. These skills aren’t sexy, but they are essential.
Yes, electoral campaigns “vanish,” but many supporters and volunteers do not. In fact, it is a great myth that Obama’s supporters disappeared after the election. Sure, some of them did, but not all of them. A good portion of organizers jump back and forth between issue-orientated campaigns and electoral campaigns. That was true in 2008 and it’s true today. Moreover, Sanders is actually encouraging people to go beyond issue-orientated campaigns, and to think about the political system as a whole.
Moving along, I think most people on the Left fully understand that the Democratic Party is not the organizational or institutional vehicle through which “the revolution” will come. But does that mean we shouldn’t attempt to organize Democrats? After all, it’s important to keep in mind that many leftists were at one time Democrats, myself included. Thankfully, I had great mentors – scholars, activists, organizers – who steered me in a more radical and principled direction.
However, I would simply add that the Democratic Party is slightly different than the Republican party, and those differences, as many scholars and researchers have pointed out, do make a huge difference in the lives of many poor and working-class people, particularly people of color and women.
Yes, the Democratic Party is a capitalist-imperialist party, yet Democrats at least believe in a limited social safety net, climate change, the right to organize labor unions, science, women’s rights, etc. I know: the bar is low.
But Democrats are not pushing Right to Work/Union-busting legislation, nor are they trying to close Planned Parenthood facilities. To me, those differences are worth noting. The far-Right political parties in Europe (Golden Dawn, UKIP, National Front) do not resemble the Democratic Party, therefore I think it’s quite a stretch to call the Democrats “far-Right.”
In Northwest Indiana, where I live, there aren’t many political organizing options. The United Steel Workers (USW) is the largest union in the area, but they rarely organize local communities, nor do they provide ways for people to plug into the labor movement or broader organizing opportunities. Moreover, the only time someone in the area hears about the USW is when the USW is under attack.
There is a Black Lives Matter group in Gary, Indiana, but they are focused on very specific issues and lack necessary resources. Several environmental organizations exist in The Region, but they too are lacking resources, community support and vision.
In his article, Hedges writes:
Do Sanders’ supporters believe they can wrest power from the Democratic establishment and transform the party? Do they think the forces where real power lies—the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, corporations, the security and surveillance state—can be toppled by a Sanders campaign? Do they think the Democratic Party will allow itself to be ruled by democratic procedures? Do they not accept that with the destruction of organized labor and anti-war, civil rights and progressive movements—a destruction often orchestrated by security organs such as the FBI—the party has lurched so far to the right that it has remade itself into the old Republican Party?”
The answer to all of Hedges’ questions is: absolutely not. On the other hand, do I think Sanders’ campaign is an opportunity to meet like-minded people who hold progressive values in a society that’s completely alienated and superficial? Yes, I do. In addition, it’s an opportunity to build long-lasting relationships and organizations that will hopefully outlast election cycles and specific campaigns.
Hedges should give Sanders’ supporters far more credit. Indeed, most of the people I know who are engaged with the campaign have no illusions: they’ve learned their lesson after being burned by the Democratic Party and the Liberal Establishment. In fact, I’m very pleased to report that a good portion of Sanders’ supporters I’ve met at campaign events are completely dissatisfied with the Democratic Party.
On several occasions, event organizers have asked those in attendance, “Who will vote for Hillary if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination?” More often than not, at least half the room doesn’t raise their hands.
Again, this leads many people, including myself, to assume that Sanders’ campaign is a great organizing opportunity for the Left. Indeed, the major problem right now is organizational, not ideological. There is no organized “Left” because the Left isn’t very good at organizing. It has nothing better to offer. Furthermore, how can the Left organize if the Left doesn’t even know what it wants?
In addition, it would be wise for Hedges to recognize the difference between tactics and strategy. To be clear, civil disobedience is a tactic, not a strategy. The Left talks a lot about tactics, yet spends very little time debating values, vision and strategy. Because they Left doesn’t have coherent values, it doesn’t have a coherent vision, or a coherent strategy for victory.
Over 95% of the articles written on leftist websites illustrate how bad things are, not what we could do to change those things, let alone what we might actually want. Everyone on the Left knows that we’re doomed with Republicans and Democrats, but what’s the next step? That’s the critical question.
As far as Henry Wallace and George McGovern are concerned, Hedges should fully understand why they were able to take a much more anti-militarist position than Sanders: namely, because there was an active and vibrant antiwar movement during their respective eras. Today, no such movement exists, hence the best we get is Sanders, someone with decent domestic policies, but whose foreign policy isn’t much different than Barack Obama’s.
What leftist would disagree with Hedges’ critique of Sanders’ support for the Military Industrial Complex and U.S. Empire? Undoubtedly, Sanders’ supporters should relentlessly critique him on those issues.
Speaking of political movements, it should also be noted that Sanders’ campaign is a direct result of previous progressive movements. In other words, without Ralph Nader, the Great Financial Collapse of 2008, the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011, and the Occupy Movement of 2012, I would argue that Sanders’ campaign wouldn’t exist.
Unfortunately, Hedges’ observations about the Green Party mirror my own experiences with the party. In some ways, Hedges is making my point for me: since the Left is largely disorganized, people will seek traditional outlets, such as the Democratic Party, even if those outlets are insufficiently progressive in nature.
Here’s the main question for Hedges and the broader Left: can leftists use the energy of the Sanders campaign to build independent political organizations? The Socialist Alternative (SA) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are building their organizations via the Sanders campaign, but are there other possibilities?
Another striking contradiction is the fact that virtually every major labor union supports Clinton over Sanders. For instance, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has endorsed Clinton, but has also played a vital role in creating arguably the most important economic rights movement in the country – the Fight for $15. The ultimate irony is that if Sanders loses to Clinton, it will be because of organized labor and African American voters (as was the case in Chicago during the mayoral campaign between Rahm Emanuel and Chuy Garcia), which says much more about the state of the Left than Bernie’s policy positions.
Without doubt, a lot of smart and talented organizers are working on Sanders’ campaign. It would be useful to challenge these folks. The Left can do so, but only by approaching these activists and organizers with respect, not by mocking or dismissing their efforts.
If the Left consistently isolates itself during election cycles, or sits on the sidelines, making armchair critiques, while offering very limited alternatives like voting for the Green Party/Jill Stein, how can we expect people to become radicalized? Moreover, why should people even pay attention to us?
Leftists can formulate devastating critiques, but we can’t organize for shit. And that is the Left’s primary dilemma: the inability to provide alternatives to the dominant political parties and institutions of our time. When people are exposed to the Left, they are often turned-off by the experience. Until the Left can provide serious alternatives, we’ll be relegated to the sidelines.
In the end, the Left should spend more time looking in the mirror, and less time critiquing liberals.
To quote a friend, “It’s not that the Left can’t see the forest through the trees, it’s that the Left can’t even see the damn trees!”
Vincent Emanuele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org