The first response to be made to the question posed above is the obvious one: the overwhelming responsibility for the Trump presidency lies with the Democratic Party. It was the Democratic Party, or more precisely, the elites in control of it, who engineered the nomination of a candidate widely and justifiable detested for her role in implementing policies which destroyed the lives of countless millions here and abroad. And it was the same elites who undermined the candidacy of Sanders, whose calm, informed, and articulate advocacy for the 99% would have been the perfect foil for, and, according to all available evidence, would have competed much more effectively against, the deranged billionaire who is currently plunging us into a new dark age.
But, as any child or parent knows, the fact that the primary responsibility lies with one person does not mean there is no more blame to go around.
And while some will lose their temper when it is suggested to them, it is apparent to anyone who followed politics over the past few months that the left, or at least significant elements of the left, needs to accept its share.
Did the Left Oppose Trump?
That might seem paradoxical. If the left is to blame, that must mean that it did not actively oppose what was possibly the most dangerously reactionary presidential candidacy in the nation’s history. But that many leftists either recommended or condoned not voting in swing states where the outcome of the election was decided is abundantly clear to those of us who attempted to argue against them. Not only did we encounter intense resistance from many quarters, even highly respected leftists urging opposition to Trump were ridiculed as “Clinton supporters” and “Democratic Party hacks” for doing so.
Furthermore, as was also apparent, some leftists went beyond failing to oppose Trump. Some actively endorsed him as preferable to Clinton.
Included among those who did was Rosa Brooks who took to the mainstream journal Foreign Policy to argue for Trump as “a peace candidate.” Others making the anti-interventionist case for Trump included Consortium News’s Robert Parry as well as veteran left journalist John Pilger, longtime critic of U.S. militarism William Blum, and physicist Jean Bricmont. A second category of left Trump endorsements derived from those who took on faith Trump’s populist pseudo left rhetoric. Among those doing so was well known economist Michael Hudson who predicted that Trump would initiate a “class war of Wall Street and the corporate sector of the Democratic side against Trump on the populist side . . . tak[ing] on Wall Street, reinstat[ing] Glass-Steagall [and] put[ting] American labor back to work on infrastructure.” An even more forthright endorsement came from Walker Bragman in Salon, whose “Liberal Case for Trump” notes that Trump, having been “consistently to the left of Clinton on trade [and] medical marijuana,” could reasonably be expected to “run to Clinton’s left on the economy.” Also conferring credibility on Trump as a stealth progressive was Vijay Prashad who held out the possibility that Trump would appoint Bernie Sanders Commerce Secretary.
Left Trump endorsements were generally arrived at from cherry picking a few superficially reasonable positions from the stew of contradictions, incoherence, and lies which was the Trump campaign. But even the most charitable assessment could not have failed to notice that the bulk of what Trump was offering was simply abhorrent. When the worst could not be ignored, Trump’s most retrograde and frightening statements did not serve as a warning. Rather they were deployed within a jiu jitsu that turned them back on Clintonite neoliberalism and the Democratic Party. Thus, Trump’s policies on immigration were inevitably counterposed to Obama’s two million deportations. Trump’s global warming denialism was counterpoised to Clinton’s having sold fracking as Secretary of State and Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy. Trump’s connections to racist hate groups would be dismissed with a reference to the Clintons’ role in fomenting the Superpredator myth and in the mass incarceration policies of the 90s.
These comparisons would form the basis of the widely shared sentiment among the left that it “was under no obligation to support Hillary Clinton,” the title of a statement circulated by 74 members of the Democratic Socialists of America published in In These Times. Along similar lines, Political Scientist Alex Gourevitch accuses Clinton of having failed in her “responsibility for making [her] case to [the] citizens.” Insofar as that is so, “we have no responsibility to vote for them,” according to Gourevitch. In highlighting the concept of obligations and responsibility, the DSA members and Gourevitch performed a useful service, though not that which they evidently intended. By pointing to the uncontroversial fact of Clinton shirking her responsibility they were, consciously or not, shining a light on their own. As noted above, just because X is mainly responsible does not imply that Y is not. The gap in logic is plenty familiar to any parent: “It was all Jimmy, Billy or Hillary’s fault. Don’t blame me.”
We wouldn’t accept that excuse from our own children and we shouldn’t accept it from ourselves either, particularly when the consequences may have been the end of the capacity of the planet to sustain our species.
Anti-Bernie Bernie or Busters . . . for Trump?
Whether they would express it by voting for Trump, a third party candidate or not voting at all, those pledging to withhold support from Clinton would join what would become known as the Bernie or Bust movement. Their membership in it, however, was problematic in an important respect: Bernie or Busters were former Sanders supporters who were retaliating against a primary process manipulated by party elites to insure the victory of its pre-selected neoliberal candidate. Many of those opposing Clinton, on the other hand, were not Bernieites at all in that they had opposed Sanders from the beginning.
Among those with a longstanding hostility was the familiar alphabet soup of Maoist, Leninist and Trotskyite sects for whom Sanders’s brand of socialism was fundamentally fraudulent. Granting themselves the exclusive right to define who is and who is not a socialist, Sanders would be rejected by them on this no true Scotsman basis. Also in the anti-Sanders camp were Greens who, correctly or incorrectly, assessed that Sanders’s success within the Democratic Party posed an existential threat to their brand as the 3rd party alternative to the Democrats. Their preferred denigration of Sanders was as a “sheepdog” doing the bidding of the party elites by herding the left back into the fold. The notion, predicated on the assumption that Clinton and the Democratic Party actively welcomed Sanders’s attacks on Clinton’s service to Wall Street, her longstanding support for jobs destroying trade agreements, her failure to support a $15 minimum wage and her voting for bankruptcy reform, by now hardly passes the laugh test.
Other attacks emanated from high traffic websites such as Counterpunch which ridiculed “St. Bernard” and his cult of Sandernistas often recycling the David Brock manufactured epithet, the now notorious Berniebro smear. Somewhat more substantive was the moral witness critique of leftists such as Chris Hedges and David Swanson who denounced Sanders’ failure to advance a sufficiently forceful repudiation of U.S. imperialism and militarism. Stripped of its unctuous sanctimony what their position reduced to was the familiar “the lesser evil is still evil” posture. This was accompanied by the unspoken moral sanction that those supporting Sanders were participating in evil. Whatever its academic or ethical merits, highly questionable as noted here, it now seems rather incredible that a lesser evil defense was required of the most substantive and effective challenge to neoliberalism ever to have assumed a viable organizational form.
As we know now, and was apparent then, by previously working to remove Sanders from the field, anti-Sanders leftists were helping to eliminate the candidate who would offer the strongest competition to Trump. Sanders, after all, based his candidacy and indeed his entire political career on opposition to the greed, immorality, and shamelessness of the billionaire class — a fact reflected in polls showing him doing far better than Clinton in a head to head match-up with Trump. By advocating opposition to Sanders in the primary, those on the left doing so made a de facto investment in a Trump presidency, one which they would double down on by supporting Bernie or Bust following Sanders’s defeat.
Ends and Means
The problematic status of anti-Sanders forces in the Bernie or Bust coalition raised an additional question. The primary reason for the Bernie or Bust rejection of Clinton was her central role in advancing regressive neoliberal policies. But for the anti-Sanders Bernie or Busters this could not have been the reason. They had, after all, rejected Sanders candidacy, one which was at its core based on a fundamental rejection of neoliberal premises, on taxation, education, Wall Street bailouts, Social Security and on virtually every major issue. If they were not trying to advance the movement to challenge neoliberal austerity by restoring a significant government role in regulation and social welfare what were they trying to achieve by their opposition to both Sanders and Clinton?
Part of the answer, provided in a recent Counterpunch piece by Andrew Levine, was that they were not attempting to achieve any tangential benefits for the traditional working class constituency of the left. Rather their immediate objective was purely political, namely, according to Levine, to create mass defections from the Democratic Party with the main beneficiary being the Green Party and its standard bearer Jill Stein. With sufficient numbers, the Greens could secure a 5% vote total thereby qualifying them for federal campaign funds in subsequent elections.
Of course, the Greens missed the mark by a factor of five and Levine uncategorically (albeit uncharacteristically) admits that he was wrong in suggesting that this goal could be reached. Given that Levine has, apparently, little experience with the Greens, it is understandable that he would fail to recognize that it never had a chance. As Adolph Reed trenchantly noted in his critique of the “if we build it, they will come” theory of politics assumed by Green Party supporters, the Greens have repeatedly demonstrated their lack of political and organizational capacity. Now moving into their fourth decade without a single state level official, a scant 130 local office holders of the nearly 1 million positions potentially available and an almost totally dysfunctional local infrastructure, it was eminently predictable that Stein’s showing would be an embarrassment.
Furthermore, had the mass defections actually materialized, it is a safe bet that no serious or useful activist infrastructure would have resulted from attempts to join what is essentially a Potemkin quadrennial party incapable of maintaining, organizing or mobilizing the energies of those who attempt to enlist and function within it.
Presumably, in the absence of the Greens succeeding, what Levine and others probably had in mind in their attempts to induce mass defections was that even if those exiting the party weren’t able to find a viable organizational structure in the Greens, the pressure for a new party to emerge would eventually develop so that one would have to come into existence. How or when Levine doesn’t say, nor does he provide any indication of being interested in the discussion which others have had on the subject.
A longer term objective was also political in that it involved demonstrating to Democratic elites that their anointed neoliberal candidates would face certain defeat from defections by the party’s left wing. While it is impossible to know how they will respond to Clinton’s defeat, if the past is any guide, they will not take this as any kind of lesson. Defeats of centrist neoliberal candidates Mondale, Kerry and Gore were assumed to have resulted not from their having distanced themselves from the New Deal liberal base of the party, but from having embraced it. That this remains their guiding philosophy is consistent with the name most frequently mentioned as the preferred candidate of party elites, a loyal servant of the Wall Street wing of the party, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Booker’s promotion signals little change other than the recognition that neoliberalism must be invested with a sufficiently multicultural hue to insure requisite turnout from those African American who conspicuously failed to support Clinton.
What this shows is that if neoliberalism is repudiated it will not derive from party elites having had their hand forced by Bernie or Bust or similar threats. Rather it will result from precisely that which the anti-Sanders left opposed, namely the development of the Sanders forces both within the Democratic Party and within the independent organization which Sanders set up to advance his agenda, OurRevolution. By repudiating these efforts, the left functions as an obstacle to progress.
Third Parties: Strategy vs. Tactics
A particular instance where left unity or the absence of it could tip the balance is apparent in the first major test the Sanders bloc is now facing, its attempt to install Keith Ellison as DNC chairman. If it succeeds against the vehement opposition of the party establishment this could lead to the beginnings of a shift in the institutional mechanisms of the Democratic Party. Will it? No one knows. However, the fact that Sanders regards it as promising should not be dismissed. Sanders assembling a network of 13 million supporters blindsided much of the left, but it did not come as that much of a surprise to those who know of his decades-long record of political victories. His having done so is a testimony not only to his longstanding commitment to a progressive program supported by a large majority but, more importantly, his understanding of what is required to build political capacity and political organization. While deference to leadership needs always to be combined with appropriate skepticism, Sanders has provided solid grounds for faith in his political judgements, particularly compared to those of his left critics whose track record of actual accomplishment is underwhelming to put it mildly.
The anti-Sanders left which rejects on principle any attempts to work within the Democratic Party will be necessarily AWOL from this and all subsequent struggles within the DP. They will argue that as one more iteration of the Sheepdog strategy where activist energies are channeled into a party that has served as “the graveyard of social movements,” an obstacle to all but the most superficial political reforms for decades. For them, it can’t be reformed but must be undermined with a new party built on the foundations of the old.
In this they assume that they are advancing a long term strategy, but in doing so, they are making a category mistake. As Michael Lighty of the Nurses Union wisely observed, political parties should not be fetishized as part of a strategy but rather should be seen as a tactical vehicle through which particular objectives can and cannot be achieved. In certain circumstances, pushing for minor party candidates can achieve important gains, forcing concessions from the major parties. In very rare historical circumstances, the potential for a radical reorientation of an existing party structure is possible with an opening provided for a minor party to assume major party status.
Having said that, it should be clear that, for reasons mentioned previously, we are not in one of those periods. There is no third party on the horizon that has even the beginnings of a significant political capacity or organizational structure. To pretend otherwise, as elements of the left do, is to foment an illusion, either out of ignorance or opportunism, one which will impose significant costs on the credibility of the left and on the progress of the movement itself.
Conclusion: Is there a Path Forward?
It will be noticed that the question posed in the title goes unanswered in the above. That is as it should be since it is unknowable whether the combined forces of the anti-Sanders and/or anti-Clinton left have sufficient numbers and sufficient influence on other voters to have made a difference in the three main battleground states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Furthermore, to engage the question is a diversion from the topic which should be on the minds of everyone — probably a large majority of the population — whose sympathies can be defined as “left.” How is it that we have been excluded from participation in the political process by the bipartisan drift towards neoliberalism and what is about the tactics and strategies we have adopted that have insured that our efforts to respond have been so feckless. What we have seen over the past few months, as discussed above, provides many of the reasons why, for those who are able to face up to the facts.
In the weeks following the debacle it has been routine to ignore or dismiss those who have attempted to issue criticisms or even mention how the left conducted itself during the presidential campaign as uselessly settling scores or convening what is reflexively and lazily referred to as “another circular firing squad” on the left. All this more than a little contradictory and disingenuous when it comes from leftists who regard the capacity for issuing “a ruthless criticism of all that exists” to be at the core of their politics, provided, it seems, when it does not apply to themselves.
But worse than that, to fail to ask questions is suicidal.
If any serious opposition to the now dominant reactionary right and the neoliberal center is to emerge, it must be directed towards the most promising paths to political power. If the left refuses to learn from its mistakes it is sure to proceed down yet another dead end, with catastrophic results not just for ourselves but for the species.