In the U.S., I think the two mainstream parties are actually two branches of one corporate party. Likewise, I think our electoral process is an autocratic auction. Our media coverage coopts the electorate into meaningless posturing and personality clashes. And our candidates’ needs for money and media typically generate maximal manipulation, mindlessness, and theatrics. To call American presidential elections quadrennial extravaganzas, as Chomsky does, is therefore remarkably restrained.
In the half century since I reached voting age, for the above reasons election details have always pretty much bored me. I felt I had better things to do than rummage amongst the detritus of elite rule. Indeed, if 2016 were a typical election I would right now be more interested in reading news of the Golden State Warriors last game, or a review of a new movie, or reports of the Alphago computer versus the world champion Go player, than reading about primary vote tallies.
But while I believe the damning faults of U.S. elections are deeply rooted, I also recognize there could be an exceptional case, and in 2016 I believe we have encountered something new, so I have aggressively supported Bernie Sanders. Indeed, each new primary day I have been nervously hopeful of incredible results for Sanders. I have also eagerly examined weekly poll results and proactively written many articles that I hoped would positively affect Sanders’ campaign.
Friends have warned me that Sanders does not favor the vision of a new society I favor. And that is true. They have admonished me that surely Sanders does not match your idea of the perfect candidate. Also true. They have echoed to me my own views on election season cooptation and on U.S. political parties being servants of elites. Again true. In some cases, they have even offered criticisms of Sanders as not meeting their notions of abstract perfection. But all of their observations have had zero impact on my supporting Sanders. Viewing the unfolding election in terms of whether my own beliefs were being closely enunciated by a candidate made no sense to me. Nor have general critiques that are posed as always applicable, but without reason. Worse, taking snide shots at Sanders or, even worse, at his supporters – I haven’t understood at all. And here is why I have supported Sanders.
1. The Sanders campaign has been enlarging support for progressive programmatic ideas on economic inequality, finance reform, election policy, courts, police, global warming, racist fear mongering, and much more. This, in turn, has given already progressive people hope and inspiration and has prodded people who are not yet progressive to reconsider many views.
2. The outreach and organizing that has gone into knocking on doors, using phone banks, and hosting rallies has additionally given volunteers valuable experience laying groundwork that could support more activity in the future.
3. Suppose Clinton wins the nomination (as seems likely after Ohio). And suppose the Sanders campaign doesn’t produce any lasting organization for activism. Even with these worst case outcomes, the campaign would have illuminated a major reservoir of insight, desire, and hope. Left pundits say campaigns end in defeats at which time everyone goes home leaving no lasting impact. But why shouldn’t a left that has significant communicative skill and interpersonal empathy galvanize the uncovered reservoir of insight, desire, and hope even if it has to do so without Sanders? In other words, those on the left who say elections always end in demoralization and decline and who think that in making that observation they are criticizing only the candidates, their campaigns, and the underlying electoral system are wrong. They are also criticizing themselves. Yes, Jesse Jackson disbanding the Rainbow Coalition he founded and Barack Obama doing likewise to the massive volunteer apparatus he built and similar choices by McCarthy and Nader were instances of campaign energy and potential being diminished and even demolished largely due to a candidate’s preference. But to stop at that point when thinking about campaign dissolution fails to see that we on the left did no better to enlarge momentum, build organization, and pursue goals than did the candidates themselves, and, unlike them, it was our agenda. More, I would have to say that people saying that decline and dissolution must happen are a significant part of why decline and dissolution does happen. Demobilization involves demobilizers.
4. Suppose instead, that against all odds, Sanders wins the nomination and becomes president. Even with Sanders’ current positions regarding education, health, banking, electoral participation, income distribution, immigration, law, climate change, and, yes, international relations, and even without preserving the momentum of the campaign in lasting grassroots organization and activism, a Sanders victory would clearly have major benefits for deserving constituencies well beyond being a lesser evil.
The above four points, which could be enlarged, were enough for me but don’t seem to convince many other leftists who complain that Sanders isn’t really socialist, or that he hasn’t come out more positively on this or that favorite issue of theirs, or that they don’t see what his touting of revolution actually means. I wonder, are these critics somehow affronted by or do they discount that Sanders has taken the word socialism and made it possible to use in public, blunting the capacity of the right to use the label to dismiss opposition, as if that is no achievement at all? Does Sanders’ program falling short of their optimal desires negate for them that his program is broader and richer in almost all respects not only than those of other candidates – a minimal achievement – but than the program of any group or organization in the U.S. with even remotely as much outreach to the public? And do they think vagueness about the word revolution outweighs giving the word a degree of public legitimacy as well as clearly calling for sustained grassroots activist commitment? Whatever they have been thinking, to go forward it is useful to ask what Sanders might now do that would turn his left detractors into energetic supporters.
Here are some things. And I propose that rather than taking dismissive shots at Sanders, and especially at his supporters (which latter activity I find to be a vile and self destructive pastime), we should be exploring possibilities like the following:
1. Sanders could, I think, address war spending. He could educate about foreign policy to push national debate into yet another positive direction as well as to lay seeds for continuing dissent and positive activist program in the future.
For example, Sanders could say that our war spending typically generates weapons that are never used, or, even worse, that are immorally employed throughout the world. Less obvious, Sanders could say our spending is so vast that it obstructs all manner of needed social spending. And additionally, Sanders could emphasize that obstructing social spending is not some minor unintended by-product of “defense,” but that it is to a large degree the motivation behind war spending in the first place. He could explain, that is, that our military spending is mainly a way to generate profits for the rich and powerful without at the same time empowering the broader population. He could explain that that is why billion dollar boondoggles and weapons systems that will never be used, that couldn’t be used, or that wouldn’t even work, nonetheless make very good sense from the perspective of power and wealth.
Those points are far from obvious, so Sanders could usefully carefully explain that the difference between spending on education, health care, infrastructure, and energy retooling, and, instead, spending on researching, designing, deploying, and using weapons – is the difference between spending to improve the circumstances of most people and thereby reduce income and power differentials, and spending to enrich war-entwined corporations without – and this is the key point – benefiting the poor and powerless which would reduce the dominance of the rich and powerful. With this approach, Sanders would highlight a truly disgusting fact about our society which is that the reason so much of U.S. productive capacity goes to useless or horribly destructive ends is, amazingly and instructively, precisely to use U.S. productive capacity without serving socially useful ends. This is not sadism, though the results are sadistic. It is billionaires protecting the conditions that give them billions. Similarly, the reason soldiers get state of the art weaponry and training to fight overseas, but then come home and have to sleep in the streets beneath cardboard roofs due to decrepit public services is, again, not sadism, though the results are sadistic. No, it is again billionaires protecting the conditions that give them billions.
2. Sanders could also usefully propose more concretely what his political revolution means, and particularly what kinds of steps might be taken to help promote it occurring.
Sanders routinely tells audiences that if elected he cannot deliver on his promises without their angry, demonstrative, activist support. He has made very clear that political change which empowers the population by making the election process one person one vote and by making funding public is essential, but that his agenda would also need the public to take advantage of such new conditions and to also act on their desires in the streets. As positive as this formulation of a “political revolution” is, calling it vague is also technically true. So I think Sanders might usefully explain very specific forms of public funding and election vote tallying he would like to implement, but also introduce the logic of having plebiscites between elections to overcome how the government routinely pursues policies the population opposes. I also think Sanders could usefully talk about media, in this and in many contexts, and offer proposals for grassroots inclusion, perhaps again via public funding, as well as grassroots oversight. And regarding his calls for continued popular participation in seeking change, I think Sanders could usefully give some time to explaining how activism in the streets wins demands, including clarifying why and how a massive, self conscious, and well organized grassroots movement could aid a receptive President Sanders seeking innovative changes or could compel a repressive President Clinton to enact changes she would otherwise try to obstruct.
3. The biggest left concern about any relatively large campaign ought to be, not only can it possibly win or at least change the terms of the national debate and arouse desires that demand action, but will it leave in place circumstances conducive to winning more gains, later.
As an extension of the above point about political revolution, Sanders could talk about how his volunteers and supporters might form grassroots organizations where they live and work. He could enunciate what he would like to do to help their efforts, as well as registering his desire to hear from them what they need.
Unlike many leftists who think Sanders should not support Clinton against, Trump or Cruz, and who voice outrage at his commitment to do so, if it comes to that, I find his inclination to do that perfectly reasonable. Between a lunatic right win zealot or a lying bully and someone we would actually like there is a whole lot of room for a lesser evil who is so much lesser that it would be absolutely critical that she be elected. One can urge that and even help that happen, without compromising, or undercutting, or sullying one’s broader aims, and without ratifying anything about that lesser evil other than that, well, she is less evil.
However, when Sanders talks about what he favors for later, it would be nice to hear that his campaign is only a beginning, and while he hopes it will continue with him as the nominee, and then with him as president, if the vagaries of vapid, celebrity-oriented, system supporting media plus massive corporate opposition and, yes, a whole lot of public confusion sidetrack those hopes, to would be nice to hear him say it will in his view be only a momentary setback and that the struggle for change will, of course, have to continue. And it would be wonderful to also hear him say that he wants the grassroots organization that emerges when his volunteers and supporters create neighborhood and workplace meetings to enlarge and become more generally active in local and national campaigns, using their outreach abilities to fight for change beyond a convention, and beyond even an election, as the locus of a growing people’s movement.
If it comes to Clinton running against a right wing maniac, I would think Sanders can have two critically important aims. First, to fight for a platform and associated ideas and rhetoric that will move discussion and policy commitments leftward and contest Republicans not only for female, Latino, and Black votes, as Clinton will certainly emphasize, but also for white working class votes, which she may not attend to which absence would have lasting horrible repercussions. And second, to create new and lasting organization and commitment that will later fight for greater change, including against a Clinton administration.
If it comes to Sanders running against a right wing maniac, Sanders will have to try to win, of course, but, also, again, work to push forward lasting grassroots organization so his immediate program can be enacted, and so new program can bubble up from and take or push things much further.
And what might be possible programmatic aims of such undertakings? That is something highly worth exploring, debating, and coming to agreement about. My own views on it will follow in a second essay.