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The Bernie Question – We Should Innovate not Debate


A debate is rumbling and appears ready to explode. Both sides have merit. Neither side deserves full support.

The contending positions are:

• Sanders should run outside the Democratic Party or at the very least disavow Clinton saying he won’t vote for her and, implicitly, neither should others, in pursuit of a third party emerging.
• Sanders should try to unite the Democratic Party behind Clinton as a way to stop Trump while also gaining some platform refinements and moving toward a better electoral system.

To choose between these and similar options including refinements of each one needs to know what one seeks beyond the moment. Let’s address just those who want to win lasting gains for less-well-off constituencies while also changing the field of struggle to later generate ever more justice.

The “escape from Clinton and the Democrats” camp says Clinton closely fits the horrible mold of her predecessors. Clinton will unrelentingly oppose any gains Sanders’ supporters have won or will seek to win. She will support Wall Street, attack labor, and expand interventionist international policies beyond their already abysmal state. Her party will serve society’s dominant elites no less than the Republicans would, albeit in some different ways. Her party is barely less autocratic and imperial than the Republicans, albeit better regarding climate change, race, and gender. So how can any sensible, caring person who knows the truth about Hillary Clinton vote for her, much less how can any critic of capital and power do so? Bernie, and the rest of us, are not serious about change unless we escape Clinton and the Democratic party.

The “vote Clinton, unite the democratic party” camp counters that Trump is much worse than Clinton. Trump and the climate-denying gun-toting Party that comes with him could auger the end of humanity. For democracy to matter, voting must matter. Candidates must have merit and accountability. A major party – if not all parties – must be revamped to nurture and empower the broad public, not protect the rich and powerful. Renovate the Democratic Party and election procedures now. How can any sensible, caring person who knows the truth about Trump not vote for and even help Clinton? Critics of capital and power are not serious unless they pay attention to what the population pays attention to, including elections and including taking every opportunity to make campaigning and voting more democratic and honest. Sanders and this supporters aren’t serious unless they help stop Trump, and unless they work to reform the Democratic Party and election procedures.

The “escape Clinton and the Democrats” camp is correct about how bad Clinton and the Democratic party are and what they want to do. They are correct that the odds of aggressively cheerleading evil, or fully enmeshing oneself in the inner machinations of a massive and highly sculpted elite party and simultaneously retaining one’s humanity much less one’s political clarity and activist focus, are slim to none. But they seem to feel they cannot know all that, and yet also want Trump to lose, which includes, in safe states, voting for Clinton and telling others it is important to do likewise. Why is that? Do they really believe that voting for Clinton and telling others to do so while simultaneously saying she is horrific but better than Trump will cause those who do it to become staunch supporters of capital, war, and all that is evil?

And for the “vote Clinton, unite the democratic party” camp, one wonders why they feel one cannot vote Clinton, but only in contested states and holding one’s nose, and why one can’t hope for progress regarding the party and elections and welcome that some people work for it, but also welcome that some other people instead work to develop new structures bearing on and also beyond elections?

There is simply no reason I can see why one cannot have a more nuanced view than does either side of the emerging debate. I think Clinton is a war criminal and domestic enemy of justice many times over. I think the Democratic Party is a machine of elite rule and murderous mayhem. Nonetheless, I also see, rather easily, that if Trump is elected it would be catastrophic for the U.S. and the world. Why can’t every progressive person hold these insights simultaneously? And having done so, why can’t people ask, okay, what choices would beat Trump but also advance a movement for peace, sustainability, and social and economic justice? To say, instead, that we have to either reject voting for Clinton to be radical (or suicidal in the opponent’s view), or we have to vote for Clinton to be relevant (or sell out in the opponent’s view), causes many to choose a side without stopping to realize that the whole debate needs to shift.

If we think about what to do now in light of implications for a post election situation, new possibilities arise.

For one thing, we should acknowledge that our opinions are opinions. To the extent they are rational, they depend on guesses about future possibilities. They are not direct implications of doctrinal social truths or universal values. Each of us should be able to have an opinion and yet acknowledge that perfectly sensible people might differ, as might we ourselves as new situations unfold. And since guesses about the future matter to what makes sense in the present, we should be considering various conceivable election and post election outcomes for their probability of occurring depending on what choices we make. These include Clinton wins, Trump is bashed; or it is very close and Clinton or Trump wins; or Trump wins, Clinton is bashed. However, the more subtle thing to account for is whether dissident energy is preserved organizationally, and what activism can force upon whoever is elected.

The debate now preparing to explode has done some but not much of the above kinds of thinking, which isn’t surprising because until California votes, and probably until the convention, we do not know enough about unfolding possibilities to have informed, carefully thought through opinions.

Who worries, for example, that if Clinton’s approach to the national election emphasizes appeals to women and minorities and ignores or even seems to scapegoat the white male constituencies supporting Trump, it will make them even more intransigent, angry, and violent because they will understandably feel even more convinced the government cares not a whit for them, and that they have no avenues for redress other than donning brown shirts and spewing insanity. From where I sit, anyone who is prioritizing beating Trump – which we all should be – should at the same time be trying to get the Clinton campaign to relate more positively to the legitimate concerns of much of Trump’s base rather than writing it off. Trump bashing that feels to his supporters like bashing them is a recipe for disaster whether Clinton wins or not. And yet, yes, Trump must not win.

So what is the bottom line? I do not know. California hasn’t voted, among other critically important variables. Why so many activists feel compelled to inflexibly adopt a position for the future, right now, is beyond me. But here are some possible thoughts for leftists currently lining up on either side of the impending debate or seeing no definitive reason to support either side.

1. Winning some wording in the Democratic Party Platform is better than not, but by itself guarantees nothing. For Sanders vote tallies to morph into substantive gains will require huge and unrelenting activism. As Sanders constantly reiterates, what is most important is ongoing, highly informed movement activism which spans constituencies and pursues coherent program.

2. For Clinton to win the election against Trump without overt and even energetic Sanders support, and especially support from Sanders’ supporters, is fearfully problematic.

3. For Clinton to win but further alienate and even infuriate Trump’s base wouldn’t beat Trump but lay the seeds for Trumpism getting much stronger – just as Trump winning would enhance that likelihood.

4. Post election progress regarding campaign financing and laws, and public readiness to go beyond the Democratic Party into new structures for change will be enhanced by the public becoming as insightfully aware of the Party’s logic and practices as the Party’s greatest critics now are. Indeed, modest or even substantial gains by current extra party approaches also require further revelations about the ills of the Democratic Party itself.

So, if Sanders can stay strong and even win California, here are some possibilities that might plausibly be better than those now being discussed.

Beyond getting good people on the Platform Committee (and Sanders has already, as these words are written, achieved that beyond what mature and wise leftists deemed possible), suppose Sanders makes an offer to Clinton, publicly, that puts all cards on the table in a way that most voters, including even a lot of Trump voters, will relate positively to.

For example, suppose Sanders says I can only help you beat Trump – which we all know needs to happen – if you agree to certain critical points that establish that you are intent on being a President for the public and not a President for the rich. Each point is entirely in accord with democratic values and process…and thus in no way contrary to what you and the Democratic Party claim to stand for. But the points need explicit commitment. What makes the proposal unusual is only that it doesn’t take past political relations and procedures as binding on future outcomes.

1. Beyond having a progressive platform, you publicly pledge to hold a national referendum within six months of taking office. In the period leading to the referendum supporters of contending positions need to be given the access and means to address the country. The purpose of the referendum is to find the will of the people, in accord with democratic process, for you to then implement as President.

2. The referendum would focus on a few critical areas so the debate about each can be deep and rich. Regarding each issue, you would pledge to respect the national vote, and specifically to implement the program voted for to meet the public’s intentions. Failure to follow the public will, you will agree before the fact, would in your view warrant impeachment. The contending options in the referendum would be chosen by you, on one side, and by my campaign, on the other side.

3. The areas of concern addressed by the referendum would be the cost of higher education and the situation of student loans, a national health care system, campaign financing, the role of police in society, immigration, a new minimum wage, infrastructure development, full employment policy, global warming policy, federal regulation and policy vis a vis banks, the use of drones, trade policy, and disarmament.

And, suppose Sanders also says to Clinton, again publicly, you want the young voters, the working class voters, the progressive voters who support me to support you. Of course this is entirely up to them, but I ask you to not only hold a binding referendum on current controversial issues, but to also establish a Department of Economic and Social Equity and make me the Secretary of it with explicitly delineated powers sufficient to pursue a dramatic reduction of the growing gap in income and wealth in our country by way of tax policy, budget policy, and massive programs of public spending. If congress blocks your setting up this new department, okay you battle them but you establish it nonetheless as a division of your executive team.

And likewise, I ask you to establish a Department of Cultural and Social Justice and make Cornel West the Secretary of it, with powers to pursue reduction of judicial and other violations of minority and women’s and indeed all citizen’s rights, and to establish a Department of Peace and Justice and make Richard Falk the Secretary of it, with powers to pursue non-violent and internationalist solutions to foreign policy situations, and a Department of Alternative Energy and Ecological Sustainability and make Bill McKibben the Secretary of it, with powers to pursue a Manhattan Project scale campaign to address Global Warming and other ecological crises in ways that respect the needs of the many, not only the few.

If you pledge to do these things, or comparable mutually agreed alternatives where there are perhaps even better options, then I and I think in all likelihood those who have supported my campaign will feel that we have traversed part of the way to our desired aims, and that there is a path to further advance if we can win enough popular support for what we believe in. But if you refuse these or comparable proposals, then I and I think in all likelihood those who have voted for me will feel that we have been shut out, and that our only recourse is to work to establish our own party, and a shadow government as well, and to unrelentingly agitate for what we seek from outside your government – or Trump’s.

If Sanders did make such requests, at the convention or just before, and Clinton said you must be kidding, no to all or to any variation of it, he would have to reply. I would imagine he might say something like:

Fine, in that case from here to election day I will tell my supporters to vote as they see fit. I will myself vote against Trump, and speak against Trump as well, wherever doing so is needed. But I will also work tirelessly to build a democratic people’s opposition to pursue post election progressive change against your or Trump’s opposition. I will constantly point out that your campaign, in victory, wards off even worse horror, but that the day after the election we will need to have a shadow government proposing people’s programs and advocating for them publicly and militantly in every effective way we can possibly muster because you will have revealed your opposition to people’s programs. If enough of my supporters vote for you, and you win, instead of a Democratic Party led administration seeking to honestly educate and discern and implement the will of the public and not the profit seekers, we will need an amalgam of independent grass roots movements, and a new people’s party, with a widely shared program, working against the obstruction of your administration to win its progressive aims. And so that is what I will work to further.

I bet people reading this can think of many other possibilities, as well as refinements of what is suggested above to make it more workable, suitable, and desirable. The point is, confining ourselves to terrain chosen by mainstream candidates and pundits for its consistency with their ideas for defending society as it is, will lose. Choosing our own terrain in pursuit of our ideas for changing society for the better, may win.

Let’s avoid sterile debate and splintering. Let’s innovate and seek real change.

5 Comments

  1. avatar
    Matt Grind June 1, 2016 7:52 pm 

    Very interesting suggestion Micheal. I hope Bernie considers something along these lines. 🙂

    • avatar
      Matt Grind June 1, 2016 7:56 pm 

      Actually, I think it would be better for Bernie to demand this referendum as you say, and threaten to run for the Green or the socialists if she doesn’t agree. That would put the pressure on Hillary. 🙂

  2. avatar
    James May 27, 2016 11:53 pm 

    I think the third last sentence is the key to this piece. Smashing the state, Inreckon, like right now, is not really an option! So what is? Developing some sort of new green deal that goes to eventually creating the best kind of society we can. But you can’t leave that up to those mainstream candidates and pundits, even of the liberal and small s socialist persuasion really? So any “deal” should come attached to a more radical shared program that can push hard for further changes beyond what many mainstream liberals and progressives may want. So shared program developed and agreed upon by those of a more radical/revolutionary persuasion and pressed hard down on the coattails of some small s socialist candidate in order to attain greater exposure and necessary people powered organisational momentum, even if said small s socialist candidate fails, makes sense. Whatever transpires it is more to do with a preparedness to keep going, abd the strength to do so, pushing a shared program with wider public support, no longer something that only the marginalised radicals believe in, that pressures small s socialist candidates to really put their money where their mouth is. If small s socialist candidate fails, the organisational structure is in place. If small s socialist candidate wins, it’s a bonus. But bonuses are hard to come by for those with Trumpian/Clintonian boots pressed hard down on their necks. But shared program and a small s socialist candidate is a small window of opportunity that could close quickly if thing’s are left to bullshit bickering.

  3. John Vincent May 27, 2016 3:03 pm 

    You ask: Who worries that if Clinton’s approach to the national election ignores or scapegoat the white males supporting Trump, it will open up avenues for them to don brown shirts and start spewing insanity?

    That seems like a valid concern based on how elections are presented in the media: primarily Republican voters versus Democratic voters with independents acting as spoilers. With polls showing Trump winning over Clinton the prospect of alienated and angry white males being manipulated by right-wing propaganda is a scary thought.

    But Gallop, Pew indicates that the two parties, and those that actually vote, are really not that dominate. Democrats represent about 17% of eligible voters Republicans 13%, and Independents 24%. The rest, the largest percentage, are eligible non-voters who represent about 46% of the population.

    So while the percentages may vary from one election to another, how many eligible voters actually support Trump?

    The percentages seem to indicate that there are vast numbers who want neither Trump or Clinton, and are so disillusioned that they can’t be bothered with voting. What about them?

    If it weren’t for the closed primaries that do not allow Independents to vote Democratic in their State’s primaries I suspect Sanders would be leading by now over Clinton. This was a missed opportunity. One of the larger peace and justice organizations in my area here in California didn’t alert Independents of the need to re-register if they wanted to vote for Sanders until a few days before the deadline.

    The good however is that irregardless of this oversight the County’s Registrar reported that there was a huge increase in the number of people registering to vote. So as you say: we need to wait until the California primary is over.

  4. avatar
    Ed Lytwak May 26, 2016 3:50 pm 

    Danny Haiphong had a good take on this question in remarks to the Black Agenda Report panel at the Left Forum conference in New York City, last Saturday.
    “On the Challenges of Building a Principled Left Movement in Our Time” in Black Agenda Report.

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