From June 17-19, 2016, 3,000 activists and supporters of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign met in Chicago to discuss the future of the movement. Taking this “People’s Summit” as his starting point, activist and writer Ethan Young advocates for a strong left and a “united front” with other progressives in order to shake up the system:
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid phenomena appear.” This quote from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks hovers over the U.S. Left the way “Abandon Hope” marks the entrance to Dante’s Inferno.
In the case of the 2016 election, “the old” is politics as usual, as played out in the spectacle of party primaries and conventions. “The new” is the unrest trying to find a form, and to survive the reflexive repression of opposition by the power elite. The “morbid phenomena” are the rise of a violent xenophobic right in the Republican Party, and barely disguised machine maneuvers aimed at suppressing the Sanders vote.
How will this shape politics in the months leading up to the election? Where do the big players, capital and the two dominant parties, stand? Is the Left checkmated by Clinton’s candidacy and likely election?
Trump’s campaign is the very definition of “morbid.” He not only reveals his contempt for his followers as well as his enemies—he flaunts it. This has exacerbated the crisis in the Republican Party that began when its core alliance of religious right, libertarians, militarists, and racial xenophobes began to unravel after the Tea Party faction succeeded in filling legislative offices. The remains of that coalition have mostly rallied to Trump.
Trump’s moment of truth with the GOP came after his delegate count led to the withdrawal of his primary opponents. Party enemies that he had smeared and humiliated, lined up to kiss his ring. Trump reached his apex—and then let loose with one of his classic provocations, once again daring party and public to upbraid him.
Trump, now the presumptive candidate long before the convention, is in trouble with the law. One of his many swindles caught the attention of the New York Attorney General’s office for illegal business practices, that resulted in a lawsuit, which remains ongoing. In October 2014, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel greenlit a class action lawsuit against Trump for violating the RICO (anti-racketeering) statute. In May 2016, Curiel released requested case documents to the press. Trump’s response was to attack the judge, saying that his ethnic background (Curiel is a Mexican-American born in Indiana) created a conflict of interest, since Trump targets Mexico as an exporter of undocumented “criminals,” and his plan for a border wall is the centerpiece of his campaign.
This bit of business went farther than any previous move in undermining the credibility of the GOP. First, to cry unfair based on charges of inherent national bias (in this case with a racial overtone) is, as a CNN interviewer directly charged, “the definition of racism.” Trump would not demur. This goes deeper than simply hurling smears; it challenges equal justice under law by claiming victimhood by dint of Trump’s own public bigotry. Any constituency with reason to fear ostracism knows from experience where this will lead.
Second, Trump is claiming that a judge appointed by a Republican governor has no right to judge him. This is the extension of the GOP’s treatment of Obama, only this time to one of their own—a logical next step, but one that threatens the party’s infrastructure from top to bottom. No Republican is safe from Trump’s tantrums. Further, it completely demolishes the core thinking of the party—that hard work and playing by the rules will exempt marginal populations from persecution.
But most of all, it reveals Trump’s unmitigated self-absorption and sense of entitlement. He did not make the charge against Curiel for political reasons, but to protect himself, at the very moment he stood higher in the public eye than any other candidate. He obliviously showed he is accountable to no one. By doing so he has further humiliated those Republicans who opposed him and now hail him as their leader.
The GOP has neutralized itself. It can’t back Trump in practice, and it can’t withhold its endorsement. There may be a big development before or at the convention—Trump could be indicted—but the emerging situation indicates that for this year at least, the GOP will fall not with a bang but a whimper.
The Sanders Surge
The situation is better for the Democrats, but that’s not saying much. The assumption that Clinton would be the chosen candidate without serious opposition suddenly came apart with Sanders’ rise. Sanders broke all the rules—most importantly the unwritten law that candidates must bow and scrape for super PAC money. Machine politicians across the country were determined to push aside the Sanders campaign, and downplay or ignore its resolutely left populist demands. Political careers and commerce—military, energy, insurance, financial transactions high and low—were in the balance.
In cities where large numbers of Sanders supporters might be present, judging by the size of his local rallies, the primaries were marked by voting machine failures and foul-ups on a massive scale. On the campaign trail, Clinton attracted relatively modest crowds, while Sanders spoke to tens of thousands. But despite important wins, Sanders could not come up with enough delegates—especially party-appointed superdelegates—to win the nomination at convention.
Sanders was poised for a last minute upset in California, where his campaign was rapidly gaining support. Taking the largest state would have increased Sanders’ prestige, and weakened Clinton’s hold over superdelegates. The tension in the days before the primary generated a storm of often hysterical rhetoric online. About a third of Sanders supporters declared “Bernie or bust,” vowing not to vote for Clinton in the election. Meanwhile, many Clinton supporters furiously condemned Sanders as a spoiler, accusing him of sexism and self-indulgence.
Then, on primary eve, the scales were tipped by the Monday surprise: Associated Press and NBC announced that Clinton would pass the threshold of delegate numbers. This was based on speculation (telephone polling of superdelegates) but it was presented as conclusive fact, and picked up by the rest of the media instantaneously. This had the effect—it would be hard to say coincidently—of convincing swing voters that the primary race was settled, and voting was pointless. Another plague of names missing on the voting rolls and long, slow lines to vote added to the frustration of Sanders supporters.
Clinton is now in position to assume the candidacy before the convention in July. But the atmosphere of inside fixing and vote suppression has only confirmed increasing dissatisfaction with both parties among the ever-shrinking electorate. Even with a solid lead in the delegate count, Clinton can’t shake the prevalent view that she doesn’t enjoy voters’ trust.
Both parties’ primaries were Punch and Judy shows. They hold little political interest for the majority of the public, but are obsessively followed as reality TV, which Trump has expertly exploited. Everyone knows it’s winner-take-all. Everyone knows that popular political activity ceases until the next race. Like the Olympics, a lot of money changes hands, a lot of talking heads hype the glory of it all, and the fixing and cheating scandals are all part of the show.
The New Is Still Being Born
The Sanders campaign, while it had some of the trappings of a rock tour, was a democratic development in media and money-driven politics. This was why it garnered more concern about its growth—judging from mainstream media reactions—than the grotesque rise of candidate Trump. Sanders challenged the almost universal mercenary mode of elections, and the public response—despite mainstream media ignoring him, in direct opposite proportion to their ratings-hungry obsession with Trump—was unprecedented for a candidate who had no machine backing.
It would be hard to overstate the importance for the Left of Sanders’ identification with democratic socialism. It took the Occupy populist stance of “99% vs. 1%” a step further, opening the possibility of a different society for millions who are facing ruin as neoliberalism continues its antisocial course.
The “new” emerging from the decline of welfare state capitalism and the debacle of both parties is still being born. The Sanders campaign core is a small, makeshift operation that has met with unexpected success. It has all the drawbacks of a presidential campaign: hero worship, zeal in place of thoughtful discussion of strategy and tactics, and a single-minded focus on winning. Losing was inevitable but is still disorienting. It is to Sanders’ credit that he has not folded into the Clinton campaign. But the future of the campaign effort depends on the campaigners and supporters themselves—what they decide is in their best interest, and what course they choose to take.
Many Sanders supporters, identifying as “Bernie or Bust,” are holding fast to their opposition to Clinton. Sanders himself has been clear from the start that if he is denied the nomination, he would continue to push his positions—while supporting the Democratic candidate as the only way to keep Trump from winning. For “Bernie or Bust,” that is unacceptable. Some call on Sanders to change his mind and run as an independent. Others are switching their support to the Greens. A very few say they’d rather vote for Trump.
Preparations are underway among campaigners to confront the Democratic Convention in July. There will be many delegates inside committed to Sanders—“Berniecrats.” Their goals are the same: bringing the message of the campaign to the public despite Sanders’ loss.
Among left-leaning Clinton supporters, the animosity is mutual. They are less concerned with Clinton’s measures to secure delegates or her center-right policy record, than with the possibility that Trump could win, and that the first real opportunity to elect a woman president would be thwarted by an unforeseen movement from the left.
Clinton still faces hurdles to winning—she could be indicted, too—but on the whole her path is smoother than Trump’s. While the Republican apparatus is strained and, in some areas, stymied due to Trump’s continuing self-inflicted disasters, the Democratic apparatus is fiercely committed to Clinton. This poses a direct challenge to the Sanders supporters who consider her beyond the pale, during the contest with Trump: stay or go?
This will not be settled in the months before the election. The threat of Trump winning is already focusing the attention of many Sanders supporters. Whatever the anti-Clinton hardcore refuseniks choose to do, abstain or back a third party candidate, it will not have a great impact on the election. Most of the electorate will see it as a no-win situation, except the minority swept up in campaign fever. In other words, low turnout, which usually favors the Republicans—but in this case the inevitable high-level attacks on Trump should give Clinton the edge.
The Real Challenge Begins After the Election
The real challenge facing Berners, and the Left as a whole, begins after the election. A unique situation presents itself. For 40+ years, the U.S. Left has been a wilderness of fragmentation and political incoherence, mainly for historical reasons. The Bernie campaign has brought a huge number of new converts to left politics, in the wake of the success of the Obama campaigns in mobilizing the latent progressive tendency in the population, and following Occupy Wall Street, DREAMers, Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter.
Now, there are visible, tangible camps numbering in the hundreds of thousands who identify with a broad progressive agenda, which goes beyond Obama’s anti-Bush themes. These political camps include many who have been active in social movements for decades, as well as millennials.
The dividing point on politics and ideology between the camps really begins and ends with electoral choices in 2016. Older constituents of communities influenced by left social movements, including labor, feminism, and civil rights, have history with the Clintons and identify with them, as they do with the Clintons’ “frenemy” Obama.
In contrast, the Sanders camp is filled with millennials who are new to activism, and are grappling with the ideologies generated by various in-group analyses that circulate online, in meetings, and in classrooms. They are more militant politically and are fiercely pro-Sanders. But they tend to be less experienced in dealing with the complexly fragmentary world of social movements, which together are the main arena in which the Left has been able to apply pressure for reform, as I have argued in Mapping the Left.
The chasm between Sanders and Clinton supporters is not getting any narrower up to the election. A likely showdown at the convention will not help—but it has to happen if the politics of the Sanders campaign will continue to be heard and felt nationally. There will, however, continue to be one connecting thread—opposition to Trump.
The responsibility of both Sanders’ and Clinton’s supporters before the election will be to speak out against the resurrection of the openly racist right on the national stage. Some Sanders supporters consider this less important than exposing Clinton as a neoliberal/neocon. The difference here between Clinton and Trump is really between a candidate whose base has everything to lose in a turn to the right—and knows it—and the one with a base that is inflamed by white supremacist demagogy.
Opposing Trump on this basis should be the concern of both camps. There are already efforts to mainstream Trump’s message. It is absolutely crucial to confront this stretching of the boundaries of “normal” politics. There needs to be a common understanding that if any candidate chooses to tack right to exploit nativist and xenophobic bigotry, it’s up to both Sanders and Clinton supporters to unflinchingly and loudly reject it.
After the election, these camps must decide if they have a continued interest in separation from each other, let alone in antagonism. Ideology aside, they share the legacy of the U.S. Left past and present: they oppose austerity and runaway profiteering; big money dominating politics; war and militarism; growing organized racist and sexist attacks; xenophobia, and the agenda of neoliberalism and right populism in general. They recognize the urgency of saving the planet and ending police violence, defending workers’ rights and reproductive rights.
The challenge facing the Clinton supporters who share these views will be understanding the difference between Clinton the campaigner’s rhetoric and Clinton the president’s practice. Supporters, ranks and leaders of social movements have a lot to lose from loyally following Clinton as president. The Clinton approach in the White House has been a gingerly step forward with several lurches backward—a fact well known to the peace and environmental movements, labor, and Black Lives Matter. The questions: Can social movements afford to “let Clinton be Clinton” without protest in the crucial years ahead? Will they allow her to set their agenda in midterm elections? And if not, who do they turn to, to maximize pressure for a left turn in national politics?
Meanwhile, Berners are plagued with the campaign-derived presumption that those who side with Clinton in the election are automatically opposed to Sanders’ actual positions. In fact very few are. Labor, for example, has long been opposed to free trade agreements, and is well aware that the Clintons have been pushing these relentlessly. Hillary’s reversal of support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) helped her seal support from unions. Labor leaders and ranks know that her move saved them embarrassment, since their support for Clinton was a part of a long-standing alliance with the DNC. Sanders threw a monkey wrench in this arrangement, because labor can’t afford more agreements. They need real and strong support from the White House, and Sanders openly offers it, no strings attached. They also know that capital is demanding more free trade and more austerity, and that is the Clinton default mode.
Power on the right has been the basis for the Clintons’ and Obama’s stance of paralysis on strong reform, and incrementalism on halfway measures. In 2016 the power of the religious right and social conservatives in general has been reduced, which will result in a stronger stance of support for women’s and LGBTQ rights by the Clinton White House. But even these policies end at the class and color lines. Neoliberal politics result in attacks on the rights and living standards of working people—who include the majority of women and LGBTQ sectors.
If Berners can recognize this, and figure out how to approach their counterparts among Clinton electoral supporters post-election, there is a strong basis for a political united front. This involves meeting and coordinating protests against every regressive move Clinton makes, whether that is allowing militarization of police to continue, saber-rattling at Iran, or re-reversing on TTP. It also means linking up local midterm election campaigns, targeting Republicans, conservative “blue dog” Democrats, and corrupt machine candidates.
Building such a front would mean facing opposition from the center-right in the Democratic Party, the DNC and operatives, and from the section of the Left both inside and outside the Sanders campaign that opposes any electoral alliance with Democrats, regardless of political position or social base.
A Basis for Coordinated Joint Work
In the decades of fragmentation and wandering in the ideological desert, the concept of “united front” has become an abstraction for the U.S. Left, with echoes of musty arguments about social fascism. But we have actual players now, thanks to the new forces attracted to the Sanders campaign. There is a basis for coordinated joint work. The united front orientation is now feasible, compared to calls for a new party, seizing the Democratic Party apparatus from the DNC, or other schemes that keep the Left stagnated or holed up in the margins.
The Sanders campaign can be a starting point for this, but finding common cause with left-leaning Hillary supporters would make the effort formidable. Leaders and ranks in both camps have to figure this out as partners through practical discussion and hammering out areas of agreement.
Bernie Sanders has offered the broader Left a new lease on life. The next step will not come from candidates, but from proceeding towards democracy, through democratic practices.