Bernie Sanders supporters got some bitter lessons in Democratic Party politics in 2016. The first was that the primaries could be used as a platform for left politics. Sanders’ amazing success in reaching millions of people with a strong left-populist message almost made political revolution look easy.
Then we found out that concessions don’t get handed out like goody bags. The Democratic National Committee leadership’s ties to big capital are strong. Even those assumed to be friendly, like Donna Brazile (strong black woman!) or Barney Frank (gay pioneer!) preferred to bust our balloons than favor us over powerful corporate interests.
But concessions were made, because we made it clear that we wouldn’t go away. Those concessions were words on a party platform, barely promises. But for fresh-out-of-nowhere campaigners, even making the DNC blink was no little feat.
Then came the bitterest drop of reality: Hillary Clinton was the nominee. That meant her election was all that stood against Donald Trump. And THAT meant we would be forced to choose someone we didn’t want, even hated, to head off a result that would open the floodgates of a fascist insurgency.
Some of us refused to accept that last drop. We pressed our mouths tightly shut and shook our heads. No lesser evil. Vote for what you want, even if you won’t get it. Show the two-party system we’re not quitters. Those parts of the left that have always been ideologically committed to the view that real progressive politics only begins with rejecting all Democrats used this turn of events to feather their various political nests.
Most of us have absorbed this reality, as nasty as it tastes. We will have a very hard time surviving if the Trump campaign becomes a government-backed armed movement. We will not build a stronger left, and come out of our decades-long state of decrepitude, fragmentation, and political incoherence, if things get radically worse as a result of Trump taking over. More likely, we will be reduced to long-term defensive action, as whole communities, labor unions, and religious assemblies come under physical attack. This is what happens when a party in crisis – the post-W Republicans – reverts to a default mode of full-on white supremacy.
The left is broader than revolutionaries and hardcore activists. We also include liberals and pacifists, union members and feminists, by spirit if not action. Some of them supported Clinton from the start, either as the gender groundbreaker or as the anti-Trump. The problem, though, is that Clinton’s record shows a governing style that involves big favors for big money, and small carrots and sticks for everyone else. Ignoring that reality, or perfuming it for the sake of campaign spirit, leads to broken hearts and futility.
The Sanders campaign raised basic, crucial issues and made them plain for everyone to consider. His excellent political instincts took him to the social movements that had come together and promoted solutions for them. Every one of those issues remains on the table. Now it’s our move. The left must grow up fast and get it together before the next extreme winter. This requires several improvements in our approach to politics.
- United fronts are necessary, but hard to build. They mean more than just putting names on a leaflet or agreeing on a list of demands. Leaders need to drop fights over turf and funding or old scores, and figure out how they can work together for common goals. Activists have to share ideas, information, and skills with each other, and interact across lines of geographic distance and area of work. Political and movement leaders won’t automatically take this position. They must be won to it.
- Having a united front means coordinated political action by people involved in both social movements and electoral campaigns. It’s not about this or that candidate, but about the real solutions that came forward during the 2016 campaign. Sanders supporters are well acquainted with these. But we need to turn to Clinton supporters, many of whom agreed with Sanders’ positions but opposed him for pragmatic reasons. They have no objection to single-payer health care, free higher education, a $15 minimum wage now, defending black lives, ending neoliberal free trade pacts, and so on. After the election, Clinton supporters’ attention can be shifted to joining the fight for these demands.
- By building off public demand for these reforms, united front action can pressure those in power and work to unseat Republicans and corporate Democrats. This can be accomplished through independent campaigns or local Democratic clubs, depending on the circumstances.
- We have to organize not as ideologues for our favorite doctrine, but with outreach as our number-one priority. Every street is full of people who would welcome an honest alternative. They don’t need missionaries, but small-d democrats. This kind of organizing is already happening every day, but not in the context of a broad united front, and not with the shared goal of both pushing for change and electing agents of change.
- We don’t have television, but thank the tech gods for the Internet. We can utilize social media in ways that go beyond this election, just as its use in this one surpassed that of past years. That made all the difference in mobilizing the Sanders campaign, record numbers in record time.
- We will also have to use all these means to protect our sisters and brothers from backlash by the dregs of the Trump campaign. This is already happening: physical violence and an atmosphere of xenophobic terror. It involves armed fascists. They have allies in police departments and the armed forces. We would be mistaken to assume that the authorities will protect us. Self-defense is only effective if it is collective and wins broad mass support.
- The most daunting task will be rebuilding the peace movement. The question of war was the weakest point in Sanders’ politics and the most ominous one in Clinton’s. Tensions with Russia are already rising. We’ve seen the like before — with Vietnam, Central America, Iran, Iraq, and so on. The rhetoric and rationales change, but the toboggan ride to hell is always the same. Clinton is already moving policy to the right in this area. It will be harder to get broad unity for peace, but we have to figure it out and do it.
Ethan Young is a Brooklyn writer/editor. He works with Left Labor Project, People for Bernie, and Portside.org.
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