The Sanders Ceiling and the Dirtbag Left: Why Democratic Socialism Fails Without Social Justice

Friends, humans, socialists! Lend me your eyes. For I come to bury Bernie, and to praise him.

When the histories are written – if histories are written, and more on that later – I think Bernie Sanders, though he will almost surely not be President, will rank as a transformative figure in American politics. How can he not? Things that are mainstream now, things like Medicare For All, a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, were politically unthinkable four and five years ago, and it is, for the most part, entirely thanks to Bernie Sanders.

Turns out that progressive policies are actually pretty popular. As many of us suspected they would be, if the media could be convinced to take them seriously (more on that, too). Bernie’s run in 2016, and the energy that manifested behind it, put those issues into both the Democratic Party platform and, more important, the marketplace of ideas, where they sell like hotcakes at a lumberjack convention. Because why wouldn’t they? They’re great fucking ideas that would make almost everyone’s life better.

So why can’t Bernie, and Democratic Socialism, seem to break through electorally? Or at least get past the dedicated core of supporters who have already joined his Political Revolution?

***

The answer is complicated. But it can be broken down into elements, some of which can be controlled, some of which can’t. For instance, one element that can’t be controlled is the cultural and historical weight of the word socialism, whether you modify it with the word democratic or not. Especially among Americans over the age of, say, forty. You know, the people who actually vote in meaningful numbers. I’m pushing fifty, myself, and remember the Cold War pall that hung over my childhood, where at any moment the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics might erupt into nuclear holocaust. That’s some heavy shit to lay on a kid. But more important, that early training (friend/enemy, good/bad) is hard to transcend even if you’re consciously trying.

And yeah, socialism is much more agreeable to Millennials and Gen-Z and whatever we end up calling the ones who’ll come after them. We could have had it already, too, if they’d fucking turn out to vote in bigger numbers. Not that any generation ever has any moral high ground on that. So file that under ‘we’ll work on it, but don’t hold your breath.’

Also in that file is what I’ll call the Resistance of the Punditariat, who perform our national political discourse on TV and podcasts and radio, and from the pages of newspapers and magazines and political websites, and who are, for the most part, handsomely compensated for doing so. Their salary depends on their not understanding certain things, especially those that might upset the status quo. Not only are they invested in that status quo – as the successful will be in any situation or system – they have also been worked like sports refs for decades now by the folks on the right, who never miss an opportunity to accuse them of liberal bias. It’s to the point where a fair observer has to say they’ve overcompensated. Why else was every third question Elizabeth Warren was asked – back when she was the front-runner in national polling – whether or not she would raise taxes on the middle class? The question’s as loaded as an AR-15. Like in middle school when that kid thought the funniest thing in the world was to ask ‘Does your mom know you’re gay?’

So figure the punditariat – who are mostly fairly liberal in their personal attitudes; I do believe that – will continue to skew anti-liberal/progressive/socialist for the foreseeable future. You can’t control it, but you can take it into account and start working them yourself, calling out bias in framing and the focus on horse-race ephemera when lives and livelihoods are on the line. Like anything, if enough people do it for long enough, that tide can be turned, too. Evolution has a thousand mothers.

***

So what factors can we control? And what does this have to do with Bernie Sanders and his Political Revolution? I’m glad I asked, cuz I got a theory.

My theory is we have two problems, which are inter-related. The first is simply this: socialists, especially the core of Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution, are really shitty at being allies, and, as such, are even shittier at building coalitions. If you think I’m wrong, I’ll point you to all the people demanding Elizabeth Warren endorse Bernie Sanders because of their friendship and ideological similarities. People who, some of them, got in a flame war with Warren’s supporters back in January when her so-called friend and ally called her a liar on national TV, and who called the person who built the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (and was forced out of running it) a corporate stooge. Shit, Warren’s people reached out to Sanders weeks before Super Tuesday and her dropping out of the race, and were rebuffed.

Some of this is the Dirtbag Left, who not unlike the above-mentioned punditariat, have found a profitable sort of noise to make, and whose new salaries depend on their not understanding things like how being an exclusivist jerkwad pretty much guarantees nobody wants to join or even work with you. It’s somewhere between a faith tradition and a cool kidz club from what I can tell: you’re in or you’re out, and fuck you if you’re out, even a little. It works as entertainment, but it’s no way to build a governing coalition. Which is what you need if you want to enact policy to, like, change people’s lives and shit.

But there’s a whopping dollop of blame to put on Bernie Sanders’ fudge sundae, too. For some of his hires, definitely. But the man made some seriously flawed choices. For one thing, his insistence on running as much against the Democratic Party as the Republicans and the billionaire corporate oligarchy is just a really not good way to get Democrats to support you. It riles up the kids, but til they show up to vote that’s a human interest story at best.

But it was Bernie’s choice to dismiss social justice issues as ‘Identity Politics’ for so long that really doomed him.

Put it this way: the backbone of the Democratic party is not, as many white college-educated progressives believe, white college-educated progressives. The ‘Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party’ as folks used to put it. We think we are, and there’s a certain logic to it. But we aren’t the party’s backbone, nor its heart and soul, either.

Women of color are the backbone of the Democratic Party, its heart and soul and animating force. People of color generally, but women of color particularly, and African-American women particularly-particularly. They’re the ones who show up, no matter what. The ones who do the actual work that makes the party go.

Women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants. You can win without them. But only if you’re a Republican.

So, if you want to, say, get the Democratic Party nomination for President, you’d best have a plan to win those voters over. Give them a reason to take a chance on you, Because as previously detailed, anything that can be labeled ‘socialism’ has a hard row to hoe in the US, and since those folks are the ones who catch the worst when Republicans and their coalition of White Christian Nationalists and the Actual Oligarchy are in charge, yeah, they tend not to want to take chances. I mean, put yourself in their shoes for a minute. If the house is on fire, you want to hear from the guy talking about how to put the fire out, not the guy talking about what kind of house you might build later.

And that brings me to the second prong of my theory, which has to do with the limits of a purely materialist critique of the status quo’s utility, not only as rhetorical but an analytical tool.

Like any reductive analysis, a purely materialist (the corporations and the 1% have captured the state and unofficially enslaved us all to an unsustainable economic system with disastrous and unjust real-world consequences) critique flattens the object of its critique, examines it through a lens that shrinks the spectrum in order to highlight certain wavelengths over others. All too often, issues of social justice are among those excluded wavelengths.

Those for whom social justice issues are of more than academic or conscientious interest aren’t thrilled to have their concerns so cavalierly excluded, it turns out. Nor are they thrilled when, as I’ve seen so often, they are blithely told how their issues will be magically solved through solely economic justice, and called names when they fail to achieve the expected moment of epiphany and join the faith tradition.

Remember, these are the natural, obvious allies any effective democratic socialist movement needs to achieve even a fraction of its goals. It’s time to stop asking why they aren’t joining us, and start asking how we can grow not only our tent but our worldview to include them.

***

I have a deep and abiding respect for Bernie Sanders and the movement he’s built. I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing the issues – and policy solutions – of economic justice and class war and democratic socialism into the American mainstream, where even a resistant punditariat has to take them seriously. But I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the limits of not only a Sanders-style Political Revolution that demands adherence instead of building alliances and coalitions, but of a purely materialist socialist critique of late capitalism that filters out issues of social justice and asks those for whom social justice is lived reality to take it on faith that they’ll be included.

For what it’s worth, on a personal level, I still think that more actively fighting the class war and striving to establish economic justice will go a long way to righting social and historical injustice. Like the cereal commercials from when I was a kid used to say: it’s an important part of this nutritious breakfast.

We just have to remember there are other things on the table, which are just as important, some even more so.

***

If you want to change hearts and minds, you have to meet people where they are. You have to find out where they’re coming from, what they need, what they want. And you have to, you know, help them get it. Do the work for them. Don’t tell them how being your ally will benefit them. Show them how it does. It means reaching out, but it means stretching out, too. Becoming bigger yourself.

The most basic tenet of democratic socialism is that we’re all in it together. So let’s start acting like it. Let’s start acting like we understand the only socialism worth having is one that begins with social justice. Maybe then we can get some shit done.

Something for Warren Supporters to Consider Now She’s Dropped Out

I don’t regret casting my primary ballot for Elizabeth Warren. And no, I did not register a protest vote, though I think that’s legit during primary season (the general election is a different animal). Be it cussedness or hope, I cast my ballot a few days after it arrived, before Super Tuesday put a period at the end of the campaign of the best, most qualified, most potentially transformational candidate of my life time.

Sigh.

But, you know, I’m kind of glad. Like, today I broke my social media fast for an hour or so and went on Facebook, and I read a very smart friend of mine’s long post comparing, contrasting, and weighing the pair of shouty near-octogenarians left vying to vie with the shouty near-octogenarian currently failing our country even more obviously than he has been these last three years and change. As I likely would have, he came down on Bernie’s side, with all the caveats you’d expect, and which I won’t reprise here.

But it got me thinking.

I know the CW is that most Warren supporters have more in common with Sanders than Biden (the actual behavior of said voters seems to be more like a 50-50 split), and on the policy merits that’s true. But that CW doesn’t take into account that Warren supporters are Democrats, and while that may, to some Sanders supporters, make them snakes, or at least complicit with the corporate machine trying to make cogs of us all, those same Sanders supporters seem to forget that running more against the party you’re trying to represent than the party you’re trying to beat in the general election puts a pretty hard cap on the support you can draw. Put another way, the best way to defeat your enemies doesn’t start with beating your allies into submission first.

Still, it’s not like Joe Biden is a particularly inspirational or transformational figure, and if the kind of big, structural change necessary to make our government into something that can address not only our legacy problems of racial, gender, and social justice and rampant, unsustainable income and wealth inequality but the upcoming climate eschaton also happen under his Administration, it will be a fucking miracle.

So yeah, tough choice. One I don’t envy anyone. And if you’ve got strong feelings on the shouty near-octogenarian question, you should absolutely cast your primary vote accordingly.

But if your choice is a) neither or b) who the hell cares?, I have a third option you might consider.

Vote for Elizabeth Warren anyway.

She won’t get the nomination. I know that. I haven’t made peace with it quite yet. But I know it. Another thing I know is she’d make a fine VP choice for either of them. And while I’d prefer her on top of the ticket, I’ll settle for having her on it. Especially given that both these guys are pushing 80, and Bernie already had a heart attack. Way I see it, if she’s getting votes without even running, that makes her a stronger contender, and frankly either of them would be well-served to choose her, since she has at least the capacity to build a bridge to the losing side. That was the campaign she ran, after all, being the bridge between the two wings of the party. Even if she doesn’t get tapped, it still ups her leverage when Convention time comes, and the party’s platform’s drawn up.

Anyhow, it’s just a thought I had, a rationale, if you want one, to vote for the candidate you believe in, even though she’s dropped out. Like I said, if you’ve got strong opinions on the Sanders/Biden question, or just want to have your say in who gets to beat Trump in November, do that. But there’s good reason to follow your heart if you don’t.

Come the general, it’s blue no matter who, all the way down the ticket (and fuck you if you choose otherwise). Between now and then, there’s room left for conscience. Don’t be afraid to stay true to yours.

Why Blue No Matter Who

Copy/pasted from FB:

If it turns out to be Biden — as disappointed as many of us would be — or if turns out to be Sanders—as disappointed as many of us would be, please remember:

1. You’re not just voting for President.

2. You’re voting for who replaces RBG on the Supreme Court.

3. You’re voting for the next Secretary of Education.

4. You’re voting for federal judges.

5. You’re voting for the rule of law.

6. You’re voting for saving national parks.

7. You’re voting for letting kids out of cages.

8. You’re voting for clean air and clean water.

9. You’re voting for scientists to be allowed to speak about climate change and for rebuilding the CDC.

10. You’re voting for what a President says and does on Twitter.

11. You’re voting for housing rights.

12. You’re voting for LGBTQ people to be treated with dignity.

13. You’re voting for non-Christians to be able to adopt and to feel like full citizens.

14. You’re voting for Dreamers.

15. You’re voting so that there will be Social Security and Medicare when you retire.

16. You’re voting for veterans to get the care they deserve.

17. You’re voting for rural hospitals.

18. You’re voting so that you or someone else can have health insurance.

19. You’re voting for the preservation of PBS.

20. You’re voting to have a President who doesn’t embarrass this country every time she or he attends an international meeting.

21. And you’re voting against allowing the USA to become yet another authoritarian regime.

22. You’re voting for sensible gun laws.

23. You’re voting for climate action, that is, for a habitable planet.

24. You’re voting for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and many more organizations that make our lives more artistic, healthier, and more knowledgeable.

25. You’re voting to rebuild the Department of State, for ambassadors in every nation with whom we have diplomatic relations.

26. You’re voting for compassionate immigration policies.

27. You’re voting truth and facts and against misinformation and propaganda.

28. You’re voting for food stamps, school
meals, Meals on Wheels, Medicaid, and other programs that help the most vulnerable among us eat and receive healthcare.

29. You’re voting to help people with overwhelming student debt and to make public education affordable.

30. You’re voting against white supremacy.

31. You’re voting for our alliances, for national and global security.

32. You’re voting for reproductive rights.

33. You’re voting for investments in infrastructure and green technologies.

No Democrat is perfect.

Your first AND second choices may have dropped out. Your third might. But the nominee, no matter who he is, won’t be perfect. They won’t pass your purity test. And yet every single one of them will be better than four more years of Trump!!!

 

I’ve Thought This Myself, but Here’s a WoC Explaining Why African-Americans Prefer Joe Biden

“Let me explain something to you about Joe Biden and why some of the shit that he’s done in his past doesn’t matter. This old rich white man played second fiddle to a black man. Not just any black man, but a younger black man, a smart black man. Not just for a day. Not 1, not 2 but eight years.

He took his cues from this black man who had more power than him and was virtually unknown when he took the presidency, and Joe Biden had been around forever. He was willing and proud to be his wing man. Not once did he try to undermine him, this black man. Instead Joe walked in lockstep with him, he respected him, he loved and trusted him. He was led by him and he learned from him. And Joe did not have a problem with it.

You tell me what 40+ year “establishment” white politician has ever done that. Joe Biden is cut from a different cloth. And black folks understand that and for good reason. He has shown it. This is what showing up and being an ally looks like. When black people say they know Joe, this is how we know.”

– Laurie Goff”

Susan Matthews on Elizabeth Warren and the Elephant in the Room

The woman thing:

“But as I watched her campaign, I saw something else, too. She wasn’t just running as a teacher or a wonk. Elizabeth Warren was running as a woman. She was unapologetic about it. It went beyond embracing her identity as a teacher, though an identity as a teacher is surely gendered itself. Her stump speech included her own personal story of being alone with her children in Texas, with no idea how she was going to take care of them and also have a career. (She only managed to have one because her aunt came to watch the kids while Warren went to law school.) Later on in the campaign, she expanded her story further backward, to include her experience being let go from her first teaching job—a job she loved—because she was visibly pregnant. It wasn’t necessarily a winning narrative for her—the press jumped all over it, suggesting she was lying about the discrimination and picking her story apart for discrepancies. But it did resonate with one group of voters—women who in turn shared their own stories of discrimination in their pregnancies.

Warren was teaching here too. She was trying to explain to people what, exactly, it is like to be a woman in America, still, today. Her lessons were not just drawn from her own life, either. Warren launched her campaign in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of 1912’s Bread and Roses strike, led by seamstresses. She told those seamstresses’ stories, and she told other stories of other working-class women, black women, who led labor movements decades ago. In Atlanta, she spoke of the washerwomen who went on strike in 1881; in New York she spoke of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. At one of her last appearances before Super Tuesday in L.A., she told the story of 1990’s Justice for Janitors strike, an effort led by immigrant women.* I was not surprised to see attendees describe it as a “lecture” on Twitter afterward—Warren’s events were closer to lectures than rallies. She was trying to teach people their own history, a project she understood as essential for building a better future.”

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/03/elizabeth-warren-ran-as-a-woman.html