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.

Aja Romano on What We Didn’t Learn from Gamergate

Long read, but well worth the time, and worth quoting at some length:

“Again and again, throughout 2014 and afterward — and, really, well before that, as women in online subcultures withstood years of targeted harassment — many failed to understand and assess what Gamergate was. The media, tech platforms, the niche internet communities these reactionaries came from (places with marginally obscure names like 4chan, 8chan, and Voat, for instance), the corporations they easily manipulated, and the general public, who seemed to take it in as nebulous online noise; no one properly identified Gamergate as a major turning point for the internet. The hate campaign, we would later learn, was the moment when our ability to repress toxic communities and write them off as just “trolls” began to crumble. Gamergate ultimately gave way to something deeper, more violent, and more uncontrollable.

[…]

And in the same way that none of those years of escalating online assaults against women prepared us for Gamergate, somehow, the formation of Gamergate itself didn’t prepare society for the cultural rise of the alt-right. The journalists who did anticipate that Gamergate could and would morph into something worse were, by 2015, drowned out by the general cultural idea that Gamergate had somehow “failed”— even though it was a movement inherently meant to scale and grow. Somehow, the idea that all of that sexism and anti-feminist anger could be recruited, harnessed, and channeled into a broader white supremacist movement failed to generate any real alarm, even well into 2016, when all the pieces were firmly in place.

In other words, even though all the signs were there in 2014 that a systematized online harassment campaign could lead to an escalation in real-world violence, most people failed to see what was happening. Gamergate ultimately made us all much more aware of the potential real-world impact of online extremism. Yet, years after Gamergate, despite increasing evidence suggesting a connection between online violence against women and real-world violence — including mass shootings — many corporations and social media platforms still struggle to identify and eradicate extreme forms of violence against women from online spaces.

[…]

The public’s failure to understand and accept that the alt-right’s misogyny, racism, and violent rhetoric is serious goes hand in hand with its failure to understand and accept that such rhetoric is identical to that of President Trump. Now we see similar ideologies as Gamergaters from someone as powerful as Trump. He retweets and amplifies alt-right memes on his Twitter; his son openly affiliates with the alt-right; Trump defended and continues to present the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, as though it wasn’t intentionally planned and organized as a white supremacist rally. (It was.)

As described by Vox’s Ezra Klein, Trump’s willingness to engage in incendiary racist rhetoric is similar to the tactics that have led many journalists to dismiss his followers as trolls: “He chooses his enemies based on who he thinks will rile up his base. He uses outrageous, offensive insults to get the media to take notice. And then he feeds off the energy unleashed by the confrontation.” In other words, he and his followers — many of whom, again, are members of the extreme online right-wing that got its momentum from Gamergate — are using the strategy Gamergate codified: deploying offensive behavior behind a guise of mock outrage, irony, trolling, and outright misrepresentation, in order to mask the sincere extremism behind the message.”

A Modest Proposal Regarding Abortion

Encouraged by the elevation of conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, pro-birth zealots in Ohio and Georgia have introduced anti-choice legislation so draconian that it attempts to criminalize feminine contraception and even assert jurisdiction outside the boundaries of the states in question. Indeed the laws go so far as to mandate a medical procedure (reimplantation of ectopic pregnancies) that does not currently exist, and to criminalize the heartbreaking but naturally-occurring phenonmenon of miscarriage, on the off-chance the mother had some hand in it and it wasn’t just God’s will.

It’s a long way to go to prevent abortions, but I think we have to ask ourselves something.

Does it go far enough?

After all, as severe as these laws are, they ignore a full half of the problem: whether the act of conception was consensual or not, it takes a man to get a woman pregnant. Moreover, thanks to advances in medical technology, it’s both easier and more practicable to concentrate on the male half of the conceptive equation. Vasectomies are simple, painless, and reversible. There is even a non-invasive procedure which coats the inside of the tubes between testes and penis with a magnetized layer such that sperm are pulled apart and rendered unviable as they pass through, without any further effect on the patient. It’s cheap, easy, and can be reversed in a matter of minutes.

Just think how many unintended pregnancies could be prevented. Maybe not all of them, but a significant majority, I’d bet.

Is it draconian to mandate the procedure? Possibly, but no more so than the legislation already on the table. And in preventing the possibility of conception rather than using the demand said conception be carried to term no matter the circumstance or mother’s preference, it will be vastly more effective at our stated goal of preventing abortions.

In fact, I’ll go further, and suggest that not only should some such procedure be mandatory, it should only be reversible by approval, either by a body of women designated to appraise a man’s fitness for reproduction, or by a woman signing off that she actively wants to have that man’s baby.

Will this prevent all unintended pregnancies? No. But it will reduce them significantly. And, as a follow-on result, it will reduce abortions even more significantly, since the only intended pregnancies that end in abortion come about because of some heartbreaking medical necessity, an issue best left to the woman whose body it is and the doctor whose advice she chooses to take.

It is an imperfect solution to the problem of unintended pregnancy, and the choice to abort that sometimes results. And while I am steadfast in my support for a woman’s right to exercise bodily autonomy, and will ever be thus, I do join my anti-choice fellow citizens in hoping to reduce the number of abortions. I know from experience that it’s never an easy decision, nor one ever taken lightly. It seems best to me to see if we can’t prevent it from coming up in the first place.

A Woman For President

I’d much rather a woman for President this time around, and more women in positions of power in general. Particularly women of color. Sure, there’s a bit of knee-jerk in there, and some turnabout is fair play. But mostly I’d like our leaders to be the sort of people who’ve had to overcome a lot of challenges to get their seat at the table, and who remember what it’s like to be marginalized. People who had to learn early to take care and keep an eye out, because society granted them no wiggle room, no second chances if they made a mistake. I want people who understand that heroes might make for great stories, but that actual large-scale accomplishment in the real world takes community and cooperation and coalition-building, and is accomplished in halting, agonizingly slow steps (two forward, one back, then one to the side because somebody threw up a wall). People for whom patience and resilience aren’t just virtues to aspire to, but survival strategies that go bone deep.


Sure, life is hard for almost everyone. By design, because civilization has almost always been a pyramid scheme, where most suffer so a few don’t have to. But those against whom the deck’s most stacked have the hardest path from where they start to the table where decisions get made, and the ones who make it – and who remember where they started – tend to have, in my experience, the right combination of toughness, ability, and compassion to lead us into the next phase of humanity, where everyone gets their fair share and their shot at living a meaningful life.

Black History Month Book Report #2: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

I wasn’t going to read this one second (though it was on the list). But then I cracked the cover and read the first chapter, and, just like that, I was hooked.

American Street begins with a loss. Fabiola Toussaint and her mother, Valerie, are moving to Detroit from Port-au-Prince. Fabiola is American born, and passes through immigration with no problem. But now she’s stuck on the wrong side of the glass: her mother has been detained. Reluctantly, she boards her connecting flight to Detroit, hoping against hope that her mother will follow along shortly.

I don’t think I’m spoiling much if I say that her mother does not. Instead, Fabiola (shortly Fabulous) joins her cousins Chantal, Princess (‘Pri’), and Primadonna (‘Donna’) and her aunt Jo in Detroit, where Fabiola must find a way to navigate this strange and dangerous territory while holding on to who she is and trying to find a way to bring her mother through the gateway and into America.

It’s a neat trick, establishing empathy with a character you’ve just met, and Zoboi does it flawlessly in those first pages and then never lets up. Fabiola must find her way through not only the culture shock of moving from Haiti to America, but also the discrepancies between the America she expected and the America she experiences, all while trying to build a sense of family with her cousins, who were only voices on the phone til she arrived, and restore the family she’s known her whole life by getting her mother through immigration. Add in the dangers of high school, the drug trade, and the particular precariousness of life in Detroit, fallen symbol of the 20th Century American Dream, it’s no wonder Fabulous feels lost. Luckily, she has her vodou practice, her cousins, and her memories to carry her through.

This is one of those books that just grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. At least it was for me. Tautly-plotted and written in prose that manages to be visceral, poetic, and windowpane-clear all at once, I chewed my way through most of this book in a single day. I can see why it won the National Book Award.

Immigrant stories are an American perennial, both because of the long and mostly positive history of our lifted lamp beside the golden door, and because we can see it most clear through fresh eyes, both in its ideal form (both foreign and domestic) and its actuality. Here that actuality takes many forms: the injustice of splitting Fabiola from her mother, the Faustian bargain she’s offered by a local police detective, and the fruits of that bargain, too, which I won’t spoil but will have you nodding and saying ‘yeah, that’s about right’ even as you wipe a tear from your eye and read on, hoping Zoboi will take it back. But of course she doesn’t, because even though Fabiola is eminently root-forable, this is America, and she and her family – and everyone near their home at the corner of American Street and Joy Road – are black.

That’s not to say this book is a bummer. Much of it is so ebullient and alive that the reader will forgive the inescapably complicated state of things by the end. It is, perhaps, as happy an ending as can be asked for, and one that satisfies even if you don’t get all you root for.

Either way, this is a fantastic book, and one I’d recommend both for its all-too-relevant subject matter and its stunning fulfillment of the promise it makes in those first few pages. Go ahead, pick it up. I’m willing to bet you won’t put it down.