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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Other People’s Sexism

My favorite thing about the primary election cycle in 2020 has been the mainstream media being forced to acknowledge how a few tiny, mostly unrepresentative states’ early calendar placement warps their coverage of the entire primary season. Seriously. Like, as of now, Bernie Sanders, the front-runner, has 58 delegates. Joe Biden, the establishment favorite, has 50. Elizabeth Warren, my preferred candidate, lags at 8. Mike Bloomberg has 0, but he does have $60,000,000,000.

To win the nomination takes 1,991. Tomorrow, 1,357 are up for grabs. A week later, 365. A week after that, another 577. Which gets us to 61%, according to Vox.

All of which is to say, this isn’t over, however convenient it might be for the media’s preferred narrative.

And hey, if Sanders or Biden or Bloomberg’s your guy, then by all means, vote for your guy. That’s what we’re supposed to do, come the primary season. For what it’s worth, I’d have said the same about Buttigieg and Klobuchar, if they hadn’t dropped out.

But if your guy isn’t a guy at all, if your candidate, like mine, is Elizabeth Warren, then you should vote for her.20190825_150408

I mean, Elizabeth Warren is far and away the best candidate on the merits. She not only understands the depth and breadth of the problems facing us, from incipient climate disaster to the drivers of wealth inequality to the descent into authoritarianism and white nationalist fascism our oligarchic overlords have decided is more in their interest than the messy unpredictability of democracy, where the mass of people they’re the cancer on might decide it was time for a bit of elective surgery. In addition to her well-developed and wide-ranging arsenal of plans, her singular focus on rooting out corruption and getting rid of the institutional brakes — like the filibuster — that keep change from being enacted is our best chance at reversing the trends that are destroying us. And her deep, complex understanding of the powers — and limitations — of the Presidency would make her a more effective Executive and Commander-In-Chief than anyone else in the field.

That much, to me, is obvious. But a whole lot of people seem to think it’s time for her to get out of the way so we can figure out which white man in his late seventies to put up against the white man in his late seventies currently driving the country over a cliff into a dumpster fire that is also a toilet we’re going down the drain of and which will  dump us, eventually, in Hell. If it hasn’t already.

The problem, we’re told, is she’s a woman. Not that the people telling us that are sexist. Nor, for the most part, are the people listening. Far from it. They’re not prejudiced at all. It’s those other, other people. The ones who are prejudiced and sexist, who are the problem. It’s a sad calculation, but we must bow to pragmatism, and accept the prejudices of those we’ll have to educate more later for now.

To which I say, all my bollocks. Because it’s not pragmatism being bowed to in that calculation. It’s prejudice. It’s sexism. It’s the same old self-fulfilling prophecy. Put it like this: if your reason not to vote for a woman is because you’re afraid other people won’t, you’ve surrendered to sexism without a fight, no matter your personal convictions.

To be honest, I think that capitulation is even more sexist than being a misogynist prick who actively works against women’s agency and representation. Because that guy, at least, is honest. He’s standing up for what he believes in, even though what he believes in is wrong. The person who concedes in advance to that guy is not only declining to stand up for what they believe in, they’re declining to say that guy is wrong. They’re letting perception, someone else’s preferred narrative, drive their choices, when the reality is that possibility’s still wide open.

To me, Elizabeth Warren’s the best candidate running, hands down. She has the best ideas, the best story, the best mind, and would, to my estimation, be the effective, transformative President our country, and history, need. If you think elsewise, that’s fine. But I’ll be goddamned if I’m not going to vote for her this primary season because I’m afraid she might lose because of her gender.

Like the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina — with all due respect to the voters of those states — the perception that America is too sexist to elect a woman President is just a perception, one rooted more in the interests of those most invested in a status quo that needs to change than in reality, present and future. I, for one, am not gonna let it warp my actions, and goddamnit, I don’t think you should, either.

Vote for Elizabeth Warren.

Some Quick Reminders for the Iowa Conspiracy Theorists

First and foremost: There’s a paper trail — for the first time, btw, so put that in your pipe and (retrospectively) smoke it — so the results will come in, and probably be reasonably accurate. That they will be muddled because of how many ways the totals are gonna be split, and because — for some reason — they are reporting not one, not two, but three metrics by which a winner might be declared would have been the case even if things went smooth like butter.

Second, and I can’t stress this enough: Iowa doesn’t really matter! The state accounts for a whopping 1% of convention delegates, which is how the party decides who gets the nomination. In fact, the first four states (IA, NH, NV, and SC) only account for about 5% of delegates (the latter two were moved up to help counterbalance the, ahem, whiteness of the traditional first two). The media likes to pretend they matter more than they actually do, because it gives them fodder to create narratives (and winnow the field). But really, we’re not going to have a good idea who’s ahead, behind, or viable going forward til Super Tuesday, when about half the delegates will be allotted in one big day of primary voting.

Third: Of course the app went wrong. It’s a brand new piece of bespoke tech — developed for a complex, idiosyncratic process — that couldn’t be field-tested beforehand because how would you even do that? Add to that that rules were changed in the way the caucuses work (because this ain’t the first time they’ve had problems calling a winner the night or even the week of), and remember that the vast majority of poll workers are retiree volunteers who don’t know a whole lot about the cyber, and the likeliest — even inevitable — outcome is what happened.

Fourth, and really more of an aside: The changes that are fucking this all up were implemented after complaints from Sanders supporters in 2016, who wanted a more transparent process with a paper trail and yadda yadda yadda (instead of, you know, getting rid of these arcane, uninclusive, undemocratic rituals in favor of the simplicity of a primary vote). That these selfsame people — and the bots who love them — are making the biggest stink about what’s going down is both extremely on-brand and perfectly in tune with the tragilarious irony that has characterized this blighted timeline since the Large Hadron Collider was turned on and everyone lost their goddam minds.

Fifth: While the various conspiracies — Russian/Republican ratfucking, DNC scale-tipping against Bernie/Joe/Pete/whoevs — are not unplausible, I urge you recall Hanlon’s Razor, which says, simply:

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So, deep breaths, everybody. Relax. For once, we’ve woken up the day after Iowa without a handy narrative to shape perceptions about the race going forward. The voting’s just started, the race is still tight. Which, you know, accurately reflects the reality.

This is a good thing.

One Good Thing About the Iowa Democratic Caucus Snafu

440px-Private_SNAFUIt’s a tossup, right now, whether tonight’s app-related debacle for the Iowa Democratic party is the result of ratfucking — be it Republican or Russian — or just standard issue Democratic rake-stepping, or even just the semi-inevitable buggery when a new tech gizmo is deployed for the first time. Either way it’s giving all of us agita while we wait for the paper/pics of paper to be tallied. The whole thing is pretty on-brand for the twenty-first century.

But there is one silver lining, which is in every explainer published instead of the vote totals (or whatever) and what it all means analysis they all expected to go with, everyone’s finally admitting that Iowa doesn’t mean shit, delegate-wise, and is only important because the caucuses, simply by being first, help shape perceptions and narrative.

Yet the power of the caucuses is that they can change that state of play. Based on Iowa’s results, candidates believed to be in the top tier can either solidify that status or stumble, and underdogs can either break out or fall flat. Iowa has this effect because it greatly influences the perceptions of the political world — the media, activists, party insiders, donors, the candidates themselves, and voters — about who can win.”

And that, my friends, is a righteous good thing.

All of punditry has been waiting for this night, when they can finally say who’s up or who’s down, who’s a contender, who beat or missed expectations, who should throw in the towel. Every four years, a few hundred thousand white people performing an arcane ritual that has people sorting themselves into physical groups and then performing arcane calculations to allocate delegates who will themselves meet later to perform calculations to allocate delegates, who will themselves blah blah blah so that, come June, 40-odd of 4000-odd delegates to the Democratic Convention can yell their candidate’s name. It’s a ridiculous, outdated process (I, myself, have attended two caucuses, which were such complete shit-shows that I ended up running both precincts because, well, someone had to), a relic from a bygone era of not picking candidates by popular vote. Which is not a good look for a party that takes its name from the word ‘democracy’.

Look, I got nothing against Iowans. But they aren’t even remotely representative of the people who make up/vote for the Democratic party. They’ve had a good thing going these last fifty years, what with the quadrennial boost to their economy. But a tiny, empty, rural state performing an outdated political ritual to allocate their near-inconsequential number of delegates isn’t much better than strange women in ponds distributing swords when it comes to picking a candidate for President.

It’s not like that’s a big secret. But it’s nice to see it said out in the open like that.

 

Terrell Jermaine Starr on the Iowa Caucuses’ Role in Privileging Whiteness

In the wake of the DNC (“Stepping on our own dicks since 1972!”) changing debate qualifications so Mike Bloomberg gets his moment to shine after almost all the candidates of color have dropped/been forced out — and in these first days of Black History Month — this piece at The Root by Terrell Jermaine Starr resonates even more:

“Basically, Iowa allows white men to shoot their shot when they really shouldn’t even think about trying.

But it does something else far worse: kill the campaigns of non-white candidates. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker were two of the most resume-ready candidates for president in recent memory and their melanin was icing on the cake. However, neither of them were able to sustain their candidacies, which depended on prioritizing the black voters who were supposed to buoy their campaigns. Julián Castro, a Latino and former Housing and Urban Development secretary who championed racial justice more than any other person on the trail, dropped out in December.

[…]

One has to wonder if any of these candidates would still be in the race if, say, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi were the first primary states, where conversations around reproductive rights, infant mortality rates and combating racism would be at the top of black voters’ minds. Invariably, candidates would have to center black issues in the early stages of their campaigns and national media would have to shape coverage around these issues because it’s simply too many negroes in those states not to.

[…]

‘Iowa is considered ‘real America’ by far too many journalists and politicians where heartland, Middle America and rural are all proxies for whiteness and centering white political priorities,” Greer said. “And then New Hampshire just one week later presents a lopsided account of the needs, wants, and values of the entire party.’”

https://www.theroot.com/iowa-becky-the-hawkeye-state-is-gentrifying-black-peop-1841387214