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.

Why I Donated to Elizabeth Warren Today

200125-elizabeth-warren-mn-1140_6de994e52181233ebf528c412dd6d726.fit-760wEver since the New Hampshire primary, the punditariat has written many a premature obituary for the campaign of Elizabeth Warren. And I get it. According to their narrative conventions — which they love to misname the ‘conventional wisdom’ —  Iowa and New Hampshire are supposed to winnow the field down to two or maybe three candidates. And even though there are supposedly only three tickets out of Iowa, one of which Elizabeth Warren won, her poor showing in the widely divided field in New Hampshire has supposedly ‘put a stench of death’ on her campaign, at least according to an unnamed campaign aide quoted by one of my favorite writers.

To which I say: All. My Bollocks.

Here is Dylan Matthews at Vox, giving up the game:

“The only reason to care about the early primaries is that they drive media narratives, perceptions of candidate viability, and thus later primaries in states that actually matter for delegate count. Iowa and New Hampshire just don’t award enough delegates to be important on their own (41 and 24, respectively) without that perception effect.”

Ninety-eight percent of delegates to the nominating convention (which is the metric, just or not, by which score is kept in this game) remain unpledged. Ninety-eight percent. That’s like, almost all of them. Never mind that virtually no people of color have had a chance to weigh in (which seems like it might change the dynamics for, say, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar). Nor have many union members, who might not like the current front-runner’s health care plan (FWIW, I do endorse it, myself, though I think Warren’s got a better plan for getting there). Hell, in New Hampshire, whose influence is even more outsized than usual thanks to Iowa’s self-immolation, the primary is open. Republicans and Independents can cast votes for the Democratic nominee. That may or may not be a good thing, but one thing is clear: it means New Hampshire — white-as-snow, soi disant libertarian New Hampshire — is even less representative of the Democratic party than Iowa.

All of which is to say that while the punditariat may indeed prefer a two- or three-person race (and put a thumb on the coverage scale to make it happen), we the voters are in no way obliged to oblige them. Quite the contrary. There are enough primaries left, enough voices yet to be heard, I think all the viable candidates should keep running.

There’s a lot at stake come the general election. But there’s a lot at stake, too, in the Democratic primary. Not only do we need a champion to face Donald Trump come November, we need to flip the Senate and bolster our House majority. The person who can lead that wave might be any of the top contenders.

Me, I think that person is Elizabeth Warren. I think she’s got the intellect, temperament, experience, and plans to carry us forward into the interesting times ahead, and I’m not the only one. Even most people for whom she’s not the top choice put her as their second choice. Far as I can tell, her only negatives are among billionaires and the Extremely Online folks who think she doesn’t go far enough on M4A. She’s got a thousand staffers and millions in the bank, and she’s in the fight for all the right reasons. So things going badly isn’t going to slow her down, nor should it.

Put it another way: Nevertheless, she’ll persist.

And so will I in supporting her as she continues to run. And if, come June, there’s no clear winner, and we have a contested convention, well, then even if she doesn’t get the nomination, I want Elizabeth Warren at the table, with as many delegates as she can get in her pocket, to make sure the people and policies she’s fighting for get their fair share.

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.

 

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.”