On April 28, 2020, I intend to cast my vote, in the New York Democratic primary, for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, if he is still in the race. If he is not, I will vote for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, if she remains in the race. While I am contributing to both the Sanders and Warren campaigns, Sanders’s strikes me as more clear-sighted about the nature and extent of the changes needed to the American polity if it is to remain a Liberal Democratic Republic. Namely: the end of corporate oligarchy and the cult of wealth, a radical overhaul of a murderous and unjust for-profit medical system, a solid and passionate commitment to oppose racism, sexism, and LGBTQ-phobia, and the extirpation of Trumpism from our political culture. Warren’s campaign is also committed to all of the above, albeit with different means and with a wonkier tone, and for that reason I would enthusiastically support her should her campaign prevail. But sometimes it is the melody rather than the lyrics that make the difference, and Sanders strikes a more urgent note. If Warren’s tone resembles Bob Dylan’s, Sanders is more like Rage Against the Machine. My mood is more aligned with the latter in these waning days of 2019.
But, as in 2016, I am getting more than annoyed by the false notes struck by some who are passionate about Senator Sanders and/or advancing a left-of-left-of-center agenda, as played out in social media. Call this phenomenon “Bernieolatry”, although I hasten to add that Bernieolators probably constitute only a small percentage of all Sanders supporters, and are heedless of Sanders’s own frequent admonition that his movement is not at all about him.
Their venom is most potent when directed at the likes of Senator Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend. Warren is often portrayed by them as a DLC/Clintonite mole, ever since she described herself not as a democratic socialist but as a “capitalist to the core”, although given her announced plans a New Deal social democrat might have been a more accurate self-description. Her taking corporate money in the past trumps (excuse the pun) her refusal of it now which in turn pegs her are a fringe part of the Establishment. This, in my humble opinion, is a kind of empty grandstanding. Her policies concerning wealth taxation, healthcare, government corruption, and so on, are at best only a smidgen to the Right of Sanders’s, and she has a sharper focus on the need to restrain and regulate big finance and big tech than he does. She is not my first choice, but it is ridiculous to stuff her in the same bag as Kamala Harris, or Joe Biden, or Pete Buttigieg. She may not be the Left-most candidate, but she will more than do in a pinch. She isn’t a corporate liberal. If she was, the corporations would not be so afraid of her.
Buttigieg is indeed a corporate liberal with a record that is sketchy at best on race and policing, and deserves to be harshly criticized for this. But unlike Michael Bloomberg or Tom Steyer he is not leveraging his personal wealth (he has none) to buy an election, he is clear on the need for democratic reform and the elimination of the Electoral College, and he is striking all the right notes on LGBTQ issues and in decoupling Christianity from far-Right politics. I also detect a discomfiting kind of reverse snobbery from many on the Left, echoing that of the Trumpian Right, about Buttigieg’s intellectualism. Intellectual snobbery is real, but so is anti-intellectual snobbery, which is, after all, snobbery. Buttigieg may a bit of a Bill Clinton-esque dilettante, but he is not an intellectual fraud; his opinions about political economics, race, and governance may be wrong, but he does not hold them ignorantly. We have had three years of government by imbecility. It’s been very bad. I have no doubt that a President Buttigieg would be a distinct improvement.
True, Buttigieg is not a panacea. But this is only partially Buttigieg’s fault: none of the candidates — not Sanders and not Warren either — are panaceas because there are no political panaceas and never have been. Politics is a slog, and a never-ending one. A satisfactory 2020 election is not going to be the Parousia, the second coming and the dawn of a new kingdom of liberty, equality, and solidarity, of justice and peace. We don’t get that satisfaction: the slog will continue.
The overwhelming issue in the 2020 election is not just to remove Donald Trump but to prevent the entire Republican Party from holding any leverage in the House, Senate, and Executive branch. It is a tall order, but an urgent one. The agendas of any and all factions within the Democratic Party will be frustrated if anything else transpires.
If this occasions a critique from fellow Leftists that I am beset with Trump Derangement Syndrome, so be it. He scares the bejeezus out of me, and not just because I am a trans woman. As an ignoramus, narcissist, sociopath, and aspiring tyrant he is an existential threat to the body politic. The Senate Republicans will bow to any of his attempts to disintegrate liberal republican democracy, as long as he serves the interests of capital and ingratiates a nationalist and Evangelical base that will reflexively vote Republican on command. That Trump has despotic ambitions is, I think, beyone argument at this point; plus he has considerably brighter people, like William Barr and Steven Miller, who also fully endorse this autocratic supreme Executive-branch Führerprinzip. And yes, the rhetoric of creeping Fascism and even Nazism is appropriate: even Godwin has declared “Godwin’s Law” to be obsolete these days.
Many of those who understand themselves to be “Left” at the dusk of the 2010’s still seemingly do not “get” the distinction between tactics and strategy. In military studies “strategy” denotes determining effective means toward the goal of winning wars, while “tactics” refers to the appropriate means for winning battles. It is important to be clear about both of them. Concentration on tactics to the neglect of strategy guarantees that the conflict will either be lost or go on forever (e.g., the American “incursion” into Vietnam). Concentration on strategy to the neglect of tactics guarantees that the conflict, a whole that is nothing without its parts, will never be genuinely engaged because inadequately understood. So if you have no short-term plans, your long-term plans are just a lot of hot air, and you will lose. The short-term precedes and assembles the long-term. Tactics need to be taken seriously. The short-term goal of defeating Republicans nationwide is a necessary preliminary to addressing all the long-term goals of reinvigorating democracy, reforming healthcare, establishing a more equitable economy, and so forth.
In a recent article in New York, Jonathan Chait has dubbed many of those opposed to tactical solidarity in evicting the Republicans “Anti-anti-Trumpists”. Chait’s essay is deeply flawed, a point to which I shall return in a subsequent essay. But he does accurately characterize some segments of the “anti-anti-Trump Left”:
The anti-anti-Trump left is not a monolithic bloc. It has differing levels of enthusiasm for splintering the progressive vote in general elections, for Trump himself, and for the ethics of explicit alliances with the right . . . What they share, in addition to enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, is a deep skepticism of the Democratic Party’s mobilization against the president. The left’s struggle against the center-left is the axis around which their politics revolves. From that perspective, the Russia scandal and impeachment are unnecessary and even reactionary . . . While incomprehensible to liberals, centrists, and even many leftists who work within two-party politics, left-wing anti-anti-Trumpism has a coherent logic. It takes as its starting point a familiar critique that Trump won because liberalism failed. Trump, while bad, is merely a meta-phenomenon of the larger failure of the Democratic Party and the political and economic Establishment. And so, to the extent that investigating Trump’s scandalous behavior allows Democrats to discredit Trump without undergoing revolutionary internal changes, it is counterproductive.
That “liberalism” — the gradualist approach to economic and political reform characteristic of the Obama and Clinton administrations, perhaps better described as “neoliberalism” — had failed, at least to some significant degree, I have no doubt. But it does not follow, from that premise, that the failure of neoliberalism and the feckless cupidity of Democrats are the sole causal elements for Trump’s win, and which therefore constitute a reason to be skeptical of “the Democratic mobilization against the President.” There are many reasons for Trump’s victory, including the Electoral College,Russian bots, Fox News propaganda, Hillary Clinton’s abysmal campaign, no-nothing white nationalism, racism, and utter apathy. And if “Trump won, therefore liberalism alone is the reason” is a non sequitur, then it does not follow that anti-Trump mobilization is unnecessary or indicative of the sinister ambitions of Establishment Democrats.
It is important to note that Bernie Sanders himself, not to mention the other “far-left” progressive in the race, Elizabeth Warren, are both firm advocates of impeachment and removal. If Bernie is the center of the Democratic Socialist revolution, Left-wing opponents of it ought to ask themselves if they are being “more Catholic than the Pope.” Never a good thing.
Thus, continues Chait, the anti-anti-Trump Left views the Establishment, neoliberal, Biden-Buttigieg wing of the Democratic Party to be a greater evil than Trump and company:
Some anti-anti-Trump leftists see impeachment not merely as a distraction from the Sanders revolution but a deliberate effort to marginalize it . . . [And] that Democratic leaders just might be setting up an impeachment trial in order to keep Sanders and Elizabeth Warren locked up in Washington and off the campaign trail. While such a possibility is obviously insane, if you consider the struggle between left-wing populists and evil neoliberals to be the central dynamic in American politics, it might seem at least plausible.
I have no doubt that Establishment Democratic leaders would like Sanders and Warren to go away. But this does nothing to compromise the case for impeachment and removal. If Chait is even remotely right about sectors of the anti-anti-Trump Left, then they are interpreting “opposing Trump and the Republicans” and “challenging the neoliberal Establishment” as two mutually-exclusive options. They are not. Why not?
That Trump is kowtowing to Putin and Russian interests, and that there was massive collusion between his campaign and Russians, is I think beyond dispute. This is a sign that Trump is indebted to and compromised by the Russians, and is a clear violation of his oath of office. By stonewalling Congress on these matters, he is not so much ignoring the Constitution as giving it the middle finger. So if you believe, as I assume anyone left-of-fascist would, that the rule of law is worthy of being protected and that Executive branch is not a Royal court, impeachment is at the very least conceivable, if not an urgent necessity. If neoliberals and centrists are on board with this, it’s all to the good. Cooperating with them does not entail that we are in bed with the neoliberal enemy. It is a tactical alliance, and, I would argue, a necessary one given the circumstances.
The Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party, which I support, will not prevail strategically unless the political deck is cleared of a Republican party that is half nationalist cult and half plutocrats and plutocrat-fellow-travelers. The latter think, like the Weimar Junkers, that the cult can be “useful” and controlled for the sake of the moneyed elite and their technicians. They are probably wrong about that, but will keep mum as long as the tax cuts and deregulation keeps comingdown the pike. This combination of political authoritarianism, theocracy, and economic libertarianism may or may not be incoherent: nevertheless it certainly is dangerous. So a tactical commitment to defeat the Republicans who embody this ethos is needed before any internal struggles begin. Without it, it will be very hard if not impossible to make headway against rising nationalist-theocratic-libertarian tides. (And as long as we have Weimar history on our minds, remember: it was the unwillingness on the part of the German Communist Party and the German Social Democratic Party to form a common alliance that gave the NSDAP, aka the Nazis, the opportunity to form a coalition with conservatives in 1932, which collapsed into one-party rule only a few months later.) Leftists should acknowledge that neoliberals, moderates, or centrists agree with them on this matter if nothing else. A tactical alliance with them for this short-term but critical task involves neither abandoning one’s core principles nor compromising them beyond repair. It is more a matter of facing up to the stakes of losing the Republic itself. The stakes are that high. Neoliberalism is bad, but neo-Fascism is worse. First things first.
But after the first things, there are other things . . .
The delusion which is opposite to Bernieolatry is that “electability” not a myth but a real property of candidates, and that someone who “will bring us all together” is the only kind of candidate that instantiates it. Cultists of bipartisan comity are fond of moderates like Joe Biden (Amy Klobuchar, Corey Booker, etc.) for precisely this reason. We need to come together in a collective political hug and sing “Kumbaya” around the national campfire. Call these centrists “Kumbaya Democrats.”
The narrative spun by Kumbaya Democrats goes something like this: Trump is an aberration, in fact the aberration, so Democrats need to raise a very big tent, one that can contain all the independents and Republicans who are disturbed by Trump. This will serve to defeat Trump and return to a normal, stable state of affairs, where we will finally get to implement Barack Obama’s audacious hope. Thus the music of Joe Biden’s campaign so far. In fact, he has floated the idea of a Republican running-mate, although he qualified it with a quip that so far he has seen no one who might be acceptable to him.
Even as a hypothetical, or a joke, this is crazy.
Biden here assumes that we dwell in a time of “normal” politics. I employ “normal” here the way Thomas Kuhn did, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, importing it from natural science to politics. In “normal science” inquiry proceeds within stable paradigms — i.e., norms, institutions, and practices that guide theorizing about the natural and social worlds. During times of “revolutionary science”, however, these paradigms become unstable. Revolutionary science is characterized not just by disagreement about which competing theories are justified within prevailing norms, institutions, and practices, but by disagreement about whether the norms, institutions, and practices are themselves valid.
By analogy, in times of normal democratic politics contending parties and points-of-view are advanced, discussed, argued, modified, accepted, or abandoned while all parties accept and are guided by a single Kuhn-like paradigm of law, norm, and custom. Various interests are represented in the legislature, but each particular interest is evaluated with an eye to benefiting the body-politic and the common good. No legislators are there to just to work for the people who voted for them (this is what I am calling “republicanism”, the idea of equal citizenship and non-domination of one group of citizens over another). All legislators debate policy in good faith, and are committed to majority rule (This is what I am calling “democracy”), and no legislators will cede their legitimate powers to the Executive branch (an element of what I am calling “liberalism”, which enforces a schedule of rights both to individuals and to branches of government).
It is obvious from the above that today’s Republican Party not only fails to honor democracy and liberalism: it isn’t even small-r republican. Republicans give at best lip-service to serving the citizenry as a whole, as opposed to their “bases”, and often fail to do even that. They are not competing within a paradigm shared with Democrats. They are challenging the paradigm itself. They are instigating Revolutionary Politics, and it would be foolish to take it to be “Normal.”
For Establishment Democrats to deal with Republicans as if they are acting in good faith, as supporters of Liberal Republican Democracy at heart, is delusional. As long as Democrats appeal to Republicans’ sense of fair play and respect for law and norms, their pleas will fall on deaf ears, at least to any Republican who isn’t openly and vehemently anti-Trump. (And their numbers are few.) They have no such respect. It is as if Democrats believe that they and Republicans are both committed to boxing under the Marquis of Queensbury rules, when the Republicans are ready for a street brawl where anything goes.
The United States of America is in that awkward transitional phase between normal and revolutionary politics. When normal politics breaks down, some kind ofrevolutionary politics is needed and wil emerge, but it does not spring up immediately as a clear alternative. There is an unsettling period where various epicycles and ad hoc patch jobs are made to the old paradigm, to no avail, until there is a “gestalt shift” to the new paradigm.
The revolution need not be violent, nor need it be something that happens instantaneously. Bernie Sanders has used the rhetoric of “our revolution” as an emblem of his campaign; Elizabeth Warren has not, but her proposals are far afield of the establishment consensus. In the long run, visions like theirs should prevail, lest the old political paradigm of two parties joining together to make laws for the benefit of all citizens continues to decay and slowly collapse.
And there is no reason to suppose that any emerging new political paradigm will be consistent with Liberal Republican Democracy: indeed, the Republican Party, now objectively Trumpist to its core, constitutes a new counter-paradigm, one that is illiberal, undemocratic, and anti-republican. They need to be out-argued, out-maneuvered, and out-run, and this will not be done without a sharp tactical focus on defeating them. But make no mistake: if and when this accomplished, a “return to normal” is precisely not what we need, unless we have a masochistic urge to see the present catastrophe recur again and again. If and when Trumpism is defeated, the tactical alliances will no longer matter. No time for singing “Kumbaya”.
I will continue this line of thought in a Part 2, which I plan to cover later in the week. Until then, have a very Happy New Year!