By Max B. Sawicky
At the risk of exploiting unforeseeable turns of events to validate all my priors, I want to argue that the unfolding of the 2020 Democratic primaries does not invalidate a DSA, class-oriented approach to politics. An example of a contrary view is Zack Beauchamp in “Why Bernie Sanders Failed.”
His basic argument is that the Sanders’ campaign strategy rested on two premises that didn’t prove out. One was to ground the appeal to the working class and youth, which fell flat because black voters supported Biden, white workers who flirted with Bernie in 2016 are now for Biden or Trump, and youth didn’t turn out.
Beauchamp concludes that identity and party affiliation trumped class. He fails to consider that those things are themselves founded on material self-interest, which is to say, class.
There is widespread acknowledgment that Sanders’s proposals are popular. We could imagine that voters interpreted their class interest more broadly, and more pragmatically, than by supporting ambitious proposals such as Medicare For All, etc. In other words, they could have thought that Biden was the most electable candidate, so a vote for Biden was the best guarantor of their class interest. You could disagree with that judgment, but it’s not crazy, nor is it bereft of class consciousness.
Some of us in DSA think a second Trump term will be a harbinger of a more open fascism. Defeating fascism is a legitimate, class-based interest too.
Similar arguments apply to questions of identity or party affiliation. It’s plausible that Trump is viewed as profoundly inimical to black material interests, over and above his class warfare. Trump screws the working class, but there’s an extra turn of the screw for minorities. In this way of thinking, class may be de-centered, but it is not irrelevant.
Nor is it a stretch for POC to reason that political power depends on alliances, which points back to electability. In other words, insofar as anyone understands at least some common interests with a broader group – the working class – they could see some sense in voting for Joe Biden.
The same argument pertains to women, whose gender interests supplement, but do not supplant, those of class. As for racial or religious minorities, a pragmatic choice should not be conflated with indifference to class.
Sanders was often criticized for a de-emphasis on race and gender. When the choice was between him and Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, any hint of a relative shortcoming on issues of race was ridiculous. We could concede some grist for this mill in the case of gender, but only in comparison to Clinton.
When it comes to party, Sanders has always rejected formal membership in the Democratic Party. But why are Biden voters Democrats in the first place? Is it possibly out of some conception of their class interest? We cannot reject that possibility out of hand.
The Sanders movement may have been hampered by some misconceptions or biases.
One goes to a running argument I had with those who complained that he failed to drop out in 2016 or this year when it became obvious he would not be nominated. But like DSA, the Sanders campaign is a movement, not a mere electoral vehicle. Its raison d’etre is to be self-sustaining. Sanders’s agitation for effective anti-virus policies are a current example. A presidential primary is another opportunity to preach the gospel.
The irony here is that winning is not the only thing. Of course, it is better to win than not, but how you win or how you lose are equally important. You could win and be hamstrung, and discredited, or you could lose and have a lot of leverage. In either case, the table is set for future political opportunities.
How you win or lose stems from how you campaign. It’s been reported that the Sanders campaign strategy was premised on the objective of beating other candidates, one-on-one, with a plurality of votes, what we could call a ‘thirty percent strategy.’
The urgency of winning this year by hook or crook, since it would be Sanders’s last rodeo, was totally understandable. But since the campaign is an ongoing movement to radically change capitalism, not just an electoral campaign, it should have been clear that this is not accomplished with 30 percent pluralities and a Congress full of meh Democrats. It’s a long-term project, a marathon rather than a sprint. Politically it requires not a thin majority, but a crushing one.
Moreover, it must be about more than Sanders. There ought to be a new raft of emerging leaders. I love AOC as much as anyone, but we need more than one or four of her, and probably some with a decade or two of additional experience.
The white component of the working class has played a positive political role at some points in U.S. history. It has not been uniformly negative, especially outside of the states of the Confederacy. Given the closeness of the 2016 election, it only requires the defection of a slender margin of Trump voters to swing the outcome.
The usual alternative proposed to class politics is an appeal to ‘the suburbs.’ This is a bit of a misnomer. Of course, there are working class suburbs. What’s really in question is politics without a material, redistributive edge. “The suburbs” are invoked as being above class, as implicitly well-off, beyond precarity.
A ‘suburban strategy’ is just a rhetorical device to evade class, an objectively anti-working-class stance. There is no neutrality in this dimension. You’re always on one side or the other.
It remains the case that removing the Trump Administration is a necessary condition for progress, since progress requires democracy. Another four years of Trump further erodes voting rights, especially for youth and minorities, fills out the Federal judiciary with right-wing ideologues, and removes all regulatory constraints on capitalist predation. In that scenario, survival, much less opportunities for our revolution, look less likely. The 2020 primary campaign is over, but our movement goes on.
Also See: Progressive Capitalism?
Review of Joseph E. Stiglitz, People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent (W.W. Norton & Company, 2020).
By Max B. Sawicky
Joseph Stiglitz’s commitment to a “progressive capitalism” calls to mind the famous response of Gandhi to the notion of Western civilization: “It would be a very good idea.”
Published in Jacobin.
https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/04/progressive-capitalism-joseph-stiglitz- a review