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 class-based approach to politics. The exponent of this notion whom I want to criticize 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.
The normal reason to be interested in politics is out
of an interest in policy outcomes. How will this candidate affect my life. Are
her policies good or bad for the country. So the first question ought to be,
what outcome should we prefer?
The horserace commentary seldom takes that concern as
a point of departure, perhaps on the grounds that it reflects a bias. I would
suggest that a neglect of policy is also a bias. Choose your poison.
There is widespread acknowledgment that Sanders’
proposals are popular, well beyond the boundaries of his actual electoral
showings. If the usual warnings about climate change are taken seriously, then
his proposals are not merely nice to have, but vital to the future of humanity.
Beauchamp conflates a vote for Biden not merely with a rejection of Sanders’
proposals, but with a flight from material interest.
A different conclusion is that voters interpreted
their class interest more broadly, and more pragmatically, than with support
for Medicare For All, etc. In other words, they could have concluded that
because Biden is the most electable of alternatives on offer, a vote for Biden
was the best guarantor of their class interest. One could disagree with that
reasoning, but it makes perfect sense, as far as it goes. Your class-obsessed author
happens to think a second Trump term will create more irreversible damage and
constitute a harbinger of a more open fascism. Defeating fascism is a
legitimate, class-based interest too. The underlying sentiment is not
necessarily detected from the responses to survey questions that ask, “What is
more important, beating Trump or free college?” The refusal of Democratic
Socialists of America (DSA), of which I’m a member, to endorse the only
candidate who can prevent a second Trump, namely Joe Biden, is a travesty.
One could make similar arguments when it comes to
identity or party affiliation.
I’m not the person to explain African Americans to
anyone, but it seems reasonable to suspect 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. Nor does it take a genius in a minority group to realize that
political power depends on alliances, which points back to electability and
class consciousness. In other words, African Americans understand they have
some common economic interests with a broader group – the working class, so
they see the Democratic Party as most deserving of their support.
When it comes to women, anyone who does not think
reproductive rights are unrelated to material interests just needs to fall
back. As for racial or religious minorities, a pragmatic choice should not be
conflated with an indifference to class.
It is true that minorities and women may perceive a
material interest that is often not well-served by a narrow class-oriented
politics. The dilemma is that there is no viable, alternative way to pursue
that interest, other than accepting the limited rewards that come from
Democratic Party rule. Support for an often disappointing alternative is
somewhat compensated for by hopes of progress, and indeed progress –
incremental, positive reforms – are often observed.
When it comes to party, of course Sanders has always
based his appeal on not being a Democrat. But why are Biden voters Democrats in
the first place? Is it possibly out of some conception of their class interest?
I don’t think one can reject this possibility out of hand, or legitimately
ignore it altogether, as Beauchamp does.
Another angle of criticism of Sanders is the claim
that voters do not act on policy, so a programmatic campaign lacks the juice
for voter appeal. This could be read as another knock on class politics, but
here again a preference for an anodyne appeal based on ‘values’ or warm
fuzzies, a performance rather than a platform (Hi, Senator Booker!), is not a
neutral policy stance. By foregoing policy commitments, we simply cede
decision-making flexibility to the powers that be.
I do think the Sanders movement is hampered by some misconceptions
One goes to a running argument I’ve had with
anti-Sanders voices complaining that he failed to drop out in 2016 or this year
when it became obvious he could not be nominated. My point was that the Sanders
campaign is a movement, not a mere electoral vehicle. It’s raison d’etre is to
be self-sustaining, indefinitely. No letting up, no permanent victories. A
primary campaign is just another opportunity to preach the gospel, one that some
on the left discount to their disadvantage.
It is possible to continue to campaign, even compete
with Joe Biden, without diminishing his chances in November. In fact, I would
argue that a continued campaign could enhance those chances, providing it
focuses its fire on Trump. If I was Sanders, I would focus on the locales where
I had the best chance of turning non-voters or Trump voters into Democratic
Civil criticism of Biden is conducive to party unity
and heightens the contrast with the current, barbaric administration. The
contrast also tends to debunk likely Republican charges that Biden is some kind
of crypto-socialist. Moreover, the other extreme of Bernie-or-nobody reduces
the prospects for future contenders from the left for Democratic Party
nominations. You can’t expect to be welcomed to compete within the party if you
walk away after a defeat. Nobody wants to play heads-I-win/tails-you-lose.
Ironically the campaign itself may have lost sight of
this, its fundamental mission. One factor is its failure to discipline the
ranks of its most toxic supporters, which diminishes prospects in November, as
well as for the indefinite future. I happen to think that factor is highly
overblown, but it is not utterly without significance.
The other was the reported belief that Sanders could
win the nomination if he could beat the other candidates one-on-one with
pluralities of votes, what we could call a thirty percent strategy.
Both of those notions may have been magnified by the
urgency of winning this year by hook or crook, since it will be Sanders’ last
rodeo. But if we acknowledge the campaign is an ongoing movement to radically
change capitalism, not just an electoral campaign, then it should be realized
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 leaders that are being groomed to take over. 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. A singular leadership lends
itself to personality cults.
I go back to the question, what do we want? If it’s
ultimately the Sanders platform, the working class is the logical vehicle. It
would be foolish to fail to appeal to all who would benefit from one’s
There has been an argument that racism has been indelibly
ingrained in white people since the dawn of America, but in one sense that is
beside the point. The nature and doings of racism are shaped by the social and
economic environment. There have been periods when class power reduced the
salience of race. In particular, the industrial union movement in the 1930s,
which included not a few profoundly racist white workers, wreaked enormous,
positive changes that benefitted the entire working class. Clearly those
benefits were not uniform across racial lines, but they left everyone better
In more recent years, the Jesse Jackson campaign
resonated with a noticeable slice of the white working class, and we also have
stories about Obama-to-Trump voters. Given the closeness of the 2016 election,
it only requires the defection of a slender margin of such Trump voters to
swing the outcome to the Democrats.
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 much of a redistributive
edge. A ‘suburban strategy’ is just another way to evade class issues, an
evasion that is equivalent to an anti-working-class posture. There is no
neutrality in this dimension. You’re always on one side or the other.
A common attack on Sanders was his neglect of race and
gender. While he is fair game for that criticism, when the choice was between
him and Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, any hint of a relative shortcoming on
issues of race is ridiculous. There was more grist for this mill in the case of
gender, but only in comparison to Clinton.
It remains the case that removing the Trump
Administration is a necessary condition for progress, since progress requires
survival. 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
All indications are that the Sanders movement, the
U.S. social-democratic movement, will keep banging away on its class program.
It has obviously gotten the message that it needs better roots in African
American communities, better turnout among youth, and more difficult work
cracking the white working class.
Coming of age in the 60s, my awakening to the
country’s racist and imperialist moorings led me to think a revolution was not
just urgent, but because it was urgent, it would also be possible in a
relatively short time. The former does not imply the latter.
Lost in the history of the New Left, a wise woman once
said something to the effect, “We had convinced ourselves we would make a
revolution. But revolutions are not made. They are rare events.” Practical possibilities
do not follow from moral imperatives.