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 and biases.
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 voters.
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 proposals.
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 off.
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 unlikely.
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.