The Plain, ‘Popular’ Speaking Of Bernie Sanders And Jeremy Corbyn

One of the highlights of the recent Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns–one, a failed attempt to secure the nomination to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and the other a comparatively successful attempt by the Labour Party to derail the Tories in the United Kingdom–has been their plain speaking. Both Sanders and Corbyn relied on straightforward ‘messaging’; they spoke unapologetically about their political views and vision; they did not back down from supposedly ‘can’t-win’ electoral platforms; they did not waffle about or ‘triangulate. Wonder of wonders, they seemed perfectly cognizant of the fact that they would face political opposition, but that did not deter them from continuing to discuss and defend, in unvarnished terms, the democratic socialist and populist ‘agenda’ that was the centerpiece of their claim to become President or Prime Minister. If asked ‘Are you really saying that X?’–where X might be ‘taxing the rich’ or ‘supporting the Palestinian cause’ or ‘socialized healthcare’–the Sanders or Corbyn response, quite typically, was, “Why yes, that’s exactly what I meant, and here’s why.” (In sporting terms, Sanders and Corbyn decided to swing for the fences–rather than sitting on them. Perhaps they would lose; but they would only lose an election, not their integrity. They appeared prepared to pay that price.)

This plain-speaking, this directness, this unapologetic standing by and behind their political convictions, a rare species of political fearlessness, did not go unnoticed. Both Sanders and Corbyn attracted many young folk disenchanted–or just plain bored–by politics; they attracted many older folks turned off by the endlessly vacillating, weaselly language of conventional politics. By keeping their platforms simple, Sanders and Corbyn were not just comprehensible, they also managed to be inspiring. Years and years of being subjected to the inanity and indirection of political discourse has produced a diverse electorate that yearns for plain speaking and a kind of transparent, even if occasionally bumbling, sincerity. Sanders and Corbyn both ‘delivered’; neither are inspiring speakers; their prose is not lofty; they do not appear to have taken classes in oratory or rhetoric; but importantly, they did not appear ‘coached’ and bland and inoffensive either. They knew they would cause offense; they accepted such a cost as part of the price of doing politics, of trying to get a certain kind of message out and about. They also knew the rhetorical value of their manner of speaking.

It will remain an enduring scandal that the Democratic Party in the US could not quite see the wisdom of such plain speaking during the 2016 election season, and instead decided to throw its weight behind a candidate who could not bring herself to drop a language that appeared too cautious, too timid, too ready to compromise. Neither could the Labour Party in the United Kingdom; many of its members and leaders attacked Corbyn relentlessly in the lead-up to the election. In the US, we are left saddled with the dysfunctional presidency of Donald Trump; in the United Kingdom, a second election to resolve the uncertainty created by the unstable Tory-DUP coalition seems quite likely. One can only wonder what the political landscape would look like today if these candidates had not been sabotaged by their own parties.

There are lessons to be learned here; the politician who makes the effort to do so knows an attentive audience–and participants in political action–awaits.

The United Kingdom Sends Political Driving Directions To The US

Democracy’s biggest problem–without exaggeration–is the contempt politicians feel for those who elect them. The electors, the people, the voters; the heart of electoral democracies. One crystalline manifestation of this attitude occurs during those events that are designed to remind us, by their periodic occurrence, that we live in electoral democracies: elections. Then, the people’s opinions are presumed and assumed–under the guise of ‘interpreting’ their ‘responses’ to ‘surveys and ‘polls,’ all infected with their own methodological biases. They are treated as generic entities, their preferences and passions turned into quantitative assessments that terminate in gnomic pronouncements like, ‘Candidate X is unelectable.’  Or, even worse, much worse, the electors’ minds will be read, and similar presumptions and assumptions are made; these are ignorant and ahistorical and made from isolated and insular positions, infected with their ideological biases, and they result in identical assessments: ‘Candidate X can never win; his or her platform is unworkable and out of step.’ Management consultants and political experts rule the roost, while those who actually wield power–if only they knew it–are systematically ignored.

The disastrous consequences of this attitude were only too clearly on display in the 2016 US elections. The Democratic Party ran a disastrous campaign from start to finish; it ran a candidate deeply unpopular with huge swathes of the electorate; it undermined a candidate who had actually brought ‘new blood’ to the party, and embodied the best chance of maintaining and sustaining a voter coalition that had put a black man with a Muslim middle name into the Oval Office in consecutive elections; it refused to believe that a populist platform that actively sought to roll back economic inequality, which had mobilized millions of new voters, was ‘practical’ or ‘viable.’ The Democratic Party paid for its hubris; but even worse, so did we.

Across the pond, the British electorate have just shown the Democratic Party the errors of its ways. The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, laid out an uncompromisingly populist, democratic socialist platform; they did not attempt triangulation or limp centrism; they spoke to clearly expressed needs; they, in short, listened to their potential voters, they articulated a clear vision, unapologetically; and wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, they succeeded at the ballot box, disrupting a supposedly global triumph of rightwing populism. The Tory Party lives on, as does the Theresa May administration, but only just; a no-confidence vote in their hastily cobbled together coalition with the DUP is almost certain.

The Democratic Party, of course, very closely resembles a death cult these days, obsessed with a relentless drive towards rendering itself both irrelevant and politically extinct; the election for the chair of the DNC revealed this quite clearly, as does its refusal to put the Clintons behind it, and pay attention the clamoring voices of the millions of voters it stands to gain if only it would give them what they want: affordable, single-payer healthcare, housing and education for all, clean drinking water and air, a chance for their children to do better than their parents did before them. It should heed the political driving instructions conveyed to it by the British electorate: stop pulling right, turn left.

Democratic Party Afraid To Emulate Tea Party Success: Move, Or Get Out Of The Way

You might think that a political party which stands accused of one of the most embarrassing and momentous political defeats in American history, one which was almost entirely due to a series of well-aimed large-caliber shotgun blasts at not just one foot, but all bodily appendages, would be prepared to carry out some serious introspection and to check in for an overhaul at the polity’s nearest service station. You would be wrong. Your political instincts and sensibility do not apply to the Democratic Party, which follows a suicidal logic all its own.

The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to inform us that in recent days, as the ‘battle’ for the Chair of the Democratic National Committee has heated up, pitting Keith Ellisona man favored by the ‘Bernie Sander wing’ of the party–against the ‘bank-friendly’ Tom Perez, the favored candidate of the same folks who led the Democratic Party to the 2016 Nineth November Massacree, are determined to turn this nation’s politics into Groundhog Day:

“Is the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party going to push us too far to the left?” asked former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Only if they start going after incumbent moderate Democrats in primaries like the Tea Party did.”

Ah, yes, the Fear of the Land of Too Far Left, brought to you by the DNC Who Cried Wolf. Ah, yes, the Terrible Tea Party, whose ‘takeover’ of the Republican Party now stands revealed as a catastrophic failure: full control of the US House of Representatives, the US Senate, and the Oval Office. With misfortunes like this, success does seem less attractive. The wise learn from their foes; the fool merely from himself. The Republican and Tea Party–a composite moniker which seems rather more appropriate given the nature of the entity the Democratic Party confronts–is not possessed of political genius; it merely abides by a crystalline commonsense wholly appropriate to electoral democracies: to govern, to assume power, you need to be voted into office; and to stay there, you must continue to listen to those who put you there. This political axiom is incomprehensible to the Democratic Party, which not content with having dismantled the organized ‘base’ that elected a black man with a Muslim middle name to the White House, intends to continue its ride over the beckoning cliffs. We would be wise to not follow.

The Democratic Party is not a political party; it is a retirement home for the politically incompetent, dedicated to nothing more than servicing the financial fortunes of a motley crew of boring policy wonks, Chelsbillary Clinton sycophants, and your garden variety neoliberal. It shrinks from conflict, the business of politics; it is afraid to govern, to take over the reigns of government. What is it doing, taking up space on the political stage? Perhaps insurance companies and banks and corporate law firms do not pay as much as they do. This trough must be deeper than we thought, bidding the DNC’s snouts to push just a bit further.

The 2010 Midterms And The 2016 Presidentials: The Lessons Not Learned

In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama won 365 electoral college votes. He pulled this political feat off thanks to the Obama Coalition–a motley crew of Democratic faithful, independents, fired up progressives, disillusioned Republicans. Obama talked a good talk on the campaign trail; he spoke of moving on from the Bush legacy; he spoke of a new American attitude to power worldwide, one infected by a moral sensibility. The same passion which would be visible in the Bernie Sanders campaign of the 2016 election season was visible in the Obama campaign: young folks signed up in droves, disaffected and cynical older radicals, impressed by the passion and energy of the ‘young’ Obama, did so too.  Obama came to power with majorities in the House and Senate; the way was clear for him to implement the vision of the Dream he had sold to the American people. (It is worth remembering that Obama could once call on 58 Senators and two Independents who caucused with the Democrats.)

Shortly after the inauguration, the Democratic Party and the Obama administration decided they would and could do without their ‘progressive base’–that they would, instead, negotiate with intransigent Republicans, making concessions that had not yet become sticking points for their political opponents; they decided their ‘base’ was too ‘shrill,’ too ‘radical,’; they decided to tack to the ‘center’ instead, that same political destination which has long served as an excuse for the Democratic Party to not do its job and listen to its constituents. There would be no closing of Guantanamo Bay; bankers would not be prosecuted; nor would torturers; there would be no public option in the national healthcare plan; and so on. The Republican Party and the Tea Party stuck to their playbook and nurtured their ‘base’; the Democratic Party could not be bothered.

Predictably, there was depressed turnout in the 2010 elections; the Coalition had fallen apart. There would be no getting out the vote; no inspirational platform to get behind. Just more of the same.

The Republican Party swept back into power in the House:

Republicans regained control of the chamber they had lost in the 2006 midterm elections, picking up a net total of 63 seats and erasing the gains Democrats made in 2006 and 2008. Although the sitting U.S. President’s party usually loses seats in a midterm election, the 2010 election resulted in the highest loss of a party in a House midterm election since 1938, and the largest House swing since 1948.

And in the Senate:

Republicans won four seats held by retiring Democrats and Republicans defeated two incumbent Democrats, for a total gain of six seats. This was the largest number of Republicans gains since the 1994 elections and also the first time since that election that Republicans successfully defended all of their own seats.

In 2016, the lessons to be learned had not been: a deeply flawed ‘non-change’ candidate was nominated, one who could not command the vote of a post-Bush nation eight years previously; the passion and fervor of a progressive coalition was ignored; inspiration was discarded in favor of triangulation.

The first time as farce; the second time as tragedy.

The 2016 Elections, The ‘Bernie Revolution,’ And A Familiar Pattern

In The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 Eric Hobsbawm  writes:

In brief, the main shape of…all subsequent bourgeois revolutionary politics were by now clearly visible. This dramatic dialectical dance was to dominate the future generations. Time and again we shall see moderate middle class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates’ aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them. And so on through repetitions and variations of the pattern of resistance—mass mobilization—shift to the left—split among- moderates-and-shift-to-the-right—until either the bulk of the middle class passed into the henceforth conservative camp, or was defeated by social revolution. In most subsequent bourgeois revolutions the moderate liberals were to pull back, or transfer into the conservative camp, at a very early stage. Indeed…we increasingly find…that they became unwilling to begin revolution at all, for fear of its incalculable consequences, preferring a compromise with king and aristocracy.

Hobswawm was writing these words in 1962–about the post-Bastille, pre-Jacobin, pre-Terror, French Revolution–so he knew well of what he spoke. He could well have been speaking of contemporary times and politics, of the American election season of 2016, and its ‘revolution that did not come to be’ – the Bernie Sanders Insurgency.

On November 9th, American liberals and progressives of a particular bent will wake up to find out they’ve been snookered yet again by the Democratic Party, by the same old trick that has been reliably used to make sure the minds and attention of their reliable voting demographics will not go wandering, looking for alternatives. Their support for the ‘Bernie Revolution’ earned them little other than the abuse of their own supposed ‘comrades,’ the ‘liberal’ coalition that backs Hillary Clinton’s candidacy: they were reviled as sexist, tainted by white privilege, as unrealistic nihilists.  They were urged to make cause with their political foes, urged to pull back from the brink to which they were marching the nation; they were urged to settle for a chance to ‘pull Clinton to the left,’ to get ‘their demands written into the party platform.’ Meanwhile, that mythical creature, ‘the moderate Republican’ was also persuaded to join the Clinton Coalition. That fundamentally conservative bent in American politics–which reveres that undemocratic document, the US Constitution, which claims American exceptionalism is a wholly understandable and justified attitude–asserted itself all over again, all the better with which to discredit the nascent stirrings of a mass movement (which in its populist strains found some curious resonances in the groups who supported Donald Trump’s candidacy.)

When the smoke clears, for all the sound and fury of this interminable season, little will have changed: the Republican Party will have disowned Donald Trump and gone back to its reactionary ways; the Democratic Party, having long ago moved into territory occupied by the Right, will pat itself on its back for having performed a remarkable act of sheepdogging. A familiar pattern indeed.

A Trump Win And The First-Past-The-Post System

Every election cycle, we learn all over again, the bad news about ‘swing states’ and ‘undecided voters’ and ‘independents.’ There are ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ and then there are ‘states in play’: those electoral precincts in the nation whose demographics make their electoral outcomes uncertain. Every election cycle, the political candidates of the two parties concentrate their campaigns funds and energies on these states and their citizens. But it gets better: within those swing states, there are ‘swing districts’ (the others are reliably ‘red’ or ‘blue’.) And so we get an even finer-grained concentration of campaigning efforts on those districts; they receive the most attention in terms of speeches, door-knocking efforts etc. It turns out, bizarrely enough, that as a result of this nation’s first-past-the-post electoral system, an entire presidential election can be swung by the polling results of these districts–whose number runs to about thirty or forty.

From this rather bizarre fact some conclusions can be drawn:

  1. It does not matter if crucial demographic blocs like Hispanics despise Donald Trump; if they are not present adequate numbers in these swing states, they can huff and puff all they want, but they will not dent his chances. Every single Latino in California–a blue state–could vote for Clinton; it will not increase the number of electoral college votes California will give to her. (The anti-Trump Hispanic vote will, of course, affect the vote in red states like Texas and New Mexico and Arizona, but it is not clear that it will turn the state ‘blue.’)
  2. If red states and blue states retain their electoral color codes, the Trump-Clinton contest will come down to those swing states whose names we hear during most election seasons: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida etc. Here, Bernie Sanders supporters would do well not to vote for a third-party candidate. In resolutely blue states they may, if they choose, vote for a third-party candidate of their choice. (I did precisely this in 2012, in New York, where a win for Barack Obama was all but guaranteed.) An argument has made the rounds that even in ‘blue’ states Sanders supporters should vote for Clinton to grant her a mandate with adequate and appropriate authority, presumably to ride out the post-election fracas that will ensue with disgruntled Trump supporters, who will remain convinced the election was ‘stolen.’ (As I’ve noted previously, even a Clinton win means a very divided and fractious polity, one riven by the same bitter partisanship that led to many legislative logjams and parliamentary brinksmanship during the Obama years.) I do not know if this claim will have any traction with those Sanders supporters who imagine that such a mandate can only embolden Clinton to pursue precisely those misguided policies they most disagree with.

The dependence of the results of this most momentous election on just a handful of states and consequently, a handful of electoral districts, should make most reasonable folks quite nervous. It should also serve as a reminder that the American electoral system is deeply, deeply flawed. This is not news; but this might just be the year the nation pays its heaviest price yet for the poor design of a vital political institution.

The ‘But The Supreme Court’ Argument For Hillary Clinton

One ‘hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-the-lesser-evil’ argument currently making the rounds for the Hillary Clinton candidacy–ostensibly intended to address the ‘schism’ in the Democratic Party, among the ‘Left’ and ‘progressives’–goes something like this. Vote for Hillary Clinton, even if you disagree with many of her policies, do not consider her entirely trustworthy, and would much rather vote for Bernie Sanders–because she will nominate the right person, the right Justice, to the US Supreme Court. (The Senate will not confirm a nominee put up by President Obama, so this will be one of the first tasks awaiting the new President next year.) No matter what you think, you cannot allow a President Trump to nominate a right-wing ideologue to the Supreme Court, who will then roll back years of hard-won legal victories in many domains: perhaps abortion restrictions, perhaps voting rights, perhaps the power of regulatory administrative agencies to keep our work spaces safe and our drinking water clean.

It is worth noting how much this argument presumes and concedes.

First, and most importantly, the American political system is broken. There is no separation of powers; the judiciary and the executive branch are the new legislatures. The Supreme Court is now a full-blown political institution. Political change will not come about because people’s representatives will legislate their desires and demands into existence; rather, an unelected group of Yale and Harvard educated lawyers will respond directly to petitioners who seek to address some perceived injustice. Persuade the justices; do not bother with the ballot box. Unless you are voting for President.

Second, it places too much faith in the ability of the Supreme Court to drive substantive social and political change. The poster child for this sort of claim is Brown v. Board of Education, which left segregation intact; and as a vigorous debate among professional court watchers–a motley crew of legal scholars and political scientists–confirms, supporting examples can be found quite easily. Despite the expressive impact of the courts and their rulings, political change does not happen because courts direct the polity to change; rather, it occurs because citizens organize and exert pressure at and on the right places and the right actors–in a variety of political domains and institutions.

Third, it suggests–as if acknowledging the unprecedented obstruction of a sitting President by the Republicans over the last eight years–that the President is a lame-duck from the moment he or she drops his or her right hand on being sworn in. No substantive legislation can be driven by that office; the Constitution offers no escape; a recalcitrant House of Representatives and Senate cannot be forced to do perform their legal duties. The President can merely nominate a Supreme Court Justice; and that too before the final year of office (apparently the new normal now given what has transpired since Justice Scalia’s death.)

It is into this impoverished and diminished political landscape that we are steered by the ‘but the Supreme Court’ argument for Hillary Clinton. We are being asked to settle for an immensely diminished Republic.