What reasonable American does not feel some amount of bitterness about the stunning election win of the short-fingered vulgarian scion of an outer borough slumlord, who squandered a billion-dollar casino fortune, and reinvented himself as a reality TV star and racist demagogue?
There’s plenty of acrimony to go around. The cadre of technocratic campaigners, pollsters and pundits trained to campaign on promises of “we’re not as awful as the other guys” is already pointing fingers at millennials, working-class whites, old people and Jill Stein voters.
Then there are those of us who understand that we have a world to win and that we need to actually energize and motivate people to vote for something. We’re pissed that the Democratic establishment — including union leadership — manipulated the primary process to guarantee the human embodiment of “The Establishment” would win the nomination because it was her “turn.” And we’re pissed that she didn’t turn her campaign into a full-throated denunciation of the last half-century of Republican demagoguery against minorities, immigrants, women and the working class because her “get things done” fantasy involved doing shots with John McCain to craft bi-partisan solutions to intractably partisan controversies.
We need to fight Trump’s agenda, but we arguably have a more urgent need to fight a civil war within the Democratic Party. This party needs to campaign on paycheck and civil rights issues, and needs to deliver real wins that put more money in people’s pockets and win them more dignity at work and in their communities.
Left, center or a third way?
I wrote in March about the ongoing realignment of our two major parties. As the Republican Party circles the drain of a toilet bowl of ethno-nationalism and borderline fascism, it becomes a marginal extremist party that can obviously do real damage when it wins. Fortunately, their voters are rapidly dying of old age. And let’s remember, too: The majority of voters have rejected them in six out of the last seven presidential elections.
But — absent our activism — the changing face of the GOP will continue to drag the Democrats further to the right. There are simply too many stockbrokers and single-digit millionaires who enjoy rigging the capitalist system to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us, but also support immigration, gay marriage and gun control. The GOP is no longer a comfortable home for them.
Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party welcomed these exiles with open arms. Her “Republicans for Hillary” efforts resulted in a flag-waving, military-saluting George W. Bush-style convention, complete with a prominent role for billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Clinton brought (more of) the moneyed elite into the party. The left has to organize to kick them out.
Anybody whose 2016 campaign strategy involved lowering voters’ expectations must be tossed onto history’s compost pile like the moldy vegetables they are.
Look, I’m not above casting a protest vote, or organizing in earnest for a durable third party alternative. In fact, I managed the Socialist Party’s 2000 presidential campaign. I recruited the candidate, David McReynolds, and I got him on the ballot in — among other places — Florida, where his more than 600 votes eclipsed the official margin between Bush and Al Gore. A framed Palm Beach County sample ballot still holds a place of pride on the wall of my home office.
But our job now is to organize the greatest possible progressive coalition, and third party efforts tend to attract the least serious and least skilled campaigners, resulting in a muddle like the Stein campaign. I did not cast a vote for the Greens last Tuesday. Between dopey statements about vaccinations and Clinton’s e-mails, and the party’s perennial lack of a clear anti-capitalist message, it just wasn’t a coherent protest statement. So, after 16 years of resistance, I finally voted for Hillary Clinton … on the Working Families ballot line.
The Working Families Party is currently the best-organized left opposition caucus within the Democratic Party. Happily, it is also structured to take advantage of opportunities to break with corporate Democrats and run serious third party campaigns down-ballot now, and to build towards becoming a real third party threat after the GOP has been vanquished. It is well worth paying ten bucks a month to join, take a serious role and push the party to raise its ambitions.
Yes, comrades, it is our burden to “fix” the Democratic Party. Like it or lump it, the project of capturing the Democratic Party to organize the largest possible progressive coalition to beat the fascists falls to us.
While we’re sifting through this mound of horseshit, frantically searching for a pony, I offer this: We were likely to face a recession — possibly a global one — in the first two years of whomever’s administration. If that recession happened on Clinton’s watch, the 2018 midterms would have been a bloodbath for the Democrats, and her 2020 re-election campaign would have faced an uphill battle of historical proportions.
Now Trump gets to own the recession (which might be more severe, thanks to his bigly business savvy), and lose the House on his path to one-term ignominy. That’s as long as Democrats reject neoliberalism and run full-throated Robin Hood-style campaigns to take from the 1% and give the rest of us universal health care, free public college, affordable housing and wages we can live on.
Let’s be clear: The majority of voters rejected Trump. Like Bush 16 years ago, he lost the popular vote. Unlike then, we should insist that Democrats reject the legitimacy of his LOSER administration and agenda and punish those corporate Democrats who don’t. Democrats should filibuster Trump’s judicial picks and appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. Any rollback of rights must be vigorously challenged.
Let’s also take heart from the fact that where progressive issues were on the ballot, voters supported them. The minimum wage was raised through ballot initiatives in Washington, Arizona, Colorado and Maine. Voters in Massachusetts rejected a billionaire-backed effort to raise the cap on charter schools. San Jose, California, voted for a fair scheduling law for retail workers. Wake County, North Carolina voted to increase funding for public transportation.
The lesson here is that we on the left should remain on the offensive and press to put progressive issues — not debatably “liberal” personalities — on the ballot. Here in New York, I’m in favor of the CUNY Rising Alliance campaign to make the City University of New York tuition-free and of voting next November to authorize a statewide constitutional convention. Minimum wage hikes, fair scheduling laws, rent control and free public college all seem like winnable issues in our biggest, most progressive cities.
Sadly, union leaders are not likely to lead on this agenda, as Micah Uetrecht has bitterly noted. Most of the big NYC unions are lining up against a constitutional convention out of fear, just as they lined up against the most pro-worker Democratic presidential candidate in decades: Bernie Sanders.
As we prepare to challenge the next president of the United States, we must gird ourselves for those moments when we might have to act in contradiction to official union leadership, and ask ourselves how we rebuild a movement that cannot be so easily derailed by the personal ambitions — or fears — of union leaders, but instead encourage grassroots protests that expand on the wants, needs and frustrations of the coalition that Barack Obama built.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Shaun Richman is a labor expert at SUNY Empire State College and author of Tell The Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century.