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The Left, the 2016 Election and the Cunning of History

Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president has fallen short, edged out by Hillary Clinton’s formidable organization and her deep ties to the Party’s establishment. The Sanders campaign offered a genuine alternative, funded by record-breaking amounts of small donations from ordinary people, promising to implement an agenda of progressive social, economic, political and foreign policy reforms. Many disaffected young people in particular were brought into the Party and helped Sanders win his share of caucuses and primaries. Still he fell short. And now as the Democrats pivot to the general election to defeat the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, the critical question is whether those young folks and others who were so energized to vote for Bernie as a progressive alternative are willing to show up on election day to vote for Hillary.

Hillary is the first woman to ever be nominated for president by any major political party in the entire history of the U.S. It is quite a remarkable achievement and long past due. This is for many people reason enough to support her. Social science research has shown that when women get elected public policy becomes more progressive. Many others doubt this will happen much with Clinton as President. In another respect, she represents the anti-thesis of change, following her husband Bill Clinton on the road to the White House. As first lady, Hillary demonstrated a willingness to enthusiastically endorse Bill’s most retrogressive policies regarding cuts to social welfare, increases in mass incarceration, decreases in economic regulation, and a continuation of militarism even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Clintons identified as New Democrats who embraced neoliberalism in pursuing market-friendly policies while promising to make things better for ordinary people, which in practice did not always turn out so well for people on the bottom on the socio-economic ladder.

Many Bernie supporters would almost rather die than vote for Hillary, who they see as a corporate shill who puts a female-friendly face on continued corporate-domination of an increasingly unequal economic system. Some would actually rather die. Some are even willing to openly proclaim their intention to vote for Trump, even though it is increasingly widely known that Trump is a racist and liar who has conned his way to the nomination by taking advantage of the Republican party’s eight-year exploitation of racial division, which was exacerbated by white backlash to Barack Obama, the first African-American president in U.S. history.

Selected voices on the Left who championed Bernie’s campaign have vilified Hillary supporters who have warned of the extreme dangers of electing Trump President. They say that fear-mongering about Trump is just a cheap way of blackmailing people into translating their support for Bernie into votes for Hillary. Instead, they minimize the threat that Trump poses, or emphasize that Bernie polls better than Hillary against Trump.

While all that may be true, the irony is that it only furthers the possibility that the impossible might happen and that someone as dangerous to democratic aspirations as Trump will become President. It is what Hegel called the cunning of history. People exercising their free will ironically end up unknowingly enacting what the forces of history have scripted for them. Neoliberalism in fact became ascendant just this way. Jamie Peck has written incisively about what he calls “zombie neoliberalism,” where people, policymakers, interest groups, voters and ordinary people more generally, unreflectively enact a neoliberal marketizing approach to public policy just because it is the only real option made available once it became hegemonic. It becomes the default logic for making public policy and then gets reproduced, even by people who do not really benefit from it.

The Left today risks being zombie Trump supporters. Just by pursuing a failing electoral strategy, it can come to be complicit in making the horror of a Trump presidency as reality. While Hillary Clinton might not represent real change, and while if left to her own instincts she would pursue a neoliberal agenda, she is what stands between our ability to move forward and Trump, the most retrogressive force to ever come out of the major party nomination process.

Part of the problem is the Left’s misunderstanding of the relationship of political movements to elections. The political movement started by Occupy Wall Street and continued by Black Lives Matter has been successful putting the issue of growing inequality under neoliberalism on the political agenda. It has re-shaped the election, most significantly with the Bernie Sanders campaign. It will continue to have influence, especially if Clinton is elected. This is what political movements do. They rarely are able to overtake the political parties themselves and push their candidate and agenda all the way through to public policy implementation. Instead, they are an outside force that can disrupt, re-structure and significantly influence but usually not overtake the structure of power itself. And when a political movement does overtake a party, as with Trump riding to the nomination on wave of white resentment that began smoldering in the Tea Party movement, the party can be destroyed.

Many of the same Leftists that criticized Occupy Wall Street for lacking an organization and an explicit policy agenda have now criticized the idea that the Sanders campaign should be enfolded in the Clinton effort to defeat Trump. But this is how misunderstanding political theory leads to bad history. Occupy was not a failure for being disorganized and lacking an explicit agenda. It performed its role as a political movement, mobilizing the discontented and re-framing political discourse. The Sanders campaign will be continuing that good work by now turning to support Hillary. It will be doing its good work further by pressuring her from the outside to do what’s right once she wins the presidency. That is sound political theory in service of good history. Anything less, given the alternative is very bad indeed. And it would reflect the cruelest of ironies that come from the cunning of history.

 

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Sanford Schram

  • laslanian

    Interesting and spot on. I can add only that when people are involved in a movement, any movement, they believe in that movement as the only way to go, the real force of change. They don’t have as cynical relationship to what they are doing as you suggest. I will obviously vote for Hilary for the reason you mention above– Trump is humanitarian disaster waiting to happen. I have an increasingly hard time, however, making the argument FOR Hilary as anything more than an absolutely necessary stopping of Trump.

    • laslanian

      What I believe (and am banking on) is Hilary getting the message and working with the people who supported Bernie. She has gestured in that direction in some of her speeches but she also moves to the right. I often tell people that I am counting on Hilary to hear the Bernie thing as something she has to consider and work with and they think I am delusional.

  • I completely agree with this post. I think the key is to appreciate what social movements do and what political parties and their leaders do. Shram’s analysis is exactly right in my judgment. It follows that a vote for Hillary by former Bernie supporters is a vote for the candidate who clearly is more likely to respond to the demands of the social movement. It is a vote for the terrain where the social movement can flourish. This is a reason to vote for Hillary. The reasons to vote against Trump is another matter, and even clearer today after his response to the tragedy in Orlando.

    • geojos

      Don’t know if a “social movement” is more likely to flourish in her administration. Often times politicians like her find ways to pressure these movements from doing what they have to. ” I am fighting for you”, so calm down and trust me to do my thing. Not they would have any luck with Trump though. It really depends on the strength of the movement . Its organizational strength, leadership, ability to build mass support, and use the issues to change the hegemony. This is a tall order, and from what I have seen of liberals or progressives and much of the left, they tend to be more verbal and mistake creating spectacles for hard core organizing. Then there is always the discipline of the market to curb an administration.
      .

    • Eduardo Duarte

      Are those of us who have been avid Bernie supporters supposed to turn our backs on the reality of Clintonism, which we have been intensely campaigning against? It’s an absurd argument that Clinton III would be fertile terrain for the political movement Bernie is leading. If Clinton is elected I suspect we’ll see a redux of the politics of paranoia that has not been in the Casa Blanca since Nixon. What’s more, Clinton III would insure that the neocons would double down on their power in Congress and statehouses around the U.S. In sum, I’m part of the #BernieOrBust collective, which, acc to a recent poll, is only 25% of Bernie supporters. That said, I would argue a Trump presidency would energize the political revolution and usher in an entirely new US Congress in 2018. #ImNotwithHer

      • laslanian

        I have heard this argument and have been tempted by it– the Bernie or bust. The idea that we need to let the system fall to shit before we can really do anything. The problem I have with the argument (well, there are many problems) but the two most important are 1) Trump is talking about rounding up 11 million people and deporting them. He has announced a humanitarian disaster, a killing spree organized by the state and don’t think it won’t happen. There is enough palpable hate/racism/misogny at his rallies to sink a ship and he would control the press, so it would all happen behind closed doors. I can never vote for that and I have to do what is in my power to prevent it and 2) if you let too much chaos in, the next person to take power will likely be worse than Trump.

  • laslanian

    I never saw Bernie as leadership material. I never expected him to get out of the gate, but he has, as you say, started a movement. Over the next few weeks and months the Democrats should coalesce. And anyone who aligned him/herself with Bernie’s platform should continue to push for what they want from their government. Of course, a movement is more likely to flourish under Hilary, but it is a low bar when you compare her to Trump. There is deep and intelligent critique of Hillary and it is not easy to fight it by simply saying well, this is the way it works. Because the critique has co-opted that ideology so you just feed the tiger. And Hilary really ought to step up and address what happened in Orlando.

  • laslanian

    Or he has not started a movement alone as the article outlines. Additionally, Bernie picked up on a conversation that Obama tried to start about the nature of the society we live in. Obama often spoke about moral imperatives, and taking care of people and who we are but it never seemed to get much traction.

  • geojos

    The key to me anyway is building an organization and leadership. Movements tend to peter out. Seems Sanders was content with building a movement, and don’t see his people trying to build organizations, which are hard. Yes, Occupy avoided building an organization and mistook a tactic for a strategy. Don’t know much about Lives Matter, but they seem to some form of an organization, as well as a movement. Sander supporters have many issues to build an organization but are they. I really do not know if they are, or if they know how to build an organization have the staying power to do such. One of the big problems now is the absence of any viable political space. Many unions have problems organizing and those are trying seem to morph into spectacles. The democratic party has been hallowed out. What will take their place. Movement “organizing” often does not understand organization, and those that understand organization building and organizing often do not understand the emotions and values of movements. Sadly, perhaps some of this is rooted in Alinsky theory or what his followers have developed
    .

  • Vince Carducci

    When it comes right down to it, Schram appears to be arguing that we must vote Clinton because she isn’t Trump. The twist in his argument is that the movement channeled by Sanders has a better chance for survival under Clinton than Trump because the former at least gestures toward progressive ideals and therefore provides an opening. I’m not sure that’s true. After Obama’s reelection there was talk about the role OWS may have played in galvanizing the electorate with respect to rising inequality. At the time, I was reminded of Fox Piven and Cloward’s observation in “Poor People’s Movements” that institutionalization tends to stultify social change rather than empower it. My thought was that the reelection of Obama helped diffuse OWS, not animate it. And here we are again replaying the same trope. The cunning of history in this case may be a renewal of neoliberalism, based in the old TINA, rather than usher in a new era of fascism, which may turn out to be a distinction without a difference. This relates to me to Greg Grandin’s recent Nation article in which he characterizes the current election cycle as a choice between the still possible socialism of Sanders vs. the barbarism of Trump. Schram appears to say that the cunning of history is to pose one kind of barbarism for another.

    • As you know Vince, I strongly disagree with you on this. Social movements when successful push the state state to do the right thing (or the wrong thing if you think for a moment about the Tea Party). With Clinton in office, the left has a chance to move things forward, to avoid barbarism in the terms of your comment. With Trump, there is only barbarism. Clinton, opportunist or politician that she is, will respond to social pressure. Clinton + An Active Social Movement = Civilization (certainly with some discontents),

  • What is the right thing to do, vote for a shape-shifting politician with significant big money ties and a record of supporting economic and military policies I vehemently disagree with, or vote for a third party candidate who better represents me and who is willing to work hard toward the achievement of the electoral and campaign finance reforms America desperately needs?

    Should I conform to the disagreeable choices within a broken electoral system, or refuse to give my vote to those candidates who represent the flawed system, and instead focus my energy on promoting the more fundamental long term goals of electoral and campaign finance reform?

    Ralph Nader is often vilified by liberals for encouraging people to vote for third party candidates who better represent them, even if it means that the larger of two evils according to liberals may edge out a victory. He himself refuses to support the two major parties and casts his vote for third party candidates. From a normative perspective, is he wrong for making that choice?

    What qualities of virtue can each side claim in this debate? Overall, which side can claim the greater virtue?

    • You should vote for the candidate who is more likely to help you realize your political goals, who is more likely to yield to the pressure you can constitute in a social movement for fundamental changes in a flawed system and to your pressure to minimize corporate influence, and to recognize that black lives, LGBT lives and women’s lives matter. Think Supreme Court, and while your thinking, remember of the war in Iraq and the complete mess in the region when you quote the virtuous Ralph Nader.

      • I clearly understand your logic, Jeff. But it doesn’t get to the heart of the moral dilemma in my mind. It’s very complicated trying to judge the morality of voting decisions within the confines of a particular electoral system. Let’s say every left-leaning voter heeds your advice and the Green Party gets zero votes in the presidential election. Or further, let’s say every voter heeds this type of logic and everyone either votes for the Republican or Democratic nominee? Wouldn’t that be a crippling blow to third parties and thus a crippling blow to the electoral reform movement for proportional representation?

        There are many other thought experiments that we can do. Some I’m sure support your pragmatic side and some would support my purist side. Which side would have greater overall support at the end? I don’t know.

        And then there’s the fact that I live in a solidly blue state, California, which in practice makes my vote purely symbolic. So if my vote is going to be symbolic anyway, does that give me greater reason to vote for the “unelectable” Jill Stein?

        Now if I happened to live in a swing state I suppose the thing I would have to do is think through the various theories of change for the outcome I desire and then vote in coherence with the theory I deem to have the most potential for success.

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