Walking the Walk: a Plea to Fellow Sanders Supporters
I am now afraid to go to sleep. When I wake up I hear stuff that makes me wish I was still in dreamland. Let me elaborate…
I have long agreed with media theorist Neil Postman’s observation that television is a medium naturally geared to entertainment. When television sticks to entertainment, whether dramatic or comic, it is fine – in fact often better than most films nowadays. But TV transforms everything it touches into entertainment, especially subject matters ill-suited to entertainment. Like politics, ethics, real-world life-and-death stuff. I therefore do not watch televised news (such as it is), nor conventions, which have morphed from being forums where partisans argue and deliberate into being elaborate infomercials. (Besides, watching television before bed makes it difficult for me to get to sleep.) So when I arise I always turn on the BBC as broadcast via WNYC radio. That’s pretty much how I get my initial news-fix every day and discover what is going on in the world.
Over the past few months, in calendar order, I learned the following.
1) On April 20, I learned that Hillary Clinton defeated my favored candidate Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary by a significant margin, with significant numbers of Brooklyn voters being disenfranchised by equally significant margins.
2) On June 24, I learned that the British decided to leave the EU, and that almost immediately thereafter significant numbers of British citizens were having second thoughts.
3) On July 21, I learned that Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, peppered with gems such as “Only I can solve this!” and “I am your voice!”, entrenched an authoritarian cult-of-personality into the soul (such as it is) of the GOP. And
4) On July 23, I learned that WikiLeaks published a file of DNC documents, allegedly hacked by Russians, clearly showing a bias against the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders, a campaign I enthusiastically supported.
In each case I almost swallowed my morning toothpaste.
The WikiLeaks revelation appalled me, but did not surprise me. It has been very clear that the Democratic Party departed from its Social Democratic New Deal roots a long time ago into the arms of corporate and financial largesse, and that Bill and Hillary Clinton were enablers of that departure. Their “pragmatism” pretty much amounts to sheer expediency – I hear William James and John Dewey rolling in their graves. The neoliberal gospel for which they evangelized continues to fracture the middle, working, and poor classes that formed the basis of the Roosevelt-to-Johnson coalition. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy was the best chance for re-establishing that coalition. Naturally the Democratic establishment opposed it, whether it was because it was “her turn” or a conviction that the tenets of neoliberalism were settled, and that all they need is a minor tweaking here and there. I was, am, and will continue to be something less than a fan of the Clintons. They epitomize “yuppie liberalism”: the old “end of ideology” ideology of moderately well-heeled professionals who rebounded quickly after the great recession – that is, those of whom were not laid off after the crash and introduced to the world of the downwardly mobile.
Sanders supporters are pissed. I am pissed. Yet the reaction of many of the “Bernie or Bust” contingent disturbs me. For it is ridiculous – politically ridiculous – to pin one’s entire political agency on the success or failure of one person running for one office. Sanders himself has been emphatic about this: it’s not about him. It is about the movement. It is about change on a revolutionary scale.
I fully agree with Cornel West when he concluded “This November, we need change. Yet we are tied in a choice between Trump, who would be a neo-fascist catastrophe, and Clinton, a neo-liberal disaster.” In the next sentence, he endorsed Jill Stein. Fair enough – I follow the reasoning (plus, as a resident of New York, a deep-blue state, voting for Stein does nothing to increase the odds of a Trump victory). But that conclusion does not follow in logical entailment. Another way of looking at it is: when faced between a choice between a “disaster” and a “catastrophe”, it might make sense to go with the disaster. A catastrophe is worse. You can ward off a disaster, mitigate its effects, and work hard to ensure it does not recur. A catastrophe is forever.
In a previous post, I argued that while Hillary Clinton is likely to do a lot of damage, Donald Trump poses an existential threat to the republic. I still contend that is the case. His contempt for any free expression which puts him in a bad light is a matter of record. He has fumed about wanting to hit — physically hit — people at the Democratic convention who said bad things about him. He has threatened to use his power as chief executive and litigator-at-large to “cause problems” for Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post. He has consistently fawned over authoritarian strongmen, among whom Viktor Orban, Kim Jong-Un, and his man-crush Vladimir Putin, have returned the favor, forming a mutual admiration society reminiscent of Stalin and Hitler before the sad breakup. His domestic policy proposals, when he bothers to have them, are amorphous at best and incoherent at worst. (E.g.: how do you reconcile forcing a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall into the party platform, yet pledge to deregulate the financial sector so they can be “freed” to work their trickle-down magic?) Amorphous and incoherent, that is, when these policies are not downright insane, such as partially defaulting on the national debt, or transparently unjust, such as his proposed massive reduction of taxes on the rich. His racist and xenophobic “dog-whistles” are actually louder than a Ramones concert. His narcissism is palpable, and his petty vindictiveness is boundless: just ask Ted Cruz. His record as a businessman is peppered with multiple bankruptcies, hucksterism, and the habitual stiffing of contractors and staff (even extending to a children’s chorale that put on a surreal performance at one of his rallies, one that would challenge the sensibilities of Salvador Dali and Man Ray). He can barely string together a set of complete, syntactical English sentences that link ideas together in a set of faulty inferences, no less valid inferences. He rambles, babbles, and insults without end. He is transparently unfit for any public office, let alone that of the presidency.
Many have described Donald Trump, the plutocratic populist con-artist extraordinaire, as batshit crazy. I disagree. I think that is grossly unfair to bats. And shit.
In short, I will not cast a cold eye on those of the Left who refuse to vote for the “lesser of two evils” – that is an entirely defensible and honorable course of action citizens can take. I have done it myself more than once. I would only ask those who will follow Cornel West’s advice to take a hard look at the possible consequences, and the courses of action that should come on the heels of doing so. But I would also request – no, insist – that those who believe and act as such do not condemn those who would pull the lever for Clinton as “sellouts” or “lackeys for neoliberalism.” They aren’t.
Pulling a lever is not a sign of hero worship, nor even of “support” for the name under it. It is an attempt to influence outcomes, whether to advance the common good or to execute a form of damage control. It is but one form of political engagement, among many others, that can flow from a complex arrangement of convictions and strategies. It is not automatically a case of “sleeping with the enemy.” Try telling the French Socialists who voted for Jacques Chirac in 2002 that they were either fools or knaves for electing a Gaullist, even to prevent a likely LePen victory at the polls.(Jean-Marie LePen, that is – the really crazy nationalist LePen.) And try to conjure up the spirits of the German Communists in 1933 who refused, out of a combination of ideological purity and servile loyalty to Stalin, to even consider a coalition with the Social Democrats, thus allowing for a counter-coalition of the Right, which quickly led to the rise of the Nazis and the installation of Hitler as maximum-Führer. When you manage to raise these dead stalwarts, please remember to thank them for sticking to their guns.
In fact, there is no contradiction between being steadfast in one’s convictions and realizing that because the relation between “the political” and “the ethical” is complex, sometimes necessitating, if not “doing evil so good may come of it”, then swallowing one’s pride and eating crow.
If you wince at that, do not take it from me. Take it from Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is certainly no-one’s idea of a neoliberal. He has consistently positioned himself to the left of Bernie Sanders, in both foreign and economic matters. He is nothing if not “principled.” Yet he has contributed to Sanders’ campaigns in the past, and has gone on record that he would “absolutely” choose Hillary Clinton over any Republican in a general election, if he lived in a swing state. Why? Because
Every Republican candidate is either a climate change denier or a skeptic who says we can’t do it… What they are saying is, ‘Let’s destroy the world.’ Is that worth voting against? Yeah.
And climate change isn’t the half of it. Whether you love, hate, or are ambivalent about Chomsky, you can use many words to characterize him. “Sellout” is not one of them.
I do not mean to imply, however, that refusing to vote for Clinton on strategic grounds is necessarily heedless or unrealistic or immoral. What I am saying is that to do so without a serious “Plan B” is immature. A good example of such a Plan B can be found in a recent debate between Robert Reich and Chris Hedges on Amy Goodman’s show. Reich and Hedges shared much common ground in their opposition to neoliberalism and authoritarianism alike: they differed on how to act, politically, in line with their opposition. Reich has openly suggested that a third, “New Progressive Party” might be an important goal for the near future, to challenge establishment Democrats, Republicans of all stripes, and the authoritarian Trumpoids and continue the Sanders “political revolution”. But Reich believes the defeat of Trump to be urgent enough to work for a Clinton victory now, as a kind of tactical move. Hedges disagrees – but is quite clear that if neither Trump not Clinton are acceptable, then action up to and possibly including actual revolution, is imperative. In short, Hedges’ politics are not just gestural. They are real. Reich and Hedges take different paths. But they both walk the walk.
My challenge to all those who refuse to vote against Donald Trump is: if you agree he is a menace but will not vote for Clinton, what do you have as an alternative?
Let me expand on that.
Are you willing to organize to effect political change outside the ballot box or scanning machine? If so, how? Non-violent resistance a la the Greensboro Four or the Catonsville Nine? Are you willing to shoulder the risks of doing so? Is there a level of risk at which you would stop? Why?
Would you be willing to take a page from Saul Alinsky and organize on a grassroots level, trying to persuade not just the like-minded but the hostile, perhaps the very people you hold in contempt? Would you organize and participate in boycotts or general strikes, with the understanding that they will impose a significant personal cost on you, and that they could fail, and in failing set the cause back significantly?
Would you be willing, if it comes to it, to put your life on the line? To put others’ lives on the line? Under what conditions? Do you recognize a line between nonviolent revolution and violent revolution? How would you draw that line? Where would you draw it? When would you cross it?
If you find these questions disturbing, all well and good. They are disturbing. But if you avoid or evade them, I cannot help thinking that you are just posturing, and are not serious about “the political”, both as a space for deliberation and debate, at times messy and nasty debate, and as a place where one refuses to give ground. Your principles talk but do not walk.
Weak-kneed corruption is both a moral and political vice, it is true. But Aristotle had a point when he maintained that vices come in opposing pairs, and Thomas Carlyle (of whom I am not a fan) was also on to something when he characterized Robespierre as a “sea-green incorruptible.” Carlyle did not mean it as a compliment. If you experience your own incorruptibility in a rush of self-satisfaction and ecstatic self-righteousness, all the while failing to “walk the walk”, you are not an erstwhile saint. You are part of the problem.