The first two weeks of the Trump presidency ought to be engraved in our memories as if in granite. Politics is a blood sport and the far right takes no prisoners – except, apparently, those it intends to torture. The Republican Party has demonstrated for a very, very long time now that it has no use for a single one of the niceties of bi- partisanship. Yet most Democratic politicians dib and dab around as though living in a different political era altogether, though I’m not sure which one.
We are witness to three simultaneous crises: a crisis of the working class, which is fractured by race, by region, by citizenship status and, increasingly, by religious belief, and which lacks political cohesion or organizational representation. A crisis of the ruling class, which was bullied and backed into a corner by a megalomaniacal kleptocrat who stole their candy and who has no respect for the core institutions of class rule or for the stories his class brothers and sisters tell each other about the delights of the prevailing world order. A crisis of the state, in which far-right ideologues, autocrats and theocrats, having captured the governing apparatus, are rapidly concentrating power in the executive while bureaucrats scramble toward either dissent and defiance or appeasement and accommodation.
Historians, economists and political scientists will delve deep to examine the currents that brought us to this three-pronged crisis. Strategists of every political and ideological stripe are under intense pressure to map a way forward. These notes, focused on what might appear to be a side issue, perhaps could be subtitled, “Not the Way Forward.”
A highly consequential debate about the future direction of the Democratic Party rages among academics, pundits and politicians. This debate is most active among liberals, but it ranges both rightward and leftward as well. For two months now liberals have been ruminating on the role of “identity politics” in November’s defeat of Hillary Clinton. Essentially the debate turns on whether the Democratic Party and Clinton, in their embrace of racial, religious and sexual minorities, forsook working class whites, who in turn responded to their abandonment by casting their votes for Trump. According to this point of view, the journey back from the devastation of 2016 requires that the party take an indefinite break from identity politics to concentrate on winning back economically squeezed white workers. There’s a leftish version of this line – an economic fundamentalism that posits that pocket book issues trump all others. And a classic liberal version that, seemingly reasonably, demands the subordination of the part to the whole, the interests of particular groups to the national interest. Both boil down to the same thing: it’s time to subordinate the rights claims of various “interest groups” to an economic agenda that prioritizes the distress of white workers. Only this adjustment will create the conditions for Democrats to make gains in congressional and statewide races and retake the White House in 2020. (Or, in the leftish version, only this adjustment will set the foundation for building a successful workers’ movement.)
Where the Democratic Party lands on this issue matters enormously. The degree of traction this post-election analysis gains will, at minimum, impact the direction of the flow of attention and resources of the party, liberal think tanks and liberal philanthropy, as well as the focus of progressive organizations. It will likely determine how the Democratic Party positions itself relative to 2018 and 2020, and whether that positioning has the intended effect of creating a sufficiently broad electoral coalition to roll back Trumpism. With the tenor and thrust of liberal and left politics hanging in the balance, it is worth taking a moment to examine what might be problematic about analyses that lay 2016’s rout of the Democratic Party at the feet of “identity politics.”
It’s never a good idea to enter willingly into a frame your opponent has constructed to entrap you. The last I heard, “identity politics” was the terminology of the right, deployed to disparage and dismiss social justice movements that seek to expand the democratic rights of marginalized and excluded groups. Implicit in the term is the notion of placing the concerns of the part over the common good – of selfishly advancing narrow, particularistic agendas rather than the broader national interest.
The terminology of “identity politics” is part of a whole vocabulary including “thought police,” “politically correct,” and “liberal elites,” whose main intention is to undermine the legitimacy of liberal and left politics. In my experience, advocates and organizers for racial justice don’t think of themselves as purveyors of “identity politics.” Nor do immigrant rights organizers, advocates for LGBTQ rights or women’s rights activists. Rather, in fighting for the expansion of democracy for particular groups they rev the motor for the renewal and expansion of democracy for the whole. And they know from experience that purportedly universalistic solutions often work to make already embedded inequalities even more rigid.
Uncritically adopting the “identity politics” language of the right is the equivalent of dropping our guard and waltzing onto their terrain. Master’s tools, master’s house anyone? We need to recognize a toxic frame when we see one and refuse to be a party to its proliferation.
But let’s set aside the questions of language and framing for a moment. Because there is, in fact, an expression of identity politics core to the evolution of our nation and critical to how we understand the current juncture. White identity and nation building have been bound together as though co-terminus since way before the founding fathers and the drafting of our framing documents. The rest of us have had to fight our way into the body politic. Or, in the case of Indian nations, make the best of a spectacularly unequal and uneasy standoff. The conceptual contrast between white Christians and red savages underwrote relentless territorial expansion and genocide. Between white Christians and Black savages, the enslavement of Africans and the appropriation of their bodies, their labor, their progeny. Between brown savages and white Christians, the taking of the Southwest. Between the yellow peril and white patriotic Americans, various exclusions, internments, property appropriations and ghettoizations. And the colonial interventions in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were rationalized by way of the contrast between people who were brown, backward and incapable of self-governance versus white Americans who were enlightened and masterly nation builders.
One could go on, but who really wants to track back through the catastrophes and follies of U.S. national formation perpetrated, in substantial part, the name of whiteness? This is not about projecting the racial sensibilities of today back onto social and political environments that operated on completely different sets of assumptions. It is about reckoning with the degree to which the nation-building project has been, at the same time, a white identity formation project. This fusion of white identity and American identity, the bedrock of white nationalism, has such a long history that it has been internalized and naturalized. Only since the Civil Rights movement has it began to be somewhat disrupted. Until we collectively “get” this, some will continue to deny or be confused by the white rights subtext of “Make America Great Again,” and surprised at how powerfully it resonated. The shaping of white identity, premised on exclusion, is a central thread in the national narrative, bound up with capitalist development in general and manifested, in one way or another, to one degree or another, in every political, social and cultural institution.
Which brings us to an essential difference between white identity and the identities of groups forged in the experience of exclusion and subjugation. There is a reason that “Black Power!” and “Brown Power!” reverberate on completely different frequencies than “White Power!” And that “White Lives Matter,” or “Blue Lives Matter,” or even “All Lives Matter” are misguided rejoinders to “Black Lives Matter.” An assertion of existential urgency by the marginalized and scorned cannot simply be inverted without carrying the connotation of both a rebuke to demands for justice and inclusion and a reassertion of the primacy of white lives.
Obama’s presidency was bracketed by two especially noxious racist tropes: the “birther” lies that first surfaced during the 2007-08 campaign and the vile “ape in heels” slur cast at the first lady in the waning days of Obama’s second term. Trump’s birther charge is a reinforcement of white identity by way of asserting that the Black president is not and never will be a “real American.” The “ape in heels” insult is, obviously, a resurrection of the never-far-from-the-surface characterization of Blacks as sub-human, primitive, uncivilized. These may seem like extremes of a coarse, atavistic racism – a good distance from current concerns about implicit bias and micro aggressions. And no morally grounded person with an interest in reinforcing our sense of shared humanity wants to spend much time contemplating such racist poison. But the point here is that the extremes of anti-Black racism still find a hearing among a substantial segment of white Americans, and that a master at reinforcing the exclusivity of the claim of whites to the national identity now prowls the Oval Office. He of multiple Eastern European wives knows full well that the son of a Slovenian will never be subject to challenges as to his national identity in the way the son of a Kenyan was.
This take on white identity is blunt and broad. It doesn’t take into account class, gender, regional variation or the infinite expressions of identity at the level of the individual. Nevertheless, Trump’s victory is virtually incomprehensible without a reading on the dynamics of white identity and national formation. The liberal inquiry into the role of “identity politics” in Clinton’s loss is pointed in a direction diametrically opposite to where it might find some answers.
The back and forth among pundits over whether Trump voters should be tagged as racist has been especially frustrating. Allegedly, some voters claim that they chose Trump despite his racism and misogyny, not because of it. Or there’s the view that all these voters couldn’t possibly be racist, because, back in 2008 and 2012, Obama won many of the same overwhelmingly white counties that Hillary lost in 2016. Individuals certainly contain within them contradictory impulses and sentiments (door knockers and phone bankers for Obama had plenty of stories about white voters who proclaimed, “I think I’m voting for the nigger,”) and we may never be able to divine the impulses, prejudices and rationalizations that lie deep in the heart of hearts of Trump voters. But a majority of white voters cast their ballots for a man who is furiously and floridly racist, and they are apparently thrilled that he won. Black Americans standing on the planet today are here due to the vigilance of forebears, close in and long gone, who were keenly attuned to the lethal consequences of white fury. While there’s surely room for debate about the misuse or overuse of the language of “privilege,” it does seem a signal marker of white privilege to doubt or minimize the racial animosity of Trump’s base.
The conflation of white identity and national identity ripples out into the further conflation of white interests with national interests. In the current debate about “identity politics,” this takes the form of maligning Black politics, feminist politics, LGBTQ politics, etc., as fragmentary and divisive while, evidently, a politic built on the economic woes of white workers would be unitary and representative of national interests. There are so many things wrong with this view that it is hard to know where to begin – not least the howling hypocrisy of the sudden attention to the plight of white workers whose precarious economic status has been decades in the making. But to note just two issues, we have here a problematic conception of U.S. national interests and a problematic conception of the U.S. working class.
Apart from soaring campaign rhetoric and outright propaganda, there is no idealized national interest. Every expression of U.S. national interest is actually the expression of the more or less stable, more or less contradictory, more or less politically coherent interests of different classes, economic sectors, geographies, demographic groups, etc., as projected onto domestic and international politics. The two political parties do their best to contain and manage these divergent interests and to present, each of them, a version of the “national interest” most effective at keeping their amalgamated electoral coalitions aligned. In other words, the content of what’s understood by the term “national interest” is not abstract, unitary and ideal but rather highly politicized and reflective of the relative strength of contending political actors. All interests are particularistic and fragmentary. There is no reason to countenance the view that any one of the constituent elements is more representative of a unitary national interest than any other. That is to be fought out in the arena of politics, and is determined not only by demographic weight, but by the capacity to craft a vision and political agenda capable of unifying and stabilizing a coalition that is sufficiently powerful to project its worldview and political priorities as the “national interest.”
As to the conception of the U.S. working class, the belated focus on the abandoned white worker traffics in a worn out motif that posits a white guy in a hard hat on a construction site or a factory floor as a stand-in for the working class in general, while declining to recognize that Black, Latino, Asian, female and LGBTQ workers have been battered by the same economic and social trends, that white male workers started at a higher baseline, and that there’s a racial and gender differential in the forms of and responses to the economic assault and battery. (Unfortunately, the long history of actively segregationist all-male unions is part of the backdrop to the conflation of “worker” with “white male worker.” The building trades unions’ recent warm embrace of Trump is not helping us out in this regard.)
Alarm bells have been rung, repeatedly, about rampant opioid abuse, rising suicide rates and detachment from the labor market in white working class communities. It is beyond question that political responses to these crises, by either party, have been inadequate, verging on criminally negligent, and that these communities deserve the compassion, social and medical services, and jobs programs that could begin to turn these trends around. And yet.... I remember the 1980s, the cruel terminology – “crack babies” and “crack whores” – that accompanied that epidemic, and the unyielding resistance to naming the extended episode of drug dependency and addiction that tore through families and poor communities as a problem of the class. No, it was the “culture of poverty” and failures of character. Meaning poor Black people were simply inclined to do dope. So too the current wave of Chicago shootings is not read as revelatory of bottomless layers of desperation on the part of young working class men who are stripped, practically from birth, of access to living lives that nurture their human potential, is not seen as a problem of class formation in the U.S., but is rather interpreted as inexplicable Black pathology (maybe it’s something in their genes....?) and wielded politically to reinforce both class and race division. So yes, empathy and understanding for stricken white working class communities, along with a better understanding of how the extension of empathy and understanding, like everything else in our society, is deeply racialized.
These notes should in no way be read as an argument against addressing the concerns and economic anxieties of white workers. It is an argument for
(1) addressing those concerns as a component part of a larger story about the declining fortunes of the class as a whole;
(2) refusing to make concessions to racism, xenophobia, Christian supremacy, misogyny or heterosexism while addressing those concerns;
(3) being clear that the displacement of white economic anxiety onto Black people and immigrants is neither warranted nor wise;
(4) being clear that the post-war deal of expanding economic fortunes for a wide swath of white workers is completely off the table; what is on the table is the search for new forms of multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered worker organizing that applies itself to the riddle of how to effectively extract significant concessions from 21st century capital;
(5) understanding that the work of addressing the economic and social concerns of white workers, and winning them away from thoroughly reactionary politics, is not principally an issue of crafting the best messages and communications strategies to produce results in the next election cycle, but a long-term, no-short-cuts proposition to which a battalion of people and organizations will need to devote their lives.
Fortunately there are organizations doing the hard, granular, on-the-ground work in counties and states that are overwhelmingly white and/or red. They know the importance of place and how history and culture shape their neighbors’ thinking. They know how many conversations it takes to get a first-time or infrequent voter to the polls. They know that race and gender bigotry, while tough to eradicate, are far from immutable. They have mastered the art of building complex coalitions in which no constituency feels abandoned and all can move forward together to win progressive policies. We all need to learn from these organizations and make sure their lessons are widely shared, their efforts resourced and replicated, rather than throwing buckets of money to Democratic Party consultants and operatives whose transactional, short-term, short-sighted approach to polling and messaging has much to do with the crisis we’re in today.
A hailstorm of executive orders and a blizzard of bad news blanket the nation. A man who thrives on stoking chaos and fear has enmeshed all of us in his need for daily doses of high drama. It is tough to modulate between stunned passivity and frantic reactivity. In this roiling environment, it may seem that a debate over “identity politics” is of relatively little consequence. But it is, in fact, central to how the Democratic Party and progressives approach 2018 and 2020, and to whether and how the party regroups to become an effective shield against the far-right onslaught. It is of enormous importance to a left that must focus its influence on shaping the political frameworks and strategies most capable of defeating Trump and Trumpism.
The liberal imagination has become perversely fixated on the alleged excesses of “identity politics,” forgetting that social movements of the marginalized are the spark and spur of democracy. The abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights Movement extended democratic rights to the formerly enslaved and perpetually reviled, removing a deep moral stain from the nation. The women’s movement unleashed the potential and talent of half the country’s population. While the small- minded argue about bathrooms and pronouns, transgender activists, at great risk to themselves, have gifted us with a far more capacious understanding of the evolving spectrum of gender identity and expression. None of these movements is “done.” Each has advanced not just the interests of a singular identity group, but also the ambit of freedom for all. Most assuredly, the generation that stepped forward in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown will not stand down just because some liberals are having a panic attack.
We are all navigating treacherous terrain, seeking a way forward. At least some of us know that not a single development over the past period indicates that the way forward requires that we abandon our freedom dreams. To the contrary.
References and issues for further exploration:
Mark Lilla, the piece that started it all:
Katherine Franke, a cogent critique of Lilla:
Thomas Edsall on identity politics and DP messaging:
Damon Young on race & Lilla: http://verysmartbrothas.com/mark-lillas-the-end-of- identity-liberalism-is-the-whitest-thing-ive-ever-read/
Jonathan Wilson on history and identity politics:
Lovia Gyarkye on enduring importance of identity liberalism:
Salim Muwakkil: http://portside.org/2017-01-09/%e2%80%9cidentity- politics%e2%80%9d-takes-hit
And from anti-Trump conservatives:
David Brooks: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/opinion/after-the-womens- march.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story- heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region®ion=opinion-c-col-left- region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region
Ross Douthat: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/04/opinion/who-are-we.html ***
These notes were starting to turn into a junkyard for a whole host of issues deserving of research, comment and analysis. I invite others to explore:
The gender split in the Black vote, larger than in any recent election. Were Black men motivated to give Trump 13% of their votes by a misguided masculinism? Fear of a female president? Anti-immigrant sentiment? Something else?
The thinking, motivations and political formation of white voters in deep red counties who bucked the trend and voted for HRC.
The differences in the gender voting gap between racial/ethnic groups.
An accounting for the allegiance of significant proportions of Asian and Latino voters to the Republican Party. How is that allegiance being motivated and organized? What might it take to counter it?
An accounting of the Democratic Party’s investment in voter education/voter registration/GOTV efforts in Black communities as against new voters registered and turn-out figures. Show us the numbers.
The higher than usual Democratic LGBTQ vote. To what degree a result of focused organizing and messaging versus spontaneous revulsion?
Linda Burnham is an activist and writer whose work focuses on women’s rights, racial justice and national politics.
This Power Point Discussion Guide and List of Additional Resources are available for download here:
- Post-Election 2016: Changed Terrain Demands a New Orientation Power Point
- Post-Election 2016: Changed Terrain Demands a New Orientation Resource Guide
In the wake of Donald Trump's victory November 8 partisans of equality, justice and peace are grappling with a number of knotty questions.
- What accounts for Trump's victory?
- What can we expect from a Trump administration?
- What steps are most important for mounting a sustained and effective resistance to the incoming administration and, over time, push Trumpism back to the margins?
- How can we build progressive power? What do we need to do to mesh the fight against economic inequality with the crucial fights for racial and gender justice, peace and against climate change?
- What is needed to battle effectively on both electoral and non-electoral terrain? What strategy should progressives and the left pursue in relations to the Democratic Party?
As one contribution to engaging these and other questions, we prepared a 32-Slide Power Point Presentation titled "Changed Terrain Demands a New Orientation" and an accompanying Resource List. This module is a follow-up to our earlier three-module 2016 Election Curriculum which you can find here. This new Power Point is designed to facilitate a two to two-and-a-half hour discussion in an organization or an informal group. It can also simply be read as an article contributing to the widespread discussion of post-election strategy.
For peace with justice,
Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum, Harmony Goldberg, Jason Negron-Gonzales, Tarso Ramos, Bob Wing
Donald Trump was right: the system is rigged! But it is rigged for the Republicans, not the Democrats, for conservatives, not progressives. And the result is the election of an extreme racist, misogynist authoritarian who may change the course of U.S. and even world history.
Belatedly we learn that Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by more than two million votes, yet Trump still won the Electoral College. The public burst into an uproar in 2000 when Gore beat Bush by 550,000 votes but lost the Electoral vote. This time the public, the Clinton campaign and the press are quiet. We are glad to see Jill Stein taking the lead in contesting the vote in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.*
In fact the Electoral College system was created by slaveholders, and remains undemocratic and racist, and biased to the Republicans. Obama showed that the system can be overcome and even turned to our advantage, but the Clinton and Gore losses show it is an uphill climb.
The Racist, Undemocratic Electoral College
The 2016 election was only the fourth time in U.S. history that a presidential candidate has lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College, and thus the presidency. And Clinton’s winning margin of more than two million votes is by far the largest of any “losing” candidate.
Why is it that, in the 21st century, the Electoral College keeps trumping the popular vote on behalf of Republicans?
The pro-Republican bias of the Electoral College derives from two main dynamics: it overweights the impact of mostly conservative voters in small population states and it negates entirely the mostly progressive votes of nearly half of African American voters, more than half of Native American voters and a major swath of Latino voters.
For decades now, with a couple of exceptions, Republicans have dominated rural areas, small towns and small population states, and the Democrats control big cities and most big population states.
Well, the Electoral College rules give as much as three times as much weight to the mainly conservative and white Republicans in the rural states compared to states with large, racially diverse and majority Democratic populations.
This is because even the tiniest state has a minimum of three Electoral College votes, based on the rule that each state is allocated Electors based on the size of its congressional delegation (Senators plus Representatives). The Constitution provides that each state has a minimum of two Senators and one member of the House of Representatives, even if its total population is less than a single congressional district in a large state. (There are approximately 710,767 people in an average congressional district.)
For example, this year just over 245,000 people voted in Wyoming yet it has three Electoral College votes: one for every 82,000 or so voters. By comparison this year more than 12 million people voted in California which has 55 Electoral votes. So California has one Electoral vote for every 218,000 voters. Thus a voter in Wyoming carries almost three times the Electoral weight of a California voter. Indeed because every state has two senators, the general rule is that the higher the population of the state, the less impact each voter in that state carries in the Electoral College.
And, since the Republicans carry all the small population states except Rhode Island and Washington D.C. (which also gets 3 Electoral votes), this rule strongly favors them. This year the Electoral outcome was able to reverse Clinton’s large popular vote margin because, for the first time in decades, the Republicans carried large population states Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan in addition to Texas.
Negating the Southern Black Vote
The Electoral College system also ensures, even requires, that given the historic racial voting polarization, about half of all voters of color be marginalized or totally ignored.
Approximately 55 percent of all Blacks live in the southern states, and for decades they have voted about 90% Democratic in the presidential races. However, the pattern since 1960 is that white Republican voters defeat them in every southern and border state except Maryland and Virginia, and (in 2008) North Carolina. While whites voted 58% for Trump nationally in 2016, southern whites gave him over 70 percent of their votes. The white vote has been approximately the same since 1980.
Thus all Southern Electoral College votes except those of Maryland and Virginia went to Trump and the votes of almost half of African American voters basically do not count according to the College rules.
For example, Blacks constitute about 36% of the Mississippi electorate, the highest Black voter percentage in any state in the country. About ninety percent voted for Clinton. But whites are 64% of the state’s voters, and about 90% chose Trump. Trump therefore handily won 58% of the state’s total vote and all of its Electoral College votes.
In 2016, as for decades, the Electoral College result was the same as if Blacks in all the southern states except Virginia and Maryland had not voted at all.
Similarly negated were the votes of millions of Native American and Latino voters who live in overwhelmingly white Republican states like Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, Utah, the Dakotas, Montana and Texas. Further, the peoples of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam--territories ruled by the U.S.--get no Electoral College votes at all. The tyranny of the white, conservative majority prevails.
Thus, the Electoral College system violates the principle of one person, one vote, drastically undermines the impact of the Black vote and gives the Republicans a major advantage in presidential contests. Its abolition should be a key part of the progressive agenda.
Slaveholder Origins of the Electoral College
The Founding Fathers, led by slaveholders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, invented the Electoral College out of thin air to serve their interests.
They codified the notorious idea that slaves were non-humans, and thus deserving of no constitutional or human rights. The one exception to this rule was the constitutional provision that slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a person, solely for the purpose of determining how many congressional representatives each state would be allotted. Thus, even though slaves had no right to vote, the three-fifths rule vastly increased the slave states’ power in the House of Representatives and therefore the Congress.
The Electoral College, in which each state receives a number of Electors equal to their congressional delegation, was invented as the institutional means to transfer that same pro-slavery congressional allocation to determining the presidency. Slaveholders held the presidency for 50 of the 72 years before Abraham Lincoln, who was elected in 1860, became the first U.S. president to oppose the expansion of slavery. The South, accustomed to wielding political power through the selective enumeration of slaves, promptly seceded.
Since the end of slavery the Electoral College has remained a racist and conservative instrument. It has given the Republicans a running head start to win the presidency ever since reactionary Southerners switched en masse from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in protest of the 1960s civil rights legislation.
The Electoral College is one of the most powerful legacies of slavery in the U.S.
The system is rigged! And changing the system would take a constitutional amendment approved by three-fourths of the states. Consequently we are in an uphill battle that, if we master Electoral College strategy the way Obama did, we can win. Although the Electoral College is not on our side, history, including the rising progressive electorates, is.
Let’s make Trump a one term president.
Bob Wing has been a racial justice and peace activist since 1968. He was the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times/Tiempo de Guerras newspaper. He is the author of The Battle Lines are Drawn: Neo-Secession or a Third Reconstruction and Notes Toward a Social Justice Electoral Strategy.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer and activist. He can be followed on Twitter, Facebook and www.billfletcherjr.com. He is the co-author, with Dr. Fernando Gapasin, of Solidarity Divided, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us!” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.
*Similarly many heaped scorn on Ralph Nader in 2000 when it was learned that he received more than enough votes to throw the Florida contest, and therefore the presidency, to Bush. In 2016 Jill Stein, who won only one percent of the national vote despite the massive Bernie Sanders campaign, nonetheless exceeded Trump’s thin winning margins over Clinton in Michigan and Wisconsin. And the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson got more votes than the margin of victory not only in those two states, but in nine more, including Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina.
At what point will voters learn that voting for third parties in the U.S. may be personally satisfying, but the main end result is to help our worst enemies win?*
These three 2016 Election Curriculum Modules are available for download here:
- Organizing on Shifting Terrain (A Changing Electorate and Rising Economic Inequality)
- Organizing on Shifting Terrain - Facilitator's Guide
- The Right, the Far Right, and the Rise of Donald Trump
- The Right, the Far Right, and the Rise of Donald Trump - Facilitator's Guide
- The U.S. Electoral System and Progressive Electoral Strategy
- The U.S. Electoral System and Progressive Electoral Strategy - Facilitator's Guide
- Resource Guide: Election 2016 and Beyond
In a year that has seen racist demagogue Donald Trump capture the GOP presidential nomination and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders make a serious bid for the Democratic nod, social justice activists have been discussing electoral engagement and strategy with unprecedented intensity. Tens of thousands of people beyond the activist world are now looking to hold similar conversations.
What accounts for Donald Trump's rise? With Wall Street-friendly hawk Hillary Clinton as his Democratic opponent, is there a way to defeat Trump that will simultaneously strengthen movements for justice, equality and peace? Can the energy unleashed by Bernie Sanders' campaign and movements like Black Lives Matter develop into a durable progressive force that can fight inside and outside electoral politics?
As one contribution to engaging these questions, we have prepared three 20-plus-slide Power Point Presentations covering different aspects of the 2016 election and its political, economic and demographic background. Each is designed to facilitate a two-hour discussion in an organization or an informal group. Each can stand alone or all three can make up a comprehensive series.
For peace with justice,
Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum, Harmony Goldberg, Jason Negron-Gonzales, Tarso Ramos, Bob Wing
Organizing Upgrade interviewed Kali Akuno from Cooperation Jackson about the election in June 2016.
What do you think are the dangers and opportunities of the current moment?
I think this is a very unique moment. We haven’t seen a political period like this in quite some time. One thing that sticks out in my mind most clearly is that the US (and transnational) ruling class doesn’t have a coherent strategy of its own, or at least not a long-term strategy. They are trying to make a number of quick fixes and pieces of patchwork, but - as we’ve seen since the economic crisis - the quick fixes just aren’t working. They know that they aren’t working. And there’s a mad scramble to hold the center. There’s too much at play, too much confusion amongst their own forces about which strategies and tactics to pursue. And it’s creating some dichotomies that we haven’t seen in some time.
That’s why we have a right wing populist like Trump having a certain level of success and why you have Bernie, someone, who’s calling himself a democratic socialist, actually having had a real shot at becoming president of the United States. We haven’t seen this contrast in the US in a long, long time. I think you have to go back to the 1930s or the 1940s to see anything remotely comparable. Even then, socialism was still a dirty word to most of the people who were eligible to vote in the US. It says a lot that you have so many people who identify with some variant of what they understand as socialism, given the decades of demonization of left ideas - particularly socialism and communism. It says a lot that - within the course of a decade since the economic crisis of 2008 - the limits on that have come crashing down and so many people are actually identifying with socialism as an alternative. Society is searching for some answers, and younger folks in particular are willing to consider some serious alternatives to a degree we haven’t seen since the 1960s and 70s.
It’s a unique period, but it’s a dangerous one. Trump has clearly now gotten the Republican Party nomination, but it’s also clear that there are significant forces in the Republican Party who are willing to support Hillary or to at least not mobilize in support of Trump. The Republican Party is in a crisis. Over the last 6 years, the more right-leaning forces in the party were able to gain control. That right-wing upsurge was mainly intended to undermine Obama, but now they’ve created a monster that they can no longer control. They’re trying to control it, but I don’t think that’s going to work. I think they see that, but they keep trying. This election may lead to a real split in the Republican Party. I don’t think the Democrats are that different. It’s not being talked about in the same way, but people need to pay some real attention to the people who are supporting Sanders who are saying that they won’t support Hillary Clinton on principle. The Democrats are going to have to deal with that.
Since it now seems that the election will turn out to be Hillary versus Trump, then it seems likely that it will amount to being one of the lowest voter turnouts in US history. That says a lot about the legitimacy of the American project. There are a growing number of people who just do not see elections in the United States as a legitimate endeavor. In large part, that’s because of what the two parties represent - the collaborative factions of the ruling class (now commonly called the 1%) and the perpetuation of the exploitative, racist, sexist and homophobic status quo.
Society is in a significant crisis, and I don’t think that most people on the left are seeing it for what it is. It’s seen to some extent, but I still don’t think that there’s a full grasp of it. For instance, I work with people who don’t usually relate to electoral politics on the national level (and with varying degrees on the local level), young folks we work with here in Jackson, MS, particularly through activities of Cooperation Jackson. Some aspects of their imagination has been turned on by Bernie’s campaign. But if it’s not Bernie on the Democratic Party ticket, they’re not going to vote in the Presidential election, not even for a third party alternative like Jill Stein from the Green Party. Many view disengagement and delinking as being more strategic than building an electoral alternative, and I’m not too inclined to disagree. I think we’re going to have to think about what this level of protest in the form of disengagement and attempted delinking (i.e. building institutions and communities that attempt to disengage from the capitalist system via practices of social and solidarity economics or Indigenous forms of production) means. I’ve been saying to them that it’s one thing to disengage and another thing to register a protest vote and quite another to build and promote an alternative. We need to figure out how to move people from being disillusioned with the electoral process and the status quo to figuring out how to build a movement that upends the dictatorship of capital and transforms the state. Given the nature of the capitalist world-system at present, if you are going to stay away from elections, then you need to find another way to break the back of the ruling class, which I believe entails revisiting the strengths of the revolutionary organizations from the 19th and 20th centuries and innovating new methods of organization based on the networked and horizontalist movements of our era. I’m not saying that I have the answers, but I am saying that we - the revolutionary left - need to seriously engage this question. We have to think about organizing broadly and deeply and what that concretely looks like and must entail, given where this generation is at and what conditions necessitate.
However, despite all of this, from my vantage point, it’s a damn good time. People are willing to experiment, willing to take risks, and willing to dream big in a way that we haven’t seen in quite some time. We need to find a way to further merge, learn, educate (when and where necessary), and grow with this new awakening. We need to ask ourselves: What type of organizing can really build the social and political power that we need to transform this society? I see more energy and possibility of doing that today than I have since I was a kid in the 1970s. We must think beyond the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections, way beyond. Because no matter which one of the RepubliCrats win on November 8th the American empire will be lead even further to the right. We need to make sure that we develop a broad revolutionary program that embraces the strengths of each of the four historic revolutionary tendencies (anarchism, communism, socialism, and revolutionary nationalism), is committed to a politics of decolonization and upholds a determined anti-imperialist line and practice.
What do you think about the different candidates in this election?
From what I heard in what Bernie is advocating, he’s really called for a return to the classical features of the New Deal. He wants to fulfill the promises of the New Deal that didn’t really come through. Take health care, for example. Many people wanted to implement universal health care during the New Deal, but that got shot down. What we have today with “Obamacare” is clearly imperfect, but it was still part of this historic motion.
There’s a lot of questions about what will happen with Bernie’s campaign after Hillary’s coronation and what’s going to happen with all that energy. There are many questions we need to ask ourselves: How can we turn that momentum into an organized force? How do we not repeat the mistakes of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign, when left organizers were deep in that fight but ultimately got stabbed in the back by Jesse? They had limited control of Jesse’s campaign apparatus, so when Jesse made his deal with the Democratic Party leadership, the local vehicles they built had to be and were destroyed. How do we not repeat that? It looks like Bernie’s strategy - post-convention - is that he is going to do everything he can to make sure that Trump does not win. He sees the greater danger being Trump. Though I can understand his reasoning, it’s fundamentally a dead end, This strategy just subordinates the motion that he has been able to help stimulate to Hillary and the DNC, and it puts the forces vested in him in danger of abdicating to Hillary’s program. Hillary will talk to the left and take safe left positions till the convention, but that won’t be her practice after it for sure. Once she secures the nomination, she will continue on the hard right march that has defined her career. The movement for Bernie is not strong enough to really move Hillary in any direction. The movement for Bernie has been dynamic, and it’s been moving and engaging a lot of younger white forces, but it’s not strong enough or united enough to force her to the left.
What I’ve been trying to advocate is that - although the two presumptive candidates’ rhetoric is different - they will both be catastrophic in office. We know from Hillary’s practical record that she is extremely dangerous, as we saw from her promotion of regime change in Libya, Honduras, and Haiti for example. She is ruthless to the core. She is prepared and willing to ramp up ventures of conquest and regime change on a level that even Obama and Bush wouldn’t do. Her frame is different than Trump’s, it’s more polished, refined and presumably cosmopolitan, but the end result would be catastrophic.
The danger with Trump is that no one knows what the hell he would do really. He would probably surprise us in many ways, and I think he’s smart enough to do that intentionally. On some things I’m sure he would crack down hard and take the most right position possible. On other issues, he would take a more left position to keep other forces off balance and to keep the white community divided on a number of issues. I think he would do a number of things to appeal to white workers to ensure that they won’t want to forge a broader program of working class unity, and he would do it in a way that no one else - including Bernie - can do at this time. Trump has been masterfully tapping into white angst and resentment, that’s what’s appealing to white people throughout the empire about his campaign. He’s adept at appealing to this base from “liberal” left positions (which are really right) and the right, in fact on several issues he is rhetorically to the left of Hillary. That’s the danger with him, his right-wing, populist, white supremacist mass appeal that might enable him to “talk liberal, but walk right” at every turn.
Now personally, I’m a supporter of Jill Stein and the Green Party. With the exception of the candidates running for President from the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Workers World Party, Jill Stein possess the most left platform and program in the 2016 elections by far. I was actually looking forward to working with the Stein campaign during this election cycle, but unfortunately health challenges prevented it. I was not and do not support Jill or the Greens because I think they could win the Presidential election. Rather, I support her and the Greens because I think they provide the best option for building a genuine left electoral alternative in this empire at the moment. Before Bernie entered the race, I seriously thought the contradictions of the period would potentially move millions of people towards the Green Party via Jill’s campaign. Unfortunately, by the fall of 2015 it was clear that Bernie’s campaign was sucking all of the oxygen out of that space - which was more than likely by design, as it is a historic strategy of the Democrats to periodically run left-leaning candidates to suppress third party movements and initiatives.
The current petition - to have the Green Party officially adopt an anti-capitalist platform and agenda - is just further confirmation of this potential. This is not to say that the Greens historically don’t have some issues and limitations, it definitely does, plenty of them, particularly in regards to its understanding of race and national oppression. But, there is plenty of room within the party at present to address and rectify these limitations with effective organizing. So, to the extent that I make any conscious contribution towards advancing left politics in the electoral arena in any concrete way, it is through this vehicle at present.
But, before independent party building, we - the radical left by which I again mean anarchists, communists, socialists and revolutionary nationalists - need to develop and advance an independent political program that includes electoral politics, but is not defined or bound by it. There are all these relatively newly conscious forces that are going to disconnect from the electoral process once Bernie’s out of the race. But regardless of who wins, there’s going to be a drift even further to the right than we saw under Obama. The question is: Can we be a counter-force that organizes in the other direction, uniting with the momentum from Bernie and building a broader front that engages working class people from different races, nationalities and intentional communities? Let’s figure out a solid outside-inside strategy on how to do that. That will force us to answer a number of other questions: How do you really build multi-class alliances? And how do you translate that into a program for effective governance, given the constraints of this era? From my experiences here in Jackson, that would mean that we would be trying to push a program of major experimentation with aspects of the solidarity economy and participatory democracy that strengthen self-organization amongst the oppressed and exploited.
Speaking of your work in Jackson, what can the rest of us can learn from your experiences while Chokwe Lumumba was mayor of Jackson?
There are some interesting challenges that we confront here that probably only make sense in similar-sized towns in the South and the Midwest, if people are looking to replicate the political success that we’ve had. But there are a few big lessons that other people could draw from our experience in the Lumumba administration here in Jackson.
First, we, the left in the US, don’t have a solid enough analysis of what it means to govern. We really don’t. It was very valuable to have had 8 months of governing here in Jackson. Here we are better for having dealt with that experience. After sitting in those chairs and those offices, we have a better sense of what it really means to govern and what you can do within the confines of a municipality and within the limited US and Mississippi state constitutional frameworks. We have a deeper understanding of how you can actually go about implementing a progressive program. It changed what I saw when I was watching what played out in Greece with Syriza in 2015; I could understand what was happening there from a deeper perspective than I’d ever had before. It was interesting watching the internal struggles and battles that they were going through, because we went through many of those same struggles in our short time in office. We were having the same arguments, but it wasn’t all public. A lot of it comes down to a question of revenue: where do you get the revenue you need to move a progressive program, which I’ll talk more about in a minute. But I want to really emphasize this first point: we need to engage in more serious thinking about what it actually means to govern, before we’re in office.
And when we think about governance, we need to ask: how do you combat capital as it operates on local, state, national and global levels? We got a real wake-up call on that. We did some very effective local electoral organizing, and we won. But we didn’t have a grasp on the revenue-generating mechanisms, the bond mechanisms and so on. We thought we had a grasp on it because Chokwe had been a city councilor before he was mayor, but - once he became the mayor - we saw the real books, and there was nothing there in terms of revenue. We had studied municipal revenue generation, but we didn’t fully grasp that bonds are held by international finance. And the folks that are doing these bonds, they’re making calculations based on their profit motives, that informs when they will invest and when they will sell. We learned that aspect of capital, how deeply intertwined municipal bonds are with global capital at this time. Most of the time, people are just looking at the local forces and local economic dynamics, and asking things like “Are there jobs in this city?” They aren’t thinking about what a city’s credit rating is saying to an international investor and what that means for our ability to generate revenue for a progressive program. That’s equally important. We have to understand how that’s shaping the terrain of our struggle. How do we get people to understand, what is possible within the constraints of the system that we have? What will financial capital actually allow? And how do we organize for what we need outside of the constraints and limits of financial capital? Our next city budget will be in a deficit, and we are about to be in a crisis with our water delivery system. The banks may take over the water delivery system. But revenue from the sale of water constitutes over 40% of Jackson’s budget. The banks may take control over the budget. So if we lose control of that, what can you actually govern?
We are going to have to take a whole different orientation. We need to create alternatives outside of the state to push the state; we need to build a counter-force to the right-wing elements that are using the state to push and advance their agenda. That is why we developed experiments with the solidarity economy: to push those constraints and to build that counter-force. We are really trying to learn from Syriza. I think that the program that they put out in 2014 was a decent transitional program, but I don’t think they did enough to prepare folks on a material level and to start getting the social solidarity networks revitalized and fortified for when the hard times came - which they knew they would. Once they were in power, it would have been better to think about how they could utilize the state to stave off some aspects of the demands of international finance. I think they waited too long to figure out how to meet some basic material needs via the development of the social and solidarity economy on a mass scale. We need to start getting in gear with that on the front end of these processes. We can develop some real strength at the local level; that’s where our greatest strength is, but there are limits to what a local economy can do. There are real questions: what scale can we build? Can we create a meaningful number of sustainable jobs? We are seriously thinking about developing an alternative currency here to deal with the potential deficit if they seize the water. Can we create a network that will serve some basic functions and needs, to make sure that people have enough food to survive, if the city can’t secure enough revenue? It’s been amazing to see the right’s reaction to our solidarity economy experiments. Right now, we have a small farm and three small cooperatives that are operating now, and the right is acting like we’re about the storm the gates. I’m telling people to get people prepared for the ideological and political onslaught that comes with starting these solidarity economy experiments. There are still a ton of roadblocks that keep us from growing here and growing there. There are hindrances enough, but now we’re moving in a whole other way.
And we need to stay in tune with changing conditions in our work. The political dynamics are not the same as they were three or four years ago. Back then, we - specifically the New Afrikan People’s Organization, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the Jackson People’s Assembly - very much appealed to a broad cross-section of people in Jackson, and so we had a popular-front type of orientation and campaign. You’re talking about a city that is 85% Black, so most of that front was other Black people. We built a multi-class alliance in Jackson to win the election. The thing that was critical for Chokwe’s election for mayor was making sure that there was a significant Black working class turnout; that was the critical thing. That was going to stem the tide and break the normal flow and operation of the traditional Black petit bourgeois forces that had been deciding the electoral outcomes in Jackson. At that time, it was very easy to build a multi-class alliance, based in the Black working class forces in the city. This time around it’s going to be significantly different. For the 2017 Mayoral election we are not going to be able to rely on that same formulation, that multi-class formation, for Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s, Chokwe’s youngest son, campaign. Too many of those forces now have really given their pledges to Hillary, and they’ve bought into the reorganization of the Democratic Party that has happened since 2013 here in Jackson. Chokwe ran within the Democratic primary but from an oppositional place within the party structure which exists here in Mississippi. He ran as a member of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which still exists as a separate entity, and it still has the ballot access it won in the 1960s. But outside of a couple counties close to the Mississippi river, it’s mostly functioned as a political club, and not so much as an organized political force. Chokwe’s election turned it into a political force. One of the things that happened since Chokwe died (and honestly it started happening even while he was alive) was that the Democrats at the national level wanted to cut it off, because it was an organized left political force within the party. So they did a lot of organizing, and they spent more money in Jackson in the last five years than they did in the last fifty years, trying to re-consolidate their power. That’s put some of the traditional forces that were close to us in 2012 - 2013 opposition to us. We’re in a context where it’s easy to be critical of what Obama has been doing over the last couple of years. We’ve been very vocal about that. That’s put us in opposition to some of the established Black petit bourgeois forces that are aligned with him and national Democratic Party. Things may change over the next few weeks and months, we’ll see. But at this point, our movements electoral salvation if you will, depends squarely on the Black working class vote. So if we do enough to deal with the crisis that our city is in, to put forth a solution that people can see a way out of the crisis, then people will say, “We have faith in them, and we trust in them to fight for us.”
Kali Akuno is a co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson. Kali served as the Director of Special Projects and External Funding in the Mayoral Administration of the late Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, MS. His focus in this role was supporting cooperative development, the introduction of eco-friendly and carbon reduction methods of operation, and the promotion of human rights and international relations for the city. Kali also served as the Co-Director of the US Human Rights Network, the Executive Director of the Peoples' Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF) based in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. And was a co-founder of the School of Social Justice and Community Development (SSJCD), a public school serving the academic needs of low-income African American and Latino communities in Oakland, California.
This piece first appeared on Waleed Shahid's Medium page here. The Nation recently published a shorter verion of this piece here: "It's Time for a Tea Party of the Left." We thought OrgUp readers would benefit from seeing the fuller version, since it's one of the more provocative strategic proposals that has been put forward recently.
Last week, just after winning the Indiana primary, Bernie Sanders vowed to stay in the Democratic presidential race until the last primary, on June 14. “I think we are perpetuating the political revolution by significantly increasing the level of political activity that we're seeing in this country," he said regarding why he won’t drop out of a race that is increasingly unlikely for him to win. This “revolution” grew out of increasing public recognition that the grievances and aspirations of average Americans were being ignored by the political establishment, and Sanders’s ability to attract nearly half of Democratic voters shows that a broad base exists for an independent challenge to the party establishment.
Over the past decade, we’ve also seen large protests erupt in the United States through Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and movements for immigrant rights and climate justice. But how can this energy translate into electoral power in our rigid two-party system? Progressives might take a page from the inside-outside strategy embraced by the Tea Party.
This piece was originally published on Alternet. It has been edited slightly to reflect the now-certain nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate.
Every electoral cycle gives me the sense of “Groundhog Day” within progressive circles. It feels as if the same discussion take places over and again. No matter what has transpired in the intervening years; no matter what mass struggles; no matter what theoretical insights; progressives find themselves debating the relative importance of electoral politics and the pros and cons of specific candidates. These debates frequently become nothing short of slugfests as charges are thrown around of reformism, sell-outs and purism. And then, during the next cycle, we are back at it.
What has struck me in the current cycle are two related but distinct problems. First, progressives have no national electoral strategy to speak of. Second, elections cannot be viewed simply or even mainly within the context of the pros and cons of specific candidates. In fact, with regard to the latter, there are much bigger matters at stake that are frequently obscured by the candidates themselves.
Donald Trump’s Indiana victory and now unstoppable march toward the Republican presidential nomination underscores the defining feature of this year’s general election. Linda Burnham’s Notes on the Election cut to the chase:
“Straight up racism and xenophobia have moved from the margins into the center of the GOP presidential campaign; they are used as a rallying cry to attract discontented voters; and white racial solidarity is exposed as the anchor and heart of right wing politics in the U.S. across the spectrum from ordinary conservatism to rabid white supremacy.”
A victory for the GOP nominee would likely mean right-wing control of all branches of the federal government (combined with the 31 governorships and state legislatures they already control). It would deal a huge blow to progressive policies, social movements, and all of the 99%.
At the same time, divisions within the GOP; revulsion at GOP bigotry and crudeness by an apparent majority of the U.S. people; and the surge of progressive energy that runs from Occupy through the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15 and other social movements means there are good prospects to defeat the right. In fact, there is a reasonable chance of an anti-Trump landslide and the possibility of a roll back of GOP strength in both houses of Congress and numerous state governments. Although the far right has reached the height of its power in recent decades, it is also extremely vulnerable to counter-attack and division.
The perilous consequences of a Trump presidency should be a wake-up call for the left. The possibility of dealing the racist right a major blow should energize and excite us.
A. Unfolding events of the past several months have confirmed that the presidential contest now underway is the most historically significant in at least the last 50 years. The reasons for this are several:
1. Racism and nativism, perpetual undercurrents in U.S. politics, have been explicitly tapped as rallying points for discontented voters. Dispensing with dog whistles, signifiers and symbolism, and building on the racial resentment carefully cultivated by Republican (and not a few Democratic) politicians in the post-Civil Rights era, straight up racism and xenophobia have come in from the margins and been incorporated at the center of a presidential campaign.