Organizing an offensive from the 2016 election
Toward a people’s program for a peaceful foreign policy, racial justice and economic security
Understanding the Trump vote to build working class unity
By Wayne A. Nealis, November 12, 2016
As the likelihood of a Trump victory settled in election night my thoughts turned to those most vulnerable to the reactionary rhetoric on which he built his campaign. My immediate concern is for my immigrant friends, whose family members and neighbors fear Trump’s call for mass deportations in 2017. I also worry that Muslim residents of my city and state will see an increase in verbal and physical attacks. The potential for police violence to escalate against black Americans as law enforcement officers feel emboldened by Trump’s call for law and order is yet another concern. And of course I’m concerned for women, especially women of color, who will now feel more vulnerable as an abuser of women assumes the presidency.
On another level, I am concerned that liberal rhetoric blaming and disparaging white industrial workers, who by big margins sided with Trump, will create a more divisive political climate. Recall that over 52 percent of white college graduates cast a Trump vote.
On the issue of trade agreements white industrial workers made a rational, self-interested choice. Their Trump vote was a resounding protest vote against both parties support for free trade agreements. Obama’s promotion of the Tran Pacific Partnership (TPP), Hillary’s late reversal on TPP and President Bill Clinton’s betrayal of labor on NAFTA played into Trump’s appeal. Obamacare, another neo-liberal, market-based solution also drove anti-establishment votes against Clinton.
The establishments of both parties have ignored the fears, discontent and declining living standards in rust belt states. These workers feel their hard work is undervalued by those who benefit the most from the new high-tech, service economy. Any new emerging political left-of-center coalition must reach across this political and class/occupational gap with programmatic solutions to these workers’ legitimate grievances in order build bridges for political understanding.
The distance between those who voted for Trump and those for Clinton is not nearly so wide as it seems. Millions who voted for Clinton would have preferred Bernie Sanders. A significant number of Trump supporters opposed to bad trade deals may have voted for Sanders as he too was seen as an anti-establishment candidate. A statistically significant number of Trump voters cast a ballot for Obama in 2008 and 2012. This overlap could be a fruitful intersection for dialogue. Yes, it is likely many white industrial workers voting for Trump harbor prejudices, (so too the college educated) but they are also good parents and neighbors and hard workers just like those who voted for Clinton.
Youth and students struggling to find decent paying work, burdened with debt and facing an insecure future have similar concerns as white workers do in the rust belt areas. The cultural gap is wide, especially with youth and students of color, but a youth and student political program that supported the demands of these industrial workers and their communities could open a mutually beneficial dialogue.
I admit I may lean toward overestimating the possibilities, but it is the intent of this commentary to challenge us to look for the opportunities for meaningful social change that were revealed by this election long before Election Day arrived. Underlying the lack of faith in the establishment of the two parities is a rejection of the neo-liberal capitalist economic policies that both parties largely follow. NAFTA, banking deregulation, TPP, privatization of public services; the list goes on. What we can now call the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party challenged these policies; the Clinton-Podesta-Kerry-Reid wing did not and will not.
In June, anticipating that Bernie Sanders would fall short of getting the nomination, I wrote that the task ahead is to build an independent political and electoral movement to fight for a peaceful foreign policy, racial justice and economic security. This is ever more urgent now. I said as well, that to place hope in the Democratic Party to lead this fight is to take a path toward political irrelevance among the tens of millions looking for a viable alternative with the ability to govern.
This said, all efforts to bring people into the political struggle along the lines of a Sanders program and his political perspective is meaningful. Sanders’s Our Revolution is promising even though it is limited somewhat by its 501(c)4 status and that it’s purpose appears to be to reform the Democratic Party into a progressive, pro-labor, people’s party. In a New York Times editorial (November 11) Sanders said, “I believe strongly that the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor.” Whether the big money owners of the party and centrist leadership will allow such a “takeover” remains to be seen.
It’s possible a split would develop over the anti-establishment demands advocated by Our Revolution. One or the other faction would leave the party. Likely it would be the Sanders wing given the legal issues involved. This would be a positive development and give Americans an unencumbered political alternative with the potential to attract a working class majority. On the other hand, if the Bernie wing yields to pressures to accommodate the center and big money it will loose grassroots support.
Furthermore, if it doesn’t oppose the long-standing bi-partisan imperialist foreign policy and offer Americans a plan for a peaceful foreign policy it will not appeal to young people, African-Americans, Latin American immigrants and working class families and the poor whose sons and daughters are recruited to fight the wars.
These are reasons why developing a political program and experimenting with grassroots electoral initiatives independent of efforts to reform the Democratic Party must be developed to pull the electorate leftward. Such efforts where ever possible would collaborate with Our Revolution, the Green Party, other left parties, local Democratic political entities and grassroots community and people’s movements. For now a multi-pronged approach is better than putting all the effort into any one form in order to provide people various means to be engaged in the struggle. Political experience and outcomes will show which route(s) are most effective. The good thing is that there are now many ways for people to be involved.
For this reason, people’s movements need to come together to create a political program, a Sanders-plus program, to offer the American people meaningful solutions and candidates in the 2018-midterm elections. Without independent alternatives in 2018, I fear the opportunity to build on the politics generated by the Bernie Sanders campaign will be missed. People are not going to be looking for re-branded neo-liberal candidates.
The opportunity exists to build a working class-progressive-youth-and oppressed people’s political and electoral coalition, but not without a principled fight against racism, sexism and xenophobia. Sanders generated significant support among white working class voters by pointing to the billionaire class as the culprit and by opposing free trade agreements. With pressure from Black Lives Matter he took principled public stands against police violence, mass incarceration, Islamaphobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric. His support among the white working class and union members did not suffer as a result. This too is evidence, albeit it tenuous, that the centuries-old racial divide could be bridged. And even if this appears ever more remote with the Trump victory, we have no choice but to make the fight against the ideology of white supremacy central to all political struggle and programs. No progress is possible on any front if white activists do not make this work a priority.
Despite Trump’s win, the upsurge behind Sanders, coupled with growing people’s movements in numerous arenas of struggle, represents an opportunity not seen since the 1930 and 40’s to forge an independent political challenge to the two major parties. To capitalize on these developments means preparing to run 30 to 50 candidates for Congress in the 2018 mid-term election on a Sanders program – plus a program for peace.
Only independent political action and a program for peace can provide the guidance necessary to motivate, organize and defeat the right wing, Trump and imperialism. Perhaps some Democratic politicians will join such a movement, most certainly tens of millions of its voters have indicated they will. There are many proposals and initiatives in play; most tie themselves to the Democratic Party. Yet, it seems unrealistic to expect the masses of voters to rally around a plan to rebuild a party that to one degree or another they find lacking, whom a majority of young people find uninspiring and an overwhelming majority of white workers rejected. Time will tell.
A confrontation for power with the two parties may be years away, but Americans’ response to the Sanders campaign and even the anger of white working class voters who succumbed to Trump’s reactionary rhetoric, shows such a confrontation is on the horizon. The question is will our political future move in a progressive, democratic direction or sink further into the reactionary swamp the GOP cultivated and from which Trump and the Tea Party emerged.
Local elections in 2017 present an opportunity to gain momentum and experience for 2018 and beyond. Now is the time to begin discussions. In my essay Occupy the 2016 Election, published in the fall of 2014, I suggest a process modeled after political conventions black Americans held to guide their fight against slavery and that were again revived in the late 1960s. In this essay I say:
“In the late 1960s and early 70s the Modern Black Convention Movement played a key role in formulating a strategy in the electoral arena to advance a program for Black Liberation. These conventions were models of participatory democracy, debate, principle, unity and embodied a spirit of struggle that would fit today’s challenges.” This independent initiative was eventually coopted into the Democratic Party.
Yet, I would not discourage anyone from seeking social change through the Democratic Party if this is where they feel most comfortable. Injecting new determined activists into the party could prompt its progressive wing to challenge the centrist leadership. A showdown is likely to create a conflict over economic and social policy through which more people come to realize that what is required is an independent political formation.
When Donald Trump cannot or will not meet the expectations of his voters, an independent political program that speaks to their economic issues will be a vehicle to reach out to them politically. At the same time, such a political program must clearly convey that their economic security is conditional on their supporting economic security for people of color, immigrants and women; and it means leaving behind the influence of racism, nativism and male chauvinism. This is the deal. There are no other deals anymore. Global capitalism finds these workers as expendable and exploitable as immigrants and the millions shut out of work entirely. At some point the reality will settle in that Donald Trump will not become their champion for higher wages, job security and union representation.
The election outcome was made possible because the establishments of both parties for decades ignored or paid lip service to the anger of white working class voters and struggling rural communities on which Trump built his campaign. Trump merged their sense of neglect with existing degrees of racist and nativist thinking that leads to blaming others for what should be blamed on capitalism. Agreeing on the later is the key to building a movement with the power to transform the economy, social relations and end the long-standing imperialist foreign policy supported by both political parties. The 2016 election, in my mind, reveals there exists equal parts danger and opportunity. Let’s fight like hell to make the latter lead to a better nation and a more peaceful world.
I am a writer and activist based in Minnesota and the author of “Which Way Forward?: Challenge the Two-Party Capitalist System,” published November 2015, by the press I founded, Adonde Press. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scroll down to read other articles on the 2016 election I posted since June 2014.
After, or with Bernie, the task remains the same
Building a people’s opposition to the two parties of capitalism
The Bern for Bernie has become much more than a campaign for the nomination. By giving a voice to the widespread discontent in America it challenges both the GOP’s reactionary politics and the neo-liberal, corporate politics of the Democratic Party. This grassroots upsurge has the billionaire class and their political representatives in both major parties worried. What worries them most, however, is that the politics behind Bernie could coalesce into an independent political movement to challenge the two-party system they control.
Through Sanders millions of Americans are demanding new social benefits that effectively challenge the prerogatives and profits of capitalism. These demands are far more threatening to capitalism than is understood. A movement large enough to win free post-secondary education, Medicare for all and paid parental leave would shift the balance of power toward labor.
The Democratic Party’s corporate backers and centrist politicians have shown little more interest than the Republican Party in supporting these long overdue social benefits. The role of the Democratic Party and the institutions in orbit around it is to dampen expectations around more realistic demands that are acceptable to the establishment. That is, members of the capitalist class. Attempts to co-opt the movement behind Sanders has already begun as suggestions to roll in that Sanderistas should form another inside-the-party pressure group like Progressive Democrats of America and set up a think tank or two as a legacy to Sanders and his ideas. These are steps toward political irrelevance.
Sanders’ choice to run in the Democratic Party, although a practical choice perpetuates the notion the party is a vehicle for the far-reaching change he advocates. It is an illusion to think such an institution will support massive new social benefits and risk loosing its corporate backers. On the other hand, the response to Sanders has made it clear millions of the party’s voters and independents reject the corporate, centrist’s politics of the Democratic Party.
Polls show this constituency is open to electoral alternatives that will challenge the two parties. These voters will continue to respond to candidates and politics as refreshing as that modeled by Sanders, in particular among today’s youth and future young voters.
To capture this momentum beyond 2016 will require taking steps to field independent, left, Green, socialist, progressive democrats and activists candidates around an independent political program that addresses the needs workers, students and the poor. Sanders raised well over $160 million at this writing. Think of how many candidates for congress could run on even a fraction of that kind of money. The alternative for voters and activists is to remain confined within the Democratic Party’s political machine and centrist program. This has been and will remain a political dead end for winning the social benefits and political reform that inspired people to give millions to Sanders.
This brings into focus a difficult political and psychological hurdle to overcome. The Democratic Party is perceived and positions itself, as a necessary bulwark to prevent the GOP from reversing a women’s legal right to abortions and other hard fought advances like voting rights, marriage equality and protecting a host civil liberties, labor standards and social programs. This is understandable, but is also a leash that ties movements to the Democratic Party. The party has proven it is not a reliable defender and will not lead an offense, so why not cut the leash?
The argument to remain on a leash goes like this. Alternative candidates, like Ralph Nader in the 2000 election, can play a spoiler role causing a democrat to loose to a right wing candidate lik G.W. Bush. First, this argument places far too much emphasis on presidential races. The key to building a national electoral opposition does not start with running for president, but with a strategy to unseat GOP and conservative Democratic lawmakers in alliance with progressive democrats and people’s organizations. A presidential bid can create awareness, but without a congressional strategy and candidates it becomes symbolic in the minds of voters. However, if 50 candidates are running for congress on a similar political program a presidential bid becomes a more meaningful race.
This is a weakness of Sanders’ campaign, in that it did not recruit like-minded candidates to challenge conservative incumbents in house or senate races across the country. If even 20 candidates were running on his program he would have had an answer to critics that say he has no plan to enact his program. His recent initiative to embrace a few house candidates is helpful, but strategically falls too late in most states to recruit candidates in time to meet filling deadlines.
Secondly, on the question of the spoiler role, there is a lack of understanding of political tactics that could be employed should a spoiler situation arise even in the context of the presidential Electoral College system. For example, if it was deemed necessary, a candidate’s campaign could negotiate with other contenders to prevent playing such a role. What can be won at this negotiating table is determined by the relative support behind each candidate and the issues at stake. Such flexible, sophisticated political tactics, however, do not call for sacrificing principles even if a momentary or timely retreat is deemed necessary.
I would liken this tactical flexibility to a group of workers on strike finding themselves unexpectedly in a harder fought battle than they anticipated. The question they need to resolve is whether or not they should fight on and risk serious defeat or they should retreat and be better prepared the next time around.
My point is not to judge whether this tactical framework was applicable in the Green Party’s choices in the 2000 election. There are many other explanations for Democrat, Al Gore’s loss including massive voter suppression. I chose this example because it remains hotly debated and continues to put the brakes on developing independent political opposition to the two parties at a time when voters are yearning for alternatives. This negotiating framework is a means to resolve this conflict and begin to run candidates.
A related debate has been prominent in the 2016 Democratic primary contest. African-American voters, especially, those who are old enough to remember the 2000 election, by large margins, continue to support Hillary Clinton. Understandable, given their experience under numerous GOP administrations and the looming threat Trump and Cruz represent. African-Americans have a more sophisticated analysis of U.S. politics and history than any other constituency because politics has defined the nature of their oppression as well as the means to struggle for freedom and justice. Today, decades after defeating Jim Crow laws, they continue to endure the indignities of second-class citizenship, police violence and remain the political scapegoat for nearly every ill in America.
Their first concern then is holding at bay the most reactionary forces when making political choices. That they confront this choice is not their fault. It is a reality because white activists have not done the hard work of persuading enough white people to abandon racist attitudes. This is why we have Trump. I have heard some white Sanders’ campaign workers make critical comments about black voters’ choices. In this larger historical context, however, such criticism is unhelpful and insensitive when coming from white people.
Blacks know Clinton is familiar with the levers of power. They are unsure Sanders can win or wield power. They know polls that now show Sanders defeating GOP contenders are not valid criteria in forecasting the outcome of the General Election. Again, a more sophisticated perspective.
They make this choice knowing about Bill Clinton’s mass incarceration bill of 1994 and his support for ending federal welfare. They know of Hillary’s complicity. Still the choice is about now. And what is a stake now. Whites don’t have to solve this equation. African American pragmatism is engendered by real concerns about potential political and economic outcomes they will have to endure. For these reasons, and others, any emerging independent movement to challenge the two parties will need to put fighting racism as central to its program or it will fail to attract black support or build the unity necessary to win political power.
This brings us to the final ingredient necessary to forge new political and electoral alternatives to gain the power to make change. This is the question of war and peace. What Sanders’s revolution is missing is a foreign policy for peace as bold as his domestic program. It is also missing a parallel campaign to elect a congress he would need in order to enact his domestic program. Sanders seems reluctant to do either.
It is too late in the contest, but consider the possibilities if Sanders had declared that the wars of the one-percent and the oil oligarchies are no more in the interest of the 99 percent than rising income inequality. A risky wager given the fluctuating public opinion on foreign policy, but after 14 years of war and seeing more ahead, Americans might have welcomed a candidate with a plan for peace.
Speculation aside, the point is that any left of-center opposition to the two-parties must make a firm principled commitment to oppose imperialist wars, sanctions and intrigue. A peace majority cannot be built any other way. An opposition party cannot fall in line behind fabricated “humanitarian” military interventions to justify regime change of a sovereign government in Libya, while at the same time oppose wars like the Iraq War. It cannot join the chorus of establishment figures demonizing Putin and Russia while opposing economic sanctions against Venezuela. It cannot be swayed by anti-China/communist rhetoric used to justify the U.S. military’s expansion of bases in Asia – Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia.
Applying such principles in 2016 would require Sanders to tell Americans how he would resolve and exit the existing wars and end the war on terrorism. After years of war, Americans deserve a detailed foreign policy from a candidate who is running against Hillary’s record of supporting imperialist aggression. Sanders has boldly criticized past U.S. military intervention like no other presidential contender in decades, but these and his criticism of Clinton’s foreign policy record have been insufficient. Voters deserve specifics. Those Sanders offered so far do not instill confidence in his leading a significant change in foreign policy. In fact, his often-repeated recipe to defeat the Islamic State is just another variation on more war, but with different actors.
What to do whether Sanders wins or looses nomination
- Do what Sanders was understandably reluctant to do, decide to break with the Democratic Party’s centrist, militarist politics taking whatever steps big and small at all political level to test independent electoral possibilities in 2016 and beyond.
- Take Sanders domestic program into congressional races in an effort to elect new congressional representatives, independent, socialist, Green or Democrat, that pledge to support Sanders’ domestic economic program and enlarge it to include a demand for a peaceful foreign policy.
- Begin discussions and make plans to sustain local organizational capacity of the Sanders campaign to aid in shaping a political movement to challenge the rule of the two major parties.
- Hold local and state conferences to discuss and debate existing and future possibilities for independent political action around an advanced political program for racial justice, peace and jobs.
- Set sights on 2018 mid-term elections with the goal of recruiting a minimum of 30 candidates for house seats across the country to run on a common independent political program that addresses the multiple needs for economic security and opposes U.S. imperialist foreign policy.
These steps are key to sustaining the expectations for change Sanders campaign has tapped. A visible presence in the 2018 elections is a critical opportunity that cannot be missed. In the minds of millions of Sanders’ supporters the Democratic Party primary is just a vehicle for some as yet undefined possibility of a different politics outside the two-party system. Demonstrating what is possible is a necessary next step. The 2016 election and its aftermath will continue to remind the millions who support Sanders, that it is an illusion to think major political and social change will take place within a party owned by the very moneyed interests Sanders is challenging.
From this longer-range perspective of contesting power the Sanders’ upsurge is not about Bernie, the Democratic Party or even about his winning or loosing. It is about furthering the kind of class politics Bernie ignited. It is about the next election and the next. It would be a stretch to suggest it is possible to organize an independent political and electoral movement in 2016, but this is the trajectory the Sanders campaign shows is necessary, possible and viable. Any steps taken in this direction would aid Sanders should he become the nominee and further the struggle in 2016 and beyond for a more just and fair society his campaign has come to symbolize to millions.
 For example, Amy Dean, “Life after Bernie Sanders.” January 20, 2016, Aljazeera and Harold Meyerson, “The Long March of Bernie’s Army,” The American Prospect, March 23, 2016. More recently: “Former Bernie Sanders Staffers Seek To Elect a New Congress, April 27, 2106,”
Samantha Lachman, The Huffington Post. This group started the website, Brand New Congess, with the goal of finding candidates in each district to run on Bernie’s domestic program in 2018. Good idea, but it relies on GOP and Democratic candidates. Not a word about independent political action or challenging U.S. foreign policy. This is unlikely to excite many Sanders voters.
 Sanders thinks Arabs should do the on the ground fighting, the U.S. provide air support and arms. Sanders also supported intervention in Libya, which by his Iraq criteria he should be calling the second worst foreign policy blunder in history.
 The number matters because in the minds of voters a larger the group of candidates will be seen as a serious alternative. Too few will appear merely symbolic and will struggle to break through corporate media barrier. Media can ignore a few Green and independent candidates here and there. A minimum of 30 is simply an intuitive guess, but I am quite certain any fewer will not meet these criteria.
Wayne Nealis, writer and activist, is the author of “Which Way Forward?: Challenge the Two-Party Capitalist System,” recently published by the press he founded, Adonde Press. Link to this commentary and others at: http://whichwayforward.net/2016-election-commentary/.