Before and after the election task is the same
To build a broad people’s party of, by and for the interests of our diverse working class in order to forge a future of economic security, peace and racial justice
“The strategic dilemma of the times is not who wins the contest between the Democratic and Republican parties, but how to respond to the yearning of the American people for a different kind of politics that neither party will offer or is capable of offering.” From my 2014 essay, “Occupy the 2016 election and beyond.”
By Wayne Nealis, March 2017
The Trump administration’s actions have unleashed a surge of counter-demonstrations and grassroots political activity unlike any since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Local protests in a hundred plus cities in support of immigrants and in opposition to Trump’s travel ban are unprecedented in size and spontaneity. The million-person women’s march on Washington D.C. a day after Trump’s inauguration was a resounding rebuff to his reactionary thinking about women’s equality and reproductive rights. Hundreds of thousands more rallied in cities around nation and worldwide totaling more than five million.
Activists within and outside the Democratic Party are running in 2017 local elections to challenge incumbents and to push the party to the left. Bernie Sanders organization, Our Revolution, is attracting activists and new comers to politics sparking electoral struggles in urban and rural communities. News from OR meetings report many favor forming a new party and/or support endorsing independent candidates to challenge conservative incumbent Democrats.
This upsurge follows on the heels of the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter and the rallies and organizing in support of Bernie Sanders challenge to the Democratic Party’s conservative, corporate establishment program. Opportunities abound, despite Trump’s victory. The question is how to broaden, deepen and organize the massive discontent into a political force capable of challenging the establishment politics of both parties; parties voters resoundingly rejected in 2016.
This upsurge in political action is at many levels. There are those trying to push the Democratic Party to the left as the best way to pursue Sanders’ domestic economic agenda and defend environmental and social programs and civil rights against the right wing juggernaut. At this point, the more people involved the better, wherever they feel the most comfortable contributing. Joining the struggle in any capacity should be applauded and encouraged. Such activity is the school from which a counter-offensive for peace, economic security and racial justice can evolve. But can this movement find a way forward? Or, will it be coopted into the Democratic Party where other such upsurges foundered? Or, might the result be a growing cynicism in which the newcomers become disillusioned in the face of intractable institutions and opposition?
These are questions this analysis frames in the context of the need to work toward building a political and electoral movement independent of the two parties. My analysis may be challenging for those placing their hopes on reforming the Democratic Party. It is not my intent to discourage such efforts or those who make such a commitment. As I said above, any resistance and organizing to defeat the demagoguery of Trump, the GOP and allied forces will make a contribution. It will add to our collective experience, energy and confidence.
This analysis is specially addressed to left and progressive activists and to anyone questioning the legitimacy of the two major parities track records. This clearly is a rather large audience hungry for alternatives. To those banking on the Democratic Party to lead, I invite you to consider this analysis as you pursue this goal. I invite your feedback and critique of this analysis. I am convinced, however, as you will read, that the experience of the 2016 election and indeed politics since at least the 2000 election reveals among the electorate a constant search for alternatives to politics as usual. The task is to meet this need.
It is clear the old GOP will not. Trump’s new GOP will try but fail. Its solutions are a rework of Reaganomics combined with an economic nationalism that transnational capitalists will reject, unless U.S. wages, taxes and social benefit costs are not further reduced to enable them to reap comparable profits to overseas plants. Yet, policies implemented in this direction will only sharpen labor and social conflict. The world capitalist crises that came to a head in 2008 may seem in abeyance, but it is far deeper and broader than it appears. It is once again building a bubble fueled by greed and competition. [For a more complete analysis of the confluence of Trump’s economic nationalism and the ongoing capitalist crises see my 2016 article, “Capitalists once again mismanage the world economy.”]
The neglected, unfinished task haunting social progress
Left and progressives activists in the United States have problem, not Donald Trump, but the millions who support him. Their susceptibility to his rhetoric, however, is not their fault as many liberal pundits suggest in an effort to blame some group of people for Trump. Yes, some Trump supporters are hardened racists and xenophobes, but only a minority hold extreme intractable views. Recall that in 2016 several million Trump voters in key swing states had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 seeking what they hoped was a real alternative.
The blame for this situation, if we want to use this term, lies with left and progressive forces reluctance to work toward a meaningful alternative to the two-party system. In short, a movement and an electoral alternative independent of corporate interests that has its own press to reach people with analysis, history and a program that speaks to their discontents, struggles and grievances. A party that also has a popular education program to challenge and educate those blinded by the prejudices reactionary forces use to maintain power.
This shortcoming is decades old beginning with the lack of follow up to mitigate the deep legacy of racist thinking held by white Americans following the legal and legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Thus the vast majority remained susceptible to racist political manipulation by reactionary politicians, talk show hosts and conservative pundits and think tanks. The responsibility for this shortcoming, to be clear, lies with white activists both then and now.
If we learned one thing from this election it is that the Democratic Party will not meet this need. It does not have the ideological inclination or the organizational capacity to do so. Progressive Democratic officials and satellite institutions hopefully will become allies, but the establishment is not about to hand them control of the party to pursue a left agenda. What is necessary, is a party or movement, call it what you want, that springs from and is financed by our nations’ diverse working class, youth, immigrants and students. A party that is capable of relating to the vast majority of Americans sick and tired of politics as usual whether that of the GOP or the Democrats. We need a party that opposes the neo-liberal domestic policies and imperialist foreign policy both parties to one degree or another have supported for decades. A real opposition party to the two big business parties can provide the vehicle for social, moral, political and economic renewal.
The Sanders campaign showed people’s pent-up yearning for an alternative. Polls also show a significant number of Trump voters supported Sanders anti-establishment run. Yet, we have to ask, what has the Democratic Party done to incorporate Sanders’ supporters and program into the party? Party officials and commentators point to the influence Sanders had on the party platform, calling it the most progressive platform in decades. This they say is evidence the establishment is willing to embrace Sanders’ advanced demands that directly challenged corporate power and profits.
However, since the November election, have we heard a word about free post-secondary education? Single payer health insurance? Expanding social benefits to include mandatory paid vacations, paid parental leave? The answer is no. We only hear the same fear-based, anti-Trump electioneering rhetoric of the Clinton campaign; whose campaign quickly discarded Sanders positive program for change that had inspired and appealed to millions.
Progressive analysts and Sanders activists of late have been bemoaning the loss of Representative Keith Ellison, Sanders’ choice for DNC chair, to the centrist, Clinton supporter, Tom Perez. They cite this loss as evidence the party will not change. I will grant them that, but the entire contest between Ellison and Perez was in many ways a waste of time and resources that might have been better spent building a new, meaningful, ethical, honest political party and movement – a principled opposition to the two capitalist parties.
At this juncture, who heads a party rejected by tens of millions of voters seems irrelevant. In the first place, any meaningful change in the party would entail disavowing the party’s foreign policy record of war and subversion of democracy around the world. Did we hear Ellison make such a case? No. Were any of the candidates talking about reducing the military budget and closing foreign bases? No. Reform of the Democratic Party without a change in foreign policy is a charade. Moreover, it is a betrayal of those people’s and nations long struggling against U.S. covert political interference and military and economic aggression. Ask, as well, have Democratic leaders criticized Trump’s plan to increase the military budget by $53 billion? No, and few if any, raised questions about President Obama’s steadily growing military and intelligence budgets.
The question to ask is how to organize a party and movement that will challenge and run candidates that oppose the imperialist, neo-liberal, corporate status quo politicians of the Democratic Party as well the GOP. This is where the electoral struggle is situated, not in the Democratic Party. I acknowledge, again, there are notable exceptions among the Democratic Party’s progressive elected officials, but they too need a new party to call home.
Sanders’ run on an advanced program showed what is possible. Yet the tens of millions who responded to Bernie Sanders still have no party and need one. Sanders, instead of responding to this need, chose to try reforming the Democratic Party – a party whose establishment worked to defeat him in the primary. I understand embarking on forming a new party is a monumental task. Yet, this is what the historic period demands and is the lesson voters delivered in 2016. Sanders could make a further contribution by initiating and encouraging such a discussion through Our Revolution.
The Trump problem is how to reach tens of millions
A CNN poll released in early February, showed from 40 to 45 of those polled support Trump’s border wall, immigration bans and law and order mandates. There can be no social or political progress if tens of millions remain trapped by such thinking. Thankfully, polls also show a majority stand opposed to most of Trump’s actions. It is clear, however, the historical legacy of nativism and racism still loom large in American public opinion; attitudes capitalists have long used to divide workers across borders and color lines.
Those millions swept up by Trump’s rhetoric of xenophobia fit this scenario. They too are misinformed. One could use the word ignorant but it is unhelpful. A mind-numbing public education curriculum, crackpot talk show hosts, the legacy of racist thinking, foreign policy lies and half-truths, the lack of alternative media are some of the factors that contribute to such a worldview. One can list more, but the antidote is a political party and movement with a program, as well as the organizational capacity and persistence required to change the consciousness of millions.
To say the least, another lesson taught by 2016 is that the Democratic Party is not an effective counter to reactionary thinking. To their credit, some U.S. labor unions in recent decades initiated cross-border solidarity and immigrant organizing and rights programs. Yet the Democratic Party often worked at cross-purposes confusing and alienating union members on other fronts thus diminishing the solidarity message. Labor cannot remain wedded to the Democratic Party and lead a genuine fight against Trump, the GOP or the neo-liberal policies the Democratic center has championed like smaller government and trade agreements authored by Wall Street investment banks.
The Democratic Party will not and cannot lead a fight back because it is ideologically wedded to capitalist economic policies and an imperialist foreign policy. No meaningful, effective solutions to economic crises, the influence of white supremacy, and endless war are possible without challenging the capitalist-imperialist system from which these problems stem.
No doubt, progressives, liberal and leftists will continue to debate various streams of thought regarding reforming or ending the capitalist system. Yet, more and more activists are beginning to realize it is impossible to explain any contemporary struggle without a critique of capitalism and imperialism.
For example, is it possible to talk about peace and ending the war on terrorism without talking about imperialism? About closing the 800 U.S. military bases around the world? About global warming and fossil fuel pipelines and extractions without talking about wars for oil, minerals and profits? Is it possible to create a more equitable prosperity, build innovative mass transit or enlarge scientific and medical research without a plan to convert hundreds of billions invested in the infrastructure of war to peaceful purposes?
Changing consciousness: the pathway to a better world
The painstaking work to change consciousness cannot be avoided. Protests, as important as they are, will not suffice. People need a forward-looking program built on a principle of economic security for all. Such a beacon of understanding will do more to halt and dissipate the backlash toward immigrants than any amount of protests against the old order that wants to cling to a mythical past or nationalist capitalist future. Cross-border solidarity and a united working class plan for economic security are the twin messages with which to forge an economic perspective and consciousness to advance social and political life.
It takes organization, sacrifice and hard work to change the consciousness of millions. A political party provides the organizational, programmatic and educational platform to challenge and advance Americans’ understanding of politics and rally them to work toward what I call a Sanders-plus program. The plus being demands that challenge imperialism with a program for peace. A political party that organizes, educates and recruits between elections. In this sense it functions as both a party and a movement. It leads and participates in protests, organizes in neighborhoods and workplaces, and builds alliances. Its principal role is to cultivate the consciousness of tens of millions around a common program in order to build the capacity to govern.
Sanders shortcoming was his reluctance to take his program a step further and offer Americans a resolute plan for peace. In the first place this means respect for the self-determination of all nations and peoples. Without a plan for peace an alternative party will become an adjunct of the Democratic Party, as have numerous other organizations; like the Working Families parties, Moveon.org and Progressive Democrats of America. Such forms have not worked and have not appealed to the working class.
An ambitious, but perhaps achievable goal would be to field 30 to 50 congressional candidates in the 2018 mid-term elections on a Sanders-plus program. Sanders impressive campaign indicates voters are ready. This could be a mix of Green Party candidates, independents running without party affiliation, a progressive Democrat ready to challenge his/her party’s imperialist foreign policy, it could be a local labor leader or Black Lives Matter activist ready to break with the Democratic Party line.
The Democratic Party’s response to the Trump administrations executive orders shows little promise for them to lead a fight back in 2018 or beyond. Their candidates will pedal fear of Trump, not solutions to long-standing grievances. Sanders did so, and nearly pulled it off. A goal of just 10 percent of the vote on an advanced program in 50 congressional districts would be a powerful rebuff to Trump’s new GOP, the old GOP and the militarists of both parties.
Where to start?
Individual causes, each now working separately, surely can come together, merge their issues in a program, and identify qualified candidates to run a congressional campaign. Practical experience and expertise in politics may not be in abundance, yet is growing rapidly. It is not that difficult to run a congressional campaign.[i]
No national convention is needed, just local organizing. Experiments, trial and error, innovative campaigns any activity necessary to jump start campaigns. The goal is to make the electoral arena a means of struggle and a venue for public education. Experience, successes and shortcomings will reveal what next steps are necessary and possible. Persistence and commitment to the long-term is essential in order to be taken seriously by voters. It may take 10 years to achieve significant success, such as winning Sanders’ social benefit program. Yet, decades of history teaches it would be a great waste of resources and time to put energy into betting the Democratic Party will lead the way.
The key component and driver of forming such a party is the political program, not candidates or leaders. In my book, Which Way Forward, I characterize the role of a political program as such: “Political demands are more than just political statements on a program. Demands set the stage for experiences people will have, the relative militancy of the struggle and the ideological and educational foundation on which a movement is built.”
Toward a political program to raise consciousness and win heart and minds
I consider the following a minimum Sanders plus program required to bring together a confluence of social justice, labor, environmental, peace and political forces to build a voting majority around meaningful change. Not around hope, not for incremental change, not for a revised Democratic platform, but behind a program that can fundamentally change the moral, social, international and economic values that underpin a society burdened with racism, militarism, xenophobia, consumerism and an inability fully integrate and deepen the struggles and demands of the women’s liberation and civil rights movements.
Public opinion surveys show 20 to 30 percent of Americans would support most or all of such a program.[ii] We are not starting from scratch. Two generations of young people have had access to alternative news and history via the Internet, alternative media and education. Skepticism toward the aims and history of U.S. foreign policy abounds. The slogan, “No war for oil,” resonated with tens of millions before and after the Iraq War began. A solid majority, 55 percent, considered Snowden a whistleblower, not a traitor. As I said in WWF, such data is not insignificant, as it shows the growing skepticism in the legitimacy of the government by the governed. The question is can we rise to meet this opportunity the historic election of 2016 revealed possible.
- A peaceful foreign policy that rejects imperialist goals of global economic and military dominance. Diplomacy, treaties and dialogue, not bombs, sanctions and surveillance.
- A global demilitarization initiative beginning with a ban on nuclear and robotic weapons, including drones. The U.S. has 95 percent of the world’s foreign military bases. Replace them with treaties, bring soldiers home and guarantee them work, income and/or post-secondary education.
- A program to demilitarize the economy by converting production for peaceful purposes. No workers lose jobs or income.
- An end to the so-called war on terrorism. A near majority of Americans now realize that the military response to 9-11 has created more, not fewer terrorists and has destabilized numerous countries. Terrorism should be addressed as an international policing and intelligence problem; a strategy that many people now know would have avoided 14 years of war.
- A national plan to transition to alternative-energy funded by surtaxes on oil, coal and gas profits and by recovering the billions of dollars Big Oil invested in projects like the tar sands and Bakken oil fields.
- Expand women’s rights and equality, defend reproductive rights and support passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
- Make post-secondary education and training free. Cancel existing student debt.
- End the drug war and enforcement practices. Decriminalize use and possession. Treat drug abuse as a disease and health problem, not as a crime. Release prison inmates incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses; guarantee education and training and a support mechanism to ensure success.
- End institutional racism in the legal and judicial system. Stop police brutality by ending racist policing practices and prosecuting officers who commit such crimes. Communities must have the power to select those who patrol their communities.
- Phase out incarceration as the primary form of punishment for criminal activity. Substitute other remedies in the form of restitution and reconciliation. End solitary confinement, the death penalty and lifetime sentences. Provide prison employees new jobs and training as prisons close. Make reparations to all victims of injustice.
- Create jobs by reducing the workweek beginning in construction and manufacturing. Implement a large-scale program to upgrade industrial worker’s skills and train apprentices in manufacturing and construction trades. Institute an affirmative action program to ensure participation of people of color and immigrants.
- Adopt a principle of full employment. Unemployment is a failure of the system and should not be tolerated when there is so much work to be done.
- Develop an economic plan to revitalize rural America based on value added agricultural products, alternative energy production and related new industries and manufacturing.
- Expand social benefits to include four-weeks paid vacation, child care, one year of paid parental leave and the immediate passage of single-payer national health insurance – expanded Medicare for all – to cover all healthcare needs: dental, medical, psychological and eye care. Convert entire healthcare delivery system to nonprofit.
- Renegotiate or cancel so-called free trade agreements that have impoverished workers and communities in the U.S. and abroad.
- Demand immigration policies that respect workers rights across borders and fair compensation and social benefits, safe working conditions, and the right to organize unions regardless of citizenship. End deportations and support immigration reform that allows undocumented workers immediate legal status and reunification of families.
- Ensure safe and reliable food production to better the lives and health of farmers, farm workers and consumers. Expand the food stamp program to ensure everyone has nutritious, plentiful food.
A political shift among millions has created perhaps the most fertile ground in decades to launch an independent challenge to the ideological dominance of the two parties of capitalism. The two parties are seen as failures and corrupt appendages of corporate power. A direct challenge to the two-party rule in 2018 could radically change the debate in the nation and offer hope in a new politics. Many voters would eagerly respond to an alternative that would make elections an arena of struggle for racial justice, peace and economic security.
[i] Some thoughts on conducting campaigns
- Pledge to raise funds and resources only from residents of the district. This sends a message the campaign/party is not politics as usual. It assures integrity in the eyes of voters and not outside funders. It holds the candidate/party accountable and to focus on building the base of support in the district. It acts as a barometer of support.
- Do not run in the Democratic primary, but accept local Democratic Party organizations endorsements should they support the goals and program of the campaign.
- Build an independent voter contact database. Do not depend on other sources. Own it. Manage it as best as possible. Models and programs will evolve over time. Data is important, but data driven campaigns are the tools (and shortcomings) of the two major parties. A program and people drive grassroots campaigns.
- Campaign built around volunteers, not funding. Hundreds of volunteers can make up the difference in funding and if the campaign gets traction will bring in sufficient funds.
- A five, or even ten to one, funding disadvantage can be overcome with volunteers and creative, grassroots campaign tactics and activities. People can beat money.
[ii] For additional analysis of public opinion see pages 8 to 10 in WWF.