2020: Toward a working-class program for peace and economic security

Analysis, strategies and possibilities for action

The nation is already gearing up for the 2020 presidential election having barely recovered from the last one. It is likely to be no less historic than that of 2016. The battles lines, as ever, are only partially transparent. Politicians, mega donors and large firms holding political power within both major political parties are already busy mapping strategies and forming working alliances. Neither major party represents the interests of our nation’s working class in all its diversity of national backgrounds and occupations. Will we once again be pawns in a game of two-party chess? This article suggests a program to challenge the game in 2020?

First, those seeking the far-reaching change expressed in Bernie Sanders’ domestic economic program need to organize a powerful independent political movement to advance the program against the opposition of the GOP and the center-right leadership of the Democratic Party. Secondly, relying on the Democratic Party to lead the fight against the reactionary ideas of Trump is a losing strategy. Third, the fight for Sanders domestic program must be married with plan for peace and the fight against U.S. imperialist foreign policies. Independent political organizing along these lines can inspire and recruit our nation’s youth and diverse working class to move toward a progressive-left center political coalition or party that can govern. The 2016 election showed such a coalition centered on the working class is possible.[1]

This article assesses the political situation and possibilities to advance independent working-class politics in this election cycle and beyond. Corresponding political strategies and tactics are developed with the aim of making the 2020 election a struggle for peace and economic security, the two umbrella issues around which a program for social and economic renewal must be built.

Alliance or Allegiance?

From a class perspective, political alliances come in two forms: those that benefit the working class and others that lead to the working class being betrayed. Evidence of the latter is the alliance of U.S. trade unions, as well as most progressive and left groups, with the Democratic Party. In the case of labor unions, it is a relationship that more accurately could be described as a one-sided allegiance given the lack of return on labor’s investment in dollars, votes and people power. In 2016, a sizeable section of the working class became fed up with being taken advantage of by both parties and sent Donald Trump to the White House. He was the only candidate besides Bernie Sanders to call the system rigged (a true statement mind you).

Allegiance for labor has meant lending tacit support to the neo-liberal economic program written and directed by both parties and their Big Business partners and sponsors. Under the slogan “friends of labor,” labor buried its potential independent political power, as well as the grievances of the working class, within the Democratic Party, whose first allegiance is to its corporate sponsors. Working class allegiance to either capitalist party means giving up its independent political power. It cannot fight for its own interests or the nation’s, if it is just a voting block within either party. Eventually, it must forge its own program and party, as a base from which to form favorable alliances.

Both major parties know they need working class votes to win. Workers learned long ago both have betrayed them in one way or another. Billionaire Donald Trump seemed different and addressed working class grievances, sounding at times as if he were a militant trade union leader on the issues of trade, de-industrialization and chronic stagnant wages. As of this writing, most workers who voted for Trump are still hanging with the president, hoping this time they won’t be betrayed. If manufacturing jobs keep growing, their support may hold. We can argue about whether this is a wise choice, but we can bet they are not going to be convinced to support another centrist, neo-liberal, free-trade Democrat for president.

To present a clear alternative to Trump will require labor to break its allegiance to the Democratic Party and embrace an independent political program that is responsive to working class interests. In 2016, some unions did just that by supporting Sanders run for the nomination against Hillary Clinton. Official support came from the million-member Communication Workers of America (CWA), National Nurses United and several smaller unions.[2] Union members responded enthusiastically to Sanders even in unions that endorsed Clinton.

The program Sanders ran on in 2016, Trump did not and will not support. He opposes national single-payer health insurance, opposes raising the federal minimum wage and opposes providing free post-secondary education. He calls them socialist projects that he would veto. For these reasons, and others, he cannot compete for working class votes against an independent working-class program. But he can compete against another centrist Democratic candidate, like a Clinton, Biden or even an Elizabeth Warren, from the slightly more progressive wing.

Organizing support for an independent program among union and non-unionized workers would allow union and progressive forces leverage in negotiations with Democratic candidates. Negotiations could result in a temporary alliance with centrist Democrats to advance all or some portion of the working-class program. In either case, however, labor and its allies should prepare to run their own congressional candidates, inside and outside the Democratic Party to test and demonstrate the effectiveness of independent politics.

Is Sanders program realistic?

It can be argued that a Sanders-type program has been a viable means to unify the working class since the 1970s when the nation embraced a new political era coming off the heels of the Civil Rights Movement’s victories and other movements, like that of the women’s, peace and environmental movements. In 1972, a coalition of independent black political groups offered such a program at the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana. Predictably the program was attacked by right wing and racist political forces, but it was also stonewalled and eventually sidelined by conservatives and opportunists within the Democratic Party.[3] Independent black politics did not emerge. Instead it was submerged within the party.

What followed is the decades-long allegiance of labor, left and progressive groups as well as women’s and civil rights group to the Democratic Party. The lack of an independent political alternative allowed the GOP to attract white working class support for their program of lower taxes and smaller government demagogically built on the legacy of racism affecting the white working class. As the GOP likes to say, they will put your money in your wallet not the IRS. During these years the Democratic center moved rightward, betraying the working class by pushing through Congress, under Bill Clinton, NAFTA, welfare reform, the 1994 Crime Bill and an end to Glass-Segal financial regulations—all this done under the guise of a “friend of labor.” All were opposed by labor unions. Labor lost each battle.

Even in the 1970s, many workers knew the two-party system was rigged against them. Since then, without leadership and an alternative program, they have bounced from one hopeful two-party candidate to another or just stopped participating. In 2015, along came Donald Trump with a simple message: the system is rigged against you. It validated these long-standing working class sentiments. Whether you believe Trump’s motivation was demagogic, sincere or politically expedient doesn’t matter; it worked. Like Sanders, Trump spoke directly to working class economic grievances.

The rigged system mantra also worked for Bernie Sanders. The times were not just “a changin,” they had already changed. Unsurprisingly, Democratic Party leaders and most of their elected officials chose to take a chance on losing rather than betray their corporate benefactors. Sanders, who was drawing crowds of 20,000 or more at rallies, was denied the nomination. The idea the system was rigged was confirmed. Trump used this to attract working class voters who would have voted for Sanders. It was a factor leading to his winning edge in key states.

Sanders: Not just another candidate

Sanders was not just another candidate in 2016. His program then and now, would require shifting hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate profits and dividends into new social benefits. Beyond single-payer health insurance, Sanders program included free post-secondary education, expanded social security benefits and increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, benefits that would radically alter the balance of forces in favor of the working class. To put Sanders program in an historical context it would be as transformational as the New Deal of the 1930s or the victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

As we know, a Sanders candidacy would not be permitted in 2016, and the center-right is not likely to allow it in 2020 either. Should a serious contest arise between the populist Sanders wing and the center-right, at some point it is likely to cause an irreparable split in the Democratic Party. There are two other possibilities.

If Sanders or a similar candidate were to win the nomination, the ruling elite, as they threatened in 2016, may run a capitalist third party candidate. In 2016, Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, was set to run as an independent if necessary to deny far-right GOP candidates Trump or Ted Cruz, or Sanders socialist-leaning constituency from taking over the White House.[4] The possibility of a Bloomberg candidacy is already being discussed as a hedge against Sanders.[5] It is becoming clear, as well, the corporate establishment historically behind the GOP would prefer someone other than Trump, like John Kasich, to shepherd their anti-labor, pro-business program.[6] However, they may be stuck with Trump.

Sanders offers his 2020 program

On November 22, 2018, Sanders published a 10-point domestic program in the Washington Post and challenged the Democratic party to get behind it. Included in his program is a pathway to Medicare for All, national health insurance, bold action to prevent climate change and just immigration reform.

Immediately, after the holiday a raft of criticism flooded the media. Typical was GOP strategist Karl Rove’s Wall Street Journal article calling for a campaign against the “Enthusiasm for socialism and antagonism to capitalism” among young voters. He charged the GOP with the task of “Taking a stand against the ideas of the Democratic Party’s ascendant left,” with the added benefit that it “can help congressional Republicans rehabilitate their image with voters.”

In Rove fashion, he advises the GOP on some talking points. In the fight against Medicare for All, he asks: “Do voters really want to abolish private insurance?” Adding as well the now ubiquitous fearmongering charge against single-payer: “Do they want the wait times, the decline in quality, and the slowing of innovation that would come with a takeover by a new federal bureaucracy?” Likely, Rove has already written a comprehensive battle plan. Will it work once again? Instead, can the working class and allied forces be convinced to rally behind the Sander program? Even a compromise program? Might some centrist Democrats support some elements of the program? Can these forces wage an equally effective battle against Rove’s campaign to paint single-payer as a socialist plot?

Rove even suggests that his advice to campaign against socialist-leaning economic radicalism “may give talented centrist Democrats in Congress a chance to improve their fortunes in red or purple districts by distancing themselves from the Sanders wing of the party.” To “assist” the Democratic center, he suggests, “Democrats should be forced to answer for their radicals’ wild ideas.” The test for Sanders’ wing and left and progressive groups is how to make the “wild ideas” mainstream and defend them against the naysayers of the two-parties beholden to capitalism.

On the Democratic Party side, leaders Pelosi and Schumer have repeatedly said they will not support single payer. They also have voiced opposition to nearly all of Sanders’ other points even though some are in the Democratic Party platform. Their job is to keep the lid on working class grievances and demands, not fight for them. Their track record is clear. Bernie learned this in 2016. The deciding factor will be whether or not the voices and ballots of the tens of millions of Americans who supported Sanders in 2016 can be organized to elect Sanders, but just as important to elect the congressional majority needed to pass all or parts of his program.

Missing ingredients in 2016…and 2020?

To achieve a critical mass Sanders will need at least 50 and perhaps 100 candidates and incumbents to run on his program for House and Senate races. In 2016, even some of his supporters wondered how he would get his program passed with his limited congressional endorsements. If Sanders chooses to run without such a slate of like candidates, he will not gain the confidence of the electorate. He must know that for even part of his program to become law would require electing on the order of 50 to 100 new people to Congress in addition to those already on board. Sanders is likely to be denied the nomination once more, so he may also need a new political party.

Sanders Washington Post letter stated, “Instead of us having a Congress that listens to wealthy campaign contributors, it is about time we had a Congress fighting to create an economy and a government that works for all of us, not just those on top.” The task now is for Sanders campaign to recruit a list of committed co-sponsors to some or all of his 10 points. Then we will know exactly how many and which members of Congress need to be persuaded and/or replaced. If Sanders is unwilling to lead such an effort, it can be organized independently.

The other missing ingredient in Sanders’ 2016 bid was a plan for peace to challenge the bi-partisan imperialist foreign policy. He was seen by many as a peace candidate, but he failed to deliver. Now is the time. Americans are tired of war. The dangerous game the U.S. and its imperialist partners in Europe and Japan are playing has the world sitting on a precipice. Americans will respond to candidates and leaders who offer a plan for peace. Sanders’ 10 points does not mention foreign policy. Where are his 10 points on foreign policy?

In a Washington Post letter published December 11, 2018, 10 former GOP and 33 Democratic U.S. senators and Joe Lieberman, made their stance on foreign policy clear: More of the same.[7] Indirectly they were criticizing the instability in the Trump administration and his erratic foreign policy. While there is much to criticize, they voiced the same old bi-partisan foreign policy in language reminiscent of Cold War fearmongering. Their worry is that the confluence of special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation and the House investigations of Trump, under a Democratic majority, will distract Trump as “simmering regional conflicts and global power confrontations continue to threaten our security, economy and geopolitical stability.” We can assume the threats they allude to include both Russia and China.

Their purpose? For one, to frighten the American people maintain support for the bi-partisan imperialist foreign policies. A quick review the 44 listed reveals they have routinely voted to lead the nation to war, supported covert aggression against working class and indigenous movements in countless nations and repeatedly voted to enlarge the military budget. What they are really worried about are Americans growing disbelief and discontent in the results of the militarized, imperialist foreign policy.[8]

Their letter indicates they are taking no chances and intend to bolster support by cultivating unfounded fears about national security. The anti-Russia hysteria created by the Mueller investigation and media around allegations of Russian interference in our elections and similar allegations recently leveled against China create an even greater danger that the public’s emerging skepticism about foreign policy aims will be cowed by fearmongering.[9]

Do the senators’ appraisal reflect reality? Are Russia and China really threats and enemies? Both Russia and China’s stated objective is to avoid challenging the U.S. militarily. China and Russia’s military actions are not aggressive but defensive. Their responses, as they themselves say, is to counter the aggression of the U.S. and NATO. The foreign policies of both nations have exhibited considerable restraint in the face of imperialist provocations on or near their borders.

The message conveyed by the 44 senators suggests Americans should circle the wagons and support candidates that can best defend the nation against those who “threaten our national security.” However, their assessment does not reflect reality, but is what many are calling the Second Cold War.  Such a false narrative cannot be countered is peace activists and the left betray the cause of world peace if they do not challenge Democratic and Republican candidates foreign policies. It is long overdue and more urgent, win or lose, to challenge the bi-partisan imperialist foreign policy. The victims of imperialism have been patiently waiting, yet find little hope when they look toward the U.S.

What can be done? How might this playout in 2020 and beyond? Some small steps that could be taken by individuals.

  1. Organize a delegation to ask your congressional officials to support Sanders 10 point program. Ask them to clarify their responses in writing. Publicize the results. A little transparency goes a long way.
  2. Craft letters and Op-eds calling on Sanders to make his foreign policy clear. Encourage him to offer and embrace a plan for peace. Call on your representatives to do so as well.
  3. Send a copies to Sanders campaign and others you may wish to influence.
  4. Call on trade unions, progressive groups, places of worship, student and youth groups, local and state elected officials and civic and cultural leaders to endorse Sanders’ 10 points and a plan for peace.
  5. Organize a gathering to discuss the Sanders program with family, friends and co-workers.

Organizing a ground swell of support for Sanders’ 10 points and a plan for peace would make it possible to make a qualitative shift in our nation political discussion. It is a means to forestall reactionary tendencies that emerge in times of economic and social uncertainty. It has the potential to change the current content and tenor of the political discussion in the nation to a more constructive one.

Sanders left some 20 some million voters stranded when he formed Our Revolution as an appendage of the Democratic Party, instead of an independent political movement with the capacity and legal status necessary to run its own candidates. From local races on up such a break with politics as usual would receive youth and working class support. Eventually, it will earn the respect, power and capacity to govern.

To avoid further divisions and violence in our country we need to as rapidly as possible to reduce the stress on families. Even enacting part of Sanders program, single-payer, lowering the cost of childcare and providing free post-secondary education would set America on a path that finally breaks with right wing individualist solutions fostered by capitalism. It would mark the beginning of the end of the austerity trap fostered by neo-liberal thinking. It would lessen the influence of racism, xenophobia and warmongering. It would lead to easing social conflict and engendering a sense of social solidarity and unity that has always eluded our nation.

Organizing an effective opposition will require the plethora of single-issue causes to be unified around a political program and coordinate politically. Nothing short of this will achieve the far-reaching change revealed possible in Sanders’ program. Such relationships may evolve into a new electoral party, but the first task is settling on a political program to offer the American people a meaningful alternative to the reactionary forces of the old GOP, Trump’s new GOP and the neo-liberal politics of the Democratic Party’s corporate centrists.

[1] See the data and analysis in my Adonde Press pamphlet, The 2016 Election: Analysis, Lessons and the Tasks Ahead, December 2017 at adondepress.org.

[2] Organizing by Labor for Bernie generated dozens of local union endorsements, mobilized thousands of campaign volunteers and accumulated a list of 80,000 union supporters. Challenges to the top down endorsement of Hillary Clinton by national union executive bodes swept several unions, most notably the American Federation of Teachers and SEIU. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) let locals weigh in and 30 locals endorsed Bernie, none endorsed Hillary.

2020 is a big deal

[3]Joseph, Peniel, E. 2006. Waiting ‘Till the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power America.  Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY.

[4]CNN 2016. “Bloomberg seriously considering White House bid,” January 23, 2016, by Kevin Bohn, Jake Tapper and Karl de Vries. The article indicates he would consider running if Trump or Cruz won the GOP nomination or if Sanders bested Clinton. Politico 2018.

[5]Bloomberg is already exploring a 2020 bid for the Democratic nomination. “Bloomberg holds private meetings with top Iowa Democrats ahead of 2020 decision,” December 6, 2018 by Natasha Korecki.

[6]Forbes 2018. “Kasich 2020: A Divine Notion?” November 28, 2018, by Bill Whalen.

[7]The Washington Post, December 11, 2018, Regional Edition. “The Senate must defend democracy.” Listed were 33 Democrats, 10 GOP and independent, Joe Lieberman.

[8]The remarks of former Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, in May 2014, at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs characterize this concern. “Although Americans today are increasingly skeptical of foreign engagement and global responsibilities, it is a mistake to view these responsibilities as a burden or as charity.  Let us remember that the biggest beneficiaries of American leadership and engagement in the world are the American people.”Not he does not mention the dire consequences for those on the receiving end of U.S. foreign and military polices.

[9]Data and analysis in my book Which Way Forward?, 2015.

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