Today is the day of the Iowa primaries of 2016, and everyone is watching to see what will happen. To me, this is one of the most significant primary elections of my lifetime because I see the Sanders' candidacy as doing something that no other Democrat has successfully done. He appears to have built a pretty broad-based electoral coalition by suggesting real economic reforms, thus repudiating the Reagan Revolution that many of us lived through and which we are still living with. The New Democrats strategy was to "steal the issues" of the Reaganite Republicans, aka Neoliberals. They reduced taxes, they cut welfare, they talked about personal responsibility and threw more people in jail.
Sanders is running against this version of the Democratic party has been against the odds, polling close to an opponent who once appeared unbeatable, and on an issues that people have described as "impossible": Single-Payer healthcare, free College tuition, A total ban on fracking, and of course, a serious attempt to regulate Wall St.. Hell, it's a small point, but I thought of him when I paid a $3 ATM fee today. To top it off, Sanders has built his numbers while relying primarily on individual contributions and bucking "Super-pacs." He is not running as a symbol, he is running to win. As many have said, he is polling well against Republicans, and it doesn't seem impossible anymore. He is doing it.
My post the other day, which was not as forthright as the above in my support for Sanders' candidacy led some of my readers to conclude that I am primarily seeing Sanders from the perspective of a glass half empty. I posted this update there to clarify.
Because of a few people who have communicated questions to me about this in other venues I want to be clear. The point of this post is not to attack Sanders, whose candidacy I see as important and valuable because he is bringing meaningful proposals for economic justice into mainstream electoral politics for the first time in my lifetime. That said, I think it is wrong to characterize the current primary contest as a referendum on class vs. 'identity politics" as the way forward politically, as some Sanders supporters have done.So, I admit it, I am "Feelin' the Bern." I was invigorated by hearing Sanders use the word "socialism" and attack big money in the first debate, and I have been increasingly optimistic as I have seen momentum grow behind Sanders' advocacy for Single-Payer insurance which I've supported since I first heard a speech about it in the mid-1990s. That Sanders has made this alternative to our absurd healthcare bureaucracy into a viable policy is a huge deal. He's beating Republicans in national polls even though he explicitly says he will raise taxes. He is making what seemed like political "third rail" positions into stuff people talk about on the corner. In this moment, his campaign to me represents what some call the left wing of the possible. It is a shame that the main argument against him is that he is "unelectable." In an excellent piece over at Huffington Post, Anthony Conwright says:
When people say Bernie Sanders' ideas are not politically viable, what they are really saying is:
Satisfying the needs of the people his policies would support is not politically viable, therefore, we should not vote for him. Not only does this language illegitimize the needs of those people, but the language implies there is something unviable about those people--at least politically. Sanders' proposals of providing health care to all Americans, making public colleges tuition free, and decriminalizing marijuana are all initiatives that would positively impact black Americans, and help close the equality gap in America. In 2013, 42 percent of African Americans ages 25 to 55 had student loan debt, compared to 28 percent of white Americans. In Iowa, an African American was 8.34 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana position than white Americans, according to a 2013 study by the ACLU .According to the 2014 National Healthcare Quality & Disparities Report, African Americans and Hispanic Americans still have higher uninsured rates than white Americans. If addressing the needs of black Americans and minorities in this country is too radical, whose needs are politically viable?
When it comes to electoral strategy, I agree with Tom Frank. It's not a good idea to just write-off the white working class voters for a number of reasons. Nonetheless, it is a bad idea politically and also strategically to wrap the Sanders campaign into a battle within the left that is based on attacking and dismissing the politics of racial justice or gender equality as violations of working-class thinking. It is not only necessary to make the argument the way Conwright does above to be specific about how economic policies benefit specific disadvantged groups, but more importantly, for parties and movements to include people who aren't white men - (even if they are working-class) in the process of defining what the unifying issues are. This kind of strategy will keep us away from the bad class politics of the New Deal era, which brought us such limited reforms that we can still see the long term fall out from in the recent mortgage collapse, which disproportionately hurt Black homeowners who were the hardest hit by the 2008 crash.
At the same time, just as it is worth talking about the imbrication of race, gender and class, especially in the process of crafting broadly unifying demands, it seems unrealistic to argue for an issue that does not have the possibility of gaining a wide swathe of the electorate as part of a national election campaign. Coates seemed to do with his call to Sanders campaign to put reparations for slavery on their platform. This only holds up because Coates describes Sanders as running a symbolic rather than a serious campaign, but as we can see above, this is not the case. it's also worth pointing out that while Coates himself has since changed his own mind on reparations, he once said it was "racist" to demand that Obama support reparations when he was campaigning in 2007, If it was a struggle for Coates to get behind reparations,it seems like no matter how right this policy is, it is a hard issue to include in the kind of electoral campaigns that exist in the United States in the current moment.
The question is not, "If not now, when?" the question is "if not here, where?"
We need hope and idealism and big goals, but only inclusive discussions about how to define and push broadly unifying demands can build real power. Single-Payer is not a white man's" issue - it is legitimately a policy that will help the 99%. The same is true for other issues that Sanders' supports, and this is why he is gaining support from so many people. I think that real criminal justice policy reform is also a broadly unifying issue, since a racist policy that disproportionately hurts minorities ALSO has begun to capture more and more white people into its net, which may be why we are seeing increasing opposition to mass incarceration from white people. The trick is to make sure that any policy reforms that do happen don't disproportionately soften up the pressure on white people, leaving people of color behind.
In the longer term, the place for pushing the "divisive" demands is simply not the national presidential campaign. The place where those battles happen and are still happening is not waiting, and let's hope it does not go away tomorrow or next year. it's in social movements where people can get together to push whoever is elected to do what they think needs to be done. We hear of the disaster that hope created in 1972, but Nixon is now lauded for legislation, such as the Clean Air Act, that was passed during his second term,without any seeming comprehension that the reason these reforms passed was that there was a waning, but still robust social movement alive in America at that time.McGovern lost, but movements won. And where do people think the Sanders surge came from?