OP-ED February 23, 2016

by Sarah Grey

This story is part of The Establishment’s ongoing series exploring the political dialogue surrounding the democratic presidential candidates, progressivism, and feminism.

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Just say you’ll vote for the Democratic nominee. Just SAY it.

Why do you have to rock the boat in an election year? This election is too important.

Just help us get Democrats into office, and THEN you can call them out on their problems.

I know the system is messed up, but we have to be realistic.

If you don’t shut up, we’ll end up with President Trump!

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If you’ve ever criticized the Democratic Party from the left, as I recently did, chances are good you’ve heard all of this and more. It’s everywhere. It’s unavoidable.

And it’s wrong.

The left is willing to think big and question the status quo—three out of every four years. Then we get to an election year and, OMG, we have to make sure the Democrats win no matter how terrible their candidates are, because this is the most important election ever (it’s always the most important election ever). That the Republicans always seem to run cartoon villains like Trump and Cruz helps a lot with this argument. But our system is so profoundly undemocratic that even when we win, we lose: Al Gore won the popular vote, but Bush v. Gore put the cartoon villain into the White House. (At which point Hillary Clinton poured her energy into lobbying him to invade Iraq.)

I have strong criticisms of Clinton and of Sanders—but in the end, it’s not about them, it’s about the two-party system as a whole. Don’t hate the players, hate the game.

Clinton

It’s important to defend Hillary Clinton from the sexist abuse fired at her from the right. Clinton has faced probably more sexism than just about any other woman in U.S. history (with the exception of Monica Lewinsky). I will gladly defend her against that, and I won’t deny that it’d be a pleasure to see a woman president—just as it’s a pleasure to see Hillary dismissing the right-wing conspiracy theorists, taking charge, and refusing to be bullied. But that momentary pleasure can’t take precedence over the actual material consequences her actions have in the world.

When we examine those actions, it’s easy to build a case against Clinton from the left. She was never a progressive. She started her career as a Republican “Goldwater Girl” and continued it as a member of Walmart’s board during a major antiunion campaign.

As First Lady she took an unprecedented role in actively promoting her husband’s political agenda, which included passing a crime bill that vastly expanded the prison system and “three strikes” laws; expanding the death penalty; escalating the drug war; and gutting the welfare system.

As Secretary of State she reoriented the State Department’s priorities in favor of helping U.S. corporations increase profits and avoid labor-rights regulations overseas; personally approved illegal surveillance of UN personnel, allies, and diplomats as part of the largest mass surveillance program in history; helped dictators in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain stand up against the Arab Spring movements for democratic and human rights; supported the antidemocratic coup against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya; and expanded a drone-bombing campaign that’s killed hundreds of civilians. She counts war criminal Henry Kissinger as a mentor and friend.

(Need more? Read this summary by Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra, or this one by The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander.)

Most Clinton supporters respond to these criticisms not by defending the indefensible, but by criticizing the alternative: Bernie Sanders. What he wants to do simply isn’t realistic, they say. He’ll never get anything done, the Republicans will obstruct him every step of the way, and all will be lost, almost as lost as it would be under President Trump.

This is, of course, correct.

Sanders

The Republicans have obstructed President Obama at every possible opportunity for the past eight years: the House has voted more than 60 times on bills attempting to block various aspects of Obamacare. It’s abundantly clear that this will be their strategy as long as any Democrat is in office; a President Sanders would certainly face it, and so would a second President Clinton. “Bernie can’t,” they say—and Hillary won’t, so where does that leave us?

We elect a Democrat with a mandate for change, and the Republicans block that change by any means necessary. Then a frustrated electorate swings back toward the Republicans in the midterms, closing the window of legislative opportunity. Or we elect a Republican, and for four years we hear about how much better things would have been if only we’d elected a Democrat.

Either way, though, we can count on the prison system continuing to expand, the health-care system remaining broken, drones continuing to bomb civilian weddings around the Middle East and Central Asia, and the unending expansion of the most sweeping system of mass surveillance the world has ever known.

But shut up about all that, we’re told, and vote for the Democratic nominee.

I’m not Feeling the Bern, but I am very glad to see a self-proclaimed socialist garnering such support (even if we have very different ideas about what “socialism” means). I’m glad Bernie’s pushing the debate to the left, raising demands that would be common sense in Europe but are considered radical here in the United States, like free tuition at public universities. As comedian Hari Kondabolu has astutely pointed out, in this political environment, candidates have to propose measures far beyond what they expect to achieve in order to make even small steps in a progressive direction—so these proposals are welcome interventions.

The Grassroots

These discussions about what Hillary or Bernie will be able to achieve, though, leave out a crucial factor. Democratic partisans are so focused on what’s happening on the Hill and inside the Beltway that they seem to forget there’s a whole country out there, one where people are indebted and incarcerated and unemployed and angry. And what those people do affects what happens in Washington.

Richard Nixon. Remember him? Even if you don’t, you know his reputation: the jowly, paranoid archconservative who, with Kissinger at his side, not only stayed in Vietnam but secretly bombed Cambodia and Laos, worked to undermine the Black Power movement, and notoriously abused his power at home and abroad. What you might not know is that Nixon also proposed a guaranteed minimum annual income for all Americans and, as Lance Selfa summarizes in his book The Democrats: A Critical History, increased food-stamp funding, approved a 20% increase in Social Security payments, created Supplemental Security Income, and established a number of regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Nixon expanded domestic spending more than any Democratic president since FDR.

Oh, yes, and Roe v. Wade happened on Nixon’s watch.

Read that list again. It sounds a bit like Sanders’ platform, doesn’t it? And it’s far to the left of anything Clinton proposes. Today’s Republican politicians would greet this with howls of “Communism!”—and, let’s be real, so would more than a few mainstream Democrats.

Nixon wasn’t a progressive. But his presidency, which stretched from 1969 to his resignation in 1974, took place during an era of mass social movements that affected every aspect of U.S. life. The women’s movement, Black Power, Chicano Power, the Gay Liberation Front, the American Indian Movement, Students for a Democratic Society—oppressed groups of all kinds were organizing. The environmental movement and the labor movement were fermenting. Cities all over the U.S. saw urban uprisings as people took to the streets.

They weren’t marching or rioting to get Democrats into office. They were raising concrete demands like independent living for people with disabilities and wages for housework and full employment. Progress happened during the Nixon administration not because Nixon wanted it to—he very much did not—but because there was intense pressure on him and on Washington in general to fix what was broken.

Howard Zinn, the radical historian who gave us A People’s History of the United States, used to say that “what matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in.” The lesson is clear: focus on the streets and you can force even a conservative administration to change its course. But pour all your resources into electoral politics in the hopes of influencing the party (an idea that still gets some currency among Sanders supporters today), or act as if electoral politics are the only politics, and you create a situation where the only pressure on your elected progressives is coming from the right. And so the whole framework of the debate shifts further and further to the right. That’s what we’ve seen again and again. When Democrats know they can take left-wing votes for granted, the only pressure they respond to comes from the right.

The result has been that, in the past three decades—over the lifetimes of the young people whose votes Clinton and Sanders covet—both the Democrats and the Republicans have shifted far to the right. The Reagan/Bush era, with the rise of the Religious Right, saw Democrats chasing pathetically after evangelical votes—so that by 1992, Bill Clinton was running a presidential campaign by promising to “get tough on crime.” He even rushed home from the campaign trail to personally oversee the execution of an African American man named Ricky Ray Rector, whose suicide attempt had left him so mentally disabled that he asked at his last meal whether he might save his dessert until after the execution. Clinton epitomized this rightward swing so much that, as Donna Murch recently noted, Alan Greenspan once called him “the best Republican president we’ve had in a while.”

It’s not that we have a two-party system with one party on the left and one on the right, and it’s irresponsible and wrong to keep pretending that. What we have are a far-right party and a right-centrist party.

Bernie Sanders is attempting to turn that shift around by appealing to the Democrats’ long-undeserved reputation as the left-wing party. Good luck to him. His detractors in the Clinton camp say that he can’t bring about a “political revolution” (whatever that means) from the Oval Office. They’re right.

What a Sanders victory would bring about is a symbolic victory. Would it bring real change? Probably no more than Obama’s victory did. But it would represent a massive wave of dissatisfaction with Washington politics as usual and highlight the crying need for real, ‘60s-style (and ‘30s-style) militant organizing to fill the political vacuum on the left. Whether or not that kind of organizing materializes is up to us. But it’s imperative we understand that it’s certainly not going to come from Washington.

The far right understands the importance of organizing on the ground. Hate groups and armed militias are on the rise and becoming more violent, particularly in targeting immigrants, LGBTQ people, and Muslims (or those perceived as Arab or Muslim). They might seem like fringe extremists, but they’re having an effect on the Republican message, as Trump’s popularity shows.

They’ve been successful at this before, as Katha Pollitt explains:

For far too long the pro-choice movement was either complacent or defensive. It relied on brilliant lawyers and sympathetic judges, while abortion opponents built a grassroots movement and took over political offices from zoning boards and school boards to the legislature itself. It sold itself too cheaply to the Democratic Party, even when the Democrats were seeking out anti-abortion and anti-feminist candidates to run in conservative districts. It let its mostly white leadership age in place, pursuing their tired Beltway-focused strategies, and then wondered why young women and working-class women of color didn’t connect with its organizations.

The result was that, while in the 1970s many Republicans counted themselves as pro-choice, today such a position is completely unthinkable in the party. Even Democrats like Hillary Clinton concede that abortion is “tragic” and should be “safe, legal, and rare”—thus allowing right-wingers to set the terms of the debate. And why shouldn’t she, if she knows that pro-choice voters will support her no matter what?

If we win real change, it will be won in the streets, through movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, not on the Hill—or even in the Supreme Court. Though I’d like to see Obama tack left for the nomination, which will face Republican obstruction no matter what, looking to the Court, a notorious bulwark against democracy, for actual progress is a terrible idea. Rob Hunter recently explained why in Jacobin:

The prizes won through judicial liberalism were never secure and now appear more fragile than ever: paper-thin abortion rights, porous conceptions of privacy, and fragile protections against an increasingly militarized array of security services. Concerted mass efforts—which would have required liberals to overcome their reluctance to find allies on the Left—could have won these prizes, and kept them, by putting pressure on political institutions to enact legislation, revise administrative procedures, or even alter the Constitution.

So if you want to tell me it’s important than ever to throw my energy behind the Democratic nominee, I’ll tell you that it’s more important than ever to throw your energy behind independently organized grassroots movements.

The Black Lives Matter network, following a precedent set in the 1960s by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has decided not to endorse any candidates in this election, choosing instead to “keep up its political activism by confronting candidates about the treatment of African Americans in the U.S.” and advocate for specific demands, such as a system for tracking police misconduct, says activist Darnell Moore. “Sometimes you have to put a wrench in the gears to get people to listen,” activist Alicia Garza told the Guardian. “What we’ve seen is an attempt by mainstream politics and politicians to co-opt movements. We don’t think that playing a corrupt game is going to bring change and make black lives matter.”

This is the part where you tell me that I’m being impossibly idealistic, because to make things better, we have to focus on the realities of how politics gets done. But if you think that how politics gets done in this country is going to result in a better country, then I have to tell you, you’re the idealist.

As if crises of debt, mass imprisonment, health care, and economic hardship were not dire enough, we now face a planet-wide climate crisis that can’t be slowed down without radical action in the very near future. We no longer have time to wait around for Washington.

Stop enabling the Democratic Party. It’s the biggest thing standing between the left and real change.