If, like me, you’re torn between supporting many progressive policies but not supporting Bernie Sanders and many of his “Our Revolution” candidates, there’s a very good reason for that. It’s never been about the policies. We’ve always supported some version of the Green New Deal, or Medicare for All/single payer/something similar, rectifying economic inequality, and the like. And it isn’t about hating Bernie. But there was something off about Bernie and his progressive warriors.
David Atkins has put his finger on it. It wasn’t all Sanders’s contentious, “my way or the highway” approach, or even the toxicity of his “Bernie Irregulars.” It was what Atkins calls his old-school Marxist electoral policies.
As Atkins points out, he and his fellow leftists have lost, and lost big, four times in recent years. He got paddled in 2016 (all conspiracy theory bullshit notwithstanding), his progressive candidates lost their shirts in the 2018 US House elections, UK soulmate Jeremy Corbyn got stomped in 2019, and Sanders lost in 2020 to an aging centrist who, until he clobbered Sanders on Super Tuesday, was running a fading campaign.
So what did everyone get wrong? Let’s let Atkins explain it:
What did lose unequivocally, however, was a certain brand of anti-partisan class revolutionary electoral politics rooted in industrial-era Marxist theory. … [R]egardless of leftist policy, a strain of Marxist theory since the late 19th century has posited that the left can usher in a socialist utopia by uniting the workers of the world — and that any cultural divisions within the working class that get in the way are the product of false consciousness and manufactured consent to prevent the proletariat from arising together to overthrow their capitalist chains. In keeping with this tradition, leftists who subscribe to this ideology see the hyper-partisan divides of the modern era as the ultimate artificial divisive construct, and are adamantly hostile to a political reality in which suburban middle-class professionals (regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the party of the “left” while blue-collar rurals (again regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the “right.”
For the readers munching Cheetos, trying to keep the dog off the couch (good luck with that), and trying to watch a rerun of Forensic Files while reading this on your phone, let’s do that again in simpler language. Bernie and the candidates like him lost because they ran on a set of assumptions that were fundamentally wrong. (Hang on, let me help. “Down, Rover! Who’s a good boy?”) The “workers of the world,” for all of their differences, are, as the assumptions go, tied together by their class status. The cultural divisions — race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, you name it — are just false and should be fought against.
Are you still wrestling with Rover? Come on, just let him stay on the couch. He won’t hurt anything. Let him have the Cheetos. It’ll be okay.
See how this is a failure? Race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, all of it, are hugely important to us. LBJ knew it because he lived in it:
If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.
But Sanders, with his ideological basis rooted in old-school Marxism, never accepted it. I’m reminded of the conservative jackasses who claim, with big round puppy-dog eyes, that “I don’t see race, so I can’t be a racist.” Then they engage in the filthiest of racist acts while maintaining they just aren’t capable of acting or feeling in a racist manner. I don’t think Bernie is like that. I truly believe that he pays no attention to race, or religion, or gender identity, or any of it. It doesn’t matter to him. That’s excellent on a personal level — Bernie would have no problem hiring a Muslim to run his campaign, or a black woman to be his campaign press secretary — but on a larger scale it is a catastrophic failure.
Here’s the three things that monkey-wrenched Bernie’s campaign, and will plague others like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cynthia Nixon, and Zephyr Teachout. It also helps us understand why many progressive voters are so disaffected and even hostile to Democrats as a whole.
- One: It conflicts with traditional Democratic politics, with their focus on lifting up oppressed minorities.
- Two: It assumes that there is a huge swath of truly independent, but leftist, voters out there waiting for someone to explain to them how Democratic socialism will improve their lives.
- Three: Race, ethnicity, gender identity, and the other factors don’t really matter to most people. That’s why “culturally conservative but economically progressive” voters, as Atkins describes it, are there for the taking by the right progressive politics.
Sadly, none of this is correct. The large majorities of Democratic voters — call them Clinton or Biden voters, though they are capable of supporting candidates significantly further to the left — like the focus on recognizing and helping oppressed minorities. They like the concept of social justice. If you catch a whiff of noblesse oblige from that viewpoint, you’re undoubtely correct, but Democrats sincerely want to do something to help the racially oppressed, while Republicans want to cage them and torture them for fun and profit.
There are indeed a huge swath of “independent” voters out there. But they are independent mostly because they don’t want to check the box for Democrat or Republicans. They prefer the illusion of independence. In reality, they vote as reliably left or right as the most partisan base voter. What they are not is further to the left than Democratic voters.
The third point is a little less clear. The Sanders campaign didn’t succeed in turning out disaffiliated young voters in large numbers. Neither did it appeal to a large number of voters who found Trump’s hardcore cultural conservatism, and his mushy “centrism” on economic policies, appealing. Neither did other Sanders-like campaigns attract these voters.
Atkins has a sober, plainspoken plan for progressives to win power and advance progressive policies.
- Join the Democratic Party. Not as a “wink wink nudge nudge everyone knows I’m not really a Democrat” Sanders candidate, but sincerely. Progressives have a place in the Democratic Party. And they can earn a place of power and influence, if they work to achieve it.
- Want to fight? Fight the right. Stop attacking Democrats. Learn the concept of the narcissism of small differences and apply it to your political lives. Democrats, as corrupt, sleazy and overly eager to compromise as they can sometimes be, are your natural allies. Maximize that relationship.
- Who is really stopping you from achieving transformative change? Let’s look to the right, with their voter suppression and oligarchical stranglehold on American society. Atkins writes, “Much of the rancor between left and center-left is little more than rats fighting in a cage built by the Senate filibuster, gerrymandering, the electoral college, conservative court stacking, etc.” Join centrist and liberal Democrats in working to dismantle these obstacles. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) notes, “Unity and unifying isn’t a feeling, it’s a process. …The whole process of coming together should be uncomfortable for everyone involved — that’s how you know it’s working.” All parties have to be involved in that process, and they have to be ready to accept some discomfort.
- Start locally. Put in the legwork to get progressives on school boards, county commissions, and state houses. Cynthia Nixon tried to pole-vault herself from an acting career to governor in 2018. a quixotic attempt that was doomed to fail from the moment she announced. Zephyr Teachout tried the same thing in 2014, lost badly, lost a winnable House race in 2016, and lost an Attorney General primary race in 2018 to the redoubtable Letitia James, a progressive who did put in the legwork (ten years on City Council, four years as public advocate) before running for higher office.
[N]ow is not the time for despondency on the left. There is ample cause for hope and celebration. Leftist policy is increasingly ascendant in the Democratic Party. But it does call for a change in electoral strategy. Let the industrial Marxist dream of working-class electoral realignment die, and embrace a strategy of leftist policy maximization within an aggressively partisan framework.
Now, clean up the Cheeto crumbs, take Rover for a walk, and let’s get to work. Together.