Saturday, November 12, 2016

Bernie and Beyond

Judging Bernie Sanders' current position as an "agent of change" in the Democratic Party -- or what the Party will become in the months and years to come -- is a complicated task. He burst upon the national scene as a candidate for president by pointing out more clearly and passionately the economic unfairness of American capitalism and its effect on American democracy. There simply was no one else like him. He nearly took the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton. We will never know what would have happened had he done so: "counterfactuals" can only be argued statistically, and in this case the statistics on voters in this election still are very murky. Large groups of unlikely voters became voters; Hillary won the popular vote but lost the presidency; and racism, misogeny and class resentments became factors, but we don't have a clear analysis of their relative significance.

Sanders' basic analysis of economics and politics is almost certainly correct. American capitalism since the few decades after WWII has failed to produce a shared prosperity. Corporations, largely through their mouthpiece the Republican party, and largely through red-baiting, contributed to "breaking" industrial unions. (Though, to be fair, worker apathy and the advent of hi-tech workers with no history of unionization played roles as well.) These unions were the only means by which industrial workers could keep their jobs intact and their wages rising with the cost of living. At the same time, the jobs that these workers had were not always meted out fairly. Jim Crow in both the North and South was a potent force in the postwar years, favoring white workers over non-whites; sexism also forced women out of jobs after their employment in the war effort, and kept their wages down. ("Rosie the Riveter" became Harriet the Homemaker.) White male workers who had high-paying, family-supporting jobs in factories and in the public sphere, were definitely beneficiaries of this unfairness during the postwar boom decades (at least through the '60s say). When jobs started to get scarcer -- due to automation, outsourcing overseas, and contraction of manufacturing -- they were the last to be laid off. Then, as policies of fairness were enacted in various civil-rights laws, they were not always the first to be hired back, and had to compete on a more level playing field with non-whites, females, and immigrants. These white working-class people and their families are now the disgruntled class that Donald Trump has so successfully mobilized (and will soon exploit in turn).

Thus, the policies of the New Deal helped capitalism rebound during and after the Great Depression. The jump-started economy boomed for 20-30 years, but then stagnated. Even then there could have been enough jobs and prosperity for all had war, military bloat, and transfer of wealth to the already-wealthy not constricted the will and cash to create them in the late '60s and beyond. The current decay of our infrastructure -- highways, bridges, buildings and parks -- could have provided employment for millions of skilled and semi-skilled people who were willing to work hard for decent wages. But it never happened: American capitalism and the efforts to protect it and its markets diverted the money to military adventures, profiteering, and the amassing of huge corporate and private fortunes. Do we even know how much, say, General-Dynamics and Boeing, Halliburton and Blackwater, made from the disastrous invasions of Viet Nam and Iraq? Certainly enough to employ massive numbers of the idle and under-employed.

Bernie was right about all this, and for a long time he was the lone voice calling out in the Washington wilderness. His courage and integrity were undeniable, and they made him a phenomenon for the year or so preceding the 2016 election. Unfortunately, his criticisms required winning an election to have any hopes of having a constructive effect. He built an enthusiastic movement, but a relatively small one. And time was short, with the Democratic establishment's anointed candidate Hillary Clinton already the presumed nominee -- presumed by the DNC and its chair Wasserman-Schultz, as well as by the press and the Republican Party (they had been demonizing Clinton for decades). Also, Bernie has some weaknesses as a speaker and politician. Although it's a good one, he gives the same speech over and over, and it's impersonal and not particularly appealing to many sections of the electorate -- especially "racial and linguistic" minorities. For most of the time before seeking the nomination, he was not even a Democrat, and had done little for other Democrats whose help he would need. He was probably the most "trusted" of the 2016 candidates, but he could not get nominated and it's unclear that he could have survived the Trump and Republican smears had he been nominated.

Looking forward now at the grim choices facing progressives, we might ask: What can be done? It is too early to think about the next Democratic presidential candidate, and those who are talking about Sanders and Elizabeth Warren should not fall into the same error as those who were saying that the election just passed was "Clinton's turn." It's nobody's "turn" except the turn of the Democrats to gear up for some actual winning for a change. This means contesting every office from dog-catcher on up. This means creating a Democratic "farm system" of young, smart and talented men and women who can appeal to all segments of a very divided and pretty angry electorate. The Democrats especially need an "information machine" which can get the facts out to the press, the networks and cable TV, the Internet, and the talk shows. It must produce an understandable Democratic version of events and Republican misdeeds every week, say, and this report must be skillfully packaged and disseminated (see below). We can't wait until the next election is upon us. Those who are first with the facts will have a chance to define the issues. The Republicans did this very successfully in the recent election, and Trump was a master at communicating his point of view and his prejudices.

What makes the Democrats' job so much more difficult is that they are the party of basic decency. Though they have made many mistakes of philosophical and strategic natures, they also have not resorted to overt racism and sexism, and outright lies. If these things are now essential to win elections, then we are doomed; but, I don't think we need to use them. The Democrats need some really smart people to design their campaigns -- not poll-watchers or repeaters of time-worn liberal talking points but people who really understand the actual demographics of the electorate. They need creative ad agencies with writers who are sympathetic to the various segments of the electorate, and they need to take advantage of the fact that many if not most of the individuals who head up or work for the national media -- major networks (except Fox, of course), newspapers and news magazines, the "e-Press" etc -- are quite fearful of Trump and Trumpism, and would help get the Democrats' message out. Now is the time to start on this monumental but critical task. It will not be for the faint of heart.

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