Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Voting in black and white

The heat's being turned up by the challenge Sanders is presenting to the Democratic Party establishment. That is to say, the neoliberal establishment - but many people, even today, have no earthly clue what the term neoliberal means. That is because it has been excluded from public discourse by that self-same establishment. Like a lot of other things. The term neoliberalism refers to the policies and ideological consensus that has prevailed since the Reagan administration; and the reason the term has been excluded is because awareness of the term might lead to awareness of that consensus - its meanings and its history and its objectives. It is, in shorthand, class war from above. The rich are raiding the poor.

The greatest fear of that establishment, which spans both parties, is that the Sanders campaign might win; but in the meanwhile, what is making that establishment worry is how Sanders is chipping away at the boundaries of acceptable public discourse that includes neither reference to nor analysis of neoliberalism. The minimized exposure the media has afforded the Sanders campaign is in part the attempt to influence the primaries and make him go away. But the other incentive, or disincentive, is that they cannot have an honest conversation about some of the issues the Sanders campaign raises without themselves revealing things about the neoliberal consensus - its content and its motives.

The personalization of the campaign is inevitable. That's the way campaigns are built. Two or more people try to sell their candidacy. Sanders' biography is important to understand him. So is Clinton's. Sanders' integrity is important; so is Clinton's. Right now, there has been an escalation of hostilities - which will happen in close, emotionally charged campaigns. Sanders has made this a close campaign. People are invested; and so at the end of the day, there will be winners and losers. This is exactly what is wrong with representative democracy on a large scale. Someone always loses, and the winners can - in some cases - impose their will on the losers. Nothing Christian about that. It is pre-violent, low-intensity civil war.

Dirty tricks will happen, and they have. I was driven into the Sanders camp by the DNC attempt to fix the Iowa Caucuses by revoking mailing lists in what appears more and more to have been a false flag operation by the DNC. Expect more. Expect dirty tricks, and sly innuendos, and appeals to 'sophistication,' and misrepresentations . . . it is a close race. Expect name-calling by the more puerile elements within both camps; then expect people who will try to make hay with the name-calling to discredit the candidates that name-callers support.  But remember, these are all dust devils wheeling across the landscape.

This election is no joke. The position in question - Presidency of the United States - is commander of the most expensive armed forces in the world, CEO of the bureaucracy that governs 319 million people, and head of state for the international hegemon. In other words, this is an election for the chief political officer of the global neoliberal system. Now someone is credibly contending for that spot who has some very serious questions about the political, economic, and  moral content of neoliberalism.

No, my uber-leftie sisters and brothers, he is not going to embody the programs hammered out in committee by your miniscule vanguard formations. No, my anti-Zionist sisters and brothers, he is not going to pull the rug out from under that scofflaw settler government in the State of Israel. No, my pacifist sisters and brothers, he is not going to declare a moratorium on American military action, and he is unlikely to call for the redeployment of American forces to the US. And yes, on each of these counts, Clinton is demonstrably more hawkish than Sanders, which is only a lesser-evil argument if you want to use it that way. If these are the extent of your arguments, then your arguments need greater historical scope.

This challenge to the Democratic Party's neoliberal cadres-in-chief - whether it fits anyone's I-wish-we-had-this-party 'program' or not - signals the beginning of the historic break-up of a major American political party (even as the Trump challenge, only partially met, does the Republicans). By focusing exclusively on candidates - as we have been trained to do with media and their obsession with the 'horse race' - we miss what has happened in the society at large. The actual society, not those objectifying accounts by the media that see us as manipulable consumers.

I am 64 years old. I did duck-and-cover drills in elementary school to practice surviving notional nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union. When I was in my forties, I became a socialist (one version of it); and I remember vividly how often and how thoroughly I was isolated by the associations in the public mind between the term socialism and Stalin, or even Pol Pot. The overwhelming majority of people who call themselves socialist, in fact, have been quite democratic in their outlooks. Christian socialists have abounded over the years, and they include people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Sun Yat Sen, Karl Polanyi, Helen Keller, Cesar Chavez, and Cornell West. So this was a false guilt-by-association trope - evil totalitarian socialism - which was blindingly effective for many many decades.

Listen up, my socialist sisters and brothers! It may not have happened like you envisioned it (or even how most of us can now understand it), but right now, today, there is a presidential candidate inside the Democratic Party with which he has heretofore been unaffiliated, using the very electoral apparatus that was designed to fence out the left, to credibly contend for the nomination for President. He calls himself a democratic socialist. And the word isn't touching him. This is a quantum leap in American politics. You've been waiting for some kind of movement on this for a lifetime. And it is manifest in a movement to overthrow the Democratic Party from within. You should be rejoicing, and giving critical support.

I say all this because there are some on the left who - for a variety of reasons - refuse to support either candidate in the election. That was actually my position three months ago, when it looked as if Sanders might simply serve as a leftish foil within the party in the run-up to the Clinton coronation. I wasn't wrong; I was spectacularly wrong. And what I was wrong about was twofold: I was wrong to believe that the Democratic machine was impermeable to challenge; and I was wrong about the state of mind of many voters in the US. Which brings me to my actual point: South Carolina.

I know more about South Carolina than I do about many states. I lived next door in North Carolina for a very long time (and yearn for it on the coldest of Michigan days). I worked in a regional political network that included South Carolina, and I worked pretty closely with the South Carolina Progressive Network. I knew Tom Turnipseed, Representative Joe Neal, Brett Bursey, Becci Robbins, the whole crew that has been holding out against one of the most reactionary blocs of white voters in the nation since the earth was still warm.

South Carolina is 'Black Belt,' almost the whole state. Black Belt is not a kung-fu term, but an historical one, referring to the dark soil that was put to such effective use making cotton and tobacco fortunes. Black people were brought to the black belt as slaves to render the labor for those fortunes, and the political dynasties that still prevail; and after manumission, even to this day, the counties in every state along this 'belt' - from Maryland to East Texas - are also the counties with the greatest percentage of African American residents.

Because South Carolina's white voters are Republican in a strong majority, this state where 30 percent of the population is African American is a state where - among Democrats - the 'black vote' is not nice-to-have. It is absolutely essential. This makes for some complicated politics.

Before I go into that, I need to rebuke myself and other white people (progressives, mostly, even though I am not myself a 'progressive') for the ease with which we can remain aloof from the political process based on our belief that the parties are in fact the same. First of all, they are not the same. Anyone who says they are - across the board - is wrong. Dead-on wrong. Second of all, even in the ways in which they are alike, and even in the face of the fact that they play us with the good-cop-bad-cop routine, black voters cannot remain aloof. African Americans do not live in the same country as white people. African Americans - as people, living daily - face real, material threats from this society. I'll just ask white parents of white children if they ever had to brief their own kids about keeping their hands visible on the steering wheel when they are stopped by cops.

Someone recently remarked on a public online site, a white guy, that 'if black folk only knew the history, they would abandon the Democratic Party.'

All the black people I know understand these histories very well. African Americans don't vote for Democrats because they don't know how alike they are to Republicans. African Americans vote Democrat because they are very aware that the organizing principle of the Republican Party is white supremacy. As an oppressed minority - some would even say nationality - this is not an endorsement of Democrats, but plain self-defense. White folks have a lot less at stake; and so our glib claims that "there is no difference" ignores our own privilege as well as the fact that the constituency of the parties is different, and it does matter. Inconvenient as all that may be to the simplification of American politics.

That said, the relationship between the Democratic Party establishment and African Americans has created the condition for a black political establishment, over and above the majority of African Americans in the US, that now identifies with the party more than they do with African America. Even more complicated than that, the sitting President is a member of that establishment. And as critical as I have been about President Obama, I also know that the symbolism of a black President ought not be underestimated. Obama is a neoliberal, but we have more going on in the US than class conflict; we have this race history. Until Clinton's racial gaffes in 2008, she was the majority candidate among black Democrats in South Carolina. Even then, part of the calculus of an election was 'electability,' and not just out of identification with the DP establishment. Black people have very good reasons for fearing Republicans. Democrats take African Americans for granted. Republicans want to hurt black folks. Negrophobia is the glue that holds that party together.

In this case, in 2016, what is remarkable is that the insurgent candidate Sanders - even though there is a predictable and fallacious appeal by Clinton's partisans to call him unelectable - has proven in poll after poll matching him against any of the Republican contenders (who grow stranger and more frightening with each election cycle) that Sanders will not only beat the Republicans, he will do so with greater margins than Hillary Clinton. So. Moot. Point.

Neoliberalism is an international as well as an intra-national system. It is based on a world system where economic cores extract value from economic colonies, or peripheries. But in addition to the neoliberal commitment to wealth accumulation by the few through extraction from the many, privatizing gains and socializing costs, neoliberalism exports is worst costs -  environmental devastation, displacement of communities, and cheap alienated labor. We don't only export toxic waste, force people out of their homes and communities, and exploit them in underpaid labor in China or Chile or Chad; we dump toxins on poor people in the US, we gentrify and otherwise enclose their communities, and we keep them poor and hungry enough to work for shit wages. And these are the things being called out by the Sanders campaign. In general.

The thing is, as many of my old Black Nationalist friends were always quick to point out, African America is - in many respects - a separate nation, colonized by the white and capitalist culture into which it is economically embedded. One definition of nation is pre-political: people with a common history and culture. Not merely American. Not merely African. African American. Whether you have problems with the idea of African America as a colonized nation, thinking of it this way is particularly helpful, it seems, with de-centering that dominant and widely accepted neoliberal narrative. Decentering makes us ask: Which way does the good stuff flow? Which way does the bad stuff flow? If the core exists in white America, then one (internal) periphery is African America.

When we look at the top items on the Sanders list: universal free health care, free education through college, curtailing student debt, forcing employers to pay a $15 an hour minimum wage, public works jobs programs, marijuana decriminalization . . . these address the most critical problems for the poor. African America is over-represented among the poor. As such, African America ought rightly to be over-represented among the beneficiaries of these policies if they can be developed.

Apart from the economics, wresting control of the Democratic Party from the very people who facilitate environmental devastation, displacement of communities, and cheap alienated labor, will be result in a net increase of black political power. The party's priorities will overlap much more closely with the greatest challenges facing African America.

The Clintons have pull in South Carolina. They have connections to the Democratic establishment, including the black political establishment. South Carolina looks good for Clinton right now (2/3/16). She is still polling close to 60 percent among likely Dem voters. But Sanders was unknown three months ago, and Iowa forced even the reluctant neoliberal media to at least say his name a few times a day. Yesterday, Representative Joe Neal (SC-D) endorsed Sanders. Sanders is starting to receive more and more endorsements from African American intellectuals, elected officials, and celebrities. The little hole is already in the dam.

In Iowa two nights ago, we watched the cancellation of a coronation. Hillary Clinton lost her standing as 'the presumptive candidate.' If Sanders wins in New Hampshire then South Carolina, he will have taken the next critical step to filling that 'presumptive candidate' void.


  1. I'm a long time reader, Stan. Even overlooking Bernie's un-socialist positions that you eruditely point out, I think the only other risk of his candidacy are the usual problems with electoral politics, including the nomination process. It will be sad to see a lot of political momentum lost if Bernie doesn't get nominated -- which is likely to happen given delegate system, super delegates, super PACs and the Clinton-DLC power structure. So your point about black politics and white supremacy may even make more sense, if I was a pragmatic voter (read "anybody but ...").

  2. Good piece, but understates an important point - the tension between machine politics and universal social programs. In its classical form, machine politics refers to a network of political elites, businessmen, labor leaders etc. whose purpose is help politicians win elections in exchange for lucrative public contracts benefiting business and to a lesser extent labor. According many researchers, machine politics was a factor that divided the working class and tied it to local business and political elites, instead of demanding universal social benefits as their European brethren did. The similar role was played by labor unions - they we the intermediaries delivering benefits to their members, and universal social benefits would undermine their business model. Similar argument can be made about Black political establishment and Black churches that act as intermediaries between predominantly white political elites and Black population in exchange for a junior partner position in the Democrat party. This may explain, at least in part, Obama push for charter schools - as this would create a cash cow for religious institutions running charter schools and further solidify the intermediary role of these institutions between the political elite and the population. Bernie's candidacy is not just a threat to the DP machine politics, but his call for universal benefits (education, health care) is the existential threat to the business model of these intermediary institutions. As a consequence, the Black political establishment is likely to oppose such universal programs, even though they offer the most realistic chance of implementing reparations for slavery.