If 2016 election taught us anything, it is that the U.S. working class is searching for alternatives to the two major parties, both of which they find unresponsive to their grievances and needs. By 2016, the working class, as well as young people, had become thoroughly dissatisfied by those representing the two establishment parties. This sentiment paved the way for Donald Trump to take over the GOP and for Bernie Sanders to come close to defeating the center-right, neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party, symbolized by Hillary Clinton. What’s the road ahead?
In Desmond Greaves’ biography of Irish socialist leader James Connolly (1868-1916), Greaves quotes John Leslie, Connolly’s friend and comrade, as saying that “…the progress of Ireland depends on the independent organization of the working class.”
Such advice has gone unheeded by most of the U.S. Left, including trade union and progressive forces that remain tied to the program and candidates of the Democratic Party. I suggest a paraphrase of Leslie’s idea as a means to chart a course that could break the predictable pendulum swing from the GOP to the Democrats: “The political future of the United States depends on the independent organization of the working class.” The task then is to act to promote and organize such a political force.
To date, even though opportunities have been ripe for at least a decade, labor, progressive, civil rights and peace organizations have been unwilling, unable and/or uncertain as to how to act on such advice. Clearly the working class, in all its ethnic and national diversity, has been ready. Trump and Sanders, although through much different lenses, saw this and demonstrated the possibilities. The GOP establishment was forced to yield to those who gathered at his record-breaking rallies during the primary, while the Democratic Party’s rigged nominating system doomed Sanders.
Working class grievances…or deplorables?
This is the background analysis that sets the context for this article. Without a change in strategy it is reasonable to predict the future will be more of the same or worse. The mass of the American working class is fed up with politics as usual. For the time being a significant portion of the working class, mostly among white workers, finds Trump’s anti-establishment, working-class rhetoric appealing, even though many might reject to his xenophobic and racist rhetoric.
On the other hand, the Democratic Party has shown it is incapable, and I think unwilling, to make its case to the “deplorables,” as Hillary so casually named Trump supporters, thus contributing to her own defeat.
So, what do the “deplorables” want? What are their grievances? Their needs? Number one is economic security. Two is respect for working class work that produces the necessities of life and more. Neither major party, nor Trump, will deliver what the working class needs: a political vehicle that does not just represent them but is their own.
For many, this need is not well thought out but is a visceral reaction to political events. Election after election they have hired one or the other party with their votes but find both wanting. When both Sanders and Trump called the system “rigged,” it affirmed a conclusion drawn long ago by the working class.
The historical marker that began the working class break with the two parties is the betrayal by Bill Clinton, who promised labor unions during his 1992 campaign he would not support NAFTA. The GOP under H.W. Bush led the NAFTA negotiations, but Clinton and Al Gore backed by Big Business were hired to push it through Congress.
During the campaign, labor union leaders pressed their members to break from the GOP’s Reagan era and give the “progressive,” pro-labor nominee from Arkansas a chance. I recall having lunch with a local trade union leader in my home state of Minnesota just 100 days into the Clinton presidency, when he said it was already clear labor had been betrayed.
Labor and progressive organizations next challenge was to promote Barack Obama to their constituencies after he defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. It turned into a replay of 1992. Obama sidelined labor’s number one pitch to convince its members, his pledge to support the Employee Free Choice Act that would make union organizing easier. And Obama, like Bill Clinton, soon after being elected embraced free trade pacts that labor unions opposed.
NAFTA came back to haunt Hillary Clinton in 2016. She lost key states she needed where NAFTA and other free-trade agreements had arguably done significant damage to living standards: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump hammered away at Clinton’s support for job-killing free trade agreements and her dismissal of the “deplorables,” taken to mean white workers who supported Trump. No doubt there is very real problem of racism among white Americans, working and middle class, but such a characterization further alienated white workers from the Democratic Party.
So, what can be done?
Prepare to endorse and run candidates, inside or outside the Democratic Party, on an independent working-class political program and a plan for peace. It is not difficult to mount a campaign for a House seat. More difficult is in identifying and recruiting a good candidate. Commit to running through the General Election, not just a primary bid. Such challenges could cause some centrist Democrats to lose to GOP candidates. Liberals who cling to the Democratic Party will criticize this as what they consider spoiler candidates; however, workers and youth will see the challengers as a breath of fresh political air. In the long run, Leslie’s message of working class independence from bourgeois parties is what history shows is a proven path to progressive and even revolutionary change. Every year this task is postponed or avoided means capitalists are more likely to employ more reactionary political and military solutions to the still unresolved capitalist economic crisis that began in 2008.
Left political analyses, like this article, often end without developing concrete steps to implement a program of action. As such, this next section poses practical steps that could be taken by individuals or by ad hoc groups, with or without a formal political organization to work through. Think of it as agitation and organizing to recruit masses of people to join the struggle.
First, a program is needed that fits the historical circumstances, that addresses the real problems people face and one that is possible to achieve with a shift in the balance of power.
In a Washington Post opinion piece in November 2018, Bernie Sanders outlined a 10-point domestic program similar to what he ran on in 2016 campaign. A program, we should recall, that inspired millions of working-class voters to join his campaign. His plan, if it were to be implemented, would greatly reduce the economic strain of working-class families. It includes single-payer health insurance, free post-secondary education, expanded social security benefits, immigration reform and increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. In addition to enhancing economic security, such a program of shared benefits and reforms could also lead to a lessening of racism and xenophobia, as shared social benefits reduce the competition among workers that capitalism cultivates to divide and rule.
The missing ingredient
What is sorely lacking in Sanders’ program, however, is a plan for peace. Americans are tired of war. His program avoids the elephant in the room: the military budget and U.S. imperialist aggression. As we saw in 2014, 2016 and 2018, nearly all Democratic candidates avoided taking critical positions against U.S. foreign policies, even those few who may have been inclined. Such a critical perspective and program for peace will need to come from outside the two parties. There can be no meaningful struggle for a domestic economic program if the war budget is not addressed.
In late November, a group of over 100 U.S. activists, writers and scholars published an open letter to Sanders imploring him to speak out against U.S. militarism abroad and the growing Pentagon budget. In it they said, “A public policy that avoids mentioning its existence is not a public policy at all.”
Since then Sanders has made some overtures but he still appears reticent to more aggressively challenge the bi-partisan agreements on foreign policy. In this writer’s opinion such a challenge could have been his winning card in 2016.1 There are three possibilities for his reticence. He is either opposed to taking on the issue as he thinks it may detract from his chances to win; he acquiesces to the status quo out of fear of reprisal; or, as at least some of his voting record shows, he supports some of the aggressive economic and military policies.2 However, it is possible he could be pushed to risk a break and embrace an eleventh point: a plan for peace. Even if he cannot be moved, his candidacy presents a public venue in which to agitate for placing war and peace on the 2020 agenda more broadly.
The degree to which this is possible will depend on whether or not peace organizations and social justice activists can bring to the surface the latent widespread opposition to the U.S. foreign policy among the working class and youth.3 Sanders and candidates at other state and federal levels can be moved by a mass show of support for a change in foreign policy and a plan for peace. There is no other way.
Action and organizing ideas
Consider how Sanders domestic program, plus a plan for peace, might be injected into the 2020 election, particularly in congressional districts and races. The object is to appeal directly to voters to create a groundswell of support so candidates for the House and Senate cannot avoid speaking to the question of war and peace. This is the means to both expose the often-unstated positions of those who support the status quo as well as to create the political conditions for those opposed to U.S. foreign polices to speak out. It’s also the first step to determine whether or not it is possible to run challengers on a peace program. It means agitating for Sanders’ 10 points and a peace program via independent organizing efforts, with priority given to organizing among the working class and youth. Some practical ideas follow.
- Even a simple individual action could become a spark. For example, mail a copy of Sanders’ domestic program along with a personal letter pointing out Sanders’ omission of a plan for peace. At the same time, send a copy to a few friends and to local political reporters. Ask others to do the same. To have an impact requires perhaps 1,000 letters. This figure is an intuitive guess of the minimum number required to break through the media and spark an open public debate. It is doable in many districts.
- Consider developing an ad hoc flier with Sanders 10-point program or some version of it, along with a message for a change in foreign policy. Distribute it at factories and workplaces, neighborhoods and campuses. Sign it, perhaps, “Ad hoc committee for peace and economic security.” Or, “Citizens for peace and social renewal” or just “Concerned Citizens.” Mass distribution of the message and the program is the key to organizing.
- Plan district forums in your neighborhood, city and district. Invite elected officials and candidates to speak to the peace and economic program.
- Ask your labor union, civic, or advocacy group to endorse Sanders’ program and a plan for peace.
We could go on, but what the points illustrate are grassroots organizing independent of the two-parties and their candidates. It is not about lobbying officials or candidates. It is not about holding small protests or occupying a congressional office. It is about creating the political consciousness on which candidates can challenge those unwilling to lead a fight for peace and economic security.
Is it possible? Will people respond? It is overly optimistic? I would say the answers would be: Yes, maybe and perhaps. Still, we need to start someplace. We need to look at the process as one where we learn from trial and error. No trial, no error, no learning, no movement. The past will be repeated. For a different outcome, we need a different approach that, as Leslie reminds us, is that which promotes “the independent organization of the working class.”
What labor and progressives often now find themselves doing is organizing the working class to support a candidate of two parties, typically Democrats. Typically, they support imperialist foreign policies, even though they may be better on some other issues. Most don’t even support health care for all. Uncritical support must end or there will be no opening for more robust public debate. An accommodating strategy can only lead to more discontent and cynicism among Americans. As such, unintentionally, it can lay the psychological ground on fascist thinking that grows during prolonged periods of crisis and instability.
If neither party’s program will resolve the crisis and address the grievances, then an independent program and organizing is the only means to channel the discontent and cynicism into productive struggles. To replace xenophobia with a sense of solidarity with workers across our borders. To forge solidarity for social and economic uplift within our borders across our diverse, multi-national working class and youth.
Without an independent program there will be no independent organization of the working class. There will be no opposition to the two parties of capitalism. There will be no basis for productive alliances with the most progressive elected officials in forging a struggle for peace and economic security. There will be no independent candidates to challenge the centrists. No independent political party of the working class will arise. These are the dead-end results of subsuming struggles within the orbit of the two-party system. If independent political action is taken now, in the first half of 2019, a breakthrough may be possible in the 2020 election.
See my article, “Missing Ingredient in the Sanders Revolution,” January 2016, published in the Adonde Press pamphlet, The 2016 Election: Analysis, Lessons and the Tasks Ahead, December 2017 at adondepress.org.
- See my article, “Evaluating the Candidacy of Bernie Sanders,” July 2015, published in the above-named pamphlet. NOTE: Readers may find Sanders, September 2017, foreign policy address at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri a helpful insight into his thinking. My first thought was to wonder why he chose Westminster to deliver his address, the site of Winston Churchill’s infamous 1946 speech that set the stage for the long and bloody Cold War. Setting this question aside, I wrote, shortly after his speech that “No other prominent American politician in decades has offered such a wide-ranging critique of U.S. foreign policy. However, the aspects of Bernie’s speech that create openings for peace education and organizing, will fall flat without challenging Sanders’ shortcomings and contradictions. At times, like when he addresses the conflict with Russia, he projects a misleading and dangerous narrative. In this respect, to call his address an anti-war speech, as some suggest, is to overlook its weaknesses. Foremost in this respect is his reluctance to offer Americans a plan for peace.”
- See my 2015 book, Which Way Forward? for data and evidence. As well as articles on the 2016 election in my 2017 pamphlet, The 2016 Election: Analysis, Lessons and Tasks Ahead.