Between Accommodation and Abstention: Progressives and the Democratic Party in the General Election and Beyond
BY GLEN PERUSEK
Throughout the twentieth century, liberal wisdom held that "socialism" or a social-democratic political formation could not be viable in America. Future historians may look back at the 2016 Sanders campaign as a great wave that swept away this old wisdom. But that new history will be written only if activists seize the opportunity before us to build, from the enthusiasm and activism of the Sanders campaign, enduring organizations. I want to argue here that building such organizations depends upon an appropriate understanding of the Democratic Party, steering a course between two seductive sirens, accommodation and abstention. Finally, I turn to the dilemma of the general election.
Accomplishments of the Sanders campaign
In June, after the important California primary (which Sanders narrowly lost), the Vermont senator could proudly list legitimate accomplishments:
● The campaign won more than 12 million votes, and was victorious in 22 state primaries and caucuses;
● 1.5 million people came to rallies and town meetings;
● hundreds of thousands of volunteers made 75 million phone calls;
● 74,000 meetings were held throughout the country;
● 2.5 million people made individual campaign contributions. Low income and working people, donations averaging 27 dollars each.
"In other words," said Sanders, "our vision for the future of this country is not some kind of fringe idea….it is what millions of Americans believe in and want to see happen." But, the senator cautioned, the fight for social and economic justice lives on beyond a particular electoral season. Sanders emphasized that this is a lesson from the history of trade unionism, civil rights, feminism and environmentalism.(1)
Whatever we call it—progressive politics, broad social democracy, a next left—conditions now appear favorable for the creation of a vibrant progressive tendency in American politics.
A powerful wave
Might future historians see the Sanders campaign as a powerful wave, washing away one of the firmest sandcastles of twentieth century American social science, the "American exceptionalism" argument? With a vision and a set of policy offerings placing it in the political space long occupied in Europe by social-democratic and left-social-democratic parties, Sanders' presidential campaign appears to have demonstrated that in principle the United States is not the exceptional country it has long been thought to be. That is, the social democracy built in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century could be built in twenty-first century America.(2) It was thought in 2015 that Sanders' campaign would raise a few issues and serve the dominant elements in the Democratic Party by activating the left base. But the Sanders campaign wouldn't, indeed couldn't, get far. The journalists who so opined were typically relying upon old social scientific arguments about "American exceptionalism."
"American exceptionalism" has meant the line of argument that there are necessary limits left and right to political possibilities in the United States. Something about America—the frontier; the lack of a feudal past; racial divisions in the working class; the material standard of living; our polyglot immigrant population; electoral rules—or something about the activists—usually that they were either too radical or not radical enough—made European-style social democracy impossible.
A strong early statement of the "American exceptionalism" thesis was that of German sociologist Werner Sombart in 1906. His essential contention was that U.S. workers' living standards were high enough to blunt social-democratic party formation.(3) Later in the century, the most important statement of the problem was that of Louis Hartz. With the Cold War raging, Hartz, a brilliant, mercurial son of Russian immigrants born in Youngstown, Ohio (thus distinctively equipped to comment on the U.S.-European divide in political culture), penned The Liberal Tradition in America (1955). Hartz's basic argument was that something deep in the American political culture—the bedrock of Lockean liberalism—was so impenetrable that neither right-authoritarian nor left "socialist" tendencies could flourish.
But the campaign of Senator Sanders appears to have refuted the arguments of generations of social scientists. In essence, if a graying independent socialist from Vermont could poll as well as Sanders has in the 2016 Democratic primaries, then the ivory tower wisdom of the twentieth century ("how quaint," they would chide from the political science department at the University of Chicago, "you still believe in an impossible dream") may be wrong.
The Sanders campaign should be an empirical refutation of the long-held belief that it is impossible to ever create a political formation to the left of the Democratic Party. But no agreement exists on the left concerning how to proceed in the campaign's wake.
Clinton supporters have been beating the drum that "realism" necessitates trimming back our aspirations—universal health care or a right to a decent education or a good-paying job for every adult are utopian hopes. The left, the thousands of supporters of Senator Sanders, should "grow up" and thrown in uncritically with the Clinton campaign. In short, we should accommodate ourselves to the realities of the situation.
Corollary to this position is the idea that we must shelve our criticisms of presidential candidate Clinton.
At the same time, there are those who contend that we should abstainfrom Democratic Party politics, or at least the corrupting influence of the Democrats' corporate wing. Involvement with the Democratic Party or its corporate wing amounts to apostasy. The Democratic Party, runs this argument, is a capitalist party, the "bosses' B team," an instrument of capitalist rule. Any forces that are "inside the Democratic Party" are corrupted. Environmentalists? The Democratic Party, as a capitalist party, contributes to global warming, advocates fracking, builds the Keystone Pipeline, etc. Organized labor? Supporting the Democratic Party has gotten us nowhere, most clearly in the long, futile and essentially fruitless struggle for effective labor law reform. Yet, labor leaders remain cemented to the Democratic Party. Political independence is a goal, so runs the abstentionist argument—a socialist party, indeed a revolutionary party, must be built. If one is to accomplish this task, it is a principle to remain organizationally aloof from the Democratic Party.
Corollary to this position is the idea that we must be relentless in our criticism of the Democratic standard bearer.
Dilemma and proper framing
Thus the hundreds of thousands of activists who have supported the candidacy of Senator Sanders—and the millions who voted for him in the presidential primaries—find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. Should we support the Clinton campaign in the general election?
Answering this question necessitates framing it properly.
1. What should be the project of the left? What should be our goals?
2. What is the nature of the Democratic Party?
3. What is the relationship between fundamental principles (grand strategy), strategy and tactics?
ONE. Goals of the left: It ought to be self-evident that a long-term goal of the left should be the creation of a political formation that expresses our fundamental ideas. Universal health care; a full-employment economy at a living wage for all, indeed, a mixed economy with a robust public sector; educational opportunity for all (in fact, not merely in rhetoric); surmounting racism and sexism and so forth can and should be principles. So should the idea that it is insufficient to establish a 501c3 non-profit group to campaign around a single issue. No—the left needs its own organizations—political groupings (not mere electoral campaigns which have become the norm in U.S. politics) that link together campaigns around single issues. Let us term this orientation—the building of a political formation that links campaigns together in a coherent but flexible permanent organization—social democracy. A social democratic organization that is firmly committed to fundamental principles but then tactically flexible could take the initial steps toward the formation of an independent political party of the social democratic type.(4)
TWO. The nature of the Democratic Party: The existing Republican and Democratic parties in the United States are not instruments for a particular set of policy offerings. They are not programmatically unified, as parties in Europe tend to be. Electoral rules in the United States—single-member districts and a lack of proportional representation above all else—reinforce the existence of broad party organizations that appear more as arenas for political conflict than asinstruments for a particular set of policy offerings. Without proportional representation, minority parties in America find it especially difficult to establish an initial toehold in the electoral system. Whereas in a proportional representation system, a left-wing party could typically gain representation in the legislature with as little as five percent of the popular vote, in the American system the project of building an alternative to the left of the Democratic Party requires nothing short of a realignment—such as the cataclysm that brought about the formation of the anti-slavery Republican Party in the run up to the Civil War.
Over the course of the past generation, the New Dealist Democratic Party that was hegemonic since 1932 has collapsed. Thanks in part to Clintonism in the 1990s a new neo-liberal corporate wing has emerged and today dominates the Democratic Party. But that isn't the extent of the Democratic Party. Labor, environmentalists, black activists, feminists, etc., all find themselves, like it or not, in the arena of the Democratic Party. Still, the corporate wing of the party is dominant. With the weakening of counter-institutions—above all else, organized labor—the corporate wing is ascendant.
Were American parties as programmatically pure as the abstentionist left contends, this would create a terrible obstacle to our aspirations for a social democratic formation. But that is not the case. The breadth of possible policy stances that a candidate or a tendency could stand upon and remain "inside" the Democratic Party should be clear to all: Urban party bosses; southern segregationists; socialists; etc., all historically have contended within the Democratic Party.(5) Calling oneself a Democrat in the U.S. context is like being a fan of professional football: It doesn't say whom in particular you root for or why. You like the games on Sunday? Do you tailgate or do you watch at home on TV? You're a Democrat.
In other words, treating the Democratic Party like a forbidden talisman might feel comforting. Abstentionism is always easier than engagement; maintaining oneself in a hermetically sealed world of ideological enclosure can bring with it a soothing renunciation of the world and its problems. Wading into the arena of Democratic Party politics, as the abstentionists contend, indeed brings with it the danger of accommodating to the corporate wing of the party. When organizations and individuals are weak and lacking in confidence, it is understandable that they would hive themselves off from "corrupting" influences. If you are an alcoholic lacking willpower, you shouldn't hang out with your friends at the corner bar. You'll be tempted to take a sip, and we know where that leads. American history is littered with labor leaders, environmentalists, feminists and others who start with left politics and are drawn inexorably into accommodationist logic: a decade later they are hanging on lampposts on K Street, their dreams of social transformation so many broken bottles at their feet.
It is undeniable that the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is today its dominant wing. Accommodating to this tendency is a danger for organized labor, environmentalists, feminists and the rest of the left. But participating in the arena of the Democratic Party scarcely necessitates such accommodation. The Sanders campaign is exhibit A that a radical politics of social democracy not only can exist in the Democratic Party arena, but they can reach a broad audience of supporters in the electorate.(6)
THREE. Principle, strategy, tactics: Fundamental questions of organizational orientation depend on getting right the relationship between principles (or, depending on the context, grand strategy), strategy and tactics. This is a difficult question since the language is systematically misused (and not only on the left).(7)
Principles are our underlying, fundamental, core values—in policy, program or organizational orientation. Standing for full employment is a principle. Building an independent social democratic party of some kind in the long run is a principle.(8)
Strategy refers to our orientation within a particular campaign. The word "strategy" itself derives from the ancient Greek. The strategoi were the generals responsible for planning campaigns. To say "strategy" is to say "campaign plan."
But having a plan without engaging with allies and opponents is empty. Engagement is the realm of tactics. A million particulars fall under the rubric of tactics, another term that derives from the ancient Greek. Taktikē is like "tactile." Tactics are where you touch the enemy, where you engage. How should we communicate with the public? Leaflet or social media? That is a tactical question. What should our slogan be for a particular banner? A tactical question.
Serious students of football understand implicitly the difference between strategy and tactics: Strategy is game plan. You watch game film; you figure out the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent (and yourself); you formulate a set of plays to exploit weaknesses. But a game plan is sterile alone. You have to play the game. Everything from pass blocking technique to the proper tackling technique to running disciplined pass routes belongs to the realm of tactics. Success on the field depends on both a solid game plan and systematically appropriate tactics.(9)
The 2016 general election
How does this distinction between principle, strategy and tactics inform us in the problem of orientation in the coming election?
I would like to contend that supporting a particular candidate in a particular election does not fall within the realm of principles. It is instead a tactical question, one which is predicated upon one's principled or grand strategic objectives. Now, our long-term principled goal is the formation of a social democratic party (whatever we call it) and the systematic institution of our policy goals. But today we do not have such an organization, nor are we on the brink of implementing such policies. The formation a broad social democratic organization is a task not for a single electoral season, but for a generation.(10) Such an organization should have one foot in the arena of Democratic Party politics and one firmly in the camp of the social justice and labor struggles that fundamentally shape policy.
But the question of the day is the question of the general election. The 2016 general election finds a corporate Democrat contending against a far-right racist and misogynist (who also happens to have an ego the size of Uranus). We need not accommodate to the problematic politics of the former in order to suggest that the fundamental question is to defeat the latter. Racism has divided the American working class on myriad occasions in the past. Stable corporate dominance of the U.S. political system is indeed predicated on the power of exponents such as Trump to divide workers along racial and ethnic lines.
Would it be preferable to have a standard bearer of our own in the general election? Would it be preferable to be able to campaign for Senator Sanders this fall? Obviously. But that is not the case. We should fight Trump and his racism categorically. Realpolitik necessitates a forthright endorsement of the Clinton campaign. But such an endorsement need not be uncritical.
The great upsurge of popular left-wing politics today remains inchoate. The spirit of Occupy, the spirit of the Fight for Fifteen and the spirit of Sanders 2016 can signal a new phase in the history of the American left. The fight against economic inequality and its deleterious social consequences; the struggle against racism; working to stand up a new movement of organized labor; the fight for a sustainable planet; and the abiding effort to preserve fundamental political freedoms are battles that will endure. Our course after November will undoubtedly be to campaign around particular issues such as the Fight for Fifteen or against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. But we must do more: If we do not take steps today to build organizations that can link together disparate struggles, then the broadly social democratic left will be weakened. We will never be able to take on global capital unless we build a solid organizational edifice—both political and economic.(11)
We aren't accommodating to Clintonism by supporting it against Trump, particularly when we hold fast to the view that our fundamental principled project is social-democratic organization building. But neither should we abstain from this struggle, for
in 2016, to do so would be to express, under different circumstances, an infantile disorder that so fatally crippled the left a century ago.
Among the hundreds of thousands of Sanders supporters, the great debate over how best to oppose Trumpian racism will not result in a single decision. Reasonable people—people of left-wing good will—are going to disagree. I believe the most effective effort against Trumpism in the run up to November is categorical (but not uncritical) support for Hillary Clinton. But I look forward to the first meetings after the November election, when we put aside our tactical differences over Clinton and come together once again to launch the elemental organizations of a next left on American terrain.
1) Bernie Sanders, "The political revolution continues," speech, n.d. [June 16, 2016], (acc. June 24, 2016).
2) But of course the specific nature of social democracy in different developed capitalist democracies is different. National conditions do shape even international tendencies—in churches, parties or other organized movements.
3) Werner Sombart, Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus? (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1906), trans. Patricia M. Hocking and C. T. Husbands as Why is there no socialism in the United States (White Plains, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1976). Sombart's question put the United States in stark relief to European countries. By the first decade of the twentieth century, organizations of the Second International had built viable parties. In the 1903 German federal elections, the Social Democratic Party won the popular count with 3.01 million votes (31.7 percent). In comparison, Eugene Debs received 2.98 percent of the general election vote in 1904, the first year that the Socialist Party (US) stood a candidate for president. Seehttp://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?year=1904 (acc. July 6, 2016).
4) What I have in mind is the longstanding tradition of social democracy that stretches back to the 1850s, the formation of left organizations at first, indeed, by the followers of Marx—the parties of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht and their co-thinkers. This will strike our friends on the far left as another expression of apostasy. For did not the failure of the parties of the Second International to steadfastly stand opposed to the Great War (1914-1918) indicate their reformist corruption? Well, let us deal with the ins and outs of the long winding road of the left in later articles. Since 1989, parties of the left all over the world have at least temporarily set aside the divisions that characterized the whole twentieth century. Whether our left wing formations are called Social Democracy or a Progressive Party or The Left is far less important than what the members of such a formation do, what they learn and how they orient and organize themselves.
5) This should be puzzling to any serious student of organizations, although abstentionists will quickly comfort themselves with the contention that the fact that the Democratic Party is home to Klansmen, labor bureaucrats, feminists, functionaries, place seekers, etc., simply confirms the corrupting influence of the party. They are like prohibitionists standing on a soap box, scorning everyone who enters the corner bar. But since abstentionists are afraid to go into the bar, to talk with patrons, to constructively engage, they have no idea what people inside think or say or do.
6) The difference between the vote for a Green Party candidate and Sanders—with essentially identical policy positions—should make it clear that a mass audience for social democratic politics does exist in the United States today and that the audience is not yet prepared to break from the Democratic Party. Constructive broadly social democratic engagement with this audience necessitates operating in the arena of the Democratic Party. Your objective may ultimately be to shut down the corrupting influences of the corner bar. But (in my admittedly tortured analogy) you aren't going to be able to talk with the folks who can accomplish that act unless you go inside and engage with them.
7) For instance, we in organized labor regularly speak of "digital strategies," that is, whole institutional departments dedicated to new social media techniques. But once we understand the difference between strategy and tactics, it is clear that digital strategies are in fact tactics. But the misuse of the terms strategy and tactics are ubiquitous: This is not a difficulty only for the left or labor.
8) In some of the literature on strategy, principles are spoken of as "grand strategy." Writers such as Liddell Hart think of grand strategy as the long-run objectives of a state—the post-war world state leaders are attempting to create.
9) In most labor and social movement activism in the United States today, the problem of tactical engagement without strategic plan is actually more common than the sterile intellectualism of strategy alone. Often, elected or appointed leaders are insistent that action is called for and that results today or tomorrow are necessary—often to validate expending resources on organizing.
10) Historical experience confirms this. One need look no further than the historical development of the original social democracies of the Second International, for whom it could take two generations to build a sustainable party organization. See Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); William Harvey Maehl, August Bebel: Shadow Emperor of the German Workers (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1980); August Bebel, Aus Meinem Leben (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1981).
11) One way to think about the distinctively American path would be to suggest that the social democratic impulse was channeled into economic organizations, especially after the CIO era. As most of U.S. labor organizations subordinated themselves to the Democratic Party after WWII, the party in some localities could be seen as quasi-social democratic. But, as our brothers and sisters in Scandinavia counsel, social democracy must stride forward on two strong legs, one economic (the unions) and one political (the party, or, in our case, initial efforts to form political organization).