Creed Shepard is a writer, Vice President on the Non partisan Think Tank Kansas Progress Institute and secretary and volunteer coordinator for the Douglas County Coalition for Bernie Sanders. He lives in Lawrence, KS.
By Creed J Shepard
Jul 26, 2016
Dear fellow JillB4 Hill folks and Berniecrats, a part of me really does not want to expend energy posting to all my center-left groups about the necessity of preventing Trump from winning the election. The necessary historical context in which to look at how detrimental a Trump presidency would be deserves a lot of consideration. But for now, I’d like us to look at our own defects.
Did you notice that in the vast majority of states where primaries were held, states in which no legitimate complaints about widespread voter irregularities existed, the voter turnout did not increase? Why didn’t Bernie's campaign, given the relative success and record breaking money he raised from small donors, increase Democratic registration?
Are we, those of us who support the 10-12 main things on the Sanders platform, still a minority in this country? If we go by the decisive numbers, then yes we are. However, that’s not the same thing as saying that this country is a moderate/conservative country. This is a country where the majority of people don't know what they want and don't trust either party. Poor voter turn-out, but more importantly, the evidence showing how unresponsive congress is to the popular public opinion on issues bears that out.
Yes public opinion is still manufactured and manipulated by the old guard of broadcast journalism and the major newspapers in the country —thankfully their influence has been eroding, as more alternative independent outlets have arisen online— and we are still in what could be called a neoliberal era. But that is a testament to the average voter’s lack of serious engagement, more than any deeply held set of political beliefs. For years many foreign observers have noted that the U.S. voter is extremely unideological, (of course this translates to their economically acting in concert with the dominant ideology generated by elites). Moreover, something also widely obsevered: to a large degree, political parties, especially in contrast to the parties in western and northern Europe, are also lacking ideological umph.
It may be important to back up and parse out different definitions of "ideology". I mean "ideology" as in a coherent set of beliefs about how things should be run. There is an equally important definition that emphasizes a set of imaginary beliefs about the order of things that are ontologically --that is in the way those beliefs manifest in the individual-- deeper than the first definition. On that latter level we can see ideology constantly playing a hand in the de-evolution of the Republican party. In the last 45 years there has been a mass, albeit "astroturf" organizing for ideological purity. But, regarding the former definition, Trump's success this year has undermined the assumption that Republican voters care about the traditional Conservative causes.
On the more pluralistic side of the Democratic party, it's very difficult to make out an ideological coherence, which is partially good because it indicates that many if not most Democratic office holders don't determine policy by a preset filter of their beliefs, that they don't deny any scientific evidence that may challenge any of those individual beliefs. But when the system is not working, when it's not just "a few bad apples", and when a large number of voters know it's not working --the data on this is very clear, as most of you know, a large majority knows the system is not working-- we need to carve out a vision. We need ideology. But since the nineteen seventies, Democrats in most states and at the federal level have faught for so little, that it's as if they're stuck under the weight of their own bureaucratic engagement in policy that they don't take the time to step back and look at the more systemic rot. The truth of the matter is, as you probably know, that Democrats have fought very hard for corporate interests. Especially since Bill Clinton took office.
Yet while this fact is a condemnation of those Democrats' decisions, we must not leave the narrative at that. We need to understand that none of this, the 94 crime bill which increased the prison population destroying ever more lives of working poor (yes, particularly people of color), the expansion of "free trade" policies that wreaked further havoc on the environement and took away millions of decent paying jobs, the deregulation of an ever superfluous and destructive financial industry that preys on homeowners and indebted college studentswould have happened, etc.--none of it would have gotten this far if we had organized collective interests, lobbied effectively and recruited and ran more candidates. This is no small task, I understand, but bear with me.
To understand how the 2 major parties have never been neat representations of coherent political beliefs, one has to go back to the development in the U.S. of the individual parties, which we don’t have space for at this time, but I hope to elaborate on in future posts.
What is more important, it seems to me, is to address what is a political constituency?
Most Democratic activists who are veterans in electoral campaigns would agree roughly with the following: a candidate’s or a party’s base of constituents consists of four different types of voters:
1. one who has a personal relationship with the candidate, who knows what they’re like as a friend or neighbor;
2. One, either as a member of a narrow interest organization who has their own single issue that they really care about and find the candidate or party's position benefits them economically;
3. someone who votes down ticket because they come from a family that has always voted that way;
4. An ideological voter who passionately shares the candidate’s general worldview and/or coherent set of policy positions.
In addition to this, social science, particularly cognitive science has shown in the last twenty years, that motivations of voters are deeply embedded in their irrational minds, i.e. they don’t vote their rational self interests, but rather their own sense of identity. In other words, policies expressed as such won't really help. Many if not most voters are already deeply connected to their well known candidates with whom they’re familiar, and they won’t be torn away so easily by any loftiness. The dominant presence of one or more of these 4 kinds of voters varies election year to election year, and through out the country. But make no mistake: 1. the cult-of-personality is strong, 2. Never in modern U.S. politics has a single presidential election caused a substantial swing across the ideological spectrum reflecting any accuracy of the general public. People may contradict this by citing the 1933 victory of FDR, or the “Reagan Revolution of the 1980”, but they are overlooking the poor voter turnout in the latter and the ideological lack of clarity in the former (FDR actually campaigned on controlling the deficit in 32). Moreover the economic conditions in 32 and 80 were in most ways more dire to the average voter. If we include the 2008 election of Obama, these drastic electoral shifts were motivated by a vocal shout out from the people for this abstract thing called, "change".
One of the books I'm reading right now is Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy, by Sydney Milkis, covering the 1912 election. Starring U.S. mass culture's first political celebrity, T.R. having ridden on the coattails of an older movement whose origins lay in the populist movement of of the 1880s and 90s, and his own relatively progressive record as Republican president between 1900-1908, the 1912 election was the closest any third party ever got in this country to winning the presidency. And by T.R.’s knowledge and mastery of dealing with the mass media, he was able to set the terms of the debate, even forcing the Democratic party to adopt a few of its positions. But ultimately the main gist of his platform, which included implementing direct democractic national referendums, was lost and ignored. By 1916, the Progressive movement, its party included, was dying. While certain regional organizations that focused on particular issues of the day were operating, they didn’t have the national reach. The party tried to get T.R. to run again because who else had the national stature to win? Regardless of T.R.’s own betrayal of the progressive principles, and then his embrace of getting into an unnecessary war in Europe, a strong figure head at the front of your ticket helps. This is just as true if not truer today. That does not mean that it’s in opposition to having a definite set of prinicpals and concrete policy goals to run on. See: Bernie Sanders.
The long Independent (and “unafiliated”) Sanders decided to run last year as a Democrat, because he knew he had to make use of the social networks and the organizational infrastructure that state parties as well as the Democratic National Committee could offer. And while his mostly anti-corporate populist message resonated with millions, he really needed the help of more outsiders. Party outsiders that is.
Out of the many lessons to learn from the 1912 election is the predicament of getting sucked into the cult-of-personality surrounding a presidential candidate to the extent that all your resources just go simply into an election process, confidant in your own righteousness without regard to public opion and how public opinion is shaped (in fairness the concept of "public opinion" was in an embryonic state back then, another story for another time). Equally important is understanding the power dynamics of your own local area. This was something that traditional machine party organizations were good at.
With that in mind, another lesson to learn is the importance of having outside organizations.
The progressive campaign in 1912 election did challenge the power of what's been called the "party-centered" elections, but what usurped it was the candidacy of Roosevelt. Milkis talks in his book that it was the beginning of a candidate-centered campaign. All that is well and good, as we universally attribute our aspirations to individual leaders in times of marches towards social progress. But unless we have built up other institutions based on social justice that consist of indidviduals dedicated to engaging in the --yes, cue that dirty word, electoral politics, electoral politics will always be in the hands of those who have more materially to lose. A positive in the dubbed 'Progressive Era", which started well before 1912 election, is that people did organizing of all kinds, not just political. Roosevelt's 1912 campaign got a huge chunk of support from social workers, who were waging a completely separate battle of trying to be recognized as professionals. This made up a bulk of the organizing of a brand new power. In hindsight it was no match for the still existing party machines, and the the power of mass media with its various outlets shining down, critically and in praise of ultra self-conscious image of the hero of Colonel Roosevelt. The power of the masses of people was talk only for the few insiders among us, forgotten or never known about by the masses of voters. Political change, for whatever of it that continued in a perception of progress became understood as something as a strictly top-down process. Even the New Deal Democrats, who would have accomplished nothing were it not for the many trade unions and other disparate social organizations, are seen as a top-down affair.1
Likewise the level of rabid vocal hatred for Clinton echos this same sort of false belief in a top-down only theory of change, i.e., "the leadership of the party has voted against my ideals, so therefore the whole party is to blame, I'm going out to protest". But this is just a squabble between factions of privileged activists who make up less than a majority of the population in this country. What about the voters? And why aren't we talking more about Bernie's plans?
How does one create consensus? We have Big Data now and have all sorts of data on public opinion, it should be easier than it is right? Again, the four kinds of voters, and the way the political brain works. The importance of building those kinds of relationships.
Looking at 1912 it may be argued that it the Progressives’ unwillingness to compete with the Democrats to court organized labor, and the different opinions among the political class on how strong a central government was desired, and their own internal divisions about whether to stand up against the Jim Crow segregation in the south helped them lose the election (On that last one, if they had stood up, they would have, as Post Civil Rights Act Democrats learned 60 years after lost their foothold in the south). We must come to terms with where the deep legitimate differences we have with one another and connect more our self-interests.
Let’s keep in mind, that with or without the recently revealed DNC shenanigans, we are still far away from a progressive majority. We cannot lay that blame soley at the feet of a national organization whose main if not only function and purpose is to win elections. It is our own fault for accepting in our inaction the false binary. No, I do not mean the two party system, but the binary of electoral politics versus protest politics. Outside of maybe 100 progressive cities (mostly the biggest) we do not have the people power, because we haven't spent time to really figure out what enough of us can agree on. And I would argue, given the aforementioned insights about voters, that we need to stop attributing individual human powers to a party or candidate, and learn how their maleability can work for us. Clinton, just as FDR and every other president before, is in a sense a figurehead. Sure, at the end of the day, she has to make the decisions, but she and her legislative counterparts are bound in part by her prospects for re-election, and the relationships they have to forge in this very difficult one. She and Democrats in Congress can go beyond her conservative instincts if we get better organized, particularly on the local congressional district level.
Do you remember the massive, inevitably violent geopolitical changes that are happening due in no small part to climate change?We have no time to reinvent the wheel with a third party that under the legal constraints and systemic electoral designs, would only have success in a few select areas of the country.
We must organize locally and state-wide and we must develop a concrete vision that is based in part by a long sustained effort of conversing with voters, including habitual Democrats who vote and do nothing else. This requires a massive recruiting effort. We should not do all of this blindly, but rather with scientific data that is out there showing voter attitudes on thousands of important issues. After that research, local and state-wide groups should hammer out their respective general platforms, then we must try to sell that vision, in the ways similar to political action committees and state-registered lobbyists. All of this sadly, was merely alluded to by Sanders when he explained what he meant by "political revolution". Equally important, and something that's already been underway for about 11 years by a few Left-leaning Political Action Committes, is to train, groom, recruit and run progressive candidates for office.
Going back to the mistake of blaming a whole party for our defeat this year, there are thousands of empty local Democratic voter precincts all across the country that remain vaccant. Plus, many of you could join your respective Democratic State Committee to influence the party's platform, and elected representatives.
In summary, we need to build “non partisan” advocacy groups (non partisan simply means not working in any coordinated way in helping getting candidates elected), but always with the elections in mind and in coordination with those who work to carefully take the party over. For legal and other practical reasons I would suggest that we make these two operations, developing our platform(s) to lobby and taking over local Democratic parties, separate but coordination with one another, to the extent that it's allowed.
The bottom line is that until we have a truly democratic, civic culture, left leaning folks like us have no entitlement to the presidency. Are we disadvantaged by big money? Yes. But look to history, to what has been accomplished in the past, and you will see that the great numbers of organized people can actually triumph over the wealthy.
Winning our future involves, to use the cliche, finding what unites us.
We do have to thank all of those who participated in the Bernie Sanders Campaign for getting us this far. Now we have to fully localize the movement and steer the conversation enough to where the Democratic leadership, hopefully in 2018, 2020 and beyond, will find it expedient to make enemies or trustworthy public servants out of those belonging to the one percent. That’s when we’ll be more in charge.
Simple opposition fueled by our own ideological fidelity will get us nowhere. It will only happen if we build organizations with a shared vision, organizations that are independent of, but also act parallel to the Democratic party.
1. To this day, even with all of the progress that the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter and the Sanders campaign made in influencing the national conversation, the notion of a strengthened centeralized federal government is seen as a separate foreign-like entity instead of "we the people", thanks to 40 years of well-funded right wing propaganda in our media. Regardless of how well-studied public opinion shows that a vast majority of U.S. voters support Center-left goals, other well known studies show their visceral response to the idea of strong government intervention.