By Jonathan Smucker
Jul 29, 2016
We are living in very exciting times. And we are living in very dangerous times. This year I was thrilled by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. It’s remarkable how close he came to winning the Democratic Party nomination, considering the resources and organization arrayed against his insurgent campaign. Like many others, I voted for Bernie in the primary and did what I could to work for his nomination. I wish he had won for so many reasons. Obviously there’s the fact that he is genuinely progressive and willing to fight against entrenched power, including his own party’s stale leadership. He signals a potential progressive direction for both the Democratic Party and the country. As important, I think Sanders was the stronger candidate in the general election — for reasons that most in the Democratic Party leadership completely fail to grasp. Why do I think Bernie would have been more viable? For the same reason that I thought Trump had the potential to win the Republican nomination since last summer: we are living in populist times.
Let me be more specific than the pundits who have been throwing around the word populism willy-nilly in recent months, as if it were not much more than a bad mood swing of the American electorate. To be living in populist times is to be living in an era when political authority is no longer seen as legitimate by most people; what’s often referred to as a crisis of legitimacy. During such a crisis, populist movements and leaders emerge, from both the right and the left, in order to forge a new popular alignment of social forces. Populists explain the causes of the crisis, they name ‘the establishment’ as the problem, and they articulate a new vision forward — an aspirational horizon — for ‘the people.’ Left-wing populism and right-wing populism thus share certain rhetorical features (i.e., ‘the people’ aligned against ‘the establishment’), but their contents and consequences could hardly be further apart. The retrograde ‘aspirational horizon’ of right-wing populism tends to be in the rearview mirror: a nostalgic longing for a simpler time that never actually existed. More importantly, despite its ostensible anti-elitism, right-wing populism always punches down, unifying ‘the people’ (some of them) by scapegoating a demonized other: blacks, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims — take your pick — depending on the opportunities available to the particular demagogue in the given context.
“Despite displaying the trappings of anti-elitism, right-wing populism always punches down, unifying ‘the people’ by scapegoating a demonized other.”
The signs of the present crisis accumulated for a long time: The Iraq War, crumbling public infrastructure, Hurricane Katrina, growing inequality. But if any single event brought about a popular recognition of the crisis of legitimacy, it was the financial meltdown of 2008. Despite reestablishing some level of relative stability, this underlying crisis has stayed with us since then, even if often out of sight and out of the minds of the punditry and the political class. Their underestimation of the magnitude of the crisis is what has made them so useless in predicting the remarkable success of the insurgencies within both major parties in 2016.
In these two insurgencies we can see the ‘two sides’ of populism and the two very different possible paths. Thus, a crisis of legitimacy is exciting for progressives insofar as it places our potential path right in front of us. It presents our underdog movements with an incredible opportunity to narrate the crisis, to reframe the premises of American society, and to organize a new progressive populist alignment capable of challenging the entrenched power of elites: in short, a political revolution. But a crisis of legitimacy is extraordinarily dangerous for a left that is not ready to take advantage of it. History shows that when progressives fail to realign popular social forces in such populist moments, reactionary authoritarians can suddenly step in with remarkable speed and horrific consequences. That is what we are witnessing with the rise of Trump in the United States, and with the related rise of fascism (leaders, movements, and political parties) throughout much of Europe. The stakes of everything we do right now are extraordinarily high.
Neoliberals, progressives, and the Democratic Party
The Democratic Party establishment ultimately defeated the Sanders insurgency in the nomination contest. In doing so, it shot itself in the foot. Anti-establishment messages and the trappings of the underdog, the outsider, the insurgent are now the effective monopoly of Donald Trump for the remainder of this election season. Hillary Clinton cannot convincingly tap into this populist spirit. The problem isn’t that she’s bad at messaging. The problem is that she symbolizes the establishment precisely because of the political choices she has made over the course of her entire career. And this isn’t just about the person Hillary Clinton or her individual choices; it’s about the choices of the whole Democratic Party establishment over the past few decades.
Occupy Wall Street. Photo credit: Harrie van Veen (CC BY 2.0)
In ingratiating itself to Wall Street and the ‘one percent,’ the Democratic Party has forfeited a resonant moral message on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues that could win over a solid majority of Americans. The Party’s problem isn’t just a “messaging dilemma.” There is no message that can inspire the working people who were once-upon-a-time the predominant social base of the Democratic Party while simultaneously appealing to the neoliberal professional class and the finance cabal that has become the functional base of the Party today. It’s very difficult, for example, to take a $225,000 speaking fee from Goldman Sachs and then deliver a convincing economic populist appeal to voters.
This conflict of political interests brings into focus the huge differences between the Bernie Sanders insurgency and the Democratic Party establishment. Pretending like these differences are insignificant — i.e., that Bernie supporters’ concerns are unimportant — is a terrible strategy for winning these young people’s votes in November. This all blew up at the Democratic National Convention this week, in predictable fashion, exposing the chasm between today’s emerging progressivism and the stale liberalism of yesteryear.
“Minimizing Bernie supporters’ concerns is a terrible strategy for winning their votes in November.”
Economic inequality is central to the emerging progressivism, along with the conviction that the political system has been rigged to serve only an obscenely wealthy few. The same may have been true of liberalism to an extent in the past, but to the younger generation ‘liberalism’ has come to mean only socially liberal and it is also associated with elitism. This negative association is partly the product of a quite effective decades-long conservative project to tarnish the word liberal. But we might ask why this campaign worked so well. Why did it resonate?
Strategic racism (a term elaborated by Ian Haney López) provides a big part of the explanation. Conservative politicians and operatives cynically appealed to white solidarity and white fear as they associated liberalism with a welfare state whose recipients were framed as lazy and taking-advantage, if not outright dangerous criminals; the plausibly deniable insinuation was that this ‘element’ of society was colored black or brown (even if the actual data showed that whites comprised the majority of welfare recipients). It is hard to overstate the significance of this strategy in turning middleclass whites against public institutions and social welfare.
Yet there’s another reason why this negative branding campaign against the liberal label worked so well, which is that there’s more than a grain of truth to the charge against contemporary liberalism — that it is elitist. As organized labor declined, and along with it, unions’ influence as an essential bloc in the (then unraveling) New Deal Coalition, successful baby boomers grew up to become the new creative professional class and a central social base of the new Democratic Party. More individualistic than their parents, this generation of liberals pursued its private dreams, which tended to include living and working in socially liberal highly educated relatively affluent enclaves. Whether or not there is a correlation between affluence and those who identify as liberal, there is certainly a popular association between the two.
Thus, many young progressives today do not identify as ‘liberal.’ And why should we? Those who have brandished the liberal label most visibly over the past few decades — especially Democratic Party politicians — have often gone hook, line, and sinker for neoliberal free trade policies that have further consolidated the wealth and power of the extremely rich. This is precisely why Hillary Clinton is more vulnerable to Donald Trump than the Democratic Party establishment ever dreamed possible — especially in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan (where Trump’s protectionist critique of ‘free trade’ resonates). This is also one compelling reason why many of the most politically developed young progressives have become increasingly critical of the limits of the project of liberalism itself. We want a whole lot more.
And we are on the rise. There’s reason to be hopeful that the future leans left. A new generation that does not accept the lie that ‘there is no alternative’ is coming of age. In 1989 neoliberals and neocons trumpeted the failure of the Marxist historical project. Today in the United States more people under 30 identify with socialism than with capitalism. The ‘end of history’ is obviously over. And is it any wonder? We have entered adulthood to find our nation’s infrastructure crumbling, our government hijacked by a mix of elitist neoliberals and extremist obstructionists, our economic prospects bleak and likely saddled with mountains of debt, our natural world writhing in crisis, our culture’s rampant individualism hollow and unfulfilling, the international scene a hot mess, and our society lacking a collective aspirational horizon. Capitalism’s platitudes do nothing for us. Call us socialists as an epithet, and it will fall flat.
Something profound has been happening in the subaltern spaces of American culture over the past two decades. The upwardly mobile professional class — which of course includes the punditry — has neglected to glance down to notice the ground shifting beneath its feet. On nearly every major issue, relatively progressive positions have come to enjoy a majority of support. From regulating Wall Street to progressive taxation to health care, from mass incarceration to marijuana legalization to gay marriage, the nation has become progressive. The demographics and the culture have dramatically changed. But because progressives lack a foothold on today’s political machinery, and because our voices are marginalized in the mainstream media, few at the top see what’s happening — and what’s coming. They still believe that ‘America is a conservative country.’ Indeed, on issue after issue politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties wildly overestimate the electorate’s conservatism.
“Because progressives lack a foothold on today’s political machinery, and because our voices are marginalized in the mainstream media, few at the top see what’s happening — and what’s coming.”
Republicans, Democrats, and the punditry alike usually take at face value the continual stream of polls that show the relatively low percentage of Americans who identify as ‘liberal’ as compared with those who identify as ‘conservative.’ If one had no other information, it would be reasonable to conclude that such polls suggest that the country is predominantly conservative, and perhaps liberal partisans should lower their expectations about what’s possible. However, when pollsters make the simple move of substituting the label ‘liberal’ with ‘progressive,’ a majority of Americans identify as the latter. Of course, the term progressive can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. A less ambiguous gauge is Americans’ steady shift to the left on specific issue after issue.
Here in a nutshell is the delusion of the old guard of the establishment Democratic Party: they think Americans are still orienting ourselves along a stale liberal/conservative spectrum. In relation to those labels, they fancy that enlightened liberals like themselves are in the slight minority, and so they conclude that the prudent and pragmatic place to position themselves is as close to the center as possible. What they fail to grasp is that Americans today are not only more socially liberal than ever, we’re also increasingly orienting ourselves along a populist/establishment spectrum. When such a spectrum becomes popularly resonant — as happens in a crisis of legitimacy — it tends to eventually become a losing equation for ‘the establishment.’ As populism ascends, those who are dubbed ‘establishment’ can do no right; every action the establishment takes is framed by populist insurgents as a violation of the sovereign will of ‘the people.’ This is why Bernie Sanders was not only the far more progressive Democratic candidate; he was also the more electable one. And this is why Donald Trump may very well become the next President of the United States. By choosing the establishment candidate in populist times, the Democratic Party has effectively ceded a powerful political weapon — populism — to the extreme right.
Again, the character of the populism that emerges out of a crisis of legitimacy is a contingent outcome; it can be progressive or reactionary. With Trump’s nomination, we are seeing just how consequential the choice before us is. Also with Trump’s rise we see the predictable arguments of the liberal establishment warning against losing the center with a progressive vision that ‘goes too far.’ They’re using the same recipe they’ve followed the entirety of their political careers, failing to grasp that the ingredients have changed. In a populist era like the one we are entering, playing to the center is a losing prospect. The present crisis of legitimacy will almost certainly result in a major political realignment. Such realignments are rarely articulated from the safe center. When the priests lose their authority, prophets emerge from the wilderness, from the margins, with visions of a path forward.
And where prophets emerge, so do false prophets. When conditions are ripe for progressive populism, they are equally ripe for the faux-populism of the extreme right — the Mussolinis and Hitlers and Trumps. The central shared characteristic that justifies the placement of these three demagogues in the same list is the way each blends economic nationalism with race- or ethnicity-based national solidarity. The way progressive forces can fight this is not by retreating from populism itself, but by contesting the meaning of populism. In a populist moment, winning the political struggle depends heavily upon our ability to frame a more powerful “we” than our opponents. In times of crisis, people are especially keen on establishing a sense of solidarity and community. The right is framing the we in terms of an ethno-nationalism that shuts out the other. The left can win if it constructs a more compelling we that is inclusive of all pockets of society, and if it names unchecked greed and a corrupt establishment as the enemies, rather than certain kinds of people.
“When conditions are ripe for progressive populism, they are equally ripe for the faux-populism of the extreme right.”
We can find some strategic lessons from our own history here in the United States. We should not forget that at the time of Mussolini and Hitler, there was also FDR and the New Deal Coalition (whose political strength was grassroots social movements). Moreover, fascism wasn’t just a European phenomenon; fascists constituted a strong organized force in the United States in the 1930s. Thankfully, progressive forces won the day on this side of the Atlantic, even if that victory was complicated and left many grievances yet to be redressed. Today our historic task is not merely to repeat the economic populism of the New Deal, but to figure out how to blend it together seamlessly with racial justice, gender justice, sexual liberation, and care for the natural world. This will not be easy, but we have to figure out how to articulate this vision as our aspirational horizon.
Bernie Sanders’ popular insurgent candidacy was a major step forward on that path. The campaign fell short of winning the nomination, but it came close. And its surprising strength signals an end to establishment politics as we know it in the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton is on the 2016 ballot, but the establishment politics that she represents cannot win the future. Given the unprecedented consolidation of wealth and power in contemporary American society, and given the establishment’s unwillingness to curb its further consolidation, all historically informed bets should be on the continued ascent of populism. The candidacies of Sanders and Trump both show us that populism has returned to America. But while these two candidacies may share in common a populist style (or anti-establishment rhetorical form), they represent polar opposite directions for society. One populism represents our most worthy collective and inclusive aspirations, while the other is characteristic of the worst episodes of known human history. In 2016 and in the years ahead we have a critically important choice to make: What kind of populism? Will we succumb to a scapegoating populism that punches down, using fear to appeal to a shrinking homogeneous white base? Or will we embrace a progressive populism that punches up and articulates an aspirational vision of a way forward together — for all of us?
We had a tremendous opportunity with the Sanders campaign to win over a majority of Americans to a progressive populist path forward. As we know, the DNC and party leadership doubled down on the establishment candidate and stacked the deck in her favor, effectively preventing the Democratic Party from taking advantage of the huge opportunity it had to act as a progressive populist vehicle in 2016. Predictably, Trump is now running with the populist momentum.
First we defeat fascism.
So now what? Specifically, what do we do between now and November?
Let’s be clear: Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are not entitled to your vote. After decades of pursuing neoliberal policies, they don’t deserve your vote. It is incumbent upon candidates and political parties to earn votes by winning over voters. If they fail to do so, that’s on them. The vast majority of today’s electorate is fed up with the gross inequality that has come to define contemporary American society — the unprecedented concentration of wealth and power; the rigging of the political system to serve the few over and against the interests of the many. For the past three decades, the Democratic Party has put more effort into courting wealthy funders than it has into courting the working people of this country. Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment are not entitled to our votes and, frankly, they do not deserve to win.
But we cannot afford for Clinton to lose.
With the nomination of Donald Trump and the dangerous politics of hate that he represents, this election is no longer about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment. It’s about all of us. And it’s about stopping the worst possible scenario. I have spent more than two decades as a grassroots organizer, immersed in left social movements that have opposed the neoliberalism and frequent warmongering of the contemporary Democratic Party establishment: from Latin America solidarity, to the global justice movement, to the antiwar movement, to Occupy Wall Street, and many local community struggles. As a vocal Bernie supporter, it hurts my heart to know that I will cast my vote for Hillary Clinton in November; it pains me even more to be sitting here writing an article aimed at convincing my friends and comrades to do the same. But if there is one immutable maxim that the left should take from the past century, it is that we absolutely have to unite — specifically with liberals — to defeat fascism.
“If there is one immutable maxim that the left should take from the past century, it is that we absolutely have to unite to defeat fascism.”
I am not arguing that you should not ‘vote your conscience.’ I am arguing that your conscience should compel you to use your vote as effectively as possible to defeat the unprecedented fascist threat before us.
#VetsVsHate calling out Trump’s bigotry.
To be clear, some folks throw the label fascist around casually. I do not. I am using a textbook definition of radical authoritarian nationalism, with a heavy dose of racism and xenophobia. Trump unapologetically exhibits all of the features and he is the only major US presidential candidate in my lifetime to fit the bill. He is masterfully stoking the fear and hatred of the most dangerous and most violent pockets of American society, intentionally empowering them and unleashing them as a political force. We can reasonably expect that an authoritarian demagogue who rises to power by stoking fear and hate will govern using these same tools — the only tools he has. Even as candidate, Donald Trump is making everyday life more dangerous for people who are already vulnerable and living on the margins of society, especially people of color, immigrants, and Muslims. Dangerous explicitly white supremacist groups have reported a huge surge in relation to Trump’s rise, which they appreciatively attribute to the candidate. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke enthusiastically endorsed him too, saying, “I’m overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years.” Duke interpreted Trump’s rise as a sign that it is time for he himself to run for US Senate, explaining that “European-Americans need at least one man in the United States Senate.”
If Trump’s candidacy was ever a joke, that time is long past. We cannot afford to underestimate the threat we see before us. We have to do everything we can to defeat him.
And the math is simple. Staying home or voting for Jill Stein does not help to defeat Trump. Voting for Hillary Clinton does help to defeat Trump (even if you’re holding your nose as you do so).
The good news is that a Clinton Administration will not get a ‘grace period’ from progressives (like the one Obama got after eight years of Bush). Progressive movements will start applying pressure on Day One. We have already seen throughout this campaign season that we have a degree of leverage over Clinton — even if we will have the urgent task of growing our movements so that we can have more. With a Trump Administration we would have close to zero leverage.
And if you’re considering staying home in November because ‘maybe things have to get worse before people wake up,’ you should know that this fanciful notion is completely unsupported by history. There is no good reason why things can’t just keep getting worse indefinitely. It is belief in the possibility that things could get better — what social movement scholars call “raised expectations” — that inspires people to take action and join progressive movements. On the other hand, fear and anxiety fuel reactionary movements, and if Trump is President, there will be plenty of fear to go around. We can also look at what has happened to the progressive left under the past few Republican administrations. It didn’t magically become bolder or ‘more radical.’ Instead most every fight became defensive in nature, just trying to stop the right from inflicting too much damage. Trump would be worse, and we have to avoid such a scenario.
image by Gan Golan
Despite Sanders’ primary loss, progressive movements have actually gained an incredible amount of momentum over the past five years. We are finally on the rise, and as long as Trump does not win, we should be able to maintain this crucial initiative. It’s worth noting here that progressive social movements have grown and deepened their analysis during the past two Democratic administrations: at the end of the Bill Clinton Administration, we saw the birth of the global justice movement; during the Obama Administration we have seen a veritable social movement renaissance, from the Dreamers to Black Lives Matter to Marriage Equality to Occupy Wall Street — and of course the Bernie Sanders campaign. I hope it’s obvious that I’m not suggesting that Democratic U.S. presidents deserve credit for starting or even doing anything whatsoever to support these movements. What I am arguing is that who is in charge changes the very terrain upon which social movements do battle. Which leaders or parties hold state power can dramatically open up or foreclose political opportunities. These opportunities still must be seized by strong and savvy social movements — the work is still ours to do — but the terrain can become significantly more (or less) favorable. If you believe that grassroots organizations and social movements are the most important vehicles for progressive change, then don’t think of voting as your personal endorsement of an individual candidate, as if the purpose of elections were to reflect our individual values; instead, think of your vote as your choice about which terrain you would prefer to ‘do battle’ within.
With Bernie out of the race, ours is not the ideal scenario, but it is the one before us from now through November 8th. We have a historic responsibility to unite to defeat the extraordinarily dangerous fascist threat. If we are in the midst of a crisis of legitimacy where the current establishment will ultimately be unseated, then the most consequential contest is between a progressive versus a reactionary vision forward. A progressive populist vision gained incredible ground through the Bernie campaign. In the long-term, Bernie losing the nomination should be seen as a setback that followed an advance for this vision. And now we have to make for damn sure that the right-wing populist vision faces a bigger setback. Trump must lose the battle for the presidency. The dangerous vision he represents must be prevented from gaining the legitimacy — not to mention the executive power — that comes with occupying the White House.
“First we defeat fascism, and then we continue building the broad progressive political alignment that it will take to ultimately defeat neoliberalism.”
First we defeat fascism, and then we continue building the broad progressive political alignment that it will take to ultimately defeat neoliberalism. There are so many reasons to think we will get better at the latter task in the coming years. The deck was obviously stacked against Bernie Sanders, and despite this fact, his campaign briefly came within reach of victory. This says a lot about the political moment we are in. Given Bernie’s incredible numbers amongst voters under 40, it should be obvious that a progressive candidate — someone like Bernie — has a very good chance of winning next time around. And progressive candidates can win local and state races starting in 2017 and 2018. Bernie Sanders’ loss is understandably demoralizing, but we have to allow his near-win to re-moralize us; to orient us to a horizon that is not so far away.
Tectonic shifts in popular opinion seem to favor a progressive edge in the coming decades. A remarkably progressive generation is suddenly emerging, at long last. With Sanders’ unexpected popularity, there are now at least a few shrewd politicos in the Democratic Party establishment who are beginning to grasp the magnitude of the coming tidal wave and what it might mean for the future. It probably means a lot. The thing about generational cohorts is that they tend to maintain their political sympathies over time. Cohorts tend to keep their political leanings for life. In the next decade, members of this cohort will be reaching the age where their political involvement is likely to increase, in terms of the attention they are paying to politics, the time they are giving to it, and the savvy and skills they will bring to this involvement. Many will lead social movements (many already are), lead political organizations, run electoral campaigns, and run for public office. The cohort is statistically likely to maintain and perhaps even deepen its progressivism. And along the way we will learn to leverage greater political power. We will gain a foothold. And that is only the beginning.
This is what’s possible. But such a progressive trajectory is far from inevitable. We have to build it together, fight for it, and win. And, seriously, first we have to defeat fascism.
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Jonathan Smucker (@jonathansmucker) is the Director of Beyond the Choir and has worked for over two decades as an organizer, campaigner, and strategist in grassroots social movements. He researches collective action, identity, and politicization processes as the focus of his doctoral work in the sociology department at UC Berkeley. He is author of the forthcoming book Hegemony How To: A Roadmap for Radicals.