“On the Contrary”
Did the Sanders Campaign Represent a Missed Opportunity for the U.S. Labor Movement?: A Debate
As our readers know, the labor movement was divided during the Democratic Party primary season over whether to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. We invited contributions from both sides to debate those differences. Larry Cohen, past president of the Communications Workers of America argued on behalf of the Sanders option, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, together with Leo Casey, president of the Albert Shanker Institute, argued on behalf of the Clinton nomination. They delivered their initial arguments in early September and then responded to each other. Both authors assumed, as many readers also did, a Clinton victory. When the election results came in, Randi Weingarten and Leo Casey asked to rewrite their essay in order to take fuller account of the outcome of the election. Larry Cohen agreed to this arrangement. However, he elected to leave his essay as originally written. He has added a brief addendum that also takes account of the election results. Since Weingarten and Casey withdrew their original contribution, it no longer made sense to publish the replies each had written in response to each other. Readers should keep in mind that the main part of Cohen’s contribution was written without knowing how the election would turn out, while the Weingarten and Casey essay was written after that outcome had been decided.
From the earliest days of the Presidential campaign, it was clear that 2016 would not be a typical election year: many voters were feeling cheated out of the “American dream” and deeply angry with the political establishment. The Republican Party was captured by its most illiberal and intolerant forces. In the person of Donald Trump, we will now confront a President who has brought into the mainstream of American politics and government a toxic brew of overt racial, ethnic and religious bigotry, misogyny, authoritarianism, appeals to political violence and attacks on immigrants and unions.
Trump’s election demands a full and searching examination of the causes for this defeat. It is a time for reflection and thoughtful analysis, not recrimination and finger-pointing: we need to inform what will now be a decisive struggle to defend democracy and to regain the initiative for progressive policies that empower working people. In that spirit, we offer the following thoughts on the subject.
The AFT and most of the American labor movement endorsed Hillary for President, both in the Democratic primaries and the general election, as the candidate that we believed had the best chance to win the 2016 election and enact a progressive policy agenda. Against a Republican candidate who sorely lacked the experience, judgment and temperament to be President, Hillary Clinton was the most experienced and qualified candidate of the last century, and her election as the first woman President would have been an historic advance for the cause of gender equality. She brought a lifetime of successful work on behalf of progressive causes to the campaign, and under her leadership and in partnership with Bernie Sanders and his campaign, the Democratic Party adopted the most progressive platform of its history in 2016. Clinton had a particular knack for translating ideas and aspirations for change into government policies that make a difference.
What went wrong?
When a candidate loses the way Clinton did, by razor thin margins in a number of battleground states, one can point to a number of factors each one of which made the difference between victory and defeat. Most important were the anti-democratic features of the American political system. As we write in the week immediately following the election, the tally has Clinton winning the popular ballot by as much two million votes. It is only the archaic Electoral College that has translated that unambiguous margin into a defeat: in every other democratic polity, she would be the victor. Moreover, voter suppression laws in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin clearly made the difference in those key battleground states, tipping the Electoral College to the Republicans. And while the total Democratic vote for the House of Representatives is currently ahead of the Republican vote, gerrymandering has delivered a 40+ seat Republican majority in that Congressional body.
The 2016 election also witnessed the unprecedented interventions of the FBI and the Russian state, to the benefit of Trump. The baseless letter from FBI Director Comey, raising doubts about Clinton’s e-mails that the agency had in fact already reviewed and cleared, reversed her momentum late in the campaign. (Trump confidante and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has acknowledged the decisive impact of Comey’s letter.) The emails of Clinton campaign and DNC staff hacked by intelligence agencies of the Russian state and released at critical times and in coordination with the Trump campaign through WikiLeaks also took a toll. Both developments made the Trump victory possible, and both are deeply troubling for the future of free and fair elections that are the cornerstone of every democracy.
The Clinton campaign, the DNC and those of us in the labor movement could have secured electoral victory with different decisions in a few pivotal areas. The Democratic vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could have been shored up with timely interventions and additional resources, keeping those traditionally ‘blue’ states from turning ‘red’ by the narrowest of margins. While Clinton and the Democratic platform had good policy proposals for addressing economic inequality and fostering good jobs, the campaign never put them together in a compelling message that connected with blue collar workers in ‘rust belt’ states ravaged by corporate dominated economic globalization. Too many of these workers concluded that the Democrats would not bring real change to their lives. Going forward, American labor and the Democratic Party must develop an economic program and highlight class issues that convincingly take on what have been decades of economic losses to working people in the American heartland.
Yet tragically there was more than a class dynamic at work: many white male workers viewed their economic interests through a distorting prism of race and sex. The 2016 election saw a significant backlash vote in which ‘others’ – most prominently, people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, Muslims and Jews – were scapegoated for the declining economic and social status of white male workers. Trump’s strategy for breaking through the ‘blue wall’ of Democratic states was to appeal to the racial, sexual and religious fears and resentments of white voters, and he was sufficiently successful at this gambit to win a close election. His overt racism, misogyny and bigotry has done real damage to America’s struggle to overcome these evils, and left many Americans deeply fearful for their place in our society. In the dark times ahead, the American labor must hold true to our core values, continuing both the battle for the economic interests of all working people and the struggle against racial, sexual and religious oppression.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, there were those who argued that it was more important for American unions to advance a broad vision of economic justice and long term, maximalist goals than to focus on winning this election. In this view, a Trump victory was an acceptable price to be paid if it results in a future greater good. Some even contended, against all historical precedent, that a Trump victory would hasten that greater good. Unfortunately, we will now witness the damage that a Trump victory holds for the labor movement’s quest for economic justice and for the social democratic policies it advocates.
In 2016, abstentions and votes for the Greens and Libertarians were votes lost to a repudiation of Trumpism, and they made the difference in key battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. We will pay a heavy price for the sectarian politics that trained its fire on the Democratic Party and liberalism, viewing the 2016 ballot as an expressive ‘protest’ vote of moral purity. Michael Harrington nailed it: labor needs a political strategy that fashions itself as the “left wing of the possible.” While our political vision must be bold and far-seeing, it cannot be divorced from what is achievable in the here and now.
Others have argued that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, Trump would have been defeated. In their view, the Bernie Sanders campaign was a “lost opportunity” for the American labor movement, and the great preponderance of American unions that endorsed Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination could have better promoted a labor agenda and victory in November by endorsing Sanders.
Without question, the Sanders campaign’s spotlight on economic inequality and the corrosive, anti-democratic effect of unlimited money in our political system was a valuable contribution to our national political discourse. This focus was particularly important in the campaign’s successful engagement of millennials in the political process. The integration of the Sanders message into the Democratic Party platform was important, and made the Democratic campaign better. In this regard, the Sanders campaign accomplished what was its original raison d’être.
Yet the notion that Sanders could have won the Democratic nomination and gone on to victory in the general election, if only he had been endorsed by labor, does not stand up to close scrutiny. Without relitigating the campaign, it must be noted that Hillary Clinton won far more votes and elected delegates. Throughout the primary season, the Sanders campaign demonstrated weaknesses as well as strengths: his support was strongest in states which were less diverse and more rural, and in states which employed caucuses, where intensity of sentiment carries more weight than a broad popular base. His backing in the African-American and Latino communities was weak.
While Sanders’ supporters have pointed to his favorable ratings in opinion polls as evidence that his campaign could have been victorious in November, he had never gone through the gauntlet of the right wing attack machine. Instead from the start of the 2016 campaign, unrelenting fire from those quarters was concentrated on Clinton as the likely Democratic nominee, following on decades of attacks which had taken a real toll on her popularity. (It should also be noted that many of those attacks were misogynist in character.) If Sanders had won the nomination, he would have faced an onslaught of similar assaults, as Kurt Eichenwald and Will Saletan have shown. As unfair as these attacks would have been, Sanders would have been savaged over such issues as his past praise for Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist regime and the Sandinistas, and his 1960s era publications that celebrated youth sexuality, warned of the dangers of fluoridated water and speculated on social conformity as the cause of cancer. Republicans had prepared a two-inch think ‘opposition’ dossier that included plans for using a decades old piece of fiction Sanders wrote to accuse him of being an apologist for rape. That these issues were irrelevant to the great questions of the direction of the nation would have mattered not a whit, any more than it did in the manufactured controversies over Benghazi and Clinton’s health or the overblown tempest over her emails. From the ‘swiftboating’ of John Kerry’s record as a war hero to the ‘birther’ attacks on Barack Obama’s legitimacy as the first African-American president, such attacks have become a mainstay of right wing politics. They must figure in our political calculations.
None of us have a crystal ball that can predict with certainty how Sanders would have fared in the November election, had he won the nomination. But is seems to us that a Sanders defeat on the order of the 1972 McGovern campaign was more likely than a Sanders victory. In our youth we both worked for McGovern, as part of a passionate student movement that shared much with the millennial support for Sanders. A landslide defeat on the scale of 1972 would have dissipated the progressive energy of the Sanders campaign, much as it did to the McGovern movement. Instead the Sanders campaign ended on a high note, and is now positioned to play an important role in shaping Democratic Party politics going forward.
American unions will face difficult challenges over the next four years. The stakes will be high, as American democracy itself has come under attack. It will be important to learn from our setbacks in the 2016 election as we confront Trumpism. We must articulate a powerful message which targets both economic inequality and the politics of hate and bigotry. Our program must combine the creation of well-paying jobs, access to economic advancement through a robust system of public education, a defense of democratic institutions and norms and a respect for the dignity and rights of all Americans.
Trump enters office with unprecedented high disapproval ratings and without the mandate of a popular vote victory: there is good reason to believe that a revitalized and reinvigorated progressive movement, with American labor at its core, will defeat Trumpism with the right message. We remain optimistic about the long term political prospects of American labor and a progressive policy agenda on behalf of working people.
Link to Larry Cohen’s original submission for On the Contrary
 Grace Guarnieri, “Corey Lewandowski says Donald Trump should thank FBI Director James Comey” in Salon available at http://www.salon.com/2016/11/17/corey-lewandowski-says-donald-trump-should-thank-fbi-director-james-comey/.
 Kurt Eichenwald, “The Myths Democrats Swallowed That Cost Them the Presidential Election” in Newsweek available at http://www.newsweek.com/myths-cost-democrats-presidential-election-521044 and Will Saletan, “Polls Say Bernie Is More Electable Than Hillary. Don’t Believe Them.” in Slate available at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/04/polls_say_bernie_is_more_electable_than_hillary_don_t_believe_them.html