Is Now the Time to Break with the Democrats?: A Debate

What should be the strategy on the left at this time? Should labor, black, Latino, radical women, and LGBTQ activists continue to work within the Democratic Party—given its predominant neoliberal leadership? Should they try to build a third party to the left of the Democrats, or perhaps a left Tea Party–like formation? To begin, we can revisit two recent independent left formations within the Democratic Party.

Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and again in 1988. Jackson garnered almost seven million votes in the 1988 Democratic primary (half the Sanders total in 2016). Jackson, along with thousands of black community activists, labor activists, as well as Latino and LGBQT activists, organized the national Rainbow Coalition. His campaigns helped elect hundreds of black, progressive state and local officials such as Mayor David Dinkins in New York City. Nonetheless, the Rainbow Coalition lost momentum and effectively dissolved soon after the 1988 campaign. Why did it fall apart? I think there were two reasons. There was no agreement or consensus, or even organized debates, about the purpose of the Rainbow Coalition. Jackson himself used the Coalition more as a platform for his career aspirations than as a political infrastructure for system change. Many black aspirants to local offices likewise treated the Coalition simply as a campaign platform soon forgotten after elections. Some activists in the Coalition thought the Rainbow should do more, advocating that the Rainbow become a multiracial formation to the left of mainstream Democrats, functioning much like the Tea Party did later on the right. Yet, this latter group ceded too much authority within  the  Rainbow  to  Jackson  to  alter  the Rainbow; they never united around a plan for holding elected officials accountable or established a base-building infrastructure, and many got so swept up in the mechanics of electing candidates and managing public offices that larger programmatic and political goals got lost.

The Rainbow Coalition was also starved for resources, partly by its own doing. By 1988, the Coalition had a computerized database of nearly seven hundred thousand donors that had contributed small amounts of money to Jackson’s presidential campaigns. The national donor list was forgotten: it was not shared with candidates the Rainbow supported for office. There were no regular mailings to donors, or solicitations for them to help the Rainbow achieve future goals. Activists never developed a systematic approach for funding the movement. After Jackson, many black activists looked to corporate-backed foundations for money. Little was made available for community organizing— less for politics. Some sought funds from wealthy individuals, such as the Democracy Alliance. Here there was more interest in organizing, but little money offered given the scale of resources needed. Others sought money from labor unions, but labor tended to fund only those activities fitting into narrowly conceived labor organizing campaigns. In each case, black activists found themselves competing for funds with white activist-led organizations who maintained that they could better organize and lead black communities than community-based black activists (the  former  said  to  lack  the  white activists’ technical competence). Even when black activists were funded, they were “leaders” chosen by white-led foundations, philanthropists, or labor unions: many such “leaders” had little respect or following in black communities.

Jesse Jackson had the right idea when he argued that black Americans ought to get money from corporations directly. But Jackson’s approach, like organizing pickets on Wall Street and then trying to negotiate one-shot “contributions” from corporations to black organizations, was limited in scope and power—not to mention undemocratic (who gets the money?)—and personalized around his charismatic presence. A more strategic approach would have been organizing black communities to bargain collectively (collective community bargaining) around goods and services (mobile phones, cable, pharmaceutics, etc.) with the Rainbow building itself as the bargaining agent. An approach like this could save communities money while enabling it at the same time to fund its own politics (this idea goes back to the nineteenth-century Populist movement). Without a strategic vision for how to raise its own money independent of external control, the Rainbow could not grow its strength in black communities.

. . . Sanders’ social democratic vision and analysis was in key respects off- base; . . . [m]ost fundamental was the absence of a race analysis . . .

The Bernie Sanders campaign had a different set of problems. The campaign had money, and it was not beholden to the agendas of local politicians. Sanders put the movement ahead of his career advancement. Yet, Sanders’ social democratic vision and analysis was in key respects off-base; it cost him black and Latino support that might have enabled him to defeat Clinton and perhaps Trump as well. What where these inadequacies? Most fundamental was the absence of a race analysis, both domestic and global. The United States is not Europe. U.S. “colonies” were internal to the States, not some- where else. The fundamental social divide within the United States has always been around race, not class. Even today, look at where people live. Public schools are as segregated now as they were in 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered schools desegregated. The right launched a fifty-year campaign to undo the advances of the Civil Rights Movement, leading to Trump’s election. A majority of white voters have not voted Democratic in a presidential election since the passage of Civil Rights legislation in 1964—as President Johnson predicted. Black and white workers have never been able to build or sustain broad alliances in the same political party—not ever. Sanders’ campaign avoided this issue until pressured to do so by Black Lives Matter and others, and it never became a main issue for Sanders. The white left shares Sanders’ dogmatic avoidance of race, which is why they “missed” the power of Trump’s appeal.

Black and white workers have never been able to build or sustain broad alliances in the same political party—not ever.

On global issues, Sanders was of course correct in saying that U.S. trade deals have not protected U.S. workers, nor strongly advocated raising labor standards and democratic rights in China and other countries. Yet it is fanciful to imagine that better trade negotiating would fundamentally change the great labor disparities between the United States and China—the latter still transitioning from an agricultural to an industrial society. Chinese light manufactured goods will be cheaper than those made in the United States for a long time to come, and there is not much of a future for American workers narrowly focusing on competing with Chinese workers, even if better trade deals soften the impact of these disparities. More important, Sanders’ rhetoric about jobs leaving for China and Mexico had the predictable effect of stoking or catering to virulent anti-immigrant chauvinism among many white workers. Sanders appeared tone-deaf to the rising tide of white anti-immigrant nationalism swirling around him that eventually settled behind Donald Trump. It was just this lack of sensitivity to obviously powerful racial dynamics that concerned many activists and voters of color who stayed with Clinton.

Sanders’ rhetoric on trade . . . blurred the distinction between him and Trump.

Sanders’ rhetoric on trade also blurred the distinction between him and Trump. The main problem with the U.S. economy is not China or Mexico; it is that predatory finance controls most of the economy and politics. It has plunged workers and nations worldwide into servitude paying (unpayable) interests on debt; the sur- plus of nearly all countries is being squandered on speculation, waste, and ruthless exploitation of workers and nature anywhere and every- where. The nation’s surplus (savings) needs to be redirected toward building a national green infrastructure, affordable housing, a prevention-oriented health care system, investing massively in education and worker training, integrating millions locked away in prisons into jobs and communities, improving the lives of seniors and preschool children, and unprecedented investment in basic research and development to create new generations of green industries (such as replacements for unsustain- able materials used in construction such as concrete, or bio-medicines and bio-technologies) that would sell worldwide. There are plenty of jobs for this generation and the next if we go down these paths, but it requires fundamentally changing our politics of racial division and lack of social cooperation. Sanders’ attack on predatory finance capitalism was dampened by his weak stances on anti-immigrant chauvinism and racism. Many Bernie voters thus had no problems switching to Trump. Finance capital- isms’ best defense against Bernie and an emergent left was, and is, precisely to rouse white nationalism. Trump’s anti-globalist rhetoric should have been forcefully exposed for its racism. The U.S. and Western powers rose on the back of slavery and colonialism. White workers have historically been recruited as foot soldiers and voting blocs for Western domination. Without a break in that mentality, we cannot forge “class” solidarity linking Black  Lives Matter, to immigrant rights, to economic reform. There is no way to reach class solidarity except through race.

Sanders did criticize Wall Street and called for breaking up big banks, but he did not have a compelling view on what should replace them. Nor did he have a program on how to democratize the rapidly emerging digital economy. Neither does the labor movement. Big banks do three key things: they gather information on where to invest money to turn a profit (usually through monopolistic rent-seeking or speculation), they take big fees from depositors and investors and use substantial sums of the fees to influence politics and legislation around the world, and they buy media to present positive images of themselves and to suppress criticism. The left needs counter-strategies on all three fronts. Regarding banks, the institutions I can imagine having the technical capacity to inform progressive and green local, regional, national, and global investment alternatives to the big banks would be public and non-profit universities working in collaboration with local governments, labor, and public pensions. Together, with a political push, they could establish or scale up progressive investment banks (including digital banks) following social and environ- mental mandates in addition to return on investment. This could potentially challenge Wall Street banks.

Sanders did criticize Wall Street and called for breaking up big banks, but he did not have a compelling view on what should replace them.

The emerging digital platform economy— epitomized by companies such as Uber, AirBnB, Facebook—is fundamentally socially based. Unlike Exxon or GM, these companies do not have mega-financial and organizational barriers to entry (like owning petroleum refineries or auto factories); their success depends on their popularity among consumers (workers). A vitalized labor movement needs to be ahead of tech entrepreneurs, using public policy to ensure that these technologies be developed and deployed to improve the lives of workers and communities—rather than simply opposing new technology as job displacement. Technology by itself does not eliminate jobs or income, policies do. With the right policies, savings from new technology in one sector, say in building houses, could be put to use creating jobs in other vital sectors, such as training out- of-work youth, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, dealing with rising sea levels along the coastline, or providing services for our exploding senior population.

The neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party is so weak that if the left was able to tackle these issues, neoliberals could not stop them.

There are several prior issues we have to address before considering building a third political party, or even a left bloc within the Democratic Party: (1) establishing a democratic process for reaching rough agreements on vision and purpose for any party, including the Democratic Party; (2) developing an ethics and methods of leadership based on collaboration rather than individual star power; (3) finding sustainable ways to raise money; (4) focusing our politics on overcoming the racial divide as the key to building power; (5) coming up with structural alternatives to predatory finance; and (6) developing strategies for democratizing companies (like worker ownership) and transitioning workers into a green digital economy. The neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party is so weak that if the left was able to tackle these issues, neoliberals could not stop them. There is no need to establish a third party when the Democratic Party is so leaderless and rudderless. To focus on organizational form right now is an evasion of the bigger issues. The AFL-CIO has weakened its civil rights and immigration arms as I write. Many in the Democratic Party are claiming that “identity” movements enabled Trump’s election—they are correct, except that it was a white identity movement, not “minorities” or LGBTQ people, that elected Trump. These are the more fundamental debates we need to have rather than whether we need a third party.


Response to J. Phillip Thompson

Puzzling over the question of the American left’s strategic orientation to the Democratic Party has become something of a hallowed tradition in the aftermath of a major U.S. election, often taking the form of a rather bleak assessment of how we came to such a low ebb in our history and offer- ing a set of proposals about how we should respond. These discussions invariably pose the question of whether the left would be better off breaking from the Democrats altogether and launching a third-party rival to its left.

Phil Thompson has pondered the general problem of where the left and the Democrats stand today, and has answered the question of breaking with the Democrats in the negative. He argues that a more productive use of the left’s energy would be spent developing democratic alternatives to the precarious gig economy, combating predatory finance, and building “rough agreements on vision and purpose” within the left itself. Adopting a third-party project at the particular moment seems to make little sense, he adds, considering the fact that the Democratic leadership is currently flailing about, apparently unable to mount a popular alternative to the Trump agenda, despite the president’s dismal approval ratings. With Democratic neoliberalism in crisis, Thompson suggests that the present moment might offer an important window of opportunity for the left in the Democratic Party.

In regard to this general conclusion, I am inclined to agree with Thompson. I think it is unwise to consider seriously an attempt on the part of leftists to build a third party at this time. But I do so for reasons different than those offered by Thompson, and I think those differences are worth exploring. First, the framing of the question overestimates the power of the left. Second, Thompson asserts that “focus[ing] on organizational form right now is an evasion of the bigger issues.” I disagree. In fact, organizational matters are central to thinking about the orientation of the left to the Democratic Party because it is the party’s organizational form that so constrains the options open for left strategy.

To start, entertaining the proposal that the left break from the Democrats assumes the prior existence of a left that is sufficiently well-organized, internally coherent, and united that it is even meaningful to debate the merits of implementing such a maneuver. In my estimation, no such left now exists. This is not to discount the important, inspiring, and, indeed, surprising strides the American left has made over the last few years. But notwithstanding recent victories for the Fight for $15, the mushrooming of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the advance of Medicare for All legislative proposals, the left remains in a state of disorganization and political weakness. This rendering is not merely the pessimism of the intellect talking but reflects a vital need to come to terms with our size and strength and calibrate our goals and expectations accordingly. We are small but growing, to be sure. But we are definitely in no condition to be pretending that we can meaningfully enter or exit anything as a collective force.

The presumption that some coherent political force called “the Left” already exists “out there,” under the surface, awaiting activation by the right candidate or a sufficiently radical program undergirds much of the third-party advocacy heard today. From this perspective, the Democratic Party acts as a fetter on the political expression of many working people’s interests by forcing them into a united front with the neoliberal-left-wing of the bourgeoisie. While there’s no denying the stifling effects of the two-party system, third-party advocates at times reveal a voluntarist account of its persistence and a moralist style of politics, sometimes amounting to admonitions to “vote Green” to keep your conscience clean irrespective of its predictable effect on the electoral outcome. Third parties in American politics, of course, face myriad obstacles that thwart their viability: single- member plurality voting systems, the electoral college, limited media access, deep-seated partisan loyalties, and so on. Third-party advocates tend to evade these problems, opting instead to rescale their arguments to the local level, where barriers to entry are lower but policy options are equally circumscribed. Advocates of a “progressive federalism” for the age of Trump fail to explain how redistributive agendas might be implemented in governments that cannot run deficits and are hyper-dependent on valuations of the real estate market.

. . . [T]he Democratic Party acts as a fetter on the political expression of many working people’s interests by forcing them into a united front with the neoliberal-left-wing of the bourgeoisie.

In addition, on matters of organization, what is the point of the left remaining in the Democratic Party or breaking from it? In other words, what is it that the left wants to achieve, and does staying in or breaking from the Democrats better serve its agenda? This is not the place to conjure up a wish list of programmatic demands. As any active member of the left can confirm, that list is endless. But beyond the laundry list of particulars, I think most can agree that the left is fundamentally about building the collective capacities of working people and, as Marx put it, trans- forming the proletariat into a class. Such a task is all the more important when we discard the assumption that a left constituency already exists as an untapped electoral force. If the left is ever to build a widespread social base, that constituency must be created. The question, then, is whether the Democratic Party is or is not a suit- able vehicle for this project.

The major U.S. political parties are decentralized, candidate-oriented service organizations built to help office-seekers in their pursuit of voters. While their quadrennial national conventions are nominally the supreme authority in the party, the parties lack internal mechanisms of account-ability to hold officeholders to the party platform, nor do they have any kind of formal membership for rank-and-file voters. Such hollow structures are not well suited for developing the democratic capacities of working people, cultivating class consciousness, or building movements able to challenge the power of capital.

But given the odds against launching a viable third-party project in the United States, is a different Democratic Party possible? Thompson points to the candidacy of Jesse Jackson to help us understand past attempts to transform the party, but a more instructive episode to consider is the 1972 presidential candidacy of Senator George McGovern and the New Politics movement that made it possible. Most important, in the 1960s and 1970s, New Politics activists, frustrated with the disadvantages they faced in influencing the direction of the Democratic Party on issues like the Vietnam War, pushed through dramatic reforms to democratize the presidential nominating process and transform the party structure into a nationally integrated, participatory organization. This included instating affirmative action mandates, a dues-based mass-membership program, midterm national party policy conferences, an education and training arm, and codifying the party’s first- ever constitution. The New Politics reform project, however, stalled after McGovern’s landslide loss to Richard Nixon in November, with many of its most ambitious agenda items rolled back or torpedoed by an internally mobilized counter-reform movement. While some of their reforms remain in place today, their attempt to transform the Democratic Party into a party of a different type was unsuccessful.

Today, although we face a much different set of social, economic, and political forces than did New Politics activists in the late 1960s, the successor organizations of the Sanders campaign are again trying to “transform the Democratic Party.” Unlike their counterparts in the 1968 generation, however, democratic socialists today appear to take the organizational structure of the Democratic Party as given and aim to transform the party by shifting its policy agenda to the left. This may well be for the good, as intraparty struggles over arcane procedural rules rarely excite anyone outside the confines of professional political scientists.

. . . [W]hat is needed is a nationwide organization that can function as surrogate for the working-class party we are missing, while acting as an independent political force on the party we have.

More important, as Thompson suggests, the Democratic leadership appears to be in a state of disarray, providing a temporary window of opportunity for the progressive wing of the party to shape the anti-Trump conversation and per- haps the outcome of future elections. The flip side of the coin of the Democratic Party’s hollow structure is its permeability to well-organized outside groups. Even though those structures cannot be used to build the collective capacities of the left, it does not follow that a well-organized left could not use them to convert its power into seats in government. This is not a formula for a “Tea Party of the Left”—an analogy that neglects the conservative grassroots activists’ connections with billionaire-funded, D.C.-based free market think tanks and media elites. Rather, what is needed is a nationwide organization that can function as surrogate for the working-class party we are missing, while acting as an independent political force on the party we have.

Given the current state of the American left, the third-party option appears unviable and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Indeed, it will be a worthwhile achievement just to get to a state where we can meaningfully begin debating the merits of the left’s third-party options. But the path to building a class constituency that could fuel a third party must necessarily be centered around universal appeals that encompass the interests of racial groups. It is therefore all the more unfortunate that Thompson reproduces the Clintonite claim that “Sanders’ social democratic vision” was “off-base” and “cost him black and Latino support.” Disingenuous statements from the likes of Rep. John Lewis and activist Angela Davis notwithstanding, there is little evidence that this is accurate. Moreover, it is difficult to understand how free college education, a living minimum wage, universal health care, protection of the public sec- tor, and the rest of Sanders’ agenda would not disproportionately benefit people of color and women, who rely on those services and com- pose the rank and file of public-sector unions.

. . . [T]he path to building a class constituency that could fuel a third party must necessarily be centered around universal appeals that encompass the interests of racial groups.

In addition, universal welfare state protections, decommodified social services, and egalitarian redistribution policies are the best means for countering the cross-cutting politics of far- right demagogues like Donald Trump, who stoke very real grievances of working-class communities devastated by neoliberalism while projecting their resentments onto the most vulnerable social groups. The leadership of both major political parties has failed spectacularly in addressing these popular anxieties and frustrations. While this creates an opportunity for the left in the Democratic Party, it has clearly created even greater opportunities for right- wing Republicans. The need for the left to counter the politics of resentment with a politics that embeds identity politics within a diverse class project has never been more imperative. The creation of such a political force would not only check the danger posed by the right but also prepare the ground for a new working-class party of the left.


J. Phillip Thompson Replies

Adam Hilton and I agree on our dismal general assessment of the current state of the left. Whether using his example of McGovern’s campaign, or mine of Jackson’s campaigns, we agree also that the left has been unable to fundamentally change the Democratic Party. Beyond this, Hilton’s views and my own diverge. I am convinced that the white working class has no chance of fighting capital without strong African-American and Latino support, and vice versa. I am also convinced that capital’s best defense against its own escalating contradictions has continually been racism/white nationalism. Yet, neither the labor movement nor the white left has been willing or able to vigorously combat racism among white workers. Instead, in the face of particularized suffering and escalating racist attacks on black and brown com- munities—like mass deportation and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids—too, many on the white left avoid the issue by calling for so-called “universal” approaches.

Hilton asserts that “the path to building a class constituency that could fuel a third party must necessarily be centered around universal appeals that encompass the interests of racial groups.” His (Marxian) assumption is that a common preeminent set of interests between white workers and “racial groups” (are whites not a “racial group?”) already exists. I disagree. To the contrary, I think W. E. B. DuBois most accurately described capitalism as structuring not one but two proletariats: one, European and settler-American white; the other, workers of color, who were colonized or enslaved. The divisions between the two proletariats have been reinvented and sustained, both structurally and culturally, through racial segregation (legal and de facto) and by state suppression. That is why the wealth gap between median white and median black families is about twenty to one today, doubling in twenty years. It is why black communities endure the effects of mass incarceration and decades of double-digit unemployment. These issues are particular to the colored proletariat.

W.E. B. DuBois most accurately described capitalism as structuring not one but two proletariats: one, European and settler-American white; the other, workers of color, who were colonized or enslaved.

Hilton says, “. . . it is difficult to understand how free college education, a living minimum wage, universal healthcare, protection of the public sector, and the rest of Sanders’ agenda would not disproportionately benefit people of color . . .” Here is how to understand: free college education would not affect most young African-Americans because unlike nearly half the young white population, two-thirds are not in college. Most African-Americans who go to college attend community college. Of those, 70 percent or so need remedial education because of substandard secondary schools. Their job prospects are poor even after community college. It is not that free college would be unhelpful or bad, it is that it is not enough to help blacks in a competitive labor market—it would probably increase the racial gap in education. Raising the minimum wage will not disproportionately benefit the huge numbers of African- American men who are ex-felons facing almost no prospects for employment. Universal health care insurance does not help as much in black communities frequently lacking doctors and nurses, leaving only hospital emergency rooms of little use for chronic illness like diabetes or hypertension (both at astronomical levels in black communities). Black communities need radically particular policies to have a shot at being healthy, or competing for decent jobs with white workers in the labor or housing markets. Limiting black demands to issues they share in common with whites, as Hilton insists black demands “must be,” skips over the most devastating problems faced by black communities. Moreover, there is “little evidence” that universal appeals can overcome the political mobilization of whites resentful of their tax dollars being used to help “undeserving” minorities. This is especially the case when labor and the white left refuse to fight racism head-on.

. . . [T]wo-thirds . . . [of African- Americans] are not in college . . . [So] . . . free college . . . is not enough to help blacks in a competitive labor market—it would probably increase the racial gap in education.

Hilton asserts that my criticism of Sanders’ jobs rhetoric was “Clintonite.” I think we need serious analysis, study, and debate on how to create a strong U.S. economy in light of vast unevenness in world living conditions and governance, yet increasing and irreversible economic interdependence. Although calling for raising labor standards in formerly colonized countries is important, it is at best a decades’ long project, and not a solution for our current dilemma. I do not care if this sounds Clintonite to Hilton; it is still an enormous problem.

Hilton asserts that there is “little evidence” for my claim that Sanders’ program missed an opportunity to defeat Clinton by winning stronger support among black voters. I count Sanders’ loss of 75 percent of the black vote to Clinton (who had a weak field operation and little enthusiasm in black communities) as evidence. Hilton dismisses as “disingenuous” the critiques of Sanders’ approach by John Lewis and Angela Davis. One may disagree with John Lewis’ politics, or with Davis’, but they are not liars. Both are deeply respected in black communities for their histories of struggle and commitment to improving the lives of suffering people. They are not the ones being disingenuous.

Unity will take learning and listening, and often self-critical soul searching rather than sticking to one’s traditional viewpoints.This was precisely Sanders’ problem.

Throughout his piece, Hilton assiduously avoids terms such as racist and xenophobic to describe large segments of the white working class that gave its votes to Trump. Yet, at some point, avoidance becomes complicity. Given the current direction of the country, with virulent and rising white racism among white workers, with many segments of labor and the white left refusing to fight racism and instead blaming people of color and other marginalized groups for dividing the working class by their “identity politics,” we have reached that point. Multiracial working-class unity—something we have never achieved on a broad and sustained basis in U.S. history—takes agreement on at least two sides. I am certain that black activists will not tolerate white advocates telling them how things “must be.” Unity will take learning and listening, and often self-critical soul searching rather than sticking to one’s traditional viewpoints. This was precisely Sanders’ problem. Black activists across the country are trying to figure out, in all seriousness, whether it is in our interests to keep trying to unite with white Leftists who are leaving black and Latino communities out to dry.

By J. Phillip Thompson and Adam Hilton
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