For Sanders Supporters, Seeing This One Thing As A Next Step Could Be The Key

The deep divide in the Democratic Party right now is not actually a product of the Sanders campaign or “tone” on either side. The issue is an an ongoing critique under the general heading of “corporatism” that seems to have first taken shape during the healthcare reform debate in 2009.
This is a great piece by Greenwald from Dec 18, 2009, in which he sums up the issue. The subheading of the article is “Your view of corporatism will play a large role in whether you support the bill.” If you just substitute “bill” for “nominee”–it still describes the situation 7 years later–“your view of corporatism will play a large role in whether you support the [Democratic Party] nominee.”
So, what does this mean. It means that some version of economic class consciousness began sweeping through the Democratic Party in that debate on healthcare. That debate from 2009 focused people on the idea that policy was controlled by an elite class that has emerged in the neoliberal global economy. In prior class consciousness debates, this elite class might just have been called “capitalists,” but in the post-2009 version, it has become associated with something called the “Davos crowd” or just “Davos,” meaning: the group of powerful, wealthy, jet-setters who attend the Swiss economic summit and others like it, who believe in the free market ideology of globalized neoliberalism, and who are able to command virtually unlimited resources.

These figures exist in both parties. The healthcare debate, however, led many in the Democratic Party to rethink the basic dualism of the American political landscape. It was in that 2009 healthcare debate that many Democrats began to see themselves as engaged in a battle more urgent than the thousand year struggle against Republicans: a battle against the Davos crowd for control of “our” party.

That new way of seeing things led many people to conclude that they should not support the healthcare reform bill. Those who did not go through this form of consciousness in 2009, attacked voters who argued against the bill using pretty much the same arguments being used today for those threatening not to support Clinton as the nominee.
Fast forward to 2016.
What happened in this Presidential primary between Sanders and Clinton is that the dynamic of the single issue debate–which led to new awareness of intra-party struggle in 2009–was elevated to a much broader debate by refocusing on the financial sector as a whole.
Now, more and more people underwent the same transformation because the arguments about the control of big finance over politics and government seemed clearer or more convincing. This was coupled with the clearest contrast to date of this kind of problem being described since 2009: a top tier candidate who went from having Middle Class wealth to having money on part with the Davis crowd almost entirely by accumulating honoraria from the Davos crowd. And this clear example gave Sanders a unique power in the Democratic Party: his explaining the problem in the Party–which journalists had been pointing out–suddenly had the power to reach a vast audience via an ongoing national campaign–and to turn him into a transformative figure.
Why, then, does this process stop short of sweeping through the entire Party? How is the Democratic Party holding out against being taken over by those with this new form of consciousness?
The answer seems to do with the single tactic or one-road approach of the Presidential election.
Here’s what I mean by that: the magnitude of this new awareness in the Sanders primary bid–no matter how exciting and explosive it has been–has not been matched by a corresponding magnitude of organizing aimed at occupying political terrain via local elections and/or direct action. If, for example, the Sanders campaign with its large rallies was coupled with an equally large effort to put newly conscious candidates into local offices–or coupled with an equally large direct action campaign of protests aimed at government and or industry–I suspect the balance would have tipped this cycle.
But it wasn’t, not this time.
The problem could just be that nobody is sure, just yet, who the local candidates are who could represent this new class of anti-Davos crowd leaders. They have to be in-sync ideologically, and–probably more important–they have to be resistant to co-optation by the current Party leadership, who are very adept at throwing around just enough prestige and insider status to undercut new arrivals hell-bent on change.

The effort to get candidates in office, in other words, must stand on the shoulders of intellectual work to define a new party habitus–a new set of activities, routines, language, locations, rituals–which will give a new generation of elected leaders a rock-solid secure footing in their identities. It will make them impervious to being bought.

So, if that’s the formula: campaign that raises consciousness coupled with massive local election effort and/or direct action–and it seems fairly straightforward that is the case–the question right now is not whether to vote for Clinton. That’s not a very relevant issue. Vote for her, don’t vote for her, people will decide for themselves more than a movement will decide for them.
The bigger and more important question is how to get both dynamics in place for the next election cycle and the next? That work should start right away, drawing on the energy people have shown in debate, but redirecting that energy away from stalemate debates about voting for the nominee and into organizing efforts to couple the next big election cycle with distributed effort in local elections and/or direct action.


9 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Michael Haggerty,

    The problem I have with this idea: we already did it. 2004 was a time when many of us came into politics, looking to break down the gates and work towards a juster, fairer society. We did get candidates into local office, we did achieve what we thought were reforms, we believed we were on a path towards greatness.

    But many of those people are now the gatekeepers. I could not tell you what the solution is, only that it’s very strange to be hearing this prescription again.

    • I hear you. Third party could be an alternative to this vision. I think the process of takeover from 2004 stalled because of the dynamics of professionalization in Dem politics. That is one structure that needs to be replaced.

  2. Randall Sanderson,

    Agree with conclusion but disagree on locus of grassroots sentiment galvanization in opposition to Davos crowd. Not from 2009 healthcare debate. That was a part of the larger shift. It’s fallout from financial crisis and the specific galvanizer was Occupy; now the Movement Formerly Known as Occupy.

    • Could be a factor, but I felt OWS never took off beyond the boundary of the anti-globalism movement because they used methods and language too hard to adopt.

  3. Kenneth Barnhart,

    The contrast between corporate and populist democrats is becoming clearer. I used to think the disparity was due to geography (conservative southern democrats versus northern liberal democrats). The differences seem too vast to bridge in the near future. As a liberal I think the term democratic socialist is an accurate depiction of my views. A less devisive term might be Roosevelt Democrat.

  4. wendy,

    ” If, for example, the Sanders campaign with its large rallies was coupled with an equally large effort to put newly conscious candidates into local offices–or coupled with an equally large direct action campaign of protests aimed at government and or industry–I suspect the balance would have tipped this cycle.
    But it wasn’t, not this time.”

    NOR did the Sanders campaign organize its “independent” supporters in New York to register as Democrats in time for the primary. THIS is one of the tests for what might make a good presidency. If he (and his followers) couldn’t organize to do this one simple thing, it’s doubtful what they might accomplish.

    • Not really. The so-called down ticket “test” is just campaign rhetoric. It’s not a weakness of Sanders. Nor is the “won’t get anything done” talk. Blaming a candidate for things he hasn’t done in the future–it’s an old framing gimmick. The Clinton team used it well to shore up their supporters, but it’s not fact in any way.

      • wendy,

        But I’m talking about something he should have gotten done (getting independents to register as Democrats for the NY primary), but didn’t (past tense).

  5. Would you please set your sharing button to include Twitter and Facebook? That will make sharing your articles much easier.

    Thank you.


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