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Why Presidential Elections are Detrimental to Movement Building

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Many reasons have been put forward for why the left should be involved in Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination: he can win, his candidacy can pull the party or at least the political debate to the left, it’s a chance to talk socialism with millions of Americans, it can build left organization and capacity.

Supporters of Sanders on the left (which I define as explicit anti-capitalists) think there is no real downside to his campaign. Now, many find Sanders’ positions generally refreshing, myself included, but that’s not enough. The real issue for the left is what role does his campaign play in organizing, and it’s indisputable that Sanders will herd movements into a Democratic Party beholden to Wall Street interests. Sanders makes no bones about this, saying he will support the eventual nominee, which will almost certainly be Hillary Clinton. Even if leftists who back Sanders sit out the general election that is of no consequence as they will have served their purpose of building a base of support that will be put to work for Clinton.

But there is another danger from Sanders’ campaign as a Democrat. Far from building movements, it can fracture them.

Exhibit A is Sanders’ response to Black Lives Matter activists who confronted him at the Netroots Nation conference on July 18. Protesters wanted him to speak about structural racism, but Sanders kept pivoting to economic issues. After saying “Black Lives of course matter,” Sanders segued to income inequality, which provoked one audience member to retort, “A class analysis does not take the place of a racial analysis.” When the moderator asked him about white supremacy, Sanders offered some grim facts about Black life in America and said he would “create millions of decent-paying jobs … make tuition at public colleges free [and] reform our trade policy.” As he spoke a woman responded, “Jobs and college don’t stop the police from killing me. Trade policy doesn’t keep the police from killing me.”

One video shows the activists doing what activists have always done: demanding that power address issues people’s lives depend upon. Sanders blew it, but to his credit he has since changed his tune. He is the first candidate to discuss the death of Sandra Bland. Sanders also went beyond his previous calls for community policing, which is flawed because it treats all disorder and public safety as a policing problem, and now says we need to tackle mass incarceration, mandatory minimum sentences, drug policy, the militarization of police, and use-of-force policy.

That might be the end of the story except for the divisiveness it left in its wake. Some Sanders supporters recognize he has a blind spot with race. Others circled the wagons, arguing Sanders should get a pass because he was a SNCC organizer in the 1960s. But politics is not like being a rock star where your fans adore you for old hits like marching with Dr. King or hanging with the Sandinistas. Politics is about what you will do, and that’s precisely what Sanders failed to address at Netroots Nation.

A more substantive argument is based on Sanders’ politics, not his history. In June Seth Ackerman argued in Jacobin that “Bernie Sanders’ signature issues aren’t ‘white’ issues” because the number one concern among people of color, according to polling data, is economic issues championed by Sanders. A week later Matt Bruenig advanced the same point. (After the Netroots Nation episode, Ackerman doubled down and Bruenig stuck to the same argument.)

It is tempting to use class as an umbrella covering race because it is simpler to say Wall Street is the root of all evil. From an organizing standpoint most whites shut down when confronted with structural racism and white supremacy. This is not to justify the defensiveness, but it is difficult to have fruitful discussions around race in U.S. society. Nonetheless, most leftists understand economism is as much of a dead end as identity politics. Decent-paying jobs and free public education would not have saved Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, and countless others obliterated by a society that defines their existence as a threat.

Economic reductionism is ill thought out. It cannot explain why the white working class is so invested in whiteness. It does not guide us on how to unravel the intertwined material and cultural phenomena of structural racism. It revives discredited ideas, such as the Communist Party’s short-lived position in 1919 that the “racial oppression of the Negro is simply the expression of his economic bondage and oppression, each intensifying the other.” And it’s just bad politics to tell a group of people, especially ones in a dynamic social movement, that they don’t know their own history or community.

The fact that the first real pushback from leftists against Black Lives Matter is around the 2016 election reveals how electoralism can induce activists to side with elites against the grassroots. Left-wing supporters of Sanders believe his campaign is a unique chance to advance the cause of socialism. As such, they will be inclined to ignore if not defend every bad position he takes. The backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement that percolated through the web and social media following the Netroots Nation confrontation has less to do with the specifics of the incident and more to do with the sense the activists were somehow derailing a rare chance to advance socialism for everyone.

Leaving aside that Sanders is pushing for Keynesian policies, not socialist or even social democratic ones, his campaign is antithetical to movement building. It’s top down, centered on one person, with no process or space for popular input to discuss his political failings, the limits of electoralism, or other strategies. After 2016 Sanders is not going to turn over his organization with its apparatus, lists and expertise to the left. Past experience — Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action — shows candidates retain tight control over their organization. Even in 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party’s presidential nominee, but did not exert control over the organization, he failed to benefit the party despite the 2.9 million votes that he garnered.

Expecting a presidential campaign to solve the problem of organization is magical thinking. Leftists who join the Sanders campaign still need an existing organization to recruit for. As for talking socialism with the public, those options will be limited as campaigns tightly control volunteers, making them hew to talking points and scripts. It’s also a pricey way to have a conversation as Sanders hopes to raise $50 million before the primaries begin. (It may make sense for union insurgents to back Sanders, but that’s only because they are part of pre-existing organizations they are trying to reform, and their main target is labor leaders who are in bed with the Democrats.)

Moreover, the nature of presidential campaigns prevents an honest debate. If Sanders endorsed reparations for African-Americans or admitted white supremacy exists, his rivals would demolish him. This creates an unresolvable conflict. The more activists push Sanders to acknowledge legitimate demands, the more defensive his supporters may become, hardening the divide. If anything, Black Lives Matter activists proved being outside Sanders’ campaign is more effective than being on the inside as they were the ones who compelled him to address racial issues he had been ducking.

Prior to this, in his May 26 announcement, Sanders failed to mention criminal justice, the drug war, or even say immigration. His communications director shrugged it off as you “can’t talk about everything in every speech.” This dismissiveness is curious given that Blacks and Latinos are 35 percent of self-identified Democrats.

This is part of a pattern with Sanders of skirting discussions of state violence against non-white communities and nations—or endorsing that violence. In his campaign announcement Sanders said, “We must be vigorous in combatting terrorism and defeating ISIS.” Last year he backed Israel’s horrific war on Gaza, endorsing the continuation of the defining conflict in the most important geostrategic region in the world. Sanders is one of the most dovish members in Congress, but there is no mention on his issues page of the Pentagon’s budget, drone wars, Islamophobia, or the “war on terror.” The Sanders campaign is deliberately excluding issues central to Muslims, Arabs, and many Asians in the United States, again, with little dissent from his supporters. Calling it “realpolitik” is a euphemism for throwing entire communities under the campaign bus. The socialist principle of internationalism appears disposable as well. As far as realpolitik goes, how will Sanders implement progressive economic policies when he won’t touch the massive pot of federal dollars going to the military and surveillance state?

If America is the land of the get-rich-quick scheme, the American left is the province of the get-power-quick scheme. It’s always looking for the one tactic, the one protest, the one election that will change everything. Building power that’s strong and flexible takes years in the trenches developing organization, trust, community, leadership, action, and theory. Taking an electoral shortcut to power means fracturing movements as those with the least power are pushed to the sidelines. Leftists may thrill at finding a “socialist” horse on the electoral merry-go-round, but if they hop on board they’ll be the ones taken for a ride.

This is a substantially revised version of an essay that ran on Telesur.

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Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, Salon, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste” (The New Press).

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