The Political Landscape in the Real World

The online and print attacks against Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign come as a nor’easter batters the New England coastline in one of the extremes of global warming. The attacks by the far right are expected. Not a single Republican candidate will endorse the science that backs the reality of the fossil fuel fired decaying environment. These Neanderthals of the right, along with the help of their paymasters of the 1%, get some traction among those not inclined to learn anything about the nation and world in which we live, and in fact really don’t want to do much else than to hate and rant. Donald Trump is the perfect reflection of both the haters and the ranting.

But there is also a fatal flaw in the left’s criticism of the Sanders’ campaign. Who else do people have as an electoral choice and where are the legions that will put their feet to the pavement to change the status quo? The left, at least the antiwar wing of the left, melted away with the election of Barack Obama. While he expanded US wars, deported more immigrants than any of his recent predecessors, allowed the criminals who tanked the economy to go free, and expanded the surveillance of ordinary people to levels never before even imagined in an Orwellian nightmare of government snooping, the left became an unimportant appendage. The left’s critical stand was great, but feet on the ground amounted to the support of identity politics and occasional bursts of economic populism such as for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The only exception to the lack of left’s ineffectiveness has been the uprising of the Black community in opposition to the war being waged against Black people across the US.

After the attacks of September 2001, it soon became obvious to those in the antiwar movement that no force on Earth would stop the war in Afghanistan (The latter is not a criticism of those on the left who continued to protest that war, but simply a critique of our effectiveness.). Prominent members of an antiwar coalition in Rhode Island, where I was involved in the antiwar movement at the time, said it was time to end our actions and focus our efforts on organizing, which of course, never materialized in an effective way. As I write, the war goes on today after nearly 15 years.

Why can’t the left mount a real effort through organizing to offer the electorate a viable alternative to politics as usual? Grotesque abuse of the environment may very well spell the end of civilization, or perhaps a nuclear catastrophe by way of a confrontation between the many nuclear powers?

Almost all of the political variables work against the formation of a left party in the US. Campaigns like that of Eugene Debs happen with great infrequency. Debs, an authentic hero of the left believed that  “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it,” Debs once wrote, “than vote for something I don’t want and get it.” In other words, Debs believed that it was better to work for his ideals through organizing than get undesirable results while in political office. Debs best presidential showing was in the fourth of his five runs in 1912 when he garnered 5.99% of the national vote as the socialist candidate. Liberal Henry Wallace also was shunned and jettisoned by the political establishment for his socialist views and turned into a politically marginal player. Ralph Nader was transformed into a political pariah by his critics for simply daring to run for president with progressive policy positions. He garnered just 2.74% of the popular vote in 2000 as a Green Party candidate.

Not many people will take serious risks for their commitment to transform the political, economic, and social system. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the thousands who resisted the Vietnam War brought about only incremental and sometimes only temporary changes to the political system that were later either turned back, to a degree, or rolled back completely. Black Lives Matter rose up to challenge the insane official violence against African Americans. Occupy Wall Street, a real threat to the 1%, was so strenuously and violently opposed by the power of great wealth that it disappeared from the political and economic landscape with perhaps the idea of the 1% as its major accomplishment, but with no real achievable program for change.

The Occupy movement addressed the $3.3 trillion lost in home equity in 2008 and the $6.9 trillion lost in the stock market, the home equity loss most significant for ordinary home owners. Glass-Steagall had muted the worst excesses of the banking industry, joined at the hip in investment and commercial banking, until the New Deal. In a 1999 deal with Congress, the Clinton administration set the stage for the economic debacle of 2008 and Glass-Steagall was history. The floodgates for buying campaigns and candidates were opened by the Supreme Court through the Citizens United ruling in 2010.

What society-wide political movement for change has succeeded in the recent past? It’s been more than forty years since the antiwar movement challenged the waging of war in Southeast Asia, and that war may have been ended as much through the illegal acts of the Nixon administration and the fact that the ruling class just didn’t think it was worthwhile any longer to wage a costly, meaningless, and divisive war, as much as the war was ended by the years of strident protest of the antiwar movement.

Bernie Sanders’s votes on war appropriations, his unquestioning support of Israel, of military outlays, and his support of gun rights all require a serious appraisal and critique. But he is not the candidate of Wall Street; not someone who has supported the mass incarceration of the African American community; would make higher education available to students without the burden of lifelong debt; would fund the needs of ordinary people in the areas of health, education, and housing; and I believe, not someone who would give the current blank check to defense contractors to feed at the well of fear and militarism. While other socialist and green candidates may have better platforms, they have little chance of winning even a small fraction of the vote. The organization of masses of Americans into a movement that recognizes its own best self-interests is not happening and has not happened since the New Deal and the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, and that was a very long time ago. Those who believe that much can be accomplished through the political system to make a more just and equitable society need to recognize these facts.  Try to imagine Donald Trump or some like-minded candidate of similar fascistic bent in the Oval Office with a Republican dominated Congress, and a majority of right-wingers on the Supreme Court. It’s not only an unattractive prospect, but it would be dangerous to many who hold left beliefs. Many on the left have said in past electoral cycles that such a political scenario would be beneficial for the left, but it always proves counterproductive and could be dangerous for many around the world and here in the US.

Hillary Clinton is either a Republican-Lite or a Democratic neoliberal candidate depending on the issue. Regime change and unquestioning pandering to Wall Street are the trademarks of her tenure as secretary of state, her actions as a senator, and as a candidate. The blood of innocent civilians runs in the streets from her support of regime change in Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

History has recorded that the Democratic Party has co-opted and harmed movements for political, economic, and social change. But in a two-party system the latter is a reality that must be confronted and dealt with. Working within the so-called system has many, many drawbacks, but I see no revolutionary party being effectively organized to confront this dilemma. A person can change his or her immediate surroundings in some ways and work for national and global change in meaningful ways from either inside or outside of the electoral and political system, but the electoral system of politics in the US is an important entity and player on both the national and world stage. And it must be engaged in both critical and productive ways.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).