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Silver Linings Ahead?

Democrats of the Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi variety – Wall Street, “corporate” Democrats — eager to hold onto power and to make the world safe for the overripe capitalist system they, along with Republicans, superintend are riding high right now.

They’ve managed to make one of the worst of their ilk, Joe Biden, their party’s presumptive nominee, and despite all their jibber-jabber about “systemic racism,” they’ve managed to get the largest and most militant mass movement for social and economic justice in more than fifty years focused on flags and monuments rather than profound structural change.

But with an electorate yearning for “hope” and “change,” the real deal, not the “faux” Obama kind, they may not be riding high for long. Indeed, their recent victories may have inadvertently precipitated circumstances that will ultimately vindicate the old bromide about dark clouds having silver linings.

***

In beating down the Sanders and Warren “insurgencies,” the Forces of Darkness did indeed win a victory over the Forces of Light. However, for the defeated party, this could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Calling the campaigns of Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” and Warren, a self-described “capitalist to the core,” “insurgencies” may seem over the top, but the term is appropriate nevertheless; the scare quotes are too. To paraphrase Marx on John Stuart Mill — in a flat land a molehill can seem like a mountain.

Biden and others have described efforts to rid the body politic of Trump and Trumpism as a struggle “for the soul of the nation.” That, it surely is.

However, there is also a struggle going on “for the soul of the Democratic Party.” For the time being, defeating Trump and his minions takes precedence. But unless born-to-lose Democrats outdo themselves between now and November, “the time being” shouldn’t have much longer to go.

Needless to say, describing the situation inside the Democratic Party in apocalyptic terms is over the top too. The general idea, however, is very much on point.

After all, it was the Clintonite (neoliberal, liberal imperialist, Wall Street and military industrial complex friendly) politics of the Democratic Party establishment and their co-thinkers within the party’s rank-and-file and of the corporate media that serve and promote their interests that made Trump and Trumpism all but inevitable.

If they are not stopped in their tracks, the next wave is likely to be even worse than the current one, inasmuch as it is likely to be led by someone more capable than Donald Trump – that would not be hard — but similarly vile; in other words, another conman-demagogue who will have learned from Trump’s mistakes.

When Biden finally chooses a running-mate, it will become clearer what, if any, silver lining there might be in the defeat that the Forces of Light underwent.

It is more likely than not that with more clarity there will be more reason to be hopeful, but Biden has a history of getting things wrong and messing things up, and this could be no exception.

If he follows his instincts, he will choose a running-mate with politics much like his own. This would only add to the already long list of reasons to despair over the Pelosiite’s victory. But he may find himself unable to go where his instincts lead.

We can therefore still be cautiously optimistic – not because Biden will be choosing from an embarrassment of riches, as the pundits on the liberal cable channels claim, but because it can honestly be said of his most likely choice, Kamala Harris, that she genuinely is “better than Biden.”

Not by much, perhaps, but to a noticeable degree. This is faint praise, but it is in fact the case, and that is good news.

Harris’ rivals are, for the most part, better, or at least more capable and less goofy, than Biden too. But their politics is just as bad. Harris’ politics seems a notch or two better.

Needless to say, Elizabeth Warren’s politics is a lot better than hers. Even so, there are reasons to prefer Harris. I will explain why I think so presently.

First, a word of caution. As a general rule, it is wise to expect Biden to choose badly; he almost always does. The reason why this time is more likely than not to be different is that he has backed himself into a corner from which he could find himself compelled to do the right thing, however much that might go against the grain.

In the midst of impending economic and ecological catastrophes, situations made far worse than need be by Trump’s incompetence and imbecility, and with the covid-19 pandemic raging – that situation too made palpably worse by Trump — proponents of progressive strains of identity politics are coming to realize how profoundly their struggles are part of the larger class struggle going on all over the world.

Increasingly many potential voters, women and youth especially, fed up with the same old same old are coming to realize that the shortcomings of mainstream Democratic Party politics transcend the personal shortcomings of that wretched party’s torchbearer four years ago. This realization has consequences for the election ahead of which Biden and his people can hardly not be aware.

The main thing, though, is that there is now a new generation of black militants who have to some extent broken free from the thrall of the vaunted civil rights “icons” who have been serving corporate Democrats, the Clintons especially, for as long as they have held prominent positions in national, state, and local governments.

These new militants, even when they succumb to temptations to fight more over symbols than substance, have taken, or are on the threshold of taking, a leap forward in theory and practice, spurred on by the conviction that the enduring racism that motivated the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the mass demonstrations set off by George Floyd’s murder is not accidental or transient but “systemic.”

Scare quotes are appropriate here too if only because the word “systemic,” as used in this context, is vague if not outright empty. But, as with calling the Sanders and Warren campaigns insurgencies, the general idea is on point.

I will elaborate on this thought presently, but first a few reflections on the consequences of the current focus on “systemic racism” for Biden’s choice of a VP are in order.

***

Biden’s pick is likely to become America’s first female president – if not in four years’ time, when Biden, already well past his prime, will be entering his ninth decade, then perhaps sooner — should morbidity, mortality, and senescence take their toll. His choice is therefore of paramount importance

Even so, for now, after Sanders’ defeat, the action is down ticket, where real progressives, AOC types, are vying against Pelosiite stewards of the status quo.

The decisive battle against insurgents running for the very top job was fought out in the South Carolina primary, where House majority whip Jim Clyburn’s political machine saw to it that Biden would prevail.

How ironic is that, inasmuch as South Carolina is a state solidly in the Republican fold! Trump’s overall approval rating would probably have to fall below, say, ten percent before a Democrat would have any chance of winning the palmetto state’s electoral votes this year.

Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, South Carolina Democrats got to decide which Democratic contender would become the party’s nominee this year, and therefore, barring levels of malfeasance too great even for corporate Democrats to attain, the next president of the United States.

Better them, I suppose, than lily white Iowa or New Hampshire voters, but even so.

Ironically too, Clyburn and the other party leaders actually look good compared to some of the “conservative” (right wing) Democrats the DNC is determined to elect or re-elect in the face of challenges from the left.

Chances are that an enraged citizenry will cause the DNC to lose more primary elections than it wins. But even if their candidates are not replaced but just dragged leftward, it has now become likely, or almost likely, that, for the first time in nearly half a century, both the Senate and the House may actually become a force for good, not just for the less bad.

This is why, in the end, it may be better to have Warren in the Senate, on the outside pissing in (as LBJ would have put it in an era when male supremacy was assumed, even in figures of speech), than by Biden’s side, on the inside pissing out.

Warren has stature and gravitas; Harris does too. In this respect, they are ahead of most of their competition.

Not that this matters all that much, inasmuch as it has been clear for a long time that a president need hardly be, or even seem to be, presidential. This was the case before Ronald Reagan who, as an actor, could seem presidential though he plainly was not, before Bill Clinton made a mockery of the office, and long before Trump dragged it into a swamp many times more foul than the one he claimed he would drain.

Nevertheless, our first female president should be a woman of substance, not a flake in over her head. Warren fits that description; Harris does too. The others not so much, with one dreadful exception, Susan Rice.

In much the way that Biden personifies the failed neoliberal economic policies of the past several decades, she personifies the liberal imperialist, Cold War revivalist foreign policy establishment types that Clinton and Obama favored. No good came from that and none ever will.

If only for that, even the other Rice, Condoleezza, George W. Bush’s de facto nanny and Secretary of State, would be a better choice and, for those who care, as Biden well might, a more “bipartisan” one as well.

I used to say, only half facetiously, that Harris would make a fine head of a secret police. I still think she would, though she seems to have mellowed lately. However, I am now of two minds about that. It is hard to like a Grand Inquisitor, but a prosecutorial manner and worldview may be just what the country will need as the process of de-Trumpification unfolds.

Imagine Harris “debating” Mike Pence, the godly sycophant! Better yet, imagine her taking on Trump himself. Within minutes, she would reduce that dumbass to tears.

After having endured so much for so long, the American people need to see that. What could be better – except of course “breaking news” that Trump himself has come down with a nasty, perhaps fatal, case of the virus that he has done so much to make a part of American life?

Notwithstanding the strength of the case for Warren remaining in the Senate, it would be better still were she, not Harris or any of her rivals, to become Biden’s VP — unless, of course, it becomes very clear very soon that Biden will not be able to carry out the duties of the office to which he will be elected for any significant part of his allotted four year term.

However, with that prospect currently seeming remote, and with the old guard still calling the shots, the reason to prefer the candidate whose politics is worse still carries a lot of weight. Thanks to the many ways that the Zeitgeist has changed since police violence became Topic A, it carries even more weight still.

Unlike Warren, Harris seems to have been made for such times as these. And unlike all the others, she just might be a true second-best, someone whom voters desirous of real “hope” and “change,” denied what they want and need most, could learn to accept and live with.

***

Biden long ago proclaimed that he would choose a woman for a running-mate; he could hardly fail to do so now. Circumstances have now made it very nearly as impossible for him not to choose a woman “of color.” Indeed, since George Floyd’s murder, even just being “of color” may no longer be enough.

“Of color” nowadays means “not white.” Inasmuch as, for generations now, “colored” has been a term of derision, almost as bad as “Negro” (Spanish for “black,” which is not a derisive term at all), this terminology too merits scare quotes. But it is what it is.

In the current dispensation, Biden would have a hard time settling on, say, a Latina, much less a woman whose ancestors came from South or East Asia. Even a candidate descended mainly or entirely from any of the indigenous peoples of the Americas would probably be out of the question as well. [Needless to say, anyone claiming a disputable or highly attenuated Amerindian identity had best just shut up about it; Warren learned this the hard way.]

The path of least resistance for Biden, at this point, is therefore to choose a bona fide “African American” running mate. Since he is not one to go out on a limb, this is almost certainly what he will do.

Of course, “African American” is a problematic term in its own right. On the face of it, it would seem to denote persons whose ancestors were brought as slaves from Africa to what is now the United States. More often than not, however, being descended from Africans brought as slaves to any of the islands in the Caribbean or indeed to anywhere in the so-called “New World” is enough to make the cut.

Racial categories are, and long have been, enormously consequential in American politics and around the world, but, as everybody these days knows, they have no biological significance and therefore no fixed reference. Being “socially constructed,” their designations are fluid.

When Obama ran for president in 2008, there were African Americans who questioned his African American bona fides. He was, after all, raised by a white mother and white grandparents in Hawaii, a place where racial politics plays out differently than on the mainland, and where anti-black animosities are less severe.

Harris is of Indian and Afro-Caribbean origin. She did, however, choose to sign on to an African American identity by the time she decided to attend Howard University. At some point, probably while still an undergraduate at Columbia, Obama made a similar choice.

Inasmuch as nobody nowadays is questioning the blackness of either one, these decisions are now evidently good enough. Although Harris is competing against several indisputably African American rivals, her African Americanness, as it were, has not been an issue so far. Quite to the contrary, it is one of the factors that makes her selection likely.

Why George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police suddenly changed the Zeitgeist profoundly is a mystery. Explanations abound, of course; many of them have merit. But the mystery remains. Why now? And why has so much changed all of a sudden, when circumstances have not much changed for at least the past fifty years?

Institutional and attitudinal racism came to our shores some four centuries ago, long before there was a United States. Compared to the normal course of events in the centuries when chattel slavery thrived, and then throughout the Jim Crow era, Floyd’s murder hardly even stands out. By contemporary, much less historical, standards, it was neither anomalous nor even usually egregious.

Therefore, why now, unlike in the past, has talk of “systemic racism” taken over mainstream discussions of racial politics in the United States? This question is especially vexing inasmuch as it is fatally unclear what those who have lately taken to using the term actually mean by it.

What is clear is that its popularity has much to do with the failure, or only limited success, of post-civil rights era attempts to accord full citizenship rights to African Americans and to accord “equal justice under law” to “persons of color” generally.

Police violence is the prism through which this awareness has come to the fore. This is a welcome development inasmuch as racist policing is a festering sore on the body politic. It is welcome too because it places inequality and the many problems to which it gives rise in the foreground.

However, unless awareness of the problem is situated is situated in its proper conceptual, not just historical, context, focusing on it can also encourage superficiality and short-sightedness in ways that risk disabling efforts to change circumstances radically for the better.

This is especially unnerving inasmuch as the peculiarities and shortcomings of on-going discussions of racial politics in the United States in this season of discontents are salient as can be.

For one, hardly anyone in the political mainstream connects police violence with the more fundamental violence emanating out of our military, industrial, and national security state institutions, even though they are all part of the same law and order “system.”

Call for “defund the police” – by all means, many times over. But then take the next step by calling for defunding the Pentagon too.

To be sure, race relations within the armed forces are generally better than in the larger society; and police work inside the “homeland” is, for the most part, confined to police. But for instilling violence into the political culture and shaping popular mentalities accordingly, nobody beats the armed forces. Compared to them, police of all kinds and at all levels are small potatoes.

Another salient fact is that while a focus on what is genuinely systemic in modern day racism would offer all kinds of opportunities for changing the world for the better, the current talk of systemic racism in the media and elsewhere has so far led to nothing more extreme than a revival of familiar, timeworn remedies.

This is especially odd inasmuch as the focus on police violence and police culture appears to have been necessitated by the realization that the old anti-racist nostrums, however worthwhile in their own right, are all but useless for civilizing the forces of law and order in so-called minority communities.

Ending de facto segregation, affirmative action, “black capitalism,” and electing African Americans to public office, even at the highest levels, helps, of course, but it leaves the basic problem essentially unchanged.

This is indeed because that basic problem is “systemic.” But if all that comes of that realization is that Joe Biden’s running mate has to be an African American female, what is the big deal?

How could it not dawn on even the densest establishment Democrats that if electing an African American president twelve years ago didn’t stem police violence or in any other way diminish the ravages of inequality for the vast majority of Americans “of color,” why would electing an African American Vice President do that now?

There is a new consciousness abroad in the land and around the world that has led progressives of all colors (including white) to realize that the deepest problems faced by black and brown people, African Americans especially, are not so much attitudinal or institutional (and therefore fixable in ways that leave basic social, political, and economic structures intact) but instead run deeper than that – in ways that implicate those basic structures fundamentally.

This, presumably, is what the word “systemic” is supposed to convey, the idea that only radical solutions are adequate to the task at hand. But as matters now stand, that is about all that it conveys. Not just in practice, but in theory too, notions of systematicity that address problems of racial inequality at their root seem to have gone missing, just when they are needed most.

Sanders’ “democratic socialism” was hardly up to the task, but it did at least point in the right direction. How much better off the country now would be had the pillars of the Democratic Party, not its leftwing, been the ones to suffer defeat in “red” (Republican) South Carolina.

And so, nowadays, we hear a lot about how white supremacy is built into the fabric of American life, but almost nothing – nothing plausible, anyway – about how that came to pass or how this supremely unfortunate situation is sustained.

Answers to these questions that do not transcend the horizon of identity politics are intellectually bankrupt or misleading or both.

Socialist politics is another story, one that points to a deeper truth that the new generation of African American militants along with many others stuck in the cul de sac of identity politics are at last beginning to take on board: that while many oppressions are extra- or non-economic in nature, it is ultimately capitalism itself, in its current versions especially but also in general, that is their fundamental – systemic — reason for being.

Thanks to Pelosi and the others, at the presidential level, even milquetoast allusions to socialist theory and practice are, for now, effectively banished from the electoral arena. Not from down ticket races, however, despite the best efforts of the DNC. Therein lie grounds for real, not Obamamaniacal, hope and the possibility of change.

It cannot be emphasized enough that between now and November 3, going after Trump and Trumpism is and ought to be everybody’s Job Number One, and that, later on, for however long it takes, the new Job Number One will be seeing to it that Trump and the miscreants he has empowered go away, and then receive their just deserts.

But when the Trumpian nightmare ends and its consequences begin to fade from public consciousness, reviving and then building upon what was happening within the Democratic fold before the Pelosiites defeated the insurgencies they were facing will become Job Number One, and will remain so for a very long time to come.

That would be a silver lining indeed.

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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