Division Among the Democrats: Tactics Vs. Strategy

demDonkeyAt this point there is surely no shortage of articles and blog posts written by Clinton- and Sanders-supporters this primary season. Most of you have probably seen your Facebook feeds and RSS feeds (are those still a thing?) fill up with such pieces. I myself have posted many to Facebook. The problem that a lot of people have identified in this debate is that, as is always almost the case in political debates, the two sides are largely talking past, or at, each other, rather than engaging in a real discourse with each other. I won’t pretend to have avoided this pitfall myself, but this problem has gotten me thinking, and I’d like to take a crack at explicating what I think are some of the deeper divisions at play here.

First off: I am a Sanders supporter. I have given him money multiple times and voted for him in the Virginia primary. Second, I am not a registered Democrat (Virginia has open primaries). Third, and no doubt most controversially, if Clinton wins the nomination, I am not sure whether I will support her. I say this simply to offer full disclosure; I am not purporting to represent the party, or its base, or anyone else. I would like to present my reasons not only for supporting Sanders but also for considering not supporting the Democrats if he does not get the nomination.

If you are a Clinton-supporter and you are gasping for breath out of consternation, I ask that you take a second, catch your breath, and just hear me out. I’m not demanding that you agree with me! But I’d like you to understand my position. And if you are a fellow Sanders-nista and you are grinning smugly, I ask you to put a serious face on and consider whether the reasons I offer are the ones you would too–because Clinton-supporters feel strongly about their support for her and we should take them and their reasoning seriously. I’d like to try to step away from the emotions of candidate loyalty, and the way in which we like to perform our identities in public by showcasing that loyalty, for a second and think more structurally. Without further ado:

First off, it should be admitted that supporters of each candidate are ideologically and culturally diverse. Clinton supporters no doubt cover a wide range of people with a wide range of motivations: there are no doubt moderates who are supporting her because she seems the most practical candidate of either party, women (and men) who support her simply because she is the first woman to have a real chance at becoming president (not an insignificant or silly reason to support her, I should add); there are those committed cultural liberals anxious to have any Democrat in office to shore up the gains of the past 8 years, as well as progressives (this term annoys me in its vagueness, but I don’t have another good word to use here) who trust that she will really push a left-leaning set of policies forward.

For now, though, I’d like to address only those Clinton-supporters who consider themselves “leftist” or “progressive”, of some stripe or another. For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to define this group as having specific hopes on the following three policy areas. I want to stress that I am defining this group as people who want these things, whether or not they think they can realistically be achieved in the near-term:

  1. Guaranteed access to necessary healthcare for all people living in the US.
  2. Real reversal of income and wealth inequality, especially noting the need to address inequality of wealth between whites and people of color.
  3. Decreased rates of incarceration, especially of people of color.

If you do not hold these as political goals, you will probably find the rest of this post unhelpful in articulating your own political calculus. I am very much intending to speak to people with whom I share basic political, social, and moral positions. My argument is really intra-progressive or intra-leftist–I want to make a case for supporting Sanders and perhaps even withholding support from Clinton only to those who share these (and other) left-leaning goals. It seems clear to me that if these issues do not motivate you, you were never going to support Sanders in the first place and will not find my reasoning convincing. But I know that there are many Clinton supporters who do care about these issues, and I intend to address them here. I would also like to point out that I have kept foreign affairs and military issues off the table for now (even though I think that such issues provide perhaps some of the strongest arguments against Clinton, from the standpoint of my own values) because I want to present a simple and straightforward argument about electoral tactics and strategy, not debates over specific policy–again, just to be painfully clear, I am assuming we agree on our broad policy goals here. (If you don’t share these goals, we obviously could and perhaps should have that conversation, but I won’t pretend to address it here.)

OK, with all of that said, why do I think support for Sanders is important and support for Clinton, if she wins the nomination, may not be advisable? It seems to me that when it comes down to progressives (and again this word strikes me as problematic, but it covers a range of people that I think no other word currently does), the Clinton/Sanders divide cashes out in this way: Clinton supporters argue that we must support whichever Democrat is nominated or risk seeing recent victories (e.g. gay marriage) challenged and perhaps rolled-back by a Republican president. Meanwhile, Sanders supporters tend to stress that whatever her merits, Clinton’s policies and her legislative and executive history suggests that she is only marginally better than most Republicans on most issues, and therefore supporting her is not defensible or wise.

It’s important to point out here that both groups could be right: it both a) seems that Clinton really would hold the line on recent liberal victories and b) that ultimately her track record suggests that she is at best a very moderate liberal. (And again, for many of her supporters, this may be a virtue and not a deficiency, but I am assuming, as stated above, that my interlocutors here seek substantial policy change–debates over the need or lack of need for such change being bracketed for now). Assuming such agreement, the argument that most Clinton-supporting progressives seem to make is that we need to back incremental change, that backing a more radical candidate is a recipe for losing the election and giving power to those who want to roll back the meager progress we have managed to achieve.

And it has to be admitted that this makes perfect sense, at least at first blush. So why am I questioning this logic? I think we need to pay attention to the assumptions that go into this reasoning. Most of all, the emphasis is on the short-term: the goal for electoral action here is to cement gains made in the last 2-4 years, and all decisions about whom to support are, it seems to me, made from within this framework. So far as that premise is accepted, then support for Clinton seems obvious.

But if we question this premise, and suggest that we take a longer-term frame of reference, a troubling trend appears. If we ask not just about the last 2-4 years, but the last 20-40, the strategy of always supporting incremental change starts to look rather less than robust. Though victories, especially on so-called “culture war” issues (like gay marriage) have occurred, on most other fronts, progressive and leftist goals have been disappointed either partially or fully. Income inequality is rising, there has been little real action on global warming, incarceration rates have not fallen, undocumented immigrants are being detained and deported without any meaningful reform, etc. etc. Even some of the victories seem hollow: both the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act fall far short of what progressives believe was necessary (single-payer and reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, respectively). Meanwhile, policies, legislation, and treaties such as NAFTA have not been challenged, and indeed no mainstream Democrat seems to even admit in public that such a thing needs to be challenged.

Comparing this to the more-or-less broad consensus among Democrats from the 30s through the late 60s on a range of issues, especially regarding labor, economic, and fiscal policy, one wonders what happened. Why is that we went from having strong unions, high tax rates, and major landmark achievements (Social Security, Medicare/aid, the Civil Rights Act, etc.) to seeing much of that progress slowly erode for 40 years? (I want to be clear here about not romanticizing this period: especially on sex- and racial-equality, even the “best” Democrats of this era fell far short of what was needed. But the shift in the trajectory of the party’s priorities seems clear nonetheless.)

Obviously, any discussion of the causality of such a complex set of of events would itself be (endlessly) complex. But if we limit ourselves to the discussion of electoral behavior, one thing becomes clear. Since the late 70s, the Democratic Party seems to have shifted slightly rightward in just about every electoral cycle. Tax rates have fallen, incarceration rates have risen, income inequality has worsened, consistently and continually, even with Democrats in the White House and with Democratic majorities in Congress. Let’s not forget that it was under Bill Clinton that NAFTA, welfare reform, and harsher federal sentencing guidelines were passed.

In other words, support for Democrats has not resulted in slow progress, but seems rather to be aimed only at slowly the regress, rather than building power to achieve real gains for equality and justice–even at at time when majorities, even super-majorities, of Americans support the basic planks of progressive/leftist politics, according to a range of polls.

Again, remaining focused on electoral behavior, one conclusion seems to recommend itself: the Democratic Party is not worried about courting the progressive/leftist vote, as demonstrated clearly by the fact that they have continually supported the very opposite of the policies that this bloc has called for, at least on certain issues. If this is the case, the question that arises for those of us in that bloc is: what should be done about this lack of representation?

And here’s the essential point, as I see it: so long as the Democratic Party knows that progressives will support them, regardless of whether the Party actually delivers on any progressive goals, they have no incentive to so deliver. Meanwhile, a large number of moderate votes are up for grabs each cycle; by moving slightly right-ward in each election, the Party can capture some of these voters, helping to secure victory–and so long as they believe they gain more votes in the center by doing this than they will lose on the Left, this makes mathematical sense.

The only way to conceivably change this outcome is to discipline ourselves to think in the long-term; so long as our fear of the current Republican candidate pushes us to support the candidate with a [D] next to their name, regardless of their actual positions on any issues outside of those over which Republicans and Democrats like to disagree with each other over, we should expect the Party to move to the right, slowly but surely, over the course of election cycles. In short: this situation is explained by evolutionary logic, not by individual wills and deeply-held beliefs. So long as this institution recognizes that it has more to gain in terms of power in the executive, legislative, and judiciary by moving to the right, it will. Arguments about what is just and equal, morally right and wise, will fall on deaf ears because this institution, like every institution, is structured to maximize its security, power, and prestige. I want to be clear here that I am not accusing the Democratic Party of being some kind of nefarious conspiracy; I am saying that it is precisely as mundanely, boringly, and infuriatingly self-interested as every other human institution.

Those of us, then, who want to see progressive/leftist policies actually enacted need to figure out how to reverse this movement of the Party. Now, to the extent that we thought there was only a tiny percentage of Americans who supported our positions, the course of action would be obvious: we would need to do the work of spreading our ideas, convincing people of the need to enact the policies we see as necessary. An while this kind of organizing is, of course, still laudable, the thing is, this really isn’t the problem. Huge percentages of people already agree with us–in many cases, as mentioned above, absolute majorities!

If this is so, then we need to recognize that a different course of action is required. The problem isn’t that most voters don’t agree with us (obviously the specific degree of agreement on each issue varies, but broadly speaking, on the three issues I stipulated above, there is broad consensus) but that, despite most Americans wanting substantial change, that change isn’t happening–whether a Republican or  a Democrat is in office.

Recognizing this is, I think, the crucial move. If the electoral system is itself completely faulty–if its obvious that, in fact, the wishes of the majority on a range of issues are not being represented by elected officials–then hope in incremental change starts to look Quixotic. Such incremental change follows the structure of the system, so if we recognize that what is faulty is that very structure, then why would we think we can achieve our goals by yoking them to the thing that has been designed to frustrate them?

This is not to deny, of course, that, all other things being considered equal, small and incremental progress is still a good thing. It obviously is. But the reality is that all other things are not equal! If we are going to address the most pressing issues of our time–massive poverty, horrendous labor conditions, global warming, collapsing ecosystems–we are going to have to achieve orders of magnitude greater change than we have seen in the last few decades. And once we see that the progressive/leftist behavior of supporting the Democrats no matter what, in fear of the looming Republican menace, has itself helped to generate a more right-wing Democratic Party, then we have to have the courage to try and behave in new ways, to force that party to change its behavior.

In short: refusing to support the Democratic Party in elections until they agree to support some basic list of fundamental and essential policy changes, if only everyone who agreed with those changes (again, this is a huge percentage of the population!) acted in concert, could effect change in the Party in just one or two election cycles. It would, it is true, mean allowing, in the short-term, even worse candidates to get into office. But, if the basic narrative I’ve outlined above is more or less accurate–if the Democratic Party is shifting more and more to the right on the majority of issues–then voting for Democrats to keep Republicans out of office is the very behavior slowly transforming those Democrats into Republicans.

So the real tension here is between a tactical and a strategic decision-making process. Those who feel called to support Democrats no matter what are responding to the more immediate, on-the-ground tactical realities. And this makes sense, from within the framework of the assumptions it employs. Meanwhile, those who are increasingly convinced that the Democrats cannot be supported unless they commit to–and really act to achieve–important policy goals are, implicitly or explicitly, responding to a broader or strategic set of ideas, interests, and anxieties. The point here is not that one is better than the other, as if political decisions could be made purely at the particular or the general level. In fact, of course, competent decision-making requires both. But what the latter , strategic-focused group has begun to realize is that, in the particular circumstances that we face today, the tactical decision-making process is winning battles even as the war is being decisively lost.

What we need is a party that will actually represent the interests of working people, fight for environmental stability, call for racial justice, etc. The Democratic Party has never been truly committed to these goals (it has been especially inconsistent, to put it very mildly, on race) but, for about 40 years in the middle of this century, it seemed to be moving in the right (er–“correct”) direction. But in the past 40 years, we’ve seen it shift in the opposite one. What I, as a Sanders-supporter, am saying is that we need to be thinking about how to shape the Democratic Party to actually represent our interests, rather than allowing our fear of the Republicans to motivate us to loyally support the Democrats even as they transform themselves into precisely what we fear.

Unless, I think, we can talk about the tensions between these two levels of political decision-making–the tactical and the strategic–then I don’t think Clinton- and Sanders-supporters are likely to be really able to talk to and with each other. Some times and problems will call for a more tactical engagement, while others will call for a strategic vision. I think we are currently facing the latter, and unless we can act to change the Democratic Party’s behavior and the trajectory of its development, we will keep winning small (though undoubtedly important!) battles right up until the war is lost.

Withholding support from the Democrats is a risk, undoubtedly. And supporting them regardless of their actual commitments and actions has, in contrast, a guaranteed outcome–I just don’t think that outcome, at least in the long-term, is the one we actually want.

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2 thoughts on “Division Among the Democrats: Tactics Vs. Strategy

  1. Pingback: Election 2016: Of Candidates, Frogs, and Lifting the Lid | Life's a Lap

  2. Pingback: On the Duplicity of Clinton’s Anti-Racism | Life's a Lap

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