Does a “left” Democrat – Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren – stand the best chance of defeating Trump next year? They and their supporters argue that such a candidate would enthuse a whole layer of people who normally don’t vote, thereby winning the election. The mainstream Democrats say that the swing voters – mainly middle class whites who often vote Republican but swung to the Democrats in the 2018 election – would be turned off by such calls as Medicare for all and would, therefore, tend to support Trump.
What is the evidence for these two arguments?
NY Times article
A lot can change between now and the elections, but a recent NY Times article seems to shed some light on the issue as of now. The article comments on the rise of “the squad” – four young “superstar” left Democrats – and says “they aren’t especially popular beyond their progressive fan clubs. More important, their victories had zilch to do with why or how Democrats regained control of Congress and have dubious relevance to how Democrats can do the same with the White House in 2020. The House members they replaced were Democrats, not Republicans, so their campaigns weren’t lessons in how to move voters from one party’s column to the other.”
The article continues: “Other first-term House candidates’ bids did offer such lessons, so look harder at that crew. Lauren Underwood in the exurbs of Chicago, Xochitl Torres Small in southern New Mexico, Abigail Spanberger in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., and Antonio Delgadoin upstate New York — these four defeated Republicans in districts where Trump had prevailed by four to 10 percentage points just two years earlier. None of them ran on the Green New Deal, single-payer health insurance, reparations or the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
“They touted more restrained agendas. And they didn’t talk that much about Trump. They knew they didn’t need to. For voters offended by him, he’s his own negative ad, playing 24/7 on cable news.
90 Democratic candidates, 2 of them “progressives”
“Of the roughly 90 candidates on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of 2018 challengers with some hope of turning a red House district blue, just two made a big pitch for single-payer health care. Both lost. While first-time candidates endorsed by the progressive groups Justice Democrats or Our Revolution certainly won House elections last year, not one flipped a seat. The party did pick up 40 seats overall — just not with the most progressive candidates.
“According to a May analysis by Catalist, a data-analysis firm, 89 percent of the Democratic vote gain in 2018 was from swing voters….”
The article also makes another point: Yes, a left Democrat might pick up votes from some of the voters who stayed home in 2016, but “a more progressive nominee might lose some of the votes that Clinton did get. Who’s to say that the math, in the end, would be all that favorable?” Of course, the NY Times tends to print what suits their politics, and also the dynamics of a presidential election could be very different. But still, it’s a mistake to simply dismiss the facts they present here.
Not an argument for supporting mainstream Democrats
This is not an argument for supporting a mainstream Democrat, or any Democrat at all, for that matter. But we have to base ourselves on the actual situation, not what we wish were the case. The actual situation is that it seems that about one quarter to one third of voters will support the racist, xenophobic, misogynist and anti-science agenda of Trump no matter what. Another layer favors what seems to be a left agenda, including the Green New Deal and Medicare for all. The decisive sector is the middle layer, which at this time seems to simply desire a return to “normalcy”. That means the time when all the major contradictions of US capitalism were more or less moderated and kept under control. That such a return is impossible is irrelevant to what they want.
Traditions of US working class
A key element in this equation is the role of the most conscious and combative layer of the working class. Historically, in US society that layer has played its role first and foremost by action in the streets, work places and in the unions. That is true going all the way back to the great uprising of 1877 and, in more modern history the examples of the San Francisco and Minneapolis general strikes of 1934 and the sit down strikes of 1937. Not only that, it was such mass activity that had a major effect on the general consciousness and mood. More recently, the “Battle of Seattle” of 1999 and the Occupy movement played that role.
The most reactionary layer of the middle class and of the working class is being energized and mobilized by Trump and the party he controls. They now have a sector of the capitalist class behind them also. The counterweight to this force would be – should be – that conscious and combative layer of the working class. However, every single force in US society has collaborated to suppress that layer. This includes the union leadership. The struggle of New York City carpenters is but the most recent example of this. So the question is how, through what channels, can this layer start to come together and play its rightful role in history?
Given the traditions of the US working class, it is unlikely that it will initially be through elections. A lot more likely is a struggle in the streets, work places, working class schools and communities, and inside the unions.
There is a host of combustible material that could lead to a conflagration. It could be an environmental disaster that dwarfs anything we’ve seen so far; it could be an act of police repression of similar proportions or some racist or similar outrage. It could also be mass voter suppression in the 2020 elections, especially if it looks like Trump will be defeated in both the popular vote and the electoral college.
There are two recent examples of this last: One was the Bush vs. Gore presidential election of 2000. The other was the 2018 election for governor in Georgia. In both cases, the vote was swung for the Republican by a combination of voter suppression and vote fraud. In 2000, the Democrats actively discouraged a tendency to protest in the streets. In 2018, the simply confined
themselves to complaining. It will be the same if this happens in 2020.
To return to the question of the upcoming elections: Tens of thousands of socialists and socialist-minded people – mainly young – are organizing to support Sanders, and also Warren. It is likely that they will come up empty, that neither of these will be the nominee. What will they have gained from there? They won’t have even started to build anything lasting. And even if one of these does win the nomination (which, by the way, would most likely happen if there were a mass movement in the streets, thereby transforming the mood), and even if that candidate defeated Trump, then what? Much is made of appointments to the Supreme Court (not so much to the equally important appointments to other levels of the federal courts). But it is nearly certain that the Republicans would retain control over the Senate, so a Democratic president couldn’t get any but the most conservative nominees through that body, except if accompanied by that moss protest movement.
Some supporters of Sanders – or any other Democrat – argue that it’s so important to defeat Trump that everything else should be put to the side. But this ignores the actual situation, most especially the fact that a wing of the capitalist class has swung behind Trump exactly because they see the weakness, the lack of organization, of the working class. This emboldens this wing of the capitalist class. A renewed independent struggle of the working class would give them pause. It would boost the chances of getting Trump out of there.
Far better that we start explaining the process through which the working class can start to organize as a class.
Socialists and others should be calling for organizing now to prevent this voter suppression. Meanwhile, inside the unions, there seems to be a mood to struggle against the leadership. That mood needs to be built upon through organizing opposition caucuses, as Oaklandsocialist has called for here.
What cries out to be born is the organizing of the US working class through a mass party of its own. It seems most likely that this would start through such mass action. It most certainly won’t happen – in fact it will be delayed – through supporting the more liberal wing of the Democrats.
It is through this mass action that the more combative and conscious layer of the working class can start to play its role in history.