This is Part 1 of an article by John Bachtell, chair of the Communist Party, on Left strategy and the 2016 elections. It is adapted from an article first published in Platypus Review #85. Part 2 can be read here.
As we have trudged along through the 2016 presidential nomination contest, a number of prominent folks on the Left commentators’ circuit have eagerly set themselves up as giant-slayers.
Doug Henwood, publisher of the Left Business Observer, for instance, put out a new book, My Turn: Hillary Targets the Presidency. It was an expanded version of a critique he first made of Clinton in Harper’s Magazine in 2014. There, he lambasted the former Secretary of State, dismissively saying the case for her candidacy rests on just three factors: “She has experience, she’s a woman, and it’s her turn.”
In a review of Henwood’s book that appeared in the February 2016 Platypus Review, Gregor Baszak takes the critique to another level, trying to strike down not only Hillary, but Bernie Sanders too. He concludes that the hope sparked by the Sanders campaign is “misplaced.” For him, Hillary and Bernie represent the Left’s “liquidation into the Democratic Party.” What is really required, according to Baszak, is that “the Left must be kept very far away from the Democrats.”
I believe both Henwood and Baszak (and too many others this election season) express views that are far too cynical of the class and social dynamics taking place. One-sided assessments and undervaluing the agency of organized labor and its democratic allies prevents them from offering a viable path to effect social change. I’d like to suggest a broader strategy for the 2016 elections and how it might connect to longer term prospects for radical change.
The most dynamic force in the electoral arena has undoubtedly been the Sanders campaign. It is more than a presidential campaign; it is also a movement that has greatly broadened political imagination, brought thousands of people (especially young people) into politics, and stimulated a national discussion of democratic socialism. He is directly challenging the corporate domination of the Democratic Party.
It is being propelled by popular anger against vast wealth inequality, long-term economic stagnation, and declining wages and living standards. Sanders gives voice to the resentments, economic anxieties, and fears of millions. But his campaign is also propelled by shifts in public opinion. New social movements are influencing millions at the grassroots.
The campaign is strengthening the Left, independent, and grassroots composition of the broad anti-extreme-right coalition. Many of those associated with the Sanders campaign are frontline activists in the anti-globalization, labor, Black Lives Matter, Dreamer, LGBTQ, and environmental justice movements. They bring a higher level of consciousness, determination, and organization.
Win or lose, U.S. politics will never be the same again because radical new ideas have been discussed widely and new forces have energized the electoral arena.
Sanders and Clinton
Some have concluded that Sanders could still win the nomination (and emerge victorious in November as well) even without the Democratic Party establishment. There are also calls for Sanders to launch a third party or independent bid if he doesn’t win the nomination. In my opinion, such thinking overestimates the strength of the Left, underestimates the strength of the corporate forces, and most importantly, overplays the willingness of various constituencies to break with the Democratic Party at this moment. A split would likely pave the way for a right-wing victory, and for those reasons, Sanders has rejected it.
It’s certainly the case that Hillary Clinton has deep ties to the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party and foreign policy establishment. While she’s more hawkish on foreign policy, however, Clinton is no neo-con. She supports diplomatic efforts like the Iran nuclear deal and the normalization of relations with Cuba.
Achieving a non-interventionist foreign policy that also advances equitable trade relations is going to require building far bigger peace and justice movements, not to mention global labor solidarity.
While I agree with Henwood’s assessment of many aspects of Clinton’s career, we shouldn’t ignore context and dismiss the fact she has been battling the extreme right for over 25 years, including the Gingrich-led government shutdowns and the drive to impeach Bill Clinton. She has been the object of their hatred, venom, and misogyny for a quarter-century.
Clinton is also motivated by democratic sensibilities and supports collective bargaining rights, reproductive rights, and restoring and expanding voting rights. She has pledged to continue the Obama climate policies. I would suggest we need a more nuanced view of Clinton, who is susceptible to pressure from below.
The Communist Party USA does not endorse candidates. It goes without saying, though, that the Sanders program addresses the needs of the country and is closest to our own. My guess is most of our members support the Sanders campaign.
Presently, the forces necessary for victory over the GOP are fractured in their support between Clinton and Sanders. We consistently advocate unity around the issues and always keep in mind the bigger goal – the defeat of the right.
Independent of what side one takes, a lot is at stake in the outcome of the 2016 elections for the American people. The results will determine the post-election terrain upon which future battles will be fought out. What is needed is a sober appraisal of objective realities, the political dynamics, and the balance of class and social forces. Taken together, these constitute a particular stage of struggle.
In developing strategy and tactics, Marxists should seek to identify the most critical challenges the working class and people face in any given stage of struggle that, if overcome, can advance the entire movement. Lenin called it grasping the key link in the chain. Today’s most critical challenge is the danger posed by the extreme right to democratic rights and institutions, to social programs tens of millions depend on, and to life on this planet of ours. I believe we make a fundamental error in strategy and tactics if we discount, dismiss, or underestimate this threat.
2016 offers an opportunity to deal a decisive setback to the extreme right grouped in the Republican Party and those allied with it, blocking their ascension to the White House, ousting their elected majorities in Congress and statehouses, blocking right-wing appointments to the Supreme Court and judiciary, and defeating their ideas in the court of public opinion.
Because the anti-extreme-right coalition sees the Democratic Party as the only viable electoral vehicle presently, the only realistic way to defeat GOP candidates is through electing their Democratic Party opponents. Short of such a defeat, it is impossible to see winning substantial victories in the economic and political arena, let alone radical democratic reforms or socialism.
In fact, were Donald Trump to win, it would likely mean the ascendancy of a right-wing authoritarian government whose aim will be to dismantle accustomed democratic norms. In one way or another, Trump, Cruz, and Kasich all express support for a national right-to-work law, unbridled racism, misogyny, hatred of transgender people and immigrants, elimination of any curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, further rollback of reproductive rights, and militarization abroad and at home.
Rise and domination of right wing extremism
The most recent rise of the extreme right began in the 1970s when sections of the U.S. ruling class – grouped around oil, military, and banking interests – launched an all-out effort to undo the gains of the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and Great Society programs and to reassert U.S. economic and military domination globally.
This new era coincided with the end of the postwar economic boom and the beginning of growing extreme wealth inequality. These forces captured the Republican Party and engineered the nomination of Ronald Reagan, employing racism and the elaboration of the “Southern Strategy.”
In the recent period, the GOP, in tandem with the Koch brothers and other plutocrats, has waged total obstruction against President Obama in an effort to block his agenda including raising the minimum wage, gun control, infrastructure repair, student loan relief, hiring more teachers and first responders, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, extending protections of undocumented youth and their families through DACA and DAPA, closing the Guantanamo Prison, and now blocking his ability to appoint a Supreme Court nominee.
The GOP’s 2014 victory heightened the danger, extending right-wing domination of Congress and probably guaranteeing a House majority until at least 2022. They now control 11 more statehouses and 31 governorships, 67 of 98 state legislative chambers, and have total control of both branches of government in 24 states. Republicans have gone all-out to lock in their power through redistricting and the passage of voter suppression laws. It is now estimated that 3 to 5 million people were prevented from voting in 2014.
Want to know what a right-wing authoritarian government looks like? Check out Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, and elsewhere, and see the kind of legislation being passed: right-to-work laws, voter suppression, anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive rights, anti-immigrant, etc.
In most cases, GOP governors and state legislators have taken directly from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) playbook and its cookie-cutter legislation backed by the Koch brothers and their ilk.
The fight against extremism
The CPUSA was one of the first organizations to raise the alarm over the rise of the extreme right as far back as 1980. We called for an “all-people’s front” to combat it, a modern day version of the united front policy first articulated by the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov. This battle has been waged over 35 years through election cycles, in the legislative arena, and in the battle to sway public opinion.
Since 1980 though, several new factors have emerged, raising the level of danger and the urgency of defeating the right. First, there is the re-emergence of oligarchy and extreme concentration of wealth, and their impact on politics resulting from the Citizens United decision. The New York Times reported in October that 158 families provided half the early money to presidential candidates. Of that, 138 supported GOP candidates. The radically magnified influence of a relative handful of billionaires greatly increases the threat to existing democratic institutions, imperfect as they are. Secondly, there is the emergence of the planetary ecological crisis and its existential threat to humanity and nature. The fossil fuel industry is a main bulwark of the extreme right.
We see the role of our Party being to help foster maximum unity of the diverse forces in the democratic coalition, build its breadth by helping bring in new activists and movements, deepen its consciousness by promoting the most advanced positions and candidates, and arguing for the strategic aim to defeat the extreme right. We connect all of this to the longer-term strategy for more fundamental change.