Wherein an Iowan writes about leftist politics, philosophy, and maybe baseball.
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“Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.” Ah, Field of Dreams. Is there anything more Iowan – and American – than the movie Field of Dreams and the novel Shoeless Joe? Probably not, but possibly a major league baseball game on the Field of Dreams field! The Yankees were supposed to play the White Sox today … Continue reading "Field of Dreams: MLB in Iowa" The post Field of Dreams: MLB in Iowa appeared first on Base and...
“Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.” Ah, Field of Dreams.
Probably not, but possibly a major league baseball game on the Field of Dreams field! The Yankees were supposed to play the White Sox today at the Field of Dreams site in Dyersville, Iowa. But due to COVID-19 and its impact on the game, the Cardinals replaced the Yankees.
But the game will go on. At least it would have. Until MLB finally cancelled it. Due to…logistical problems, apparently.
The events in Shoeless Joe, in fact, take place in and around Iowa City. The book’s about a guy who moved to Iowa. He loved it so much he was willing to do various lousy jobs to stay. I can sympathize. Iowa City is a great place to live. I think lots of us would sacrifice in order to stay.
The movie appropriately moves the action deeper into rural Iowa, and it cleans up the story. Specifically, it replaces the J.D. Salinger character with James Earl Jones. Overall, good idea. The Salinger character from the novel was a stretch.
The closer we move toward the 2020 presidential election, the more heated discussions become over whether to vote for Biden. On one side, there’s ‘vote blue no matter who.’ And on the other side, there’s…something. It’s not entirely clear, which composes part of the problem. As Joe Biden moves closer to accepting the nomination at … Continue reading "Medicare for All is the Price to Vote for Biden" The post Medicare for All is the Price to Vote for...
The closer we move toward the 2020 presidential election, the more heated discussions become over whether to vote for Biden. On one side, there’s ‘vote blue no matter who.’ And on the other side, there’s…something. It’s not entirely clear, which composes part of the problem. As Joe Biden moves closer to accepting the nomination at the Democratic convention, the debate moves toward its height. Or toward its nadir, depending on one’s take on it.
And so, should we – as leftists – vote for Biden? How does one hold Biden accountable in an era where not being Trump is good enough for many Democrats? And if we do vote for Biden, what price should we expect in return? My three answers to these questions: No, One can’t, and Medicare for All, respectively.
That’s fine, and I’ve written about those things before. I linked the posts in the previous paragraph. My own take, in brief, is that Biden is probably a slightly lesser evil than Trump but that Biden will probably leave the world worse off in 2025 than he will find it in 2021. Readers interested in those issues can click those links, but this post is about something else. The next step, as it were.
As a result, I’m setting those issues aside here.
Leftists and Democrats play for different teams, but one side doesn’t know it. And that’s our side – the left. When they need our votes, Democrats trot out the ‘we’ language to include us, but it ain’t so. The sine qua non of leftism is anti-capitalism, and Democrats aren’t anti-capitalist. They support capitalism not only against the specter of socialism, but also against the specter of social democracy.
Due to this confusion, leftists get disappointed when Democrats cross them: rejecting Bernie Sanders, rejecting Medicare for All, sticking with racist immigration policies, embracing a hawkish foreign policy, only embracing labor interests when they coincide with those of capital, et al.
Leftists think Democrats don’t really want to do these things, it’s just that they’re weak-willed cowards. Maybe they are cowards, but they also believe in these very non-leftist policies. And this is true of the Democratic Party – from Joe Manchin on the right to Elizabeth Warren on the ‘left.’
None of this means we can’t work with Democrats. We can work with them on lots of things. But we have to get that the Democratic Party isn’t a leftist party and isn’t going to be a leftist party. We can work with non-leftists. But we can’t work with non-leftists we falsely believe are leftists.
This brings us to Biden. Biden was one of the most conservative candidates running for the Democratic nomination. And one of the worst candidates. But if Biden has one redeeming quality, it’s this: most leftists know he’s not a leftist. Oh, a few think they can convert him. Sadly enough. Most leftists, though, haven’t been fooled.
As leftists, we lack any established procedures for making a collective decision about this situation. Sometimes we hear from leftist stars or Twitter pundits on the topic. But we have little in the way of careful, democratic deliberation. In such an environment, we have to come to decisions on our own. Armed with the knowledge that Biden isn’t on our team, we can do a better job.
My proposal: we vote for Biden if – and only if – he campaigns hard on Medicare for All. And I’m talking here about the Pramila Jayapal-Bernie Sanders legislation with all its features: no deductibles, no copays, dental and vision included, no profit motive in the insurance industry, et al. Biden can’t get away with advocating to expand the current Medicare program to everyone. That’s not Medicare for All.
I don’t choose Medicare for All arbitrarily. It’s the centerpiece of a social democratic legislative program. And preference for a social democratic platform in the short-term forms a key point of differences between leftists and liberals. Biden campaigning on Medicare for All would be a huge concession to the left.
Lots of leftist Biden defenders justify their bad decision on the grounds the left must vote strategically. We can’t think of electoral politics as a consumer choice. Rather, we have to map out our strategy and make the best move. I agree. We should. But the best strategic move ain’t writing a blank check to Biden and the Democrats.
If Biden can give us support for Medicare for All, I’ll give him a vote. If he can’t, I won’t. I’d recommend other leftists demand the same. Why? Because if we don’t have standards for candidates, we’ll never have good candidates.
Medicare for All is the price for Joe Biden. If Biden won’t pay it, then he can pound sand.
After Bernie Sanders lost to Joe Biden, think pieces rolled off the assembly line. Whence did the Bernie Bros come, and where shall they go hence? Is there a movement bigger than Bernie? In fact, that’s not quite true. The think pieces didn’t roll off the assembly line. COVID-19 washed most of them from the … Continue reading "Bigger Than Bernie: The US Left After Sanders" The post Bigger Than Bernie: The US Left After Sanders appeared first on Base and...
After Bernie Sanders lost to Joe Biden, think pieces rolled off the assembly line. Whence did the Bernie Bros come, and where shall they go hence? Is there a movement bigger than Bernie?
In fact, that’s not quite true. The think pieces didn’t roll off the assembly line. COVID-19 washed most of them from the headlines along with everything else. And so, the U.S. press largely spared us from endless speculation on the future of the Bernie Sanders movement. But COVID also held us back. Leftists should think about this a bit. Where does the Bernie movement go from here? Even this question might assume too much. Is there still a Bernie movement? Or did it die in the couple of weeks after Super Tuesday?
Most electoral campaigns fall apart quickly. I’ve written about some of them: Cathy Glasson in Iowa and Elizabeth Warren nationally. That’s how most campaigns end. Remember the ‘Pete Buttigieg Movement’? Of course you don’t. Neither do I.
Is ‘Sandersism’ any different?
Not everyone ignored Bernie Sanders after March 2020. Jacobin had no intention to do so. And so, noted Jacobin authors and Bernie Bros Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht wrote a book on the topic. They called it Bigger Than Bernie, and they published it in the summer of 2020.
Let’s take a look.
Before we begin, here’s something I really like about Bigger Than Bernie. Day and Uetricht apparently sent it to the publisher before they knew the final results of the 2020 primaries. That says something for their approach. It’s a genuine one. They believe there’s a Bernie movement beyond a Bernie campaign.
Over the last few years, something like a ‘Jacobin line’ coalesced on how to build movements. Here’s how it goes: The U.S. left needs a mass movement to win. Political circumstances leave it with only one good way to build that movement – by supporting electoral campaigns like those of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 and using them as recruitment tools. Why? Bernie attracts new and young voters. And he understands that ‘class struggle’ must be a key part of elections.
How does all this work? That’s a bit less clear. But the basic idea seems to be to funnel all those new members and new energy into organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They’ll win fights inside and outside the halls of power. Eventually, they’ll build a working class movement that leads us to socialism.
Like any quick summary, this remains incomplete and schematic. It’s also not clear whether or to what extent the ‘Jacobin line’ is unique to Jacobin or even developed primarily by people at Jacobin. The DSA, for instance, articulated much the same line beginning around 2014 or 2015. But Jacobin defends it pretty hard.
First, they acknowledge some of the problems and tensions. After all, many countries have already tried the social democratic route to socialism they envision. It didn’t work. More troublesome, social democracy tends to tame rather than promote working-class politics. That’s a pretty big problem when social democratic victories are your core mechanism for getting to socialism.
Second, they acknowledge that structuring a movement around elections makes the movement heavily dependent on individual candidates and personalities. What would the DSA do if Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez denounced it? Or lurched to the political right on key issues? Do DSA members love the DSA? Or would they abandon it for Sanders or AOC? I don’t think anyone has a good answer to these questions. Including Day and Uetricht. But at least they put the problem on the table in Bigger Than Bernie.
Day and Uetricht advocate for what they – and others – call ‘class struggle social democracy.’ So far, this is more promissory note than reality. But the basic idea? A socialist political party should build social democratic electoral politics and popular and union agitation at the same time.
For his part, Bernie encouraged some of this during his 2020 campaign. He promoted strike actions across the country. In Iowa, his campaign offered up meeting space for our own local DSA’s Labor group. Sanders was a bit notorious for not allowing local groups to plan his events. But he did effectively partner well with leftist orgs on practical actions.
I find a tension in Bigger Than Bernie between the later chapters and the earlier ones. But I think Day and Uetricht see it, too. On the one hand, they argue for electoral campaigns as the best way to build a leftist mass movement. On the other, they recognize it’s better to have a mass working class movement before running in elections. And so, they endorse elections mostly for pragmatic reasons. We don’t have a movement yet, and we – on Day and Uetricht’s reasoning, as I understand it – don’t have any prospects for building one without elections.
To acknowledge the tension here is to take an important step. But the step may not be sufficient. Indeed, I suspect a prior working class movement might be necessary to build a successful working class electoral coalition. No doubt Day and Uetricht would argue this is too strong a claim. And no doubt I’d respond by citing Fox Piven’s book Poor People’s Movements.
Let’s set this tired debate aside. I find it more interesting that all this explains what went wrong with the Sanders campaign in March 2020. He looked like a winner after Nevada. Then the entire Democratic Party establishment punched him at the same time. He fell. His opponents confused the voters on Medicare for All, and they ran a very effective ‘Biden is electable‘ campaign.
With a working class movement already in place, none of that would work.
I’d like to part with a question: why social democracy?
In Bigger Than Bernie, Day and Uetricht explore the tension between social democracy and a broader rank-and-file, action-driven working class movement. The former wins power from the inside and the latter from the outside.
But if the latter succeeds, why fully commit to social democracy? We may need to win social democracy in a couple of key areas, like health insurance and housing. But as a full program, social democracy is what Erik Olin Wright called a ‘positive class compromise.’ It ends class politics, not begins them. It’s largely incompatible with rank-and-file class agitation.
In some sense, we all agree on a short-term social democratic program. Especially in health insurance. And, yes, it will probably help some people learn more about socialism and join movements. But surely we must discard social democracy in favor of full public ownership very quickly, lest we end up like German or Swedish social democrats.
Day and Uetricht fault social democracy for its instability. That’s correct after the 1970s. Before then, the problem with social democracy was quite the opposite. It was too stable. Once nations achieve social democracy, they quit working toward socialism. And then the capitalists fight back. Social democracy becomes unstable…in the wrong direction.
The Jacobin Left often points to the Meidner Plan in Sweden as a counter-example. The Plan itself is rather old, but it didn’t gain traction until well into the 1970s. Swedish social democrats adopted the Plan in response to encroaching neoliberalism. They were fighting back against looming threats to social democracy. Neoliberalism, then, jolted them from their slumber. The Plan got little traction under full social democracy.
For people advocating ‘class struggle social democracy,’ the key remains to figure out how American social democracy will be any different.
I appreciated the biography of Bernie Sanders in the first chapter of Bigger Than Bernie. I caucused for Bernie twice in Iowa. But I never learned much about him as a person. I think personality and personal history aren’t all that important to politics. And I suspect Bernie agrees with me on this.
But the biography is good. I didn’t get involved in socialism because of Bernie. In fact, I rolled my eyes when I first heard in 2015 that this confused social democrat from Vermont was going to run for president. I had criticized him for his softness on war as early as 2001. But, in the end, I think I’d learn a lot from Bernie if we sat down and had a chat.
That’s our photo together at the top of this post. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for anything but a quick ‘hello.’
I’ve returned a few times in this blog to the dismal track record of leftist candidates. Especially ones running for local or regional offices. We all know about the successes of Alexandria Ocasio-Corez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib in strongly Democratic Congressional districts. And the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders campaigns offered some reason for … Continue reading "4 Mistakes Leftist Candidates Make" The post 4 Mistakes Leftist Candidates Make appeared first on Base and...
I’ve returned a few times in this blog to the dismal track record of leftist candidates. Especially ones running for local or regional offices. We all know about the successes of Alexandria Ocasio-Corez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib in strongly Democratic Congressional districts. And the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders campaigns offered some reason for optimism. But the overall track record of leftist candidates is terrible. It’s especially so at the local level.
Let’s talk about why. I think – at a minimum – leftist candidates repeat a small litany of mistakes.
Here’s a list of 4 of these mistakes.
This seems rather intuitive. But I’ve seen candidates running races for city council, county supervisor, mayor, or state legislator on platforms that include a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, et al. Even when the candidates don’t explicitly name these things on the platform, they’ll mention them in speeches or derive their ‘local’ ideas directly from them.
These are great issues for leftist candidates running for President of the United States. They’re solid issues for the U.S. Senate, and they’re a good part of a House candidate’s platform. But, come on. Local politicians can’t achieve these things, and the voters know this. They’re not dumb.
The electoral left should think about how to make change at the local level. These discussions will involve connecting local issues to national issues. But local issues must be the driver in local races if the left wants to win. What do local voters care about most? What hits them the hardest? It’s not the Green New Deal. Leftists candidates tend to be remarkably bad at studying and using power, which requires more thoughtful deliberation that moves beyond just name-checking national ideas. The electoral left in the U.S. needs a serious discussion about what a good version of ‘sewer socialism‘ would look like.
Leftist candidates understand they have to build broader coalitions to win. And so, the problem isn’t that the electoral left fails to understand the need to build a base. It does. It’s just that the electoral left is really bad at doing it.
Many leftist candidates wrap their campaigns around the ‘progressive’ label and try to use it to build a broad coalition of left-leaning voters. See, for example, the ‘bold progressive’ Cathy Glasson in Iowa. This rarely works. Even when it does work, it works only in heavily left-leaning areas. Neither Glasson nor Kimberly Graham – a more recent user of this strategy – came within a mile of winning their Democratic primaries. If the left keeps doing this, it’ll keep getting the same result.
Why? I’ll focus on two key reasons.
First, the term ‘progressive’ carries little ideological meaning in U.S. politics. It’s squishy enough to be claimed by anyone to the left of Joe Manchin. I have some thoughts about what it means, but those thoughts certainly aren’t in the heads of most people who hear the word. The upshot? The word leads to ideological confusion, where the press and public conflates different views and candidates.
Second, despite not meaning much on ideology, ‘progressive’ serves strong signaling functions. That is to say, it sends the signal to about half the Democratic base that the candidate is too ‘radical.’ Why? Because about half of Democrats identify as ‘conservative,’ ‘moderate,’ or ‘slightly liberal.’
By building campaigns around the generic ‘progressive’ label, leftist candidates thereby combine confusion with limited potential for growth. That’s no way to win. Bernie Sanders nearly overcame this issue in his 2020 campaign. But he did so despite his use of ‘progressive,’ not because of it.
Looking at the Democratic base, we don’t find a promising situation for leftist candidates. The base is far more conservative or moderate – and wealthy – than the electoral left prefers. And even this understates the situation. Many Democrats say they want Medicare for All, et al., but many don’t feel it. As largely a group of upper middle income people, Democrats often lack the dire material need for social democratic legislation.
One way for the electoral left – and leftist candidates – to handle this is to look for different voters. Plenty of people don’t vote, and those people tend to be disproportionately low income and/or non-white. Bernie Sanders certainly worked on this issue in 2020, and he had some successes. He did especially well with young people and Latinx voters. But he didn’t do nearly enough. This is essential to an electoral left strategy. And until it puts in place the tools to do this, the electoral left should probably pause running candidates in many cases.
Wait, what? Isn’t this the opposite of the third point? Leftist candidates need to do both. They need to bring new voters to the polls while winning as many current voters as they can. They’re not doing either right now.
With current voters, it’s often more about outreach and personal conversations. Less about labels. Sometimes it’s just about showing up to community events and sharing a drink.
I’ve spent the last few months walking Iowa City. Just about all of it. There are lots of areas of town I’ve never even thought about, and I think that’s true for leftist candidates in lots of places. People cluster together with economically and ideologically similar people. And this happens not as a conscious process, but rather as a normal part of living.
They should hold events in parts of town they’ve never visited. They should hold events in parts of town where they don’t think they have any voters. Without doing that, they never will.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) takes more criticism than almost any group on the U.S. left. People likewise criticize those who join the DSA. They criticize the DSA for good and bad reasons. It’s had several prominent sexual harassment and assault scandals, including coverups from Los Angeles to Lawrence. Progress against harassment remains uneven, … Continue reading "Why You Should Join the DSA" The post Why You Should Join the DSA appeared first on Base and...
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) takes more criticism than almost any group on the U.S. left. People likewise criticize those who join the DSA.
They criticize the DSA for good and bad reasons. It’s had several prominent sexual harassment and assault scandals, including coverups from Los Angeles to Lawrence. Progress against harassment remains uneven, but the DSA did pass a new policy and grievance process. Misogyny remains an issue. Others criticize the DSA for its lack of diversity. My impression is that the DSA doesn’t have enough black members and members without a college degree. But it fares much better among Asian, Latinx, LGBTQ, and non-binary people. I also suspect the DSA has very few middle income people – for better or for worse. It seems to draw its members from extremes – low income, precariat workers and wealthier people.
I’m afraid criticism of the DSA quickly goes downhill from there. Plenty of Twitter-based leftists hate the group. They’re likely worried they might have to organize rather than grandstand if they join the DSA. It simply doesn’t fit their vision of ‘politics by voguing.’ Others find the DSA at odds with their brand of leftist politics. And the DSA is also enmeshed within a broader dispute over the role of identity politics and identitarianism. These remain difficult issues, and sometimes DSA people shove their foot in their mouth on it.
But back to the main topic: why you should join the DSA. Most of you should. Not all of you. Some of you can’t get past its problems. And that’s fine. But for most of you, the benefits greatly outweigh the problems.
I won’t spend too much time giving a history lesson. The DSA emerged from the wreckage of the Socialist Party of America in the early 1980s. It did so together with the New American Movement. Ideologically, it stood somewhere near the center of the old SPA. Members at the left of the SPA joined various anarchist or communist groups. And the SPA’s right wing moved to the Social Democrats, USA or even to the Democratic or Republican Party. The DSA combined the New Left of the 1960s with the attempts of Michael Harrington and others to push the Democratic Party to the left.
In truth, the DSA floundered for many years. It didn’t push the Democrats much of anywhere. Nor did it build more than a few thousand members in its first 2+ decades. It appeared to have little in the way of infrastructure or sustained campaigns. Ideologically, it often stood out as one of the worst socialist groups in the U.S. The DSA repeatedly did things like endorse John Kerry.
In good news, the DSA has improved on all these fronts since 2015. Often exponentially so. And it did so as it grew its member base. That’s impressive. It now offers a diverse array of internal caucuses, some of them as ideologically solid as other leftist groups.
People commonly criticize the DSA for its lack of diversity. Does the DSA lack diversity?
In some respects, yes, and in other respects, no. ‘Diversity’ is contested space. In fact, we have many diversities. We can talk about diversity in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, ideology, age, disability, and many other axes. I think the DSA has a lot of diversity on some of these and very little on others. In this, it resembles the Bernie Sanders coalition.
As many point out, the org has a lot of cisgender men. I also think the org has a lot of non-binary and trans people. If we’re talking about gender, I think cisgender men, non-binary people, and trans people make up a large part of the org compared to their numbers in the general population. In the case of non-binary and trans people, that’s a good thing. And in the case of cisgender men, it’s a bad thing. So, who’s missing from the DSA? Cisgender women. Especially non-white cisgender women.
I think the lack of cisgender women enters into a feedback loop with misogyny. Including more women – cisgender and transgender alike – will help stamp out harassment. Furthermore, the new policies and grievance processes show the DSA takes these issues more seriously than many other political groups. Including, of course, the Democratic Party. But also including more than a few ‘rival’ leftist groups.
The DSA already plays a few roles in U.S. politics. Mostly, I’d argue, it plays the role of primary advocate for social democracy on the political stage. But there are more roles it could play with more members.
One great advantage the DSA holds over, for example, the Green Party is that the DSA is not a political party. And so, it’s difficult for the DSA to run candidates for office. Far from a negative, this is a great benefit. It forces the DSA to work on practical, base-building campaigns aimed at building working class power. It doesn’t waste as much time on electoral campaigns.
What can the DSA do? First, it can create power in ways that go beyond groups like the Justice Democrats or Iowa CCI. How? By educating and organizing. These other groups use the language of ‘organizing.’ But they function primarily as electoral mobilization groups. To use Jane McAlevey’s distinction.
The DSA also offers advantages over groups like Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights Campaign, et al. Advocacy groups like these are even further disconnected from organizing work. These groups do perfectly fine work. But they can’t function as a central node of leftist organizing. That’s just not what they do. The DSA can do it.
Second, the DSA can effectively organize on a wide range of issues. It can go from housing to labor to political education. It can do so on the strength of its mass membership model and potential to build even more members. People who join the DSA will only add to this strength.
DSA locals can start unions, encourage their members to organize at the job site, and offer resources and support. They can organize tenants, start tenants unions, push housing policy, et al. The DSA also has the resources and numbers to put together educational programs for members and the public.
Third – and deeply related to the first two – it can function as a party surrogate. This has long been a goal of much of the socialist left. The DSA is not a political party, and so there’s little worry about it directly functioning as an electoral group. But it has the resources to function like a political party in some ways. It can educate its members, support their campaigns, and provide a central node for socialist politics.
I’d invite most leftists to join the DSA. Yes, it has ideological problems and other problems. It leans too heavily on national electoral campaigns to build members. Some of its chapters suck. In some ways, it’s still not one of better U.S. leftist groups in terms of ideology.
But the DSA has many things other U.S. leftist groups lack. We can start with a base of 70,000 members – many of them eager to do something. I know people who refuse to join the DSA on ideological grounds. And while I respect many of those people – sometimes more than any other leftists I know – most of them aren’t getting anything done outside of the DSA.
The U.S. desperately needs the things the DSA can do. It needs a mass member based socialist group. And no other group comes close to filling that role.
Give the DSA a shot.
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