July 14th, 2020 | 57 mins 51 secs
abolition, berniesanders, black reconstruction, bobby seale, bpp, conjure feminism, deep roots, democratic, eric foner, huey newton, memphis, sean mcelwee, socialist, spinoza, stacey abrams, the black panther party, zoltan hajnal
A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac has finally arrived in our own times. To begin our discussion of where we are and what our tasks are, let me first of all lift up Stacey Abrams. In 2018 Stacey Abrams ran for Governor of Georgia, and when she showed up to vote for herself she was at first denied because the records wrongly showed that she had already voted in absentia. She very narrowly lost that election, but she did use her newly enlarged platform to begin a crusade against voter disenfranchisement. I want to second her prescription: what the present moment calls for is greater democracy, greater voter participation. “We have to expand our vision of who belongs in the big tent of progress, invest in their inclusion, and talk to them about what’s at stake. This formula is no guarantee of triumph - but I can promise that without it, we don’t stand a chance of conquering the future.” (Abrams, p. 220). There is a dogma on the far left that the elections are all rigged, and that we need revolution. When we discussed Lenin, we saw that he organized for revolution in part by engaging in electoral politics. In this episode I’m going to engage with Abrams’ project, evaluate the gains Black Americans have made since the Voting Rights Act, and arrive at an electoral strategy for leftists who want more than just bourgeois reforms. We will begin our discussion with a reprise of our earlier discussion of the Black Panther Party. Let’s dive in…
We ended our discussion about the Black Panthers with a meditation on the mass support they had and it’s evaporation due to four factors identified by Bloom and Martin in their 2013 masterpiece “Black Against Empire.”
The Panthers were victims of their own success. Nixon made key capitulations in order to preserve the larger system of white Power. There were four things that led to the BPP’s decline in the early seventies.
Increased membership along with the killing, jailing and exile of its most experienced cadres led to more and more occasions where inexperienced leaders made mistakes. Using the law and guns to protect a community from a tyrannical state is a difficult thing to do even for highly trained people such as Newton and Seale. The rapid growth of the BPP meant that it was difficult to train all the newcomers in best practices or for them to be fully integrated under a coordinated central command. Telling the story of the BPP is a fraught endeavor, and I apologize because the Party meant so many different things to different people in different places. Furthermore, the FBI was able to exploit the relative inexperience of new cadres along with agents provocateurs to instigate conflicts with other Black power groups like US in California. These FBI instigated feuds were often quite bloody and violent. Many Panthers fled the country, among them Memphis’ own Lorenzo Kombao Erwin who spent time in US jail but also in Cuban jail for protesting the government there.
Nixon ended the Vietnam War, and with that the Panthers lost the support of the white antiwar movement. It happened so quickly that Panther leader David Hilliard when he gave a speech saying “We say down with the American fascist society!...We will kill Richard Nixon,” was booed offstage in November 1969, because he hadn’t realized the audience was no longer receptive to the idea of overthrowing the US government.
Nixon opened trade with China, and part of that deal was that Mao would stop supporting the Black Panthers. This was typical of Mao, who as discussed in a previous episode abandoned revolutionary groups in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and so on when those groups had served his geopolitical interests.
Nixon brought massive numbers of Black people into the public sector, so there was much less generalized poverty in the Black community. The Black middle class that was strengthened in this way was much less interested in violently confronting the US government. I think that clearly the school breakfast programs that started at this time in public schools were part of this effort to undercut the BPP.
I want to read the last two paragraphs of this book in their entirety because they are so brilliant. The political clarity on display here is striking. The authors reflect on the current political moment. They focus on the inability of any of today’s so-called revolutionaries to appeal to society as a whole, which tells you that the phenonomenon was a mass democratic movement. The book was published in 2013; I leave it to you to decide how applicable this is 7 years later:
“While minimovements with revolutionary ideologies abound, there is no politically significant revolutionary movement in the United States today because no cadre of revolutionaries has developed ideas and practices that credibly advance the interests of a large segment of the people. Members of revolutionary sects can hawk their newspapers and proselytize on college campuses until they are blue in the face, but they remain politically irrelevant. Islamist insurgencies, with deep political roots abroad, are politically significant, but they lack potential constituencies in the United States. And ironically, at least in the terrorist variant, they tend to reinforce rather than challenge state power domestically because their practices threaten -- rather than build common cause with -- alienated constituencies within the United States.
No revolutionary movement of political significance will gain a foothold in the United States again until a group of revolutionaries develops insurgent practices that seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies, creating a broad insurgent alliance that is difficult to repress or appease. This has not happened in the United States since the heyday of the Black Panther Party and may not happen again for a very long time.” (Bloom, 401).
The Black Panther Party saw its power expand in the context of lingering segregation, deep racial inequality, and the unpopular war in Vietnam. At the same time, in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the halls of American governance were flooded with Black politicians riding a wave of newly enfranchised Black voters. This effect was magnified as the Democratic Party responded to the disaster of the 1968 Democratic Party convention by reforming the nomination process to be more democratic via the McGovern Fraser Commission. Here is how Bloom and Martin describe this Black entrance into US electoral politics: “Black representation among party delegates more than doubled by 1972, to about 15 percent. Black electoral representation generally ballooned in the early 1970s. Whereas in March of 1969, 1,125 black people held political offices across the United States, by May 1975, the number had more than tripled to 3,499. This figure included 281 black officeholders in state legislative or executive offices, 135 mayors, 305 county executives, 387 judges and elected law enforcement officers, 939 elected board of education members, and 1,438 people holding other elected positions in municipal government.” (p. 348).
Cedric Johnson is associate professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In 2007 he gave us “Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics.” In this book he discusses how Black Power revolutionaries adapted to the new environment where Black people were being brought into the traditional power institutions. You should get a copy and read it. Though there was broad consensus around the need for a politics expressive of a common racial solidarity, very real political differences among Black people made the formation of a united front elusive.
In the first two years of the 70s there was a general aspiration to forming a Black united front. This agenda was developed and promoted at the Atlanta Congress of African Peoples in 1970 and a smaller meeting of Black notables in Chicago in September 1971. These meetings were just preparation for the 1972 National Black Political Convention. The historical context for these events is important.
Black people had entered the halls of government in a great burst of new democratic access at the same time that the Black Panther Party had successfully mobilized the Black community in the street. Cointel pro had visited white terror on the leadership of the Black radical movement. In 1971 the Cointelpro program was officially disbanded, and the Congressional Black Caucus held hearings that exposed “government lawlessness.” (Johnson, p. 99). The segregationist Dixiecrat Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was running in the Democratic Primary for President. Nixon was tearing down Johnson’s War on Poverty. The stakes were high in 1972, and white liberal and left political groups, placated with Nixon’s reduction of forces in Vietnam, were abandoning the Black Panther Party. All of this contributed to a felt need for Black political radicals to find a relationship with the newly elected Black establishment.
Radicals in the movement were wary of united action with moderate politicians, whom they more and more accused of selling out. Elected Black politicians were interested in slow reform that wouldn’t hurt their chances at reelection. Cedric Johnson identifies three paths that had prominent support in the movement. (Johnson, pp. 90-92).
First off was the “favorite son” path. Julian Bond was a civil rights activist and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had led voter registration drives in the South throughout the 60s. Later, he served as a representative in the Georgia state legislature. In 1970 he began shopping around an idea called the “favorite son” tactic. The idea was that Black people in each state would run their own candidate in the Democratic Presidential Primary, and that in doing this they would build up a pool of delegates to help them gain leverage in who the Democrats chose as a presidential nomination.
Second was the possibility of having one Black presidential candidate that all groups would rally behind. This was the idea that Percy Sutton endorsed. Percy Sutton was a freedom rider who later served as a lawyer for Malcolm X. They could point to the relative success of Dick Gregory’s Presidential run in 1968. Dick Gregory, who is a hilarious stand up comic, got 500,000 votes in 1968, which was greater than the margin of the popular vote that Nixon beat Humphrey by. Sutton and others wanted to repeat that experience on a grander scale. It somewhat tarnishes the moment that the candidacy of Shirley Chisolm, the first Black Woman who ever ran for President in a major party primary, was pushed to the side by this still very male dominated movement.
Third of all, the hard Black Nationalist proposal was to form an independent Black Political Party. This idea was championed by radical activists who had their political education inside the Black Panther Party and other Black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam and US. The literary genius Amiri Baraka led this effort. Julian Bond wasn’t the only Black establishment figure arguing against this idea, but Cedric Johnson makes it seem like he was leading the charge. Bond, correctly as it turned out, perceived that despite the fact of Black people sharing the experience of racial oppression, they also hold a diversity of political opinions. What came out of the Gary congress was not a united political party, or even an institutional coalition. The various parties recognized they had too many differences for that, but they did produce a document, the National Black Political Agenda. The “Gary Declaration” is the introduction to the Black Agenda, and you should all read it. It is a testament to the political aspirations of newly enfranchised people who are finding power, and as important a document to our understanding of the American project as is the Declaration of Independence. Here’s a small excerpt, quoted by Johnson:
“The Crises we face as Black people are the crises of the entire society. They go deep to the very bones and marrow, to the essential nature of America’s economic, political and cultural systems. They are the natural end product of a society built on the twin foundations of white racism and white capitalism… Our cities are crime haunted dying grounds. Huge sectors of our youth - and countless others - face permanent unemployment. Those of us who work find our paychecks able to purchase less and less. Neither the courts nor the prisons contribute to anything resembling justice or reformation. The schools are unable - or unwilling - to educate our children for the real world of our struggles. Meanwhile, the officially approved epidemic of drugs threatens to wipe out the minds and strength of our best young warriors. Economic, cultural and spiritual depression stalk Black America and the price of survival often appears to be more than we are able to pay.” (p. 107; https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/gary-declaration-national-black-political-convention-1972/)
Essentially, the split in the Black movement came from a tension between radicals and establishment types. Elected officials had to think about what their constituencies, the people who had elected them and the people they represented, wanted them to do and say. Radicals don’t have constituencies, and so they are not responsible to anyone, but then their actions and statements are of less consequence. Here is how Cedric Johnson describes the results of the national convention of 1972:
“In the months following the convention, the majority of black politicos distanced themselves from the progressive agenda created at the meeting. The 1972 Gary Convention was a shotgun wedding of the radical aspirations of Black Power and conventional modes of politics. This marriage would not last nor would it produce the kinds of offspring that black radicals desired. Although it possessed the aura and rhetoric of movement politics, in essence the Gary Convention was an attempt to form an elite, race brokerage apparatus. To operate effectively, the convention and its subsequent Assembly structure required the discipline and legitimacy of establishment parliamentary bodies. Without the effective means to ensure the support of black politicians - particularly mainstream party regulars - the convention’s agenda could not be an effective bargaining tool with the major parties as the organizers envisioned. Although the strength of radical forces threatened both the legitimacy and the preeminence of old guard civil rights forces and the emergent black political elite, these same radical forces helped to bolster the position of black political moderates within mainstream institutions. Inasmuch as black politicos were in a more advantageous position to negotiate directly with the Democratic Party and major public institutions, they readily established themselves as the chief race brokers in the post-segregation context.” (p. 129). All of this reads as a terrible disaster some 50 years later, now that it is clear that the election of Black people into public office has clearly not helped the wellbeing of Black people very much. We should comment some on how much political representation has helped Black people because the picture is complex. But let’s assert the truth that Black entrance into political life after the voting rights act did not lead to the eradication of racial inequality.
That’s not just some personal observation, though I expect it is intuitive to my listeners. Zoltan Hajnal is the Associate Dean at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego, and he draws on a large body of work that demonstrates racial inequality in America didn’t change much after the large influx of Black politicians into the halls of government after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 2007 saw the publishing of his well researched “Changing White Attitudes toward Black Political Leadership.” Quote: “Despite large gains in the number of black elected officials across the country, there has been only moderate change in basic indicators of African American well-being and, even more importantly, almost no change in various measures of racial inequality. Though black officials have controlled the mayoralty in seven of the ten largest cities in the country and have achieved nearly proportionate representation in the House of Representatives, figures comparing black to white poverty, unemployment, and educational attainment remain largely unchanged.” (Hajnal, p.2). On the other hand, Professor Hajnall’s work does show that having Black people in positions of power has changed the attitudes of White people in a less racist direction, increased White trust in Black leadership somewhat. In 2017 Hajnal struck again, and I highly recommend owning a copy of his “Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics.” You should own a copy, because this book is full of important information and insightful, often counter-intuitive interpretations of the data. Hajnal investigated the relationship between voters’ identities along various axes like race, class, gender and education level, and whether or not voters got what they wanted out of government. He shows that Black people lose the most in our political system, that Black people lose more than do High School dropouts or poor people. The left is fond of saying that corporate interests are what make our society uneven, but as Hajnal points out the wealthy get what they want only about 38% of the time. That’s the same percentage approximately as White people, both groups getting about 6% more of what they want than do Black people. It just so happens that a lot of poor white people also want lower taxes and less public spending. From Hajnal: “The top 10 percent of earners win on policy 37.9 percent of the time, while the top 1 percent win 36.8 percent of the time. This is a better success rate than among the poor [at around 36%], but surprisingly it is not much better… Blacks lose more regularly than Whites regardless of their class status. Among Whites, the income gap is in the expected direction but still small (38.8 percent winners for wealthier Whites vs. 36.9 percent for poorer Whites). Whites win more often at all class levels.” (Hajnal, Dangerously Divided, p. 127). He shows that wealthy Black people get less of what they want out of the political process than poor white people get. He shows that poor white people tend to want the same things that wealthy white people want, which is a good explanation of why we can’t have nice things. And he shows a direct correlation between the increasing losses of the Democratic Party and those of Black people in the course of the last four decades. The more the Democratic Party wins, the more Black people win. The problem is that the influx of Black politicians in the 70s came with such high hopes that the modest gains since then seem unimportant. But those gains were not unimportant. We’ve seen in this podcast over and over again that people who wield power are themselves constrained, that the exercise of power requires trade-offs. Toussaint Louverture accepted that Haiti would be part of France so long as that meant freedom for the former slaves there. The Bolsheviks disastrously had to suppress free speech to protect their political project in 1921. Garcia Oliver urged the Catalan anarchists to surrender their barricades to fight Franco. We have to expect that Black people in power after 1970 were faced with similar problems.
So, I’m moving on now to the situation that Black politicians have faced when they enter the halls of power, because there are lessons there for anyone concerned with how to get and use power, especially for the socialist audience that I assume is listening.
At the local level across this nation the arrival of Black people in positions of power in City Hall was met with a wave of state legislation that disempowered cities. In a collection of essays edited by Kate Aronoff that came out in 2020 entitled Democratic Socialism-American Style: we own the future, Bill Fletcher Jr. observes: “Republicans have deployed their bases in rural areas in order to surround municipalities and introduce legislation that blocks the ability of municipalities and counties to introduce reforms...Republican-controlled state legislatures have blocked the ability of municipalities and counties to introduce living-wage increases and environmental reforms without approval from the state legislature.” (pp. 95,96).
In 2013 Ravi K. Perry blessed us with “Black Mayors White Majorities: the Balancing Act of Racial Politics,” in which he tempers for us the idea that Black mayors didn’t get anything for Black people. Bill Fletcher Jr. discusses how when Harold Washington became the mayor of Chicago a bloc of white city aldermen worked to block his appointments and legislation attempts. Perry helps us nuance this view. Washington didn’t accomplish nothing. He was successful at limited social welfare efforts because he opened city hall to various civic organizations and increased city contracts to minority owned firms from nine to sixty in the span of three years. A similar pattern developed under Maynard Jackson in Atlanta and under Carl Stokes in Cleveland: city contracts to Black owned businesses became a ready vehicle for some limited racial uplift. I think socialists should meditate on that before they begin a blanket denunciation of Black capitalism. Perry goes on to discuss in detail the path of Black mayors in Toledo and Dayton Ohio to demonstrate how Black leaders in White majority cities can rally the public to their agendas by putting forward policies that benefit everyone, not by jettisoning the interests of Black people but by highlighting how programs that benefit Black people benefit everyone, things like increased spending on education. From Perry: “This book explores how two mayors effectively used a new strategy in majority-white contexts. By strategically (and usually rhetorically) linking the needs of African Americans with the interests of whites, these mayors demonstrated that it was no longer political suicide to advocate for black interests” (p. xix).
The situation for Black congressmen and women is similarly limited. In 2011 Christian R. Grose gave us an important book synthesizing several decades worth of research on how successful Black representatives have been at working for racial uplift. That book is “Congress In Black and White: Race and Representation in Washington and at Home.” The research shows unsurprisingly that Black representatives who serve majority Black districts will vote consistently in the interest of Black people (Grose, p. 16). In the mid-nineties the nation saw a wave of gerrymandering, and many of the Black representatives who had majority Black constituencies suddenly had to win races in majority white districts. This is where it became important as Zoltan Hajnal points out that Black politicians in power, even if they aren’t able to enact change because of whatever political constraints they work under, they still change white peoples’ attitudes just by responding to the public will in a fair way. In several places Black representatives kept their seats despite the gerrymandering, but afterwards they changed how they voted. Black representatives from majority white districts are much less likely to vote in ways that exclusively speak to a Black interest. In fact, in terms of voting behavior there are three factors that affect whether someone will vote with Black interests in mind: (1) the race of the representative has a minor effect, (2) the race of that representative’s constituency has a large effect because politicians like to be re-elected, and (3) if someone belongs to the Democratic Party they are much more likely to vote in the interests of Black people. That third item, the effect of the Democratic Party needs a little explanation, because belonging to the Democratic Party comes with its own limitations and empowerments. A socialist movement that wants to enter the halls of power using the Democratic Party as a vehicle should pay close attention to how Black politicians have navigated this terrain.
There are three ways that a Congressional representative can wield power. First off, every member of congress provides what is called constituency services. That includes hiring people in the district for their offices, advocating for people in their district, helping them get information about government programs and grants. Constituency services sound like a yawnfest, but it’s important that the public can call their representatives because democracy isn’t just about the vote last time it’s also about the vote next time and it’s good that representatives are responsive to the will of the public in their day to day decision making. And for the most part they are. For Black congressional representatives, one easy win for Black people is just hiring Black people, just as we saw that it was for Black mayors. Hiring people is one place where a representative has nothing constraining what they do, and it turns out that Black representatives definitely hire more Black people than do White representatives regardless of party affiliation.
Secondly, representatives can vote. Most people will vote along party lines, and the representatives with the most seniority set the priorities for what legislation to put forward. Ranking members of committees are in a position to put forward legislation, and they are also by right of the committees they chair, likely best positioned to help other members of congress get special projects in their districts.
A lot of money gets apportioned to special programs that are targeted to particular districts, and this is the third way a member of congress can wield power. On the other hand, as just pointed out a representative’s ability to bring home the bacon can depend upon their agreeing to vote along party lines and back committee chairpersons’ legislative proposals. It’s a hierarchy, in other words, and voting is the part that a representative has the least control over. Seniority can provide some amount of space to vote according to one’s conscience. Seniority is what you get if you win enough elections. Winning elections is what you get if you respond to the will of your constituencies. That’s how our democracy works, you’re welcome for the civics lesson!
Since this podcast is for a far left audience, we have to discuss how bad the Democratic Party is. The Democratic Party is weak. Anyone who has had any dealing with them knows that the party itself is not particularly strong, but I think one of the best portraits of the party in our times was provided by Donna Brazile in her excellent book about the 2016 election entitled “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-Ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.” Here is her estimation of the Democratic Party in the wake of the Obama presidency: “I had learned a great deal about the dysfunction inside the party in the last ten hours. As I saw it, we had three Democratic parties: the party of Barack Obama, the party of Hillary Clinton, and this weak little vestige of a party led by Debbie [Wasserman Schulz, then Chair of the DNC] that was doing a very poor job getting people who were not president elected. As I saw it, these three titanic egos -Barack, Hillary, and Debbie- had stripped the party to a shell for their own purposes. Barack never had seen himself as connected to the party. He had not come up through it the way Joe Biden and Hillary had, but had sprung up almost on his own and never had any trouble raising money for his campaigns. He used the party to provide for political expenses like gifts to donors, and political travel, but he also cared deeply about his image. Late into his second term, the party was still playing for his pollster and focus groups. This was not working to strengthen the party. He had left it in debt. Hillary bailed it out so that she could control it, and Debbie went along with all of this because she liked the power and perks of being a chair but not the responsibilities. I know these three did not do this with malice. I knew if you woke any of them up in the middle of the night to ask them how they felt about the Democratic Party they would answer with sincerity that they loved this party and all it had done for the country and for them. Yet they had leached it of its vitality and were continuing to do so. In my three months I was going to do what I could to bring that life back.” (Brazile, pp. 41-42). So, it’s not much of a deep state really. The Democratic Party is just a loose coordination of political campaigns. Democratic politicians are literally only as powerful as the number of votes they can get. The votes of the poor matter as much as the votes of the wealthy, but Black votes matter less, so the research tells us. But why is that?
Stacey Abrams has a story about Black votes that I think is as good an explanation as any as to why Black people get so little of what they want from the political process in our nation. Because her story gives us a clear political direction for work as socialists, as people committed to collective uplift, I will leave that to the end of this podcast. Let’s consider now the picture all of this paints, the situation that awaits us in the halls of power, if socialists are going to someday find themselves in the halls of power.
What does all of this mean for those of us who want to transform the world we live in? It means there is no way for us to see radical change come out of our government without convincing the majority of people we are right. Politicians can’t push forward socialist measures, not because of corporate interests, but because their constituencies are resistant to socialist measures. There are no socialists at the top of the hierarchy in the congress because no socialist has won enough elections to get seniority. Because there are no socialists with seniority radical legislation doesn’t get proposed or voted on. The inability of Black representatives to pass things like reparations is not because Democrats are white supremacists, but rather because the Democrats are responsible to the public who up to now doesn’t support reparations. What’s worse, is that there is a kind of inertia inherent to the situation. The representatives that do get elected to fight for greater equality are constrained in all these ways, so they can’t make things suddenly much better overnight. Because people had such high expectations they become disillusioned with the political process, and these historically disenfranchised groups stop participating in the process before anyone can get seniority and pass radical legislation. People who do dedicate their lives to patiently passing what legislation they can in the short term end up with a career of compromise decisions, or with votes that were once popular but aren’t now: like when Bernie Sanders voted for the 1994 Crime Bill, which had overwhelming public support at the time. And then voters judge them on their voting record as if they were free to vote for free Ice Cream but chose Mass incarceration instead, i.e. voters look at their record without considering context or history or anything, especially radicals newly minted. And the politicians that would combine progressive politics with the ability to legislate progressive policies, say if there were suddenly broad popular support for such, get denounced by radicals.
How can we build power? It’s too big a question for a library of books. It’s a question we have to answer in practice. One thing that could help is if we stopped treating politicians as though they should be our saviors. We should understand and educate and repeat and realize that politicians can only vote according to what society wants in that moment. It should be the work of activists and organizers to move public opinion in a progressive direction: we shouldn’t expect politicians to do that. If we push politicians to do unpopular things, to propose unpopular laws like single payer health care, we sabotage their ability to do anything. They won’t succeed at passing an unpopular law, and then they won’t get re-elected. They will never get seniority, and we’ll never see our legislation put to a vote. There is no path to power for us that does not pass through a successful campaign of persuasion.
If you’re not reading Sean McElwee, do you even want power? Sean McElwee is a data scientist who studies political change. In 2016 a collection of essays came out from Wicked Problems Collective entitled “What Do We Do About Inequality,” and it included one by Sean McElwee called the Ideological Straight Jacket. It’s dope. You should read it. It’s an update on Marx’s Grundrisse. In that article he discusses all the research showing how rich people believe they deserve to be paid much more than us, though they actually contribute much less to our society, and how because they think inequality is fair they block people from rising in the social hierarchy. If you geek out on sociological research about inequality and political power, you should know Sean McElwee’s work by now. You probably also ought to know about the 2014 Martin and Gilens paper that showed that the wealthier you are the more likely it is that your policy preferences will become law. McElwee points out the thing that most folx don’t know about Martin and Gilens’ findings: that average citizens for the most part agree with economic elites’ policy preferences. But Sean McElwee has a strategy for changing opinions. It turns out that people do not change their minds because of political campaigns. Incremental legislative gains do change people’s minds, and we can get incremental gains if we work to increase voter turnout for moderate Democratic candidates. Maximalist demands set up a cycle of high expectations and disappointment which depresses voter turnout and sabotages long term power building. It’s all here in this article from Vox linked in the transcripts that you should read, being as if you’ve listened this far you probably care about actually getting power for progressive causes (https://www.vox.com/2020/4/17/21224140/bernie-sanders-elizabeth-warren-joe-biden-2020-democratic-primary).
We are currently going through a period where there is mass unrest, insurrection even, against police brutality and mass incarceration. The oppression itself is not new. The fact that people denounce the oppression is not new either. What is new is that there are strong indications that a large majority of White Americans seem to have found their way to agreeing that Black Lives Matter. We can speculate as to why that is. Zerlina Maxwell, the author of this year’s “The End of White Politics,” speculates that White America could care more now because White people suffering from COVID are experiencing physical pain caused by white supremacy (Minute 41, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/zerlina-maxwell-end-white-politics-how-to-heal-our/id425400236?i=1000480107671). I agree with Mx. Maxwell, and I also want to point out that this democratic mass movement for racial equality is happening in the same country where Bernie Sanders didn’t win the Democratic Primary. Bernie Sanders lost the old fashioned way: he didn’t get enough votes. By a lot. So, people are motivated to act for racial equality, but not convinced they need a socialist President. As noted previously its the feelings of their constituencies that drive voting behavior of members of congress. We saw historically high voter turnout in 2018 and in the primary for moderate democrats. The generation of Democratic politicians, many of them being part of that wave of Black representatives that flooded the halls of government starting in the 70s, people like House majority Whip Jim Clyburn, having spent long decades fighting against Republican gerrymandering and the racial illiteracy of White America, those Democrats who were motivated to become politicians because they saw the Democratic party ditch the racist Dixiecrats, those Democrats now have seniority and a strong public mandate to pass a New Deal for racial equality. It just won’t call itself socialist, and we won’t get to be big fucking heros. And these Democrats are already doing everything they can to respond effectively to this movement. Here’s a list of things the protests following George Floyd’s murder have won, and this is far from exhaustive:
Murder charges were filed against all four officers involved in killing George Floyd. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/03/george-floyd-police-officers-charges/).
Congress passed a law that outlaws chokeholds and does away with qualified immunity. Who knows if it will pass, but nothing would prevent legislation like it once we get Trump out of the way.
After banning the use of chokeholds (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/us/george-floyd-protests.html), Minneapolis has decided to disband its police force and rethink public safety. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/us/minneapolis-police-abolish.html).
A Michigan School Board Superintendent was fired for saying that George Floyd was to blame for his own death. (https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2020/06/michigan-school-district-superintendent-fired-after-facebook-comments-about-george-floyd.html).
Here in Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich has announced they are launching a program of restorative justice. (https://www.wmcactionnews5.com/2020/06/22/district-attorney-general-announces-new-community-justice-program/?fbclid=IwAR3XRWQWHMPrRQX_aRab1zj3q2ysqgj34NLuv-Mj9eZeBGdZnLzzQzVsH_0).
Here is a long list of monuments to Confederates, slavers and white supremacisthat have been taken down worldwide since the murder of George Floyd (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_monuments_and_memorials_removed_during_the_George_Floyd_protests).
Mississippi has taken the confederate flag off of their state flag.
A wave of corporate symbolic gestures and substantive actions have shown that capitalists are falling in line to support racial equality (https://justcapital.com/news/notable-corporate-responses-to-the-george-floyd-protests/). Quaker Oats ended Aunt Jemima. Pepsico is going to spend 400 million dollars to promote Black people into management and uplift Black businesses. Adidas has committed to hiring at least 30% of new positions with Black and Latinx people. IBM stopped investing in facial recognition software. Those are just a few, there’s a link to the long list of corporations getting behind this in the transcripts.
Are Capitalists fundamentally driven by profit? Yes. Does that make them more or less indifferent to inequality? Yes, all else being equal. But also, Democratic politics during a time of general insurrection can mean, in Lenin’s terms, that the ruling class cannot continue to rule in the way it has done. We should welcome these clearly progressive developments, even rejoice in them, and we can do that in a clear eyed understanding that they do not mean we can stop fighting inequality. We can, and we must do both.
I remember working with Black Lives Matter activists in Bridgeport Connecticut in 2016. I pointed out how rare it was that police officers ever get indicted, and how the courts have decided that the police can get away with murder all they have to do is say they feared for their lives. My point was that we needed a revolution. I’ll never forget the response of one of the Black activists there: he said they knew that already and that if all they could do was make it more expensive, then that was something they needed to get. They were putting in the work so that the Police would have to pay money when they killed a Black person, so that police killing Black people would happen less often. And if I loved Black people then that would be enough for me to want to do the work too. And now Democrats in Congress want to end the qualified immunity that allows Police officers to kill with impunity. If we loved Black people we would try and help Democrats win in November so they can do that.
I’m saying all of this as we near the end of a podcast about Socialism’s Past, Present and Future because I do believe we are on the cusp of world historic changes. If socialists cling to their cynicism about the Democratic Party and electoral politics, then they will simply be left out of the power arrangement that results. Or even worse, White centered socialists will succeed in suppressing the vote by claiming the system is rigged and this will help Trump win. This movement is bigger than Bernie Sanders, bigger than the Democratic Socialists of American, thank god, because the DSA isn’t big enough at a paltry 70,000 members to lead society. There is a real democratic movement happening that is producing change, that will produce change, and if you are a socialist you should get involved not where socialists are necessarily, but where an honest evaluation of the present opportunities has us positioned to make progress.
Stacey Abrams is a genius, by the way. She should be governor of Georgia right now. Brian Kemp stole the election in 2018 by a host of underhanded and illegal tactics. Abrams didn’t sue for the position, because doing so would have meant not being able to sue for systemic change. She had a choice between wielding power or helping to reform the system in a more democratic direction. In this year, 2020, Henry Holt and Company published her crucial meditation on our political moment “Our Time Is Now.” You should read this book right now. You should pause this podcast and order the book so you don’t forget. You should read this book before you read Marx’s Capital. The message of the book is simple: political progress today depends on us winning the fight for greater voter participation. She points out here that even though voter suppression targets Black people it hurts all of us. “Voter suppression typically targets the marginalized, the disadvantaged, and the inconvenient… But the effect is broader and exponentially more pronounced. These communities tend to share a common belief that political leaders should pass laws to guarantee equity and justice, and they vote that way. However, the disenfranchisement of individuals and entire populations from democracy through the booby traps of registration, access to the ballot, and ballot counting works to divide groups, often leaving the privileged unscathed by the process but hurt by the outcomes. Representative democracy is a brute force exercise, where who counts matters. Rigging the game affects all the players on the team, even those who are not targeted… In states where voter suppression is common, so too is an aggregation of power in the hands of conservatives who have a shared strategy for stripping away abortion rights… We hear about Russian interference, hacked machines, and more and more people who doubt the system. Abroad, authoritarians and dictators win elections and reshape democracies into parodies of freedom. The same world leaders who once feared disappointing American leaders now use our compromised elections to justify their own behavior. When disinformation campaigns target black and brown voters to scare them away from the polls, the source might as easily be Russian as Republican. Saving democracy is not an overblown call to action- we are in trouble… But we do know what to do. America has always been a crucible for democratic innovation, and our hallmark is our willingness to learn and grow. Fixing our broken democracy stands as a foundational prerequisite to progress. Our work to achieve universal health care access, education parity, social and economic justice and more - they each depend on the fundamental obligation that undergirds them all, eradicating voter suppression and ensuring that our elections are fair fights.” (pp. 123-124). Abrams’ impassioned appeal for a movement for democratic rights recalls to me Marx’s point in 1848 that the revolutionary National Assembly ‘only needed everywhere to counter dictatorially the reactionary encroachments by obsolete Government in order to win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective” (Marik, p.191). Further, Abrams points out that the blue wave of 2018 proved that the demographic changes in American society have ripened, and now all we need to do to produce revolutionary change is engage that democratic process. Key to this effort is reaching out to people Abrams’ calls low propensity voters. These are not swing voters: these are not voters who vote for a different party each election. Low propensity voters are people who voted once and didn’t see dramatic change and therefore decided not to vote again. We have to impress upon people the importance of voting, that the change has been stymied, but that the potential for change is real and is more real now than it has been. Calls to boycott the 2020 election, efforts on the left to suppress the vote for Democrats are going to hurt poor and working and Black people. Anyone who tries to tell you Biden is just as bad as Trump is lying to you. We will be discussing this type of left reactionary in detail in later podcasts, but in our very next episode we are going to discuss the bellwether issue of our generation: The Syrian Revolution. The reactions of the far left to that revolution will reveal to us the priorities and liabilities inherent to the traditional US far left, and help us understand the transformation that will be needed to make the left once again into a powerful and righteous force in the world.
Aronoff, Kate, ed. We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. The New Press, 2020.
Abrams, Stacey. Our Time is Now. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 2020.
Brazile, Donna. Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House. Hachette Books, 2017.
Grose, Christian R. Congress in black and white: Race and representation in Washington and at home. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Hajnal, Zoltan L. Changing white attitudes toward black political leadership. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Hajnal, Zoltan L. Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2020.
Johnson, Cedric. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2007.
Perry, Ravi K. Black mayors, white majorities: The balancing act of racial politics. U of Nebraska Press, 2013.
Rothstein, Richard. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing, 2017.
Wicked Problems Collective. What Do We Do About Inequality? CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
Music: Walt Adams, Loose Bolts; else Harry Koniditsiotis