Essential Work

Essential Work

Introducing a special section on the Democrats in 2020.

Art by John Snowden

A severe crisis concentrates the mind; one that takes place during a year when Donald Trump could be reelected can make it difficult to concentrate on anything else. What is essential for the American left—our ever quarrelsome, always visionary movement—to think and do during and in the immediate aftermath of the plague?

First, we should feel a certain gratification that millions of Americans have learned to appreciate the necessity, even the beauty, of solidarity. I realize that applauding and making signs of gratitude for “essential workers” are hardly the same thing as supporting them when they go on strike. Sadly, such militancy has been frustratingly rare at a time when unemployment has zoomed to a sickening rate, and people who have a job are afraid to walk out on the only one they are likely to find. Still, the conviction that the people who do the indispensable labor of society—citizens and the undocumented—should, at minimum, earn a decent wage and have job security and their health protected has always been at the moral heart of the left. As the old Wobbly song puts it:

It is we who plowed the prairies

Built the cities where they trade

Dug the mines and built the workshops

Endless miles of railroad laid

Now we stand outcast and starving

Mid the wonders we have made

In an economy dominated by services, update those occupations to include nurses and ER doctors, truckers and bus drivers, cooks and food-store clerks, and K–12 teachers forced to keep kids engaged in learning on tiny screens. When the crisis ends, those workers should have an opportunity to put pressure on their bosses and the state to increase their pay and benefits—and to vote for a union to represent them. They will also need leftists who are not part of the working class to argue, in creative ways, that gratitude for their service to us all must be expressed in material ways for it to be any more meaningful than the “thoughts and prayers” pro-NRA politicians mumble after every mass shooting. If the crisis persuades more Americans about that, then perhaps we can begin to convince them that such essential people should also have a hand in owning and running their workplaces and industries.

Second, the plague has revealed which members of society are not essential. Since the collapse of the housing market back in 2008, leftists have launched an acute critique of the financialization of the economy. As the stock market came snorting back and consumers buoyed Amazon and its ilk to massive profits, most Americans seemed less receptive to attacks on hedge funds and investment banks and the politicians they favored. This crisis ought to revive and strengthen that critique.

One hopes it will also embolden progressive lawmakers to renew a strong demand to regulate and downsize corporations run by what Louis Brandeis, a century ago, called “financial oligarchs,” who accumulate riches by manipulating “other people’s money.” This spring, the New York Times reported that one out of every five children in the United States did not have enough to eat. That same day, the Dow Jones average rose over 130 points on its way back to the historic high it reached in February. Two days later, the government reported an unemployment rate of close to 15 percent, a nadir not seen since Americans were struggling to crawl out of the Great Depression. At the market’s close, the Dow had gained 450 points. The left must continue to draw public attention to such obscenities, making clear that the stock market is not the economy and that its gains often exacerbate the gap between the very rich and everyone else.

We should also make clear how the Trump administration—whose policies had already increased inequality and benefited plutocrats, grifters, and bigots—failed to prevent a major COVID-19 outbreak and turned the relief effort into a catastrophe. As Michelle Goldberg wrote in the New York Times, “A country that could be brought to its knees this quickly was sick well before the virus arrived.”

Third, we should face up to a few essential truths about what occurred during the Democratic primary campaign that, barring a big summer surprise, made Joe Biden the nominee. As a consequence of his two runs for president, Bernie Sanders and his legion of supporters achieved something of great and unprecedented significance: they embedded a large and dynamic social democratic movement inside the heart of one of the two major U.S. parties.

In the mid-1960s, the black freedom movement and organized labor worked together to compel politicians to enact the programs of the Great Society. But they did not describe themselves as “democratic socialists” (although key actors like Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and Walter Reuther privately were). And Lyndon Johnson’s atrocious escalation of the Vietnam War soon tore that alliance apart.

Unfortunately, some Sanders supporters take a mistaken view about why their man lost to Biden that might hamper advancing their aims within the Democratic Party and, through it, the country at large. When the party establishment rallied around the former vice-president, they contend, it ensured that Sanders would lose. As Jacobin contributor Luke Savage wrote on Twitter, “If only these voters had some tribune, some voice, a leader who spoke to their needs and their interests. Too bad the leaders of America’s nominal opposition party decided they didn’t deserve one.”

This perspective ignores two simple facts. First, Sanders did not increase the base of support he built in his race against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Four years ago, he won 43 percent of votes in the primaries and caucuses combined. This year, he failed to win more than 40 percent in any primary, except that of his own state—even after he and Biden were the only major contenders in the race. Second, while most party leaders certainly opposed Bernie, they didn’t force Democrats in states from Massachusetts to Texas to pick Biden over him. After every other serious candidate dropped out just before or after the Super Tuesday contests in early March, even many voters who supported Medicare for All and a Green New Deal opted for what they believed was the safer and more familiar choice. In particular, African-American voters, who are hardly a pillar of any establishment, were critical to Biden’s victory.

While Sanders’s decision to campaign as a principled democratic socialist did much to attract the most enthusiastic following of any candidate in the race, it was also one of the key reasons why he lost. Since he began running for president five years ago, Bernie has defined “democratic socialism” as the fulfillment of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (omitting the fact that FDR did almost nothing to challenge the brutal Jim Crow order sustained by the very Southern Democrats he needed to enact such measures as Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act). Bernie often mentioned both Lyndon Johnson (pre-escalation) and King as precursors too. But the way he campaigned adhered more to the style of his first political hero, Eugene V. Debs, who was so dedicated to socialism that he ran for president five times as the standard-bearer of the party that bore that name.

Like Debs, Sanders spoke passionately for the same policies he has advocated for decades. Like Debs, he considered compromise on such policies a betrayal of his core principles. Like Debs, he refused to abandon or apologize for statements—such as his praise for Cuba’s literacy program or his call for an immediate ban on fracking—that would have made it more difficult for him to win the key states of Florida and Pennsylvania.

Sanders is a radical who cared more about being right than being president. As Debs used to tell audiences, “It’s better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get that.” On the other hand, had Bernie compromised on a key position—say, by accepting a public option as a step toward Medicare for All or focusing only on the infrastructure elements of the Green New Deal—he might have risked appearing as just another ambitious pol and lost as much support as he gained. It’s a classic dilemma that even non-socialist candidates the left championed—like Henry Wallace, George McGovern, and Jesse Jackson—faced before.

Unlike Debs, however, Sanders has done a good deal to improve the policies of a major party. By arguing consistently and fervently for major changes to how the government handles healthcare, the environment, taxation, and labor, he inspired millions of Americans, particularly young ones, and compelled Biden to take positions that are markedly more progressive than those he has espoused throughout his career.

Which leads to a fourth and final point: there is no task more essential this year than defeating Trump and his party. That means voting for Biden and convincing others to do so as well—especially anyone who voted and/or worked for Sanders. Biden’s flaws are obvious: he has adhered to a cautious centrism throughout his career, having taken no stand that might alienate big donors or motivate the grassroots energy to fight for needed reforms. His rhetoric, while occasionally comforting, is never inspiring or memorable. Had it not been for Michael Bloomberg, Biden would have been the least progressive candidate in the Democratic race. And Tara Reade’s accusation that he sexually assaulted her back in 1993 will likely continue to undercut his image as the senator who wrote the original Violence Against Women Act.

Yet this is a time for choosing, unlike any the left has faced in decades. The damage Trump has done to our environment, to our health, to immigrants, and to the rule of law is already considerable. His response to the mass protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by police revealed, yet again, the sadism and contempt for black people at the core of his character. Under his leadership, a profoundly conservative party has regressed into an authoritarian, thoroughly reactionary one that values nothing but gaining power and holding onto it, by any means necessary.

In 1988, Michael Harrington urged his fellow socialists to vote “unambiguously and even enthusiastically” for Michael Dukakis, that year’s Democratic nominee. We should, he added, “at the same time prepare ourselves to push” his “Administration to the left.” The Republican who won the election in 1988 was a conservative, of course. But the mass right that never warmed up to George H. W. Bush is madly in love with Donald Trump, which gives him the ability to do far more harm than the awkward patrician, who got humiliated in his own bid for a second term.

How the current president and his minions have fumbled, lied, and demagogued their response to the coronavirus pandemic leaves no doubt about the danger of giving them another four years in office. Even as the death toll in the United States approached 100,000 (a number it has since passed), Trump boasted that the nation was in a “transition to greatness.” He claimed, with idiotic certainty, “If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.” The co-founder of The Federalist, one of the president’s favorite websites, wrote that a temporary halt to most commerce meant telling “states and cities that have had no problem stopping the spread must nonetheless be shut down indefinitely because New York City is a filthy, disease-ridden dystopia run by an incompetent communist.” In Michigan, armed Trump supporters temporarily forced the state capitol to close.

To stand aside or waste one’s vote on a marginal third party while these people campaign for a second term, with the largest war chest in history at their disposal, would be an act of profound irresponsibility. It would also be a sign that leftists who played an essential part in two serious, consecutive runs by a socialist for the Democratic nomination failed to understand one of the cardinal rules of political endurance in our duopolistic system: either you unite behind the eventual nominee or you squander the respect of the partisan activists who raise money and turn out the vote in every election.

“It’s no great secret out there, Joe, that you and I have our differences, and we’re not going to paper them over. That’s real,” Sanders acknowledged when he endorsed Biden during their mid-April video chat. But Bernie also promised to work together “to work out real solutions to these very, very important problems.”

Sanders may have run like Debs, but he also understands the necessity of playing the inside game. Like the leaders of every major progressive constituency—from environmentalists and unionists to feminists and racial justice organizers—he recognizes that a left that helped elect Biden (and, one hopes, a Democratic Senate and House as well) would be able to claim influence over whatever the new president proposed to do about curbing climate change, corporate regulation, labor organizing, reproductive rights, immigration, and foreign policy.

Biden strengthened that possibility in May when he appointed task forces on most of these vital issues that include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other leftists in prominent roles. It was a good sign, according to Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s erstwhile manager, that the nominee’s team was “exceptionally willing to embrace the input of the Bernie campaign.”

As citizens of the most powerful nation in the world, Americans have an obligation to do what’s necessary to keep open the possibility of securing urgent changes at home and cooperation with likeminded governments abroad. If Trump is reelected, the left will be able to do nothing but rage against a machine run by detestable individuals who would have few, if any, checks on their powers. If Biden triumphs, leftists who helped him win will have a chance to fight to convert the emotion of solidarity into laws and institutions that serve the interests and strengthen the power of working people—and make the United States a more democratic society.

The four articles in this section explore several of the vital challenges leftists and Democrats face in defeating Trump and the Republican Party and in tackling the urgent and difficult problems facing the nation. Harold Meyerson offers an extensive report on how union activists are organizing to take advantage of a political environment in which most Americans again recognize the urgency of solving what earlier generations called the “labor question.” Mae Ngai explains what horrors would be in store for immigrants and migrants, documented and undocumented, in a second Trump administration and sets forth a stirring agenda of alternative policies motivated by a commitment “to international cooperation in the interest of human life.” Marcia Chatelain critiques the way Democratic leaders have handled the racial and ethnic diversity in their party and argues that a strategy of recruiting candidates and mobilizing voters of color would lead to victory. Finally, E.J. Dionne Jr. and Miles Rapoport unveil an ambitious proposal for universal voting in the United States that, if implemented, could invigorate the public sphere and make it possible to build “a truly inclusive democracy” for the first time in U.S. history. “We are living in a moment,” they write “where everything seems about to change, and discussions on public policy are breaking out of old bounds.” As always, leftists should use such a moment to spur changes that can alter the essential nature of society and not just replace a horrendous administration with a tolerable one.


Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.


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