Overcoming the Democrats' civil war: We need both Kamala and Bernie, and everything in between

Neither identity politics nor economic populism can return the Democrats to power on their own. We need solidarity

Published August 13, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Kamala Harris; Bernie Sanders   (AP/Rich Pedroncelli/Getty/Alex Wong/Salon)
Kamala Harris; Bernie Sanders (AP/Rich Pedroncelli/Getty/Alex Wong/Salon)

Last week Ryan Cooper set off a firestorm with an article in The Week entitled "Why leftists don't trust Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Deval Patrick." It was a frank and straightforward assessment, in one sense, and a needless provocation in another, given that all three potential 2020 candidates mentioned are black, and there are plenty of other Democratic politicians leftists might not trust either. The combination of straight talk and insensitivity was a perfect embodiment of the Democratic Party's current chaotic state, which has echoed through responses and ongoing parallel discussions.

At Cosmopolitan, for example, Brittney Cooper ("Get Off Kamala Harris's Back”) characterized Ryan Cooper's piece as a “screed” and ignored his more nuanced portrayal of Harris on the way to making a more broadly plausible argument:

Black women are not Jesus. It’s not right to expect us to fix what white Americans are so committed to breaking. This debate, then, isn’t about Harris, but about the emotional and political labor that black women are expected to do to save America’s soul.

Brittney Cooper went on to cite Rep. Barbara D. Jordan's memorable speech calling for Richard Nixon's impeachment, in which she said: “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

Cooper continued:

There is a way that we always ask black women to do the labor of saving our democracy. ... And then those on the far left use this same labor that we do to save democracy to argue that we are too deeply invested in the establishment.

It's a plausible argument at one level, until you consider those on the far left who are black women. Women like Angela Davis, among other things a co-founder of Critical Resistance, whose mission is to "build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex,” and whose work helped lay the foundations on which the Black Lives Matter movement was built. This stands in stark tension with Kamala Harris's career path as a prosecutor, and some specific issues on which grassroots activists have challenged her over the years — issues cited in a Verso Books blog post by black feminist Zoé Samudzi — “Dehumanization by Deification: On Kamala Harris and 'Black Women Will Save Us'” — whose argument is similar to Brittney Cooper's in some ways, but with a decidedly different thrust.

Samudzi — a doctoral student in medical sociology at the University of California, San Francisco — goes into detail about Harris' prosecutorial record and why it is problematic in progressive circles. These were later echoed in a Twitter thread by the ACLU's Chase Strangio, who summed up, “Kamala has been critiqued not from the Bernie left but from grassroots LGBTQ, prison abolition and racial justice organizers who saw her use her 'progressive' position to further institutionalize insidious carceral policies.”

Samudzi's core argument was not about Harris herself, but about how she is being used by others:

There are critiques of Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton that simply reflect a contempt for women [of color], and those misogynies are of course unacceptable. But there is a duly irresponsible and unacceptable idea that an individual’s politics are beyond reproach because they possess a marginalized identity (or multiple ones). ...

Dehumanization, whether through degradation or deification, reflects of bigoted regard for minoritized individuals or groups; it objectifies of the identities of women of color to suit one’s politics.

People's real lives are not neatly segmented the way such simplistic accounts would have it. Samudzi goes on:

There seems to be an irreconcilable dissonance in this white liberal logic: how can "Black women save ‘us’” if the complexity and heterogeneity of our discourses, identities, needs, and humanity are ignored to make room for our superficial insertion into and tokenization within anti-left “progressive” arguments and shallow pandering by the Democratic Party during election cycles?

It's striking how similar Cooper and Samudzi's core arguments are in one sense, but to quite dissimilar ends. It should be obvious from this single pairing that arguments over the future direction of progressive politics (both within and beyond the Democratic Party) exist within as well as between all manner of social subgroups. Arguing about Kamala Harris and the salvific role of black women is but one strikingly important, but hardly unique example.

Taking a step backwards, at Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, David Atkins responded with "Bernie, Kamala, and the Left’s War of Mutually Assured Destruction," arguing for a framework about how to avoid that war. He began with a frank look at how Ryan Cooper had raised legitimate concerns, but in problematic fashion: “In targeting black candidates Booker, Harris and Patrick specifically, Cooper only gives further fuel to those who claim that Sanders-aligned economic progressives have racist motivations – or at least that they are tone-deaf and poor allies on matters of identity and social justice.” He goes on to argue there are both legitimate concerns and questionable actions on both sides:

Democratic socialists must avoid making the unforced errors of the Sanders campaign, failing to articulate an understanding that social justice is also a key component of economic justice, and that merely making advances in the class war will not resolve institutional discrimination on the basis of identity. Making an example of the top three African-American hopefuls in the 2020 field is a terrible mistake regardless of intent. ...

For its part, the establishment must stop treating class war activists as second class citizens in a Democratic Party whose greatest President of the 20th century was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not Bill Clinton.

In the end, Atkins concluded, "The only path forward for both sides lies in mutual solidarity and respect."

Moving forward also involves understanding the past — as well as broadening our thinking beyond a narrow focus on the presidency alone, to the overall health and strength of the Democratic Party and movements associated with it. The crude identity politics being used by some against the left is incapable of sustaining legislative majorities in Congress — let alone state legislatures — even if it can elect a president in 2020. At the same time, the "economic populist" politics of the left faces huge hurdles against the entrenched power of money, even if it were to succeed in electing Bernie Sanders in 2020. (Unquestionably a big if.) A synergy of the strengths and best aspects of both is necessary, if Democrats are ever going to govern coherently at the national level.

The burning question is how to bring this synergy about, and a large part of the answer to that lies in listening and learning from grassroots activists, from the Black Lives Matter movement (see their 2016 platform here) to the multi-racial, cross-cultural coalition of anti-pipeline activists in the upper Great Plains. A recent In These Times interview with Jane Kleeb, the newly-elected chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, who's been deeply involved in anti-pipeline activism, was primarily focused on how to overcome the rural-urban divide. Kleeb highlights how rural communities have many inherently progressive values that urban observers fail to recognize. “In rural and small towns we may not use the word 'climate change' in the first five sentences," she said, "but everything we’re doing is talking about protecting the land and water and stopping these risky projects, which ultimately, obviously, impact climate change.” 

There is also a strong sense of community and caring for the land in places like Nebraska, Kleeb says, organically rooted in their way of life. “Relying on your neighbors is the number one key to surviving. Cattle ranchers, without their neighbors, can’t get branding done, they don’t get their fences fixed, they don’t find a stray cow. There’s a very strong connection to neighbors and the culture of helping out each other in small towns. We all know each other. There’s a very deep moral connection to the land and to the water.”

On the flip side, Kleeb said, “You know, small towns hate big corporations. Right, they hate big anything. They think Tyson is the devil, trying to consolidate markets and put chicken farmers under these really bad contracts. And so, there are lots of threads that Democrats should be talking to rural and small town voters on. And Bernie was obviously one of the best messengers for that.”

This same theme was highlighted in a Washington Monthly article by Martin Longman, “How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values,” in which he wrote:

People in rural and small-town America know the dangers of industry consolidation better than anyone, having seen it strip away the livelihoods of independent farmers and local banks and merchants long before most city slickers even realized that corporate concentration was an issue.

All this points to a simple conclusion: Democrats should make fighting monopolies the central organizing principle of their economic agenda. This approach holds the promise of bringing together groups that seem inherently at odds: nativists and cosmopolitans, fundamentalists and secularists, urbanites and rural dwellers.

The strongest reason to think this could work is, quite simply, that it has worked before. A century ago, agrarian populists and big-city progressives united around a common opposition to monopoly, forming a movement that dominated American politics for decades and helped deliver a broadly shared prosperity. Because the economic landscape today is strikingly similar to what it was a hundred years ago, there’s every reason to believe that the conditions are right for a similar alliance to arise again.

The key to making this work is the advancement of a coherent narrative and vision — an ideology — that will highlight, integrate and bring to the fore broadly popular ideas that can unite people across the particularities that have been used to divide them. This is what Democrats and progressives have been missing for generations. It takes an activist government taking people's side to preserve the space for them to shape their own destinies. And it takes a sustained, coordinated effort to deliver this message and make it real.

As Atkins said above, FDR was the greatest Democratic president of the 20th century, but while the government policies he implemented were both effective and popular in helping the vast majority of Americans, there was no comparable comprehension or level of support for his activist government approach as a whole. This was fclearly documented by public opinion pioneers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril in their landmark 1967 book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion." They found that half the population was ideologically conservative, in the sense of preferring a smaller, more limited government, while about two-thirds was operationally liberal, in the sense of wanting to spend more on specifically identified government programs. In the last section of their book, “The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology,” they concluded:

The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasized in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behavior. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms …

There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people’s wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

Such a restatement effort was never mounted, and never even seriously considered. Instead, as described by Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins in "Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats" (Salon review here), conservatives in the Republican Party have been overwhelmingly dominant in stressing ideology, while Democrats have remained focused on specific problem-solving, mediating the concerns of different interest groups they represent. Over time, this unplanned decision has had devastating consequences, as the backlash politics initiated by Richard Nixon have thrived on stereotyping and demonizing different interest groups, and playing them off against each other.

What has worked in the short run for Democrats trying to survive in this environment — defending each group in turn, without fleshing out a broader coherent vision — has allowed Republicans to gain an ever-widening political advantage, reflected most vividly in their hold on state governments. But, as Longman argues, and Kleeb attests, a monopoly-fighting focus could provide a foundation for reversing that, speaking to voters across all kinds of divisions that otherwise loom so large. What's more, that kind of unifying focus could catalyze a broader process of drawing people together.

The challenge for Democrats and progressives is to do what Republicans and conservatives have been doing for decades: Craft a coherent ideological narrative that makes sense of what people already feel. But for Democrats, it's not just about vague free-market fantasies,or romantic longings for a past that never was. It's about concrete things people can do to empower themselves through government action, creating a future with more possibilities for all. Properly articulated, such a framework will thrive on diversity, linking our different struggles back to a shared commitment to expand America's promise to all — in the immortal words of Langston Hughes, to “Let America Be America Again.”


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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