Why Presidential Elections and the Bernie Sanders Campaign Are Not Necessarily Detrimental to Movement Building

A Reply to Arun Gupta, Chris Hedges and Paul Street

By Jonathan Michael Feldman

August 12, 2015, Modified August 13, 2015

False Premises

Gupta, Hedges and Street Debunk the Sanders Campaign

Arun Gupta, Chris Hedges, and Paul Street have recently made statements suggesting that the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders will necessarily lead to a coopted dead-end for the American Left and his supporters.  All authors are correct about the potential limits of the Democratic Party and electoral campaigns, but they have only seen a part of the larger picture.  Essentially they are engaging in dualistic thinking.  Either one sides with everything the Sanders campaign represents and is a coopted lackey of the corporate, Democratic elites, or one abdicates from Sanders and the presidential campaign cycle and somehow enters the purified zone of social movement protest. Essentially, their arguments serve to support the status quo of dysfunctional really existing social movements, incremental direct actions, or sectarian and most third party efforts which are also dead ends.

I reject the premise of Arun Gupta and Paul Street, as recently published in Counterpunch, that the limits of the Democratic Party mean that Presidential elections are detrimental to movement building.    Gupta argues correctly that sophisticated left activists understand that both identity politics and economism are dead ends.  We can not fight racism without looking at economic issues, nor fight for economic equality without looking at racism.  We cannot fight racism by simply looking at economic issues, given police violence, the prison industrial complex, racial profiling, and racism among the white working class, etc.  Nor can we fight racism without addressing the concentration of corporate economic power, etc. as I have previously written in two essays: one about the Ferguson and the other about the Charleston shootings.   Street is correct that Sanders has supported a series of policies detrimental to African Americans, but he does not bother to show what policies he supports which may have helped African Americans.

Gupta suggests that the Democratic Party is beholden to Wall Street interests and that Sanders would support Clinton if his candidacy fails.  He writes: “Even if leftists who back Sanders sit out the general election that is of no consequence as they will have served their purpose of building a base of support that will be put to work for Clinton.”  He further concludes that Sanders’s campaign will fracture and not build movements.

Chris Hedges makes a similar kind of argument in Counterpunch.   He writes that the big problem with Sanders is that his campaign is within the framework of  “the Democratic establishment.”   Hedges says Sanders is “lending credibility to a party that is completely corporatized. He has agreed that he will endorse the candidate, which, unless there is some miracle, will probably be Hillary Clinton.”  In essence, Sanders is seen as someone who funnels social movement energy into a reactionary, political dead end.  Hedges writes:  “So what he does is he takes all of that energy, he raises all of these legitimate issues and he funnels it back into a dead political system so that by April it’s over.”

Likewise, Gupta writes: “The real issue for the left is what role does his campaign play in organizing, and it’s indisputable that Sanders will herd movements into a Democratic Party beholden to Wall Street interests. Sanders makes no bones about this, saying he will support the eventual nominee, which will almost certainly be Hillary Clinton.”

Paul Street follows in a similar vein.  He argues that the Sanders campaign “encourages people to link their hopes for progressive change and social justice to a reactionary political party with a long and deserved history as the graveyard of social movements.”  The campaign “channels popular anger and excitement into a dead, money-soaked political and elections system and its staggered, quadrennial, highly personalized and mass-marketed corporate media-ted candidate-centered electoral spectacles – as if that’s the real and only politics that matters.”

Here is my response:  So what.  By which I mean, yes Sanders will mobilize voters into his campaign and then will endorse Clinton if he loses.  But, there are several other counter-arguments to note that Hedges, Gupta and Street ignore.  Generally speaking they all fetishize candidates and campaigns and do not understand how elections represent a significant space that Left activists could make greater use of if  they were more sophisticated.   The Democratic Party nomination race is a valuable space for politics that the Left should try to influence. Sitting on the sidelines while millions of people debate the issues is basically a move away from a democratic space, a kind of political abdication.  These processes, however imperfect and dominated by big money, still involve thousands of persons meeting in the public space. Let us now turn to the problems with the premises.

Educational Benefits and the Limits to Contemporary Third Party Strategies

First, before Sanders endorses Clinton he will raise a lot of issues she does not.  I dare say the value of this educational moment will be far greater than that afforded by marginalized Left parties that most U.S. citizens ignore and don’t embrace or support.  Left activists should be concerned with reaching large numbers of persons, not just sectarian minorities.

Second, the counterfactual argument seems to be that Third Parties (Hedges) or social movements (Gupta) will be a better political investment.  Let us look at the first counterfactual. G. William Domhoff, in some ways the heir to C. Wright Mills’s line of thinking, wrote an essay entitled, “Third Parties Don’t Work: Why and How Egalitarians Should Transform the Democratic Party.”  Domhoff argues: “When it comes to electoral systems, the United States is the most extreme of the countries with a single-member district plurality system, meaning that its third parties have been very small and ephemeral. They rarely win more than a percent or two of the vote, and rarely last more than one or two elections when they do receive more than a few percent. This striking difference also is one key reason why so few socialists were elected to Congress in the 20th century.” I partially agree with Domhoff about the limits to Third Parties.  Stanley Aronowitz, in his book Left Turn, favors a new political party that would organize and challenge the Democratic Party hegemony among the working class and marginalized constituencies.  I partially agree with Aronowitz about the need to create such a new kind of political organization and network. Yet, I still think one can synthesize both ideas and come up with a third way beyond both the Democratic Party and its limits and third parties and their limits.

I have voted for Barry Commoner, Ralph Nader and Jill Stein.  After I voted for them, their movements either collapsed or during the election never truly surfaced.  So, the problem of post-vote collapse (or wasted energies) is not limited to the Democratic Party.  This does not mean that I necessarily wasted my vote.  It does mean that there is something wrong with present conceptions of electoral politics.  In fact, Gupta argues against “electoralism” by pointing to such failures.  Yet, he still misses the larger possibilities.  The Obama campaign did abandon “the Obama movement” after the election as he argues and as I have earlier described.  Yet, if voters supporting Obama from the Left had invested in a parallel movement to his Left, they would have created a far better post-Obama campaign accountability system (see below).  Note, Obama moved to mainstream presidential politics as a way to overcome what he correctly perceived to be the limits to local, community organizing (see Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, July 21, 2008).  To the extent Obama had some successes, we see some virtue.  His failures reveal the need for something else, beyond community organizing and incumbent Democratic Party politics.

Third, if one organizes a more Left movement to shadow both Clinton and Sanders, one can have their cake and eat it too.  So, investing in the Sanders campaign may or may not be a necessary support system for change, but it is hardly sufficient.  Some of the criticisms of Sanders remind me of an old Social Workers Party pamphlet on George McGovern which made him sound like George Wallace or Richard Nixon.  Now some are acting like Bernie Sanders is another Obama-in-waiting.  In any case, if Sanders were elected he would be compromised by the inability of the Left supporting him or opposing him to come up with new accountability mechanisms.  Given the limits of Sanders’s policies on Israel, racism, the military industrial complex and the like, it is useful to build a parallel shadow electoral movement that points out these limits, but also builds new democratic institutional spaces.  I have spelled out how to design such a movement elsewhere.  The basic idea is that the candidates mobilize a constituency base which another entity can “colonize.”  For example, one way Malcolm X built the Black Muslim movement was by recruiting outside churches, i.e. just as churches indirectly built a constituency base for Black Muslims, the Democratic Party can build a space for some other kind of educational and political campaign.  Malcolm X organized about 100 or more mosques, so one can’t argue that his strategy was an organizing failure.

Fourth, even if the long run alternative to Sanders may be a third party movement, third parties also require or benefit from some form of “colonization.”  In fact, some of the most viable or important third party candidacies were built by persons who worked within or with the Democratic Party (or the related system) and then abandoned it, e.g. Henry Wallace, Barry Commoner and Ralph Nader.  All those years Nader worked and has worked with the Democratic Party and Democratic Congresspersons did not seem to haunt Nader among many on the Left.  One reason is that there actually are some progressive and forward thinking persons in the U.S. Congress.  Without articulating some relationship to the incumbent space connected to the Democratic Party, they could not have built up the necessary audience to make their candidacies meaningful.

In any case, third party movements that don’t build cooperatives or radical media spaces first, won’t go very far.  They usually attempt to build political capital without the requisite extent of economic or media capital being established first.  Or, they don’t even have the appropriate network capital in the form of mailing lists or exposure (e.g. legitimacy or reputation established by being known widely).  This may be Gupta’s view as well, but he is still failing to see how one could use the electoral system against the status quo.  The only third party efforts which don’t follow the pattern I identified on the national scale within the U.S. seem to be successful efforts by billionaires (think Ross Perot who got about 20,000,000 votes) or far-right segregationists (think Strom Thurmond who got 39 electoral votes in 1948).

Some may read this and say the obvious tactic should be to work locally and then regionally or nationally for third party candidates.  This in fact corresponds to Sanders’s trajectory where he went from Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, to becoming a Congressman and then U.S. Senator.  Yet, localized efforts are usually derailed because they must combat larger forces, e.g. the U.S. Congress, transnational corporations, the Pentagon, or the power of the Executive Branch.  In sum, one must always try to work locally and nationally, simultaneously. Sanders did not build a wider third party movement and joined the Democratic Party because he probably saw too few persons following his example.

The Limits of Really Existing Social Movements

Dualism or Dialectics?

Fifth, the other counterfactual alternative to Sanders may be social, protest movements. Here is what Street writes: “The development of grassroots social movements strong enough that they can’t be ignored by concentrated wealth, privilege, and power is far more significant” than the Sanders campaign. He continues: “As Howard Zinn explained seven years ago, criticizing the ‘election madness’ that had ‘egulf[ed] the entire society, including the left’ in the year of Brand Obama’s ascendancy, ‘Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced [to act in accord with popular needs] by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.’”

Both Zinn and Jean-Paul Sartre were partially right, as when the later wrote, “Elections: A Trap for Fools.”  Yet, I dare say that the ideas of either thinker do not necessarily validate any of the arguments of Gupta, Hedges or Street.  In fact, Sartre’s view of the electoral system as atomizing (“serial behavior” in his language) and Zinn’s belief in face-to-face democracy can both be reconciled with the framework I propose.  This reconcialition is based on the ability to create accountability systems that exist outside of the Democratic Party but interact with it.

There are two reasons why Zinn and Sartre can’t be used to defend Gupta, Hedges or Street.  The first reason is that really existing social movements can also be a trap for fools. The second reason is that one can create a trap within an electoral process that doesn’t make you a fool and actually builds a direct action, democratic system.  Perhaps all these thinkers believe they simply advocate both better designed social movements and abdicating from the Democratic presidential race.  That is fine.  Yet, they can only offer rather mechanistic and highly moralized arguments which remind me of dualistic notions of sinning and not sinning.  These dualistic arguments work like this: one cannot overlap a space defined by Sanders and his campaign with another space to his Left, because two spaces can’t be occupied by the same matter at the same time. I will show how this dualism is based on faulty logic.

Really Existing Social Movements are Badly Designed

First, actually existing social movements are—for the most part—badly designed.  Many are top-down, reactive, or suffer from an atomized political agenda, an agenda far less intellectually coherent than the Sanders campaign.  There are a series of studies on the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, like The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by the Incite! Women of Color Against Violence collective or Mark Dowie’s book Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, which show how social movements are often channeled into serving corporate, elite or top-down interests.  Some critics have even argued that  Left media in the United States represents “manufactured dissent” (which is significant given the obvious connections between media and social movements, although it is naive to think that every foundation grant necessitates cooptation).

Street and the critics of Sanders invest a lot in the idea that Sanders has been soft on the military industrial complex.  The problem is so has much of the peace movement. This point of view is clear in Seymour Melman’s essay, “Politics for Peace: A Road Map, Not a STOP Sign,” in the book, The Demilitarized Society, published by Spokesman Books in 1988.   Hedges may be aware of this book as he has written about Seymour Melman in his own books.  Yet, Melman worked closely with Senator George McGovern and helped influence McGovern’s ideas related to disamament and economic conversion of defense firms.  No presidential candidate since McGovern (at least in the Democratic party and most third parties) has had as sophisticated a view about demilitarization as McGovern had.

Even while Sanders is far from perfect on foreign policy questions, this flaw is matched by social movements which are similarly imperfect, i.e. they fail to address economic conversion of defense firms, general and complete disarmament, the corporate and university connections of arms contractors, the role the media plays in the military economy, or the need to organize mega events (which can be thought of as countervailing spectacles) to challenge Pentagon media hegemony.

I don’t really understand why one expect someone running for President of the United States to be to the Left of the peace movement on peace questions (although George McGovern actually did support conversion and disarmament). So, you say, “yes that is why we have to fight for a better peace movement.” O.K., but how are you going to support Sanders or some candidates’ ability to raise peace questions in the right way?  Waiting until after the election is way too late.  It is during the primaries and caucuses that the Left has a great deal of potential leverage.  Obama probably did the math and concluded that a weak and fragmented peace movement was not worth losing the support of the military industrial complex.  Year after year activists fail to create a viable way to pressure Democrats, as if not voting for them is sufficient leverage.  This moral position may make sense in some ways, but not in many others, i.e. it has not worked as a strategy and is not sufficient (nor is simply voting for Democrats sufficient).

Even if Obama was always a true believer in U.S. military power or became one, there is and was no vehicle to ever seriously hold him accountable to a different agenda.  The only other key Obama peace movement influenced possibility (after his election) was during the potential bombing of Syria when this movement also needed support from Vladimir Putin and the T-Party.  These became the key allies of the peace movement, allies which some might feel uncomfortable about having for the long run, i.e. they constituted a rather weak or problematic accountability system.  Any effectiveness the peace movement claims for ending the ongoing war in Iraq is mitigated by the fact that this “victory” was too little, too late, and is actually an epic failure given the morphing of the war in the ISIS-era.

Many social movements also succumb to identity politics, where a fragmented identity substitutes for a more civic notion of collective citizens or the necessary hard work of trans-ethnic coalitions.  Gupta acknowledges the problem of identity politics, but he doesn’t seem to understand the significance of how this problem equally condemns non-electoral politics.   There is no political zone in American life with “clean hands” such that electoralism is cursed and the non-electoral arena is pure.  Rather as Malcolm X understood there are just a series of ubiquitous organizing opportunities that can be had with creative organizing and institution building.

Hedges brilliantly shows how the labor and others social movements are co-opted or have lost their ability to act as accountability systems, e.g. in The Death of the Liberal Class.   This is truly one of the most important books published about American politics in the last decade.  Yet, what Hedges has not yet done is taken the next step and written the book, The Dead Weight of the American Left on Social Movements.

In his book on liberals, Hedges picks up on some of the problems by pointing out the limits of the university system and various academic currents, but does not go far enough in seeing how dysfunctional social movements themselves reflect the limited intellectual horizons of most Left academics.  Social movements are deformed not just by NGOs and Left academics, but foundations, naïve formulations of anarchism, and an ideology of “resistance” that fails to engage in economic reconstruction or institution building.

Just like the Democratic Party, most U.S.-based movements have become  similarly dead ends in their ability to transform things. This failure corresponds to the need to move beyond the New Left and its political heirs as much protest today follows the same design logic set up by the New Left, e.g. routines of marches, general assemblies disconnected to policy formation, direct action that eventually peters out after repression, identity politics, and a failure in institutional building. I have begun to spell out this argument about the limits to social movements elsewhere in my analysis of Swedish and U.S. developments.  This is not to say that the Black Lives Matter movement has not had its successes and is valuable.  Rather, we need to also think about how to make a broader set of connections to change the terms of action and debate.

Gar Alperovitz, author of What then Must we Do?, represents one strand of New Left activism that actually tries to embrace a reconstructionist alternative to resistance and reactive-based politics.  Yet, the ideas Alperovitz now advocates were not sufficiently taken up earlier by the New Left, i.e. they were opposed by direct action and myopic opposition to a single war (as opposed to the war making institutions behind that and future wars).  Likewise, the present Left in Latin America has been building new institutions related to banking, transportation and the organization of work, moving beyond the purely reactive politics of most U.S.-based movements.

The Dialectics of Space

How can we create a space that enters and engages the space occupied by Sanders?  From the Occupy Movement, one could at least have a rough intellectual tool that might have the hashtag #OccupySanders.  But, I don’t mean that one should disrupt Sanders and his campaign. I regard these efforts as sporadic, divisive and reactionary, rather than reconstructionist and radical.  I rather mean we should critically engage Sanders and the campaign (somewhat like what some call “critical support,” but actually more like “partial support and when necessary opposition”).  We can support and oppose Sanders at the same time.  This is what many Left intellectuals fail to understand, probably because they have zero political organizing understanding or have never thought very critically about political organizing.

Here are some design interventions that allow such a dialectical occupation of space:

  1. Run a canvass operation in Iowa and New Hampshire involving thousands of students, workers, and critically thinking students.  Have them say, we want to point out the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates running for office. You see here Sanders is far better than Clinton. You see there Sanders like Clinton are weak, e.g. in foreign policy.  The way around the limits to Sanders and Clinton is to support candidates who vote against military budgets, support disarmament treaties and also develop plans to convert military bases, factories, laboratories and university-financed R&D programs.  One should also analyze the failing economies of the regions where candidates campaign and point out ways around these problems by means of networked cooperatives, green procurement based on citizen mobilization, and municipal, university and activist move your money campaigns.
  2. Organize a candidates’ forum and town meeting with critical scholars and policy makers concerned with racism, militarism and economic inequality. Build these fora with the canvass operation.  Broadcast the fora on the radio, television, and Internet-based communications platforms like Livestream.
  3. Use these strategies to build a mailing list and identify activists to engage in direct action campaigns against companies tied to the National Rifle Association, the military industrial complex and traditional banks. Encourage the audience base you gain from 1) and 2) above to support a peoples’ and citizens’ bank and energy utilities as well as local networks of cooperatives linked to these.  Move your money into these citizen controlled banks, energy utilities, and companies.  Learn from some of the ideas of the Knights of Labor who supported cooperatives and locally controlled institutions or the Mondragon industrial cooperatives in Spain.
  4. Use the processes identified in 1), 2) and 3) to build a parallel organization that begins to provide direct services and continually mobilizes persons outside not only the electoral system but also outside really existing social movements.
  5. Create democratic, participatory day-to-day continuing processes from the canvass, the candidates fora/town meeting and cooperative banks, utilities and companies.

In sum, this coalition effort could support the creation of cooperatives, radio networks, and procurement pools that create networks of economic, media and political capital free from both the Democratic Party and the NGO industrial complex.   The Occupy movement did not really do all of these things, but did some of these things (if very partially).  If the Green Party represents these things, it is not clear to me that they have the legitimacy or capability to do them at this time.  In contrast, in a recent blog post R.L. Stephens II suggests that Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party actually created a mass, participatory space related to elections and similar to the kind of activity I am proposing.  While I don’t endorse criticisms of the Black Lives Matter leadership found in this article (as that is not my interest or related to my arguments), Stephens does show how electoral politics could be linked to grassroots organizing in a multi-ethnic context.

Now perhaps Gupta, Hedges and Street agree with my illustrative examples. Yet, their default is to run all such politics outside the Democratic Party but into the non-mass audience of third parties, badly designed or reactive social movements, the spaces dominated by the Non-Profit Industrial complex and I don’t know what else.  Like it or not, a lot of people and audiences are organized by the Democratic Party.  This space has been open for grabs decade after decade, but between the abstaining Left, sectarian or marginalized third parties, and the Non-Profit Industrial complex the space has been dominated by the sort of opportunism which Left critics think that they oppose.

Beyond Sanders and Electoral Abstention

The Sanders campaign in and of itself won’t reverse these limits to social movements, but could provide a useful backdrop for organizing a parallel movement that does just this.  The Sanders campaign would not create the backdrop, but that would have to come from a coalition that stands outside the Democratic Party and sectarian ideological party frameworks but communicates with and lobbies Democrats and other interested persons.  Of course, there will be Trojan Horse type coalitions which continue to serve the Democratic Party, but they do not build this other kind of democratic or services type infrastructure outside the electoral framework.  One reason is that Left intellectuals find it easier to deconstruct and endorse really existing social movements than help design new ones. In sum, building a base of media, economic and media capital outside the Democratic Party and Non-Profit Industrial Complex is one of the key strategic problems we have long faced.  Using electoral campaigns to build this base is a key strategic challenge or tactical opportunity, i.e. not whether or not one votes for Sanders or a third party candidate or goes to another demonstration.  One can be (and many are) alienated by atomized or reactive social movements, just like one can be alienated by political parties and NGOs.

Finally, let us assume that Sanders wins the Presidency or nomination.  Isn’t it better to have a candidate with whom the responsible, radical Left has to engage fewer fights with or at least less intense fights?  Can’t Sanders be considered someone who at least will understand most if not all of the Left’s intellectual arguments, even if he disagrees with some of (or many of) these?  Isn’t such understanding at least part of the problem in the circuits of politics linking knowledge and power?  Even if Sanders does not win the nomination, his campaign will put some issues on the table which can be deepened in thought and action by a shadow campaign and matching services organization.

Sanders and the Black Lives Matter Movement

Let us turn towards Gupta’s strongest potential argument: The response of Sanders to Black Lives Matter activists was inadequate and Sanders engaged in economistic arguments.  At the Netroots Nation conference, Gupta says, one woman responded to Sanders as follows:  “Jobs and college don’t stop the police from killing me. Trade policy doesn’t keep the police from killing me.”  The woman’s point is well taken, but to accumulate the necessary political power to combat police violence will require the accumulation of economic power, as through cooperatives or community procurement.  This kind of connection could be made by a shadow campaign.  Ultimately, the woman’s comments are an embryonic version of such a campaign.  The biggest flaw in Gupta’s argument is that we probably would never learn about this woman’s views if it were not for the space opened up by Sanders campaign, i.e. there is a dialectic between Sanders’s campaign and her opposition to it.  Thus, the Sanders campaign indirectly opens up a “teaching moment” and a political space.

The real tactical issue, however, is not to just oppose Sanders or even to oppose him, rather it is to build a shadow movement that endorses his good positions and opposes his bad ones.  Such a movement could pick up the pieces after the Sanders movement (in theory) collapses, i.e. without such an intervention the Sanders campaign will just automatically fall into the lap of the heir apparent, Hillary Clinton.  Abstaining from the election cycle during Obama’s first run for office helped to eliminate the creation of an accountability network after he was elected, i.e. many groups just lobbied his administration for handouts or gave much of what he did a pass at first.  Instead, they could have built a shadow campaign and matching services organization that could be used after the election and during the next series of elections.

I also reject Gupta’s argument that “the fact that the first real pushback from leftists against Black Lives Matter is around the 2016 election reveals how electoralism can induce activists to side with elites against the grassroots.”  The fact is many on the Left were alienated by “the specifics of the incident,” independent of what Gupta alleges.   If Sanders’s supporters think that they should give him a pass on everything, as Gupta argues, they are simply wrong.  Yet, their being wrong does not disqualify the merits of building a parallel, left movement that shadows Sanders and all the other candidates for office.  Critics of Sanders build on the limits of his supporters’ arguments which in my view is basically a strawman argument.  They tend to think in narrow dualities, i.e. Sanders as a shill for Clinton or social movements outside the electoral system.

Electoralism verus Horizontalism or Reconstructionist Redesign?

Gupta argues that Sanders has a campaign that is “top down, centered on one person, with no process or space for popular input to discuss his political failings, the limits of electoralism, or other strategies.”  He is certainly correct.  But to suggest that these limitations are impossible within the framework of electoralism is wrong, if one does not consider the possibilities of shadow educational campaigns that build upon the electoral framework.  This is a political design capability that is clearly outside both the deconstructionistic framework of Gupta and the traditional electoral intervention of the Sanders campaign.

Gupta continues, that “expecting a presidential campaign to solve the problem of organization is magical thinking.”  He is certainly correct on that score, but he does not seem to grasp the logic of: a) topicality, b) the media spot light and c) ju-jitsu politics.  As for a), the campaign and election cycle create an audience with focused attention and at a large scale.  Given the Left needs to reach audiences, they should not pass on this opportunity.

As for b), the media focuses narrowly on places like Iowa and New Hampshire, which are small in territorial scale compared to the U.S., yet get mass media coverage. One can choose to influence or abdicate influence over that space.  These primary battles create a way to collapse a continental scale country into a more delimited, organizing space, e.g. through canvasses by thousands of students as happened during previous campaigns by national peace candidates, etc.  This represents both a time and space limited opportunity and conjuncture.

As for c), I believe one can successfully use the focused attention of a) and b) against the elites if one organizes a shadow campaign and links the campaign to building a radical services organization.  This seems to be part of  the logic of those disrupting the Sanders campaign, although I disagree with the tactics of how they are challenging or pushing that campaign in a certain direction.  I basically think these attempts at colonization are crude.  Malcolm X never disrupted the churches he recruited from, nor did he directly alienate them in these moments. This tactical choice made him a more effective recruiter of persons from these churches.  The tragedy of continuing police slaughter of innocent African Americans will lead to anger and disgust which is justified, but one also has to consider what has historically proven to be most effective.

In conclusion, I think Gupta, Hedges and Street have fetishized candidates, elections and campaigns, rather than carefully analyze the larger political space created by media, assemblies of voters, and the topicality created by an election.  There is a more dialectical way to address the limits of electoralism (and even the Sanders campaign) that they basically do not understand or ignore.  They present no coherent alternative model for social change.  Keep in mind that national elections, involving millions of persons, at least formally have more democracy to them than most NGOs or social movements which are often controlled by a few leaders (or leaders who disingenuously claim they are not leaders but define the basic design or performance specifications of social movements).

In 1990, I helped organize the national town meeting called, “The U.S. After the Cold War: Claiming the Peace Dividend.”  This meeting brought together leaders like Jessie Jackson, George McGovern, David Dinkins and Bernie Sanders, as well as Senator Claiborne Pell (head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and Richard Celeste (Governor of Ohio).  The event created a media space in which the issues of urban development, military budget cutbacks, conversion of defense firms, and disarmament were discussed and linked to a network of more than 38 radio stations and about 64 cities.  The city meetings included grassroots face-to-face deliberations that were horizontal in spirit, although the radio broadcast was admittedly vertical.

I do not bring up this piece of history to revive the golden moments of Sanders’s career, something Gupta thinks that Sanders and his supporters do.  Rather, I bring this up to show how one could create a space for a more radical, demilitarized and alternative politics and link that to a space traditionally occupied by “top down” Democratic Party politicians.  In the design of this meeting we therefore were able to combine: a) bottom up organizing, b) a more radical agenda and c) the Democratic Party establishment.  In theory, there are still better ways to promote such combinations and I later helped organize the Global Teach In (www.globalteachin.com) which has engaged in items a) and b), without much if any c). Here we cooperated with the Occupy movement and talked about demilitarization, alternative banking systems, cooperatives and citizen utilities. Newer models of organizing must also make connections to the systematic organization of economic, media and political power necessary for combating police and NRA-sanctioned murders of civilians as I have argued earlier.

Gupta is correct about the limits of actually existing election campaigns.  Hedges is correct with Gupta and Street about the limits to the Democratic Party, but this line of thinking is nothing new and early thinkers on the question suggested that the African American vote had to be organized by potentially being withheld but not simply disengaged.  Gupta, Hedges and Street are wrong to think that electoralism in the context of the Democratic Party campaign offers no proactive opportunities for a critical analysis or for radical social movements.  Finally, if verticalism and the Non-Profit Industrial complex have failed, so too has horizontalism failed (at least in the United States).  Given the way that the Latin American Left has embraced institution building, one can safely conclude that the best synthesis is verticalism linked to horizontalism, as the national town meeting organizing model also indicated in 1990.  The capacity to learn this lesson earlier was limited by the “not invented here” syndrome of the Left, something which continues into the present (despite whatever rhetorical endorsements the Latin American Left may receive).

About the Author

Jonathan Michael Feldman is a principal organizer at www.globalteachin.com and can be reached on Twitter, @globalteachin.

One thought on “Why Presidential Elections and the Bernie Sanders Campaign Are Not Necessarily Detrimental to Movement Building

  1. A useful, discriminating analysis. I think it would also be helpful to consider how these analyses all tend to bracket the question of historical context. While I realize that Error Number 1 is to glibly claim that “we are living in a time of system crisis” it does seem that each of these writers have become so leery of this mistake that they argue in a rather timeless and narrowly US-centric way and so fail to consider whether the state of global capitalism today might have any bearing on these important questions. For example, if we consider Occupy, isn’t it the case that their initiative stood in some relation not only to conditions in the US, but also in relation to parallel conditions in other countries, especially those around the Mediterranean, that saw active protest movements outside the bounds of official political parties? Isn’t this evidence of not only an international crisis but also a developing international response to it? For the US Left this would seem to be a vital question, in as much as the revival and development of Left opposition currents in other countries should help to provide a grounding, a potential source of inspiration, for political efforts by the left in this country.

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