The Left Work Left to be Done

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“I never meant to cause you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain”

This is not a postmortem of Bernie Sanders’s campaign.

After Super Tuesday, I concluded that the only path for Bernie Sanders to win would be for Joe Biden to faceplant vigorously at the next debate, which hasn’t happened yet. Yesterday’s results, while disappointing, were not unexpected, but they also don’t change my opinion of where we are. Various party players, including Jim Clyburn, are now floating the idea that the next debate should be canceled, which I think is premature and disappointing but also unsurprising. We’re always most cautious of the thing that we associate with our last loss. And despite the Republicans having a more fractious primary in 2016, people seem particularly invested in unifying the party quickly. (This is the apparent goal even though the number of 2016 Sanders-Trump voters was historically low, particularly compared to 2008.)

But as much as I’d like to say we can canvass and work our way out of this, it seems clear that any possible miraculous comeback is largely out of our hands. And that’s why I want to talk about a conversation I had last night while I was avoiding the returns.

I don’t buy that many tangible things, even though I have an apartment that can hold them now. So most of my disposable income gets spent on food. As a party of one, I end up sitting at a lot of restaurant bars, which in the Midwest often leads to conversations.

I ended up in that situation last night while avoiding the returns. I knew there was the possibility of an unexpected swing, but I didn’t feel particularly inclined to sit at a computer and watch results that I did not expect to feel great about.

As I was eating my feelings, the man next to me turned to me (as the two women on his other side were getting up to leave). He asked what I did, I reciprocated, and we talked a little bit about various Ohio cities and the implications of the virus. He was in town from Lexington, Kentucky, so we also had a decent discussion about bourbon and about UK basketball.

He was the one who brought up politics first.

I was tired. I didn’t particularly want to have a big fight right then and there, but I sighed and I prepared to dig my heels in. He was a self-declared Blue Dog in a family of mostly Trump supporters, he said. He was voting for Joe Biden, he said.

But we found some common ground on the question of Joe Biden’s debate performances, his stutter, and what public perception of Biden’s appearances might (and might not) be. I told him that I would be voting for Bernie, but that I had major problems with his approach and had not decided that until recently.

And then, something excellent happened. He asked a question about Bernie’s platform with genuine curiosity:

“You’re of a younger generation, and I’m curious how you think about this. I think universal healthcare should happen, but I’m worried about how we pay for Bernie’s plan specifically. Do you have any thoughts?”

And we were off.

“You say you want a leader, but you can’t seem to make up your mind” 

I was adamant for a good two years: I didn’t want Bernie to run again in 2020. I thought the toxicity would return and it would get in the way of actual policy discussions. And I think that specific concern ended up coming to pass, at least somewhat.

I think it’s easy to assume that without Bernie, Elizabeth Warren might have wrapped up the nomination by now. Warren, who was my first choice for months, never dropped below #2 for me throughout the entire primary season. But just as Warren supporters have appeared to split fairly evenly between Biden and Bernie as second choices, I’m not sure that Bernie supporters all go to Warren in a field where he doesn’t run.

I count seven other candidates in the field of 29(!) that could have had a plausible claim to the leftist mantle, not including Marianne Williamson, and the demographic differences between Warren supporters and Sanders supporters may indicate that one of those other candidates might have gotten a longer look from at least some significant portion of Sanders voters. If we want to acknowledge the sexism that appears to continue driving voting patterns, we have to assume it will still exist in that hypothetical world as well. (I am, of course, not saying that this sexism is to be accepted as immutable, but our efforts to clean out its rot would be equally long-term in that scenario.)

This is not to say we had nine Sanders-esque progressives in the field, or that there is a deep leftist bench waiting in the wings. Indeed, I would argue that the most prominent heirs to the Sanders platform today are the Squad, all of whom have roughly 14 months of federal office experience and zero experience as statewide elected officials.

I said this last week as well, but while I am very excited about the rise of the Squad, they cannot be the only prominent leftist politicians of the new generation. And of course, this does a disservice to other folks out there, such as Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, Lee Carter, Abdul El-Sayed, and Jumaane Williams, who have run as progressives and been doing the work with less media coverage to show for it.

And this was a large part of my concern with Bernie running in 2020: The movement cannot be defined by him alone. And I think that for better or for worse, his 2020 run has cemented at least some long-term usage of “Bernie supporter” as shorthand for “progressive”, a shorthand that ties people, sometimes unfairly, to some of Bernie’s flaws.

My friend at the bar, whose name I have unfortunately already forgotten, wanted to talk about the flaws he thought Bernie had. But to him, those flaws had to do with the policies Bernie was pushing rather than the toxicity I feel like I’ve stewed in over the last three months. I didn’t specifically ask him about where he got his news, but he didn’t strike me as the type of person who was constantly on Twitter, which I realized later was yet another way I tend to be bubbled off from a large portion of voters.

For some reason I can’t explain, I gave him two responses to his “how do we pay for it” question that I don’t typically lead with: 1) every other country has figured out how to finance healthcare as a right, and 2) we’ve run deficits pretty much continuously for decades, and the economy hasn’t collapsed. And yet again, the conversation defied my expectations: He seemed convinced, and his points and his questions never ventured into “how do we pay for it” land again.

Late on in the conversation, the “beer” test came up. “It seems stupid, but at the presidential level, I do care about whether I feel like I can get a beer with the candidate when I consider voting for them.” I acknowledged that this was a real phenomenon and brought everything back to my favorite hobby: blaming Ronald Reagan.

“You look at the 1976 presidential debates, and it reads like a series of policy papers. People didn’t treat it like a sales pitch until Reagan leaned on the skillset that he already had.” This seemed to resonate with him substantially, as he works in sales, and he mused about the low likelihood that he’d want to get a beer with Gerald Ford or Richard Nixon.

Still, there was a record scratch moment coming. “I voted for her, but I still just don’t feel like Hillary fit that mold. She just seemed too angry about what her husband did to her all those years ago, throughout the whole campaign.”

I resisted my urge to say “woof” out loud, perhaps letting him too much off the hook, but tried to redirect him. “Interesting, because I felt like her presentation often felt too sanitized and focus grouped. But isn’t it interesting that a woman can try to thread the needle like this and people still end up criticizing her from both sides?”

He agreed. “That’s a good point, and it’s tough for women. But this is why I really liked Amy Klobuchar—she could tell a compelling story.”

“Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing, it’s time we all reach out for something new—that means you too”

Bernie’s campaign, tactically, has left a lot to be desired from my perspective. I think that there are opportunities for voter persuasion he left on the table along the way, opportunities that he could have taken without compromising on policy. But it’s unclear to me how much of the vote Bernie was getting from people outside my bubble specifically because of the laser focus he had. And it was clear that he (or his campaign) has been trying to improve on at least some of his flaws from the 2016 cycle, even if they didn’t get all the way there or ran into pundits who didn’t acknowledge the change.

And at some point, the policies have to matter. I realize that so much of the anger at 45 is directed at his demeanor and what we might be able to glean from his demeanor, but the administration’s policy record continues the GOP’s build toward authoritarianism and outright racial and gender-based animus. 45 is a feature, not a bug. And I worry about the electoral landscape in 2022 if we win this year, when the natural inclination among a big part of the likely coalition would be to relax because we solved the bad orange man.

Not that Bernie Sanders is the perfect solution to the likely reversal of the enthusiasm gap that we’ll see. And this is not to say that progressive activism and forced accountability will be any less necessary in a hypothetical Sanders administration than it will be in a Biden administration. But I still believe this was the perfect opportunity to nominate a leftist and break Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical hold on the political conversation.

Notably, Reagan himself didn’t manage to flip Congress, which had been solidly Democratic for decades by 1980, immediately. The Senate flipped with him, but it flipped back under his presidency, and it took until 1994 for the House to flip. Unified Republican control didn’t follow until 2002, perhaps the most favorable Republican environment in the last 70 years. Attempts to realign the system come with fits and starts, and our presidential politics has been so stable for so long that even a series of small fluctuations in 2016 were seen by some as the end of a political system.

Never mind the fact that even counting 2016, 37 states have voted for the same party for president the last five elections in a row, and 7 of the remaining 13 voted for the same party in four of the last five elections. (Contrast this with the change from 1964 to 1968, when 35 states voted for a different party than in the previous election.)

All of this is to say that Bernie, despite risk, comes with considerable upside. And I do think that the parties are so far apart ideologically that Bernie’s theory of coalition is more viable than Biden’s.

But to some extent, all of this is reading tea leaves. We don’t know what electability looks like except in hindsight.

And you know who brings a very different set of assumptions to the table about electability?

Older Black voters.

While this was rare in my circles, I did see some folks out in the wild blaming older Black voters, who overwhelmingly favored Biden both in South Carolina and Super Tuesday, for torpedoing Bernie’s chances. A collection of them can be found here within a response Michael Harriot wrote to those folks.

I don’t agree fully with Harriot’s take. But he is one of the folks in the national conversation who you can trust to do his historical homework in supporting his positions. And his theory of Black history, particularly how the late 20th century Black experience has shaped where older Black voters are now, is useful and informative. These are the folks who have lived, repeatedly, through elections where they’ve been taken for granted. Through elections that have had far, far more consequences for them than they have for the liberal elite. Through elections that have shaped their view of how even white liberals are willing to discard racial justice when they feel like it will benefit them. Through Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful campaigns for president as their formative experience, rather than Barack Obama’s successful ones.

I feel like the conversation on electability has shifted a lot within the professional-class white liberal and leftist circles in the last four years. I’m glad it has. In an era where the parties are so ideologically separated, the tactic of appealing to the median voter as opposed to driving turnout seems to be, at least for the moment, a risky proposition.

But I think discussions in my bubbles about whether Warren deserves the “less electable” label (she does not) are very different than the understanding that these older Black voters have about how electoral politics works for them. Their expectation is much different than the expectations of millennials (and Gen Z), and I think it’s entirely unsurprising that the shift away from a three-way race between Biden, Steyer, and Sanders in South Carolina coincided almost perfectly with the South Carolina debate, where a debate audience, filled with people who paid upwards of $1750 to enter, spent the evening booing both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and cheering the candidates at the rightmost flank of the party, the candidates with the least redistributive economic policies.

For somebody who has watched every debate so far, the audience reactions were incredibly jarring. But the bulk of the primary electorate in every state tunes in late and adjusts their preferences late. If that was the only debate you saw, and your baseline is that white voters abandon you in order to protect their own interests, whether financial or otherwise, there was no way you were coming out of that debate feeling excited to vote for Bernie Sanders, even if universal healthcare and student loan forgiveness/free college were at or near the top of your list.

Was that an intentional decision by the national party? I don’t think so. Was it still a major moment that left Bernie at a substantial disadvantage? I do think so.

But it’s on us to correct this. We can’t rely on the party to acknowledge this as an error and fix things internally.

We all need to reach out for something new. But that’s not a scold of the Black voters who know they will bear the burden of an electoral theory that doesn’t pan out. That’s an exhortation for us, those of us in our bubbles, to justify our theory, to show communities of color how they’re not only included but centered, and to understand their concerns about the risk it brings. We’re seeing the feared downside right now, across multiple areas of policy.

I do think that a move to the left is not only the correct answer on principle but also electorally valuable. I think that we’re in a unique political situation right now that presents that opportunity.

But if I sit here and just spout about it to people that have a similar background to me, people that are already inclined to agree with me, people that come from the same very small slice of the electorate as me, it won’t get any traction.

We all need to reach out for something new. That means me too.

My friend at the bar knew his biggest sticking point with Bernie: free college. “You know, I paid for my college education by taking out debt. I made a lot of sacrifices for that. Why are we trying to make college like a second high school, and what good is that going to do?”

For some reason, again, I tried a different approach than usual. I talked about the value of letting people learn what they want to learn, even if they ultimately wanted to end up in trade jobs, which he seemed to like. But then I asked whether he’d be more okay with a 30-year ramp-up to free college, with tuition getting about 3% cheaper every year. The response: “Oh, definitely. I guess that, well…huh.” I never got to throw the hammer down and ask why he felt so differently about that than doing everything all at once, but I do hope at least some of the point got across.

The conversation shifted, though. “Wouldn’t people just take advantage of all of the free things we’d be giving them? I have relatives who devote their lives to gaming the system so that they can remain on government benefits.” Emboldened by my successes, I tried a new rhetorical tack: “I agree that there will always be some level of people seeing the social safety net as a shortcut. But I’d argue that there’s actually less gaming of a system if you make these things universal and automatic. If people see it as a right, that will make it less game-able…and it’ll also have the added side effect of reaching more people than any kind of benefit that requires you to opt in.”

We chatted a little about what UBI might do to supplement the current benefits landscape, but he seemed unconvinced. “There’s still work that needs to be done. I worry that if you give people enough money, they just won’t work.”

The opportunity was perfect. “Well, this is why I think that a job guarantee program is much more valuable. And I do think that the amount of labor that needs to be done is decreasing over time, but the labor movement right now has been kneecapped to the point where we’re sticking with what I think is an obsolete 40-hour work week.”

“A resurrection of the WPA, with some tweaks, can solve all of these things at once: the job guarantee jobs’ workweek can contract to the amount of work that needs to be done, and so much of the infrastructure need and child/disability/elder care need right now is in rural areas that feel disaffected and overlooked. A lot of my clients, at one point or another, felt that the military was their only ticket to stability—”

I was not expecting what he said when he cut me off. “But the military is already a huge federal job guarantee program, basically.” It wasn’t even the point I was going to make; it was a better one.

Honestly, I was floored. If a Blue Dog from rural Kentucky could get there on his own, before the half-hour mark of our conversation, what was I doing spending all of my time typing a bunch of things on social media at all?

I’ve spent well more than a half hour drafting a single Facebook comment reply before, to far less success. And to some extent, the idea of online communication connecting us to more people also makes communications directed at us a lot easier to disregard.

But my goal isn’t to try to make us less Online, not necessarily, at least. It’s more that retail politics matters. Even in the context of statewide or national campaigns, campaigns that are increasingly beholden to nationwide enthusiasm gaps, you can reframe somebody’s worldview fairly quickly if you can listen and respond on their terms. And I think that if you can push the Reaganesque “government is always the problem” framing aside, many people are willing to embrace a lot of policies that tend to make society fairer.

Not coincidentally, this level of retail politics is also how you tend to win the local races that are vital for building a progressive bench.

I don’t think my friend is going to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Kentucky primaries on May 19. It’s possible he may not even have an opportunity to do so. But these conversations don’t happen in a vacuum, and if somebody is willing to think about the way they want to build society, it’s worth it to try to plant the seeds.

“I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain”

My conversation wrapped up shortly after the job guarantee discussion. As I left the restaurant, I checked my phone and saw the trend of the initial results. I got in the rental car and continued scrolling as the first chords of Purple Rain drifted through the stereo.

Prince wrote Purple Rain as a meditation on the end of the world: “When there’s blood in the sky—red and blue = purple. Purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.”

I said this wasn’t a postmortem, and I believe that. But I do think that the March primaries have exposed some flaws in the assumptions that leftists took out of 2016, and there are major, world-altering crises on the horizon that we need to address.

Almost everybody reading this is in the top 1% of earners worldwide. That cutoff is around $32,400 per year (although I will note the underlying data for that calculation is about 10 years old). We are the ones who will have the resources to weather climate change, whether through relocation or otherwise. We, largely, will not be the ones most affected when the waters come. But 4.6 million people die every year just from air pollution. This accounts for nearly ten percent of all global deaths.

We have the power to be the stewards of the world through our actions and our habits, whether we wanted that power or not. We have to do what we can to ensure that that power, when collectively aimed, is used well. This not only means presidential primary advocacy, but similar electoral efforts downballot and activism aimed at our current elected officials.

The opening chord of Purple Rain is an odd one; the voicing is very unusual in any context. It’s a B-flat chord, but the B-flat root of the chord is barely audible. I almost always hear it as an inverted chord, with a D root. This voicing gives a slight added feeling of instability and lack of resolution. This subtle inversion sets the tone for the forward motion through the rest of the song, with only brief and interrupted resolutions until we get to the immensely satisfying B-flat root over six and a half minutes in, a B-flat that is held for 76 seconds through the outro.

This is, ultimately, the thesis of the left movement (and, in an expression of that, Bernie’s campaign): the society that was built for us and that we’re so used to is actually really upside down. This cannot hold. The path is nonlinear and will involve interruptions and setbacks, but we have to push forward. We have to understand the people who don’t have the benefit of the bubbles we’ve grown accustomed to. And when we get there, it will be, it must be, something that everybody can celebrate.

While I generally put little stock in campaign phrases, one in particular speaks to me this time around: we have to fight for someone we don’t know. Not just into next week’s primaries, but beyond.

The work, as always, continues.

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