By William J. Weikart
For at least the past couple months, I have been blathering (and sharing) non-stop on Facebook (FB) in support of the Bernie Sanders campaign. For those who have not yet blocked or deleted me, I thank you, and I empathize with your annoyance!
The vast majority of my FB connections are Sanders supporters, to the degree that my feed often feels these days more like a Berniebook. However, I have been in some public and private debates with a few intelligent and respected friends who are Hillary Clinton supporters. These debates are a good thing, because, as many have observed, the nature of social media networks can often become personal ‘echo chambers’ whereby one surrounds one’s self only with the like-minded (perhaps, reproducing and magnifying a social tendency already established). Arguably, we create a semiclosed communicative realm whereby reality itself (to be a bit hyperbolic) is only very partially represented…Plato’s cave allegory easily comes to mind.
As I teenager I was politicized by, among other things, listening to Jello Biafra spoken word cassettes (of course, the Dead Kennedys preceded that.) One phrase that stuck in my head was his repetition of what was apparently an old saying; “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
I first became aware of the existence of Bernie Sanders in around 1994. I was in college at a medium-sized university in South Carolina. I had been involved in campus N.O.W. (National Organization for Women), and became inspired to start my own campus organization that was somewhat broader in theme, and more properly ‘left’, as opposed to liberal. My friend Tyler Miller and I started the Socialist Student Union. It apparently still exists there, to this day, surprisingly. Our faculty sponsor, from the political science department (and also apparently still teaching fulltime!), introduced us to the name Bernie Sanders – a standing socialist (!) senator from Vermont! We were amazed…said advisor (a Maoist, back then – plus eventual mentor to a few of us) was praiseful of Sanders; but of course, not totally behind him 100%. I’d learn over time that, while he was positively enthralled to be our faculty support, he did not claim the term socialist (rather, communist, of course), for the main reason that, for him, the term implied that change comes only, or mainly, through “the ballot box” (voting).
I did not agree with this as being the main, or only, way that significant change comes to political, social and economic systems; nor that the term socialist necessitated or implied this feature. I took the term socialist in a far more vague and general sense. In fact, communists, socialists and anarchists, to my budding political mind, had more in common than in difference. I’d go on to take an interest in anarchism. I’d move to New York City for graduate school in 2000, and try to link up with Direct Action Network, which I had heard about, through my connections with the then-called “anti-globalization” movement (a term that has faded fast). At the beginning of, and through most of, my graduate schooling, I was strictly about grassroots and streetlevel political movements, mainly of the anarchist persuasion. The presidential elections were always, to me and my peers, in the words of my old mentor, a theatrical-symbolic battle between “tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum”, or “opposite poles of the same stupidity”. The point here is that, in our fairly closed two-party system, the differences between the two parties (and, candidates, by extension) are very small.
To a left radical, the point is that both of the parties are of the capitalist system, and neither have any capacity to fundamentally change capitalism or go beyond it. The term “radical”, that mentor would say, means that one aims to “get to the root of” a problem, rather than treating mere symptoms, placing bandages. If one merely rips the visible top off a weed, without tugging it out fully, down through its (hidden) roots, then it will grow back. Today I realize that everyone wants to get to the roots of problems, of course — we simply differ on what we think those roots are (or what the main problems are, to begin with). But surely we are not all radicals. Of course, to the Marxist, the root(s) (almost) always lie in the economic structure.
Today, as a byproduct of my exposure to some of those old so-called “postmodern” philosophies so popular in the 80s and 90s, and vastly unpopular in the wake of 9/11 (2001), I still reject much binary thinking. Binary thinking is the notion that two main essences exist, in most or any fields, and are opposite. An example of a binary structure is the two party system in the USA (of course, the Democrats and Republicans are far from opposite; but they do retain some typical differences, sometimes quite important). Another is the binarythat change comes either through street activism (eg, direct action – from outside the “system”) –Or through voting and elections (the inside of the “system”). The former advocates are often typically self-described revolutionaries (radicals, wanting to eradicate capitalism); and the latter, reformists (those wanting to soften the blunt or harsh edges – or symptoms – of capitalism).
The worst aspect of binary thinking, aside from typically reducing complexity, and a multitude of variables and/or actors, is the either-or logic. When one or the other of two supposed opposites always wins, or ascends, often much of the middle, grey area is neglected or reduced away.
I’d go through a lot of activism and organizing here in NYC, mostly just as a non-central participant though…I’d eventually burn out on “activism” of that sort. One major reason was the fighting between, and even among, sects, or ideologies. Also there were very long meetings, endlessly, with said fighting; and a seemingly never-ending influx of newbies who needed to be caught up. The left seemed to have a deep self-loathing issue(s).
OCCUPY, or, Occupy Wall Street, was a grassroots political movement that came about here in NYC in 2011. By this time I had really grown skeptical and tired of street protesting as a main format for movements. But OCCUPY of course grew huge, spread widely, and arguably affected public discourse around structural inequality, in the slogan “We are the 99%”, as opposed to the 1% at the top of the income pyramid, who control a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth, and hence power. OCCUPY had vague and diffuse demands but the movement pretty inarguably influenced public discourse, at the very least, around finance capital, inequality, bank and corporate power.
I want to completely agree with the position that says OCCUPY opened up public discourse (eg, the 1%) to the degree that a Sanders candidacy could even be thinkable, let alone this unfathomably successful. I was a naysayer at the start of OCCUPY (I remember the day well; I was not there…I was highly skeptical). Now I know a bunch of old leftist friends who, like I was then, are naysayers about Bernie now. Makes me sad, but I understand…I have never taken an interest in electoral politics until this year. The above all goes to show that ye olde inside/outside (“the system”), from above vs from below, are largely false dichotomies. One need not necessarily choose, and perhaps, should not.
With my own semi-involvement with the Sanders campaign (just mainly as an independent advocate, armchair analyst, and “clicktivist” (ha), I have interestingly had to take up debates with people near me but to either side of me, politically: those centrists, to my right, who defend Hillary Clinton, typically on grounds that she is more electable and/or has a more achievable set of goals; and those radicals and activists to my left (arguably), who think that organizing around Bernie Sanders is a huge waste of time and resources.
It has gotten me to thinking about the binary scheme that is often referred to when analyzing one’s voting tendencies: 1. Voting one’s conscience and 2. Voting pragmatically. I’d like to expound around each a little bit and hope that we can move beyond a binary of one-or-the-other, here.
Voting one’s conscience, I think (hope), means voting in accords of one’s political values. Now, not everyone is super-aware and clear of what his/her core political values are. That’s certainly ok and sometimes even good (to fend off dogmatism). I think I am personally fairly clear on this, and so, from the get-go, it is hard for me to conceive of voting for anyone but Sanders (though he is not the messiah to me, nor is Hillary the devil, as one person framed it). However, for others less certain, sometimes choices are made at the last minute. Similar, and related, to the spirit of anti-intellectualism in the USA, many citizens here will claim to “not do politics”, or hate politics. It seems to me that Donald Trump appeals to many in this camp on sheer virtue that he is entertaining (I agree, to an extent), and he is easy to understand (he speaks in often very vague and excessively casual terms – about “winning”, for example). But he is also a megalomaniacal racist, misogynist, bully, and apparent liar. As many have pointed out, many of his political positions are appalling, but perhaps what makes him most dangerous is his affect – his explosive temper, his callousness…
Those people who are typically more politically engaged should not act like gatekeepers around the spheres of political discourse. If someone is coming later in life to political thinking, others should be glad they are at least engaging, and be patient when contradictory impulses are espoused, and the like.
The comedian and actor/writer Louis CK recently publicly decried Trump but followed up, rather blandly, by saying he likes both Hillary and Bernie, but ultimately thinks that the Republicans should “have their turn”, so to speak, after 8 years of Obama – just, not Trump. This is a disappointing and fairly naive political view to many, but I’d further extend his own prescription and say that we have not had a president anything much like Sanders since the 1960s, or really, the 1930s. So by his logic, ‘tis Sanders who really is badly in need of “a turn”. Alas. I am glad that comedians like CK, however, are popularizing political awareness in a way that does not alienate many who are usually alien. He is a bridge-builder, for sure, and he likes to listen to all sides.
Many Clinton supporters seem to back her based on the more pragmatic side of the criterion: that she is more electable, and/or, can get more of her claimed legislative goals accomplished. However, I would ask these folks if their core political values are also in line with Clinton. She seems to certainly NOT have inspired people anywhere near the level of intensity (at least, if not numbers) as the Sanders campaign has. I’d urge people to first consider their core political and ethical values and see how they match up with any given candidate. After this, we can and should certainly, assess feasibility and strategy…but with a firm observance of the Spinozist dictum that “we do not yet know what a body is capable of”…
Much of the left in the USA in my lifetime has exhibited what I would call a profound psychic investment in it’s own failure. By this I mean that, we would not know what to do with ourselves if we actually won. That we are so used to playing the critic, the outsider, the underdog, the subaltern…that to lose this status and identity would be too bewildering, vertigo-inducing. We need that opposition, those oppositional politics, to even be. This is an extension of binary thinking into dialectical thinking: that all progress comes from the struggle between two opposing forces. My favorite countermetaphor is: I’d rather go under or around a wall, than slam myself into it endlessly, until I get through it.
The energy and inspiration that Bernie Sanders and this movement have mustered are inspiring me to become re-interested in politics and the left (certainly not just electoral politics), after a lengthy period of cynicism and lethargy and despair. I suppose this holds for many; and so, as the public dialog is further expanded…Bernie has, in many ways, already won, regardless of the outcome.
The polls for Super Tuesday 2 states (who vote today!) are showing narrowing gaps for a surging Sanders. Also many polls show Sanders having better odds and a better spread of beating Trump, should he be the nominee for the Republicans. We have seen how polls can be very misleading (the Michigan primary, having had Clinton up by 20 percentage points and a 99% chance of winning); but most have not been this off. I’d point out that Sanders has, of the three (also Clinton and Trump), shown the most pronounced surge-potential as of late, and maybe through this entire primary season. I think there is still growth to come.
Here’s to a rapidly morphing political landscape, and to new potentialities!
Liam Weikart is a pool player who lives in Brooklyn. He is writing a sociology dissertation on experimental music in NYC since 2000.