I was raised by two strategic thinkers with an eye to the long haul who taught me the difference between reaction and purpose.
They drew their lessons about decision making in hard times out of a wealth of movement histories, including the incredible challenges of organizing inside Nazi concentration camps.
We can do the same.
In the wake of Bernie Sanders’ withdrawal from the presidential race, people’s social media feeds are full of all the heartbreak, discouragement and fury that come in the wake of a big hope disappointed.
There are threats of unfriending, accusations of treachery, the disillusionment of those who had illusions, helpless disappointment, all flying around in the unregulated world of social media.
There’s also a new level of outrage at the quality of candidate we’re being asked to get behind. For a minute we had hopes that we could actually elect someone principled and it raised not only the level of the debate, but also our standards. But, now we keep trying to apply those standards to a completely different kind of candidate.
The thing is, we’re not choosing a leader. We’re picking our fight.
A bitter pill
Campaigning for Bernie Sanders was a completely different kind of task than what’s before us now. There’s a lot or vitriol flying around about the “bitter pill” of Joe Biden. People who threw heart and soul into the Sanders campaign, and even those who joined with reservations and more modest hopes, have seen all that possibility withdrawn.
It was hopeful to have a socialist with really good policies go as far as he did in this rigged process. The ideas his campaign put forth helped us imagine a different outcome, a world in which sensible, humane policies that support people and planet were the law of the land. I imagine that world every day. Bernie’s campaign made that easier. It changed the conversation.
In different ways, so did Elizabeth Warren’s. And then it was over. But it’s the campaigning that’s over, not the conversation, and certainly not the fight for a different story, which is what all organizing is about.
And now we’re faced with an election where we’re choosing between business-as-usual capitalism, (corporate-run politics, uninterrupted extraction and warfare and ever widening gaps between rich and poor) and a reckless escalation of the worst of capitalism, including a potentially rapid slide into fascism, a massive ramp up of ecocidal extraction when we desperately need a massive ramp down, violent and unapologetic attacks on our civil liberties, a dramatic expansion of racist scapegoating and general lawlessness, crushing budget cuts to everything except the military, and all the rest of the very bad news.
The surge of hopefulness generated by having progressive candidates has made some of us forget that US presidential elections are not about choosing a leader whose values we share and respect.
Very rarely does a candidate get onto the national stage who is a real leader, trained up in movements and communities working for justice. The vast majority of the time, we are dealing with factions of the ruling class spending vast amounts of money arguing over how best to exploit us.
Under those condition, voting can uphold a pretense of representation that undermines our efforts, it can be a tool for trying to shape debate, and sometimes it allows us to affect some of the terms of the ongoing work of liberation.
Because we got amazingly far with candidates we could actually support, some of us lost track of that reality and the emotional backlash from our loss is being expressed as a refusal to choose the lesser of two evils.
But there’s no real proposal for what to do instead.
A dime can be the difference
If we had a widely endorsed plan for a broad, unified surge of organizing, around a clear and simple set of shared principles and goals, decentralized enough to allow a wide range of diverse strategies and local initiatives, with a strategy for organizing white working class people because, as Linda Burnham wrote in 2016, “We need to retain this lesson into the indefinite future: white rage is lethal to democracy and progress and if we’re not organizing white folks around their suffering, we can be sure that someone else is,” with a vision of climate justice based on dismantling the existing world economy and creating universal social justice, and with a bold list of interim goals—if uniting around building that movement was the proposal, then it would be a strategic rather than a reactive choice, and a very hopeful one.
But I believe it would still require us to do our best to defeat Trump because he’s dangerous and can do a tremendous amount of harm, and kill a lot of people.
My mother was a working class New York Puerto Rican feminist and radical, a “communist with a small c” who was never confused about what was at stake, and never bought into any of the liberal illusions about US democracy. She stayed registered in Vermont, where my parents spent summers, specifically so she could vote for Bernie in the early days. It was one of the few times voting gave her actual pleasure. But she understood that most of the time, voting was about navigating the terrain of the long term fight and keeping people alive to fight it.
When someone said to her that there wasn’t a dimes worth of difference between two candidates, she replied, “a dime can be the difference between life and death.”
The big picture
For me, Hillary Clinton, with her hawkish imperialism and direct responsibility for supporting the Honduran coup was a bitter pill. That coup, and the death squads that acted with impunity in its wake, caused the death of the beloved indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres. The lives of Honduran women were made infinitely worse. It made me sick to hear Clinton’s nomination touted as a victory for feminism. But that was because her particular crimes hit close to my heart. And I was clear that I preferred her as a foe to Trump.
This isn’t always the strategy I choose. There are times when I vote for the radical with no chance of winning because I want the conversations, want to push other campaigns on issues, because I decide it’s the best strategy for that moment. But even if I have to do a lot of venting first, my decisions are based on the big picture.
How do we keep tipping the balance our way? What choice we can make right now that sets us up best for the next move? Given the limitations of our circumstances, how can we have the biggest impact? Without wishful thinking, what are the real consequences of our decisions?
Sending a message
My grandfather Reuben Levins was a communist organizer and community lawyer in Brooklyn in the 1930s. His favorite book was Fatherland by the German communist sociologist Paul Massing, published under the pseudonym of Karl Billinger in 1935. The Nazis outlawed the German Communist Party in 1933, and Massing was imprisoned in an internment camp.
That year, Hitler held a referendum on withdrawing from the League of Nations, something the left strongly opposed. Representatives of different parts of the left held a secret meeting within the camp, at midnight, in the latrines. Internees were expected to vote. What should they do?
The Communist Party proposed the following: If we all vote no, our votes will be thrown away by the camp administrators. We cannot effectively vote no. If there’s a mixed vote, it will reinforce Nazi propaganda that those of us in the camps can participate freely in such elections. But if we unanimously vote in favor of a policy everyone outside the camps knows we oppose, we can send a message about what’s really happening here and undermine the lie that there are free elections.
Some people reacted emotionally – “How can you possibly think I would vote for such a policy? I’m a radical! This is a shameful idea,” and so on. These people reacted based on how the strategy would make them feel about themselves, even though this would have no impact on the actual situation. The communists argued that the only way open to them to actually use their votes was to trick the Nazis into allowing them to send a message. In those camps where the communists persuaded their co-inmates to join them, the strategy succeeded.
People outside the camps understood that the levels of repression were a lot worse than they’d been told.
The point is, the communist strategists weren’t distracted by what would make them feel righteous and principled and brave, even if it had no impact or made things worse. They weren’t distracted by what they wished their conditions allowed. They were able to stay focused on how to have as much of an impact as they could, given the extremely limiting reality they faced.
Choosing an opponent
There is no doubt that it’s hard for leftists, feminists, environmentalists, to vote for Biden, especially after the ways that Sanders and Warren elevated the content of the campaign, and Bernie’s exhilarating early primary wins.
But, to repeat, we on the left are not choosing a leader. We’re choosing an opponent.
For instance, both the candidates have committed sexual assaults. If we’re honest with ourselves about the nature of US society, we know that the vast majority of men who reach this level of political power are participants in rape culture. If we were choosing a (male) leader, it would be essential that he be an exception, but we’re not. We’re choosing the ground on which we fight as we face the greatest peril our species has ever contended with.
As opponents go, Biden is run-of-the-mill. We can push him to incorporate some of the proposals of the progressive campaigns and put up a modicum of resistance to the pressure from the far right, but our focus must be to build the strongest, most unified movement we can, to shift the thinking of a significant portion of our society in time to prevent the worst case scenarios for our futures.
We know what to expect from politicians of his stripe. Corporate loyalties, lip service on environmental protection, racial, gender and economic justice, support for US imperialism and an inflated military budget, an assertion of some liberal democratic values and a strong primary allegiance to capitalism.
We know how to fight under his regime.
Trump, on the other hand, is an unstable, reckless and irrational extremist who is not bound by the rule of any law, and is eager to dismantle all constraints on the looting of the planet. If he wins again, he will be even less constrained. Some of his actions will be catastrophically irreversible.
With only ten years to put any kind of brake on the climate crisis, four more years of Trump’s rabid expansion of extraction, the elimination of all environmental protections, and the potential for full blown fascism could tip the balance the wrong way. It will certainly make our work far more challenging.
His criminal mishandling of the pandemic has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives. How will he handle the growing consequences of ecological breakdown? How much more harm will he inflict? How much more empowered will his armed militias become?
It’s time to mourn the reality that we can’t yet elect a socialist president, or even, this year, a decent, non-raping man, and get back to work.
There is a lot more than a dime’s worth of difference here. It’s time to let go of our dreams of electing a good leader and choose the shape of the fight.
It’s midnight in the latrines.
This piece was originally published in an earlier form on the author’s Patreon site: https://www.patreon.com/posts/37123770.