“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”
–Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Successful strategic thinking starts with gaining knowledge, in particular gaining adequate knowledge of the big picture, of all the political and economic forces involved (Earth) and what they are thinking, about themselves and others, at any given time. (Heaven). It’s not a one-shot deal. Since both Heaven and Earth are always changing, strategic thinking must always be kept up to date, reassessed and revised.
This statement above was part of the opening to a widely circulated article I wrote three times, about two, four, and six years ago. With the upcoming November 2020 elections, it’s time to take my own advice again and do another update. The electoral strategic terrain is always changing, and we don’t want to be stuck with old maps and faulty models.
In the earlier versions, I suggested setting aside the traditional ‘two-party system’ frame, which obscures far more than it reveals, and making use of a ‘six-party’ model instead. The new hypothesis, I suggested, had far more explanatory power regarding the events unfolding before us. Some critics have objected to my use of the term ‘party’ for what are factional or interest group clusters. The point is taken, but I would also argue that U.S. major parties, in general, are not ideological parties in the European sense. Instead, they are constantly changing coalitions of these clusters with no firm commitment to program or discipline. So I will continue to use ‘parties,’ but with the objection noted. You can substitute ‘factions’ if you like. Or find us a better term.
For the most part, the strategic picture holds. The ‘six parties’, under two tents, were first labeled as the Tea Party and the Multinationalists under the GOP tent, and the Blue Dogs, the Third Way New Democrats, the Old New Dealers, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, under the Democratic tent. In the second version, we had three ‘parties’ under each.
There are still a few minor players outside of either tent—the Howie Hawkins Green Party presidential campaign, Kshama Sawant’s ongoing battles in the Seattle City Council, the local independent candidates of the Richmond Alliance, and a few more. They might be quite important in local areas, but still lack the weight to be featured in this analysis.
First and most important for us on the left now is the persistent rise of Senator Bernie Sanders, who keeps showing far more strength than imagined. We would today add the campaign of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and the gains made by DSA members and other progressives in the Congress and several state legislatures, most notably, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and ‘the Squad.’
The second is the growing power of President Donald Trump and rightwing populism on the right. It now includes the full integration of the GOP national and state apparatus into the Trump campaign machine as well as the informal alliance and growth of fascist militias and related groups. In the White House, Steve Miller is the hatchet man on ‘white nationalist’ immigration policy and serves as their voice at the top. According to Foreign Policy in March 2017:
“This is how [they] view the modern world: The West is threatened by hordes of swarthy outsiders, especially Mexicans and Muslims, and they are lonely defenders of the white Christian race against this insidious threat. There is no evidence that Trump has given this matter as much thought as they have, but, based on his public pronouncements, he has reached similar conclusions. That helps to explain why the administration is building a border wall, expanding deportations, and trying to keep out citizens of as many Muslim countries as possible. This isn’t about fighting terrorism or crime; it’s about fighting changing demographics. And it’s premised on an unspoken assumption that only white Christians are true Americans; all others are ‘somebody else.'”
Both factors, then, from different directions, challenged, narrowed, and weakened the old dominant neoliberal hegemonic bloc, which had spanned both the GOP transnationals and those transnational globalists in the Third Way Democrats for decades. This new dynamic also saw the Tea Party divide into Rightwing Populists and Christian Nationalists. (Although ‘Judeo-Christian’ is sometimes used to include Jewish figures). The result: Trump has hegemony in the GOP today, pulling some GOP neoliberals under its thumb.
Back in 2016, Politico had characterized these three GOP ‘parties’: “After the Iowa caucuses” the GOP emerged “with three front-runners who are, respectively, a proto-fascist, [Trump] a Christian theocrat [Cruz] and an Ayn Rand neoliberal [Rubio] who wants to privatize all aspects of public life while simultaneously waging war on the poor and working classes.”
Here’s the new snapshot of the range of forces for today (including a graphic map). The three main changes are the persistence of the Blue Dogs, connected to a three-way breakup of labor from the globalist and corporate liberal center bloc, the growth of the Sanders Social Democratic bloc, and the reduction and even the split-off of the traditional ‘Never Trumper’ GOP globalists and multinationalists from the GOP tent. In brief, today, Trump has drawn the theocrats around Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)into his administration, while and holing Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and other Koch libertarians at a distance.
Starting from the left upper corner of the map:
The rightwing populists
This ‘party’ as mentioned, has now taken over the GOP. Trump was originally an ‘outlier elite’ with his own bankroll, but now supplemented with funds from Russian oligarchs and Arab oil fortunes (See ‘Proof of Conspiracy‘ by Seth Abhramson). He is also still directly connected to the Robert Mercer family fortune, the 4th ranking billionaire funding rightwing causes. For example, the Mercers keep Breitbart News afloat and funded the career of Steve Bannon, former Trump ‘strategist’ that took him to victory in the last stretch. Now along with Breitbart, Fox News is the hourly mouthpiece for Trump’s war against the mainstream ‘fake news’ mass media.
Trump is also pulling in new wealth. In January 2020, Alternet reports: “One example is Dan and Farris Wilks, two billionaire siblings who have worked in the fracking industry in Texas and have “given a combined $100,000 toward the president’s reelection.” The Wilkes Brothers supported Sen. Ted Cruz over Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primary but are supporting Trump in 2020.”
A major event, naturally, is that the House impeached Trump in 2019. The Senate followed up by acquitting him in a sham ‘trial’ in early 2020. This was a major result of Trump’s fierce ongoing political warfare against the ‘Deep State.’ The battle is actually a contest for a new ‘America First’ white nationalist hegemony against the neoliberal globalists under both tents, the old GOP ‘Establishment’ and the Democrat’s Third Way. The ‘Deep State’ is basically the federal civil service, but also includes the ‘Intelligence Community,’ with a long list of Trump-targeted CIA and FBI ‘corrupt leaders’, of which FBI director James Comey was the first to fall. ‘Corruption’ was their refusal to pledge loyalty to Trump personally, like an old-style Mafia boss. The ongoing purges of the security apparatus this way creates a personalized fascist-like clique among them.
Trump also formed a strong alliance with the Christian Nationalist faction (Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, et. al.), and the DeVos family (Amway fortune), which represents another billionaire donor to the GOP right. Devos’s brother, Erik Prince, has also amassed billions from his Blackwater/Xe firms that train thousands of mercenaries to serve as ‘private contractors’ for U.S. armed intervention anywhere. Prinz is now reportedly preparing to spend a few million sending spies into ‘liberal groups.’
These two blocs under the Trump RNC tent grew in strength since 2016. At the same time, the Establishment Neoliberals shrank and divided a dozen ways, and they were defeated with some humiliation one by one. The sole breakaway vote of Romney on Article One of Impeachment in the Senate symbolized this. Romney, with considerable wealth himself, is also a Mormon bishop, and his LDS church recently listed holdings of over $37 billion with the SEC. This is a factor in Romney’s ability to stand alone. At the moment, however, the much-weakened GOP Establishment is left with the choice of surrender, or crossing over to the Third Way bloc under the Dem tent. A good number already did so in order to vote for Biden in the Dem 2020 primary, expanding the Dem electorate to the right.
Trump also reached under the Dem tent to form an alliance with the Blue Dogs. But it remains tactical. stemming from his appeals to ‘Rust Belt’ Democrats and some unions on trade and tariff issues, plus white identity resentment politics. The economic core of rightwing populism remains anti-global ‘producerism’ vs ‘parasitism’. Employed workers, business owners, real estate developers, small bankers are all ‘producers’, and they oppose ‘parasite’ groups above and below, but mainly those of ‘the other’ below them—the unemployed (Get a Job! as an epithet), the immigrants, poor people of color, Muslims, and more.
Recall that Trump entered politics by declaring Obama to be an illegal alien and an illegitimate officeholder (a parasite above), but quickly shifted to Mexicans and Muslims and anyone associated with ‘Black Lives Matter.’ This was aimed at pulling the fascist and white supremacist groups of the ‘Alt Right’–using Breitbart and worse to widen their circles, bringing them closer to Trump’s core. With these fascists as ready reserves, Trump reached farther into Blue Dog territory and its workers, retirees, and business owners conflicted with white identity issues—immigration, Islamophobia, misogyny, and more.
Trump’s outlook is not entirely new. It has deep roots in American history, from the anti-Indian ethnic cleansing of President Andrew Jackson to the nativism of the Know Nothings, to the lynch terror of the KKK, to the anti-elitism of George Wallace and the Dixiecrats. Internationally, Trump combines aggressive jingoism, threats of trade wars, and an isolationist ‘economic nationalism’ aimed at getting others abroad to fight your battles for you, while you pick up the loot (‘we should have seized and kept the oil!’). Trump is now consolidating his gains, and the November 2020 election will bring to light the new balance.
Trump’s successes, however, also still contain his internal weaknesses: the support of distressed white workers. At present, they are forming a key social base of his victories, assuming they will get lush jobs or rising 401Ks from the ‘Make America Great Again!’ promises. But the problem is that Trump has not implemented any substantive programs apart from tax cuts. These mainly benefit the top 10% and create an unstable class contradiction in his operation, one bound to surface as promises are unfulfilled. His obvious inability to deal with the coronavirus emergency is undermining the confidence of some of his base. Most of what Trump has paid out is what WEB Dubois called the ‘psychological wage’ of ‘whiteness’, a status position. Thus white supremacist demagogy and misogyny also continues to unite a wide array of all nationalities of color and many women and youth against him.
The Christian nationalists
This subset of the former Tea Party bloc has been strengthened by the recent addition of William Barr as the Attorney General. It’s made up of several Christian rightist trends, which gained more coherence under Vice President Mike Pence. It includes many who are simply conservative evangelicals. For Barr’s part, he brings in the Catholic far-right, a minority with the American Catholic Church.
A good number, however, are the Protestant theocracy-minded fundamentalists, especially the ‘Dominionist’ sects in which Ted Cruz’s father is active. They present themselves as the only true, ‘values-centered’ (Biblical) conservatives. They argue against any kind of compromise with the globalist ‘liberal-socialist bloc’, which ranges, in their view, from the GOP’s Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders. They are more akin to classical liberalism than neoliberalism in economic policy. This means abandoning nearly all regulations, much of the safety net, overturning Roe v. Wade, getting rid of marriage equality (in the name of ‘religious liberty’) and abolishing the IRS and any progressive taxation in favor of a single flat tax. Salon in April 2018 reported:
“This rightwing Christian movement is fundamentally anti-democratic. Their “prayer warriors” do not believe that secular laws apply to them, thus making it acceptable, if not honorable, to deceive non-believers in order to do God’s work. Many evangelicals in the Christian nationalist or “dominionist” wing of the movement want the United States to be a theocracy. In some ways, this subset of the evangelical population resembles an American-style Taliban or ISIS, restrained (so far) only by the Constitution.”
Their classic liberalism is a key reason they attract money from the Koch Brothers networks, while the Koch’s hold Trump and his populists in some contempt. As mentioned above, the Christian Nationalist faction also has some access to the DeVos fortunes. Effectively, Christian nationalist’ prosperity economics’ amounts to affirmative action for the better off, where the rise of the rich is supposed to pull everyone else upwards, so long as those below also pay their tithes and pull upward with their ‘bootstraps.’ They argue for neo-isolationism on some matters, but favor an all-out holy war on ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ to the point of ‘making the sand glow.’ They pushed for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and ripping up the Iran nuclear deal. All this is aimed at greasing the skids for the ‘End Times,’ the ‘Rapture, ‘and the ‘Second Coming.’ With Cruz, Pence and Devos as leaders, they have become the second most powerful grouping under the GOP tent, and the one with the most reactionary platform and outlook, even more so than Trump himself in some ways.
The establishment neoliberals
This is the name now widely used in the media for what we previously labeled the Multinationalists. It’s mainly the upper crust and neoliberal business elites that have owned and run the GOP for years, but are now out in the cold. It included the quasi-libertarian House’ Freedom Caucus,’ the smaller group of NeoCons on foreign policy (John Bolton and John McCain), and the shrinking number of RINO (Republican In Name Only) moderates. The Establishment also favors a globalist, U.S. hegemonist and even, at times, unilateralist approach abroad, with some still defending the Bush-Cheney disaster in Iraq. Their voice in the Senate is now Romney.
Keep in mind that the process of technology-driven financialization has divided the ruling class of capitalism in every major country into three—a local sector of the transnational capitalist class, the nation-based multinationals, and an anti-globalist national sector. Thus among traditional US neoliberals, some are US hegemonists, but many have a transnational globalist understanding of the world with vast amounts of their money in foreign stock. China and global value chains integrate them with other global capitalists. This is why Trump’s trade policy is so controversial with Wall Street elites of both Republican and Democratic leanings. US economic hegemony makes no sense at this level of financial and productive integration)
This subordination is a big change for the traditional GOP top dogs. They would like to purge a weakened Trump and rebuild but so far lack the ability. They could try to form a new party with neoliberal Dems. Or more likely, they could join the Dems and try to push out or smother those to the left of the Third Way grouping.
Now let’s turn to the Dem tent, starting at the top of the graphic.
The blue dogs
This small ‘party’, funded by the medical industry and some defense firms, has grown and gained some energy. One reason is that the United Steel Workers and a few craft unions decided ‘to work with Trump’ on tariffs and trade. The USW also got firmly behind Connor Lamb (D-PA) for Congress. Lamb won a narrow victory in a Western PA CD in a rural and conservative area, but with a good number of USW miners. He was endorsed by the Blue Dog PAC, although he is not yet a formal member of the caucus.
Since then PA’s earlier gerrymandered lines have changed. Lamb had to run again in the new 17th CD, which is Beaver County and part of Pittsburgh itself, where Trump has less support. Support for ‘Medicare for All’ is strong in this area. Lamb claims to favor it but claims it’s ‘unaffordable’ for now. Lamb has also broken with the Dem leadership to vote with the GOP on several military issues. This is a sore point for a good number of left progressive Democrats. They’re still likely to vote for him, but shift their organizing energies into working for better state district candidates running for legislative seats in Harrisburg. Rep Dan Lipinski, a well-known Blue Dog in Chicago, is targeted in 2020 by a left-progressive Democrat.
The Blue Dog resurgence may not last. On the one hand, the DNC Third Way gang currently loves people like Lamb, and wants to see more candidates leaning to the center and even the right. On the other hand, Trump is unstable on tariffs. If he doesn’t follow through on those he has put out as proposals and folds up on major infrastructure plans save for ‘building The Wall’, the unions involved may turn against him.
Working to win them to his campaign Biden recently spoke at a Blue Dog fundraiser in California. “Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), the communications co-chair of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, is listed as a host on an invitation for the event,” reported the Jan 8, 2020 Sludge, an online newsletter.
The Blue Dogs, Sludge continues “also operates a political action committee, Blue Dog PAC, that raises millions of dollars each election cycle, mainly from corporate PACs, and spends money to help elect more conservative Democrats. Corporate PACs that donated to Blue Dog PAC in the 2018 election cycle include those affiliated with drug company Pfizer, defense contractor Northrop Grumman, oil company ExxonMobil, and Wall Street bank Citigroup.”
The third way new democrats
First formed by the Clintons, with international assistance from Tony Blair and others, this dominant ‘party’ was funded by Wall Street finance capitalists. The founding idea was to move toward neoliberalism by ‘creating distance’ between themselves and the traditional Left-Labor-Liberal bloc, i.e., the traditional unions and civil rights groups still connected to the New Deal legacy. Another part of ‘Third Way’ thinking was to shift the key social base away from the core of the working class toward college-educated suburban voters, but keeping alliances with Black and women’s groups still functional.
Thus the Third Way tries to temper the harsher neoliberalism of the GOP by ‘triangulating’ with neo-Keynesian and left-Keynesian policies. But the overall effect is to move Democrats and their platform generally rightward. Now that HRC was narrowly defeated, the Third Way’s power in the party has diminished somewhat but gaining clout with the candidacy of Senator Joe Biden (D-DL). As mentioned above, its labor alliances have weakened, with unions now going in three directions. Most of labor has remained with the Third Way. Some moved rightward to the Blue Dogs while others—Communications Workers, National Nurses United, and the U.E.—are part of the Sanders bloc. In terms of the current relation of forces in the party apparatus, the Third Way has about 60% of the positions and still controls the major money. In California in 2018, for example, the Regulars kept control of the state party committee only with extremely narrow margins over Bernie supporters. This percentage will likely change after the final votes totals from the California 2020 primary are returned.
The key test is the November battle with Trump: Who will inspire and mobilize the much-needed ‘Blue Wave’, give it focus and put the right numbers in the right places? The measured Third Way moderates? Or the Social Democrat insurgents? This question brings us to the last of the six’ parties.’
The social democrats
This description is better than simply calling it the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), as in the first version of this article. I’ve also taken off ‘Rainbow’ from the second version because the Third Way, which has kept the older and more pragmatic voters of the rainbow groupings under its centrist influence, shares it as well.
As explained before, the ‘Social Democrat’ title doesn’t mean each leader or activist here is in a social-democrat group. It means the core of the CPC, Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), Working Families Party (WFP), Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Justice Democrats and Our Revolution platforms are roughly similar to the left social democrat groupings in Europe. This is made even more evident with Bernie’s self-description as a ‘democratic socialist’ in the primaries, where it only seemed to help. The platform, however, is not socialist itself, but best described as a common front vs finance capital, war, and the white supremacist right. This is true of groups like Die Linke (‘The Left’) in Germany as well, which met recently with PDA and CPC members.
Finally, there is the dramatic growth of the DSA due to their wise tactics in the 2016 Bernie campaign. They went all in for Bernie but also lost no opening to make themselves visible. Prominent Justice Democrat and DSAer Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), who has been a firebrand in the House, has made the ‘Green New Deal’ a household term, and joined Sanders on his campaign trail. Now with over 60.000 members with chapters in every state, DSA has already won a few local and statehouse races the first time out. They are now an important player in their own right within this cluster.
This growth is all to the good. The common front approach of the Social Democratic bloc can unite more than a militant minority of actual socialists. Instead, it has a platform that can also unite a progressive majority around both immediate needs and structural reforms, including both socialists and non-socialists. Apart from winning 46% of the 2016 Dem convention delegates and a good number of statehouse seats, this ‘party’ is now noted for two things: first is the huge, elemental outpourings of young people–mainly women, students and the young workers of the distressed ‘precariat’ sector of the class–in the elemental risings of millions after Trump took office. Second, with mass groups like Our Revolution and Indivisible, it added a higher degree of organization to this dynamic and growing cluster.
What does it all mean?
With this brief descriptive and analytical mapping of the upper crust of American politics, many things are falling into place. The formerly subaltern groupings in the GOP have risen in revolt against the Neoliberal Establishment of the Romneys and the Bushes. Now they have rightwing populist and white nationalist hegemony. On the other hand, the Third Way is seeking a ‘restoration’ and control, through Vice President Joe Biden’s candidacy, of the earlier Obama coalition, with all its constituency alliances. At the same time, the Third Way wants to co-opt and control the Social Democrats as an energetic but critical secondary ally.
The Sanders’ forces have few illusions about this and don’t want to be anyone’s subaltern without a fight. So they are continuing to press all their issues and policies of a common front vs finance capital, war, and the white supremacist right, building more base organizations, more alliances, and more clout as they go.
This ‘big picture’ also reveals much about the current budget debates, which are shown to be three-sided–the extreme austerity neoliberalism of all three parties under the GOP tent, the ‘austerity lite’ budget of the Third Way-dominated Senate Democrats, and the left Keynesian, progressive and social democratic ‘Back to Work’ budget and ‘Green New Deal’ projects of the Social Democrats and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
We must keep in mind, however, that favorably ‘shifting the balance of forces’ in election campaigns is mainly an indirect and somewhat ephemeral gain. It does ‘open up space’, but for what? Progressive initiatives matter for sure, but much more is required strategically. We are interested in pushing the popular front vs. finance capital to its limits, and within that effort, developing a 21st-century socialist bloc. If that comes to scale in the context of a defeat of the Trumpist right bloc, the Democratic tent is also going to be stretched and strained. It could even collapse and implode, given the sharper class contractions and other fault lines that lie within it, much as the Whigs did in the 19th Century.
This ‘Whig option’ tactic would demand an ability on the part of the left to regroup all the progressive forces, inside and outside, into a new ‘First Party’ alliance. Such a formation also includes a militant minority of socialists, which will then be able to contend for power. The tricky part is to do this in a way that keeps the right at bay.
An old classic formula summing up the strategic thinking of the united front is appropriate here: ‘Unite and develop the progressive forces, win over the middle forces, isolate and divide the backward forces, then crush our adversaries one by one.’ In short, we must have a policy and set of tactics for each one of these elements, as well as a strategy for dealing with them overall. Moreover, take note of warning from the futurist Alvin Toffler: ‘If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy.’ Then finally, as to tactics, ‘wage struggle on just grounds, to our advantage and with restraint.’
To conclude, we still need to start with a realistic view of ourselves as an organized socialist left. Save for DSA, we are quite small as organizations, but now we can see we are swimming in a sea of millions open to socialism. What can we do now? If you can see yourself or your group honestly working to achieve DSA’s stated program, by all means, join them and make them even larger. Or set up Jacobin / In These Times Reading Groups in your living rooms and unite socialists with them. Or join CCDS, CPUSA, Left Roots, or Liberation Road—socialist groups which largely share some or most of the perspective here. Join or start PDA or WFP chapters everywhere, use organizations and broad ‘Third Reconstruction’ alliances and popular rainbow assemblies to build mass mobilizations, register new voters and defeat the GOP in November.
With both socialists and rainbow progressives, start at the base, focus on city and state governments, and expand the Congressional Progressive Caucus. We rarely gain victories at the top that have not been won and consolidated earlier at the base. Most of all, in order to form broader and winning coalitions, you need base organizations of your own to form coalitions and alliances WITH! Seize the time and Git ‘er done!