David Atkins attacks a “marxist” strawman in a Washington Monthly article, because moderates need to rationalize their reactionary acts. The after-action reports for 2020 should instead address the need to reconcile party unity even as it demonizes their respective biases. For example, “running against the Democratic party” was only a trope for those trying to defeat Sanders, especially in 2020.
Amusingly, Atkins adopts a Leninist line to frame his attack on class analysis, as if you really could pit the competition for party support between “suburban middle-class professionals” and “blue-collar rurals”. Culture in his mind resembles that same RWNJ critique naming some oddly configured “cultural marxism” as the cause for the failures of college humanities, if only because “hipsters always support moderates” would be an equally absurd construction. Similarly, claims about “the youth vote” need much closer analysis.
Atkins uses a baroque premise about Marx and marxism to attack the Sanders campaign, which is only viable because Sanders lost the primary. Atkins assumes that we are somehow beyond an “industrial era” much less an “industrial-era Marxism”. Despite all those “post-industrial” claims, every age still has pre-industrial and industrial elements as COVID-19 reveals the uneven developments brought by capitalist society.
Beyond hackneyed cliches, the “partisan reality that actually exists” could not be the one in DK, but perhaps it is, considering the Biden supporters willing to spike the ball on Sanders supporters in a vindictive revanchism still festering from 2016.
What did lose unequivocally, however, was a certain brand of anti-partisan class revolutionary electoral politics rooted in industrial-era Marxist theory. Zack Beauchamp’s excellent analysis at Vox is essential reading on this topic, but the upshot is that regardless of leftist policy, a strain of Marxist theory since the late 19th century has posited that the left can usher in a socialist utopia by uniting the workers of the world–and that any cultural divisions within the working class that get in the way are the product of false consciousness and manufactured consent to prevent the proletariat from arising together to overthrow their capitalist chains. In keeping with this tradition, leftists who subscribe to this ideology see the hyper-partisan divides of the modern era as the ultimate artificial divisive construct, and are adamantly hostile to a political reality in which suburban middle-class professionals (regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the party of the “left” while blue-collar rurals (again regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the “right.”
Accordingly, this perspective informs a Marxist electoral paradigm that
1) is explicitly hostile to the Democratic Party as it currently exists;
2) assumes that there must be a big mass of independent voters and non-voters to the left of base Democrats on economics and open to revolutionary politics; and
3) attempts to minimize cultural divisions and negative partisanship in favor of winning over large swaths of people with theoretically culturally conservative but economically progressive politics.
If the future really does come down to socialism or barbarism, cultural conservatives have made it quite clear that they will be perfectly content with barbarism until they reach their deathbeds.
So where does the left go from here? The answer seems simple enough. Instead of using political campaigns as a proxy for testing industrial-era Marxist theories of social alignment, those who want to see leftist policy actually enacted should meet voters where they are and maximize gains within the partisan reality that actually exists.
Atkins relies on Zack Beauchamp’s dissection of the Sanders loss in Vox, because like most pluralist neoliberals might posit, progressives’ theory of victory is what’s faulty. Atkins was merely piling-on on some problematic assumptions by Beauchamp. So many over-simplifications, so little time, but generalizations will prevail in 2020 much like 2016. It may simply be that not enough fucking “people don’t read enough fucking polling data.”.
Class conflict doesn’t dominate the American political scene, and Sanders’s campaign couldn’t make it so. Under these conditions, the Sanders campaign looked to the wrong segment of the electorate for salvation.
“The future of [Bernie’s] agenda lies with young people, but college-educated and suburban voters are increasingly interested in the progressive agenda,” Sean McElwee, co-founder of the left-wing polling outfit Data for Progress, tells me. “Sadly, we [progressives] are about four years behind in reaching out to those voters because people don’t read enough fucking polling data.”
If leftists want to make the leap from influencing the Democratic Party to running it, they need a new theory of victory.
How Sanders’s theory failed
The 2016 primary election made the left’s theory of the case seem decently plausible. Clinton won by dominating among black voters, older voters, and highly educated white professionals. Sanders, by contrast, performed well among rural and working-class whites (who voted for Clinton over Obama in 2008) and young voters of all races.
Sanders’s challenge in 2020 was to hold this ground, build his support among nonwhite blue-collar voters, and increase youth turnout. For the first three states, it looked it might work, especially since his campaign had proved wildly successful with early state Latino communities.
Why Sanders’s theory failed
So what happened? Why didn’t the political revolution show up?
This is the sort of thing that political scientists and Democratic activists are going to be examining for years. But there are at least three big conclusions that we can draw that seem relatively well-supported by polling and research.
The first is that the Sanders theory rested in part on a Marx-inflected theory of how people think about politics. A basic premise of Marxist political strategy is that people should behave according to their material self-interest as assessed by Marxists — which is to say, their class interests. Proposing policies like Medicare-for-all, which would plausibly alleviate the suffering of the working class, should be effective at galvanizing working-class voters to turn out for left parties.
Second, it seems that Sanders and his campaign assumed that his popularity with the white working class in 2016 was about him and his policies — when, in fact, it wasn’t.
“The white working-class voters that Sanders won were mostly anti-Clinton voters,” McElwee tells me.
Third, the Sanders-socialist theory rested on a misunderstanding of the way identity works in contemporary American politics.
Americans do not primarily vote as a member of an economic class, but rather as a member of a party and identity group (race, religion, etc.). Trump won the overwhelming bulk of Republican voters in the 2016 general election, despite taking heterodox positions on a number of policy issues, simply because he had an R next to his name. His message resonated with working-class whites, but not working-class people of color, because it centered ethnic grievance and conflict.
This kind of puerile analysis will continue and perhaps become its own cottage industry, especially if Biden loses. But this is the quality of what we get.
Bernie Sanders has endorsed Joe Biden, taking a major step toward bringing unity to the Democratic Party’s effort to unseat President Trump https://t.co/jzfomaNahy— The New York Times (@nytimes) April 13, 2020