We Refuse the Blackmail

In the months after Bernie Sanders’ capitulation, a new version of an old song from the 2016 elections has appeared. It could go by the title: “Anyone But Trump!” It is sung in harmony by all the factions in the anti-Trump bourgeoisie, including the petty-bourgeois reformists of the “left.”

Take Sean McElwee, who founded the “Data for Progress” think tank which advocates policies such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. Since coining the slogan “Abolish ICE,” he has been content to follow the rightward turn of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the name of realpolitik. He assured us in an April interview that “even with Biden as the nominee, the Democratic agenda is more progressive than ever.” It was quixotic to believe Sanders could campaign in a Democratic primary as an outsider. “The Democratic Party brand is one of the strongest brands in the country,” McElwee says. The Sanders-ites should have leaned into this trusted brand sooner, as AOC had done. The “movement” is still weak. Give it another ten years or so, when AOC will “be the moral center of the party.” For McElwee, the progressive cause is not simply to mobilize but to persuade the “non-ideological voters” who crop up in the polling data. Progress apparently means that we must trudge, sinking deeper with every step, into the murky world of unprincipled compromise, coalition-building, and liberal policy wonkery.

We also have an open letter from the “Old New Left.” This letter comes from former members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) of the 60s, and different fractions are represented, including ex-members of Revolutionary Youth Movements I and II (RYM I and RYM II) as well as former SDS president and liberal anti-Communist Todd Gitlin. The admonitions are familiar: “We were mindful then of the cataclysm that befell German democracy when socialists and communists fought each other – to death – as Hitler snuck by and then murdered them all. Now we fear that some on the left cannot see the difference between a capitalist democrat and a proto-fascist. We hope none of us learn this difference from jail cells.” We must get together, beat Trump, and fight for democracy (“precious, fragile, worth keeping”). The question of which class this democracy ultimately serves is left out by these veterans, though they know the answer. Also neglected is the question of which political project – advocated by both parties jointly for decades – has given birth to Trumpism.

If there are some on the left in this country that still refuse to support Biden, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara would have us know that he and most of the “insurgent wing” of the Democrats – i.e., the petty-bourgeois reformist trend – will behave. In a May op-ed, he assures us that it is Trump, his populist base, and the GOP that are the biggest threat to progress. The DSA is prepared once again to capitulate to the same Democratic establishment they vilify as a party of corporate elites. And just as in 2016, they will gladly sink their time and resources into the Democratic machine for no recognition from the center in return. As Sunkara bitterly notes, “In both 2016 and 2020, the runner-up in the Democratic primary has been a democratic socialist, but you wouldn’t guess that by the lack of concessions to his base.” Still, best to sign on the dotted line for a “new deal” with the big bourgeoisie.

With the “socialist” electoral project out of the way, the Democrats are prepared for a Biden-Trump contest in November. Biden has reached the necessary delegate number to be the official nominee. He is the party’s answer for winning back white American suburbs with less college education that had gone for Trump in 2016 – a section of the petty-bourgeoisie that the Sanders campaign mistakenly believed they could count on for primary votes. The message of the “Anyone But Trump!” chorus is clear: Trump and the Trumpian GOP are an exceptional threat, the root of the suffering and turmoil inflicted on the masses over the last four years, and especially during the economic and social crisis of 2020. Attempts to get Trump out of office early failed, so now “November” is evoked not as a “normal” general election cycle, but as a moment of reckoning and deliverance, which will allegedly be achieved by replacing one doddering old fool in the White House with another.

The struggle between factions of the bourgeoisie has been developing since Trump’s election, with no faction decisively able to hegemonize the others within the framework of the bourgeois state. The partisans of the declining project that has held sway since WWII have gathered an increasingly diverse cast of actors under the umbrella of the Democratic party, including Sanders-ites and Obama administration officials, but also the neoconservatives from the Bush II years, military generals, leaders of the big trade union federations, and former members of the Trump administration. The broadness of the coalition and singularity of its purpose – to defeat the more narrowly-focused Trumpian camp, preserve the post-WWII bourgeois project, and arrest the decline of US imperialism – means that concreteness can only get in the way. No alternative to Trump is too shameful, apparently, not even an alleged rapist. In a surreal spectacle that is embarrassing to witness, the Democrats have offered up the perfect embodiment of their essentially conservative goal: a mentally simple and incoherent old man, unable to formulate basic arguments, bearing the vaguest of programs and few policy proposals.

What proposals Biden does advocate are largely in opposition to the interests of the working class and the masses. The unilateral emphasis on Trump and the GOP as the basis for loyalty to the other bourgeois party has allowed for the abandonment of all “progressive” reforms and positions. In light of the mass rebellions that have erupted in the wake of the lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis, for example, Biden has proposed more federal money to police departments. Sanders, too, has obediently rejected calls to “defund” or “abolish” the police in America, as has Keith Ellison, the Minnesota state Attorney General who is a close ally of Sanders.

Meanwhile, anyone with eyes can see that the pattern of racist police violence and brutalization of unarmed protesters has been taking place in long-standing Democrat-run municipalities and states. It was Bill Clinton, with Biden’s advice, who expanded punitive sentencing and funding for police and prisons in 1994. Clinton also established the pipeline of surplus military gear to local police forces with the 1033 program in 1997. This is the genuine legacy of the Democratic party, whose legislators recently donned kente stoles and kneeled at the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall in a nauseating and empty display of condescension.

The truth behind “Anyone But Trump!” is that there is no serious political alternative to the Democrats. This has only become more obvious as the “lesser evil” fraction of the bourgeoisie scrambles to co-opt and stifle the urban uprisings sparked by Floyd’s murder. Their venerable icon Obama had already swooped in during the primary to secure the “establishment’s” dominance and “accelerate the endgame.” More recently, he hosted a virtual town hall with his former attorney general Eric Holder and one of his non-profits, and naturally he praised the “peaceful protesters.” You might think the Democrats are afraid of losing a key component of their voting base.

Black voters, including moderates and conservatives, make up a substantial bloc for the Democrats. On Super Tuesday this year, older Black voters in the south swelled the Biden campaign, putting them in a position to devastate Sanders in Michigan. Now these voters are expected to turn out in November to elect Joseph “You Ain’t Black” Biden, who most recently confused Juneteenth with the date of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The Democratic Party is a trusted brand that “progressives” need to get comfortable with, as McElwee said, and he reminds us that the party is a coalition that includes Black Americans. The SDS veterans hector us into recognizing the difference between a bourgeois politician and a “proto-fascist.” Can we recognize the difference between an alliance and a hostage taking?

The slogan “Anybody But Trump” must be recognized for what it is: political blackmail. It says, we must yield to the party that presided for four decades over the city where George Floyd was murdered, the party that failed to bring charges after the police murder of Eric Garner, the party that intervened to block the release of Black Panther Party veteran Jalil Muntaqim from prison after a judge had already ruled in his favor. It says, we must be guided by the logic of “safe states” and “swing states”; and in the latter, a vote for Biden is even a “duty.” And, if we do not yield, if we do not submit to the logic of blackmail, if we do not transform ourselves into an appendage of the Democrats…they will punish us with four more years of Trump. The effectiveness of the two-party system for preventing the emergence of an independent socialist party is on full display.

We must refuse the blackmail in November. And, to those who refuse, we want to offer an argument that can be deployed: the Democrats have not defended us — they are not even capable of tackling local problems of police brutality, let alone the question of the general direction of the country. The terrain on which they have chosen to fight has no importance for the people: both the Mueller investigation and the impeachment scheme were failed diversions. Outside the cities, the extreme right has been growing in influence (and arming itself), especially emboldened during the past four years. In the cities, the police are not subject to the will of the people, are unreliable to the chain of command, and are even openly contemptuous of elected government. They brutalize the masses with impunity and side with the Trumpian extremists.

The first step in this increasingly bleak scenario is to claim our capacity to act as political subjects. This first step is the refusal of the electoral blackmail.