“This is the fight of our lifetime — This election is about more than just beating Trump; it’s about transforming our democracy so that it works for all our people. It’s about unifying our country, and healing our drained and divided communities.” Tulsi Gabbard
Do we agree that the year 2020, right now, is the most politically crucial time we have had in our lives? Constant war, over half a million people homeless while others grow obscenely rich, leaders and media who divide us into mutually hostile groups, and, overarching these crises, the collapse of the natural environment which gave us birth and without which we cannot live. What could be more critical than that? What are we waiting for?
Some are fighting back at the political level. I think of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her squad, Tulsi Gabbard, their supporters, people who may not be revolutionaries, but do point out better ways to run society and bring people together for change. Sanders has fought against the relentless austerity that has ground millions into poverty for 40 years. Gabbard consistently stands up against militarism and war, which destroy much of the world and leave the country broke. We need both of these voices. So, why do so many “progressives,” “Leftists” and “Patriots” attack them?
I see on social media and hear from friends about the things that are wrong with these social democratic leaders. ‘They’re not Left enough,’ ‘Did you see how he voted on X?’ ‘Look at this quote of hers from 1996; I could never support her after that.’ These critics never have alternative programs to recommend. (Are there any, in this corporate-military oligarchic pretend democracy?). The social democrats are what we have. Their message of unity, peace, a social safety net, and equality is gaining ground among Americans. Why not support them?
Some believe that trusting politicians, no matter what they say, only diverts us from the (unspecified) other things we could be doing. They cite how the Democratic nomination was stolen from Sanders in 2016, after which he immediately began supporting Hillary Clinton, who had taken it from him by various vote-fixing schemes**. What makes us think the outcome will be any different this time? After all, politicians routinely lie; they promise things they can’t deliver. After several lifetimes of betrayals, many have moved from skepticism to cynicism and on to despair. For them, no leader can be honest; no positive change can be made through such a corrupt system, or in any other way we can realistically imagine.
The cynics have much historical evidence on their side, but they choose to ignore other evidence. People change, and times change. Just because Sanders rolled over in 2016 doesn’t prove what will happen in 2020. In 2016 the social democratic movement was negligible. There was no AOC, no Pramila Jaypal, or their Left allies in the House and in State legislatures. There was no movement on the ground in almost every state ready to give their time and money to Sanders. He was on his own; he wasn’t ready; he had only gotten into the race to raise social dem ideas and had no idea he would get as far as he did.
Maybe he was wrong to stop, but 2020 could be different, if his movement keeps growing. If Bernie gets a fighter like Tulsi Gabbard at his side, he will be less likely to back down. She won’t let the Democratic National Committee get away with what they pulled in 2016 and have already started doing again.
If the system is totally fixed, though, does it make any sense to participate in it? We can already see how the corporate media conspires against the Left, running only negative stories about Sanders, and his programs such as Medicare for All. We know state-level Republicans are throwing millions of working-class voters off the voter rolls. We know our computerized voting machines are frequently programmed or hacked to cheat progressives. The system is stacked against us, so why try?
We also know that, whoever wins an election, the corporate system rolls on with only the smallest of changes. Trump hasn’t been able to pull troops out of the Middle East or Korea. Obama continued all Bush’s wars and occupations and added new ones. The electoral process is essentially an unfair battleground on which we fight over nothing.
Still…while the political system is indeed unfair and intended that way, perhaps we can use it, because the real battle is fought at the level of narrative. As Australian journalist Caitlin Johnstone says, society is made of narrative. The stories we tell each other create what we call reality. In America, the political narrative, created by corporate media, is all about austerity, war, and elections. That’s where people’s attention and energy go. So, election campaigns are the best place to change the narrative, to get people thinking about unity, about equality, fairness, kindness. At the narrative level, this might be a fight we can win.
Some people have legitimate, extreme differences with individual Left candidates, things which make it impossible for them to give support and still live with themselves, such as Sanders’ apparent acceptance of the Russiagate hoax, or Gabbard’s reputed closeness with Hindu fascists in India. But if you can’t support a particular leader, there are lots of other good working-class candidates. If you don’t like one, support another. If you can’t do elections, fight on another front. We can all help build a new narrative and a new movement.
There are other, more psychological reasons why some criticize, attack, and reject those who are actively in the struggle. Some people feel that being right is more important than being effective. We see this attitude a lot on social media. These folks learned somewhere that being right is the most important thing in life. It’s not.
As we all know, change is scary, and for some people, after decades of despair, it may be easier to reject hope than embrace change. After all, giving up is easier than taking action. Folks who do this are usually not the truly desperate ones; they are people who can, if necessary, live with things as they are.
To these folks, I compassionately say, Get over yourself. This is not about you; it’s about us. As Senator Sanders say, “This is not the time to despair. It’s not the time to give up. Our children and our grandchildren are counting on us.” We only have three choices: lead, follow, or get out of the way. Anything else makes things worse.
The most committed might: Run for office at the national, state or local level. Get involved in another fighter’s campaign. Start, or get involved in movements against war, for housing, for food, for protecting Mother Earth. Organize a union. Talk to friends, family, congregation, neighbors, co-workers. Become a thought leader in the community.
Leading isn’t for everybody. Leading means committing one’s life, exposing oneself, which may mean giving one’s life as so many have. You can’t just lead for one election cycle. Win or lose, the day after the election, the struggle begins anew. It’s not a hobby one does in one’s spare time.
But from what I read and see, committing at this level has rewards. The lifelong fighters I know tell wonderful stories of where they’ve gone, whom they’ve met, what they’ve learned and what they’ve done. I envy them. As o, Facebook friend posted, “If I had lived my life the way Bernie Sanders has lived his, I’d be fucking proud of myself.”
There are no leaders without followers, are there? One person, no matter how powerful or brilliant, can’t change the narrative or build a movement. We need numbers, so it’s not enough to vote for good people. We have to make their victory inevitable, and do it without the help of media coverage. Wear their gear; post their signs; feature them in your social media presence. If progressives’ victory seems inevitable, the rulers may be afraid to steal an election. If they do steal, the legitimacy of their phony system will be gone, which will open up new strategies and alliances.
Following can mean monetary support, if you have that. Donating is fighting. Not just to Sanders or Gabbard, but to congressional, local, and state level candidates, and to other causes and movements. What better investment could there be? The Justice Democrats group picks out and supports working class congressional candidates in Democratic districts. AOC, rather than paying $250,000 of contributors’ money as “dues” to Democratic leadership, put the money into a new PAC called Courage to Change, to be a resource for working-class candidates. Supporting these groups is not “supporting the Democratic Party.” It’s supporting the people the Dem leadership fears miost. IMO, they’re all worthy of support.
Following means letting people, especially people close to us, know where we stand and why. Don’t be afraid to speak up! We are fighting for our children’s and our planet’s survival. We’re not trying to win arguments, but to make connections and build relationships for a long struggle.
Out of the Way
Some of us have too many other demands, too much work, too many responsibilities to become politically active. We might have health problems or family problems. In those life situations, we can stay out of the way. Let things be; take care of our body and our loved ones; try to help where we can.
Staying out of the way doesn’t mean not asking questions or voicing doubts — doing that helps leaders develop ideas and makes them better. But attacking the leader or scoffing at an idea does not help. Despair, no matter how justified, does not help. If political involvement doesn’t work for you now, there are other things to do, and times will change. I’m just asking everyone not to get in the way of those who share our values and are willing and able to fight for them.
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*”Lead, follow, or get out of the way” has been attributed to leaders from General George Patton to Mitt Romney, as well as Thomas Paine. I’m OK with these possibly militaristic origins, because we are truly in a class war, and we should not pretend otherwise.
** Whether or not Sanders would have won a fair nomination process is not 100% certain. Clinton had a huge headstart in name recognition and over 700 “superdelegate” votes, but the cheating is well-documented.