May 30, 2016
I don't know Robert Reich personally, but I greatly respect and appreciate his work; his voice is an important one in the fight against inequality.
He has, however, repeatedly come down on the wrong side of one crucial issue, an issue that has serious implications for the future of American politics broadly, and for the future of the American left in particular.
While he directs advice to supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, naturally, as a Sanders supporter, I was drawn to what he had to say to backers of the Vermont senator.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders should, Reich argues, "Be prepared to work hard for Hillary Clinton if she gets the nomination."
Reich anticipated the backlash he ultimately received, writing that his advice "may be hard to swallow."
"But swallow it you must," he concluded, "not just for the good of the Democratic Party, but for the good of the nation."
He was right, of course, to expect strong reactions; I didn't like his advice, nor did many others. And I don't plan to act on it.
But as I read Reich's appeal, I was overwhelmed not by emotion, and not by a sense of outrage, but by a sense of deja vu. I thought: I have heard, and read, this all before.
Indeed I had. Though Reich words his appeal eloquently and without condescension, it is the same appeal that has been made by the more crude apologists of "lesser of two evils" politics over the past several decades.
Matt Taibbi, in an article forRolling Stone published in March, put it his way: Democrats "have been saying, 'The Republicans are worse!' for so long that they've begun to believe it excuses everything."
To his credit, Reich correctly predicts this objection--but he does not deny its validity.
"I can't criticize anyone for voting their conscience, of course," he writes of the large number of Sanders supporters who say they will not vote for Clinton. "But your conscience should know that a decision not to vote for Hillary, should she become the Democratic nominee, is a de facto decision to help Donald Trump."
The latter sentence is the crucial one, and the weight of his argument in favor of backing Hillary Clinton if she becomes the Democratic nominee rests on its potency. The problem:The claim that refusing to support Clinton "is a de facto decision to help Donald Trump" is erroneous.
Perhaps unwittingly, Reich is merely rehashing--in a new context--a rather old argument, one that was made most prominently by George Orwell in his screeds against pacifism in the midst of World War II.
"Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist," Orwell argued in an essay that appeared in 1942. "This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other."
As Corey Robin has observed, the Democratic establishment, in an effort to suppress dissent and silence legitimate criticism of their favored candidate, has adopted what is effectively a Leninist posture, one that prioritizes unity and conformity over basic principles that Democrats, in other contexts, are happy to champion--all under the guise of protecting the party and ensuring victory against the other side.
According to Reich, Sanders supporters who don't fall in line behind a candidate they believe to be part of the problem, not a potential solution, are objectively pro-Trump: You're either with us, Reich contends, or you're against us.
But this is a false dichotomy, as Orwell himself would come to recognize in print a few years later.
"The key-word here is 'objectively,'" Orwell wrotein 1944. "We are told that it is only people's objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are 'objectively' aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once."
Orwell was a rarity among political writers, in that he was rather quick to correct errors in his own reasoning.
"This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it," Orwell continued. "If you disregard people's motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions."
Reich, though his intentions are undoubtedly noble, is committing the same error Orwell criticized himself for making "more than once": He disregards subjective motives (which are, in the case of Clinton versus Trump, of great significance) and fails to anticipate how Sanders supporters will act in the future.
Judging by the polling data, most Sanders supporters view Trump just as unfavorably as Clinton supporters, and are unlikely to vote for him. But that is not the concern: For Reich, not actively helping Clinton--just staying home in November--is the equivalent of lending a helping hand to Trump.
But Sanders supporters have not been sitting on the sidelines; they have, in fact, been at the front of the line, protesting Donald Trump's inexcusable bigotry and condemning his phony populism while articulating an inspiring and inclusive alternative.
This is the point Reich fails to acknowledge: One can, without contradiction, both refuse to support Hillary Clinton and ardently oppose Donald Trump. Protests, engagement, organization, and civil disobedience often make more noise, and force more change, than decisions made at the ballot box.
Sanders supporters are simply not content to dilute the political revolution they have started by integrating it into the framework of the Democratic Party and by placing it within the confines of a Clinton presidency. Reich, himself, has emphasized the importance of this point.
"I endorse Bernie Sanders for President of the United States," Reich wrote in February. "He's leading a movement to reclaim America for the many, not the few. And such a political mobilization -- a 'political revolution,' as he puts it -- is the only means by which we can get the nation back from the moneyed interests that now control so much of our economy and democracy."
Here, Reich and I agree: A political revolution in the form of various movements working together to bring lasting change "is the only means by which we can get the nation back from the moneyed interests."
To work for Hillary Clinton would be to put aside principled stands in support of campaign finance reform, for instance, or against American aggression overseas, in favor of a candidate who has repeatedly been on the wrong side.
So I will continue to support Bernie Sanders and the movement he has sparked both because I believe it is the right thing to do, and because I refuse to fall in line behind a candidate who has, in just the past few months, repudiated basic standards of transparency, belittled those who fight for ambitious social agendas, turned her back on single-payer health care, courted Republican donors, accepted campaign contributions from Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry, and attacked the core argument against the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens Uniteddecision.
I will also happily join Robert Reich in the fight against Donald Trump. His ignorance is terrifying and his bigotry is reprehensible.
But I will not endure lectures on how refusing to support Hillary Clinton--a candidate who embodies the right turn of the Democratic Party that has had such devastating effects on the same people Clinton now claims to be fighting for--is, in effect, the equivalent of supporting Trump. It clearly isn't.
As for Reich's concerns about the future of the Democratic Party, well, I'm with Michelle Alexander: "I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself."
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