Generational change

This paragraph in a eulogy for Jim Anderton on Newsroom, got me thinking about generational change in politics:

Trapped in near-perpetual opposition since the first Labour Government of 1935-49, with only brief single-term governments in 1957 and 1972, younger members of the party, the so-called ‘Vietnam Generation’ were desperate to modernise the party and reform it into an organisation capable of establishing a lasting government. To this generation, commitment to the party’s union origins was less important than social justice and, ultimately, power; compromise was needed.

It’s been clear for the past decade or more that a significant change is needed in progressive politics and activism. Centrism has drained the passion out of the left; the old ways of organising workers don’t apply to a casualised/”gig” economy; and the problems of poverty, inequality and injustice just keep getting worse (no thanks to the “compromises” the Vietnam Generation decided to make to achieve power – instead of driving genuine democratic and political change through the unions and other progressive movements of the day.)

It’s easy to point at the election of Jacinda Ardern as our second-youngest-ever Prime Minister, with new faces like Grant Robertson and Kelvin Davis at the Cabinet table, and say “things are obviously going to be different.” That thinking certainly drove a lot of Labour’s last-minute poll boost, which came from the disillusioned left, not “soft” National voters.

But it’s more complex than that. We have to reject the kind of “logic” which insisted in the early 2000s that having women in multiple important roles – Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House, Governor-General – proved sexism was dead, or more recently in the USA, where Barack Obama’s election “proved” racism was over, even as more and more black people were murdered by the police at “routine” traffic stops.

There’s always a system, a structure, a machine behind the fresh young faces. Hence rightwing pundits crowed at the news that Heather Simpson, who achieved legendary nemesis status as Helen Clark’s chief of staff, had been brought into the new administration and was exercising a high level of control over its setup. Other Clark veterans like Mike Munro and GJ Thompson were also announced as senior members of Ardern’s team.

Never mind that the same rightwingers would have hammered Labour equally hard for its lack of credibility (and did, over issues like the allocation of Select Committee seats) if the new PM hadn’t picked anyone with previous experience in government.

It would be worrying if Labour’s strategy were driven by people still operating in an early-2000s mindset, both in terms of policy direction and campaigning strategy. Especially with the Greens not delivering a strong election result and thus not in a position to exert as much pressure or provide cover for ambitious, progressive policies. The government sits on a knife-edge; even if you don’t necessarily agree with the need to push a strong leftwing, socially liberal set of policies, it’s a simple matter of survival. National know how to bounce back from defeat and adapt to new political circumstances. Once they’ve figured out who’s going to knife whom for the leadership and who’s going to strategically defect to ACT with a safe seat, they’re coming on hard. A Labour-led government which tries to focus-group and commission-of-inquiry its way through not offending anyone will not survive.

But it’s also a trap to think that progressive change requires youth, and there are no better examples than Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, little centrists, I know neither of them “won”; but I also know – as I suspect they both do – is not about single short-term election campaigns. It’s about changing the world and changing what’s achievable in politics, and if you want to argue that Corbyn and Sanders haven’t fundamentally altered the political activism of their respective countries, you’ll need to let me get a glass of water so I don’t choke on my cackling.

Sanders’ run took the word “socialist” from being a Fox News epithet levelled at anyone who suggested healthcare was a nice thing people should have to a badge of honour; combined with Trump’s victory, the Democratic Socialists of America have gained 27,000 members and seen their average age drop from 68 to 33. In 2017, socialists kept winning elections.

Corbyn – who we all know is totally unelectable except for all those elections he keeps winning or increasing Labour’s vote share in at almost unprecedented levels – is embracing new styles of campaigning, at the cost of traditional party structures:

If Corbyn gets his way, when you think of Labour, you won’t imagine rows of MPs on green leather benches, or a smartly suited minister chatting to a reporter. Instead, you’ll think of activists reinvigorating their estate’s tenants association, while others organise their co-workers and stand with them on picket lines.

The fly in the ointment for us is that a pillar of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s success is in their respective decades of unwavering commitment and activism, which gives them a credibility young up-and-comers can’t get; but there’s no one I can think of in New Zealand politics with similar bona fides.

Ultimately, it’s simply too early to say which way our new government will go. In the most refined managerial terms, there are risks, and there are opportunities. There are other obstacles to be overcome – like entrenched ideologies and ass-covering instincts among our public sector leaders, or the simple inertia of any large organisation which is used to doing things a certain way.

But age doesn’t determine whether you’ll change the world: what does is having the will to do it and the skills to do it well.

QOTD: Young socialist voters

Malcolm Harris at Pacific Standard explains why young people have started voting for socialists – and why we shouldn’t confuse it for the reactionary anger of older voters.

Young people in the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t voting for socialists to make a point to their parents, and neither Sanders nor Corbyn can be plausibly cast as a rock-star messiah or a Trumpish demagogue leading the kids astray. Sanders isn’t charismatic enough to convince his immediate family what to order for takeout. The simplest explanation for this ideological turn is that the generation raised under neoliberalism doesn’t think it’s a very good way to run a country or a planet. There’s no shortage of evidence to support such a position — global warming, pointless war, vicious social inequality, etc. — and voting for a grouchy old socialist is an incredibly moderate, measured response. Characterizing it otherwise is rank hackery.

Why would progressives vote for Trump?

[A note in hindsight: this post was published in April 2016, a good amount of time before it became crystal clear that Trump is a goddamned Nazi-enabling rule-of-law-trashing fascist. And yet some people who claim to be of the left still think his election was a good idea. This is when the world went topsy-turvy.]

This is a tangent off yesterday’s post, specifically about the common justification for calling on Sanders to withdraw: that to continue campaigning against Clinton will damage her chances against the Trump.

(An interesting framing issue there: why do we take it for granted that Clinton and Sanders must run negative campaigns against each other? The simple answer is “that’s politics”, but if the Sanders campaign has shown anything through its grassroots fundraising and popularizing of “radical” “socialist” policies, it’s that the rules can be changed.)

There are concerns that Sanders supporters, feeling stymied or bitter or just generally sexist, would not only not support a Clinton ticket but actually vote for Trump. That this would mean “robbing” the United States of four more years of Democratic presidency.

As I said yesterday, the point of democracy is we don’t disenfranchise people whose opinions we don’t like. But there’s another problem. The reasons people vote one way or another are complex. And although it sounds utterly inconceivable to people who have already weighed the pros and cons and decided for Hillary, there are plenty of reasons progressives might think a Trump presidency is the “better” option – or at least the lesser of two evils.

A Trump victory could mean the end of the Republican party. Maybe you want to get fancy and accelerationist about it, or maybe you just like seeing people get a taste of their own medicine, and the Republican machine are freaking out as the inevitable outcome of their years of gerrymandering and panic-mongering are coming back to bite them in the ass. Maybe you think four years of Trump, assuming he even lasts that long, would be worth it to see the GOP establishment thoroughly ripped away from their Tea Party base. It could pave the way to twelve or sixteen or twenty-four years of Democratic leadership which has the space to make truly progressive policy.

It’s pie-in-the-sky but there are far sillier reasons to vote for someone. Besides, even if you think that’s too much of a long game, Trump is a walking disaster zone. Maybe you think he’s so erratic, unpredictable and completely unprepared/unable to negotiate the checks and balances of the US government system that he’ll never achieve anything. He could be impeached within a year. We could use that year to set up the machine for the glorious Warren Democratic ticket.

Trump’s misogyny is contemptible, but not significant. The real battle over reproductive rights, especially abortion access, isn’t being fought at a federal level. Who cares who’s in the White House when it’s your governor and state senate who are mandating waiting periods and shutting down clinics? Ditto North Carolina’s transphobic bathroom laws.

Trump’s racism is contemptible, but impractical. He’s not going to build a wall and Mexico isn’t going to pay for it. His plan to “shut down” all Muslims living in America are either big talk with no real commitment to action behind it, or laughably offensive – so offensive to basic decency that any attempt to implement it would lead to impeachment or revolution.

I don’t particularly agree with any of these arguments. I’m simply saying it’s not impossible for someone to be a progressive and reject the idea that supporting Clinton is the only feasible option.

You don’t have to agree. But in this, as in many other political situations, if you insist on throwing your hands up lamenting “NOBODY with any SENSE would vote for this, there’s no point asking why, the reasons can only be STUPID!” you learn nothing. And they’ll do it anyway, and probably feel even more righteous doing it because you’ve been a condescending prat to them. And if that makes the difference between winning and losing, you’ll keep losing.

Nobody is entitled to votes

I caught the tail-end of a conversation on Twitter yesterday about the presidential primaries in the US, and the mathematical impossibility of Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic nomination.

The case was being made (by New Zealanders, though I’m sure the same conversation was happening bigger and louder in the States) that given Bernie “cannot” win at this point, he should withdraw and instruct his supporters to back Clinton.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the people saying this were Clinton supporters. And I doubt they’d be saying the same of her if the situation were reversed. And it’s possible this wouldn’t bug me as much if I weren’t a fan of Sanders myself.

But it does bug me. Not because I dislike Clinton and not (only) because I support Sanders: because it speaks to a ridiculous, undemocratic sense of entitlement from some people of the left which I’ve seen far too often.

I get where it comes from. We all fervently believe we’re on the side of good, we all have a firm conviction that if we ran the world things would be rainbows and sunshine every day. And god it’s frustrating to see things go bad because the other team are in power instead. It feels like if there were any justice in the world, our team would always win every election in a landslide.

But to be a real democrat, to believe that democracy is the best way to choose who leads our government, requires a degree of humility. Knowing that you have to put the work in. You have to convince others of the merits of your case. You don’t make the decision: they do. Sometimes it’s not the one you want.

It’s not just about the principle. When politicians start thinking they deserve votes – from women, or union members, or people of colour, or young people – when they take that support for granted, everyone suffers. When a progressive party starts to assume, e.g. “we’ve always been good for women”, and stops actually being good for women, women aren’t obliged to keep voting for a party that’s harming them. And they may find it insulting to be told, “don’t you understand we’re your only option, because back in the day we did good things for you?”

To be a real progressive is to understand progress requires momentum. We can’t rest on our laurels and expect people to ignore present-day oppression and focus on historic victories, unless we are actively building on those victories.

We are not entitled to anyone’s vote. And if we aren’t giving people a reason to vote for us, it’s not their fault. It’s ours. This applies as much to Hillary having to go into a contested convention as it does to the UK Labour Party’s routing in Scotland or the continued “missing million” thorn in the side of the New Zealand left or any number of other examples.

If you believe in democracy, you do not fear a fairly contested election. So if you’re a (d)emocrat and you’re advocating that Bernie should just give up now, I have one question: what are you afraid of?

The response is often “it’ll hurt her campaign against Trump because something something BernieBros.” This is the hard bit about holding democratic principles: if people vote Trump because they’re bitter about losing the nomination, or just sexist douchebags, that’s awful. But we don’t disenfranchise people for being bitter, sexist douchebags.

Besides, Donald Trump is a repugnant human being who trades on fear and bigotry, so that’s another question: why would it not be easy for Clinton, if she’s such a good candidate, the demographics favour her, and her record is so strong, to defeat him?

Sanders has won huge support, even if it’s not enough, despite being a terrifying radical (at least in the US context). And I see a lot of overlap between the Clinton fans who want an uncontested convention and the “centrists” who so frequently say we need to meet people where they are or find out voters want in order to appeal to them. So I have another question: why doesn’t that apply when “where the people are” is a step to your left?

~

A note on “fairly contested elections”: no system is perfect, but let’s be really honest here, there is very little fairness in US elections or primaries. Let’s talk about voter registration, voter ID laws, or the fact that the superdelegate system which guarantees a Clinton victory was created specifically to stymie the will of the ordinary Democratic Party member, loooooooooong before we complain that Bernie Sanders has the gall to keep campaigning.

Quote of the day: Bernie Sanders and a theory of change

From Jedediah Purdy’s response to a critique of Sanders at Huffington Post:

Krugman’s mistake is very basic. He’s wrong about the Sanders campaign’s theory of change. It isn’t that a high-minded leader can draw out our best selves and translate those into more humane and egalitarian lawmaking. It is that a campaign for a more equal and secure economy and a stronger democracy can build power, in networks of activists and alliances across constituencies. The movement that the campaign helps to create can develop and give voice to a program that the same people will keep working for, in and out of election cycles. In other words, this is a campaign about political ideas and programs that happens to have a person named Bernie at its head, not a campaign that mistakes its candidate for a prophet or a wizard (or the second coming of Abraham Lincoln, who gave us the now-cliché phrase about better angels, but had no delusion that words could substitute for power).

Emphasis mine. The whole thing is a damn good read. This could – and should – be the way forward not just for the US Democrats but the entire leftwing movement, if we want to gain power without selling out our most fundamental principles.