The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 2]

Ted Grimsrud—May 2, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the ups and downs of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts. [Here’s Part I: Sanders ascendant]

Part II: Biden takes control

March 11, 2020

The Democratic Party’s presidential primaries have taken a dizzying turn these past couple of weeks. It’s been amazing, really.

One of the stunning aspects is how Biden has all of sudden become the presumptive nominee without actually doing anything to earn that status. He has scarcely campaigned and remains the same tepid candidate who was given up for dead just a short time ago.

My sense is that the most powerful factor among Democratic Party voters has been terror at the idea of another Trump term. That extreme fearfulness has been skillfully exploited by the corporate interests. They turned the fearfulness into an anti-Sanders fear (this has included, for months, an endless drumbeat of hostility toward Sanders in the corporate media), so when all the other “moderates” dropped out and left Biden as the only alternative to Sanders, fearful voters turned to him.

The end result, of course, is a terrific victory for the corporate interests—they have their boy in place (though it is a bit unsettling to have the sense that they were close to completely abandoning Biden just weeks ago until it became clear that none of the other candidates had much of a chance; they also seemed to be recognizing his weakness as a candidate). So we are left with a choice—vicious corporatocracy vs. a somewhat kinder, gentler corporatocracy. Of course, this has almost always been our only choice—but for a moment it seemed that this year might be different.

March 12, 2020

I found this article [“Keep Up the Fight: Electoral Politics Was Never Meant to Be the Solution,” 3/11/20] from a couple of days by the Australian observer of American politics, Caitlin Johnstone, pretty helpful. It’s aimed at heartbroken Sanders supporters. From the article: “The problem is not that the system is rigged against the people, the problem is that the system is rigged against the people and the people do not know it. If they were aware just how badly their interests were being actively sabotaged by the loose alliance of government agency leaders and the plutocrats who own the political/media class, they would immediately use the power of their numbers to force real change. But they don’t. Because the political/media class who are paid to protect the status quo upon which their employers have built their respective kingdoms keep assuring that this is all normal and fine.”

March 13, 2020

I found this article to be moving, I guess because it touches on one of the little-noticed ways that Sanders’s kind of politics is so different—and so needed. From Sajida Jalalzai, “Why Bernie Sanders brings out the Muslim Vote,” Religion News Service, 3/10/20] : “Sanders has campaigned hard for Muslim votes, and the resulting enthusiasm for him has put thousands of grassroots Muslim organizers on the street for Sanders, phone banking, knocking on doors, canvassing at mosques, and creating campaign videos. Many refer to Sanders by the affectionate nickname ‘Amo Bernie’—Uncle Bernie, in Arabic.

“To be sure, any Democratic candidate would likely improve the current situation for Muslims in America. Joe Biden has spoken against Trump’s Muslim travel ban. While Biden condemned the ban, however, in doing so he also seemed to reinforce Clinton’s equation of Muslims with violence, arguing that the ban was ‘like putting up a great big recruiting banner for terrorists.’ Biden’s support for the war in Iraq also calls into question his foreign policy record for many Muslims.

“Sanders, by contrast, voted against the Iraq War and explicitly promised that his first executive order would be ‘to reverse every single thing President Trump has done to demonize and harm immigrants, including his racist and disgusting Muslim ban.’ The downside of Bernie for many otherwise progressive Democrats is the electability question: They worry that his politics are too controversial to risk in a do-or-die election. But for American Muslims who have never felt empowered by ‘politics as usual,’ the ‘moderate’ candidates are the bigger risk. For Muslim communities that have been marginalized and othered in the construction of American national identity, Sanders represents the potential for a different future—and a new kind of politics.”

March 13, 2020

Here is a clear example of how the corporate media has been biased against Sanders (and Warren) and tilted the scale towards Biden. Probably quite a few liberals who trust in the objectivity of the “mainstream” media never noticed this.

From Sarah Lazare, “There have been 21 debate questions about paying for social programs, zero about paying for war,” In These Times, 3/2/20: “Adjusting for inflation, U.S. military spending is at its highest levels ever, save for the height of the Iraq War. And the increase in military spending in real dollars from 2017 to 2018—the biggest since just after 9/11—was $61 billion. This increase, implemented with virtually no public debate, and no handwringing from any of the above media outlets or pundits, cost ‘taxpayers’ $14 billion more per year than Sanders’s plan to make college tuition free for every student in the United States. The latter, of course, has been subject to numerous ‘How will you pay for it?’ questions from moderators. The Pentagon increase—despite being a new financial burden—has resulted in zero such budgetary concerns.

“When moderators tell their millions of viewers over and over that they should be concerned about the costs of Medicare for All, but not the cost of maintaining a sprawling network of 800 military bases, they are saying we can afford policies that spread militarism—but not those that protect human life. They are doing the work of austerity ideologues and their billionaire backers—not the ordinary ‘taxpayers’ they claim to represent.”

March 22, 2020

This article, Russell Dobular, “#DemExit: A Democrat’s Guide to Why Millions are About to Change Their Registrations,” Due Dissidence, 3/20/20, comes the closest of anything that I have seen to expressing my impressions of what has been going on in US politics.

The headline isn’t real clear, but the writing is: “Democrats seem to live in a fantasy world in which everything we know about human psychology and voter behavior can be suspended with the simple argument, ‘This candidate is better than (fill in the Republican), so you must vote for them.’ If voters behaved that way in real life, Hillary would be the President right now. And Hillary was FDR in a pantsuit compared to Biden. If you’ve been running around attributing opposition to HRC from the left to sexism, you really don’t understand the left. Hillary’s gender was one of the few things a progressive could hang their hat on to justify voting for her. At least it would set a precedent. At least it was something.

“With Joe Biden there is zero rationale other than ‘better than Trump.’ And that’s just not the potent argument that a lot of Vote Blue No Matter Who types think it is. Joe Biden is so bad, nominating him feels kind of like a double-dog-dare. Its as if Democratic consultants and donors got together and decided to find out how bad a candidate would have to be to lose to Donald Trump a second time, and Joe Biden was what they came up with.

“There’s not one accusation that can be thrown at Trump, from sexual harassment, to dishonesty, to nepotism, to racism, to crony capitalism, that can’t be turned back on Biden. Sure, Trump is worse on all counts, but not by much, and when Biden lies about getting arrested trying to meet Nelson Mandela, or about his civil rights activism, you can be sure Trump isn’t going let it pass like Bernie Sanders did. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Pretty much everything Biden said in the SC debate was a lie. But you’ll find that out soon enough when he’s facing an opponent who doesn’t go out of his way to describe him as his ‘friend’ every five minutes.”

March 22, 2020

This is the problem: Massive corruption and general buffoonery without a genteel veneer (Trump) or a kinder, gentler massive corruption and general buffoonery (Biden)? The issue with Biden is not that he is “too old, too centrist, too white.” It’s that he’s got his fingerprints over just about all the public policy decisions that have been made in the past generation—warism, mass incarceration, excluding needy people from the safety net, NAFTA, the right wing Supreme Court, warism, for-profit health care, attempts to cut Social Security, protection of corporate greed, and warism—that have set us up for this terrible time of crisis we are entering into.

Trump is an extraordinarily unpopular and incompetent president who is currently making a mega-fool of himself. If Biden cannot defeat him that is not on the people who supported Sanders in an attempt to overcome some of the damage people such as Biden have created. I think it is very likely that the wealthy elite who run the Democratic Party don’t actually care that much about beating Trump. They hate Sanders and what he stands for much more. Trump does not threaten their power nearly as much as Sanders.

One of the things that scares me the most about a Biden presidency is that if he’s elected, I fear that much of the air will be taken out of the energy that has emerged in opposition to Trump. To some degree, at least, that seems to be what happened to constructive possibilities related to the anti-Bush energy when Obama was elected.

And Biden has none of the skills that Obama had. At this point in the campaign of 2008, Obama had all kinds of momentum. Certainly the pandemic has shaped things, but even before that, Biden had no enthusiasm behind him at all. If he’s elected, I expect him to have a failed presidency and thereby greatly increase the chances of someone on the Right with much more competence than Trump to come into power in 2024.

Every inch of me wants Trump out of power. What seems to be missed by so many, though, is that our society’s main problems are so much bigger and deeper and older than Trump. When people call for blind support of Biden, they seem to miss that reality—and especially the role he has played in the creation and exacerbation of those problems when he has had power before.

March 22, 2020

This article from Ibram X. Kendi, “Stop Blaming Young Voters for Not Turning Out for Sanders,” The Atlantic 3/17/20, offers a helpful analysis of one of the big hurdles that the Sanders campaign was not able to clear. From the article: “Both Republicans and moderate Democrats share a joint interest in not increasing the voting rates of young people. Republicans lose general elections to Democrats when young people vote in high numbers. Moderate Democrats lose primary elections to progressive Democrats when young people vote in high numbers. Nobody wants to be a victim of the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ayanna Pressley.

“I do not know how serious some moderate Democrats are about the vitality of American democracy. I do not know if they value the vitality of American democracy over the vitality of their political careers.

“Sanders is losing to Biden because America is losing young voters, persistently and systemically. Instead of relieving the victim of these ageist voting policies, Americans are blaming the victim with ageist ideas.

“Blaming the victim is the American political creed. Its end does not appear near.”

March 25, 2020

In our current political situation, I find myself wanting to spend a little time reflecting on what we could call “first principles” or, maybe better, core convictions. I don’t have ready access to memories that help me understand how I came to hold the convictions that I find so important. Probably they were more present than I realize in my growing up years. But it feels as if I made some drastic moves when I was in college that seem a bit surprising—both about where the moves came from and about how central they have remained in the 45 years since.

The central drastic move seems to have been the decision to embrace pacifism (as the child of two proud World War II veterans). Initially, it was explicitly Christian pacifism, centered directly on my understanding of Jesus and the Bible. In the years since the “Christian” part has gotten more and more muted, but not the pacifism part.

It was never mainly about simply refusing to fight in wars (or spank my child or get a gun). It was an entire political orientation. I quickly undertook an extensive self-study course on American history and politics. Both political parties have been deeply complicit in the dynamics of warism, exploitation of nature, white supremacy, economic oppression, et al. I have never felt any loyalty toward either party—even as I recognize the distinctive corruption of the Republican Party since 1980.

The issue for me has always been the big picture of a corrupt system. It’s hard to know how to proceed when so many people I’m around seem so unconcerned about getting to the roots of the corruption and resisting it on a deep level. So many who are interested in the “Christian pacifism” side of things seem pretty sanguine or blissfully disengaged from the political side. And so many who are more concerned about the politics seem blissfully uninterested in core convictions. Or, some have interests in both directions but keep them separate.

So, I just don’t see how a Biden candidacy and presidency is and can be anything but a move down the path of more corruption—regardless how bad Trump is. Perhaps Biden may be the less bad option, but I can’t accept that without protest, or without wanting to remain focused on the deep level.

March 28, 2020

I have noticed the sentiment on social media that it is out of line at this point to criticize the Joe Biden campaign. It seems that part of the idea is that criticism of Biden will increase the chance of Trump winning. In response, I would like to offer several reasons why it does seem valid—even important—to criticize Biden:

(1) Those of us who hope for, say, universal health care, reduced corporate domination of politics, a robust response to the climate crisis, less militarism, among other hopes, and see Biden’s history and current positions to be problematic need to make it clear that a vote for Biden is not a vote for his agenda (or lack thereof)—partly to retain clarity in our own convictions and partly so he won’t mistake a vote for uncritical support.

(2) It is better to have open and vigorous debate about the direction of the Democratic Party and the United States in general than to stifle the debate. These elections are one of the few times when such a debate gets the attention of people who most of the time are not engaged. Not to have the debate now is likely not to ever have it. And, remember, it is only March!

(3) It is not clear, exactly, how criticisms of Biden do help Trump. We can be sure that the Trump campaign has long been engaged in oppositional research and will pull no punches in attacking Biden—including (no matter how hypocritically) areas where Trump himself is also open to criticism (e.g., nepotism, warism, support for free trade, sexual harassment, disrespect for working people). Criticisms from Biden’s left will not give the Trump campaign ideas they wouldn’t otherwise have. They won’t motivate more Trump supporters to vote—or persuade people who might vote for Biden to vote for Trump.

(4) On the other hand, the tone of many of these cries to stifle criticism risks further alienating the independent progressive voters who have supported Sanders—and in that way take away potential Biden votes. That is, an openness to such debate actually could help Biden by keeping people who might otherwise give up on voting engaged.

(5) Finally, to stifle criticism of Biden threatens to distract us from the reality that Trump is only part of the problem we face. As we see happening before our very eyes, the United States is descending rapidly into the condition of being a failed state. Biden, over his long career, is complicit in many of the factors that have led to our crises (only a few examples: warism, a gutted middle class, environmental breakdown, a tattered safety net, mass incarceration). He needs to be pressured to take a different path or, even if he wins, he likely will preside over a failed presidency that could lead to something even worse than Trump. It seems way more possible to exert this pressure during the campaign than after he is in power.

April 8, 2020

I admire Bernie Sanders tremendously and am so grateful for his campaign and his work over his long career. I have followed him since he was first elected mayor of Burlington, VT. Not least, he has inspired many others to follow his path and I expect that to continue.

Right now, I refuse to criticize him for falling short. He was so much more successful than anyone had a right to expect five years ago. Sadly, in the midst of our pandemic and how we are starting to see it play out in the US in devastating the most vulnerable, his policy proposals are showing themselves to be more timely and humane than ever. I imagine in retrospect I will appreciate that he made it just about as far as our political system would conceivably allow.

Even as a pretty cynical person about politics, I still have been left breathless at how the Democratic Party corporatocracy managed to be so brutally effective in dashing our hopes that had risen so high after the Nevada primary (which seems like a lifetime ago—though it was less than two months ago). Unfortunately, I can’t imagine it being nearly so effective in getting its man elected in November.

I still find Biden’s emergence as the presumptive nominee horrifying. It’s stunning what a poor candidate he is. The poll numbers that might be most chilling are the “enthusiasm” rate—significantly lower even than Clinton’s was in 2016 (and we know what happened to her). Just on the pragmatic grounds of defeating Trump, so many other non-Sanders candidates would have been better. I can’t help but believe that the antipathy toward Sanders (who was free from corporate dominance like no other major candidate ever that I know of) led the powers-that-be to panic and coronate Biden after almost dropping him altogether due to his obvious weaknesses—which are more obvious than ever now in the midst of the pandemic.

[Coming soon—Part III: Taking Stock]

5 thoughts on “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 2]

  1. Ted, Isn’t there room for a third party? After all isn’t Sanders a ‘capital I’ Independent, not a ‘capital D’ Democrat? Maybe it’s time. I really appreciate the time and energy you put into these essays. As for me, I vote, but then mostly keep quiet except when asked for an option directly. But, I can’t recall seeing anyone change their political opinion because of what I or anyone else might say. Vote local and let the national do what the plurality wants, I’m an advocate of individual rights. Do what ever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. You spend a lot of time on corporate power and it’s evils. Sure, but what replaces it? Evil big government. The story of government is that it comes to power with a benign force of everyone’s equal, but quickly goes to a power play of do what we say or jail or worse is waiting for you. If that’s the alternative I’ll put up with Exxon and Microsoft.

    1. Hey Mark.

      Yes, I’d love a viable third party. I actually voted Green in 2016 and might again this year. I’m pretty unhappy with the Democratic Party. But our system is not very willing to allow a third party to be strong enough to be viable. It’s a big dilemma.

      I write mainly to think things through and hopefully at least occasionally stimulate a conversation. I don’t expect to change people’s minds—but since I know that sometimes I am challenged to think differently by things I read, I dream of challenging others too.

      I dream of decentralized government and small businesses dominating our society. I think the big problem is the collaboration of big corporations and big government. I disagree a bit with you, I guess, because I think Exxon and Microsoft are very bad. But you don’t have big corporations without big government. Pox of both of their houses!

  2. Jeffrey St Clair–I admire Noam Chomsky more than almost any other American intellectual. Yet his position on lesser-of-2-evil voting is repudiated by the last 40 years of American history, where both parties have lurched farther and farther to the right. That Chomsky, of all people, can rationalize to himself voting for a politician who backed the Iraq War is one reason the Democrats keep nominating politicians who backed the Iraq War. Ralph Nader may not be as “radical” as Chomsky, but he has never wavered on this vital point: lesser evil politics only serves to propagate more evil.

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