Sunday, August 2, 2015

Populism and Bernie Sanders

All of which leads to the subject of Bernie Sanders and his attempt to bring left-wing populism back to the Democratic Party.  It has not escaped a number of people's notice that Bernie Sanders' following is heavily white, while black people continue mostly to support Hilary Clinton.  That would be easy to understand if Sanders emphasized mostly culture war issues and thought the most pressing problems facing this country were requiring bakers to make wedding cakes for gay weddings and giving non-gender-conforming individuals access to the bathroom of their choice.  But Sanders is emphasizing pocketbook issues that impact a non-trivial section of the population.  Black people certainly care about pocketbook issues like minimum wage and predatory lenders.  Why aren't they flocking to Sanders.

Famously now, he had a showdown with the Black Lives Matter crowd in which it became clear that pocketbook issues are secondary to them.  Police brutality and other harassment by the state are more important.  Sanders did not have much to answer besides an appeal to the pocketbook.  In effect, his economic argument is the liberal version of saying that a rising tide lifts all boats.  It turns out to have as little resonance with black people as conservative arguments that a rising tide lifts all boats, and for much the same reason.  What about people standing in the water without a boat?

Both Sanders' pocketbook appeals and civil rights matters may be considered left wing, but there is a major gap here.  This article has some interesting insights:
Left-wing populism identifies elites who are to blame for oppressing the masses. It also calls for majoritarian processes to alleviate the problem – changing campaign finance practices, more direct democracy, for example.

These theories of power and process are not obviously compatible with the BLM [Black Lives Matter] and related movements. Arguably, plebiscitary appeals about crime and punishment have contributed to the policies that created mass incarceration. 
Furthermore, economic populism identifies economic elites as the cause of the problem, stealing the American Dream from ordinary citizens. The intellectual foundations of the BLM movement implicate the majority and the American Dream. A movement that calls for thinking critically about institutions and values is not a movement that derives its strength from “the people.”
This is an issue I expect to address more as I look at failures of democracy -- I may end up treating illiberal democracy as a sub-category of failure.  I have touched somewhat on this issue in the context of ancient Greece.  My conclusion was that ancient Greece had neither anything like a civil rights movement nor any populist movement to scapegoat disenfranchised members of society.  (More on the subject later).  These things are no doubt related.  Rome is a different matter, and I look forward to learning about the Gracchi brothers, two left-wing populists who sought to break up the great landed estates and restore family farms, and to extend citizenship to Rome's Italian allies, and how these two goals worked at cross-purposes.

But the subject here is the United States.  I give only a thumbnail sketch here, without thorough research of the subject, but it does seem fair to say that the overall trend in the US between the Revolutionary War and the Age of Jackson was to become more democratic and less liberal. Property restrictions on the vote were removed, the number of elective offices (at the state level) multiplied, and racism and discriminatory laws increased.  Jacksonian democracy is fairly described as electoral democracy rather than liberal democracy, especially in the South, where Jackson's appeal was strongest.  Jacksonians effectively accused their rivals, the Whigs, of being liberal autocrats.  This was an exaggeration.  The US was too enthusiastically democratic for liberal autocracy to have any acceptance, but it probably was generally true that the Whigs were more liberal and less democratic than the Democrats.  The same might be said about the anti-slavery Republicans.  The slave holding South was particularly an illiberal electoral democracy. The authors comment that British liberal autocrats tended to equate property rights with civil rights, but in a slave holding society they are in irreconcilable conflict.

The Reconstruction might be considered an attempt to impose liberal democracy on the South's electoral democracy and the Ku Klux Klan as a right-wing populist movement on behalf of electoral democracy.  I don't know that much about the post-Reconstruction South, but it is my understanding that the elite wavered between joining poorer whites in embracing electoral democracy, or co-opting blacks into a liberal autocracy.  In the 1890's, the Populist Party sought to make a biracial, class-based coalition of poor people, black and white, against the elite.  The elite, fearing for its property if the coalition succeeded, quickly embraced electoral democracy and thus Jim Crow and the disenfranchisement of blacks were born.  The New Deal was not a serious attack on property rights, but the elite felt sufficiently threatened by it that Roosevelt, though at least somewhat sympathetic to racial equality, embraced electoral democracy rather than liberal democracy in the South in exchange for support.  Some the New Deal's strongest supporters were the liberal racists -- pure populists who favored political rights of the majority at the expense of both property rights of the elite (to the extent that the New Deal infringed on them) and civil rights of the minority.

Outside the South, democracy was often illiberal toward immigrants, but never to the same extent as the South.  Immigrants, though often discriminated against, did find a voice through mainstream politics.  As for black people, the Northern Republicans gradually gave up the cause of racial equality over the 1880's and 1890's, until by the beginning of the 20th Century, it had essentially fallen off the political radar.  Certainly around the beginning of the 20th Century (and earlier, see William Jennings Bryan) there was a strong left-wing populist movement, a wave of progressive reforms, and a radical militant labor movement.  But these were all addressed to economic issues.  They were either indifferent or hostile to the issue of racial equality.  It was also at this time that the NAACP was founded.  But the bare fact that the NAACP chose litigation as its primary tactic is revealing. Populism and unions were mass movements; the NAACP stuck to the elite forum of the courts because whites were too hostile or indifferent to racial equality and blacks to intimidated to act in mass.

It is fair to say that at this time the cause of racial equality in the US could not really be described as either right-wing or left-wing.  So far as I can tell, for instance, the initial leadership of the NAACP spanned a wide political spectrum from socialists to progressive reformers to apolitical philanthropists to conservative libertarians.  Unions were often racist and greatly hated and feared minorities co-opted by employers as strike breakers.  But the most radical unions emphasized the need for solidarity and setting aside racial or ethnic differences in favor of class struggle.  And it was around this time that the slow drift of black voters (in the North) toward the Democratic Party began. If no mainstream party supported racial equality, one might as well at least vote for the party that was most favorable on bread-and-butter issues.

But starting around 1920, following the Russian Revolution and the founding of the US Communist Party, racial equality became a cause of the left.  The Communists doubtless were hypocrites for being irate over racial injustice in the US while ignoring much worse things going on in the Soviet Union.  But the fact that the Soviets were doing much worse things in no way excused US racism. And once Communists endorsed racial equality, Socialists soon followed.  Even mainstream unions began tepidly inching their way in that direction.  Black people continued their migration toward the Democratic Party during the New Deal even though, under pressure from southerners, it often made a concerted effort to exclude blacks, but even then what little it had to offer was worth accepting.  And, of course, following WWII, racial equality returned to the mainstream and became the dominant issue in the 1960's.

So, back to Bernie Sanders, we are beginning to see why his appeal is so predominantly white.  To most black people, bread-and-butter issues are secondary.  Race is primary.  Doubtless if racial equality were not on the table at all, they would prefer a candidate who had something useful to offer poor people like better paying jobs or protection from predatory lenders.  And no doubt given the choice between two candidates who were acceptable on race, one economically liberal and one economically conservative, black people would prefer the economically liberal one.  Or (as to use the words of the previous article), Sanders and his economic populism is about the majority against the elite.  As a liberal populist, Sanders is perfectly willing to share his gains with the minority.  But the Black Lives Matter movement is about the minority against the majority.  The throws a spoke into Sanders' wheel.

It is also a surefire electoral loser to anyone who wants majority support to win the (national) election.  If Black Lives Matter wants national (as opposed to local) support, it will have to find a way to convince people that it is not anti-white.  Such is the lot of the minority.

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