On Progressive Values and Where We Go From Here

With Bernie out, we are at a crossroads. Photo: Ian Wilson

Here’s the thing: I don’t like Hillary Clinton. Not really even a little bit.

As someone who has been both a New Yorker and a Vermonter, I’ve been a constituent of both hers and Bernie’s- and though there are a myriad of reasons why I became a DNC delegate for Bernie, that direct experience with them representing me was certainly a big factor. And as, to quote Ben Jealous, a fellow member of “the anti-establishment wing of the establishment”, I’ve had plenty of opportunity over the years to come to know both candidates’ styles, both behind the scenes and in the public eye.

In Hillary’s case, my problems with her started even before she was in office, when she was still a candidate for Senate in 2000. That year, she marched in the Manhattan Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Why is that a problem? Because that parade, until this year, was the subject of years of protests and boycotts from the LGBTQ community for its explicit ban on any LGBT groups marching. Its homophobia is notorious- to the point that when Mayor David Dinkins invited gay people to march with him as a compromise, he was jeered and had beer cans thrown at him. It was an ugly and well-known bastion of homophobia in NYC, so in addition to organizing annual protests, the LGBTQ community & its allies organized an alternative parade in Queens that was welcoming, called the St. Pat’s for All parade. Ultimately, which parade elected officials and candidates marched in, Manhattan or Queens, came to be something of a litmus test as to who was a true ally to our community, and who was just an opportunist looking for votes who wouldn’t put their money where their mouth was on LGBT issues. In fact, it was NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s honoring of that boycott that likely helped finally tear that wall down and open the Manhattan parade to all.

So, when Hillary marched in the Manhattan parade in 2000, despite months of entreaties by community leaders for her not to do so and to go to Queens instead, I was pissed. Then I proceeded to get more pissed; only after that blew up in her face after-the-fact did she decline to march in the Manhattan parade in 2001 — but even then, she couldn’t bring herself to say that it was because of LGBT exclusion, and instead just cited a schedule conflict. All of this, to me, is a significant failure in moral leadership, and certainly in true support for LGBTQ equality.

The contrast is especially glaring, in that it was to Vermont that I moved in late 2001 — and where, of course, I got to be represented by Bernie (then in the House). Throughout Vermont, he was (and is) an inspiring figure: deeply trusted, staunch in his principles, ferocious in standing up for what he believes in. And, in 2003, I got the opportunity to work with some of his close allies (including some of his former staff), at the Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals- the nurses’ union for the largest hospital in the state. It was from those Bernie stalwarts that I learned how to organize and truly empower working people, lessons I am grateful for — and use — to this day. And Bernie himself was always there, ready to step into the fight, whenever needed.

Nurses’ union action, Burlington, VT, 2003

So it is safe to say that I have viewed Hillary Clinton with a rather cynical eye ever since my experiences being represented by her, *especially* in comparison to the strong & consistent leadership displayed by Bernie. Time after time, I have watched Hillary triangulate, obfuscate, and generally behave as a Third Way politician par excellence. I have watched her sell out working people, the LGBT community, unions, people of color, and many other progressive communities & values, in the name of advancing her interests and those of her donors. And, I have little doubt that if she is elected President, she will continue that trend whenever she finds it politically expedient to do so. (As an aside: I do think the question of what constitutes ‘political expedience’ is largely within our power to determine, as it is dependent on how well we progressives can continue to mobilize large numbers of voters and small-dollar donors with progressive values to support progressive candidates and issues. Politicians care about two things fundamentally: money and votes. If we are delivering those things, “expedience” includes keeping us happy.)

To be perfectly honest, were a reasonable Republican running against her, and were this a normal election year, this fall I might just have planned to quietly skip the top line on my ballot, and leave the race to the fates (something, it should be said, that this School Board and Dogcatcher voter has never before even contemplated). Such is the depth of my dislike for Hillary Clinton and the neoliberal politics she not only is a part of but is a figurehead of, despite my long tenure as a Democratic Party activist. I have fought for nearly 20 years to advance progressive values and candidates within our Party, and she and her husband have both been, without a doubt, core opponents to that work who instead sought to move the party and its candidates to the center. She has long been someone who I would consider a key adversary in the fight for the future of the party- not someone who, except on issues of reproductive freedom & womens’ health, I would have ever considered a true-blue ally.

But, with all that said, in 2016, I know that I do not have the option of leaving the Presidential line of my ballot blank. There is no reasonable candidate on the other side of the coin. And this is no regular election year.

No doubt, that is in large part due to neoliberal chickens coming home to roost. With no major party left to truly advocate for working people over the last 30 years, income inequality has skyrocketed, the middle class has shrunk, unions have been decimated, and an entire generation of Americans, in the face of crushing student loans & bleak job prospects, feels like the American Dream has been placed out of their reach — all while corporations continue to rake in record profits and executive salaries continue to rise into the stratosphere.

And despite the establishment’s seeming bafflement about the dynamics of 2016, it really should have come as no surprise that “outsider” candidates would capture the hearts and minds of America on both sides of the aisle. Americans are neither blind nor stupid. A pot of economic anger and anxiety has been simmering for years from coast to coast, as most Americans have been forced to watch helplessly as their and their kids’ economic futures get bleaker and bleaker, and that pot has now finally reached the boiling-over point.

This is what’s called a populist upsurge. And it is something that most of us haven’t experienced in our lifetimes. But as a student of the labor movement and its history, I know that the last time this happened was a century ago, when working people in America rose up to combat similar levels of extreme income inequality, monopolies, and corporate control of politics. And those times ultimately produced FDR, and his New Deal- but they also produced a nasty wave of anti-Asian sentiment.

That anti-Asian prejudice of the early 1900s, the flames of which were fueled by economic insecurity, was ultimately a significant factor in why Japanese-Americans were seen as so “less than” that they could be forcibly uprooted and sent to internment camps. It was not hard for White Americans at the time to switch from years of demonizing Chinese immigrants to fear & antipathy toward their neighbors of Japanese descent. And if you look at the propaganda from that era, it bears eerie resemblance to the racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia of today’s right wing.

“The Yellow Terror in All His Glory” — editorial cartoon, 1899

Which is why, in this time of a populist upsurge, I am profoundly aware of the fact that the Vice Chair of our Colorado Bernie DNC delegation was Jo Ann Fujioka, who spent time as a little girl in one of those internment camps. Every time I think about her history, like most people, I of course think, “Never again!” But every time I think about her history, I also know, to the depth of my soul, that of course it can happen again, and that as a progressive, it is one of my most profound duties to be ever vigilant against one of the most dangerous currents in world politics: right-wing populism.

Why is this so dangerous? Because it is sometimes known by another, more recognizable name: fascism. (Or, if you prefer, reactionary authoritarianism.)

Jonathan Smucker, in one of the best articles I have seen on the subject, writes more eloquently than I could of the dilemma that faces us, in this time of populism rising. I would encourage anyone reading this, strongly, to read that full article and share it widely. But below are a few key excerpts:

To be living in populist times is to be living in an era when political authority is no longer seen as legitimate by most people; what’s often referred to as a crisis of legitimacy. During such a crisis, populist movements and leaders emerge, from both the right and the left, in order to forge a new popular alignment of social forces. Populists explain the causes of the crisis, they name ‘the establishment’ as the problem, and they articulate a new vision forward — an aspirational horizon — for ‘the people.’ Left-wing populism and right-wing populism thus share certain rhetorical features (i.e., ‘the people’ aligned against ‘the establishment’), but their contents and consequences could hardly be further apart. The retrograde ‘aspirational horizon’ of right-wing populism tends to be in the rearview mirror: a nostalgic longing for a simpler time that never actually existed. More importantly, despite its ostensible anti-elitism, right-wing populism always punches down, unifying ‘the people’ (some of them) by scapegoating a demonized other: blacks, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims — take your pick — depending on the opportunities available to the particular demagogue in the given context.
In these two insurgencies we can see the ‘two sides’ of populism and the two very different possible paths. Thus, a crisis of legitimacy is exciting for progressives insofar as it places our potential path right in front of us. It presents our underdog movements with an incredible opportunity to narrate the crisis, to reframe the premises of American society, and to organize a new progressive populist alignment capable of challenging the entrenched power of elites: in short, a political revolution. But a crisis of legitimacy is extraordinarily dangerous for a left that is not ready to take advantage of it. History shows that when progressives fail to realign popular social forces in such populist moments, reactionary authoritarians can suddenly step in with remarkable speed and horrific consequences. That is what we are witnessing with the rise of Trump in the United States, and with the related rise of fascism (leaders, movements, and political parties) throughout much of Europe. The stakes of everything we do right now are extraordinarily high.
Again, the character of the populism that emerges out of a crisis of legitimacy is a contingent outcome; it can be progressive or reactionary. With Trump’s nomination, we are seeing just how consequential the choice before us is. Also with Trump’s rise we see the predictable arguments of the liberal establishment warning against losing the center with a progressive vision that ‘goes too far.’ They’re using the same recipe they’ve followed the entirety of their political careers, failing to grasp that the ingredients have changed. In a populist era like the one we are entering, playing to the center is a losing prospect. The present crisis of legitimacy will almost certainly result in a major political realignment. Such realignments are rarely articulated from the safe center. When the priests lose their authority, prophets emerge from the wilderness, from the margins, with visions of a path forward.
And where prophets emerge, so do false prophets. When conditions are ripe for progressive populism, they are equally ripe for the faux-populism of the extreme right — the Mussolinis and Hitlers and Trumps. The central shared characteristic that justifies the placement of these three demagogues in the same list is the way each blends economic nationalism with race- or ethnicity-based national solidarity. The way progressive forces can fight this is not by retreating from populism itself, but by contesting the meaning of populism. In a populist moment, winning the political struggle depends heavily upon our ability to frame a more powerful “we” than our opponents. In times of crisis, people are especially keen on establishing a sense of solidarity and community. The right is framing the we in terms of an ethno-nationalism that shuts out the other. The left can win if it constructs a more compelling we that is inclusive of all pockets of society, and if it names unchecked greed and a corrupt establishment as the enemies, rather than certain kinds of people.
We can find some strategic lessons from our own history here in the United States. We should not forget that at the time of Mussolini and Hitler, there was also FDR and the New Deal Coalition (whose political strength was grassroots social movements). Moreover, fascism wasn’t just a European phenomenon; fascists constituted a strong organized force in the United States in the 1930s. Thankfully, progressive forces won the day on this side of the Atlantic, even if that victory was complicated and left many grievances yet to be redressed. Today our historic task is not merely to repeat the economic populism of the New Deal, but to figure out how to blend it together seamlessly with racial justice, gender justice, sexual liberation, and care for the natural world. This will not be easy, but we have to figure out how to articulate this vision as our aspirational horizon.
Bernie Sanders’ popular insurgent candidacy was a major step forward on that path. The campaign fell short of winning the nomination, but it came close. And its surprising strength signals an end to establishment politics as we know it in the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton is on the 2016 ballot, but the establishment politics that she represents cannot win the future. Given the unprecedented consolidation of wealth and power in contemporary American society, and given the establishment’s unwillingness to curb its further consolidation, all historically informed bets should be on the continued ascent of populism. The candidacies of Sanders and Trump both show us that populism has returned to America. But while these two candidacies may share in common a populist style (or anti-establishment rhetorical form), they represent polar opposite directions for society. One populism represents our most worthy collective and inclusive aspirations, while the other is characteristic of the worst episodes of known human history. In 2016 and in the years ahead we have a critically important choice to make: What kind of populism? Will we succumb to a scapegoating populism that punches down, using fear to appeal to a shrinking homogeneous white base? Or will we embrace a progressive populism that punches up and articulates an aspirational vision of a way forward together — for all of us?
So now what? Specifically, what do we do between now and November?
Let’s be clear: Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are not entitled to your vote. After decades of pursuing neoliberal policies, they don’t deserve your vote. It is incumbent upon candidates and political parties to earn votes by winning over voters. If they fail to do so, that’s on them. The vast majority of today’s electorate is fed up with the gross inequality that has come to define contemporary American society — the unprecedented concentration of wealth and power; the rigging of the political system to serve the few over and against the interests of the many. For the past three decades, the Democratic Party has put more effort into courting wealthy funders than it has into courting the working people of this country. Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment are not entitled to our votes and, frankly, they do not deserve to win.
But we cannot afford for Clinton to lose.
With the nomination of Donald Trump and the dangerous politics of hate that he represents, this election is no longer about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment. It’s about all of us. And it’s about stopping the worst possible scenario. I have spent more than two decades as a grassroots organizer, immersed in left social movements that have opposed the neoliberalism and frequent warmongering of the contemporary Democratic Party establishment: from Latin America solidarity, to the global justice movement, to the antiwar movement, to Occupy Wall Street, and many local community struggles. As a vocal Bernie supporter, it hurts my heart to know that I will cast my vote for Hillary Clinton in November; it pains me even more to be sitting here writing an article aimed at convincing my friends and comrades to do the same. But if there is one immutable maxim that the left should take from the past century, it is that we absolutely have to unite — specifically with liberals — to defeat fascism.
I am not arguing that you should not ‘vote your conscience.’ I am arguing that your conscience should compel you to use your vote as effectively as possible to defeat the unprecedented fascist threat before us.
To be clear, some folks throw the label fascist around casually. I do not. I am using a textbook definition of radical authoritarian nationalism, with a heavy dose of racism and xenophobia. Trump unapologetically exhibits all of the features and he is the only major US presidential candidate in my lifetime to fit the bill. He is masterfully stoking the fear and hatred of the most dangerous and most violent pockets of American society, intentionally empowering them and unleashing them as a political force. We can reasonably expect that an authoritarian demagogue who rises to power by stoking fear and hate will govern using these same tools — the only tools he has. Even as candidate, Donald Trump is making everyday life more dangerous for people who are already vulnerable and living on the margins of society, especially people of color, immigrants, and Muslims. Dangerous explicitly white supremacist groups have reported a huge surge in relation to Trump’s rise, which they appreciatively attribute to the candidate. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke enthusiastically endorsed him too, saying, “I’m overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years.” Duke interpreted Trump’s rise as a sign that it is time for he himself to run for US Senate, explaining that “European-Americans need at least one man in the United States Senate.”
If Trump’s candidacy was ever a joke, that time is long past. We cannot afford to underestimate the threat we see before us. We have to do everything we can to defeat him.
And the math is simple. Staying home or voting for Jill Stein does not help to defeat Trump. Voting for Hillary Clinton does help to defeat Trump (even if you’re holding your nose as you do so).
First we defeat fascism, and then we continue building the broad progressive political alignment that it will take to ultimately defeat neoliberalism. There are so many reasons to think we will get better at the latter task in the coming years. The deck was obviously stacked against Bernie Sanders, and despite this fact, his campaign briefly came within reach of victory. This says a lot about the political moment we are in. Given Bernie’s incredible numbers amongst voters under 40, it should be obvious that a progressive candidate — someone like Bernie — has a very good chance of winning next time around. And progressive candidates can win local and state races starting in 2017 and 2018. Bernie Sanders’ loss is understandably demoralizing, but we have to allow his near-win to re-moralize us; to orient us to a horizon that is not so far away.
Tectonic shifts in popular opinion seem to favor a progressive edge in the coming decades. A remarkably progressive generation is suddenly emerging, at long last. With Sanders’ unexpected popularity, there are now at least a few shrewd politicos in the Democratic Party establishment who are beginning to grasp the magnitude of the coming tidal wave and what it might mean for the future. It probably means a lot. The thing about generational cohorts is that they tend to maintain their political sympathies over time. Cohorts tend to keep their political leanings for life. In the next decade, members of this cohort will be reaching the age where their political involvement is likely to increase, in terms of the attention they are paying to politics, the time they are giving to it, and the savvy and skills they will bring to this involvement. Many will lead social movements (many already are), lead political organizations, run electoral campaigns, and run for public office. The cohort is statistically likely to maintain and perhaps even deepen its progressivism. And along the way we will learn to leverage greater political power. We will gain a foothold. And that is only the beginning.
This is what’s possible. But such a progressive trajectory is far from inevitable. We have to build it together, fight for it, and win. And, seriously, first we have to defeat fascism.

In short, I agree with him, whole-heartedly, and full-throatedly. As a student of labor history, I believe that the threat of the Far Right seizing upon our current populist energy to push authoritarian/ fascist aims *is* that unsettled feeling in the air, that acrid smell wafting over from the horizon. And, yes it scares me, not because I believe in the “politics of fear”, as some have called it- but because we are already seeing a rise in white supremacy groups. In overtly racist and homo/trans phobic behavior and legislation. In anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim zealotry. And history teaches us that we cannot let those rises go unchallenged, because if we do, if we wait too long to stand up, we are in danger of creating new, modern-day iterations of some of the most sad and awful bits of history.

That, I think is what led Shaun King — a longtime Bernie supporter who has already said he is leaving the Democratic Party — to say this a few days ago:

I’m reading a lot of people quote random sayings from gurus and heroes on how we should never allow fear to guide us. I understand the spirit of those quotes, but sometimes we must act based on the dangerous possibilities we are facing… I believe Donald Trump poses a dangerous threat to three particular groups of people that I love — immigrants, Muslims and the Black Lives Matter movement. To be clear, I am not saying that Hillary Clinton is a savior or hero to those three groups, but what Donald Trump means to them is substantively and significantly worse.

Read King’s full column for more, especially on the immigration piece and the Muslim piece, which I think are also critically important to understand, and he does a good job of breaking down. But I particularly want to call out the piece on BLM from King’s recent column, because it is very powerfully said:

…I believe that President Donald Trump would pose a grave threat to the safety and security of the Black Lives Matter Movement and all of us who are in it. Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee, who was a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention, has called us “scum” and “terrorists.” Trump may very well empower Sheriff Clarke to serve in his cabinet. Beyond that, though, Trump himself, during his speech at the convention and elsewhere, has alluded to restoring “law and order” in a way that suggests his intentions are to crackdown on protestors and dissenting voices. I fully believe that Donald Trump would be a J. Edgar Hoover type for the Black Lives Matter Movement. I would fear for my own safety and the safety of my brothers and sisters in the movement.
Furthermore, Trump has emboldened white supremacists and bigots from coast to coast. They love him. They have expressed this in every way possible.
I have serious qualms with Hillary Clinton and with the Democratic Party, but I have more than qualms with Donald Trump — I have grave concerns. Maybe you don’t have undocumented friends. Maybe you don’t have Muslim friends. Maybe you are not in the Black Lives Matter movement. And maybe because you are disconnected from those three groups, you don’t really see and feel the threat that Trump poses to them, but it is very real.

I’m just going to reinforce that: Shaun King, one of the most fearless and outspoken progressives, Berners, and BLM advocates out there, says a Trump presidency would make him fear for his own safety and the safety of others in the BLM movement. I think we all need to hear that, to know that it is not said lightly. And he is not alone. Dolores Huerta, the Chicana hero who co-founded the Farmworkers with Cesar Chavez, said, “We’re in a very very dangerous moment and leading up to this are all of the other fascist tendencies that we have been accumulating by having so many people in prison, everything being illegal and those people espousing and supporting those racist comments Trump has been using against Muslims, Mexicans, disabled people. It’s a very scary moment.”

Shaun King is scared. Dolores Huerta is scared. And to be perfectly honest, so am I. With the rise of a slew of trans-demonizing bathroom bills, with Trump saying openly that he would overturn marriage equality, with a newly-minted RNC platform that seeks to strip LGBT people of all our civil rights, it’s clear that the Right continues to insist on making sure queer people are still on that list of ‘others’ to demonize and persecute, too. I know very well how high the rate of vicious hate crimes against transpeople already is- hell, there was one involving one of my Union sisters just in the last month, which I thank God was not fatal, but likely would have been had someone not come out of the building and into the parking lot while it was happening. I can only imagine how many more attacks we will have to bear if we have a President who effectively declares open season.

I believe that voting based upon an analysis of real (if terrifying) possible consequences does not equal voting based on fear. It equals responsible voting, as a progressive, in the interests of marginalized communities. It is centering those oppressed voices who say, plainly, “we cannot afford to go backward, to face even more oppression”. It is recognizing that there are those among us who will be truly, deeply, and directly impacted by a loss, and that even though the Democratic Party may well deserve to lose the Presidency, we simply cannot afford for that to happen with the consequences being so severe. We just do not have that luxury, with fascist tendencies so clearly on the rise on this wave of populist energy.

So, once again, I agree with Smucker, in that FIRST we must beat the fascism out of the populist wave, and say in no uncertain terms that we will not be that kind of America. That we cannot ignore it, we must stand against it, and work to make sure that populist energy is directed into progressivism that unites people into taking on our true enemies in the 1% and moving our country forward, rather than into right-wing zealotry that further demonizes and abuses those who are already oppressed. And THEN we must move forward in defeating neo-liberalism. Though, to be fair, I do think we can do a bit of both by continuing to share our inclusive version of “we” as a part of our work to combat fascism. In fact, I think reinforcing that contrast is is one ofthe most important things we can do right now.

So, as much as it may pain me to say it, I will follow Bernie’s lead. I will stand and #RiseTogether, as Sen. Booker put it, to keep fascism out of the White House and away from any other levers of power it may try to grab.

I know it won’t be fun — and in fact will feel like this sometimes- but I’ll throw you a bag if you need one, too:

Image by Gan Golan, https://twitter.com/gangolan

Then, come Wednesday, November 9th, I hope we will all stand ready to storm the streets, the legislative halls, and the party offices to continue to advance the work of tearing apart the neoliberalism that has been strangling my once-proudly-progressive party and our society at large. But if we don’t stop the fascism that is clearly on the rise in America first, we will find ourselves facing much darker battles than the ones we want to engage in to continue pushing our country toward progress.

Wendy Howell is a longtime union organizer, LGBTQ & women’s rights advocate, and progressive Democratic campaigner. She was a delegate to the DNC for Bernie Sanders, and lives in Denver.