4: Platforms of Power


Thomas Piketty (2020) argues that the nature of the current conjecture is shaped by a clash between an educated cosmopolitan professional class and shareholders committed to maximizing capital accumulation. He calls these respective groups ‘the Brahmin Left’ and ‘the Merchant Right’. As for workers, they are adjunctive to politics. Like Lind’s analysis in Chapter 3, there are certain elements of this analysis that hold up, especially when one considers intra-class struggle where one must accumulate or be accumulated. Indeed, some of the sections in this chapter examine cases where different capitalists pursue different strategies, form different alliances and viciously compete against one another.

However, like Lind, Piketty has oversights. In his case it is discounting the role of the working class as well as the development of the terrain in which contemporary class struggle occurs. For example, consider how at precisely the moment when conditions are so favourable for capitalism, in a country where for a century it was said to be impossible (see Foner, 1984), there was a country-wide organized socialist movement that credibly contended for the American presidency. And while it is not yet the case for national politics, in many American cities democratic socialists are within the ‘margin of manoeuvre’, meaning that determinants of success and failure include the moves campaigns make rather than the power of neoliberal politics automatically carrying the day.

Thomas Piketty (2020) argues that the nature of the current conjecture is shaped by a clash between an educated cosmopolitan professional class and shareholders committed to maximizing capital accumulation. He calls these respective groups ‘the Brahmin Left’ and ‘the Merchant Right’. As for workers, they are adjunctive to politics. Like Lind’s analysis in Chapter 3, there are certain elements of this analysis that hold up, especially when one considers intra-class struggle where one must accumulate or be accumulated. Indeed, some of the sections in this chapter examine cases where different capitalists pursue different strategies, form different alliances and viciously compete against one another.

However, like Lind, Piketty has oversights. In his case it is discounting the role of the working class as well as the development of the terrain in which contemporary class struggle occurs. For example, consider how at precisely the moment when conditions are so favourable for capitalism, in a country where for a century it was said to be impossible (see Foner, 1984), there was a country-wide organized socialist movement that credibly contended for the American presidency. And while it is not yet the case for national politics, in many American cities democratic socialists are within the ‘margin of manoeuvre’, meaning that determinants of success and failure include the moves campaigns make rather than the power of neoliberal politics automatically carrying the day. The coming sections examine how progressive neoliberals responded to this challenge in the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries and how party officials sought to thwart class struggle ‘from below’. I end by examining how capturing the judiciary can encode a ‘passive revolution’.

Staving off class struggle ‘from below’

In reflecting upon ‘the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order’, and ‘America’s bipartisan commitment to protecting and expanding a community of nations devoted to freedom, market economies and cooperation’, Hillary Clinton (2014) believes there is ‘really no viable alternative’. Reminiscent of George W. Bush’s remarks in the National Security Strategy, what she means is that there is no other social structure suitably amenable for a capitalist ruling class: no other option but uneven development and dispossession will be permitted. Conditional concessions will likely occur, yes, but not at the expense of perpetuating the ability to profit.

Where once Clinton’s assumptions might have been widely shared, among the generation whose coming of age coincided with the maturation of neoliberalism, the perpetual war on terror, the great recession, the militarization of domestic security forces and visible effects of climate change becoming even more apparent, there are enough people who insist, indeed demand, that ‘another world is possible’. More importantly, they have made themselves into a bloc and in doing so have crafted a socialist politics.

The 2016 Democratic primary provides a good recent example of the tolerable limits for alternatives and of the clash between progressive neoliberalism and democratic socialism over the agenda for American politics in this century. Consider that initial predictions gave Bernie Sanders no more than two state victories. Yet, through raising over $228 million with nearly 60 per cent coming from small donations of less than $200 (Open Secrets, 2018b), he more than exceeded those expectations. Come the Democratic Convention, Sanders had received around 43 per cent of the total vote and won 23 states with several others being virtual ties or near misses. These wins came despite Hillary Clinton having every structural advantage that America’s foremost political dynasty could offer, and some allegations – although little compelling evidence – of vote-tampering through state-level procedural discretion.

What was anticipated to be an easy path to victory for progressive neoliberals was nearly upset by Sanders’ articulation of the connection between social inequality and capitalism, an effective message because most Americans’ lived experience features no economic recovery from the great recession, but instead is characterized by pauperization and class decomposition. Working within the confines of American electoral politics, where form drives substance, Sanders followed a simple but effective strategy of making excessively reasonable moral demands that reform would not provide, thus showing the limitations of the present social structure.

Faced with a genuine threat, Clinton’s campaign trivialized Sanders and framed him as sexist. Within this narrative, his refusal to concede early, despite accumulating state victories, was thwarting women’s political aspirations. However, this neglects Sanders’ efforts to consolidate the advantage he had acquired in the party to advance his goals to contest the soul of the Democratic Party, especially on down ballot races with candidates who were his supporters, many of whom were women. Indeed, young women disproportionately lent their support to Sanders, not only because his policies were arguably more favourable for women, but because the dividends of class politics offered the best prospects for material improvements in their lives. Put simply, Sanders offered to complement representation with redistribution. For some on the radical Left – the Left informed by labour and political economy – the rally behind Sanders was a plausible path to wielding some sort of meaningful power. It would not have ended capitalist accumulation, but even temporary alleviation could have had a significant impact on the quality of people’s lives.

In a related manoeuvre, it was repeated that Sanders’ success should not be celebrated because it was driven by ‘Bernie Bros’, a group of disaffected men who sought to halt a woman-headed presidency. For example, when Sanders complained about electoral violations in the Democratic primary, Joan Walsh said he ought to change his behaviour lest he become ‘the messiah of an angry, heavily white, and male cult’. She then asserts that Sanders’s coalition was ‘dominated by white men, trying to overturn the will of black, brown, and female voters or somehow deem it fraudulent’ (Walsh, 2016). This kind of framing was so common that in his post-primary review of Sanders’ campaign, Adolph Reed noted how the trope of ‘“brocialist” men who threatened feminists with rape or other violence for their reluctance to subordinate feminist concerns to a male-centred class-reductionist socialism’ became one tactic to try undermine and circumvent Sanders’s popular support (Reed and Zamora, 2016).

Seizing on remarks by Robinson Meyer (2016) the trope emerged from a seeded public relations campaign which suggested that these men were undertaking an organized campaign to bully and intimidate Hillary Clinton’s supporters. Of course, cyber-bullying, criminal harassment, everyday sexism and digital rape culture are online problems. Certainly, this does much harm to women and many others. All of this is true. Nevertheless, citing a lack of evidence of sexism being an inherently condoned feature of Sanders’ campaign – and considering how this rhetoric erases millions of Sanders’ women supporters – Glenn Greenwald’s (2016) investigation of the public relations ecosystem concluded that this ‘cheap campaign tactic’ was perpetuated by a willing and compliant media.

This is not to say there were no Sanders supporters who were toxic and said awful things in his name (Wilz, 2016; Albrecht, 2017), but rather to suggest that the amorphous term ‘Bernie Bros’ came to encompass both real and imagined abuses. However, at the same time the term was used to suggest an intensity and scope of harassment constituting a core feature of Sanders’ campaign operations, but this did not reflect reality. For example, a year after the Democratic primary, notable Clinton surrogate Jill Filipovic (2017) admits that this toxicity was not Sanders’ fault, but she maintains that his ‘attacks on the Democratic Party helped set the stage for this thoroughly dysfunctional, and ultimately destructive discourse’. This statement reveals the kinds of politics at play. To be clear, much like Reagan’s ‘welfare queens’ or the ways in which contemporary conservative discourses on immigration use the part to stand for the whole, there are manufactured mythical figures in US politics that inflate real experiences until they become ideology writ large. And so the point here is to ask what work the term ‘Bernie Bros’ does for political aims, and how rhetoric is marshalled in the public sphere to negate alternative political programmes before they gain traction.

Granted, smears are common in American politics, but Hillary Clinton’s were in a separate category because she had more than 700 campaign staff, nearly unlimited funds and an untold number of employees in allied Super PACs (see Vogel and Arnsdorf, 2016 for a basic outline of the organization). In 2016 alone, Priorities USA Action raised and spent close to $192 million, with $127 million targeting Republicans (Open Secrets, 2018c). In the case of Correct the Record they allocate funds ‘to push back against attackers on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram’. They write,

Lessons learned from online engagement with ‘Bernie Bros’ during the Democratic Primary will be applied to the rest of the primary season and general election – responding quickly and forcefully to negative attacks and false narratives. (Correct the Record, 2016)

‘False narratives’ here equate to inconvenient facts like Clinton’s support for the Iraq War, however much hedges about procedural platitudes are retroactively introduced.

An ‘appropriate narrative’ can be seen in a major interview-based profile by Rebecca Traister (2016) in New York Magazine. The piece does not mention Clinton’s vote to support the Iraq War, nor her involvement in welfare reform. Notwithstanding the constraints of journalistic conventions, Traister nevertheless does relay Clinton’s thoughts on yoga, television and popular culture. This humanization precedes a tame list of several orthodox Democratic domestic policies that are meant to indicate Clinton’s pragmatic stamina for boardroom politics while positioning critics as having to resort to sexist political hounding because all other avenues of rebuke are insubstantial. The point here is not to castigate Traister. Nor is it to deny that Clinton has faced entrenched categorical inequality because of her gender. But it does illustrate how selective media access can incentivize pliability. Similar narrative management is evident in the paperback version of Hard Choices, Clinton’s memoir. Released in time for the campaign, about 100 pages are abridged, conveniently skirting difficult topics like her role in the coup in Honduras.

Returning to Correct the Record, the phrase ‘the task force currently combats online political harassment’ is revealing for how it construes dissent and contention using empirical facts as sexist. Involved in this reconfiguration is the deliberate malleability of the term ‘harassment’. What I mean is that there is a strategic misuse of the term when deployed in online political and social discourse to stall and silence due but unwanted criticism. In this respect, there is cause to re-evaluate how stigmatizing disagreement and appeals to civility allow the ruling class to introduce mechanisms to limit dissent, whether through technical interventions, legal frameworks or cultural norms. All of this aims to limit unwanted participation in politics, thereby ensuring that ‘the party still decides’ (see Cohen et al, 2008). Indeed, in the Citizens United era, the Democratic Party’s strategy was to ‘purchase’ an electorate by marshalling audience power through an unrelenting barrage of political broadcast advertisements tuned by the best campaign intelligence and data analysis.

The embrace and justification of Super PACs is demonstrative of drift in the Democratic Party. Where once it was a tenet in the party that corporate money corrupts politics, Clinton and her supporters deny this. Instead, they subscribe to the Citizens United ruling that money is not inherently corrupting. (There is an aura of melancholy about this, as Citizens United used Hillary: The Movie, a slanderous propaganda film, as the vehicle for their Supreme Court case.) Democrats, in efforts to defend Clinton, have occupied positions they once so strongly advocated against.

This drift reveals a contradiction in Clinton’s politics during the Democratic primary: the usage of intersectionality selectively ignores class and fails to undertake a power analysis, let alone raising questions about Clinton’s endorsement of America’s ‘forever wars’ or being a key member of an administration that further entrenched governance through criminalization that devastated young poor black men and women (Stockman, 2016). In being solely preoccupied with gender representation, this vulgar intersectionality overlooks a basic feminist observation that women, as much as men, can reproduce and uphold a racist, patriarchal variety of capitalism. Indeed, given the broader class protest carrying Sanders’ long run, Clinton’s support of free trade and opposition to a $15 minimum wage is indicative of her affiliation with the ruling class’s interests and thus the need to obfuscate her policy positions. It is for this reason that the campaign focused so much on civility and decorum; her staffers knew that their policy case was weak. In sum, the campaign adopted the language of intersectionality, but not the practice.1

In repressing class politics ‘from below’, it is important to register what conception of identity was mobilized for political purposes. Consider how Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric was predicated upon slogans and hashtags like ‘I’m with Her’. The inference is that Clinton’s election could be a symbolic victory over the underrepresentation of women in politics; but also a substantial one because she is a highly accomplished and extremely capable public servant. Yet despite her lengthy qualifications, a good portion of her support was begrudging, and this was particularly acute among women under the age of 35. That Clinton is not seen in a favourable light is often attributed to everyday sexism, but this ‘enthusiasm gap’ argument becomes more difficult to sustain when attempting to account for the lack of support from younger women. In this case the gap is attributed to their inexperience in politics. Explicitly directed at young women, Madeleine Albright remarked at a Clinton campaign rally that “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”, while the day before Gloria Steinem attributed young female support for Sanders to infatuation with men. “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys?’” Steinem said. “The boys are with Bernie” (Rappeport, 2016). Notwithstanding the presumption that Clinton has a right to support from this segment of voters, the ‘enthusiasm gap’ among already-committed Clinton supporters is informed by knowledge of her hawkish foreign policy positions and incarceration of the truly disadvantaged. The electorate was wary of reproducing systems of violence but had few other genuine options in a rigid social structure that seeks to ensure that there is ‘really no viable alternative’.

The aforementioned foreclosure points to another contradiction in Clintonian politics: the obsession with narrow white neoliberal ruling class feminism closes categories required to partake in politics, effectively forestalling the kinds of interactions required to create alternative social structures wherein oppression based upon subjective social categories is not as prevalent nor as damaging. While one can be critical of identity politics, this does not imply that whiteness is the natural centre of study, or that a decentring cannot have positive effects. Therefore, it is valuable to assess if the dismissal of identity politics is a pre-emptive effort to keep whiteness as the standard for political appraisal. That said, the intended practice of intersectional analysis is to identify the links between oppressions. Positioning them against one another, as done by Hillary Clinton’s staff and surrogates, aims to divide and rule, revealing a calculation to shield the powerful from criticism by the powerless. The heralding of this kind of calculated politics and manipulation to divide populations by exploiting social problems emanating from the very same social structure that American electoral politics seeks to safeguard and preserve is foreboding. Indeed, it does little to aid introspection into this kind of politics.

Following Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election, the Democratic Party began (and continues) a long, conflict-ridden process to analyse its platform and regroup its strategy. During this process Donna Brazile published her memoir. According to her, Debbie Wasserman Schultz had de-emphasized fundraising and, as a Clinton surrogate, had the Hillary Clinton campaign headquarters direct the Democratic Party. Factoring into this was that Obama had apparently left the Democratic Party in debt, up to $24 million. In 2015, Hillary Clinton’s campaign secured the debt in exchange for oversight of the Democratic Party. The Joint Fund-Raising Agreement, Brazile says,

specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC [Democratic National Committee], Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings. (Brazile, 2017)

To be clear, the agreement Brazile refers to applied to the primary process, not just the general election. Arguably, Wasserman Schultz’s inattention to fundraising consolidated Clinton’s control over the Democratic Party. Concurrently, the DNC had hired many Clinton and Obama consultants in ‘make-work patronage’ to prepare for the 2016 election, notwithstanding Clinton’s public promise that she would rebuild “the party from the ground up.” “When our state parties are strong”, she added, “we win. That’s what will happen” (Brazile, 2017).

However, the agreement between the DNC, the Hillary Victory Fund and Hillary for America outlined how the DNC could be used as a vehicle to route funds to the Clinton campaign, skirting the $2,700 set by the Federal Election Commission as the maximum contribution to presidential campaigns (the limits for a political party’s state and national committee are higher). The state parties and DNC then routed these funds, close to $350,000 per donor, to the Hillary Victory Fund. With funds concentrated in the presidential campaign, there was little remaining to support down ballot races. Clinton surrogates effectively controlled the process. Clinton cannibalized the state parties to focus on the presidential campaign. In the final tally, Clinton and her supporters spent nearly $800 million on the 2016 presidential campaign (Open Secret, 2018a).

Upon publishing these revelations, Brazile was scolded and scorned by Clinton surrogates in the media. These surrogates suggested that Bernie Sanders had signed a similar document. But examination of that agreement reveals one noticeable absence: any discussion about the DNC’s finances or strategy. As Greenwald (2017) wrote, it had no ‘control provisions’. While Clinton’s campaign staff scoffed at the suggestion of rigging (Ferguson, 2017) this grandstanding was undercut by new DNC chairman Tom Perez’s (2017) public statement that the 2020 primary must be ‘unquestionably fair and transparent’ as ‘the perception of […] an unfair advantage undermines our ability to win’. Advancing this point, Ryan Cooper argues that the practical consequences of this funding arrangement demonstrate how the Democratic Party is tied to graft and patronage, indicating that it will be hard to achieve the fairness and transparency Perez seeks. Cooper (2017) concludes: ‘Right now, there is a trade-off between political success and setting up a patronage machine that caters to the top 1 percent. It’s time for the party to take stances that will make it loathed by the country’s economic elite.’

Ultimately, this funding model caters to donors, thereby dulling the impulse for the DNC to tackle the growing social inequality and disparities discussed in the previous section. The failure to address the root causes of social inequality means that in the end, progressive neoliberals externalize fault to other social actors, for example attributing Clinton’s 2016 loss to fake news or the Russian state. Chapters 5 and 6 pick up and develop these points further.

Democratic socialism was the compromise

Prior to discussing the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary it is valuable to briefly examine the internal party politics in the intervening years. Due to his strong showing in 2016, Sanders’ movement was able to push the party ‘to review the entire nominating process’ while also ‘ensuring the process is accessible, transparent and inclusive’ (Democratic National Convention, 2016, 1). Included in this review was the creation of the Unity Reform Commission, with its mandate to expand voter participation in the presidential primaries while also identifying means to broaden the party to make it competitive and capable of ‘winning elections at all levels’ (Democratic National Convention, 2016, 2). An additional goal was discussion about how to expand the party’s donor base, which from the socialist perspective sought to curtail the influence of dark money in candidate selection, whereas for progressive neoliberals identifying new funding sources was imperative given their expectation that elections would likely become more expensive in the years ahead. Still, the formation of the commission can be understood as a rebuke of the Obama era where the Democratic Party had lost considerable electoral ground to the Republican Party.

The composition of the 21-member commission was equally split between Sanders, Clinton and Perez nominees. Sparing the minutia, interests and egos of the commission (Report of the Unity Reform Commission, 2017), their final report was an entente between the democratic socialists and progressive neoliberals. Specific proposals included the reduction of the role of unpledged delegates in the presidential nominating process, the encouragement of primaries over caucuses, requiring caucuses to have absentee voting, efforts to build an intellectually inclusive organizational culture and the disclosure of the leadership of vendors. While some of these recommendations would not be fully implemented for the 2020 primary, the report did provide the democratic socialists with documentation they could use to advance their politics.

Following from Sanders becoming a national political figure in 2016 – for 11 consecutive quarters he had the highest approval rating of any senator (Yokley, 2019) – the 2018 midterm elections saw more democratic socialist candidates gain entrance to the House of Representatives, joining progressive figures like Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal. The forecasts were for a Democratic wave (Bafumi et al, 2018), and indeed the party won 41 seats in the House of Representatives giving them the majority and positioning them to conduct oversight of the Trump administration if they wished (see Chapter 6 for a brief discussion of Trump’s impeachment).

Nevertheless, the wave should not diminish the fact that democratic socialist candidates still had to do the work as primary challenges inside the party, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeating Joe Crowley, a ten-term incumbent and then chair of the Democratic Caucus. Subsequently, democratic socialists gained considerable media attention, with Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ocasio-Cortez becoming the face of democratic socialism and diversity within the party. Progressive neoliberals certainly leveraged the optics of diversity, but aggressively sought to rebuke progressive neoliberal politics. As a result, on several occasions Nancy Pelosi publicly chided the democratic socialists. Speaking to the theme of staving off class struggle ‘from below’, vocal socialism made it that much more difficult for progressive neoliberals to follow through on their project of trading ‘blue-collar Democrats’ for ‘college-educated Republicans’, as Chuck Schumer articulated his faction’s electoral plan for the Trump era (Balz and Rucker, 2016).

Essentially the Democratic Party entered their 2020 presidential primary a house divided, but also considerably different from 2016. On the one hand, 16 senators had co-signed Medicare for All, Sanders’ (2017) signature legislation. This included all his major competitors like Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Notwithstanding their corporatist inclinations, these senators knew co-sponsorship was good politics. This speaks to how Sanders and democratic socialists more broadly had shifted the party. On the other hand, Trump’s politics had somewhat disrupted the Republican Party, and there were advocates arguing that this was an opportune moment for Democrats to pick up disaffected Republicans even if it meant compromising longstanding constituents. In practice these proved to be mutually exclusive electoral strategies.

Lastly, the momentum Sanders took into the 2020 presidential primary caused great alarm in the capitalist ruling class. Indeed, when they perceived and anticipated that Sanders’ competitors were not up to the task of defeating him, billionaires like Howard Schultz, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg declared their candidacy to challenge Sanders themselves. Additionally, there was an effective media blackout of the Sanders campaign, with what media coverage he did get being subject to considerable negative framing (Da Costa, 2020). Additionally his campaign was subject to repeat tactics from 2016, claiming that his supporters were unruly ‘Bernie bros’, and that Sanders had a ‘gender problem’ and a ‘race problem’, all charges that never bore out in empirical analysis. Ironically, the very people who were vocal about fake news in the Trump era were loath to adjust their analysis in light of empirical data. However, as Seth Ackerman (2020) noted, ‘what [made] Bernie Sanders so threatening to the Democratic establishment is that he stands for what millions of Democrats thought their party stood for all along’.

Initially Bernie Sanders took an early delegate lead, winning major victories in Utah and Nevada. Heading into the last week of February 2020, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns were low on financial reserves (Stevens, 2020). For example, Warren’s campaign had $2.3 million on hand, but also took out a $400,000 loan. The lack of funding effectively limited these campaigns’ ability to contest Super Tuesday, scheduled for 3 March 2020. If Sanders had succeeded here, there was a high likelihood of him becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee. But it was not to be. Supposedly through Barack Obama’s intervention, Klobuchar and Buttigieg jointly exited the primary and endorsed Biden. Concurrently, Open Secrets’ data show that Persist PAC, a Super PAC incorporated in mid-February, spent $14.8 million (Evers-Hillstrom, 2020) to have Warren act as a spoiler on Super Tuesday.2 Lastly, aided by a favourable media bombardment, Biden’s campaign was able to make the case that his victory in South Carolina meant he was the ‘safe choice’ against Trump. Then in early March 2020, Obama called Sanders several times appealing for Sanders to abandon the primary (see Thrush, 2020 for details).

Ultimately, the explanation for Sanders’ loss has less to do with the lack of sufficient appeals to American iconography and more to the plain fact that his movement took on entrenched interests in a capitalist party: it threatened financial interests. Capitalists adopted a counter-revolutionary politics, possibly even to the extent that this politics could well hinder the Democratic Party performance in the November 2020 election cycle. There are other credible subsidiary explanations, but these ‘consist of a series of footnotes’ to the primary contest around political economy. Subsequently, Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee. It may be some time until there is a full accounting of the backroom dealing, if any, but Biden’s nomination does affirm that ‘the party decided’ against inclusive political economic reform.

In retrospect, by targeting capitalism directly the Sanders campaign inserted class analysis into mainstream electoral politics and thereby headed ‘the greatest wave of social-democratic energy and socialist imagination in the United States for about a century’, according to Jedediah Britton-Purdy (2020). To give a sense of the scale of this rise of the socialist imagination, following the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2012 the Democratic Socialists of America had 6,500 members, many veterans of the New Left. Currently the organization has over 60,000 members, with approximately 80 per cent under the age of 40 (Heyward, 2017; Schwartz, 2017). As Tomasky (2020) writes, Sanders ‘gave this movement a figurehead’ who also had the skill to acquit himself well as a primary contender.

Completed before Sanders ended his 2020 primary run, Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht begin their analysis of this moment with the observation that ‘Bernie Sanders has redefined what’s possible in American politics’ (2020, vii). With the help of many others, between the 2016 and 2020 Democrat Party primaries Sanders’ campaigns were able to seed a mass movement of socialism, make the language and public analysis commonplace. While a figure in Washington, in 2016 Sanders erupted into American life as an organic response to American structural problems and generated a mass politics that many professional organizers had not anticipated. But material conditions were ripe for this kind of political expression, for an ideology other than capitalist realism. Indeed, Day and Uetricht discuss the spillover effects, the national wave of teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019 being but one example. I fully agree with their view that Sanders’ appeal comes from rhetorically foregrounding the centrality of class struggle predicated upon a vernacular Marxian critique of capitalism, a framework of analysis with the end goal of democratic, cooperative workplaces controlled by labour.

As Day and Uetricht’s remarks illustrate, the Democratic Party is divided. Indeed Michael Tomasky (2020) believes that the party is more fractured than in 1972 when it was split over issues like the Vietnam War and the New Left. This divide concerns three interrelated issues. The first is the nature of capitalism itself, with various factions arguing either for the corporate status quo with inclusive demographic reform, or wholesale revolutionary rejection of this polity. The second is over the administrative control of the party itself, as the Unity Reform Commission illustrates, for this bureaucracy has sway in advancing or hindering particular groups. The third is how to fund the party, whether wealthy donors and Super PACs are welcomed, or whether these sources of funds binds the party to a corporate agenda. Nominally these intermural debates are about governance and electoral strategy, but more fundamentally they involve basic questions of political economy. In some senses, the matter is one of party identity, with democratic socialists aiming to advance the economic rights in the New Deal while progressive neoliberals wish to continue the third way that the party embarked upon following Walter Mondale’s defeat in 1984.

Biden’s political career began during the transition away from the Great Society programmes and the general acquiesce to the neoliberal revanche. His politics and decisions are indelibly marked by the ‘hard choices’ that came at the expense of the most vulnerable (see Marcetic, 2020). Yet whether as an architect of mass incarceration or decades of catering to financial interests, Biden’s senatorial voting record offers little to the working class or to key constituents like black voters. For the latter group Biden arguably embodies the way progressive neoliberals practice a kind of racial essentialism. Briahna Joy Gray (2020) explains this as ‘a presumption that political allegiances are a part of one’s racial identity’. This ‘predetermination’ neglects the fact that racial experience is but one of the means informing a person’s politics. Geography, class, gender, religion and many other factors play a constitutive role in one’s politics, and none of these factors are overdetermined by race. Indeed, Gray insinuates, dismissing these competing interests and priorities reveals a kind of racial reductionism born from prejudice that is not interested in engaging with ‘the whole person’.

Gray continues, arguing that practices of racial essentialism explain why Democratic operatives and media analysts could not comprehend or acknowledge that the Sanders movement was the ‘least-white, most female coalition in the race’, and instead resorted to lamenting that voters were too conditioned by whiteness to vote for anyone else other than ‘another white guy’. But these pundits failed to adequately ask why black, brown and women voters overwhelmingly chose either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, or how they might have voted strategically or weighted several competing interests, agendas and goals. For Gray (2020), racial essentialism is consistent with the broader character of progressive neoliberal Democrats which neglects ‘voters’ actual needs and concerns’. Such neglect, she concludes, is a by-product of Biden simply aiming to use black support to launder his record on race relations.

On the topic of laundering legislative records, Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate could be interpreted as bittersweet. This is because Biden has long been a just target of feminist critique, whether from his stance on abortion or his treatment of Anita Hill. Considering Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegations against Biden, as Traister (2020) explains, ‘this story will leave [a female running mate] vulnerable to being held responsible for the misdeeds of the mediocre man to whom they will now be publicly bound’. In effect women – many of whom sought to stop Biden from becoming the Democratic nominee and who also sought to curtail the patriarchal practices he embodies – are being requested to defend Biden under the guise that if Trump were to win a second presidential term, the subsequent misery would disproportionally fall onto women. Traister (2020) concludes that the only way out of this bind is for Biden to select ‘a milquetoast woman who has never distinguished herself as a feminist or progressive advocate and who, therefore, dispiritingly, cannot be called out for hypocrisy’. Yet, this is a subpar victory for American feminism. It is a stark reminder about the barriers, stakes and moral costs of feminist praxis in the US.

The retreat from basic descriptions

Gary Jacobson summarized the 2018 midterm election as ‘reinforcing party differences along the dimensions of sex, age, education, and ethnicity, it sharpened differences based on political geography. The Democrats, already overwhelmingly dominant in urban areas, gained strength in the suburbs, and blue or purple states became bluer’ (Jacobson, G., 2019, 34). But it would be a mistake to attribute this polarization solely to attitudes and behaviours without considering historical materialist explanations too.

Notwithstanding massive urbanization and economic concentration in a few cities in the second half of the 20th century the US Senate currently gives disproportionate power to states with dramatically fewer residents. This in turn affects the distribution of power in the Senate as well as the electoral college for the presidency, meaning that there is a basic formal inequity in the exercise of power. This inequity is further compounded by gerrymandering of congressional districts and racially based targeted voter disenfranchisement. To put it plainly, Republicans can attain and retain power through electoral minorities. Recall that in 2016 Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. That same election Democrats won 11 million cast for the Senate, but the result reflected a 52–48 majority for the Republican Party (see Faris, 2018 for more examples). Conceivably, the Democratic Party could win the popular vote for the House, Senate and presidency and not win these branches of power. This in turn has downstream effects for judicial court appointees and the broad parameters of the experience in everyday life as the former shapes the latter.

This institutional development has resulted in the Democratic and Republican parties facing different incentives, challenges and paths to power. To gain power let alone undertake routine maintenance of the political system, Democrats must win large majorities. These majorities could come in two ways. First, as Sanders sought to do, one can build a coalition by using working-class politics to cater to the 45 per cent of eligible voters who do not cast ballots and otherwise op-out of formal electoral politics. The second option, as Chuck Schumer described, is to appeal to centre-right Republicans. The difficulty is that the centre-right often receives better economic appeals from the Republicans. As such, Democrats have begun to counter by offering a muscular foreign policy and other items that are begrudgingly accepted by the centre and centre-left members of their coalition. Due to their coalitions needing to have such a considerable span, the Democratic Party faces a rationalization of capitalist interests.

Conversely, as Republicans do not have to win outright majorities they do not face the full taming mechanisms of mass democratic appeal. The lack of these constraints permits them to adopt more ideologically charged positions and otherwise cater to the idiosyncratic agenda of a narrow band of mega donors. As a result, they can turn against democracy itself; dark money can mobilize a minority of aggrieved populations around perceived slights and grievances to stall politics. A good example is the 2013 government shutdown. Recall that the Republican Party pursued an agenda of obstruction for its own sake, choking democratic governance simply to claim an affective symbolic victory for their base, all which could be done without much of a worry about the consequences at the ballot box. In short, the current character of American politics has been set by the broad parameters that have arisen due to material developments meeting institutions that do not respond in kind. Effectively American politics could be understood as ‘determination in the first instance’.

These dynamics are exacerbated by a media system that is unwilling to undertake basic descriptions of politics. For example, while the Republican Party initiated the 2013 government shutdown, in the mainstream media and press it was presented as if each party equally contributed to the shutdown (see Nyhan, 2013). Conceptualized as presenting ‘both sides’ of a story (see Allsop, 2019) this vulgar value neutrality is less an organic vocational practical ethics and more a business strategy imposed on co-opted media professionals.

This is not to suggest that media professionals themselves did not play an active role. Jay Rosen (2007) has long remarked that because they are prohibited from openly adhering to a political standpoint, elite American political journalists responded by producing a vocational ethics that revolves around them being ‘savvy’. By this Rosen means that the members of the press are ‘shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic’, with the prioritization of these values meaning that ‘they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.’ While Rosen’s analysis preceded the rise of social media platforms (where ‘clicks drive revenue’) savviness has become a staple in contemporary online discourse. In a follow-up documentation exercise, Rosen (2018) shows how these elite journalists repeatedly claim that the Trump administration’s fascistic statements were the mere appearance to the reality of orthodox Republican government.

Rather than provide a basic description, the successful savvy journalist aims to produce content that is engaging to audiences. These effects are especially pernicious as political reporting in the 2018 midterm turned on the ‘personalities of polarization’ instead of undertaking a basic description of the developments which have brought polarization about. What is deemed reality is nothing but appearance. Effectively savviness, as a means to support profit seeking, allows reactionary politics to openly engage in de-democratization drives almost unopposed. How shrewd is that?

Courting disaster

One explanation for the intense media operations discussed in the previous sections is that the US is not a lawless country. Rather, neoliberalism requires the rule of law to justify and legitimate its intense concentration of power (see Pistor, 2019). Moreover, to employ some Gramscian descriptors, it is the law that will permit a Caesarian passive revolution to consolidate hegemony. To elaborate: in the US, ‘the federal courts have become a critical policymaking institution’, Keith Whittington writes, ‘and as a result both parties have been pushed to treat judicial appointments as an important political battleground’. Courts are not outside of politics; they offer an opportunity to ‘reshape the political landscape’, but, if anything, Whittington (2017) says, they are a ‘lagging indicator of political success’.

Historically the US Supreme Court has tended to defer to the executive. For example, up until the 1980s the court ruled in its favour approximately 80 per cent of the time. As Isaac Unah and Ryan Williams explain,

This presidential dominance perspective is based on the Court’s historical tendency to allow a wide berth, greater flexibility, and discretion for executive authority when interpreting the meaning of federal statutes and their manner of enforcement. (Unah and Williams, 2019, 152)

However, since the 1980s this deference has decreased and justices are more assertive in reviewing administration and legislation, and this tends to hold irrespective of party. The assertion of judicial power coincides with the rise of the imperial presidency and so sets up a conflict between these two branches of government. Granted there are other factors at play too, like the impact of legal realism and the decline of so-called value-free judgements, plus the global trend in the expansion of judicial power. Still, this clash underscores Whittington’s insight about how if courts are becoming more assertive, it is imperative to have power to appoint lower court judges to create a judiciary more likely to rule in one’s favour.

In this light, the last half century has seen political stalemate as each party was unable to decisively win the courts, at least relative to Republican reorganization during Reconstruction, or Democratic reorganization during the New Deal. Minimal success and partisan rotation resulted in relative gridlock at the Supreme Court. This limbo meant that federal circuit court appointments have increasingly become targets for Senate politics, often taking the form of obstructionism to slow the pace of confirmation, for example with Bill Clinton’s administration after the 1994 midterm elections, or in George W. Bush’s first term. Growing ideological distance has exacerbated the gridlock on judicial appointments, making collecting 60 votes increasingly difficult. Moreover, it appears that judicial spoiling does not cost electoral votes, so there are few disincentives to continuing this practice. For these reasons, substantive judicial appointments effectively require a party to control the presidency, the Senate and the House. When those circumstances do not exist, vacancies can accumulate, sometimes for years.

While these conditions did exist for the first two years of Barack Obama’s first presidential term, the 2008 great recession meant that the 111th US Congress was more focused on passing legislation like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 than on court reform, even if reform was one of the administration’s key agenda items (see Obama, 2017, 812). While having more opportunities than the Bush administration, the Obama administration was stymied by Republican obstructionism, arguably because there were more opportunities. For example, while the 113th Congress had rates of confirmation over 80 per cent, in the 114th Congress the percentage of lower court nominees fell to below 30 per cent, part of which can be explained because initial selections were 40 per cent women and 30 per cent black. On that note, successes do include the nomination and confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.

When Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in early 2016, Republicans were faced with the prospect of a third Obama Supreme Court appointee, as well as Hillary Clinton’s impending campaign, which if successful would perhaps fill the seats then occupied by Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Anthony Kennedy, the oldest members of the court, thus decisively swaying the court system to progressive neoliberals. “One of my proudest moments”, Mitch McConnell claims, “was then I looked Obama in the eye and said, ‘You will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy’” (KET, 2016).

Granted, the Republican National Committee did not know who would emerge from their presidential primary process, but stalling the Obama administration was the best option, given that they did not want the balance of the court to change. To this end, the Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington, DC-based conservative non-profit, received $17.9 million from a single unknown donor. Drawing upon this fund, the group launched a $7 million campaign to stall Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearing (Sessa-Hawkins and Perez, 2017). Arguably, refusing hearings on Garland gave evangelical voters (another) conceivable reason to vote for Trump. As American presidential elections are complex multifaceted events no one item determines the outcome, but it is worth keeping track of the various elements that shape the constitution of political blocs and give it motivation.

After Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, the Judicial Crisis Network subsequently spent $10 million on advertising to support Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court seat (see Massoglia, 2018). As a 501(c)(4) legal entity, the organization does not have to publicly disclose its donors; however, previously the network has received $23 million in funding from the Wellspring Committee, a known dark money organization (Bannon et al, 2017, 30; also see Massoglia, 2020). Gorsuch’s appointment maintained the status quo, but it did permit Trump to move the balance of power if Ginsberg’s or Kennedy’s seats became vacant during his presidency.

In June 2018, Kennedy decided that he would move to ‘senior status’, effectively retiring from the US Supreme Court. The subsequent nomination of Brett Kavanaugh by the Trump administration was surrounded by questions about his legal opinions on the expansion of executive power (Kirby, 2018). Other concerns about perjury were also voiced, although with good reason only really when allegations of sexual assault by Kavanaugh as a high school and university student mounted was there sustained public inquiry about his suitability for the court. In turn Kavanaugh declared on Fox News that “I’m not going to let false accusations drive us out of this process.” His defiance mirrors that of the Republican Party, who were urgently trying to confirm his appointment prior to the 2018 midterm elections where Republicans risked losing their congressional majority.

Following Christine Blasey Ford’s credible testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about Kavanaugh’s actions, Senator Jeff Flake endorsed forwarding Kavanaugh’s nomination provided there was a limited investigation from the FBI. These events crown a career in which, according to Brett Golshan (2018), ‘Kavanaugh’s truthfulness has repeatedly come into question’. It is for this reason that, by 4 October 2018, more than 2,400 law professors declared that ‘he [Kavanaugh] did not display the impartiality and judicial temperament requisite to sit on the highest court of our land’ (Aaronson et al, 2018). The statement follows sustained protests by Yale law students against Kavanaugh, who graduated from the university in 1990 (Naham, 2018). Subsequently, retired US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a lifelong Republican, even offered commentary that Brett Kavanaugh’s performance at his Senate confirmation hearing “demonstrated a potential bias involving enough potential litigants before the (high) court that he would not be able to perform his full responsibilities” (Reuters, 2018b). Despite the sexual assault allegations, in early October 2018 Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Of late it has been fashionable for pundits to lament that the Supreme Court has become more politicized, thus reflecting the asymmetrical ideological polarization that has occurred in the US more broadly and in the media more specifically (for a review of pertinent literature on the latter topic see Prior, 2013). Sadly, the notion that the court was (and remains) above the political fray is a remnant of Cold War ideological dogma and propaganda where the court was said to be emblematic of democratic reason and hence gave legitimacy to the American system of government. But this is not the case, for it is a trivially easy task to point out the extent to which the Supreme Court has typically been partisan, often arresting rights with each court in the postwar era tending – apart from the Warren Court – to be ever more conservative compared to the one preceding it. The 2018 term arguably demonstrates that the court is a de-democratizing force in the US. Key rulings like Janus v. AFSCME, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, and Husted v. Randolph Institute underscore that the court consistently permits social inequities to greatly shape the lives of the vulnerable for the worse.3 As such, efforts to expand democratic life require an open assessment about the extent to which this unelected institution hinders that project, and which bodies like the Electoral College and the Senate need to be abolished.

By contrast, progressive neoliberals tend to put faith in the courts and the constitution. For example, in February 2017 when Judge James Robart issued a nationally binding temporary restraining order on the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban, Trump’s subsequent tweets castigated the separation of powers, undermined judicial authority and pitted unreasonable security concerns against the rule of law. These reactions at judicial blocks have watered down a once predominant lay view that Trump’s administration would be restrained by the American constitution, the judiciary and other state legal apparatuses like the Department of Justice. The line of thinking was that these institutions could constrain the demands of reactionary populism. I think this view is misguided. Consider that as of mid-July 2017, Trump had appointed 27 lower court judges (three times more than Obama) and nine judges to the Courts of Appeal. On average, these judges are younger than Obama’s appointees, meaning that they will, as Ronald Klain argues, decide ‘the scope of our civil liberties and the shape of civil rights laws in the year 2050 – and beyond’ (Klain, 2017). These judicial appointments will ensure that Trump’s legacy will prevail. Far from limiting the Trump administration, the courts and the constitution will be a crucial source of Caesarism’s long-term power and effects. If anything, they reveal how plutocratic factions in the American ruling class have an opportunity to implement a passive revolution.

The purpose of the conservative legal movement is to coordinate a reregulation of environmental, labour and financial regulation, objectives that are more difficult to do via legislation. In other words, the US conservative ideological project can only proceed by entrenching counter-majoritarian procedural advantages rather than popular support from the people themselves. It remains to be seen whether these actions will work, or whether they are delegitimizing the Supreme Court right when it is seeking to consolidate durable power.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the Gorsuch and Kavanaugh appointments, Republican donors were frustrated at a stalled Trump agenda, given his administration’s flat-footed nature for the majority of 2017. “Donors are furious”, Senator Cory Gardner said in September 2017. “We haven’t kept our promise” (Hulse, 2017). Donor dissatisfaction meant that, by October 2017, funds to the Republican National Committee were less than half that of the January 2017 fundraising tally. Russ Choma (2017) reported that in late November, days before the US Senate Tax Reform vote, Republican donors were increasingly frustrated that the Republican Party had not made gains in reducing taxes, given that they controlled the presidency, House and Senate.

Speaking openly about this frustration, Senator Lindsey Graham simply stated that if this course of action was not taken, “the financial contributions will stop” (Thompson, 2017). Drawing the proverbial purse strings tight, donors were probably seeking to galvanize Republican politicians into action prior to the 2018 midterms, where because of Trump’s poor polling they thought they might lose the ‘trifecta’. Accordingly, the plutocrats pushed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. This law permitted the widespread looting of the US state, allowing the ruling class to appropriate an estimated $1.5 trillion over the coming decade. The consequences of this action are well understood: it will increase the ruling class’s ability and opportunity to use the market to structure relationships with workers, meaning rentiers have more power to extract wealth. Nevertheless, the question is: which faction among the ruling class will receive the bulk of this appropriation and which political trajectory will they set?

Institutionalizing hierarchy

At the beginning of 2020, Trump had appointed 187 federal judges, approximately one in every four judges on the circuit courts. Regardless of the outcome of the scheduled November 2020 election, Colby Itkowitz (2019) notes that ‘Trump has remade the federal judiciary ensuring a conservative tilt for decades and cementing his legacy’. These court appointments illustrate how McConnell and Trump are politically bound to one another. Their legacy will represent the joint wings of the reactionary pact: the use of grievances and racism to institutionalize hierarchy (see Chapter 5 for a discussion of this pact). While American Caesarism castigates the separation of powers, undermining judicial authority, and pits unreasonable security concerns against the rule of law, in the end it is these same courts that will codify Caesarism into American jurisprudence, meaning that the template for the politics of Caesarism will remain, even if any one particular ruler exits the scene.

As Chapter 3 and this chapter demonstrate, altogether events in the last five years illustrate how established influence, dark money and media attention seek to stave off class struggle ‘from below’ by using class struggle ‘from above’. To modify a phrase, the elective affinities of the ruling class reflect a kind of ‘politics determined in the first and last instance’. From the beginning socialist politics are not provided with equal hospitality in a capitalist polity, and while capitalist parties may well begrudgingly entertain socialist members, entrenched progressive neoliberals will find the means to preserve their control of the agenda. Nevertheless, taking the broader view, if Biden, Trump and Sanders embody the three grand tendencies in 20th-century American politics – liberalism, fascism and socialism – then only one is facing the twilight with any degree of coherence.


Accordingly, there is a view that because the term intersectionality has been co-opted by progressive neoliberals who have reduced it to a cliché and hence depleted it of its power to intervene, the concept is intellectually compromised. While I have a degree of sympathy for this reasoning it unnecessarily concedes the intellectual terrain. Instead, what is required is a reclamation through thorough and detailed analysis in the spirit and power of the black feminist tradition from which it was born.


Being incorporated in February meant that the PAC would only have to disclose its donors to the Federal Election Commission until late March. When these filings were released it showed that $14.6 million of Persist PAC came from Karla Jurvetson (Thompson, 2020). This was lamentable as Warren’s political career had until this point been predicated upon the argument that dark money was de-democratizing (see Fang, 2020).


Details about the individual rulings can be at Cornell Lar School’s Legal Information Centre, https://www.law.cornell.edu/. In summary, Janus v. AFSCME SCOTUS ruled that government works who do not join unions do not need to pay for collective bargaining. The consequence is that government unions will lose a considerable source of their income thereby reducing their ability to resist authoritarian workplaces. The ruling for National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra concerns free speech rights trumping abortion rights insofar as religious crisis pregnancy centres in California do not need to provide information about abortions. Finally, Husted v. Randolph Institute concerns voter engagement and participation, with the court ruling that the state of Ohio can remove voters from the voters list.

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