As Biden is inaugurated, Kate O’Neil asks DSA activist and author Saman Sepehri what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for the American left
Saman Sepehri is an Iranian-American socialist, who has been active on the international left since the 1970s. He has written extensively on US foreign policy in the Middle East and lives in Chicago, where he helped found the Chicago Socialist Campaign Electoral Project in 2013 and is currently a member of the DSA.
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Let’s take a step back to the November elections. Leading up to them, pundits and polls predicted Biden would win far more handily than he did. In fact, record numbers of people came out to vote for Trump, despite his appalling record on the economy and Covid-19 last year. Why has support for Trump remained so buoyant? How widely and deeply entrenched is it, in your view?
First of all, the attack on the Capitol will no doubt reduce his support among a wider layer of those who voted for him. It still is remaining strong among the hardcore, but it will reduce his support post-January 6, among a wider layer who voted for him on November 3.
So, we need to separate out his support into two parts: the hardcore who will stick with him, including the fascists and extreme right, who are using him as a beacon to organise; and the wider layers that supported him against what they saw was their lives being ruined by the elite, the neoliberal status quo, globalisation, loss of jobs, or their farm etc.
If you look at this second layer, many will tell you they voted for Obama in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial meltdown. Obama seemed like a break from the status quo and brought hope. Then they voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries but would not vote Clinton.
The vote for Trump is tagged as white male, working class. The ex-industrialised workers - many white, in old industrial areas like Lordstown-Youngstown, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; northeastern Pennsylvania; the more working class suburbs of Philadelphia and the Detroit suburbs - did vote for Trump. But it is important to look at the shift in Trump’s vote from 2016 to 2020. Trump increased his vote, modestly but still significantly, within every group: African American men and women, Latino men and women, white women, all except for white men, where he lost ground.
His total number of votes was also up to 74 million from 63 million because there was a much higher turnout. The massive turnout of the Black and Brown vote in the cities did counter this increase in Trump’s vote. Without this vote there is no doubt Biden would have lost badly. But to say this vote is what tipped the election is not quite accurate either. Things are more complicated.
For example, the narrative that “Philadelphia flipped Pennsylvania, which flipped the nation” is a false narrative. The numbers tell a different story. Trump actually increased his vote in Philadelphia vis-à-vis Democrats in 2020. So, while Biden won 19,765 more votes than Clinton in 2016, Trump won 23,992 more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, handing him a net gain.
The reality is that it was the erosion of the Trump vote in Erie and the working-class suburbs of Philadelphia which was important. This was coupled with a drop in the vote among the rich suburbs of Philadelphia, which went for him in 2016 but recoiled in 2020 because of the instability he was creating.
Trump’s vote endured because the Democrats, except for a brief episode with Bernie Sanders, have not provided any solutions to the very difficult problems people are facing. There are fundamental issues which are not being addressed by either party - parties which have been seen as parties of “the elite” by many, parties which will not deal with the turbulence and destruction that the concentration of wealth, globalisation, agribusiness, the banks, healthcare costs have brought to people’s lives.
Many of the 74 million who voted for Trump will still be facing these issues, as will many of the 81 million who voted for Biden. The question is: what answers - but, more importantly, what solutions and avenues to do something, what organisations - will be provided for them?
Will this wider support for Trump continue to endure? Possibly not post January 6. But there will be the same fundamental issues in people’s lives to deal with. And now there is the danger of the hardcore that will endure. Here is the problem: on January 7, after the siege on the Capitol, 139 members of the House and 8 Senators still voted not to certify the election.
In the impeachment hearings there were a number of Republicans who defiantly defended Trump and others who hammered at “it is time to heal the nation” rather than further divide it, providing cover for the right and Trump. They did a much a better job of defending their base and consolidating it, while the Democrats were invoking the “hallowed institutions we love,” the rule of law, etc.
We have a problem with “growth of fascism on the ground” in the US, not a problem with “how much will Trump’s support endure”. We have to be cognisant that this is no longer an “electoral arena” issue. Unfortunately, the electoral arena, the “hallowed institution” of Congress, is the sole focus of the Squad. More problematic is that the electoral arena is also the one which the national DSA leadership is most focused on, taking the lead from what the Squad do.
The main issue is how to organise against this extreme-right, proto-fascist threat. There are a number of members within and outside DSA who are instinctively raising this question, at times even facing resistance from local leadership. Some branches are far ahead of others.
The Santa Cruz DSA put out a very good statement calling on all branches to organise against the far right. But the statement did not come from the DSA’s national office. Locally things are also in flux. For example, in Chicago some DSA members had an impromptu call to discuss the January 6 events without the leadership organising it.
The fact that we saw an erosion of the Trump vote in certain areas, especially within his “core” demographic - white men - actually shows the potential to build an alternative to the answers that the right is providing. We can organise an alternative to them.
Speaking of alternatives, the Democratic Party pulled out all stops to prevent Sanders from running as their candidate in 2020, and, in the words of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has so far been ‘extremely hostile to anything that even smells progressive.’ What is the room for manoeuvre within the Democratic Party? Can it shift left?
Neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties can materially deliver better living conditions.
Neither can they tackle deteriorating living standards without attacking the profit of the system, a system which has been in crisis and does not have any piece of the pie to share.
Some Republicans are reshaping their party by promising better conditions, but to a smaller segment of the society. It is to be the party of “main street” and of those cast aside by global capital and crisis, not the global elite. Their policies are xenophobic and anti-immigrant. They are against trade deals and for returning to a mythical past, a mythical America which was “great”, but this time for a smaller, exclusive section of the population.
Biden and Harris, for their part, have said that their cabinet “will look like America” and its diversity. But the Democrats have only symbolic gestures of diverse appointments and nods to social issues to offer - not any relief on class issues or real gains against oppression, be it based on race, nationality, gender or orientation. Moreover, they are saddled with trying to restore a political centre that is not holding. There have been ruptures and breaks since 2016, as I have said, and there will be more.
There is, however, an important difference between the scope of what the two parties can do.
The Republican party has room to manoeuvre to the right. It can embrace right populism, even incubate the extreme right. This may not be palatable to some in the party, but it is not a threat to capital[ism]. It may potentially be useful as a bulwark against the left and workers and other struggle when it rises. Witness the proto-fascist right organising against protesters in the wake of George Floyd killings or to push to open up for business during Covid shut downs. Nothing in the extreme right, or historically even fascism, is an existential threat to the rule of capital. It is not its first choice, and it may be destabilising, but it is not a mortal threat to it.
The Democrats, however, cannot do the same to their left. Any opening of a Pandora’s box of politics which can lead to the self-organisation of the working class, movements to the left, or the potential rise of formations or organisations to the left, can lead to the development of independent organisation of the class. And that is an existential threat to capital. Even independent social democratic formations, if they are not controlled, can in the long-term become a mortal threat.
Let’s talk about social democratic formations. You are a member of Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organisation in the US today and one that has experienced explosive growth alongside the Bernie Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020. In what ways has DSA changed the American left over the past few years, and what role do you think they will play in building the left after Biden’s inauguration?
The “post-Sanders” 2017 DSA was not the same organisation as it was in 2015. It was not the DSA that was a fusion of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement. The Harrington DSA was effectively a group set on pressuring the Democratic Party. DSA was completely transformed with the Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016.
Though he was not even a member, Sanders’ run for president popularised the term democratic socialist and associated it with the fight of the 99% against the 1%; healthcare rights; and, most importantly, a kid growing up in working-class Brooklyn, now at the age of 70-something, fighting for the working class. He made socialism something that was real, genuine and a fight for “us”: our side against the rich “them”. That was socialism.
That built DSA. It was a child of the campaign. Most of the leaders of DSA here in Chicago and nationwide joined in 2016 or after.
So how has DSA changed the American left? It did not do so consciously, with any plan. It changed the left by coming into existence. It changed it by giving expression to the sentiments built up in a young generation sick of neoliberalism and both parties, as neoliberalism was going to crisis, as the neoliberal political “centre” was no longer holding.
As such, DSA was shaped by both an electoral campaign and a decades-long period of rule by neoliberalism with no breaks or sharp turns. First, DSA members coming out of the Sanders 2016 campaign, and then again the aborted 2020 campaign - or through the victory of Alessandra Ocasio Cortez - know electoral work well.
Second, most members have only seen decades of incremental, gradual politics. The decades of neoliberal policies enforced by the “centre” of both the Democratic and Republican parties were a long period of immiseration of the working class and the poor. It was immiseration, yes, but it was a continuous and gradual decades-long immiseration - a one-sided class war, after all.
This was a long period with no major breaks until the 2016 political shifts and cracks in the political centre, embodied in Sanders on the left and Trump on the right. The first tremors came in 2008 and then the real political breaks in the status quo came in 2016, and have really begun now. DSA members are for the first time seeing major shifts in politics.
DSA nationally is set up to relate to electoral campaigns well - Sanders, AOC, Ilhan Omar, the six City Council members in Chicago etc - and this approach mimics itself in other areas of work. Movement issues become policy issues. It tries to concretise movement issues into “campaigns.” For example, the fight against climate change translated to the “Green New Deal” nationally and then, at the local level, to campaigns for the city government to take over private power companies.
Or when the George Floyd protests which shook the country raised the demand to “defund the Police”, DSA formed a campaign to come up with alternate budgeting and ways to fund social services instead of the police. Drawing up specific demands for policy change is a very important goal, but it effectively means the movement demands are now “dying in committee”.
DSA has been used to year or years-long campaigns, and a gradual, incremental pace of change, but the world is now moving at a faster pace, with much sharper turns and more profound events. These events are shaping the members no less than they did in 2016 and are shaking the organisation. They are raising questions about whether the way the group functions is sufficient to relate to events that are happening; how to relate to movements and other organisations; how movements may go beyond just campaigns; and, most importantly, how to build DSA on the ground.
For example, during the George Floyd protests, a number of members had to come up with some way of having a visible DSA presence at the protests, rather than having individual members scattered. This involved making the decision to even have a banner and creating teams of march captains, out of necessity and for security reasons. Members are trying to grapple with things as they arise.
The January 6 events and the threat of the rise of the extreme right are having a similar effect. The national DSA office does not seem to be functioning much outside of processing names of new members who have joined online and issuing statements. Nothing seems to be organised there. But the membership is trying to come to grips with these breaks - George Floyd, the rise of the extreme right - even though the structure is not set up for it, and even sometimes impedes it.
There have been debates within DSA since then but, again, some branches are ahead of others. Some have gone on with their regular business of committee reports and have not yet discussed January 6. In other branches members have had impromptu discussions. The Santa Cruz branch, as I have mentioned, made a statement calling on other branches to organise against the right - a statement which should have come from the national leadership.
As for DSA’s role in elections, DSA has promoted a strategy of using the Democratic party ballot lines - the “dirty break” rather than a “clean break” with Democrats - as a transition to an independent group. They have had some success winning elections with well-known names like Ocasio-Cortez but also lesser-known candidates at state and local levels. However, the room for manoeuvre for this is limited and not forever open.
DSA also set a goal of increasing its membership from 60,000 to 100,000 during the election cycle but fell short of the target. Membership now stands at around 85,000, with active membership on the ground hovering at only around 5-10%. This is no doubt partly due to Covid restrictions, but there are also political reasons. The present structure of campaigns and committees have their limit in how much they engage members. And lack of engagement reinforces paper membership and inactivity. It is self-fulfilling.
The real issue is no longer about the “clean break” or “dirty break” with the Democrats, ballot lines, etc. All of this is limited to the electoral arena and strategies of how best to navigate it. The real issue is about how or whether we can use every means, including gains in the electoral arena, to develop a presence in the streets, workplaces, neighbourhoods: how to build something on the ground.
DSA may have to rethink its functioning in the coming period of political breaks, ruptures and sharper turns. It is unclear how much this change can happen, how many members can be engaged into action. Engagement into action has remained somewhat elusive for DSA. It remains to be seen how much of the membership can become a fighting organisation that can pose a real alternative on the ground, rather than a self-reproducing electoral organisation. We will need to meet this challenge in order to build a response to the far right.
You have talked a lot about the importance of confronting the extreme right, but they are especially armed and dangerous in US. While we have heard reports about much smaller, less violent demonstrations taking place than expected for the pro-Trump day of action on January 17, we also know that state capitols around the country were protected by legions of national guardsmen and barbed wire to prevent disturbance. Do you think it is safe to organise counter-protests against the extreme right at the moment, and can it be effective? Is it even necessary, given the recent deployment of the state apparatus to contain right-wing violence?
There was a very successful protest against the far right just a couple of days after the Capitol siege that was extremely important. The Proud Boys were trying to assemble in New York City, new terrain which is not strong turf for them. There was an immediate response from our side and a protest where they were supposed to gather. They cancelled, and we took the terrain back. We have to respond when they threaten, especially now. It can be done. It was done.
They are at the moment under a bit of a microscope because of DC. We can make them go away if we mobilise when they mobilise. But they are trying to regain their footing post-DC and normalise their presence. They do not know if they should push forward or might get arrested because of DC. We cannot let them normalise. We need to respond where we are strong.
But we have to be careful about what we advocate. New York City is not Oklahoma City or small town Wisconsin or Michigan, let alone the small towns of the West or the South. We cannot blindly just call for the same thing everywhere. That would not only endanger people, but also create defeat for us and victories for the right.
We also need to see how we can build our numbers. There is plenty we can do to build networks now. In our ward in Chicago before the election, we proposed to go to people’s doors who had BLM, George Floyd or Sanders signs in their windows, and ask them if they wanted to be part of a neighbourhood network to report any right-wing activity.
We even suggested talking to those with Biden signs, to see if they wanted to help. There were Proud Boys leaflets being distributed five blocks from our house before the election and at the polls on November 3! But none of this happened, because everything got channelled into making calls for Biden and then for the Georgia Senate runoff race.
These kinds of initiatives need to be revived at this moment. If we can find ten people in the neighbourhood, then we can build a protest of a 1000 easily in the city: canvassing for action, not just elections.
Another front is pushing for answers from mayors about infiltration of the police by white supremacists, the extreme right, and fascists. The president of the police union here in Chicago praised the right-wing mob in DC. There are calls for his resignation, and a probe by the city into who in the police department may have gone to DC on January 6. That is easy stuff for our mayor to get behind.
But we know if the head of the police union was supportive of the mobs in DC, then there is no question that some of the members whom he represents, who voted for him as their president, have similar sentiments. We already have evidence of this. There were Chicago cops during the George Floyd protests this summer who were photographed wearing masks with far-right insignia on them—at a time when most cops are refusing to wear masks!
The questions we really need to push are: who were the cops photographed during the summer George Floyd protests with far-right masks? What happened to them? What is our Democratic, Black, lesbian mayor going to do about that? How deep does this go into the police department?
The US military command, after downplaying the threat of the far right in its ranks for months, has now announced a major push to uncover the extent of far-right networks in the military. This gives us a great opening, when the government itself is probing the military. They are doing it because they are concerned about the security and protection of the state from these elements after January 6.
The police are slightly different. First of all, they do not recruit based as much on an "economic draft" and therefore are not as diverse. People join the police with much more repressive ideological baggage. More importantly, right-wing extremism within the ranks of the police is not as much of the threat to the state as it is in the military, but it is to us in our neighbourhoods, streets and picket lines. The state is less likely to purge them.
So they are worried about the security of the state from the far right. What about our security in our city, in our neighbourhoods? This message can have traction. We are not just worried about who went to Washington DC. I'm worried about the cops sitting two blocks away, every night, as part of their beat. We can build on this and organise.
We need to organise on the left against the far right. The efforts by the state to deal with the threat of the right are made to protect the state. And they will shore up the authoritarian apparatus of the state, which can be used against our side, our protests and the left.
But building our own grassroots opposition along some of the lines that I am suggesting opens the space for the left to connect the issue of the far right with the issues raised by the BLM protests this summer. It can give the left room to insert itself, against the right and against the state.
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