2/19/19

Time to fight

Bernie Sanders is running for president. I could make the case that we should support him here, but a lot of other people are already doing that, and doing it better. Instead, I want to use this space to make a slightly different point: the time to make your decision is now. Because the center is already fighting to win - and if you do want to win the presidency and you do not act now, you will find yourself out-organized, out-numbered, out-resourced, and out-argued before you can even throw your first punch.

Romanticized visions of American democracy imagine the party primary as a discrete moment in collective decision-making usually just lasting about six months. When the Iowa caucus arrives, the playing field is level, every candidate is equally well-positioned, everyone with a worthy platform is still around, and voters make disinterested on-the-merits judgments about policy and competence.

Obviously this is not how party primaries actually work. What actually happens is that the fight for the nomination begins years before Iowa as competing factions of the Democratic coalition struggle for hegemony. Early on this battle is fairly abstract and unsettled - there is an interregnum in the wake of the last election, a consolidation of factions around emergent rival priorities, and a war of position as different groups fight to frame our politics, build alliances, and gather resources. But today, the shadow primary has already been underway for nearly a year. Candidates are now well into the process of building staff; courting donors, institutional allies, and local kingmakers; fighting for favorable party nomination rules and processes; and promoting their candidacy in the media.

And the center is already on the attack. Wall Street is already running attack ads, influential elites are already picking sides, and candidates are already breaking fundraising records.


There is a certain narrative on the liberal-left that finds this urgency objectionable - that counsels deliberation, organization, and strategic restraint. Now, we are told, is the time to learn about the candidates; to build our influence and organizational capacity; and to make candidates compete for our support. In tone, this is the voice of patient wisdom, disinterested independence, and pragmatic savvy; in rhetoric, it is framed against the frenzied partisan, the cult of personality, and the strategically naive.

And this, I think, is actually very good advice - two years ago. If the left hopes to overcome the juggernaut of capital and the entrenched party bureaucracy at the polls, the time to start working is the day after the last election. That is when you start to build your organizational capacity and political influence; that is when you start to develop your agenda, to make demands, to stick-and-carrot politicians into compliance, and to learn who is on your side and who is not. And to their credit, much of the US left has spent the past three years doing just that, which is why I think we are better positioned to fight for the nomination today than we were in 2016.

But obviously, the time for preparation ends when the fighting begins. And ready or not, the fight has already begun. If the left decides to sit on the sidelines, our rivals aren't going to stand down and idly wait for us to step into the ring - they will build momentum, frame the primaries, recruit supporters, raise money, and crush their opposition. Don't let that happen. You've had two years to get ready for this. It's time to fight.