by Yana Ludwig
December 13, 2019
It’s been a couple weeks now, but I’m still thinking about Barack Obama’s request for everyone to “chill out” about differences between presidential candidates. It is just the latest in a long series of “Vote Blue No Matter Who” sentiments to get far more air time than Bernie Sanders record breaking 4 million donations. It’s not only annoying: I believe it is damaging our democracy.
The better message would be: Vote smart in the primaries because that’s where we are deciding what really matters.
Both major political parties in the US are in epic battles for the souls of their party right now. Many people have deep frustrations with being told to be loyal to a party whose current leadership simply doesn’t share our values. It feels for many like the “choice” we have in November isn’t nearly as much of a choice as we want… or see the world needing.
It’s easy to see that from the left, in part because only a thin slice of those currently holding office share our most core beliefs. We can see that the line should be drawn, not along formal party lines, but along economic analysis lines: not between Democrats and Republicans, but between neoliberal capitalism (AKA business as usual in the US) and eco-socialism (of which Bernie Sanders’ and AOC’s version of the Green New Deal is our closest example in national political dialogue right now).
Neoliberal capitalism is maintains that everything should be privatized and that access to those private goods and services should be determined by your ability to compete well enough in a dog eat dog economy. It’s a “good fight” writ cruel and petty. Neoliberals are enthusiastic about everything from education and spirituality to technology and entertainment to (formerly) public lands and insulin all coming with price tags that only some can pay.
Neoliberalism is built-in means testing for everything we need to survive. Poor people are consistently judged unworthy, complete with implied moral failings, because to be a successful economic producer is the primary indicator of being a good person. Except most of us are failing, and that should tell us more about the test itself than the people being tested.
Among neoliberalism’s tools that spill into politics is the practice of attaching status to your ability to acquire things. Both parties seem to crave wealthy people’s approval, attention and resources, and it is a rare candidate who resists this in a genuine way and centers their attention and policy proposals firmly on the masses.
Socialists resist the whole neoliberal paradigm. Socialism is about democratizing the economy; giving everyone not just “access” (which has become the buzzword among neoliberals who want to appear more left than they actually are on healthcare) but an economy structured around workers actually deriving full benefit from their own labor. It says that a public sector is good, not because of some excessive love of “big government” but because when we take cut-throat profiteering out of the equation, everyone has a genuinely fair shot at getting their needs met.
Socialism says that there should not be whole industries designed to be gatekeepers to Life (because healthcare is a right), Liberty (because freedom from unjust persecution and imprisonment is a right) and the Pursuit of Happiness (because education is also a right). Neoliberalism is fine with someone making money off of you and your “basic” rights. In that way, it fundamentally undermines those rights to the point that they are no longer basic in truth. Socialism demands that we de-privatize healthcare, the prison system and education (among other things) because without doing that, our American core values are just words on paper.
There was a fascinating recent article about my home, Wyoming, and the internal crackdown happening within the state’s Republican party. The far right has taken over state leadership in the party, rewritten the platform in the Trump’s and Cheney’s ugliest image, and is now punishing county party leadership who are not toeing the line strongly enough. It’s nasty and epic, and reading that article made it clear to me that Republicans are also struggling with what their party is all about.
Obama is friendlier for sure, but he represents a similarly ugly push to get in line.
It’s important for Republicans right now to be asking if they prefer Trump’s world or, say, Romney’s, just as it is for Democrats to be paying close attention to the differences between a Sanders presidency and a Biden presidency. Unless we have a candidate who is not a neoliberal on the ballot in November, we are ceding critical ground to the economic paradigm that led us to this moment of resurgent fascism in America, and to the climate crisis that threatens us all.
The differences are that big and that important.
So my exhortation here is simple: Do. Not. Chill. Out. The primaries are like the semi-finals of a national championship, and whether your team makes it to the finals and has a shot at some actual political power matters to the fate of our people and planet. We are writing the story right now. We have not two but four critical, and markedly different, options in front of us. Choose well.
Yana Ludwig is the author of Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption, a member of Solidarity Collective and Democratic Socialists of America, and a candidate for U.S. Senate from Wyoming.