In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way.
By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.
In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Senator Malcolm King. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.
Senator King, you were born in 1985. You were an avid student of history by schooling but an assembly worker and cook by early employment. You became a political candidate and ultimately a U.S. Senator. Many think you will be President in a few years.You were attracted to RPS and became a member, then a prominent activist, and thereafter ran for office within the Democratic Party in Massachusetts. Later, you became the first highly placed national elected office holder and used your position and abilities to propel the RPS platform. I have to admit it is strange to be interviewing a sitting U.S. Senator, but I thank you for the opportunity. And I wonder, can you remember what precipitated you becoming radical?
Please, call me Malcolm.
I was fascinated by history and that gave me great sympathy for those fighting against oppression and also considerable understanding of the institutions that create the ills. When I got out of school I couldn’t get a history related job so I worked as an assembler and also as a short order cook.
Suddenly I wasn’t looking at working class conditions as subject matter. I was living them. I like to think that even had I gotten a teaching job at some elite institution, my life path would have been like it has been. But, I know the odds are slim, so I am thankful for what I horribly resented at the time – that I had to enter working class life and endure its injuries. Doing so ensured my radicalization.
Can you also tell us which events, campaigns, or moments in RPS history were most moving for you personally?
Well, as you might expect, my becoming Senator of Massachusetts in 2032 changed me greatly and immensely affected my daily life. But, honestly, personally, I think two other moments jump out in my memory, to answer you here, on the spur of the moment.
First was when Bernie Sanders died. I know, he wasn’t literally in RPS and his politics, at least publicly, never rose all the way to RPS fullness. But for me, his life and particularly his Presidential campaign were pivotal to my own history, and his handling of himself, his way of engaging, his sense of proportion about his own role, his compassion for poor and working people were all highly instructive and inspirational. Anyway, when he died, I was seriously distressed. The slogan, don’t mourn, organize, is fine for a dying revolutionary to intone as advice to others. But, honestly, for those who are still around, for those who really cared, while it may be good advice, it falls far short of reality. So I mourned, quietly, for Sanders. And that was an important period for me.
Second, during the campaign for Military and Prison Conversion in 2028, I happened to give a speech at a U.S. military base in Texas. After, I sat around with some soldiers and we talked about their experiences and motives, and what the campaign might mean for them. I was greatly impressed by their thoughtfulness, concerns for the country, and concerns about themselves and their families, albeit encountering even at that late date massive confusion about underlying facts.
The proximity of change for the base and thus their lives, the sober calm and scope of the campaign, caused our exchanges to be heartfelt and sincere. They went for many hours and covered incredible ground. The lessons I took about the need to hear their actual reasons, not those imputed to them from a distance, and to relate to those reasons in ways that could create solidarity rather than fear and antipathy made my interactions not only with those soldiers but with lots of different constituencies thereafter much wiser.
Looking back, and getting back on sequence, what do you think fed into the early boycotts and many other such projects and campaigns emerging when they did?
Like many others, I think the proximate cause was energy that spread outward from the March on Wall Street. But I also know that earlier there was the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and still more broadly, the Sanders campaign and aftermath, and of course the stupendous turn out of women and their supporters to kick off the sustained massive resistance to Trumpism, and so much that followed. We could go further back, also, to earlier outpourings of resistance, and not only in the U.S., where I was, but around the world. And of course the anti Trump opposition persisted and grew greatly. I experienced all that, and all that contributed to what I and others became. I guess at bottom I realized if you don’t stand for what’s right you you are likely to fall for what’s wrong.
I also came to realize that a single effort at change rarely wins much, but when carried through well, a successful effort provides lessons and sentiments that lead to another effort, and then another. The result is never a continuous, uninterrupted piling on of desires, capacities, and gains. It is, instead, at best, win some, lose some. Learn from the losses so the gains accumulate and feed off each other.
Many activities before RPS aroused worthy desires. Many taught useful skills. Many conveyed needed confidence and overcame time worn biases. But not everyone involved at each stage experienced all such changes. Many would gain new inclinations for a time and then lose those attributes due to the pressures of having to return to the daily humdrum of filling current social roles to survive. Their lives would begin to end when they became silent about the things that mattered – but in time many could, and did, reanimate and return. Others would retain various lessons, skills, feelings, and hope, and bring those gains to a next round of activity. That is what mattered most, a forward trajectory of change.
If a movement hits a pretty high point but fails to keep growing, then as far as winning change, it is deficient. A movement has to be continually busy being born, or it will be busy dying. It is always the right time to do what is right.
This was true not only for earlier struggles that ultimately died, but also for the immediately pre RPS arms boycotts. There were campuses where at times twenty or thirty percent of the students and faculty were vigorously active and as much as eighty percent agreed with ending war research. As the dust temporarily settled, sometimes with total divestment, sometimes partial, sometimes with oversight for projects, most of those who had been involved went back to their prior approaches of going to classes and getting along. Getting them more deeply re-involved was one priority.
Malcolm, can we consider the 2016 Elections? What role did those pivotal elections play in RPS emerging?
There were a number of then recent electoral precursors of RPS, but the Sanders campaign was certainly most important. Sanders ran for President as a Democrat. His speeches, writing, and platform, far more than any other candidate in decades, leaned toward RPS positions though they also stopped well short of where RPS would arrive. He got tens of millions of voters to think and hope at a far more ambitious scale than in the past.
With tens of millions of people supporting Sanders and many thousands contributing their time and energy to his campaign, one of the main things his electoral effort did was to give a large array of people confidence in communicating with others and in arguing for dissident views, plus willingness to undertake such efforts.
You can’t overestimate this. You don’t win change simply by having good aims and a good heart. It takes immense outreach and great efforts at building organization and infrastructure, and the Sanders campaign gave people diverse skills useful for that path. Going door to door, phone banking, raising funds, conducting meetings, working together. These mattered.
Some of the controversies of the 2016 election campaign also proved instructive, though not without considerable travail. For example, Sanders sought the Democratic Party nomination against Hillary Clinton, who won it, and who then tried to become the first woman U.S. president.
During the campaign Sanders’ team turned out huge, passionate crowds. Clinton’s giant old time machine utilized all the rules and mechanisms that had earlier been added to U.S. election law precisely to benefit wealthy, elite-connected, party-favored candidates by isolating and marginalizing dissidents.
Getting the nomination was supposed to be a cakewalk for Clinton but became a major fight. Sanders so bested Clinton among young voters and independents in the Democratic primaries, that he won everywhere such crossover was allowed, especially if late registration was able to offset that before campaigning Sanders was essentially unknown. Clinton won overall because the Democratic Party stacked everything in her favor as well as because of minority and especially Black votes, a very strange dynamic that befuddled many.
I have wondered about that myself – did you later arrive at any conclusions?
Even now I don’t fully understand the early Black vote. Yes, the Clintons had a reputation of personally treating Blacks as equals in direct interactions. And yes, Hillary Clinton was rhetorically not bad and sometimes even pretty good on direct issues of her own personal race relations. But Sanders’ positions and inclinations were clearly vastly better choices for Black and Latino advancement, and lots of the young voters in those communities knew it, and some astute older folks knew it too.
But the Democratic party apparatus, with all its benefits to hand out, played a big role. And an even bigger factor was how the Republican Party scared older Blacks and Latinos, and plenty of young ones too, very nearly to death. Warranted fear of troglodyte Republicans, and particularly of Trump, plus fear, whether legitimate or not, that in a general election against a thug like Trump, despite that the polls said he would easily win, Sanders would in fact not have the apparatus and energy to campaign sufficiently and would be too vulnerable to red baiting and defection by Democratic Party elites, made the Black community vote for Clinton. With that primary vote in hand, and with the media and Democratic Party apparatus torpedoing Sanders at every turn, Clinton got the nomination. But then came a big controversy, whose resolution was another factor that contributed to the emergence of RPS not long thereafter.
The controversy was should a serious person who favors a Sanders style program or even further left aims, and who views Clinton as a war mongering corporate agent, which she certainly was, vote for her anyway to ensure that Trump didn’t win the election? This was called voting for the lesser evil and was applicable only to contested states.
Alternatively, should such a Clinton critic even in a contested state not vote, or vote for a third party candidate who certainly wouldn’t win, as a way to be true to self, to show the scale of dissent, and even to build a third party for future gains, believing either that Trump wasn’t worse, or that opposition would keep Trump in line?
Why was that controversy important for RPS emerging?
My take on this may be idiosyncratic but I don’t think the key was the actual issues and claims that were strenuously debated. For me the lasting heart of the matter was that for decades very few people on the left had taken seriously the idea of actually winning a new society. Left activists gave nearly zero time to thinking about, discussing, and trying to agree about what a good society should contain and what its institutions should look like. Some said this would be a waste of time when urgent battles needed attention, or it was beyond them, or it wasn’t their priority or responsibility, or it wasn’t even appropriate. But I think the main reason was people didn’t believe, deep down, that winning was possible. If a new society was impossible, thinking about the features a new society should have or about a path to reach a new society would be like thinking about a round square.
If you are not going to win, why are you radical? For decades I think the answer was you were radical to be right, to be moral, to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. You were radical as a kind of moral high ground life style. You weren’t’ radical for income, since income for activists was low or non existent. And beyond a young age, you weren’t radical for fun, either. Activism, especially when you weren’t winning, had too much tedium, trouble, and sacrifice, not to mention the possibility of being repressed.
My take was that for decades people became active for short and intense upsurges out of anger and frustration, They hoped for quick gains. They became active for longer durations to feel morally worthy. “Be on the side of the angels,” was a common phrase. It meant be radical, be virtuous, despite that you aren’t going to win. Do it to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. Winning wasn’t in people’s calculations, which is why people’s calculations rarely addressed what would enhance prospects of winning.
So Sanders awakened hope?
Yes, for a great many people Sanders’ unprecedented and completely unanticipated returns undid fatalism about the possibilities of reaching a large audience and galvanizing lasting support. He also showed the fragility of the Democratic Party. He amassed huge support while talking about revolution. Another question arose. Why did so many people on the far left, as compared to folks then just getting involved, dismissively disparage Sanders? I think two factors contributed to that because I don’t think Sanders’ actual choices remotely merited even a fraction of the hostility many felt.
The first factor was a kind of self defense. In just a few short months Sanders and his supporters arguably did more to move the national psyche in positive ways than radical activists had achieved in the prior twenty or thirty years. Of course, many factors contributed and Sanders built on what went before. But people who had been around and active for a long time and who had vested much, had difficulty acknowledging just how much Sanders accomplished. It was less painful to one’s self image to dismiss him, or even to rail at him, than it was to acknowledge his achievements and what they said about left activity in prior years. A very few people acknowledged this, but nonetheless, I think it was quite real.
The second factor was about Sanders’ supporters, particularly the younger ones. When Clinton sewed up the nomination, Sanders didn’t reject her, or even abstain. Instead Sanders supported her, albeit without much enthusiasm. He made clear his goal was to stop the neo-fascist Trump. He kept emphasizing the need to organize more broadly on behalf of what he called a political revolution, and he even worked toward building an organization to that end, but for many of his supporters, spurred on by quite a few more experienced writers and activists who certainly should have known better, it smelled like nothing but sellout.
They couldn’t abide Sanders saying folks should vote for who he had run against, for who had used media and Democratic Party rules to defend the system against his onslaught. Many of his supporters were a bit like slighted lovers. They felt vindictive. Many did not even contemplate that maybe this guy they so loved yesterday hadn’t changed. Maybe his call to beat Trump made good sense in a crappy context as a way to further an agenda they all believed in. Maybe Trump was that bad. And maybe if the left legitimated doing anything other than voting against Trump in contested states, Trump would win. Maybe they ought to pause a minute and think about Sanders’ recommendations. For that matter, I think perhaps the one test Sanders didn’t ace was to more forthrightly and effectively address his own supporters.
Okay, but what was the impact or meaning for RPS?
Heading into the 2016 election, if you were seriously fatalistic about ever winning more than modest gains you were in the habit of not wasting time seriously assessing long term strategic effects. You were accustomed to ask, what is the moral thing to do? What is the radical thing to do? What matches up well with my radical identity? What do I want to do?
You didn’t ask, what increases prospects to win a new society? And with the former type feeling driving choices, the answer for many was, quite naturally and understandably, and quite contrary to other rationales verbally laid on to make it look better, that you should vote for a third party candidate or for no one at all, but not for a war criminal like Clinton, even in contested states that Trump might win.
This was called by its advocates voting your conscience. Advocates felt it was true to self, whereas they said that voting for the lesser evil would be denying self. It was understandable, of course. But mainly, I think in the course of these disputes about voting, two insights that mattered to the initial stages of RPS grew and made headway. They were blunted momentarily when Trump won, only to resurface and become predominant later.
First, came a reassessment of what being true to oneself meant. Why was it more true to oneself to say “I hate both Trump and Clinton so I won’t vote for either one,” than it was to say, “I hate both Trump and Clinton, but I believe Trump would be far worse for many constituencies, and for the whole planet, so I will vote for Clinton wherever it is close enough that Trump might win, just to stop him, though not out of any belief in her”?
Why was downplaying the importance of the effects on others and emphasizing attention to expressing “self” a worthy approach? Why was being driven by one’s personal hate for Clinton more moral than addressing the plight of those who would suffer more under Trump?
Of course there were other factors, not least assessing the impact of different approaches and outcomes on prospects for later organizing. Some emphasized, accurately, that a Trump win would yield more quick activism. Which was predictably true, of course. Others replied that Trump-related activism would focus on preventing rollback of past gains and even on preserving sanity, but not on winning new relations. With Clinton we would have had to actually work harder to generate activism, yes, but it would be forward seeking.
I think the earliest days of RPS heading toward Trump’s defeat in 2020 were perhaps its most important. People managed, against the odds, to help the anti Trump opposition become more than a temporary upsurge seeking only to regain civility and sanity and gain some ameliorative reforms. They took the opposition, or parts of it, at any rate, slowly but inexorably beyond the new social democratic rhetoric of the new Democrats. Beyond the moment, early RPS ratified the idea that politics required moral choices but also ratified that morality requires paying attention to more than one’s own personal feelings.
The slow shift on this issue pushed assessments to become more strategic than reflexive. It highlighted long term effects over short term feelings. It pushed focus beyond oneself and especially one’s current ideological self image. It undermined cynicism about the prospects of winning. It elevated taking responsibility for one’s choices, not striking a pose.
You said another factor was thinking about what was good for future organizing. What was that about?
I think many people gained at that time two key insights and a third set of concerns about future organizing, all of which had powerful repercussions for RPS.
First, we all saw that it was possible to finance a campaign from the grassroots and it was possible to nearly win the Democratic Party nomination, since Sanders did both, and by extension, perhaps even to win the Presidency. After all, had Sanders won the nomination, and we could all see quite plausible ways that could have happened, we all thought he would have severely beaten Trump. So, the idea of running for President to win was back on the table as a conceivable and even promising thing to try. This lesson was imbibed by RPS, which became positive about people running to win, and I think it is fair to say Sanders is as responsible for my now being a Senator as I am responsible for it.
Second, in the debates about voting Clinton versus voting Trump, in addition to getting beyond people’s warranted dislike of Clinton to oppose the greater danger that was Trump, the point was repeatedly made, and finally gained power, that having a Democrat rather than a Republican as President was desirable for organizing purposes and not only to suffer fewer pains. First, a Democrat would be more hampered in repressing opposition. Second, and more substantial, dissent against a Democrat in the White House would be about positive aspirations and seeking new institutions in a new society, whereas dissent against a reactionary in the White House would be about preventing going backwards and rebutting insanity. It would not think about much less seek new institutions. Ironically, it would be dominated by militant Democrats.
Those who din’t vote for Clinton even in contested states, for example, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where a total of 70,000 votes elected Trump, understandably wanted to avoid ratifying the Democratic Party as a vehicle of social change. The wanted to avoid movement energy being coopted. Trump’s election, however, did precisely what they wished to avoid, by elevating Democrats like Warren and others to militant guidance of the opposition, whereas Clinton’s election would have galvanized movement energy against not just Republicans, but also Democrats as a party, and for more basic change.
I remember how evident this was, how unavoidably obvious, but that it took a long time to get across. What made it so evident was that it was happening even while people were discussing it, even before Trump won. Not only was mainstream media constantly over crowded with articles about Trump, so was left media. You could cull from the latter ten, fifteen, and sometimes even twenty different articles a day about what was wrong with Trump and about warding off Trump. On the other hand, the number of articles about systemic problems was modest and the number of articles that even alluded to, much less emphasized, seeking new defining social institutions was nearly none – at least for a time.
When one stared into an abyss of going backward, one quite understandably and quite rightly tried to toe the line against reaction. Nonetheless, some took another step. We saw the need to go forward but also saw it wasn’t matched by achievements. We argued harder for going forward and we started to see the obstacles and started to agitate to overcome them. This fledgling dynamic arguably became RPS.
A more complex matter was the efficacy of developing a third party approach to electoral politics. Of course it would make sense after a switch in the electoral system away from winner take all voting toward proportional power sharing to have a third, fourth, and fifth party. But before then, there was a huge complication. Such a third party, while unable to fully win, could, in closely contested states cause the worser of two main candidates to win. This was evident well before 2016, of course, but made obvious, then.
Some said, let’s not bother with third party politics at all. We should contest only within the Democratic Party. Others said, we have to build a third party because the Democratic Party is a graveyard for progressive aspirations. We need to survive the period during which we can’t win and grow our alternative, however we are able, however slowly, so in time we can win. A compromise position was to support third party development whenever one could do that without ushering in a worse overall context due to victory by a more evil candidate. Without going on too long about this, which was argued endlessly at the time, there was another more subtle side of the issue that also impacted RPS.
Running for office is a very muddy affair. You are, one hopes, trying to be honest, trying to speak to hearts and to minds, trying not to have bad side effects, trying not to undermine other efforts. But the pressures on candidates of trying to do as well as possible become enormous. And the Green Party candidate of 2016, Jill Stein, endured that pressure, and displayed its effects not only in her dismissing a safe state approach which she could have adopted to avoid benefitting Trump at small or no loss and I suspect even at considerable gain for the Green party, but in her becoming more than a little confused or manipulative in saying she was going to win or at the very least make a very good showing despite the obvious fact that she was certainly not going to win or make a good showing. It is that kind of impact on people, almost impossible to ward off, plus the tremendous pressure to minimize everything other than the campaign and then, about the campaign, to focus only on winning votes and raising money, that RPS noticed.
From that RPS took the lesson that it should welcome third party activism, and it should also welcome sincere activism inside the Democratic Party, assuming that each had good values and intents, but it should not itself be a host of and home for electoral efforts. The narrowing and distorting affect on an organization that fields candidates had to be avoided, and, indeed, when I ran for Senator it was as a Democrat even though I of course have never in my life had a single positive thing to say about the heritage of Democratic Party politics, and similarly for a great many others who support RPS and have by now also won office, sometimes as Democrats and sometimes as Greens.
Why did anyone, much less so many people, support Trump before and even after his sexual braggadocio meltdown? When you think about it, Trump being on a path to receive about half the votes cast in 2016 even if he had lost the Presidency certainly didn’t seem like an indicator that in the next 25 years the country would see the incredible outpouring of social activism and shift in mentalities and commitments we have enjoyed. What was the nature of Trump’s initial support – was it not support for his racist misogyny?
During the run up to voting many looked at the situation as you say – what a horrible harbinger of disaster Trump’s support augured even though they thought his support would collapse, due to him, by election day. But others looked and said, hold on a minute, what about the incredible support for Sanders, just months back? That augured incredible potentials. And while Trump’s support is partly about race and gender, isn’t it also very much about working people suffering immeasurably and trying to get change?
Well, whatever one thinks about that face off, I think there was another learning experience aspect of the 2016 election bearing on what possibilities it augured.
Trump was buffoonish and grossly racist and sexist. And he indeed would have ultimately succumbed to those failings when he paraded the latter full tilt, if there was not a perfect storm of factors that gave him his victory. Trump’s utterances even before the worst revelations were really quite disgusting and well beyond familiar sugar coated support for injustice like Clinton and other presidents routinely delivered. And sure, that was some of Trump’s early appeal for some people. Indeed, from my experiences then, and from studies later, It is fair to say that virtually every racist neo-Nazi and otherwise fascistic group in the country supported Trump. So too did many besieged men who felt women making gains meant men taking unjust losses. But that was just a modest part of Trump’s early support. His support that mattered more for what happened in the then future came from disaffected workers. So the important question was why did so many disaffected workers vote for Trump?
Trump was a billionaire. He was known for his horrible treatment of workers. But, he was also the opposite of a typical button-down calculating politician. Most of his votes came from people who felt that his turning everything topsy turvy offered more hope than preserving the aspects of life they found horrifying. These working people had real hatred for their declining circumstances. They were sick of feeling denigrated and denied. They were tired of joblessness and drug torn neighborhoods. And their feelings were warranted. Trump managed to attract a lot of angry workers even though he was, in fact, no working class hero but exactly the opposite.
Okay, but how did he do that?
Partly he scapegoated others and benefitted from myth plus racism and sexism. Partly he lied and manipulated. Partly he benefitted from a media trying to profit, but not communicate honestly. Partly he benefitted from some leftists and Greens creating a climate in which many felt voting for Clinton was a sellout and voting for Stein or not voting at all was a responsible choice. But for our purposes now, I think there is something else to look at.
Years earlier another politician with immeasurably less talent for it, though also considerably less proclivity for disastrous stupidities, had done something pretty similar. It wasn’t yet the age of TV posturing and this other fellow wasn’t remotely the showman Trump was, but Spiro Agnew had also tapped a class anger to galvanize support for the right and hate for the left. He did it by ridiculing and distancing himself from what he called bullet-headed liberal intellectuals – and the word that was key in that was not “liberal,” but “intellectual.”
Agnew tapped justified anger at what were then called professionals but what RPS later called the coordinator class. And Trump did the same thing. Working people felt Trump was one of them, not establishment, and when he got into office, they thought he wouldn’t ignore them, he wouldn’t forget them, he would be their tribune.
This perception of Trump was devoid of reality, as subsequent nasty history showed, but voters’ desperate desires to reverse working class decline were real. And that was why the working class support that Trump surfaced, once organizers and activists got over their tendency to look down on working people and instead listened to them and learned from their desires regarding their deteriorating circumstances, pushed RPS from being isolated from working people to being an expression of working class desires.
What about the effect of the 2016 election on you? Did Sanders running and Trump winning impact you later becoming a candidate?
Yes, and not only via the lessons described above, and its effect on the overall situation of society. I had gone to college and majored in history. When I got out I was very radical and not at all interested in pursuing a lucrative career disconnected from people’s needs. I got an assembly job, then worked as a short order cook. My focus was organizing my workmates and trying to get involved more generally in worker based community and workplace organizing. I was very anti war, very aroused by ecological concerns. I had zero interest in anything electoral. I couldn’t stand electoral parties or process. But I didn’t just like Sanders, which I did. And I didn’t just try to aid him, which I did. He got me to see that as rigged, alienated, corrupt, and mindless as the political system was, there was nonetheless room in it to fight constructively, and even to win. He got me thinking about elections being part of winning major change.
And so all the above mentioned disputes and debates were important to me, but even more important was the simple fact that Sanders demonstrated it was possible to finance an electoral run. It was possible to be truthful about serious stances for change. Despite incredibly stacked circumstances, it was possible to educate, mobilize, and even win.
I guess I decided that while there was certainly more than one route to contributing to change, by my history and circumstances I was most likely to have impact on an electoral path. I think a great many folks came away from the 2016 experience with that thought, and while it was temporarily obliterated in a haze of recriminations and fears by Trump’s victory, it resurfaced pretty quickly. Of course not all who were inspired to run for office succeeded, but a great many who were are now in office, often doing excellent work. If Sanders were here to thank, I would thank him profusely.
There is another factor for me, I think. My working class background by birth and early upbringing, and especially due to my time as an assembly worker and short order cook including often waiting tables, was incredibly enlightening. I knew just how hard it was to not explode from the anger you feel at the customers with suits and ties and erudite language who oh so clearly looked down on you, or, really, didn’t even do that since for them you were as close to invisible and inconsequential as a person could be. That anger, as well as fear, is what Agnew had ridden long before, and what Trump rode too. It could clearly lead to reaction, to racism, to sexism, to a kind of macho defense of an impoverished situation. And it often did. But for whatever reasons I not only didn’t follow that path, I understood it. I could recognize it and I could also empathize with it enough to be able to talk to folks who were on it, one to one, without being hostile. I could hear them, and also convey to them hope and program.
I had a feeling, I think, that’s very hard to communicate, for how to talk to workers without condescension and taking their views and especially their desires seriously, not just as a tactic, but because it was precisely what I felt. I also had a feel for how to talk to coordinator class types, again, not making believe I liked where they were coming from, not condescending or manipulating them, but challenging their harmful inclinations and views even while clearly understanding their motives and rationales. It was a good mix that helped me win office later.
I wonder whether Obama winning the presidency also affected you.
As a black man I would by lying if I said it didn’t. Of course he was not a radical, not even about black white relations, much less everything else. So neither he, his program, or his administration informed my beliefs based on anything they said or did. Quite the opposite. I grew to be a very harsh critic and obviously have entirely different aims.
But, that said, Obama’s winning did affect me. In 2008 I was 23, black, working class, just out of college and working on an assembly line. My politics were gut level and certainly nothing like RPS. Still, I did not become liberal due to voting for and being ecstatic to see Obama win. And it was simple. To me his victory said we can step onto the stage of history. The country can rally around a black man. And I don’t know, but I think it is quite possible that had it never happened, I would never have become a candidate. I think Sanders’ affect on me would have been less than enough, had not Obama had an earlier affect on me. And I suspect something similar is true for a great many women regarding Hillary Clinton nearly becoming president even as they too didn’t become liberal, or even remotely like her.
I am curious. Were there any more technical, organizing related issues that emerged?
Yes, many small ones, of course, but also one very large one. In the state of Massachusetts,, for example, Sanders had roughly 120,000 people volunteering. He got just under 600,000 votes. When that fact became known it was absolutely disorienting for activists relating to elections. How many of the 600,000 would have voted for Sanders even if he had had no one volunteering, no one making phone calls, no one going door to door? 400,000? 500,000? My guess is the latter, and maybe more. Maybe nearly all of them. But let’s be, I think, conservative, and suppose only 300,000. If so, then 120,000 volunteers and thus many many hundreds of thousands of hours of effort, attracted, say, 300,000 votes, likely a very large exaggeration. On average, each volunteer got 2.5 votes in this maximal view of their impact. In my view, it was more likely the average was well under 1 per volunteer.
The question arose, was their time well spent? Were they talking to folks in the most useful ways? Couldn’t a volunteer for a couple of months of campaigning, in, say, ten or twenty hours, or more for many, win over more voters than that? We are talking about Sanders volunteers talking to future Trump or Clinton voters and winning them over. The time they spent chatting with people who were going to vote for Sanders because of his talks, views, ads, or whatever, wouldn’t win any converts, though it might certainly have other virtues. There was a lot to think about in all this for future campaigns, and mostly it centered, again, on how to address confusion among potential voters, and, even more, how to address doubt and despair.
Malcolm, what about blaming white workers, didn’t that happened a lot too?
Yes, many blamed white workers. First, it was undeniably correct that had fewer white male and female workers voted for Trump, he would have handily lost. Even just voting for Clinton instead of Trump at the same level that white voters had supported Obama instead of Romney would have sunk Trump’s boat. Unquestionably, therefore, the choice of a great many white workers to vote for Trump abetted Trump’s victory. But deciding why they voted for him is where heated controversy arose.
Some argued if you voted for Trump it meant you didn’t care about his misogyny and racism or you even welcomed it. Racism and sexism were what you desired. You were a little Trump. Most who said this sort of thing totally dismissed Trump voters as being beyond communication. Urged to reach out and organize Trump voters, they replied that that was ridiculous. They thought Trump voters were lost to reason. A subset added that while Trump’s voters’ views were horrible, still, we must reach them. However this seemed to mean we should shame people, “call out” people, confront people, label people as backward, ignorant, and worse, and demand that they repent. There was no room for discussion, debate, and organizing. Repent, and we will like you, or don’t repent, and we will hate you.
Others said, hold on. Do you really believe Latinos who voted for Trump are racist little Trumps? Do you really believe women who voted for Trump, which is most white women who voted, are misogynist little Trumps? If you don’t, then presumably you think that these groups saw reasons to vote for Trump that were not only not racist and sexist, but that they felt overrode even their self interested experiential personal distaste for Trump’s wild racism and sexism. But if you can see that for Latino and women Trump voters, then why should we assume that all white male working class Trump voters, or even most of them, didn’t see and weren’t moved by the same non racist and non sexist feelings as many Latino voters and the majority of white women voters?
If white workers who voted for Obama had voted for Clinton, Trump loses. Did many white workers vote for Obama but not for Clinton because they were racist? Did they vote for Obama but not for Clinton because they – and remember, this includes more than half of white women – were sexist? Why wasn’t it possible that white working class Trump voters from devastated communities who were suffering drug invaded and unemployment saddled neighborhoods, and who were bombarded with horribly faulty media mediated information, were mainly voting against the status quo and not for racism and misogyny?
Similarly, couldn’t even better off white working class Trump voters fearing job loss, suffering indignity, hating not so much the really rich as the doctors, lawyers, managers, and coordinator class elites they daily encountered, and inundated with confusing and contradictory information, have been voting against the status quo and not for racism and misogyny? Wasn’t their fear of continued working class decline that great?
What about blaming young Sanders supporters?
This view claimed that by abstaining young Sanders supporters helped Trump over the bar. If you look at Clinton’s relatively anemic youth support compared to Sanders or to Obama, you can see, I think, that this claim has some weight. Whether the scale of youth abstention was sufficient to have alone turned the tide, we can agree it certainly played a role. Why did it happen?
Suppose you thought Trump was terrible, Clinton was terrible, and you didn’t see all that much difference. Or maybe you thought Trump winning would be good due to the reaction it would generate. Having those views, I can see how you might abstain. Once the election was over, you would protest and organize as best you could, and since Trump won, that meant going into the streets. So you did that. And you felt no need to apologize for having not voted for Clinton even in contested states.
One lesson is that it is possible for wonderful, caring, courageous people to have very distorted perceptions, something we all already knew, of course, from all of history, including moments in our own personal pasts.
What I found especially striking, however, was that Sanders had no such confusion. Nor did many radicals writing tireless warnings of Trump’s evil and his potential to win, and urging strategic lesser evil voting throughout the campaign. And because such clarity did exist, including coming from Sanders, it took some effort, I think, for even a few Sanders supporters to abstain in contested states. I thought that however painful to dwell on, this was worth understanding and that some lessons lurked in the experience.
Simplifying a bit, I think the pattern of Trump’a voters and also some Sanders supporters discounting Trump’s evils was two sides of one coin. Trump voters discounted Trump’s racism, sexism, climate denial, and fascistic leanings. Sanders supporters didn’t vote against Trump discounted the same evils (all of which Sanders supporters had every reason to be fully aware of). Both Trump’s voters and the Sanders voters who abstained seem to have acted based on short term feelings of anger and fear. For the Trump voters it was anger at their life situation. For the Sanders abstainers it was anger at their electoral mistreatment. I felt that both groups allowed their warranted anger and fears to overcome compelling evidence and logic and that that suggested that organizing needed to become compassionate, subtle, persistent, and informed enough to overcome this tendency.
What about the role of the third party Green candidate Jill Stein and some of her advocates?
Jill Stein’s voters and Stein herself as well as various left pundits disseminated endless messages claiming there was no difference between Trump and Clinton, claiming that Clinton was absolutely going to win, and claiming that votes for Stein mattered because she could win or at any rate do quite well. This took votes from Clinton in contested states and beyond that, by relentlessly adding to an inflated anti Clinton mood while leveling far less fire on Trump, it made credible a decision to abstain, particularly by Sanders supporters.
Of all the issues this one was, for me, most difficult to navigate because this is where my own emotional anger surged greatest.
First, we should not put our heads in the sand. This claim, like the others, was true. It wasn’t just that had Stein’s voters all voted for Clinton in contested states it would have alone tipped the tide. It was also that abstentions generated by Stein’s anti Clinton emphasis and her disparaging voting for Clinton as evidence of selling out or being a shil for the Democrats also reduced Clinton’s votes in contested states.
It was one thing for a constituency that was quite reasonably fearful, suffering, and subject to very poor information to make a desperation-motivated electoral mistake. It was another thing for people with lots of political experience and who enjoyed relative safety to not only make a mistake, but to adamantly and hostilely urge it on others, and to even slander those who were rightly trying to correct the error.
I don’t want to belabor this twenty years later, but one lesson it conveyed to me was that strategic lesser evil voting obviously makes sense whenever the gap between evils is large enough and no other use of the votes offers any great benefit. Of course, both assessing the size of the gap and the merits of other choices can and should be debated – but in 2016 there was no real debate but only baiting, disparagement, and dismissal. And yet the gap was so wide, and the benefits of voting Stein or abstaining were so minor, that it was hard not to wonder whether prominent celebrators of Trump, advocates of abstention, and defamers of strategic lesser evil voting would have the integrity to acknowledge their error, or would, instead, double down by offering incredibly callous formulations that we should all celebrate Trump winning as a prod to resistance. Time showed that some would go each way and regrettably it was often abetted by poor behavior from others.
Another lesson that actually had more importance later, and very much so for me, was that having an astute analysis of the ills of elections but applying it only to mainstream participants is incredibly arrogant. Jill Stein, the Green’s candidate, horribly deluded if not herself, we don’t know about that, certainly her supporters, simply in pursuit of votes.
Stein allowed desires for votes to dominate trying to achieve good or to ward off bad. And this was done by many radical writers too, who became caught up in Stein’s campaign or who accepted the ridiculous formulation that people saying we should vote for Clinton in contested states were, on that account, sometimes despite decades of evidence otherwise, mere shills for Clinton, which was a convenient label that eliminated need for real debate and caused many to want to avoid that false stigma. People who earlier gloried in his work even labelled Noam Chomsky this way, which was incredibly striking.
We saw, then, that progressives and radicals needed a far more nuanced approach to elections and, when we managed to win one, also to holding office, than we had ever before formulated. We needed to attend not only to maintaining good programmatic aims but also to not getting sucked into the vote-emphasizing and audience-manipulating ills we ourselves rightly decried in the mainstream. And I believe RPS did arrive at such insights, and implement them, later.
Malcolm, I would like to move on if that’s okay. You attended the founding RPS convention, though you weren’t an organizer. How did you relate to the pre convention proposals? Were you confident that the convention would work well? Did it? What are some key things you remember from it?
When I got the pre-convention package I remember being simultaneously hopeful and doubtful. But confident? Not nearly. I first feared that too few people would agree to attend. Then, I worried that all the fine folks who were indicating they would attend would do so, and would agree on nothing, and it would fail, squandering our potential by leaving people demoralized. There were so many issues and ideas. So much to consider. I worried people would turn away, or make believe they were prepared, but on getting together, fragment.
In fact, however, the convention was a big success. I remember arriving and being impressed with the crowd. But once the convention got going something more became evident. People didn’t come to have their own way. But neither was the mood to reflexively compromise simply for the sake of unity. Instead enlarging real solidarity was everyone’s aim. And everyone really had immersed themselves in the ideas and issues.
How do I explain? You know how people will discuss some possible wording of something and it will be endless and tedious with each party fighting more to ensure that their words should win, so that they would personally win, rather than with each seeking the best outcomes? Each person wants their own words with little or no attention to what others want. And they just keep pushing. We avoided that.
But how did you avoid it?
The sessions to address organizational vision and definition always started from pre-convention amended versions of what had been earlier circulated. The decision making went item by item. As people had paid attention before arriving at the conference, and had in some cases added refinements beforehand, often there was no dissent and an item would pass immediately. Other times someone would have an amendment or even a replacement to propose. It would be heard, and the person would give a case for it.
Rather than at that point asking for an immediate rebuttal, the chair would ask for a straw vote. If there was only minimal support for the amendment, she would ask to have a second advocate speak, and then ask if anyone wanted to speak against – and for the most part, no one would. There would be no point. She would ask if the proposer had any questions. Generally not. Did anyone want to add an additional case for the proposal. Sometimes someone would, mostly not. A vote would occur, and the item would typically fail as it simply didn’t have support. No rancor and no time wasting.
On the other hand, if the straw vote showed a considerable majority, or even overwhelming support for the change, the chair would ask if anyone supporting the unchanged version wanted to reply. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If no, the change would quickly win. If yes, the person would present, and there would be some discussion and what was special was that no one wanted to win just for the sake of winning. It was not contending egos. Everyone wanted a decision that would be worthy and universally supported. And it happened, over and over.
Whenever a decision was close, even after a few arguments were offered, debate would continue or the whole decision would be delayed so people could think on it over night. As a result, every ratified decision was at least two thirds for, and often far more than that.
I think this wasn’t that our group was better people than past groups, or more mature, or anything like that. It was that we had informed hope that what they were doing was going to really matter. We felt, let’s get this right and we knew that right wasn’t so much a matter of the abstract virtue of agreed positions, but being sure to have agreement about positions, and to have flexibility going forward regarding improving them.
We thought, this is no game. This can win. We have a responsibility. Dump ego. Cultivate mutual respect. That kind of feeling largely wiped out anti social inclinations except in the most narcissistic folks – and, well, I guess the overwhelming tone of the event kept even that group quiet. I suspect this arose overwhelmingly from the advance preparation.
In particular, at the convention itself, I remember some late night small group chats. No one was fixated on battling over specifics. Everyone was excited about the emerging level of unity and mutual trust. Instead of each person acting as a kind of atom competing to have the most of his or her own words or suggestions adopted, each person was intent on generating great unity and flexible readiness for innovation regardless of the source of each idea or phrase. And the discussion of initial specific activist program for the organization was similar. In that case, it started almost from scratch. The discussions went longer, but accommodations occurred and everyone supported the results.
Do you remember the initial activist program?
Sure. We didn’t want a laundry list but it was hard to prevent. Remember we were just getting started. There were nearly 3,000 people at the convention. On the one hand, we needed to focus limited initial energies on some key campaigns that we could start organizing around. On the other hand, people were thinking about programmatic ideas two ways. First, we each wanted pursuits good for the organization. Pursuits that met the programmatic guidelines the convention settled on. But second, we wanted pursuits we could immediately strongly support. Among so many people from so many backgrounds, there were many favorite ideas. It was a bit of a miracle, then, but we managed to limit our first campaigns to seeking:
- 30 hours of work for 40 hours pay
- Sharply progressive property, asset, and income taxes, with no loopholes
- A dramatically-increased minimum wage of $20 an hour
- A comprehensive full employment policy
- Curriculum reform, improved teaching methods, enriched teacher-student relations, and reduced average class size to a maximum of 20 students per teacher in all schools.
- Guaranteed free education (through college) for anyone who wants it – plus debt forgiveness.
- Amnesty for immigrants and regulated but ultimately open borders for refugees.
- Community control of police, an end to mass incarceration, and reassessment of current prison terms and policy.
- Protecting the rights of women to control their own bodies and to enjoy equal benefits and responsibilities throughout all parts of society, including abortion rights, public day care, and equal payment requirements.
- Cessation of arms shipments abroad and elimination or conversion to peaceful purposes such as natural crisis assistance of overseas military bases.
- Improved preventive medicine, including increased public education about health-care risks and prevention, a massive campaign around diet, and penalties for corporate activity that subverts health in employees or consumers.
- Universal health care for all, including a single-payer system with the government providing comprehensive and equal coverage for all.
- Civilian review of drug company policies including price controls and severe penalties for profit seeking at the expense of public health up to and including nationalization of offending pharmaceutical companies under the auspices of Congress and an expanded Center for Disease Control.
- A truly massive Marshall Plan level national and international campaign to turn the tide against global warming, water depletion, and other life threatening environmental trends
Do you have any special memories of the convention?
A few, yes. Remember this was nearly twenty years ago. One, is a bit personal. There was a speaker who galvanized the place. She recounted her trajectory, as many had, to become revolutionary. It was first student organizing, and then, not long before deciding to come to the convention, community organizing.
She spoke very eloquently of being sick of hearing activists and leftists constantly complain about how bad things are, perpetually blaming everyone but themselves for lack of success. She told how she had been moved, a few years before, by hearing a report that was very different in that it pinpointed problems with radicals with the intent of correcting them. Her talk was immediately memorable, but the fact that we got together and became partners made it all the more so.
Another thing, in particular, that I remember, was the down time. By that I mean the periods when people could congregate, meet, and share experiences. You could call together groups for such sessions – for example, by job, or locale, or whatever. I think those sessions may have been the real birth place of RPS, even more than the general assemblies where decisions were made. The informal meetings were what led to local chapters and to work groups in particular fields like medicine, sports, and so on.
Later, I think you ran for and won your first local election not long after the second convention. What was the attitude toward elections that emerged from the first and then the second convention? What impact did RPS have on your efforts then, and later too?
Yes, I did win my first election back then. The RPS attitude, which hasn’t changed much since, was that to run for office was potentially good, and to win was potentially good, but there were also pitfalls that could pervert good into bad.
The main benefits we liked were that running could facilitate outreach to new audiences, raising consciousness, and boosting morale. Winning could gain access to resources to help win more gains in the future.
The main pitfalls were that candidates might fixate on winning votes and lose track of larger aims. We might worry more about vote tallies and fund raising then about actual program. Having won an election, or even just done reasonably well, we might develop an elitist “better than thou” self perception. We might fall in love with holding office more than achieving worthy aims.
As individuals, RPS members aided campaigns we favored, and we evan ran for office, but to avoid getting sucked into electoral dynamics at the expense of its broader agenda, as an organization RPS opted against electoral participation.
RPS members helped immeasurably with my campaigns and my work while in office as well. RPS gave me a rooted sense of my role. It helped me arrive at my views and practices. It pushed me to be accountable. During my Senate run almost everyone centrally involved in the campaign was in RPS. Yet, as an organization, RPS never officially had anything to do with it.
Malcolm, do you anticipate RPS winning in the 2044 election?
Well, it is still nearly four years off, so we are on thin ground predicting anything. But, taking that into account, yes, I think this time we will win outright with over 60% support, and perhaps even more than that. We have had a number of progressive administrations that negotiated with us in good faith, that sided with many of our reform efforts and that had to give in on much of the rest of what we sought, as well, due to the scale of popular pressure. The population is now ready and eager for the whole transformation.
When New York, California, Ohio, and surprisingly Texas elected not only progressive but RPS governors, and did so by large margins, and when those governors proceeded to aid RPS efforts at the state and local level, the result was incredibly positive for nearly everyone and the die was cast. The momentum is now undeniable.
I think the biggest consciousness shift was perhaps back in 2024 when working class votes for right wing reaction fell off dramatically. Fear of immigrants and minorities polarizing millions into conservative votes, as had occurred earlier, collapsed. People had come to understand that the real source of pain and suffering for working people was profit seeking and, as well, people were enjoying steadily growing racial solidarity.
By 2028 and then especially by 2032, the class antagonism toward coordinator elitism and their material advantages had also largely transformed. It didn’t disappear, of course, but it became highly informed and switched from opposing liberalism or progressivism to opposing coordinator obscurantism and elitism aimed at maintaining coordinator dominance. It had grown to understand the division of labor and the need for allocation of resources to education for all. In 2036 and 2040, those trends continued, but I think the tipping point change was the growing popular belief in a viable alternative system. We moved from people siding with RPS views and values in their hearts but not believing that RPS could actually deliver, and thus not being willing to support RPS program for the country as a whole, to steadily more people having informed faith that a new society is possible and worth winning, so that supporting a candidate offering RPS program would be a step forward.
So I think in 2044 the campaign and debates won’t have to spend much time arguing the ills of mainstream approaches, or the virtues of our preferred candidate as a person or as a potential President. There will be, instead, pretty much one pivotal issue. If I vote for revolution, am I voting for an idea I like but unlimited chaos and civil strife that ultimately won’t usher in a new society because opposition to a new society will be too strong to overcome – or am I voting for a careful but unrelenting struggle that will culminate in implementing a new society at every level? And I think the answer will now finally come down as the latter for an overwhelming majority of our population, so we will win the election handily.
And I think that winning the presidency even if we don’t get Congress and the Senate too – though I think we will – will greatly speed up our long march through the institutions, both changing them from within and replacing them with complete alternatives. It will be far easier and quicker to finish that process with the government actively abetting every step, rather than with the government as a receptive listener, as for the most recent administrations, or, as earlier, as a powerful opponent.
Just think of a new president using executive orders to support workers taking over companies even beyond what we have already accomplished. Or think of a new President transitioning military production and bases to social uses, not just in grudging response to mass movements, case by case, but as a matter of positive desire and principle across the world. Or think of a new president aiding creating the infrastructure of a new society, not simply from above, but responding to pressure from movements even while welcoming that pressure and aiding its development.
We still have to be alert to the kinds of disruptive issues that arise, not least to the dangers of a new administration losing touch with the self managing desires of the population and thinking its own views must dominate – but, honestly, given the emergence of RPS insight and commitment throughout society, I think that such danger will be quite possible to curtail