As the primaries and caucuses have unfolded I’ve spent a lot of time revisiting this piece I wrote about Trump nearly a year ago. In a nutshell, I said his campaign wasn’t viable. It would alienate too many people for him to win the general election, if not the primary itself. While he has managed to become the presumptive Republican nominee, it was only after months of him achieving mere pluralities in state after state. He was the frontrunner from early on, but a limited one who took many months to lock up the nomination. With the steady loss of RNC staffers just in anticipation of having to work with him, a similar uphill slog looks likely to be his best case scenario in the general election. There’s a certain point where you can’t be overtly hostile to everyone outside your narrow part of the electorate and expect to win nationwide elections.
What’s hopefully more interesting, in light of the protracted Sanders-Clinton contest, is turning that question of what an ultimately unsuccessful campaign was actually about onto another target. In Trump’s case, I thought and to a certain extent still think, it’s about reaffirming certain voters’ sense of security. Even in a general election defeat, Trump will have demonstrated to those who feel “silenced” by “political correctness” that many people share at least parts of their White supremacist worldviews. The “silent majority” doesn’t even need voter fraud conspiracy theories at the end of the day – many of its members will probably settle for just not being alone, for being heard and recognized and agreed with by someone.
With Sanders’ campaign looking increasingly similarly non-viable, it seems worth asking what analogous benefit supporters are getting out of it. On the surface, it might seem obvious – Sanders has called repeatedly for a political revolution, and his supporters are hopeful that he might oversee some sort of radical reinvention of this society. But his campaign consistently stepped back from exactly those types of demands at almost every turn. Sanders himself didn’t just dismiss reparations as impractical or difficult, he outright categorized them as outside of his concerns about economic injustice. While he goes further than most candidates in terms of suggesting greater political autonomy for indigenous peoples, his campaign’s messaging confirms that that would remain limited to reservations and similar spaces determined by the settler colonial state.
Actual anti-colonial revolutionaries have rejected this sort of approach pretty explicitly in the very midst of his campaign. Indigenist theorist
[The Americas are] a prison house of nations, and that as such it is without a single, unified class structure. There is no ineluctably singular ‘proletarian’ class here.
While there have been high tides of radical settler working-class struggle, perhaps most vibrantly seen in the early work of the Industrial Workers of the World, even those movement failed to truly break with general trend of settler labour movements to ignore, submerge and derail anti-colonial movements arising from within the popular ranks of the domestic colonies. Regardless, even that high tide ebbed nearly a century ago. Since then the settler working-class has primarily functioned outright as a bulwark of colonial and fascist oppression domestically and imperialist aggression overseas (it had previously as well, but it was at least tempered at times by nominal anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist organizing by some strata of the settler working-class movement). Both the failure of even the most radical expressions of settler working-class labour organizing, as well as the broader historic trend of the settler working-class to act as a reactionary bulwark is a result of their class aspirations, which are inherently petty-bourgeois in nature, seeking a greater slice of the imperialist pie, or, in the era of neo-liberal globalization, to re-assert their position on the imperialist pedestal at the expense of hightened [sic] exploitation and oppression of colonized peoples.
The settler left cannot imagine a future where the garrison population does not continue to hold down the majority of the land of A’nó:wara Kawè:note [the Americas]. It doesn’t matter if settler society is re-organized on the basis of a confederation of autonomous anarchist municipalities and industrial collectives, or a federative socialist workers’ state of the marxist sort: so long as the land is not relinquished back to its original owners then all that will develop is settler colonialism with a marxist or anarchist face.
So it must be recognized that all of A’nó:wara Kawè:note [the Americas] is stolen land, and that over the course of revolutionary anti-colonial struggle all of it must be liberated, even if that goes against the material interests of the settler population. The rights and aspirations of the domestic colonies will be given primacy.
This means the return of all land seized via treaty, the overwhelming majority of which are demonstrably fraudulent, and were never signed in good mind on the part of settlers. Many settler anarchists and marxists propose a line of upholding treaty rights, and the full application of previous agreements such as the Two Row Wampum as the vehicle for what they call ‘decolonization.’ However, this politic immedietely [sic] falls into the trap of assuming that settlers have an inherent right to at least posses some of the land, which is in fact simply a more insiduous [sic] form of settler colonialism. Further, the treaties and other like documents are what removed thousands of Indigenous peoples from their lands, marching them hundreds or thousands of miles to foreign lands, and sequestered all of us, even those of us who remained on ancestral lands, onto reserves and reservations. So all of the treaties must be scrapped, and the land returned that they were used to seize. Self-determination that is restricted to the open air prisons in which one is held prisoner is not real national liberation.
Sanders holds that exact policy stance on what reservations could be, and the same dynamic in which he advocates renegotiating the same relationships between groups rather than redefining them crops up on other issues as well. His perspective of Israeli colonialism carefully frames the right of Jewish communities in the region to exist as predicating the Israeli state and implicitly denying at least the vast majority of Palestinians’ right of return to properties seized. Just as he envisions greater autonomy for indigenous groups in their few remaining spaces under US occupation, his language on the Israel-Palestinian conflict suggests he would promote Palestinian statehood and a “freezing” of Israeli expansion. No restitution for al Nakba, no return to land still under Israeli occupation, no accountability for the continuing systemic violence.
So, if Sanders’ campaign isn’t about overhauling the colonial relationships a whole host of people worldwide have with the United States government, what exactly is his “revolution”? The concessions he’s gotten from the Democratic Party make it seem dourly procedural – that what he’s won is greater influence on the Party platform for significant but still unsuccessful presidential candidates, and what he’d like to also get are various reforms to primaries, namely more open ones. That all does not a revolution make.
Is that really why people have voted for him, donated to him, or volunteered for him though? Obviously there’s as many answers to those questions as there are people who have done any or each of those things for his campaign, but his “revolution” has been for many a potentially approachable “radicalism”. It’s one that speaks decisively about ending this era, particularly in terms of corruption and the excesses of the wealthy, but shrinks back when it comes to some of the key relationships underpinning the US locally and globally: settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, and capitalism.
There is a reason why his support has in general been so markedly White in comparison to the broader electorate – his “revolution” is one that can be palatable to the exact White “radicals”
I’ve written about this before, that in essence Sanders’ socialism doesn’t seek to address the unique forms of exploitation – capitalist and otherwise – experienced by various groups, especially people of color. The question here is what do those politics do for his predominantly White supporters. Their needs ultimately seem fairly similar to Trump’s supporters – to feel comforted. Treating the minor tweaks to existing colonial policies as a revolution places policies more confrontational to White supremacy as safely outside of consideration or acknowledgement.
It’s important for Sanders’ supporters to ask themselves if just like how Trump’s campaign delivers on some people wanting to feel like the omnipresent True American but also a righteously resistant minority, if the Sander’s campaign provides them a similar resolution to contradictory desires. Does it give them a way to feel like they’re dismantling a sprawling oppressive system while continuing to largely benefit from it? Does the right want to stop any tentative steps towards decolonizing this country while the left wants to wash its hands and call the process over and done?