Bill Fletcher Brings History And Analysis To The Race/Class Tangle

By Woody Woodruff

Veteran activist and author Bill Fletcher, Jr., believes the Bernie Sanders campaign needs to “expand its narrative” to include concerns and question of potential supporters beyond his largely white base and beyond the perspective of his hero, the socialist Eugene Debs, that “if you solve capitalism you’ve solved it all.”

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Fletcher shared his ideas on building a new, broad Left coalition at the Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America’s Socialist Salon Jan. 28. Fletcher, a labor strategist and theoretician with deep experience in the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns of the 1980s, spoke to a packed dining room of nearly 40 about the prospects for a left electoral strategy that addresses the immediate opportunity of the Sanders campaign but has a long-game strategy as well to match the right wing’s successful movement-building approach.

“Here we go again on the left—we have nothing that resembles an electoral strategy,” Fletcher began. He described a cycle in which left activists work on electoral campaigns and are so alienated by the process that they immediately drop out of electoral work until the next cycle four years later, starting all over again.

Fletcher compared the well-documented ground-game strategy of the right beginning with Richard Viguerie’s direct-mail campaigns in the 1960s after the smashing defeat of GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, building state-level organizations aiming “to reverse the 20th century.” Viguerie’s approach to organizing also contributed to coalescing the conservative base that would elect Ronald Reagan in 1980.

In contrast, for left activists electoral politics were felt to be “insufficiently revolutionary,” Fletcher recalled, with the exception of the black electoral effort in the decades following the civil rights era of the 1960s and ‘70s leading to the Jackson campaign, which was specific and had a city by city movement-building approach.

The right had an issue focus that allowed them to use guns and abortion, e.g., to capture non-urban areas and large sections of the white working class “to build a total reactionary movement.” Unlike the left, they didn’t expect total agreement ie: gun lobby supports might not be anti-choice, anti-choice activists were expected to demonstrate for the Second Amendment.  But the right did create a narrative around which they could mobilize their otherwise disparate base.

Fletcher called right-wing populism “the herpes of politics” because it plays on elements endemic in the political system and erupts every time the system becomes compromised – whenever anxieties arise the theme (“narrative”) is the victimization of whites.

Fletcher anatomized the mistakes of the left, playing out again in this electoral cycle:

The Sanders campaign, he said, is creating a “narrow narrative” compared to the more inclusive Jackson campaigns.  For example, Sanders’ campaign doesn’t reach important constituencies that it could and “doesn’t include the questions that many people are seeking the answers to – it’s not the full picture.” Though supporters often argue that it is a groundbreaking assault on inequalities in the capitalist system, Bernie is “dizzy with success” and doesn’t realize that doing better than expected is still not doing everything he can.  

Fletcher faulted Sanders for being in elective office for several decades but doing little to try and use his position to mobilize a broad social movement to bring the Left back into electoral politics.  Additionally, he pointed to Sanders’ lack of effort to address problems of racism and sexism that cannot be explained by economics alone. 

Sanders’ campaign references both “racist oppression and capitalist exploitation” but “some populations are way worse off [in this equation] and need more help,” Fletcher argued.  Sanders talks about jobs and rebuilding the middle class, Fletcher said, but “when another policeman kills a black person, Sanders seems unable to connect the issues or address the underlying racism that still exists in the country.”

Jackson got wild approval from white farmers and workers because he could connect their lives and issues to the broader narrative.  Unlike Jackson, Sanders is not seen as “their champion” by people who are unlike him. Sanders is an inspirational “leader” but “we need an organizer” as well, Fletcher said.

Sanders’s veneration of Eugene Debs is telling, Fletcher said. “Debs was a complicated man and the Socialist Party was [a] complicated” political formation in Debs’ day. And Debs believed “philosophically that if you solve capitalism you solve it all.” In fact there are no “common economic demands” that can unify people across race lines, Fletcher declared.

In an article posted in August 2015 on national DSA’s Democratic Left blog, Fletcher declared: “The sort of “political revolution” that the Sanders Campaign proclaims has been a long time coming.  Yet it will never arrive if there is not a full recognition that the class struggle overlaps that of racial justice. The ruling elites, for several centuries, have appreciated that race is the trip wire of U.S. politics and social movements. When will progressives arrive at the same conclusion?” 

Fletcher reflected on his early days in 1960s-‘70s politics when he opted out of electoral politics, thinking they were irrelevant.  He has come to a different place after years of working in grassroots campaigns and realizing that change can only come systematically through regular involvement in the political process.

Among questions addressed to Fletcher after his formal talk, one queried whether left activists should work with Democrats or seek an independent electoral strategy. Fletcher recommends an inside-outside strategy, because the “two-party grip” on US politics “makes it hard for a third party to emerge.” Within this strategy for the immediate campaign, Sanders’ narrative has to expand. Fletcher said dismissively that “these sectarian debates [about the Democratic Party] are not worth having any more.” Activists in this cause “don’t have to agree on everything … let’s just get people together who aren’t going to shoot at each other. … We are the left that is interested in electoral politics –even though we hate it.”

Fletcher advocates, instead, assembling a leadership whose members can find common ground on a few key issues and outline a strategy to address them.  He favors local action to get progressive candidates onto school boards, city councils, and into state legislatures – “I want us to take over Texas, take over Alabama,” he said.  “The right wing has been able to convince people in places like that that the Koch brothers are their friends” when this thinking really backfires on them.

Why has labor – where Fletcher has been engaged as a rank-and-file activist, educator and strategist much of his life– become so weak? Fletcher responded with history: “Labor was devastated” by the Taft-Hartley Act’s restrictions on organizing and by the Cold War anticommunism that stripped activists out of the union movement and reinforced Gompers-style business unionism. Coupled with the radical changes in the economy of the 70s that diverted more and more resources away from workers and into financial capitalism, the effect has been like the frog in a pot who is brought to boil incrementally without noticing his own demise.

Asked about remedies for the right’s dominance at the state and congressional level, Fletcher counseled left unity on a scale well beyond temporary alliances created by Sanders’s advocacy of democratic socialism. Somebody, he said, “has to call a meeting” to build a real bloc for a city by city left campaign to disrupt the right’s well organized and well financed grip by striking at the heart of its power. In trying to build a bloc, he said, who gets to be at the table is more important than who calls the meeting. Fletcher’s book Solidarity Divided expands on some of those themes.

Fletcher argued for a continued electoral strategy, a “long game” to match that of the right. He acknowledged that the chance for cross-racial unity was complicated by an “anarcho-reformist” strain within some recent, youth-driven movements like Black Lives Matter. The strategy as he described it was to engage instead in street actions that would “force elites to do what we want them to do.” BLM is resistant to talking about class because “it is a way of obscuring race” as a salient issue.

For more of Fletcher’s views, check out his website or tune into Arise, his weekly radio program on labor issues (WPFW – 89.3 FM – Friday mornings at 9 a.m. Washington D.C.)

Carolyn Byerly and Kurt Stand contributed to this article

Reposted from The Washington Socialist <> February 2016

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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.