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Thursday, April 28, 2016


The die is cast.  Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee; Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.  I leave it to each of you to go through the five stages of grieving at your own pace.  The time has come to ask, What is to be done?  I am going to argue that each of us must do whatever possible to ensure that Hillary Clinton wins the election, and also whatever possible to transform Bernie’s campaign into a genuine movement.

I ask a favor of each of you: spare me the impassioned and accusatory list of reasons why Clinton is horrible.  I know them all, and agree with them all.  What is more, I am older than almost everyone who reads this blog, in many cases fifty or sixty years older.  If Clinton is elected, and if her Wall Street soulmates will refrain from again crashing the American economy, she is likely to be re-elected, which means that I will be ninety-one when she leaves office.  Don’t talk to me about despair!

First of all, it is essential to defeat Trump in the general election.  He is a hateful, narcissistic, rabble-rousing sociopath.  Might he make decisions as President that would be objectively better than those made by Clinton?  Of course.  Mussolini made the trains run on time.  Might he appoint Supreme Court justices that would set this country back half a century?  Almost certainly.  You don’t care about that?  Well, I have a proud gay son, and I do.  Suck it up.  Nobody guaranteed you a world full of happy choices between the good, the better, and the best.

But that is just the short term desideratum.  What we need in this country is a progressive movement, and as Bernie is fond of saying, change always comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.  That means everyone must vote in off-year elections.  Everyone must join and in some way support a movement from below in cities, in states, as well as in the nation as a whole.  You don’t like “bathroom bills” like North Carolina’s HB2?  Then work to defeat the governor who signed it into law.  You want to do something about income inequality?  That will require progressive majorities in both Houses of Congress, and even then it is hardly guaranteed.  You thrill to the news that millennials have a favorable opinion of socialism, even though they haven’t a clue what it is?  Then start organizing.

There is no end of the things needed to bring about change.  We need people who will march, and people who will sit down and link arms.  We need people who will run for the local School Committee and people who will fold and stuff envelopes.  We need people who will go door to door, and people who will set up information tables at the local supermarket.  The first rule of all political change is: Choose something you like to do, because you will have to keep on doing it even when the excitement evaporates and the media move on to the next Big Thing.  And you will have to still be doing it thirty years from now.  Finally, take to heart the advice that Paul Newman gives to Robert Redford about how to play the Big Con against Robert Shaw in The Sting:  If you win, it will not be enough, but it is all you are going to get, so you will have to accept it for what it is.

What will I be doing?  Well, I hate going door to door and talking to people I do not know, but I can give money, and that is something, even if it is not the most important thing.  So I have given $2,500 to Bernie’s campaign, and I will give regularly to a movement if he will start it.  I can write, so I will do that.  Lord knows, writing is pretty low on the list of desiderata, but somebody needs to do it, and I am pretty good at it.  What matters is doing something rather than nothing.  If we are to be successful, we will need, at a minimum, ten million people marching together.  Don’t worry if you are not one of the parade marshals.  Think of social change as being like a landslide.  If one big tree becomes uprooted and rolls down a mountainside, that is an interesting event, but it does not change the mountain.  But when a hundred thousand trees, bushes, boulders, and pebbles roll down the same side of the hill, the mountain is changed forever.

So much for my sermon.  Can I get an amen?


s. wallerstein said...

Right on....

Unknown said...

Amen Dr. Wolff!

Carl said...

$2500? Why not $2700? Then he might have won!

Gene said...

I honestly think Bernie losing the nomination and Clinton getting the White House is the best possible outcome for an enduring progressive movement (That is since O'Malley dropped out). Clinton won't do anything to actively hurt the movement (she will appoint sympathetic judges, etc. She really does agree with Sanders on most issues) and the anger that fuels the movement will continue. If Bernie were elected, the realities of the position would force him to compromise which would lead to widespread disillusionment and effectively kill the movement (just look at Obama's most ardent supporters from 8 years ago now). Bernie's main strength is as a populist and protester. Those aren't really possible from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I like a man who senses a droplet of water at the bottom of a goblet and calls it a glass half full!!! I tend to agree, if only Sanders turns his effort into a movement. I just sent an email inquiry about that to the address list ed on his official site. we shall see whether I get a response.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Carl, I had to leave a little for all the other campaigns I have tried to support. :)

s. wallerstein said...


Hello, if you're the Gene I conversed with in another blog yesterday and hello anyway if you're not.

I don't see that Sanders and Clinton have the same views on most issues, as you claim. Perhaps they coincide on some issues, because they are both campaigning and trying to appeal to the voters, but they are coming from very different places, Sanders from a lifelong commitment to radical politics and Clinton from a lifelong record of centrist politics, leaving aside her curious support for Barry Goldwater as a youth. I would imagine that Sanders, given his record, wants to move on from his campaign proposals, single-payer healthcare, free tuition at public universities, etc., to establish something like a Scandinavian social democracy, if not outright democratic socialism.

Now it may be the case that Clinton will seize the opportunity to make real transformations. She is not stupid and is very ambitious, ambitious enough to want to go down in the history books as not only the first woman president, but also the president that transformed the U.S. into a much more social-democratic society. That way she would be remembered as the great Clinton president: her ultimate revenge on Bill, the lesser Clinton, for so many low blows!

I agree with you that Sanders may well be more effective leading a movement for change as an "outsider" than sitting in the White House.

Anonymous said...

Oh LAWD in heaven Amen

James Camien McGuiggan said...

A not quite heartfelt but lustily sung AMEN!

David said...

Well said.

Another option is to campaign for down-ballet Berniecrats. If we can't elect Bernie to the White House, then maybe we can elect a few Berniecrats to Congress.

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
In In Defense of Anarchism, you provide a great argument against representative democracy infringing on autonomy when you point out that if a set of candidates were running on just 4 issues (an impossibly small world!), our two party system would be painfully inadequate to accommodate real representation:

"Simplifying the real world considerably, we can suppose that there are three alternative courses of action seriously being considered on the first issue, four on the second, two on the third, and three on the last. There are then 3 X 4 X 2 X 3 = 72 possible stands which a man might take on these four issues." -RPW

So in just a 4 issue world, we need 72 possible candidates, in order for each voter to at least have the possibility of voting for her preferred candidate. We have two “strictly consider these people” presidential candidates.

It seems to me the error being made when people say "you really must vote Democratic candidate X [cause it never matters who X is for the past 60 years], over Republican Y [in this case real names are used, e.g., Trump]", is that you assume somewhere on the hypothetically limited spectrum of 72 possible choices, the Democrat is 'closer' to our position.

Again, keeping the world simple, let's say that of all 72 possible candidates, Trump really is 72nd, i.e., in last place in terms of my hypothetically preferred representatives (not sure this is actually true). That is, he takes the maximally possibly wrong stance on every issue. But if Hillary Clinton is 71st, or 70th, hell 69th or 68th, and not something like 35th or 10th, does "vote for the Dem" really make sense?

It seems to me the error being made in vote Dem X judgment, is the presumption that the Dem is substantially closer to ideal candidate 1, than the republican. But when the distance is oceanic, covered with barbed-wire, and patrolled by ogres, at what point does this argument break down, If ever? At what point are you asking people to compromise on SERIOUS and autonomously decided moral principles, just to get their 71st choice?

Just as we wouldn't ask a serious pacifist to kill in the name of less killing, at what point are we commanding of people a serious moral albatross, to the point that the Dem vote is unwarranted?
Maybe I’m a literally crazy person, but the distance between Trump and Clinton is extremely minute compared to the distance between my conscience and either of them. And it can’t just be presumed a priori that the Dem fits well enough into my preferred choices.

And on an entirely pragmatic note, if all the independents (which I am registered as) really do commit Bernie or Bust, and that’s registered by party strategist, you better believe that could go some way toward restructuring the democratic party to be more progressive in 4-8 years. I sincerely DOUBT that will happen when we all just hop in line and vote Hillary without a fight.

Unknown said...

"I ask a favor of each of you: spare me the impassioned and accusatory list of reasons why Clinton is horrible. I know them all, and agree with them all."

Sorry, Bob, but I really think you do need to be reminded what a monster you are promoting in supporting HRC. This is a mass murderer, Bob, who engineered the war on Gadaffi and gloated over his death, utterly callous to the thousands of Libyans who lost their lives in the process. This is a person who has threatened to obliterate Iran and who persists in lying and calling Iran the biggest terrorist threat in the world. This is a person who has called our arming Saudi Arabia as brilliant including supplying cluster bombs which have been used in a monstrous war in Yemen. This is a person who will do everything possible to antagonize Russia and China and blindly support the Netanyahu government in Israel, justifying the brutal occupation of the West Bank and suppression of Palestinians as Israel's right to defend itself. I am really afraid that your obsession with Trump is blinding you to the true nature of the beast you will be supporting for president. What is the world coming to when a brilliant, thoughtful, caring person like yourself can do this?

Robert Shore

Tom Cathcart said...

Chris and Robert Shore: if Hillary is defeated, one of Bernie's principal issues, overturning Citizens United, is probably dead for 30 years, as Trump appoints 3 Justices.

Chris said...

Three problems.

First: Let's say what you say is true. That may move the grid from 72 to 70th, or 65th, but it's still not clear it's remarkably closer to 1-36. [Remember I'm asking a philosophical question, I'm not whipping votes, or commanding anything of others]

Second: Clinton has demonstrated that she is a rank opportunist and liar. I can't see how I can know now that she will elect judges antagonistic to Citizens United (especially since Obama is appointing a banal centrists, it's not clear Hillary would pepper the court with progressives). The one thing I can know is that I don't know what Hillary will actually do outside opportunism.

Third: Even if you're right, my question was, at what point is the gulf SO FAR between the individual voter, and the two candidates, that compromising on a set of moral principles is too egregious a request? I'm not sure how this claim addresses that concern.

Am I wrong in perceiving your response to my question as trying to motivate a Hillary vote of me, personally? Because I was asking a more abstract philosophical question, not trying to motivate readers of the blog in any voting direction.