U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading the Tealeaves: Waging a War of Position

When teaching the second half of the American survey course, I often assign my students the task of deciding who they would vote for in the election of 1912. Sometimes I allow them to answer it directly, and sometimes I ask them to imagine they are of a member of the working class during the time period.

The election of 1912 was unusual, of course, for the number of options voters had when it came to casting their presidential vote– when conservative Republicans managed to prevent a resurgent Teddy Roosevelt from claiming the Party’s nomination, he split off to form and lead the Progressive Party. Meanwhile, the Democrats selected Woodrow Wilson as their candidate, and the nationally known labor leader Eugene Debs offered voters an explicitly anti-capitalist choice as the candidate of the Socialist Party.

Despite these multiple options, having four candidates to choose from usually makes reading these assignments only slightly less repetitive; the majority go for Roosevelt, a healthy third or so vote for Wilson, and then there is always an eccentric handful who choose Taft. As for Debs, he’s never failed to get at least one student on his side, and sometimes two, but never more than that.

That is, until recently. When I graded this assignment a few weeks ago, much to my astonishment, nearly as many people selected Debs as Roosevelt; he came in a very healthy second. This is not likely the result of a different demographic of students; I had already taught the course at the exact community college, and in roughly the same format, several times before. And suddenly, from the Winter semester to the Spring, those identifying Debs as either their personal choice or the best choice for the working class increased exponentially. What changed?

It is tempting to conclude that the ascent of Bernie Sanders accounts for this difference. I have not been alive long, but I’ve seen enough elections come and go and absorbed enough cable news talk shows (unfortunately, perhaps) to appreciate how exceptional this sudden injection of the word “socialism” into mainstream American politics is. The rapid change, moreover, reinforces my suspicion: back in September, Sanders was merely a long shot – for those who follow politics closely, a quixotic flourish in the usual narrative doomed to fade away soon, and for everyone else, perhaps barely even a bleep on their radar. By January, however, Sanders was a co-star of one of the biggest political memes on the web, a fixture on cable news talk shows, and an actual potential threat to Hilary Clinton. In the same amount of time, many of my students went from dismissing the idea of voting for a socialist to arguing that he clearly represented the best choice in 1912 – especially for anyone from the working class. It is hard for me to think that these two phenomena are not related.

This may be the most interesting example in my lifetime of how a simple switch in terminology can work magic in the political consciousness of a society. I would like to make the bold speculation that regardless of what happens from here on out, Sanders has managed to normalize, indeed maybe even almost mainstream, the idea of socialism. What was supposed to be a rule etched in stone – that one cannot be a successful politician in America while picking up the mantle of an ideology traditionally associated with the opposite of everything American – turns out to perhaps simply have seemed so unbreakable precisely because nobody dared to break it. The only push many people – or at least many young people – needed was to have a legitimate politician normalize a term for them that was previously taboo. Then perhaps, all of a sudden, it didn’t seem so odd to conclude that a socialist represented the best choice for the majority of Americans in 1912.

And yet, Bernie Sanders is no Eugene Debs – as many a leftist has pointed out, Sanders is not a socialist as the term is classically understood, but rather a New Deal liberal. The fact that he identifies himself as a democratic socialist rather than a liberal is an indicator of how far rightward the Democratic Party has drifted since the mid-twentieth century; it is not nearly as likely that someone roughly of Sander’s persuasion would feel the need to distinguish himself as a social democrat rather than a liberal in say, 1945. And this is why some leftists have expressed frustration with the sudden popularity of the term “socialism” – those who tend to be wary of co-optation see in Sander’s use of the word yet another repacking of what is actually a reformist capitalist agenda in wrapping paper that purports to be revolutionary. In the minds of some, this is a step backward, rather than forward.

I don’t intend to enter into that particular debate in detail here, but what I do find compelling is how mysterious the process of changing a political culture can be. Questions of whether to support trends heading in the right direction, or to stand your ground firmly in the completely oppositional stance, have always haunted left politics. Such problems become particularly tricky when the left has no other option, as is currently the case, other than a “war of position.” As we are clearly nowhere near being able to overwhelm the existing political establishment to wage a “war of action” – and whatever that means, exactly, we’ll have to save for later! – the war of position is all we’ve got. It becomes ever more imperative, consequently, that the left wages it correctly.

But who can always say what the right discursive move is in this war of position? When do you firmly refuse to compromise your language or demands, and when do you adjust to current conditions and take, in a sense, opportunities where you find them? There is no easy answer to these questions, and they all of course depend on the particular problem at hand. Thus I find that we’ve only really started to half answer the questions of how to create a genuinely oppositional political movement in America when we reply with a war of position – because who decides which position most effectively wages that war?
When I ask myself these questions, I usually take as my guide the wisdom of Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven. Both known as radicals in crowds of liberals, they nonetheless have always worked to organize political activity around what dissent and disruption might accomplish in current conditions. As Cloward put it:

“We used to describe ourselves as radical and militant about means, but relatively conservative about goals. We think it takes a hell of a lot to win anything. A lot of people over the years have objected to that about us. They say: all you will get is a guaranteed income, not socialism; or you will change the American electoral system, not get a revolutionary movement. We’ve always been very militant about means – you’ve got to get out there, to sit in, to raise hell, to disrupt institutions and create crises. But on the other hand, we don’t think organizers can create the movements which lead to institutional reform, unless broad socioeconomic forces are working with them. Organizers try to ride the crest of these historical forces, and, within limits, to shape the outcomes.” (1)

Similarly, Piven has noted that whatever the role of rhetoric and “position,” it can only be impactful when a political reality exists that can absorb and respond to it. As she explained, “What little I know about Italy and England makes me think – and it may have to do with who my friends are – that intellectuals there may have a closer connection with action, and that connection disciplines their thought. Here there is a tradition where intellectuals on the left treat politics as discourse. And I must say, it seems a one-sided discourse.” (2) This is a sober reminder that whatever the Sanders campaign may accomplish, we ought to recognize – indeed, be encouraged by the fact –that it could not have created a constituency out of nothing; the idea of democratic socialism, at the least, is something a sizable portion of the American electorate seems ready to embrace.

So will the Sanders campaign contribute to a new generation of left politics, or add another chapter to the seemingly endless history of overhyped and short-lived reform movements? As with so much, unfortunately, the best we can do at this point is to try to read the tealeaves.

[1] “Social Analysis and Organizing: An Interview with Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven,” for “R.A.” transcript for unidentified publication, not dated, 13, Francis Fox Piven Papers, Box 1, Folder 15, Sophia Smith Collection (Northampton, Massachusetts).

[2] “Social Analysis and Organizing: An Interview with Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven,” for “R.A.” transcript for unidentified publication, not dated, 14, Francis Fox Piven Papers, Box 1, Folder 15, Sophia Smith Collection (Northampton, Massachusetts).

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  1. Interesting that you use the 1912 election — I told my students just this past week that I think the 1912 election might end up being *something* like a precedent for 2016, though in this case the Republican “establishment” might be the ones who correspond to the “Bull Moose” insurgency. And it’s also possible that Bernie Sanders, if he is not the Democratic nominee, could run a Debs-esque candidacy to Clinton’s Left. As to how that would all shake out this time around — who the heck knows? History is instructive, certainly, but not predictive — thank heavens!

    Anyway, I really like your assignment — might just steal it, but with attribution! I think it’s important always to acknowledge the sources of our ideas — even (especially?) in teaching.

  2. Your anecdata here, Robin—the change from last fall to this spring among your students—is fascinating. I wonder how widespread this phenomenon is, where exactly it has occurred. We need an OAH or AHA survey on this! – TL

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