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How to Win When the Party’s Got It In For You: Stan Goff on the Sanders Campaign

Readers may recall a piece we published here on The Ghion Journal last month, an interview I conducted about political strategy and tactics with author, journalist, organizer and veteran Stan Goff. In a side trip to that longer journey of a conversation, Stan and I discussed his ideas about tactical agility and the way he sees these ideas playing out in the early stages of Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, amidst considerable establishment opposition.

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 Boni:

So if we look at one of your recent pieces, Bernie, Fox and Transition, you talked about a potential Bernie Sanders presidency being an achievable electoral next step that could provide some breathing room for a potential transformation away from capitalism. And the thing that occurred to me was that, despite his newfound front-runner status, his popularity, and the increasing numbers of his active supporters, Bernie is still the weaker one when compared to the institutional power of the Democratic Party and other more deeply embedded powers within the economy and the government.

They’re interested in making sure he doesn’t cross the finish line. They used their power to ensure he didn’t get the nomination in 2016 and he, unfortunately, lay down for it. What I’m curious about is the question of what kind of tactical agility you envision being necessary for the Sanders campaign to make it through all the roadblocks they’re currently putting (and going to put) in front of him and his supporters in 2020?

Stan Goff:

Well, overall, I think the strategic isolation of the Democratic Party has caused them to underestimate Bernie Sanders. The party is on its heels right now, they’re really scrambling. The Democratic Party establishment is going to find it very difficult to effectuate any kind of electoral strategy because they’re in disarray—and they’re in disarray because they coronated their queen and she got beat by a reality TV lunatic, a buffoon, and now they don’t know what to do. But it’s true. They still have the power to run the primary.

Since 2016, their strategy has been to demonize Sanders (by saying he fostered party disunity) as the cause of the loss to Trump, and to demonize the Russians. They want to use these smears to cobble together a coalition of disaffected Republicans and old neo-cons to reconstitute a new center within the Democratic Party establishment.

But what’s happened in the meantime is that Sanders has never stopped running for office. And it’s not just Sanders. Now, with Our Revolution, there’s a giant organization out there with him. This is the wind under his wings and it’s given him the name recognition he needs to pull this thing forward. That’s why on the first day of Sanders announcement of his 2020 run, they put six million bucks in the bank—and they have a million people right now organizing house parties. So he’s spent the past three years building. He’s been on the ground tending his garden. Not unlike what we were discussing about Cooperation Jackson, he’s spent the last three years doing all this organizing with his head down beneath the surface of mainstream politics. But they’re still trying to attack him with the old strategy.

So if you want to talk about tactical agility, the best bit of tactical agility that I’ve seen on the part of the Sanders campaign was accepting an invitation for a town hall on Fox News.

The Republicans and the Democratic establishment are even more on their heels in the aftermath of that interview because he proved everything they said was wrong. Everything they said about the need to reach for that fraction of Trump voters that used to be Obama voters by moving to the middle was wrong. And then you had that iconic moment when the Fox host made a huge tactical error by asking the audience to raise their hands if they want Medicare for All over their employer health care, expecting they wouldn’t—and they did!

Boni:

Here’s the thing I’m really curious about. I agree that the Democratic Party power centers are scrambling at this point. I think that’s really evident.

But how do you see tactical agility coming into play as we get closer to the primary and you begin to see things like, “oh, hey, we’ve just reduced the amount of polling places”. I’m thinking about all of the different tactics that were employed in 2016 that I suspect will be employed again—funneling people into provisional ballots so they can be thrown away. Or the purging of people from the voter rolls, as in New York where Democratic ward leaders yanked something like 200,000 people off the rolls in Brooklyn alone. All of those things are going to come into play again because, while the power centers are in disarray as you say, at least they know how to manipulate the primary, ‘cause they’ve done it before. What do Bernie organizers do about that tactically?

Stan Goff:

Well, Sanders has been explicit that they’re going to do everything they can to beat him. That’s okay. We’ve got to accept that. In my Strategic Realism piece we discussed earlier, I basically argue that you have to acknowledge the power of your opponent. You have to acknowledge that it’s just part of the terrain you’re going to cross in and do the best you can with it. And while they’re pursuing their strategy, you determine what tactics you can use to disrupt that strategy along the way.

This sounds simple, but one of the things Sanders supporters have accomplished is simply not watching the news. They get their information through social media. And I went in and looked up some figures that bear out that there’s a very small percentage of the public that actually watches corporate TV news and the majority of them are old guys like me. It’s that older demographic where there’s the most support for Trump—and the most support for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) or the neoliberal Democrats. So, in a sense, social media has created an informational end run around the corporate broadcast media. That means they’ve lost their efficacy. They make a lot of money from their advertisers who are war industries and pharmaceutical companies and whatnot, but they really don’t have many people watching them that don’t already agree with them.

So there’s social networking and the ability to respond very quickly. I saw that in the 2016 campaign, where it was very agile organizing, where people said, “hey, we’ve got a problem over here”. And, through Facebook groups and other platforms, they could respond to it quickly. This time around, the Sanders campaign will need to have a lot more people watching the polls. I think it’s going to be more difficult to rig, though, because we’ve had a chance to review all the techniques and tricks they used last time.

They’re trying them again and you can see them failing already. For instance, the Center for American Progress, after it came out that they were meeting with other candidates to devise strategies to counteract the Sanders movement, has been under siege. They already had to walk back some of the stuff they were saying about disrupting the Sanders campaign because they’re getting serious hate mail for it.

This doesn’t mean that Sanders supporters are going to win every battle, but you can be effective by being agile, by responding to the situation as it occurs and coming up with some sort of a response to it that party strategists haven’t developed a countermeasure for. So I think it needs to be a stick-and-move kind of campaign. If people see that they’re closing polling places, then they’re going to need somebody to go to work and get the polling place open. And if that doesn’t happen, then they’re going to start organizing to get people in cars and carry them to the ones that are open. So, are they going to steal votes? Yeah. They’re going to steal votes. I think that’s what they do. They don’t believe in democracy.

But overall, the Democratic Party looks like fools right now, jumping from one flavor of the day to the next. I wrote a piece on this. It’s been comical. First Harris. Then it was going to be Beto. Then Pete Buttigieg. Now Joe Biden.

Boni:

That’s true. Even with all of the purges of dissident accounts, social media has continued to be an effective vehicle for debunking these candidates in real time.

You had Kamala come out and they were really excited about her. And then people hopped on social media and said, well, let’s take a look at her record. Let’s take a look at the prison industrial complex that she supported in California. Let’s take a look at her failure to prosecute Steve Mnuchin, her refusal to take on the abuses of the Catholic Church. Same thing with Biden. Even with just the posting of videos, the calling out of his behavior around women and children, but also his responsibility for the crime bill in the 90s. They’re able to debunk both of these candidates in real time. Buttigieg, same thing. They’re already diving into his administration in South Bend and what happened with the police chief. Even Elizabeth Warren is getting the business now for her voting record, her use of a dubious Native American identity to advance her career. It’s endless.

Stan Goff:

Absolutely. They’re having a hard time and I’m trying not to enjoy it too much because it’s not going to last. They’re going to get back up on their feet, but I do think we’re in a different period now. I think people are waking up. The entire ideological apparatus of that old guard centers on a television set.

And even though they’re trying to prove they’re more adept at social media, what they can’t do is control it, even with the purges and the suppression, there’s just too many people—and that’s driving them crazy. And if they can’t control it, then they can’t control the flow of information. They’re going have a very difficult time putting the lid on this because it continues to come out of American society. People are ready for this. And it’s as terrifying as it is encouraging because I think it’s literally the only way forward in the political realm.

Boni:

Thank you, Stan.

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Postscript:

I’d like to be as cautiously optimistic as Stan is about the ability of a tactically agile outsider campaign within the Democratic Party to overcome extraordinary levels of internal opposition. While end runs around corporate media are helpful for gaining and maintaining supporters, where things get unequivocally real is on the voting rolls, in the voting booths, and with the vote tally. No matter what a citizen has come to think about the now innumerable candidates in the race through the end run of social media, the following can still have a huge impact on whose votes get counted and whose votes don’t get counted.

Consider the array of tactics that were employed in 2016 and have yet to be countered in any meaningful way, as well as other tactics that could be additionally accessed:

  • The use of provisional ballots (a small fraction of which are ever counted) to keep the votes of independent crossover voters out of the primary. To get around this eventuality, massive voter education will be a prerequisite. Greg Palast was recently interviewed about this issue by Fiorella Isabel.

 

  • Caucuses that were incompetently run or manipulated by partisan party leaders, with tactics that include willful ignoring of voice vote results, disqualification of valid caucus attendees, and the bussing in of what labor organizers (back when a genuine labor movement existed) used to call scabs.

 

  • Strategic reduction of polling places or deliberate misinformation sent to voters about where polling places are located. Again, massive on-the-ground and fully localized voter education will be needed.

 

 

 

  • The outright trashing of official ballots, as occurred in Tim Canova’s run for Congress in Broward County, Florida against the massively unpopular Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

 

And there are more dirty tricks beyond these that even the savviest of observers are not yet aware of. The sheer scale of “sticking and moving” that will be required to “overcome the level of cheat” is mind-boggling. At the very least, however, foreknowledge of electoral obstruction can point insurgent campaigns like Sanders’ to the best ways of allocating their resources. This fight will truly be an on-the-ground one.

The process and outcome of the 2020 Democratic Primary is of monumental importance for anti-empire progressives, not to mention everyone else—not because Bernie Sanders is intrinsically amazing. The levels of greed, cowardice, coercion, bloodthirstiness and corruption in post-WWII American politics are so all-encompassing at this point that no politician (Democrat OR Republican) that operates within the system could possibly meet a halfway decent standard.

No, the reason this primary is so important is because, with Sanders now immense popularity and name recognition, and with the clear fact that the nation’s elites and party loyalists don’t want him anywhere near the White House, the election has the power to settle once and for all the question of whether—post-McGovern insurgency of 1972—the people can genuinely contradict the country’s owners and choose even a haphazard peace-and-justice candidate.

If the answer is NO, if people make that choice and it’s disallowed from sticking, then national electoral politics will be officially closed off—and everyone will know it. In the aftermath, we may enter a period of social deterioration so severe that it will make the tumultuous 60s look like a minor punch-up at the local dive bar.

As always, thanks for reading.

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Stephen Boni
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Stephen Boni

Stephen Boni is both Ghion Journal's current editor and a contributing writer. His main interest is in analyzing the workings of empire and exploring ways to dismantle and replace systems of oppression. A conflicted New Englander with an affinity for people, music and avoiding isms, he lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter.
Stephen Boni
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