Don’t Rely on Corporate Democrats to Fight the Right

Eric Blanc (Jacobin Magazine), fears a Corporate Democrat repeat of the 2000 elections when Gore refused to fight once the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush. He says a workers’ movement is needed to push back the right and points to the recent teacher strikes as an example. On with Paul Jay.


Paul Jay

Hi, welcome to podcast. I’m Paul Jay. And remember, if you can click the donate button if you haven’t already. Viewers keep this project sustainable.

In the coming months, I plan to talk to activists and journalists out in the field, organizing and reporting on the working class in different parts of North America. That means Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. And from time to time, globally. The subject will be how the building of a people’s movement is going. What are the main challenges and how to develop a broad front politics?

Today, I’m joined by Eric Blanc. He was a national surrogate for the Bernie Sanders campaign and the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics. And he reports for Jacobin magazine. Thanks for joining us.

Eric Blanc

Thanks for having me on.

Paul Jay

So first of all, if Trump actually is well enough to go out and campaign, and assuming this bravado is more than just bravado, and he actually is able to keep in the campaign, then the scenario seems to be—many people are predicting and Steve Bannon, who’s probably still in Trump’s ear, is actually calling for a kind of war to begin on November the 3rd. Meaning that Trump hopes/thinks that he’s going to be at least near or even ahead in the electoral college at the end of the night on November 3rd. And he’s going to refuse to recognize mail-in ballots that come in later. He’s strongly hinted at that. Bannon and some others have outright called for that. Bannon said the war will begin November 3rd.

If that is the scenario, the Democrats will fight it in court. The Supreme Court may decide in Trump’s favor. Maybe not, but likely will if they actually get this new nomination through, which is a question mark now because everybody’s dropping with COVID in terms of the White House and senators and such. 

But anyway, one way or the other, and even if Biden has an outright victory, there needs to be a really strong, broad, popular people’s movement.

If, one, Trump’s to be blocked from a kind of coup and/or, two, the Biden administration settles into the old Obama-Biden ways and creates the conditions for another type of Trump in 2024.

So, one way or the other, there needs to be a broad movement. And you’ve been calling for getting organized for such now, and you’ve been out in the field covering teachers in states that normally go in Trump’s favor. So, what have you learned, and what are people doing to get organized?

Eric Blanc

I think the urgency of the moment should be underscored to begin with. The scenario you laid out is right. The first thing that needs to be said is that the stakes of November 3rd and November 4th are extremely high. The question of defending basic democratic rights and institutions in this country is at stake. And if there’s any lesson to be learned from the last forty-plus years of corporate Democrats, it’s that they’re not going to put up a fight in any real significant way against the right. I’m really worried about the possible reproduction of a Florida, 2000 scenario, in which basically Republican-packed courts give the presidency to the Republicans, and the Democratic Party puts up a meager, at best, fight. 

So, yeah, the question is, how do we get organized as working-class people, as the left to be able to not only defeat Trump but to win our political agenda? Because no matter who’s in power, the reality is that whether it’s Biden or Trump, the only force that’s going to actually be able to push for something resembling a progressive policy that will actually improve things—and not just, at best, keep a really unequal status quo, which is what a Biden presidency would do—the only force that can do that is really the organized working class and social movements.

So, I think the prospects of that are pretty high—especially if we can defeat Trump, which I’m relatively optimistic we can—because just the level of the crisis has really reached such a disproportionate impact that I don’t think that a Biden presidency would get the honeymoon period that was given to Obama. People really are fed up. It’s not just COVID. This is health care, systematic racism, all these issues, climate change, all these things are really bubbling up. And the task then is how you channel that very widespread and I would argue majoritarian sentiment into an organized movement. And we have seen that: the teacher strikes since 2018. So it’s not just, like, a blue state thing; you actually have working-class people in every state of this country who are willing to fight back when a political alternative is presented.

The difficulty is that political alternative is rarely presented. The Democrats don’t inspire much confidence; the unions oftentimes aren’t really fighting. So, in the absence of a viable alternative, working-class people try to get by. And unfortunately, that’s the norm. The question is, how do we provide and kind of get the ball rolling for that organized alternative so people can fight back?

Paul Jay

The teacher strikes, many of them in West Virginia and places that in recent years go Republican: where did their success come from, and how well did the teachers do when they were talking to sections of workers who voted for Trump? What did you learn?

Eric Blanc

The big story is that in two years—really, since 2018—we’ve seen the most significant victories for educators and public services in generations. And the reason for that is that workers resorted to their most important weapon, which is withholding their labor. 

And so what educators did—starting in West Virginia, spreading to Oklahoma, Arizona, then after spreading to blue states like California, Illinois, Los Angeles, strikes in Chicago in 2019, and then more recently—there’s been just an upsurge in teacher organizing all across the country in response to the pandemic. So what you’ve seen then is educators—really together with health care workers, but particularly educators—resorting to the strike weapon, winning over community support, and winning major demands. We’ve seen significant pay increases, significant refunding of schools where educators have struck. 

They’ve always fought for kind of social-justice-type issues. So, it’s never just been about pay; it’s been about more funding for students, anti-racist demands as well. And so, the dynamic is really: educators are pointing the way forward for the working class as a whole. And it shows you—the fact that you had tens of thousands of educators on strike, winning overwhelming support in a state like Oklahoma or Arizona—shows you that this idea that really the fundamental divide in this country is between a blue state/red state, that really doesn’t capture the reality.

The real divide is between the majority of people who are working class and the billionaires and the corporate politicians who are bought off by them. And so, when you’re able to really find an issue that galvanizes the material interest of the majority, you can see that even people who voted for Trump—you had thousands of educators who voted for Trump—went on strikes against Republican politicians.

I’m relatively optimistic about the potential for a lot of people who right now either are just disengaged from politics or even who might have allegiance to the Republican Party, for them to be able to relatively quickly join a left-wing labor movement if we’re able to foreground the issues of concern to them and to others.

Paul Jay

How did pro-Trump voters—and others too, for that matter, but especially them—react to higher salaries for teachers and more money for smaller classrooms and such, when that means higher taxes and higher taxes is what is at the core of a lot of why people vote for Trump?

Eric Blanc

Right. Well, the response of the educators who struck and what our response should be is: we are for lower taxes for working-class people, but we’re for higher taxes for the rich and the corporations. The question of taxes is, Who is paying their fair share and who is not? So what educators raised is, Look, we know that in all of our states for decades now, corporations have been getting tax breaks, the rich are getting loopholes. And if we’re able to start closing that gap, there’s more than enough money in every single one of our states to create an excellent public education system for all.

Paul Jay

And workers heard that? They listened?

Eric Blanc

Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, this was not like a left-wing fringe issue. That made sense to people. You’d be surprised. And the polls show this. Even though it’s not captured in the mainstream media, the polls show that at least on economic issues and sort of bread-and-butter public services, there’s actually majoritarian support for making the rich pay more to provide the types of services people need.

The problem is when the services are underfunded, which the Democrats have done just as much as Republicans, and people are like, Why? What are we getting for these taxes? So, you need to be able to break out of that vicious cycle by providing good, well-funded public services and making the argument that that should come from the rich and corporations, not from working-class people.

Paul Jay

When a specific struggle is taking place and teachers are known in their community, it’s one thing. But why isn’t there a broader national movement in the United States? Given how urgent the climate question is—the climate crisis is—and how urgent dealing with the growth of fascism, the Trumpist crazy politics. 

He is as crazy as he is, quite artful and successful in mobilizing a mass base for right-wing politics, but I don’t know if it’s ever been seen in the United States before at this kind of scale. I mean, an almost pretty solid forty percent of voters. I know many of those voters are not from the working class. Many of them are wealthy or upper echelons of income who just don’t want to pay more taxes than our traditional Republican voters. But still, a lot of people have been drawn into this very far-right politics. 

There’s never been such a need for a broad front, but most of the movements are very issue-based and siloed. Very little national, popular kind of motion. So, what are the obstacles to developing that, and what’s happening in terms of developing that?

Eric Blanc

The situation is perhaps a little bit less bleak than that. We’ve seen, for instance, the most widespread protests, according to some estimates in U.S. history, were just a few months ago. The Black Lives Matter protest, by some accounts, was the most widespread and majoritarian in a long time, if not ever. We’ve seen an uptick in strikes in the United States, the highest number of workers on strike since the early ‘80s. We saw the Bernie Sanders campaign, which did show, I think, despite not winning the nomination but coming quite close, that there is actually mass sentiment. There are millions of people who are willing to vote and organize for a democratic socialist who’s openly taking on the billionaires.

So, the potential, I think, is there. It’s true that after forty years of neoliberalism, there is a significant minority—it’s not a majority—but there’s a significant minority of people who I think are crystallized around a right-wing racist politics. You know, it’s not a majority, though. The question then is, How do we organize that majority so that we can further our agenda?

I think that there are a few things that need to happen. One is, like, no confidence in the corporate Democrats, because as you mentioned earlier, really what you have is this vicious cycle in which the neoliberals just pave the way for a further move to the right every time because they don’t inspire people. They concede the ideological and political ground to the right, and just, at the most, argue why we shouldn’t go quite as far as them. So when that is the dynamic, it’s inevitably just going to lead to a vicious circle and continuing to drift to the right.

So, to break out of that, you need strikes from below, you need organizing, and you need a political alternative. I’m actually relatively optimistic because we’ve seen, for instance, every single member of The Squad gets re-elected. In New York, where I’m based, Democratic Socialist of America: we just elected the entirety of our slate to the state legislature who are fighting now for a very significant political—

Paul Jay

For people that don’t know the reference to “Squad,” it means AOC and these other candidates.

Eric Blanc

Right. So, it is uneven. But, if you think about California, you think about Nevada, you think about New York, you think about places where the overwhelming majority of voters in the primary, for instance, voted for Bernie. I think actually in a lot of states, you have a majoritarian basis right now, already, for a social democratic politics at a minimum. If you’re able to start implementing some of those reforms and showing that an alternative is possible, it’s going to be that kind of practical impact in people’s lives that will percolate and other people across the country who right now are just cynical, not wrongly, about politics, will see that, oh, yeah, change is possible. 

Because that’s the main thing we’re up against. It is this perception that the whole system just sucks, but nothing can be done about it, so I’m going to get by.

That type of resignation can change very quickly. We saw that in the strikes. We’ve seen that whenever mass movements have erupted almost overnight, working-class people who are feeling the problems of the world can turn that resignation into resistance. The question then is, How do we get the ball rolling on that? And I think there are enough examples of that happening that we should be optimistic that in the next couple of months and years, that is going to be on the agenda.

Paul Jay

So concretely, what do you think people should be doing?

Eric Blanc

There are two main areas of work that we should be focusing our energies on. One is rebuilding a militant labor movement. The history of this country and every country has been that without a strong labor movement, you’re not going to have a strong progressive policy in government. You’re not going to have a strong mass movement in general. That labor, at its best, has been at the center of the fight for us and all social issues. The reality is that almost on any issue you can think of, whether it’s climate, whether it’s racial justice, the only way you’re going to win those demands is if you’re able to redistribute a significant amount of money and funds and power from the corporate elite down below. And the only force that can do that historically has been the organized working class.

So, part of the difficulty is that because labor was in decline, it stopped being sexy, and lefties sort of looked elsewhere. So, I think that one of the first things we need to do is understand that our strategic orientation can’t be to abandon the labor movement but actually has to be to revitalize it, getting union jobs, helping transform our unions, giving the boot to leaders who are just supporting the Democratic Party.

Paul Jay

That’s a very major issue, this struggle in the unions, because not all but most of the unions are so bound to the corporate Democrats. They don’t believe other unions are possible. They don’t think other politics are possible.

I once met with a guy who was an adviser to the steelworkers, and I was with the president of the steelworkers at the time for a brunch or something. And I asked him, You guys without the unions—the money to some extent, but also on the ground, getting people out to vote and all this—if the unions don’t really go into gear, the Democrats in most cases don’t win. Why do you cede leadership to Wall Street in the Democratic Party? 

And his answer was, Well, because they’re the only ones with the cash to fight the far right. And if we don’t let them lead, they’ll just all go over to the far right.

This unwillingness by so much of the union leadership to not even support Bernie Sanders…

Eric Blanc


Paul Jay

It seems to me, maybe it’s the obstacle to building a mass movement. Because I take your point: without the unions, it’s hard to see how this thing really happens.

Eric Blanc

The question is, how in the past has that obstacle been overcome? Because that obstacle existed. It existed in the 1920s and was overcome to a certain extent in the 1930s. In other parts of the world, it’s been overcome. The short answer is that, generally speaking, it’s been because radicals have organized within unions to push in a different direction. Without people who are committed to more of a class struggle politics, actively contesting for elections and unions, actively pushing for strikes, it’s very unlikely you’re going to see that type of transformation.

It’s historically been socialists who’ve led fight-back unions in this country and elsewhere. And one of the reasons why I’m relatively optimistic again about the prospects for labor is you do, you have a resurgent socialist movement in this country since 2016 with Bernie Sanders. And a lot of the socialists who are in Democratic Socialists of America are taking seriously the question of, like, How do we build our base within organized labor? So, I think that’s the first thing we need to do.

The second is building a significant and serious political alternative, which is to say, a viable and coherent alternative to the corporate Democrats. I think that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We’ve seen the type of politics that Bernie Sanders put forth, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, local DSA candidates all across the country. This type of open class struggle, antagonism against the billionaires. That is a starting point. I think we need to give it more organized expression, because even as we see right now with Bernie, who’s out campaigning for Joe Biden, the reality is, unless we’re able to build more of a coherent organizational infrastructure, we are going to risk not differentiating ourselves enough from the Democratic Party as a whole, which a lot of people rightly are skeptical and sick of.

So, I think that the task is, as we’re running for the foreseeable future in large part on the Democratic Party ballot line, we need to really build up our own independent electoral infrastructure so that we’re not dependent on the money or funds or apparatus of the Democratic Party as a whole.

Paul Jay

The way that AOC and some of these other progressives have done it from within the party or you’re talking about outside the party?

Eric Blanc

I think our experience in the last few years has shown that for the current moment the best way to sort of getting out a message of class struggle politics is using the Democratic Party ballot line. I think that there’s a contradiction within the Democratic Party, between the working-class base that exists, people who vote for Democrats, and the fact that the party as a whole is controlled by the billionaire class and by political operatives who are bought off by them. So, I think that contradiction is going to come to a head sooner or later.

I personally think that we need a workers’ party in this country. But in order to get there, we need to be a lot stronger. We need a stronger labor movement. We need stronger left organizations. And so, I think at this moment, one of the benefits of running on the Democratic Party ballot line is that it gives us a platform through which we can build up our own independent organizations, building up DSA, building up independent electoral formations locally. And once those continue to grow, you’re going to see a sharper and sharper battle, which you’ve already seen right now, in between people who are actually trying to fight for workers and the Democratic Party apparatus and the Democratic Party as a whole. And that contradiction, sooner or later, I think, is going to lead to a split and creation, hopefully, of a workers’ party. But we’re not there yet, because we’re not strong enough yet.

Paul Jay

So, do you agree with Sanders, AOC, and that group, that say, Trump has to be defeated, which obviously means voting for Biden, and then the real fight with Biden picks up? How do you see the balance between these things?

Eric Blanc

Look, it’s a tricky one. I spent the last year or two organizing for Bernie Sanders and against a corporate Democrat like Joe Biden. So, there are no illusions on my part that Joe Biden is on our side. He’s not. He’s on the side of the billionaire class.

That being said, I do think that at this point, given the reality that a Trump presidency would be so much, so significantly worse for working-class people and put us on a much harder terrain to win any of our demands—and not to mention the abrogation of democratic rights that is looming if the Republicans and Trump are able to kind of ensconce themselves in power, despite the popular will—I think that given that, it makes sense to like, hold our nose at this moment to get Biden elected.

But with the understanding that starting November 4th or God knows, whenever the presidency is confirmed, that our fight is immediately against him and we can’t give him any sort of honeymoon period. No illusions. We need to tell people the truth right now. It’s just like, Yeah, if you’re going to vote for Biden, that doesn’t mean he’s on our side. It means that Trump needs to be defeated first.

Paul Jay

In most American cities, certainly larger American cities, there are all kinds of progressive organizations. There’s anti-war, there are organizations, many in the African-American community, there’s Latino. If you go on, there are groups that are organizing even about green environmental issues, local issues, and so on. It’s rare when they all get together.

To some extent, the Sanders campaign helped a lot of these groups at least coalesce, because at least individually as groups, many, many of them came out and said, Yeah, they were going to support Sanders. But even at city levels, you don’t often see the groups all getting together, and you almost never see all these organizations somehow getting together in a national coalition. Again, the Democratic Party has this kind of national reach. But as you said, the Democratic Party is very split really in terms of what interests it represents.

Do you think there needs to be this kind of national forum? I know DSA is a national forum and maybe is the biggest right now of the left groups, but it is still one of many. And then the other issue is, Does there not have to be a kind of popular front that also includes people that would not identify as socialist?

Eric Blanc

Yeah, it’s a really good question. I do think that we need something like that. The question is how to go about doing that. You know, the devil’s in the detail. I think that, for instance, right now, there is a possibility in the short term for a lot of different organizations, not just who endorse Bernie, but actually much more broadly, to unite against Trump. Not just on voting against him, but also in preparing for mass mobilizations, potentially workplace actions, civil disobedience, things like that, to prevent him from stealing the election.

There is in process, really, right now, a process of trying to bring together different organizations in defense of democracy. And I think that there are other issues that you can imagine that really have a very broad range of support and that bring together so many different constituencies and organizations. Climate change would be an obvious one, right?

So, if you can imagine: we defeat Trump. Biden’s in power. Why don’t we have millions of people on the streets, locally and in DC, calling for a Green New Deal? And almost every union, every social justice organization is somehow implicated in climate change and the Green New Deal because it’s such a far-reaching issue.

I do think that the process of bringing together people at this point is going to be still, at least at the start, around the issues around which we agree. But in building those sorts of relationships in these struggles, that sets the basis for what I would like to see, which is that kind of group cohering on a more political level.

The other thing that can unite people, as you mentioned, are political candidacies that really represent a broad range of issues. I think that on a national level, for the foreseeable future, that’s going to be harder because Bernie is quite old. But you can imagine on a state-wide level, particularly in places where we’re stronger—Illinois, New York, California, some other places—you know, why not run a candidate for governor who is really, actually of the working class? You know, sort of a social-democratic, Bernie, AOC-type candidate that can bring together all of these different forces.

And I think it’s in projects like these that you’ll really be able to see who are your friends and who are not your friends. Because there is the reality that a lot of so-called progressive organizations and non-profits sort of talk left, but when it comes down to it, they’re not willing to actually go up against the Democratic Party. They’re not actually willing to go up against some of the funders of their non-profits who might stand to lose if they step beyond the bounds that are accepting of the status quo. So how you forge a real working unity is in large part through struggle, and actually, you have to test people in practice.

Paul Jay

And I think this moment is quite unique. The pandemic is a real dose of reality. And the pandemic deniers are also climate deniers. And so, if you put the pandemic and climate together, the sense of urgency, I would think, is going to be qualitatively different than it’s been certainly in my lifetime.

The Biden climate plan, at least as it’s presented on his website, while it sounds pretty good on the surface, actually isn’t when you dig into it. The core of the climate plan of Biden seems to be reliance on carbon capture, not really the phasing out of fossil fuel. He’s going to get to his target of a carbon-neutral economy, it seems, mostly through carbon capture, and carbon capture’s a quite unproven technology. There’s no evidence you can reach the objectives with carbon capture. But he’s trying to appeal to the fossil fuel industry at the same time. And finance, of course, who are the major owners of the fossil fuel industry now. He’s trying to appeal to them and win over the climate change crowd at the same time.

So, assuming Biden’s the president, and assuming he certainly gets more leaned on by finance and fossil fuel, there’s going to have to be this broad, broad front demanding real effective climate policy. Because if there isn’t, we’re what, a matter of less than ten years, eight, nine years, where we’re hitting 1.5 [degrees centigrade above preindustrial temperatures]? And now the predictions of hitting two degrees above average temperatures, pre-industrial temperatures, maybe as soon as 2030, 2040? I mean, it’s crazy that it’s within reach. 

And once you hit two, it’s very hard not to be at three. And we’re in a whole different world at that point. I know Biden talks a little bit more about the climate in the campaign, but, geez, the sense of urgency is not being spoken of nearly to the extent that it should be.

Eric Blanc

The reality is that Biden is not going to fight, left to his own devices, for the type of changes we need. You know, to be honest, even if he said he supported the Green New Deal as opposed to what he’s doing right now, which is bashing it all the time, I still really wouldn’t believe him because the Democrats, their platform promises are basically scraps of paper. There’s nothing binding about them. And generally speaking, they’re ignored. 

So even if he’s even if his platform was better, I still basically think that we need to assume that once in power, he will defer to the billionaire class. Because the reality is, even if you had a social democrat, or even if you had Bernie in power, you’re going up against extremely powerful interests, right. Who will do everything to sabotage you.

Given that dynamic, the only conceivable way that you’d have enough organized power to be able to force the government, to force the corporations, to either make the changes or to basically give them the boot so that we can have a sustainable planet—the only way you do that is through massive organized obstruction. Something really on the par with what we saw in the 1930s in this country. You know, we had mass strikes, we had general strikes, we had open unrest. Because unless you create enough costs for the people that run this country, in the sense of political costs, there’s no way they’re going to give up the exorbitant profits that they still can make and that they’re going to try to make, even if it means burning the planet to the ground.

So, given that dynamic, it’s up to us to create that urgency. We shouldn’t expect Biden to do it. I think that the reality is, environmental organizations have gone through the Obama experience, in which they largely deferred to him. And luckily, organizations, particularly like Sunrise, but others who are maybe a little bit more mainstream, are understanding that our struggle begins on day one of a Biden presidency to force him to do what we want. And we’re not going to give any sort of honeymoon period just because he’s not a Republican.

Paul Jay

This broad front, does it not need, to some extent, to have some sections of the elites on board for real climate policy?

I talked to a guy who’s an academic, but he knows lots of people on Wall Street, senior people. And he says, they do get—and you can see it even in some of the way they speak— they do get, and they’re getting, the urgency of the climate crisis. But they will, for example, he said, never accept a wealth tax. And if you really want them on board, for more effective climate policy, you can’t threaten to upend their inheritances and their assets. 

What do you think of this? Where the kind of more working-class economic demands, where are they posited in the context that you can’t, or you wouldn’t want to, alienate all the elites? I mean, there are some of the elites that don’t even mind paying higher taxes and even wealth taxes, but they’re really a minority.

So somewhere in there, there has to be a way for workers to demand and express what they need and their economic demands. On the other hand, the movement needs to get that this movement has to be very broad on climate or it’s not going to succeed.

Eric Blanc

Yeah, I mean, I think what you’re saying is right. Especially because our side is still relatively weak, I don’t think we’re going to be able to win against a unified corporate elite. And so, luckily, we can take advantage of the divisions that do exist to try to push forward. 

What that means it to my mind is that we really have to ruthlessly target the fossil fuel companies and try to isolate them as much as possible, including from the rest of the corporate elite. To make them so toxic, sort of in every way you can think about, that we can make them pay. 

That means things like reparations. They’re burning the planet to the ground. Let them pay back and pay the taxes that we need to build the infrastructure for new green jobs, for instance, right? 

So, there are ways about thinking about it that will make certain parts of the elite pay while providing the kind of economic benefits to bring workers on board. Because the reality is, if you don’t do that, if you don’t combine sort of a shift towards climate policy with working-class interests, then you’re going to see what you saw in France, for instance, with the Macron government, a very neoliberal government, pushing for climate policies on the backs of workers. And that leading to a mass revolt in the yellow jackets [sic, Yellow Vests Movement] against the government and to a certain extent against their climate policy.

There’s a real danger that unless we frame climate policies and make it, in fact, for the benefit of the majority, then there could be a backlash. At the minimum, you’re not going to have that sort of buy-in necessary to actually push it through in the urgent timeline that we need. 

So, I don’t really think we can rely on the elites. I think that we need to try to split them, target the most toxic of them, and then, hopefully, the others will kind of get brought along the way.

Paul Jay

Alright, well, look, thanks for joining us, Eric. This is obviously just the beginning of a conversation. I hope you’ll come back and maybe we’ll add one or two more people to the conversation. The one thing I really hope that website can do is to be a platform for this kind of conversation. So, thanks for joining us, Eric.

Eric Blanc

Yeah, I appreciate it.

Paul Jay

And thank you for joining us on podcast.


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