Last Tuesday, December 15th, was a historic day in Alabama. For the first time in 25 years, a Democrat will be sent to Washington as a representative in the Senate. This is quite the feat: Alabama is stereotypically and historically a heavily conservative state. This is why Doug Jones’ narrow victory is so astonishing. However, before we take this as a sign of things to come, it’s good to remember the context of the race and why Democrats shouldn’t read what they are wanting to read into it. This isn’t the #Resistance winning a victory, but a matter of pure luck that the vile piece of garbage Roy Moore decided to run. The second part of this essay will briefly introduce a socialist point-of-view of Jones and his campaign, with some criticisms of his policy positions and most recent responses as senator-elect, as well as some common reflections. I hope my liberal audience understands that I am presenting this analysis in good faith.
(FYI: Websites and news articles are hyperlinked throughout the article).
DOUG JONES’ WIN:
Many liberal commentators and publications have been rallying around Jones’ win with great enthusiasm. They attribute this victory to many things: suburban swing, the resistance, anti-Trump sentiment, etc. Let’s take a look at a few things first, however. Much of this is hashed out elsewhere, but I thought it would be useful to summarize it here.
One of the biggest reasons that Moore lost was because of the massive amounts of write-in votes, which were more than the past 20 years combined (barring Jeff Sessions’ unopposed 2014 election, which had around 22,000 write-ins).
Write-in and Non-Primary Party votes:
2002: 1,350 (Libertarian: 20,234)
1996: 633 (Libertarian: 21,550; Natural Law: 9,123)
There were overall less votes cast than in regular midterm elections, but it is comparable in size for the most part, making it an interesting look at who was and was not interested in coming out. We saw more votes cast last year in the regular election of Ron Crumpton, which coincided with the presidential election. This is the same for the 2008 elections (though different from 2004). For states with similar population sizes, Oklahoma and South Carolina in 2014, this special election was just north of the former in terms of turnout. More importantly, whenever there weren’t other active participants from third parties in special senate elections, the write-in vote was drastically smaller.
Total numbers of votes cast:
2017: 1,344,406 ← second lowest
1998: 1,293,405 ← lowest
1996: 1,490,270 ← non-presidential highest
In comparison to the 2016 election, Jones pulled roughly 91% of the voters that came out for Clinton, whereas Moore only managed 49% of the votes that Donald Trump received. So, it seems that Democrats really turned out while Republicans were less enthusiastic. Unfortunately, I do not have the data for previous elections, perhaps because they weren’t as controversial, but it also seems that quite a few (8%) of Republican voters went for Jones while many of the write-ins (5%) identified as independents, per the Washington Post. I would venture a guess that what we saw was the flip of a few Republicans who could stomach voting for a Democrat, and a large amount of Republicans just deciding to stay home instead. Those who didn’t stay home wrote in someone else, which, coupled with increased support from liberal whites and black voters, gave Jones his 1.5% edge: a thin margin if there ever were one. Special elections are of course normally lower in voter turnout than presidential and midterm elections, but the numbers here suggest that Democrats maintained their voting momentum in the face of smaller Republican turnout.
2. Historical trends:
The exit-poll questions presented by the Washington Post pointed to Trump not being a particularly important factor in the race. Rather than it being necessarily the case that Donald Trump is the cause of such a great change (which somewhat coincides with the WP’s polls), I would make the argument that his presidency and Moore’s candidacy made people realize the urgency of the moment. Indeed, anecdotally of course, I saw a lot more activism, canvassing, and outward political support from Democrats than I’ve seen in a long time in this state. Such compounding factors can make people incredibly attuned to the political environment, and drive home the necessity of electoral action against a certain set of foes. Looking at the election maps below, for those counties that flipped in 2017, we can see a clear start in 2008 (perhaps even 2004 though shading wasn’t available in any of the maps I found) with Obama’s election. Those counties have been becoming more and more blue. Many of the counties we see flipping are also those which used to vote Democratic as late as 1996, and even official research into voting patterns show that many of these counties are only listed as moderately Republican in 1998:
Marengo County, Montgomery, and Jefferson have steadily become more blue, whereas places like Mobile, Clarke, Monroe, and Madison are some recent flips after a long-term shift. This shift isn’t too surprising considering the history of the two parties in the state. This post from All That’s Left gives some good history and a decent map prediction just before the election, which coincides with my analysis of which counties were “weakest” to a Democratic shift. The sudden transition of some counties was more than likely due to the feeling of urgency for Democrats I mentioned earlier in the wake of their defeat in 2016, leading to higher turnout that pushed them back to blue. This shouldn’t be taken as the state “becoming” blue, as more than likely this particular election managed to shift the state left overall, leading to an election map that mirrors strong Democratic areas and affected moderate Republican areas.
3. Black voters:
Many have latched onto the narrative of the black voter, going so far as to make overtly grandiose gestures to the black community, such as saying “God is a black woman” (to counter the religiosity of Moore voters no doubt) and advocating support black-owned businesses as a gesture of thanks. This is all well and good, but is oddly insulting and infantilizing towards the black community, which clues us in to white voters’ expectations in regards to the amount and enthusiasm of the black community in any given election. Subtle racism aside, it is true that what saved Jones was practically unanimous black support. This is despite the fact that voter suppression was alive and well in Alabama, with many black voters finding themselves listed as “inactive” and with police harrassing voters outside polling stations, which is looking more and more to have been a violation of federal law.
However, the conclusion for Democrats shouldn’t be that they can “rely on the black vote,” as is often said. No, instead they should realize that the black community saved themselves from the white voters in this state, and would have failed if not for Moore’s controversy driving an increase in write-ins and abstentions. That realization should send a shiver down everyone’s spine, and clue them in to the absolute disenfranchisement they face in Alabama (and many other places in the US). So, in the midst of this parade of congratulations and thanks, keep that in mind. It’s not enough to tweet out love for the black community and to buy things from them. Instead, they must receive the political representation and reparations they duly deserve. I encourage everyone to take a look at this short series of informational maps which highlight even more what is truly at stake:
ALBUM: How systemic racism plays out in Alabama (Dec 12 2017)
A SOCIALIST POINT OF VIEW:
So what to make of this narrow victory? There’s a lot to make of it, and despite the elation of Democrats, there is much to be worried about. Just before the election, a Northern Alabama member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) named Alex independently published a short critique of Jones, which received a massive amount of online hate. Within a day, the article–which was probably meant only for a small audience–was being commented on by once presidential-hopeful Howard Dean, news personality Joy Reid, and countless others. Much of the online anger was levied towards this particular member as well as DSA in all of Alabama and nationally. The article, however, was a fairly standard leftist critique of a liberal candidate, and ironically wouldn’t have been such a big deal if not for being made one by liberal reaction. I believe it is useful to add onto Alex’s analysis, and to touch on some issues of why socialists don’t have the political obligation nor duty to support liberal candidates.
As socialists, we believe in a range of left-wing opinions. But our central beliefs are that private property must be abolished; sexual, racial, and class-based hierarchies must be dispensed with; the means of production must be collectively owned by the whole of society; and that democracy is an important system of enabling these things. America’s political spectrum is notoriously narrow, meaning that Republicans think Democrats are socialists and Democrats think they are “the left.” Even right-wing reactionaries somehow confuse us for Democrats, no matter how mild our congratulations or conditional our support.
Bernie Sanders is about as “left” as any mainstream politician in America gets, which at best is akin to a Scandinavian social democracy (which many mistakenly believe to be socialist). Socialism and the left are much, much different than what gets bandied around political pundits’ mid-morning segments and evening roundtables. Even amongst the left, DSA is considered to be the Mensheviks of the whole arrangement, because historically it has been much more about social democracy than democratic socialism (though in my personal opinion that is changing as the organization undergoes a shift in views from the Harrington days). DSA exploded onto the scene after Sanders mentioned his being a “democratic socialist.” In any case, left-wing groups like DSA, the Party for Liberation and Socialism, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, etc. don’t see Democrats as being a part of the “left.” This might sound strange given the political nomenclature used in the US, but that’s generally the feeling among leftists and across the world. With that, I would like to offer some points of view that touch on left-wing themes in regards to the election and Jones’ campaign.
Many liberals feel the need to say the following things, to which I hope to give a brief rebuttal.
1. Any non-support or outright refusal to vote is automatically support for the opponent.
This one is particularly interesting to me because it shows two things: 1.) the absolute weak state of democracy in the US that people can’t choose who they want without being automatically shoved into a for-against dichotomy; and 2.) that tribalism is lot more prevalent amongst Democrats despite their insistence that this is not the case. Even voting for a third-party is considered voting for the opposition to many. An answer to this is very simple: the only thing that signals support for the opposition is voting for them. This is the sort of ignorant reasoning that comes about whenever someone sees themselves as the moral high-ground, despite the fact that they created this situation themselves. There is never a moment where it is seemingly okay not to vote for Democratic candidates: every election is a crisis where they must be supported 100%. Ironically, it was those people who didn’t want to vote that helped tip the scales in the Democrats’ favor this election. I rarely link articles from The Federalist, but as Georgi Boorman puts it, “to pressure into voting those who do not believe a nominee deserves their vote is to inhibit them from expressing their real positions toward the candidates and the democratic process. I, for one, choose to let my silence speak, even if few can hear it.” This succinctly states the reasoning for why this is an absurd belief to have.
2. Doug Jones supports what you support.
Doug Jones supports “progressive” positions, which is a political buzzword that doesn’t really give any clear indication as to what it means. Without getting into a full breakdown of the discourse of progressivism, it is sufficient to say it is code for more centrist, liberal practices in regards to addressing issues that normally concern those interested in social justice. Simply because there is “progress” in the strict sense doesn’t mean that this coincides with what socialists desire and fight for. Alex listed a few reasons why Jones doesn’t support what socialists want, including healthcare and education. To add on to the list, Jones supports things like corporate tax cuts because they help with “reinvestment” into the economy, despite how tenuous this belief is in actual practice. As Alex points out, Jones mentions the importance of small businesses as the “backbone of the economy” when it’d be more appropriate to give that honor to the workers. But this is the liberal worldview, where capitalism, no matter how petite, is primary.
Further, one of Jones’ analyses of the economic situation directly involves education. A standard leftist view of education is that public education is not for the bolstering of the capitalist economy, but an important element in the humanistic development of a person. This system was captured very early in regards to secondary education, and has similarly been captured in regards to higher and primary education (I recommend this book for more on capitalism and education). Jones’ website states that, “We must invest sufficient resources to ensure that our educational system provides the skills, knowledge and tools necessary for our children to succeed in a 21st Century economy.” Does this include something like Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan for one’s labor utility to be developed from Pre-K to the workforce? Tying children’s education to the economy is an absurd idea that introduces a business-like, austerity-prone management into the mix. And yet, “providing a quality education to all children is the key to a long-term thriving economy.”
Jones continues with, “we must focus on life-long training and education that meets the needs of employees and employers as the economy continues to grow and change.” Lifelong-learning and/or training is simply a buzzword for being responsible for your own job retraining in an evermore precarious job market. Considering this, what “needs” are being met? The need to not starve, be homeless, and to not die of easily treatable diseases? This is an example of an obvious position that is at odds with leftist thought. As Alex pointed out, his stated positions on education don’t even touch on the obvious issue with an entire generation of people being overloaded with student debt and entering insecure, low-paying jobs.
Jones ran a campaign that proposed nothing revolutionary and nothing inspiring. Socialism is a positive program; We have a horizon at which we aim. For campaigns like Jones’, whose only horizon is some nebulous return to the status quo (which is what brought about Trump, mind you) or a future of “compromise,” it’s difficult to see the value in pursuing this type of politics when we have an incredibly troubling present and an increasingly precarious future.
3. Doug Jones will get you closer to what you support.
This may or may not be true, and more than likely isn’t. Time and again leftists have seen Democrats cater to the right, even when they do not need to (for instance, not going for gusto regarding healthcare). Jones makes this a central tenet of his campaign. He states that he’s a “center-of-the-road guy” and will consider voting with Republicans because bipartisanship is important. Why is this a bad thing? Isn’t it important to have opposition work together? Sure, it sounds nice…until you are dealing with the Republicans, a group of hawkish neoconservatives and greedy neoliberals who are hellbent on creating an oligarchic state and making the rest of us serfs to prop up the wealthy. What exactly is the compromise you can make with these kinds of people?
Even Paul Krugman, in his book The Conscience of a Liberal, decried the continuing shift to the right of liberal Democrats because they feel the need to compromise with conservatives. Appealing to moderation drags one’s politics to the right, as conservatives and reactionaries will always take but never give. The playing field thus continually shifts to the right, causing a realignment of what “moderate” even means:
Democrats are getting a reminder of the futility of continually meeting the right where it is at as they insist that Republicans wait on voting on the tax bill so that Jones can be seated, as Scott Brown was back when they were litigating healthcare in the Senate. They are in for certain disappointment.
Democrats have long had a history of doing the opposite of what their voter base wants/needs (I recommend Lance Selfa’s The Democrats: A Critical History for more). Jones specifically mentions the New Deal, which is lauded as one of the most progressive sets of programs to be put into place by the federal government. But even here it is important that we realize the New Deal was a fix by capitalists to stave off wide discontent in response to the Great Depression. One of the biggest arguments of Selfa’s book is that capitalism is ultimately what drives the Democrats’ positions and actions, which is still apparent considering Pelosi’s recent comments that Democrats are for-sure capitalists. It isn’t clear, then, that they will push for real change that helps people, even when in power. This is the trouble with top-down attempts at bringing about change: You’re bound for disappointment. Take the recently elected Ralph Northam, who doesn’t want, “to force Republicans to accept a broad expansion of Medicaid. Instead, he has begun talks with lawmakers in both parties about overhauling the state’s Medicaid system to expand access to health care while better defining eligibility to control costs.” This is why we are wary of Democrats for advancing our needs. What are we to expect of Jones on something like healthcare once he takes office? It is up in the air if we take the past actions of newly-elected Democrats. He has already riled even progressives in his insistence that we “move on” from the sexual assault allegations levied against Trump.
This doesn’t mean that Jones will inevitably be a centrist that does nothing of note for the rest of us, of course. Much of political rhetoric in the media is essentially posturing, and considering his very small margin in the election he is more than likely just hanging back as much as he can. Further, his background has made many in the labor movement optimistic about his tenure. So, it’s not all doom and gloom; I hope he genuinely pursues increasing the power of unions and labor. However, labor and leftism have been equally betrayed by Democrats and Republicans in the past, leaving many such as myself to remain cautious about any significant changes.
4. You’re insignificant and will never achieve anything.
Indeed, it is a wonder that anyone feels threatened by socialism at the national level, since we haven’t had a major impact since the 1912 presidential election when Eugene Debs won 6% of the national vote. The Alabama bloc of DSA is at best 100 people broken up into four groups, with probably a comparable or slightly higher number in other leftist groups. However, our goal is not to immediately be the winners. We are aware that, ultimately, building a movement takes time. DSA has shown that massive growth can happen, though, as they skyrocketed to 30,000 members from a mere 5,000 the year prior. More and more polls are showing that young people especially are beginning to question or outright reject capitalism. Socialists are not just anti-capitalists and naysayers: our position is a positive one. We want the kind of change that is meaningful, not the incremental kind that gets set back or wiped out with the stroke of a pen. DSA’s official stance is transformative revolution, in which we actively strive towards a day where capitalism is no longer the system, but actively undermine capitalism in the present. Socialism is not just winning an electoral battle, but actually enacting socialism in our communities (however small) and winning the battle of ideology, striving to educate and pull as many people as we can to socialist thinking. Of course, that action must be coupled with real gains in who has power, which the right has managed to do covertly on a local level in the past six decades. They have also managed to create a whirlwind of rhetoric and information that utterly permeates the media and educational landscape in this country. I fear that the Democrats are not able, nor willing, to put up the kind of fight needed to combat such a force. It isn’t even clear they are always aware that they are in a battle. So, we must embrace an alternate system, and perhaps even an alternate party. While Americans are rotting in the cesspit of neoliberalism and neoconservativism, socialists abroad have been taking up the mantle and gaining power in their respective countries. We must follow suit. Socialism in the US will happen not because we want it to, but because it needs to happen, and that will become more apparent as capitalists continue their path of destruction.
In short, Jones’ victory is not our victory, and it certainly isn’t our liberation, let alone that of the black community that saved him from defeat. I asked a simple set of questions in my twitter thead on this: What happens after Jones is elected? What change will be brought to Alabama, or is it just national policy that gets the change? These are important questions, and frankly the picture ain’t looking so great if the best we can do is a centrist whose primary interest is being friends with Republicans. As I’ve stated before, Jones was a good candidate only in a relative sense. Insofar as what we in Alabama and the country need, he is far from it. His win should not be a rallying cry for Democrats, since it seems to be out of pure luck and the tenacity of the black community that he succeeded. A 1.5% difference between him and a sexist, homophobic pedophile (with a write-in percentage of 1.7%) should be a distressing reflection of the kind of politics Jones represents. It is a weak ideology, the painted veneer of liberalism that is more concerned with image and contrived bipartisanship than fighting for our needs. If he had gone up against Luther Strange, or even someone like Bradley Byrne (which might very well happen in the future) he would have certainly lost.
Unfortunately, I do not think Democrats are learning the right lessons here. To win, we must stop relying on figures to do our fighting for us. This means tossing out liberal conceptions of politics as a top-down endeavor where the sole purpose is compromise and “decency” purely for the sake of it. This means not just doing politics but realizing that there is no other choice than being political: drawing a clear line and sticking with your principles. This is perhaps the most optimistic aspect of Jones’ win to me. Many people are a lot more politically involved now than before. They have been on the ground and on the internet talking about political positions and examining the issues in the state and the country. This momentum can be kept up, and it can form those political beings. However, Democratic supporters can’t continue to decry partisanship while simultaneously flipping out at any amount of criticism towards their candidates (or even potential candidates). It must be remembered that all candidates don’t just deserve but need criticism. They are not figureheads whom we celebratize but representatives whom we must hold accountable at all times. With that, I hope Doug Jones proves me wrong, as he proved me wrong with his election (I had tweeted that he would lose a month prior). I hope he sheds his centrist, bipartisan nonsense and begins taking on a radical bent, because that is the kind of strength we need where we are going. I hope Democrats understand, though, if I don’t hold my breath.
Here are the results from the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/alabama-senate-special-election-roy-moore-doug-jones
Here are the results from the AL SOS site: http://sos.alabama.gov/alabama-votes/voter/election-night-results
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