She shouldn’t have said it (or, for that matter, anything, ever again) but I couldn’t help but chuckle when I heard Hillary Clinton’s say “Nobody likes him.” Like “deploreables,” it was the tone-deaf utterance of a fatally untalented politician that nevertheless contained a kernel of truth. At least for me.
I do not like Bernie Sanders. Never have and, probably, never will. And while I have, thanks to the noisy nudging of my progressive friends, come to love him, I cannot bring myself to support him.
Over the last several months, I’ve found myself drawn into fights with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, both IRL and on Facebook, over Bernie Sanders.
So I decided to spend a couple of weeks and mount a vigorous assault on my default settings. I read oodles of articles posted by Bernie supporters. I compared the plans of all the candidates. I free-based the two newish flagship socialist publications, Jacobin and Current Affairs, and scrutinized the marching orders of their respective editors, Bhaskar Sunkara (The Socialist Manifesto) and Nathan Robinson, (Why You Should Be a Socialist). I read a history of socialism in America. Perhaps most importantly, I tried to think and feel my way into the minds of Sanders’ supporters by dredging up the dark memories of the 2016 campaign.
It was a good and eminently healthy experience challenging some of my assumptions, trying to identify my blind spots, reading around the periphery of my usual media diet—and it’s an ongoing process, of course. Everybody gets triggered by certain candidates and tickled by others, and it’s hard work to burrow into one’s biases and discern whether they have to do with well-founded reasonable beliefs or irrational psychological proclivities. For me, Sander is a triggering candidate—that makes him and his supporters interesting to me. What are they seeing that I’m not?
I can say that, while I cannot bring myself to support him (though I would, of course, fiercely support him if he is the nominee), the exercise has certainly softened me around his candidacy and what it means. Frankly, I was surprised how close I got to convincing myself to support him.
But the process reminded me of a similar one I undertook in graduate school, when I tried to convert to Christianity. Never mind that “trying” to convert to anything is like trying to bite your own teeth. I mention this not only because both attempts were unsuccessful, but because I have come to believe that the Bernie Sanders movement can only be explained by what amount to theological terms. I’ll explain more below, but in fine: progressive politics has by and large become a secular theology, a latter-day Marxism. This is intended both as compliment and criticism.
What follows is my attempt to come to terms with my dislike for him, how I came to love him, what I find appealing in his vision and approach to politics, why I do not support him and, most importantly, my argument for why progressives shouldn’t either.
I. Why I Don’t Like Bernie Sanders
You do not like
green eggs and ham?
I do not
Could you, would you,
with a goat?
I would not,
with a goat!
Would you, could you,
on a boat?
I could not, would not, on a boat.
I will not, will not, with a goat.
I will not eat them in the rain.
I will not eat them on a train.
Not in the dark! Not in a tree!
Not in a car! You let me be!
I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I will not eat them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them ANYWHERE!
I do not like
I use this analogy not only because the visceral reactions we have to food we don’t like captures my attitude toward Sanders but, as I’ll explain later, it turns out that this is a lot more important to political psychology—which is to say, politics—than we tend to think. It has always been the case that in politics, style is a sort of substance, and this is only more so today.
Unlike many of his followers’ feelings for his rivals Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, I do not hate Bernie Sanders. I do not despise or detest him, I do not think he is a lying MF, I do not think he is a bad person, and I do not want to cancel him.
I just don’t like him.
I do not like him misshapen face.
I do not like his buggy, googley eyes.
I do not like his difficulty smiling.
I do not like his default scowl.
I do not like his rather simian arm-waving.
I do not like his poor posture.
I do not like his hoarse voice braying on about the billionaire class.
I do not like his mussed hair.
I do not like how much he reminds me of the hunchbacked conductor from the old Claymation Christmas special.
I do not like how his suits don’t fit.
I do not like his angry, scolding, finger-wagging affect.
I do not like his style of politics.
I do not like his supporters.
I do not like that his heart attack did not end his campaign.
I do not like that he has gotten a free pass on policy from the press and in the debates, while Elizabeth Warren has taken the flak and had her candidacy pretty much mortally wounded for embracing slightly more reasonable versions of his policies.
I do not like that he has probably ruined Elizabeth Warren’s chance to be the first female president.
I do not like that he has allowed the label of “socialism” to be associated with the Democratic party.
I am fully aware that these are (mostly) superficial and irrational reasons to oppose a candidate. I am fully aware that were I to dismiss Sanders on such grounds, I would be no better than those who rejected Hillary because they didn’t like her laugh. And while these are not the real reasons I refuse to support him, I mention them for three reasons.
The first is to defuse suspicions that my opposition to him is (purely) irrational.
The second and, I think, more important, is that I suspect they are shared by many people in all of the political tribes to the right of progressives and to the left of Trumpers; that is, Bernie Sanders produces an immediate negative visceral reaction in the nervous systems of many people from NeverTrumpers to liberals—and that is most of the people.
Third, it is just these kinds of psychological reactions that many of his supporters have for his ideological opponents—especially Pete Buttigieg. Again, while we should never let these shallow considerations dictate who we support, we must acknowledge that they often do dictate who people support. And not “people”—not them—but you and me—us. We must acknowledge, in other words, that this is one of those many pesky ways in which high school never really ends.
So yeah—I just don’t like him. But there is plenty to love.
II. Why I Love Bernie Sanders
To begin, Ecce homo! “Behold the man.” In his style, his bearing, his countenance, his frumpy, avuncular aesthetic, Sanders is different from most politicians; a difference in style that mirrors his difference in substance. He isn’t blow-dried and pressed and pearly white. He doesn’t smile (ok, once in a while, and barely). He doesn’t pretend. He’s not afraid to offend people. And unlike the majority of Democratic politicians for the last two generations, he doesn’t give a damn what the Right thinks. He carries no illusions about or hopes of appealing to the other side. In contrast to the triangulating centrism that defined the Clinton era of the last 30 years, Sanders is unafraid; unafraid to use words that fall outside the Overton window, like socialism, corruption, oligarchy, etc.; unafraid to “tell it like it is.” Though they may detest his politics and his persona, it’s one of the things many people respected about Trump—he had balls. Like Sanders, he targets the elites—the wrong elites, yes, and for the wrong reasons. And in this respect—their economic populism—they are kindred spirits. The difference is that Bernie targets the right elites for the right reasons. And in so doing, he has shifted the Overton window, opening up a space on the Left that had grown as derelict and despondent as the Rust Belt towns he hopes to bring back to life. This is his great contribution to American politics.
This tells us something interesting about our political tectonics. It tells us that the energy in the system is concentrating at the poles, and this is to be understood as the amplified echo of a signal that started building in the wake of the Great Recession.
On the Right, Trump shattered the Overton window and pulled the entire system away from the neoliberal baseline of the GOP, attacking the party establishment and running on tariffs and industrial policy, correctly sensing that the religious, socially conservative, downscale working class GOP rank and file had finally seen through the matrix cast for decades by the party’s oligarchs. The seed was the Tea Party, which grew into Palinism and erupted in Trumpism. Of course, Trump has not made good on his promises and, apart from his trade war tantrums, has merely doubled down on the Wall Street two-step—slash taxes and regulations for corporations and the wealthy—but in style, at least, it signified a political shift.
On the Left, meanwhile, Sanders opened up a new space in 2016, riding the momentum of Occupy Wall Street. This emergent strain in Democratic politics reads the Great Recession as the logical consequence and wholesale discrediting of the Washington neoliberal consensus of the Clinton era, which includes the second Bush administration, but which is subordinate to the dominant paradigm of Reaganism. Again, the difference is that the anger of the Tea Party is misplaced and needlessly mixed with aspects of racism toward the first black president (e.g., Birtherism), delusional views about Obamacare as a socialist takeover (e.g., “get your government hands off my Medicare”), and garden-variety antipathy toward government at all costs, while the Occupy movement was about decreasing the influence that big banks, finance, and corporations have over our government.
It is in this context that Sanders supporters see the Obama presidency as at best a disappointment and at worst a betrayal. While they mostly think that Obama was a well-intentioned, good man, at the end of the day he was a defender of the status quo. Rather than seize the moment—having control of the presidency and both branches of government—he issued an insufficiently robust stimulus, bailed out the banks, never punished those responsible, and advanced a market-based healthcare reform that appeased the drug companies and the insurance industry. So obsessed was he with extending olive branches to the other side, so naïve in thinking that the GOP would work with him, he lacked the fire in the belly to barnstorm the country and whip up popular support for progressive legislation on healthcare, on climate, on immigration, on improving the lives of working people; not to mention that on his watch, the Democratic party fell asleep at the wheel and presided over a collapse of power at local and state levels. In sum, Obama was a more inspirational neoliberal, but a neoliberal all the same.
Enter Hillary Clinton. I imagine that some days, Sanders supporters have trouble deciding who they hate more—HRC or Trump. Never mind that she is a staggeringly untalented politician who was bested by an inexperienced junior senator in the prime of her political life in 2008; never mind that she ran a lame, uninspiring, strategically block-headed campaign in 2016; never mind that she carried more political baggage than probably any presidential candidate in history; never mind that she never went to Wisconson. What matters most to Sanders folk, and what they can never forgive, is that she used the muscle of her political machine to lead the DNC to douse the fire lit by Sanders’ historic campaign, the first legitimate ray of progressive light in Democratic politics in over a generation. Sanders won Michigan—and over 40% of the delegates in the Democratic primary. His message of economic populism could have siphoned off a decisive share of Trump supporters. In short, from this perspective, the most important saboteur of the 2020 election was not Vladimir Putin or James Comey—it was the HRCDNC.
So are Sanders folks angry about 2016? Hell yes, and justifiably so. Everyone is angry about 2016—even the people who “won”! Bernie probably would have won, and in so doing ushered in a new era in American politics, shifting us into a new paradigm, swinging the pendulum back to the left after the 40-year reign of Reaganism. We would be three years deep into a series of historic reforms of our economic, education, energy, and healthcare systems, and fixing our electoral systems to make them fair again, which would have the welcome consequence of freezing the GOP out of national government for a generation.
This is where we stand coming into the 2020 race.
In 2016, Sanders skeptics had a case to make—the notion of a self-described democratic socialist being the nominee, let alone elected president, sounded like a long shot.
But come 2020, as George Will would say: “Well.”
Not only did Trump’s election upend our sense of what is politically possible, his victory tells us three important things.
The first is that a candidate outside the mainstream can win.
The second is that a candidate can win on an anti-establishment, populist message.
The third is that running a moderate against such a candidate is risky. When we couple this to the 2016 primary, noting that Sanders actually got within reach of the nomination, add in the fact that he is now a more seasoned candidate, that his campaign infrastructure is mature, and that the Overton window has moved considerably to the Left in the interim, the skeptical position looks much thinner. Moreover, Trump is now the establishment, like it or not, and he has failed to remember the “forgotten man” who he conned into voting for him with his faux populism.
To Sanders folk, Democrats who cling to Biden or Buttigieg or Bloomberg are nostalgic for neoliberal normality, harking back to the holiday from history that was the 1990s, not realizing that the form of political economy that undergirded that order has been, literally, bankrupted. Trumpism is properly understood not as the birth of a new order, but the last gasp and the primal scream of a dying one. In Gramsci’s words, “the old world is dying, and the new world is struggling to be born. It is the time of monsters.” Trump may be the monster that rises from the breach, but at such pivotal moments, we must beware the temptation to revert to the comforts of the past. Monsters don’t come from nowhere. They are the shadow cast by the contours of the age. According to the Sanders camp’s theory of the case, Trump was the product of a neoliberal political culture. It follows from this that more neoliberal Democrats will produce more Trumps. In this sense, on some days they see Biden as even more dangerous than Trump, since he will reproduce a status quo that will produce more Trumps, and lead us further down the path of a soft sort of fascism.
The theory continues like this: At times, caution is the risky path. We cannot let ourselves be cowed into the defensive crouch that defined the Clinton era, worried about electability, bipartisanship, compromise, owning the center, and so on. We must use this crisis as an opportunity to bring about a progressive realignment of our political system, and get to work rebuilding our infrastructure, dealing seriously with the climate problem through an ambitious Green New Deal, take back our government from the billionaires and corporations, restore the rights and dignity of working people, and become a mature developed country and guarantee healthcare as a right to all of our citizens. Bernie has proved himself to be a bold and consistent advocate for all of these changes, and has built a people-powered movement and campaign that reflects these values.
III. What the Sanders Movement Gets Right
I find much to agree with in this vision in terms of values, ends, policies, and politics.
With respect to values, I really resonated with these excerpts from Ruby Cramer’s superb essay, “You Don’t Know Bernie Sanders”:
He is trying to change the way people interact with private hardship in this country, which is to say, silently and with self-loathing. He is trying, in as literal a sense as you could imagine, to excise “shame” and “guilt” from the American people. These are not words you hear often in politics, but in interviews this year with the candidate, his wife, and his top advisers, they are central to his strategy to win. He is imagining a presidential campaign that brings people out of alienation and into the political process simply by presenting stories where you might recognize some of your own struggles. He is imagining a voter, he says, who thinks, “I thought it was just me who was struggling to put food on the table. I thought I was the only person. I thought it was all my fault. You mean to say there are millions of people?”
Bernie says he is trying to “redefine our value system.” Jane talks about breaking down decades of societal muscle memory: “It seems to be the American way,” she says. “That we all think it’s our fault — instead of recognizing there is a system that is making it unfair for them.” They are, as they see it, trying to dismantle the ideal of “rugged individualism,” an entire era of political thought. Ari Rabin-Havt, a top adviser who travels with the candidate every day, puts it more tangibly: The campaign is a “megaphone” for working people, he says. Briahna Joy Gray, his national press secretary, has likened the effect to “catharsis” from nationwide “gaslighting.” On the podcast she hosts for the campaign, she compares her boss to Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting: the therapist who tells Matt Damon, a young man who was abused by his foster parent, “It’s not your fault. Look at me, son. It’s not your fault… no, no, no, it’s not your fault.”
The Democratic party has long and unsuccessfully tried to straddle and synthesize two different worldviews and value systems, what I’ll refer to as “modern” and “postmodern.”
The former is the world of classical liberalism—of achievement, meritocracy, individual autonomy, private enterprise, cosmopolitanism, Enlightenment values, that the creative destruction of capitalism is natural and, on balance, good. In short, it’s John Locke. It is Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.” It sees the world in terms of winners and losers. Inequality is natural and unavoidable and, in the end, better for everyone, even those at the bottom.
The postmodern worldview, which began to emerge in the 1960s, added to all of that civil rights, environmentalism, gay rights, and in general a concern for the marginalized, for the collateral damage of capitalism, and a fierce commitment to egalitarianism and social justice. In short, it’s Rousseau. It also entailed what has been called a “politics of meaning” and the notion that “the personal is the political.” That, contra the modern perspective, the state cannot and should not be neutral with respect to moral ends and the common good. It saw society not as a collection of individuals, but a collection of groups—gender, race, and class—subject to structural inequalities created by political and economic systems. It sees the world in terms of oppressors and oppressed.
In the Reagan era, the Democratic party’s forehand was modern, and its backhand was postmodern. The Reagan paradigm was a synthesis of the modern worldview—so-called “Wall Street” Republicans, economic conservatives—and the traditional worldview—so-called “Walmart” Republicans, social conservatives. So when we talk about “moderate” or “centrist” Democrats, we are talking about Democrats who felt the need to speak to a body politic whose center of gravity was tilted slightly toward this synthesis.
The Bernie Sanders campaign, though, represents a break with this way of thinking. It’s forehand is postmodern, and its backhand is modern. In this respect, it merely reflects the changing demographics of the country—in terms of their worldview and values, millennials and Gen Z are thoroughly postmodern, and contra the conventional wisdom that people become more conservative as they get older, social science science has shown this to be a myth. But it also reflects the economic experience of the country: the Great Recession, the gig economy, and the costs of housing, health care, and higher education now have younger people—and their parents—facing up to the reality that the next generation is not likely to be better off than the previous one. Finally, it reflects the culture. One of the reasons Trump was so appealing to traditionalists is that he reminded them of how much they have lost the culture wars. It’s true—from media to higher education to Hollywood, the libs are in charge.
So—I agree in general that the Democratic party is and should be turning over a more postmodern leaf. Put in more practical terms, that means advocating for a form of political economy in the direction of social democracy or perhaps even democratic socialism, to, yes, become more European. Let’s call it “capitalism with European characteristics.”
Another way of saying this is that the Reagan game is played out. As a form of political economy, neoliberalism is constitutionally incapable of offering solutions to the problems the country faces. We are primed for a paradigm shift to bring our politics and our policies more in line with our highest—and now increasingly pervasive—values.
As a caveat—and I will address this in more detail in my criticisms—the correct framing is not “capitalism” vs. “socialism,” but one form of capitalism—the neoliberal, crony, casino kind—vs. another form of it—the psychologically, socially, and ecologically disruptive and destructive effects of markets checked by a matrix of taxes, rules, regulations, and safety nets. Put another way, as Buttigieg has crisply cast it, the key tension is not between capitalism and socialism, but between capitalism and democracy. The goal, in FDR’s words, is to save capitalism from the capitalists by shattering the system that King rightly decried as “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
The next point of agreement is the easiest because it is the most general: the ends. Whether we are talking about wages, health care, child care, climate change, or the cost of higher education, the Sanders movement is pointing in all the right directions. We need policies that make housing, health care, and higher education more affordable, not only to reduce suffering among the poor and combat racial injustice, but to rebuild the middle class and work toward a more equal society. We need to support labor rather than capital—again, not to “smash” capitalism but to make it work better. We need to invest in infrastructure and all these things, not simply for moral reasons, but for economic ones—because they will produce growth! So the social and economic and political goals Sanders is working toward are all more of what we need.
When it comes to policy, what I find admirable is the ambition. But I’ll save a more detailed discussion of policy for the disagreement section, since it’s here that I find Sanders’ approach wanting. For the most part, I’m on board with his where and why, just not his when and how.
In terms of politics, the Sanders movement has a great deal going for it. For one thing, it has energy and passion. As the saying goes, Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. Another way you might put this old saw is that for Democrats to fall in line, they have to fall in love. Almost all of the candidates Democrats have fallen in love with in the post-World War II era—Kennedy, Carter, Hart, Clinton (Bill), Obama—won. Those whom they didn’t—who were, in Obama’s memorable phrase describing Clinton, merely “likeable enough”—Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, Clinton (Hillary)—lost.
Enthusiasm matters, and Sanders has it–head, shoulders, and heart above all the other candidates. However restricted in scope it was, Trump had it, and will have it in spades in 2020. Enthusiasm is an elusive political phenomenon that extends beyond what can be counted and measured and polled—it spreads beyond rank and file voters to draw new voters into the process. Enthusiasm is the mysticism of politics. And just as the Trump campaign made history, and surprised almost everyone by summoning enthusiasm from unexpected places, the Sanders campaign has the potential to do so, but at greater scale, by awakening large swaths of the working class that typically do not vote.
And it is his focus on class war, rather than culture war, that I find attractive about Sanders. Vox’s Zach Beauchamp discusses this in the context of Joe Rogan’s recent support for the candidate:
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Sanders was dogged by accusations of disinterest in identity issues — of having a monomaniacal socialist focus on economic inequality and class that led him to sideline other vectors of oppression. The Sanders campaign has worked to address this concern in 2020, building a strong base of support in minority communities (particularly among young voters) and putting forward highly progressive plans on issues like criminal justice and immigration.
Though I understand why cultural issues around race, gender, and sexuality have become so important to many progressives, I think that on balance they tend to be more of a distraction that takes our eye off the ball of economic policy. Class matters matter beyond creed, color, or chromosomes. Progressive economic policies would help working class voters—and, most importantly, many Trump voters and Walmart Republicans—much more than anything Trump or the Republicans have to offer. But by mixing economic populism with talk about reparations, transgender bathrooms, abortion rights, and decriminalizing border crossings, progressives alienate many white, religious, working-class voters who might otherwise warm to their message. So: more class, less race and gender. Yes, the intersections are important, but before you address intersections, you have to have a big broad road, otherwise you get a traffic jam. That road is class. And by consistently focusing on class, Sanders tends to resist or at least avoid amplifying, the siren songs that often lead progressives astray.
The other thing I like about Sanders is that he has balls. I loathe and disagree with Steve Bannon as much as he loathes and disagrees with AOC, but I respect him tremendously as a political artist. What he had to say about AOC, therefore, deserves attention.
“AOC has what I call ‘gameness’ or competitive heart — the combination of grit, determination, fighting spirit that you can’t coach,” Bannon said.
“You either have it or you don’t, and she has it big league.”
In fine: she has balls. Balls—or what we nowadays call “Big Dick Energy”—has long been the Achilles heel of the Democrats. Always hedging and hesitating, calculating and compromising, positioning and pontificating, they come off as weak, indecisive, and effete. But the new breed of Democrats that have made common cause with Sanders are unafraid. They are learning how to engage in the knife-fight form of street politics the Republicans have mastered since Nixon. They are learning that, contra Michelle Obama, it is not enough to simply go high; we must practice a low cunning. Sanders is consistent and clear about who the enemies are, why they must be defeated, and how to do so. That kind of moral clarity makes for politically powerful messaging.
The other thing I agree with, from a political standpoint, is the argument that Sanders would have won in 2016, and there is a risk of repeating the same dynamic of nominating a “safe” centrist and establishment choice—e.g., Biden–fracturing the party, and handing Trump the election. There are good reasons to think that Sanders would carry Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania with his populist message—and that is all you need to win.
IV. Why I Do Not Support Bernie Sanders
I mentioned above that “I’m on board with his where and why, just not his when and how.” Let me explain.
When I have raised these kinds of concerns with Sanders supporters, I am informed that I am guilty of being the “white moderate” in MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
There is much to say about this reaction, but one thing about it suggests to me how many Sanders supporters’ theory of the case is misguided.
Leftist thinkers are often guided by the Marxist idea that individual voters are afflicted by “false consciousness.” This has long been used by both liberals (read: “moderns” above) and progressives (read: “postmoderns” above) to diagnose Republican voters, e.g., “What’s the matter with Kansas?” What is striking in the new progressivism is that it is being wielded by progressives to diagnose liberals. Progressives see themselves as righteous Resistance fighters, a scrappy minority battling the neoliberal Empire—the Democratic establishment, Wall Street, fossil fuel companies, the military-industrial complex, late capitalism, white supremacy, transphobia, the New Jim Crow, the patriarchy, and so on. They have seen the Truth, they are Awokened, they shall overcome, and they will set us free.
It would be a mistake both to make light of the injustices invoked, and to dismiss the concept of false consciousness entirely. But at worst, it’s both an incoherent and an imprudent approach to politics.
It is incoherent because it naturally begs the question of how progressives could ever know that their own consciousness is “true.” One could just as easily read the new progressivism as a form of upper middle class escapism—an opiate that serves perfectly well in helping the neoliberal overlords divide and conquer the Left by dangling the hope of political revolution in front of their eyes—as one could read white liberals as unconsciously motivated by class interests.
It is imprudent because it makes everyone else on the political spectrum think that progressives think they’re smarter and better than them. “I know why you think what you think. I know you better than you know yourself.” That is, it is an inherently divisive approach to politics. It suggests that people do not come by their views intentionally, intelligently, and in good faith.
In contrast, the humanistic politics I subscribe to holds that we are all afflicted by false consciousness to a degree, but that we all also participate in true consciousness—to a degree. Rather than a black and white, either/or, true/false dichotomy, I see shades. There is no such thing as fully false consciousness. If there were, it wouldn’t be consciousness. Just so, there is no such thing as totally true consciousness. If there were, it wouldn’t be consciousness. All consciousness is perspectival, all seeing is seeing as, all light casts a shadow.
But don’t get me wrong—I don’t for a second want to claim a moral or epistemic equivalence. I think moderns see more of the truth than traditionalists, and postmoderns see more of the truth than moderns. But I also think that traditionalists see things that moderns and postmoderns don’t, or have forgotten, and that all of these perspectives need to be honored and integrated in our political discourse.
That is the context in which “I’m on board with his where and why, just not his when and how.” Not supporting Bernie Sanders because his health care plan a) is not popular, b) would disrupt labor contracts, c) would never pass any Senate, d) would kick the majority of people of their current health care plans, e) would put thousands of people in the insurance industry out of work, and f) because you think a public option would eventually lead to a Medicare for all system—this is not even in the same moral universe as white moderates and churches in the South refusing to support civil rights in the 1960s, and to think so is intellectually lazy and morally repugnant.
Next, let’s move on to the elephant (donkey?) in the room: “socialism.”
First of all, I get it: We are talking about Norway, not Venezuela; Sweden, not the Soviet Union. We are talking about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. We are talking about more freedom, more equality, and more democracy, not a road to serfdom. Yes, communism, state socialism, democratic socialism, and social democracy are very different things. Yes, the parallels with Jeremy Corbyn are overdrawn, and ditto for McGovern in 1972. And yes, there is growing sympathy for socialism, especially for young people, and for good and obvious reasons.
But. We must beware the echo chamber that is liberal Twitter, and remember where we are.
In terms of persuasion, Trump’s base is, of course, gone. As Buttigieg correctly pointed out in one of the first debates: “If we run on a conservative agenda, they’ll call us a bunch of crazy socialists. If we run on a progressive agenda, they’ll call us a bunch of crazy socialists.” And if we are talking about the Fox News captives, the rally-goers, the evangelicals convinced their religious freedom is under threat, the militia men stockpiling weapons to fend off the Great Replacement, the guys driving pickups with “truck nuts,” and so on, then yes—they’ll eat that red rare meat up.
But if we’re talking about Wall Street Republicans, libertarians, the investor class, college-educated suburban whites with 401Ks and mortgages—that’s a different story. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I have friends like these who wouldn’t vote for Sanders. They’d vote for Biden, for Buttigieg, for Bloomberg, maybe Warren—but not Sanders. He “scares” them. This probably goes for most of the guys I grew up with, who fall somewhere in the center-Left to center-Right (and if you guys are reading, please please pretty please watch or listen to Bernie’s interview with Joe Rogan!). It drives me insane that they think so and, to be sure, such fears are overblown. Yes, they’re being sickeningly selfish, incurious, and short-sighted in holding these views. Yes, the snowflake millionaires are infuriating. But we have to give them a reason to be more afraid of Trump than the Democratic nominee. If we get the money people, we win.
And they are gettable. Despite all the crowing about the skyrocketing stock market, the fact is that business likes stability and predictability. The last four years have kept the markets on edge and injected noisome variables into the market—Trump’s tariffs, tweets, and foreign policy tantrums present both philosophical attacks on and practical impediments to the smooth operation of international trade. A return to perceived normalcy would be welcome to many in the business community.
But it would be a mistake to think that neoliberal normalcy is what the so-called moderate candidates would actually return to. There is a world of difference between Steyer and Bloomberg, on the one hand, and the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, on the other. Progressives’ healthy skepticism toward capitalism sometimes turns into an unhealthy, dogmatic suspicion of capitalists, and a desire to purify politics by getting money the hell out of it.
Sticking to one’s guns is admirable. Hell, even Joe Rogan seems enamored of Bernie’s “consistency.” But as Emerson wryly pointed out, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” And Thomas Chatterton Williams points out an “incoherent truth”:
What our society sorely misses now is not some sterling ideological consistency but rather a genuine liberalism that is strong and supple enough to look for ways to build on who we are, in all our human incongruity.
For instance, it is paranoid and delusional to think, as Nathan Robinson does, that Elizabeth Warren is “not one of us” and would somehow turn on progressives once she got in office and rip off her face which is actually a mask Mission-Impossible-style and say, “Surprise! I was in cahoots with Wall Street all along! It’s called the long-con.’” This is madness, and it reflects the tone of the liberal Twitterati, whose contempt for Trump is outstripped by its contempt for the establishment wing of the party. This style of Democratic politics, a mirror version of Trumpism, is less “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and more “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” This is a problem because, Eric Levitz reminds us, Twitter is not real life:
Democrats on Twitter are weirder than they appear. The small slice of blue America that’s visible on social media is much more ideological, progressive, white, college-educated — and, above all, interested in politics — than the Democratic coalition writ large.
Left Twitter seems to think it unimportant that the majority of the country, and even the majority of Democrats, and especially the majority of black Democratic voters, are not willing comrades in arms. And upon learning this, they aren’t happy: “During a mock caucus conducted Monday night in Des Moines, Sanders supporters walked out when it became clear they would not meet the 15% threshold needed to earn delegates, rather than lending their strength to another candidate.” Yes, that doesn’t represent all of his supporters, but ask yourself—which other candidate’s supporters would conceivably do that?
Then there is the context of the (at least superficially) strong economy. Yes, the commonly used metrics of the Dow, GDP and unemployment mask deeper problems, but simply from an optics perspective, to many, many voters, the notion of electing a socialist candidate in an economy like this will present as sheer lunacy. As Jonathan Chait puts it:
“Warren at least tries to couch her positions in a framework of reforming and revitalizing capitalism that is intended to reassure ideologically skeptical voters. Sanders combines unpopular program specifics in the unpopular packaging of “socialism.” The socialist label has grown less unpopular, a trend that has attracted so much media attention that many people have gotten the impression “socialism” is actually popular, which is absolutely not the case.”
Probably the strongest, most data-driven argument against Sanders’ candidacy is that the 2018 midterms suggest that he would do damage down-ballot in 2020. I quote Chait at length:
In the months leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, the Democratic Party was the subject of bitter and widespread criticism from its left wing. The party’s strategy was to flip the House by recruiting moderate candidates who would avoid controversial left-wing positions and instead focus attention on Trump’s agenda, especially his effort to eliminate Obamacare. The left predicted the strategy would fail — only an inspiring progressive agenda could mobilize enough voters to win back the House.
“Their theory of the case is to recruit old white guys who are longtime Establishment insiders who will run on a boring agenda Democrats would have run on 20 years ago,” complained Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The DCCC is doing it wrong,” insisted Democracy for America’s Neil Sroka. “In district after district, the national party is throwing its weight behind candidates who are out of step with the national mood,” proclaimed a long piece in the left-wing Intercept attacking the party’s House recruitment strategy, “The DCCC’s failure to understand the shifting progressive electorate is costing the party.” Zephyr Teachout was quoted saying, “Their strategy is stupid in the first place and bad for democracy, but then it’s really stupid because they have 26-year-olds sitting around who don’t know anything about the real world deciding which candidates should win.”
Ryan Cooper, a socialist columnist, cited the Intercept piece to ruminate just why the Democrats would advance such an obviously doomed strategy. “Their naked self-interest and bourgeoise ideology is camouflaged behind a technocratic facade of just doing ‘what it takes to win’ — but it’s a facade they generally believe wholeheartedly.” The Democratic plan was obviously doomed to fail, so perhaps their motivation was actually to enrich themselves and advance neoliberalism, while claiming it was a good strategy to win the House.
As we now know, it was a good strategy to win the House. Democrats flipped 40 seats. Tellingly, while progressives managed to nominate several candidates in red districts — Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Richard Ojeda in West Virginia, and many others — any one of whose victory they would have cited as proof that left-wing candidates can win Trump districts, not a single one of them prevailed in November. Our Revolution went 0–22, Justice Democrats went 0–16, and Brand New Congress went 0–6.* The failed technocratic 26-year-old bourgeoise shills who were doing it wrong somehow accounted for 100 percent of the party’s House gains.
Sanders supporters will sometimes defend against such criticisms by saying that the media are using statistics selectively. Fair enough—surely this happens. For one thing, though, that would mean Sanders folk can’t cite polls that are positive for Bernie with a straight face; and if they do, they ought to acknowledge that the differences in electability and favorability between Biden and Sanders are negligible. For another, it does not permit us to ignore polls altogether—to do so would be to practice the very same post-truth politics of Trumpism, letting passion trump reason. To, as Nathan Robinson admonishes, “trust our gut.” But take it from the mouth of a Democratic congressman, who tellingly requested anonymity: “‘If Bernie is on the ticket as the nominee, I have no chance whatsoever,’ said one Democratic candidate in a swing district.”
“No, such people don’t understand,” we are told by Sanders supporters. “We don’t need swing voters, you’ll see, Bernie will turn out people who have never voted before.” Never mind that, according to the Atlantic, “In six key swing states—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconson—Democrats would prefer a 2020 nominee who is more moderate, a November poll from the New York Times showed.”
True, midterm and presidential are indeed “different beasts,” as Eric Blanc points out:
Chait’s facts on this question are sound, but his political conclusions are faulty. The reason for this is simple: presidential contests and midterms are very different beasts.
Take the question of turnout. Sanders hinges his electoral strategy on motivating nontraditional voters, who are disproportionately young, poor, and nonwhite, and who tend to favor redistributing wealth as well as other reforms. Yet one of the long-standing features of midterms is that they bring out a significantly lower percentage of voters than presidential elections.
In 2018, turnout was only 51 percent — a drop of more than 7 points from the 2008 presidential contest that Obama won by promising progressive change and building a multiracial, multigenerational coalition to win it.
Midterm voters are also significantly older than in presidential elections: in 2018, 69 percent of those over sixty-five voted, compared to only 22 percent of eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds. As one detailed analysis of the midterms concludes, “young voters certainly appear to have the most room to grow” in 2020 — a fact that bodes well for the prospects of Sanders’s youthful movement.
All fair. But Blanc glosses over some inconvenient truths, not least of which is that Sanders’ policies are problematic both politically and pragmatically. That is, many of them are not popular. Chait again:
Sanders has gleefully discarded the party’s conventional wisdom that it has to pick and choose where to push public opinion leftward, adopting a comprehensive left-wing agenda, some of which is popular, and some of which is decidedly not. Positions in the latter category include replacing all private health insurance with a government plan, banning fracking, letting prisoners vote, decriminalizing the border, giving free health care to undocumented immigrants, and eliminating ICE.
However much sense some of them might make in moral or economic terms, in some cases they are strategically stupid: campaigning on banning fracking in Pennsylvania, which has enjoyed enormous economic benefits from it, after losing the state to a pro-coal candidate in 2016? That is political malpractice. Should we ban fracking? Of course. But first we need to right the ship of state. Democratic republic first. Democratic socialist utopia second. You must restore something before you can transform it. You must have stable ground before you build something new.
This is a sensibility, a common sense approach to politics that Obama understood but progressives struggle with. I am reminded of a quote from Pope John Paul XXIII: “See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little.” This is the middle way between the “See nothing, overlook everything, correct nothing” mindset of the Right, and the “See everything, overlook nothing, correcting everything” mindset of the Left. Its fellow travelers are fond of reminding us, on Twitter and on their bumper stickers, that “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” I think this is backward. To be outraged is to not pay attention–in the sense of deliberately focusing your attention on something–but to have your attention hijacked. It is to lose a sense of prudence and priority. It is to take your eye off the ball.
But back to Sanders. Beyond how alienating his policies can be, they are unrealistic. Even assuming Democrats retake the Senate—a dubious assumption with Sanders on the ticket—the votes simply won’t be there for the most ambitious parts of a Sanders agenda—and that’s just counting within the Democratic caucus. People forget that Obamacare, that wimpy milquetoast moderate reform, didn’t include a public option because Democratic senators wouldn’t allow it. Again we are told: “No, you don’t understand, when Bernie is president, we will go out and rally the public behind his policies, and they will force the Congress to vote for them. Trust us. You’ll see.”
It’s an over-quoted line, but in the end, I think the Sanders movement really is making the perfect the enemy of the good. We need vision, yes. The Green New Deal is a great example, because it is just that: a vision for what we need to accomplish in the middle to long term. But it is a great mistake to confuse vision with policy, the map with the territory. Policy moves in the short to middle term space, from the first 100 days to the end of a first or second term. Crudely put, progressives are great on vision, less so on policy; liberals are great on policy, less so on vision.
Liberals are often criticized for being “incrementalists” who “tinker around the edges.” I find this kind of leftist rhetoric to be a facile distinction, at worst a sort of sophomoric dualism completely removed from the real world; it is an example of what Richard Rorty warned about as the Left’s “philosophy habit,” which was not a compliment. Vision without incrementalism is empty, incrementalism without vision is blind. The great socialist thinker Michael Harrington understood this through his concept of “visionary gradualism.” Even a journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Incrementalism is good if it is done within the context of a progressive vision. We should pursue what works if it is ultimately ordered to what is good; even if that means two steps forward, one step back.
And that is the distinction that makes a difference when we are talking about the Right vs. the Center-Left—a distinction I think progressives often fail to make. Pete Buttigieg is not a Republican (nor is he—please—a “lying MF”). Barack Obama was not a conservative. Bill Clinton was not Ronald Reagan. To think these kinds of thoughts is to be a prisoner of ideology. The center-Left is the center Left because it has tried to work within the system as it exists to nudge it leftward. It sees politics for what it is: what Max Weber called the “strong and slow boring of hard boards,” not a graduate seminar on political philosophy.
In closing, I want to do a small exercise in 2016 revisionism. It’s worth remembering how that quote above about the perfect being the enemy of the good became a cliché in the first place: because of White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, who regularly invoked it in defense of Obamacare. Sanders folks generally disdain the deal-making and horse-trading and compromising that characterized the process that led to and resulted in Obamacare, and regard anything short of M4A as merely perpetuating a broken system, and they see Sanders as a break with that system.
I see it differently. Sanders—as a political persona, as a force, as a brand—exists because of Obama, not despite him. Obama may not have been the president we deserved, but he was the president we needed. Biden was right: Obamacare was indeed a BFD, and despite the Right’s best efforts, it has both endured and remained popular. It appears to be going the way of all the major progressive reforms such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—vociferously opposed by the Right, passed in an imperfect form, gradually tweaked and improved, grudgingly accepted, and eventually woven into the natural order of things. Not without reason did some on the Right worry that it was merely a Trojan Horse for socialized medicine. Obama’s original intention—and now the position of Biden, Buttigieg, and Bloomberg—was to offer a public option in hopes that, over time, it would put private insurers out of business, and we would organically move to a single-payer system.
Until about five minutes ago, this was considered a liberal position. In the funhouse mirror of liberal twitter, it is an example of spineless, milquetoast moderation. In reality, it is an example of visionary gradualism, shifting the Overton window, moving the needle. In other words, actually making progress. Indeed, what often seems lost on progressives is that, as Ezra Klein recently noted, all of the candidates’ positions on all the issues are to the left of Obama. Put another way, the tectonic realignment in our politics is not going to begin with a Sanders presidency—it has already begun through the Obama one.
And this is the context for thinking about the real meaning of 2016. I have long thought that the media and most of us over-interpreted “what happened,” as Hillary titled her book. What happened was, for lack of a better word, a fluke. That is, Trump’s election was more noise than signal. Choose your metaphor: a perfect storm, death by a thousand cuts, a black swan event. The fact is that it never should’ve have happened. From the email server, to the Wikileaks hack, to Russian disinformation, to Hillary’s failure to go to Wisconsin, to Jill Stein, to Gary Johnson, to Bernie voters staying home, to Comey’s letter… at the end of the day, if 80,000 people had voted, or voted differently, in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, we wouldn’t be talking about any of this—about post-truth, identity politics, the alt right, white nationalism, tariffs, constitutional crises, and on and on and on.
What I am getting at is that the Sanders movement’s theory of the case is wrong. I am reminded of an interview Jon Stewart did years back with Stephen Hayes, an apologist for Cheney and his response to 9/11. Hayes began to respond to one of Stewart’s questions, “Well, after 9/11 everything changed–” “Yeah-yeah-yeah,” Stewart interrupted, “But the space-time continuum didn’t change!” So with 2016. The progressive read is that Trump was a product of the Clinton-Obama version of Democratic politics, that the paradigm has shifted, and that now, at long last, we can usher in the progressive utopia. That story may be inspiring, but I don’t buy it. The reality is less exciting: Trump just got really lucky, and Hillary just ran a really shitty campaign.
Thankfully, we will never see Trump’s like again. One of the key features of charismatic leaders is that their movements do not outlast their tenure. That is because their power stems not from their ideas, their values, or the institutions they leave in their wake; it stems from their genius, and once that has dried up or fled the scene, their power goes with it. When Trump is gone, what will remain is the top-heavy husk of what used to be a major political party. The liberal realignment is coming—demographics, time, and world-historical economic forces will see to that. The task is to mitigate the damage that Trump can do to the system by limiting him to one term.
It is therefore infinitely more important for a candidate to beat Trump than to be right. The question, then, really is about who is more electable. And while every candidate carries risk, we have to ask which is the greater gamble.
“Here’s the gamble,” Bernie says. The gamble is there are millions of working people who don’t vote or consider politics to be relevant to their lives. “And it is a gamble to see whether we can bring those people into the political process,” he says. Blanc, sketches the details of the mobilization gamble.
Retreating to a mythical political “center” won’t resolve this dilemma. There’s only one solution: building independent working-class organizations to spread political revolution to all corners of the United States. And a Sanders presidential nomination would provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make this possibility a reality by unleashing an unprecedented groundswell of volunteer energy and enthusiasm, a wave that’ll make the current upsurge pale in comparison, one deep enough to lift insurgent candidates to office all the way from the local school board to the White House.
Call it the Rapture for Radicals, the progressive version of the Singularity.
I’ll take Bernie’s word for it: It’s a hell of a bet to make given the stakes.
Another inconvenient truth Blanc overlooks is the lunacy of running a socialist candidate in this economic environment. Chait once more:
At this point there is hardly any serious evidence to believe that the best strategy to defeat Trump is to mobilize voters with a radical economic agenda. Public satisfaction with the economy is now at its highest point since the peak of the dot-com boom two decades ago. Trump has serious weaknesses on issues like health care, corruption, taxes, and the environment, and a majority of the public disapproves of Trump’s performance, but he does enjoy broad approval of his economic management. Therefore, his reelection strategy revolves around painting his opponents as radical and dangerous. You may not like me, he will argue, but my opponents are going to turn over the apple cart. A Sanders campaign seems almost designed to play directly into Trump’s message.
You may not like me, I can hear Joe Biden telling progressives, but my opponent is going to burn down the house. Americans have just spent three years trying to prevent a wholesale devolution in their polity. The smart money says that the last thing they want is a revolution. They—“the exhausted majority”—probably just want to stop and catch their breath.
Whatever happens, Sanders will leave a mark on American political history. He can be the Moses of a new progressive era, pointing the way to a promised land that will be built by AOC, Stacey Abrams, and Mayor Pete. But if he and his supporters believe him to be the Joshua who will lead them into it, or the David that will rule in that new dispensation, he may well be remembered as a very different figure: a progressive Pied Piper who led the Democratic party off a cliff and enabled the continuation of our country’s democratic dysfunction and constitutional collapse.