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Bernie and the Democrats

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eye on the news

Bernie and the Democrats

Sanders’s revolution may have stalled, but his platform lives on. March 28, 2020
Politics and law

After Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders was no longer the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Within four days of Sanders’s Nevada victory, the Democratic establishment roused itself in a move publicly initiated by South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, privately managed by still unknown hidden actors, and culminating in the decisions by Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to drop out. Then, even more remarkably, the Democratic primary electorates in most of 14 states did their part eagerly and obediently: voting, in sum, to put Joe Biden in the lead. In the primaries since that point, Biden has moved further ahead. So far, the Democrats have produced a feat of coordination rarely seen, requiring mutual understanding among the principal actors and the sacrifice, or lowering, of ambitious hopes by the dropouts from the campaign—all spurred by their ferocious dislike of President Donald Trump. The disdain is sharpened by the bitter pain for the “party of government” of writhing in the role of frustrated opposition for a joyless three years. Democrats rallied together just when everyone had said that party loyalty was killed by the primaries. Never Sanders—without the slogan—seems to have put Never Trump to shame.

Some Democrats wanted to deny Sanders the nomination because he would lose the election; others because he might win it. This desperate, combined fear of losing or spoiling an opportunity has brought stunning success for Biden, at least for the present. It is not difficult to see, nor partisan to say, that he is not a strong candidate, but if he can keep his calm, he may be the charm that defeats Trump. He is the lucky beneficiary of the united desire of most Democrats not to have Sanders as their candidate. African-American voters led the move on Biden’s behalf—a display of strategic prudence in a group that tends to vote together, usually regardless of what strategy might dictate.

Yet after Sanders’s rise and probable fall, the question remains of how he got so far and why his socialist policies have been so persuasive. He remains in the game, having come a very long way from irrelevance and isolation as a senator ignored by colleagues, the single representative of a fringe party, and a socialist in the land of “never socialism.” He is very American in his refusal to be discouraged, and should he win, his persistence would be another chapter in the very American story of success against the odds due to persistence. As it now stands, he will not be the Democratic nominee, but his policies will be the Democratic platform—diluted, no doubt, but not opposed.

How to explain this rise among the young and those wishing to be young? There’s nothing new about Sanders except his sudden prominence. After all, he has been around for a long time, saying the same things about greedy corporations, the selfish rich, and war-mongering policies that he calls out now. Though experienced and shrewd in debate, in declaiming, he lacks style, wit, geniality, and foresight. His gestures consist of waving and pointing; his tone is grim, heavy, and accusing—neither elevating nor ingratiating. He prefers anger to empathy, and his smiles are rare because, candidly, he finds nothing to smile at. Somehow, though, students like him as if he were a grouchy grandpa blessed by the fountain of truth. So, setting aside his personal character, let us look at the truth he presents to his followers and to the rest of the country.

Sanders stands by the truth that what we need is political revolution against the 1 percent and the establishment. He does not mention the well-off—the middle class, elsewhere called the bourgeoisie—who, as defenders of private property (rather than extreme wealth), are the usual enemies of socialism. It is hard to suppose that a country as large as the United States could be run democratically by the 1 percent without the connivance or enthusiastic support of a large fraction of the 99 percent. So, Sanders mostly aims his fire at the establishment that is defined more by stodgy self-interest than by extreme wealth. In fact, a good part of the establishment has been in the Democratic Party, and so unwelcoming to Sanders that he has kept out of it. The vagueness of the establishment contrasts with the exactness of the 1 percent, but at the same time, conjures up a network by which the 1 percent does its dirty work against the hapless 99 percent.

Sanders resembles Trump in his relentless attacks on the establishment. Trump challenged the Republican establishment, yet in his policies has been mostly a Republican—if with some rude adjustments in trade, alliances, and immigration that appeal to some, if not all, Republicans. These are not necessarily minor moves, but they are within the compass of innovation that any new Republican president might attempt. Trump has some accomplishments as well, though they always come lathered in the glaze of his self-praise. His particular criticisms of the Republican establishment come in the context of his more general violations of norms of civility and propriety that sustain both parties and set limits to their partisanship: this is the establishment implied and, in practice, taught by the Constitution. Whether Trump, with the formidable political skills he has shown, can weather more general disgust at these violations will be tested in the 2020 election.

Sanders will not face criticism for a challenge to manners, but he offers substantive policies much further than Trump’s from the thoughts of ordinary Democrats, represented so staunchly by African-American voters. Wedded in a lifelong marriage to these policies, Sanders is less of an egoist and opportunist than Trump, which saves him from shameless self-promotion but also allows him less room for maneuver. His attack on the Establishment is truly a revolution against the inequalities of private property and shows disregard, even denial, of the prosperity that they have produced. He is content with electioneering as opposed to violent coercion, and he avoids the language of Marxism as well as its claim to be science. He talks like the demagogues in the collegiate style of the late 1960s, though without violent language. He is not a Democrat, but having won so much support from Democrats in his domestic program, he shows where the party is—and where it might be. In foreign policy, what is perhaps the true, hidden Bernie is revealed in his consistent partiality to Marxist regimes.

Democrats, let me suggest, are, have been, and will be the party of inclusion, the party of all as understood by the majority—the people’s party. It is thus the party of the whole, of the community, emphasizing what is common to all. Since early in the twentieth century, Democrats have been in the grip of progressives not satisfied with the degree and extent of equality within and espoused by their party. With the help of (unequal) experts of many kinds in social science, progressives have sought to equalize every inequality that appears to stand in the way of true and lasting community. They have advanced their cause since the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, always on the attack, using legislation to enlist the government in their fight. The New Deal in the 1930s and the Great Society in the 1960s are the high points of progressive achievement. But in 2010, with the government takeover of supervision of the nation’s health in Obamacare, that advance reached a point—of what, exactly?

Not a point of success, from which to look back on with satisfaction. “The era of Big Government is over,” proclaimed Bill Clinton in 1996, a little early. Health care then remained on the agenda. But now, the era of sizable advance seems over, and all that remains are incremental gains to already-established programs like the ones Hillary Clinton proposed in her 2016 campaign. Of course, the debt, deficits, and bureaucracy from Big Government are not over. The debt and deficits have been further entrenched by the successful Republican strategy of tax cuts; these have not starved the welfare state as intended, but their success inhibits Democrats and has hindered them in advocating new taxes since Walter Mondale tried and failed in his 1984 presidential campaign. The bureaucracy of Big Government—“the deep state” or “the swamp”—remains a target for Trump. And a reasonable accommodation between the desire for equality and the necessity of inequalities—even inequalities necessary to produce the experts of Progressivism—is left unexamined and unsought.

Thus, the drama or melodrama of Big Government is over, and only the costly fact remains. It is in good part popular, just as Democrats hoped and Republicans feared—too popular in its benefits even to touch. But to pay for it and to live with its irritating inefficiencies are not so popular. Republicans cannot dismantle Big Government and Democrats cannot take much pride in it; so, the two parties share and exchange victories in what seems to both a stalemate, and in which each party thinks the other has the advantage. In this situation of common dissatisfaction, the Democrats might have abandoned progressivism, declaring victory, but now wary of wonks and professors with their plans and programs. They could have returned to being the popular party they used to be, the party of the people as they are, not as they might be if instructed by the wisdom of experts to think differently and abandon both their prejudices and their common sense.

But the Democrats have not done that. Instead, they have raised their bet on progressivism and tried to revive it from its doldrums by increasing its ambition and changing its character. Never mind the burden of debt and the sludge of bureaucracy that accompany the welfare state. Its failures are not as disappointing as its successes. Ambitious persons, progressives or not, do not rest content with security; they want excess. Their youthful desire is fed with the promise of modern idealism to seek what is impossible and to glory in its unattainable perfection: a society without inequalities of wealth, without sexual harassment, without foreign enemies, and without Republicans, who stand for all the obstacles to perfection. So, the Democrats narrowed their focus to the richest of the rich, the 1 percent—and they turned toward the foolhardy socialism of Bernie Sanders. In a time of peace and stable prosperity, lacking any excuse, they went left. They did this well before Trump appeared to goad them on.

Democrats have tried to stimulate their partisans by demanding higher taxes on the rich, the 1 percent. In this they are joined by those among the 1 percent who finance their party because they are actually very rich billionaire Democrats—a phenomenon of our time. This new fact suggests that the Democrats might actually treat the rich as the goose that laid golden eggs, prudently exploiting them, contrary to the foolish practice of the owner of the goose in Aesop’s fable, who greedily opened it up and killed it. With a bow to this ancient moral lesson, Democrats should keep billionaires fat and happy by preserving and increasing their wealth, taxing it moderately—as is done now—rather than taking it away. It is inconsistent to set a policy to exploit wealth and then take it away. Why not accept the rich as donors, as Sanders’s campaign rivals have done? One should be honoring them in gratitude, rather than insulting them as predators. One could construct a House of Lords for the 1 percent to keep them proud and content.

This is, of course, an argumentum ad absurdum, refuting by exaggerating to the absurd. But that is just what Sanders is doing to the welfare state of the progressives. He has set goals for free benefits as if he were mocking the seriousness of the welfare state, upping the penny ante of its comparatively modest benefits that are already unaffordable. Some supporters speak sententiously of the ills of “late capitalism,” which is really hugely successful capitalism that has enriched all—especially the rich. Does it make sense to bankrupt it and replace it with late socialism? Late socialism lives its imaginary life off the riches of late capitalism but gets its moral support by criticizing the motives of its financiers. These are the very motives that it wants to plant in the minds of the poor—to become effortlessly rich by living off others.

The exaggeration of the campaign to finance progressive big government out of the pockets of the 1 percent supplies a hint for understanding the sudden adoption of Sanders’s socialism by so many progressive partisans, plus the surge toward the left by Democrats unable to swallow the whole pill but wanting its effect. Something new is wanted to enliven the progressive cause. At its time of high tide, it lacks the excitement that it could raise at its inception and at its peaks. One possible solution has been to veer off economics into identity politics. But identity politics, like the welfare state, seems to be at a state of repletion. The movement to gain civil rights for black citizens—civil rights in America, hence colorblind—has degenerated into Black Lives Matter, based on color and no longer devotedly American. Then identity politics spread to women and to gays, and recently has come to the struggling transgender people. To validate these claims on behalf of the vulnerable, experts in expressive categorization arose, their jargon replacing the equations of the progressive economists that gave advice to the welfare state.

Identity politics addresses speech, especially pronouns, rather than wealth, and it rules through political correctness. Yet, as with the welfare state, the identity state has gone about as far as it can go, and it lacks the popular touch of an appeal to the poor. Sanders and his late socialism dance with it, but only for a turn. After all, the main policy of identity politics, affirmative action, suffers badly from the moral taint of bourgeois careerism. It is inconsistent to attack the establishment and to claim places in it at the same time.

Another rival for socialism is the politics of climate change, combined with it in the Green New Deal. Progressives welcome hostile climate change because it emphasizes vulnerability, rather than strength, and extends universally to the human race rather than being confined to one country, like Sanders’s socialism. Climate change requires scientists—another set of experts—to monitor its advance and especially to defend its existence and its menace. In this task, as with progressive economics, bad news is good and joyful work. At the same time, climate change is said to be humanly caused—that is, by technology—and thus in the larger sense a consequence of science. Climate change is truly a postmodern concern about science, and the scientists who describe it are warning us against science, like the climate-change deniers. Sanders raises the specter of a bad climate, as he uses identity politics, only as additions to his economic case for socialism. He mentions neither the drawbacks of science nor Marx’s praise of the exploitative marvels of capitalism.

In the same way, Sanders attacks America’s political system and yet asks for votes within it. Is not the establishment in that system mainly composed of those who have won elections in the past or have supported those winners? A more impartial view might suggest that the American system profits greatly from its supply of leaders in both parties with political experience, ready to argue in public and persuade in private. This supply, one could say, is our informal Senate outside the formal Senate, consisting of intelligent, and, to be sure, less-than-intelligent has-beens. These figures work with the media, another informal institution—an establishment against the establishment—cheering and damning with unending worry, whether partisan or not.

While in a reflective mood, one can look more deeply at Sanders and the Democrats. Anyone who thought socialism was gone for good, its reputation blackened by association with the murder of Communism and by the failures of its democratic variety in the welfare state, was wrong. Socialism has a permanent basis in our political nature, particularly in the nature of our liberalism—the generic liberalism of the great seventeenth-century philosophers Locke and Montesquieu—that proposes a society of individual rights and is held today in different versions by both liberals and conservatives. This liberal philosophy is always open to the criticism that individuals need to be made more equal so that they can form a true community. This is the path to the Left.

Yet there is also a permanent objection from the Right, that individuals must be treated differently according to their differing talents, virtues, and contributions. This is the path to the Right, to conservatism and, to the extremes beyond, to dictatorship. In our society, these two paths, though perhaps compatible in theory, will always lead in opposite directions, toward opposing communities of greater equality and greater nobility, each with its moderate and extreme versions. Our parties want progress, but toward different ends and with different means. To decide which is correct takes an exercise of prudence in the circumstances of the moment and with a view to what is lost as well as what is gained. Let us admit that Sanders has a point in the dissatisfaction he gives voice to but does not understand. He and his partisans need to get used to the continuing existence of the Right. On the right, there is or should be a resigned acceptance, under our common belief, of the unending challenge from its friends on the left. American self-government consists in continuing partisanship between parties understandably dissatisfied with it.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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