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Dismissing Sanders: Democratic Condescension and the Mythic Political Grown-up

02/06/2016 11:00 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2016
  • Jedediah Purdy Professor, Duke Law School; Author, 'A Tolerable Anarchy'
The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party is in the awkward position of asserting two incompatible claims. First, elite bankers deserve respect and deference -- and probably most of their income -- because they uniquely understand how to design transactions that turn money into more money. Second, when those same bankers paid Hillary Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars in "speaking fees" (plus the vast sums Wall Street donors have paid into the Clinton family's campaigns and other projects over the decades), they didn't expect anything special in return.

This is a deliberately simplified way of putting it. Of course candidates have to deny that they listen to Wall Street, and flatter voters into thinking ordinary people's opinions about high finance and economic fairness really matter. But of course most candidates also suppose that ordinary people don't understand banking, that bankers do, and that part of their job as governing elites is to listen to the bankers. Which, of course, the bankers appreciate, appreciation that they express in the language of the super-rich gift economy: "We're all responsible elites here; take some of my money." Bernie Sanders's bad manners and alleged demagoguery lie in his taking the part about flattering voters too seriously, and not recognizing the delicate hypocrisy of grown-up politics.

This revealing little dispute is a microcosm of the impatience that a certain kind of elite feels for the Sanders campaign. Consider the two major lines of dismissal against Sanders, and the way they come together in more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger condescension toward democracy.

If you want to dismiss the Sanders campaign, you can choose between two lines of attack. You can join Paul Krugman at the New York Times, asserting that governing is too hard for an idealistic democratic socialist: Sanders doesn't seem built for compromise, and his proposals lack detail. And governing, as opposed to campaigning, is all about compromise and detail. Endorsing Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, the Times editorial board marveled, "Mrs. Clinton has done her homework on pretty much any issue you care to name." Homework, you see. That's the ticket; not staying out after dark working up the ruffians and messing with other people's property. Grow up! is the bottom line here: as Krugman puts it in High Adult tones, "politics, like life, involves trade-offs."

If that seems a little dreary, you can take the line Alexandra Schwartz presses at the New Yorker. Developing themes that have been in the air for months, Schwartz offer a cultural take on Sanders's appeal to young voters (who are supporting him by margins of seventy points or more in early primaries and polling). It must be his air of "purity," and "nostalgia for an imaginary time of simpler, more straightforward politics." Looking back on her own Wordsworthian "very heaven" of imagining young Barack Obama "entirely pure," Schwartz urges Sanders's enthusiasts to find a "passage into political adulthood," where we give up our idle fantasies about candidates. And about time, since Bernie reminds her of "the nutty great-uncle at the Seder table," pungent with "hokiness" and rhetorical "staleness," and of the "false nostalgia for past purity, in fashion or food, for instance." Away with this iceberg lettuce salad of a candidacy, this sweaty vintage dress, this itchy, unkempt lumbersexual beard of a Democratic primary hopeful! Let's grow up, release our grip on childish things, and get back to business, which is to say, compromise.

Despite their very different tones and concerns, the two lines of dismissal come around to the same point: adults learn not to take campaigns, promises, or political hopes too seriously. They learn that the real work is tedious, often invisible to the public, and highly constrained. They do their homework. Whether the dismissal comes in an eye-roll or a Nobel prize-winner's rank-pulling, the lesson is the same: either political campaigns are festivals of feeling, mosh pits of emotional projection and crude fantasizing - about utopias of free stuff, unblemished leaders, or, more darkly, throwing bankers into jail - or they are a chance to choose responsible elites who will always do their homework.

All of this is one version of the lessons of the Obama era. Obama's post-partisan but unmistakably "progressive" speeches thrilled young voters and former idealists who thought they would never feel that way again. His campaign upended a Clinton game-plan that was supposed to be unstoppable as he promised ecstatic throngs, "We are the people we have been waiting for." Upon winning, Obama began displaying enormous deference to the designated adults of the early millennium: economists, bankers, and generals, as well as vicious political professionals like Rahm Emanuel (who was known for his contempt for the idealists who put Obama in office). "Look, I know these guys," President Obama said of the country's leading bankers early in his first term, "and they're very savvy businessmen." Associating himself with grown-up authority, he followed his party's hawks into a disastrous intervention in Libya and dilatory engagement with the Syrian disaster. And, within the limits of official adulthood, he has been a good president: he consistently presented a dignified and inclusive face, from Pete Seeger's presence at the first inauguration to the recent mosque visit, and he appointed many earnest, incorruptible officials who have been pressing forward compromised progress on climate change, criminal justice reform, labor standards, and nearly anything else the government touches. (I know these people; they're very decent and effective public servants.)

But although this is the recent story Schwartz and Krugman have in mind, there's something deeper in the dismissal of Sanders, a whole picture of politics that is the admission ticket to elite political adulthood. The Obama presidency is only a minor example. To understand this picture, it helps to go back to its intellectual origins.

In the first half of the twentieth century, influential intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann and Joseph Schumpeter pressed an argument that should sound familiar. Political judgment was a disaster. As Schumpeter put it in 1942, "the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the field of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective." Schumpeter went on to argue that all of this meant that democratic decisions - majoritarian votes - were terrible and dangerous things: shifting with emotional winds, subject to manipulation, and basically "unintelligent and irresponsible." Taking them seriously, he warned, "may prove fatal" to a country.

Schumpeter wrote as an Austrian émigré to the US, and these passages are easy to read as the tragic wisdom bequeathed by the twentieth century's totalitarian catastrophes. But that is mostly coincidence. Lippmann had made all the same arguments, somewhat less floridly, in the 1920s and with a mainly American scope of concern. The idea of democratic self-governance was mainly myth, he argued. The motors of politics were emotion and ignorant instinct, organized around symbolic catch-phrases - "socialism," or "the big banks" - which produced electoral majorities somewhat randomly or, worse, under manipulation. The actual business of governing involved much more concrete, constrained, and complicated decisions.

There were, basically, two entirely different domains of human judgment in politics: democratic contestation and practical governance. They did not touch. Even the rare citizen who was earnest and worked to be informed, Lippmann wrote, "is trying to steer the boat from the shore." But, tragically, democracies pretended that governing depended on democratic will - something that, considered dispassionately, did not exist. Influenced by logical positivists' efforts to root out meaningless terms from language, both Schumpeter and Lippmann argued that most of democratic politics was as meaningful as a theological debate about the nature of God, as stable and reliable as a dream recalled on an analyst's couch, and as rational as the conversational dynamics of a family holiday dinner. The grown-up task of governing was lashed to this flailing, preening, unmeaning mob that needed to believe it was in charge.

This is much too harsh for Krugman or Schwartz to say. I doubt they believe it, certainly not in as many words. But consider the way this picture divides the world. On the one hand, elections and political movements are psychological and symbolic: to understand them, you need the skills of the cultural critic or, just a bit more bleakly, the marketing savant. You need to see how the paradoxical resonance of a supposedly cranky old man from Vermont is tied to the fashion for uncomfortable clothes and unsubtle food, and have the detachment to know that we will all grow out of this fad soon. On the other hand, the real realm of expertise goes on, keeping things going like the investors who maintain university endowments while the undergraduates debate socialism. A sophisticated person understands the difference tacitly (like so much in refined understanding), though expressing it directly would be gauche. The public has to be flattered and cajoled, and one of the pleasures of criticism is remembering when one believed in flattery (like really really believing in the first music you loved, or your first romance) and seeing how that same illusion is achieved today. But adulthood means understanding that politics is emotional theater, while governing is like banking or negotiating a merger.

The Sanders campaign breaches both sides of this arrangement. It invites people to take politics very seriously indeed. It gives signs that it will not be domesticated as easily as Obama was. And it proposes to invade the realm of expertise with a new agenda: truly universal health care, truly affordable higher education, a serious assault on the political power of concentrated money. Above all, it proposes pressing this agenda forward because, if - mirabile dictu - Sanders won, the people would have chosen it. Breaching the line between majority will and real governance, Schumpeter and Lippmann argued, was like running together matter and anti-matter: the results would be destructive, perhaps fatal. It was a misunderstanding of the whole enterprise of politics.

It may sound strange to say we are haunted by the ghosts of old theorists, but Lippmann and Schumpeter were both expressing and helping to form a set of elite understandings that are part of the sensibility of anyone who has gone through fancy institutions, or absorbed some of their assumptions through middle-brow media. Consider that our leading public theorists about politics and public morality are psychologists who explain our disagreements as emotional and even physiological symptoms, such as George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt, while we take our political homework to Nobel economists to be checked. The residue of the basically anti-democratic worldview that infuses so much of our supposedly democratic politics is everywhere.

Both Schumpeter and Lippmann concluded that the most plausible role of elections was to provide a peaceful way for elites to circulate between government and their other posts (such as business, finance, and universities). It is no surprise that our current political, financial, and media elites are attached to a worldview that imparts great power and tragic responsibility to them, the only ones who can see the picture whole.

Misgivings about democracy are not groundless slurs. It's easy to point to evidence - people can't identify their senators, don't know what's in the Constitution, don't understand how government works, are choosing between Cruz and Trump. But it's also true that anti-democratic attitudes and condescension masked as respect tend to foster the very kind of polity they presuppose (and worry over): ignorant, resentful of manipulation, but delighted enough when it is flattered. In light of all this, it is remarkable that voters keep coming back to an earnest effort to link democratic mobilization with real changes in policy. Perhaps some of them have been underestimated, and they know it.

Hope was a quick high: That is political adulthood's story about the last eight years; but fortunately the Obama movement stopped partying once its partisans had a real job. And it's true that the last eight years have shown a great deal about the limits to what any one candidate can achieve, about the deep power of finance, the military, and the expert classes, and the intense mistrust of government in many parts of the electorate. Two possible lessons come from this. The standard elite story is that we go back to business as usual: incremental change plus playing defense. On this view, there is no middle ground between childish emotion and the condescending, basically anti-democratic disenchantment of what passes for political adulthood.

The movement-building alternative is that we need a motive in politics to keep us moving forward even in the face of elite disapproval, and even when there is no promise of quick success. In the tradition of social democracy, that alternative is not hope but solidarity. It is the motive that keeps working for concrete and basic changes out of common care for everyone they would benefit, even when the changes are not realistic yet. It is the motive to build power and ideas together so that democratic politics can give government its marching orders: fairness, security, and an even stronger democracy.

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