THE BLOG
02/03/2016 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Democratic Ideals Versus Realpolitik, a Populist Struggle for All Times

Andrew Burton via Getty Images

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A specter is haunting contemporary democracies, the specter of populism. Across the globe populist politicians are connecting with a populace that is increasingly convinced that the system is rigged and that the institutions the few control have little concern for the many. In America, faith in both political parties is at an all-time low and establishment candidates are struggling to connect with voters. People are fed up with the system and want change, which is why populist rhetoric is working so well.

Yet with candidates campaigning against the establishment, the establishment is striking back through the editorial desk. Nowhere is this more revealing than in the ongoing struggle over which Democratic candidate, Clinton or Sanders, is more in touch with the "reality" of politics or which candidate knows how "things really work." Jonathan Chait, Michael Cohen, John Avignone, Paul Krugman, Bryce Covert and Tom Friedman, as well as the editorial boards at The Washington Post and The New York Times, have all framed Clinton as the "realist" and criticized Sanders for being disconnected, idealistically naïve or not pragmatic enough.

That the establishment would fight back against an insurgent populist is no surprise. Indeed, many progressives are reading this as a good thing, a sign that their candidate is authentic. Crowds at Sanders' events continue to grow and Monday in Iowa, despite an unprecedented cold shoulder from the party leadership, he beat expectations.

All of this has the establishment realists vexed; but they shouldn't be. Sanders' populist narrative follows a well-established media script about the hero fighting the good fight against stacked odds, and American audiences tend to root for the underdog.

All you have to do is look at any Frank Capra movie to see the outline: earnest hero representing the little guy goes up against a foil standing for -- and with -- organizational power. This year, the choice that electoral audiences are being asked to make is a lot like the choice Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) was asked to make in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. If you want to know why voters aren't responding to the "realism" that the establishment is using to frame Clinton with, all you need to do is look at the movie.

In Capra's film, Jeff Smith is an idealist who believes in democracy of the people by the people and for the people. When he stands up to James Taylor, the boss who handpicks legislators and backs them with his political machine, he is confronted with the "reality" of power. First, they try to seduce him with ritzy dames and a lifetime guarantee of money and success. Then, his Taylor-made colleague, Senator Paine (Claude Rains) tries to reason with him, explaining how politics really work: it is impossible to fight the power of the establishment, so he should acquiesce to political "reality" and stop his quixotic fight.

"I know it's tough to run head-on into facts but, well as I said, this is a man's world Jeff, and you've got to check your ideals outside the door, like you do your rubbers. Thirty years ago I had your ideals. I was you. I had to make the same decision you were asked to make today. And I made it. I compromised - yes! . . . I've had to play ball. You can't count on people voting. Half the time they don't vote anyway. That's how states and empires have been built since time began. Don't you understand? (Pause) Well Jeff, you can take my word for it. That's how things are. "

Imagine if Jeff Smith had chosen Paine's realpolitik perspective and compromised his principles. For sure, the establishment would have rewarded him with wealth and power and a seat in the Senate. But had he given up his belief that government should be of the people by the people and for the people, he would have lost his audience. Why? Because audiences want to believe in the aspirational ideals of American democracy, they want to feel that they have power, not merely subject to power. That audiences still cheer for Jeff Smith when they see the film today tells us how deeply this faith runs, even if the establishment realists would call it naïve.

Believing in the ideals of democracy is not an easy choice. After Smith begins his epic filibuster, using procedural justice to fight organizational power, Taylor pulls out all the stops. "You leave public opinion to me," he tells Paine. "I've made it all my life." He has the papers he and his friends own "hit Smith hard." He buys up all the radio time -- "I don't care what it costs" -- and has the stations spread false claims and media frames. When this economic censorship keeps what Jeff says on the floor of the Senate from reaching the people, Capra leaves the audience wondering about the "reality" of freedom of the press in a country where money decides who gets to be heard.

Capra's is not naïve about the influence of money on politics, but he has a pragmatic faith in the goodness of everyday Americans who yearn for relief from it. Because Smith embodies "good common rightness," "knows the difference between human dignity and a punch in the nose" and believes in "looking out for the other guy," he keeps on fighting the good fight and people rally to his cause. And so, pragmatically speaking, should we.

Smith knows that democratic principles are more than just things that powerful people put on monuments so that "suckers like me will believe them." And Capra wants us to believe it too, because if we stop trying to achieve those ideals, even if they might seem like "lost causes," the establishment that seeks to monopolize political power in his time and ours wins. The Taylors of the world win if we acquiesce to a version of "reality" that negates the exceptionalism envisioned in our Constitution and American democracy becomes indistinguishable from how "empires have been built since time began." If we side with the realpolitik worldview, then the democratic process is reduced to a spectacle that invests people in a system while robbing them of their power, that manufactures the consent of the governed while leaving the powerful to pull the strings. Realpolitik is a tough pill for citizens to swallow, which is why, despite the establishment realists framing Sanders and his followers as "naïve idealists," the electoral audience keeps rooting for him as a populist hero.

That they do, despite the proponents of realpolitik "making public opinion" with all the organizational power they control, should give pragmatists -- those who believe that we should keep fighting to achieve the goal of a government of the people by the people and for the people -- a good deal of hope.