Over the last couple of months I’ve fallen now and then for the widespread idea that I’ll label the “Parallel Populist-Revolt Explanation.” It holds that this year’s campaign reveals that across both parties the American people are in a populist anti-establishment mood. As usually expressed the explanation involves a great deal of disgust and dismay at this development, regarding the “populism of 2016” as a disposition that childishly clings to Trump’s “yuge” personality in its one version, and to the pipe dream that is Sanders’s democratic socialism in its other. It’s an idea that can be conversationally convenient, since it allows stalwart liberals and conservatives who otherwise have all too much to disagree about to momentarily shake their heads together over those god-awful people who are still, after having made whatever legitimate point they had to make, Sanders or Trump supporters, and who are thus dragging the nation down into idiocratic ruin.
But a little Camille Paglia piece in support of Sanders has helped me see that this entire line of thinking is wrong.
The core error in equating Democratic voter support for Sanders and Republican voter support for Trump is the failure to see that while the latter is a hyperbolic overreaction against an insular and somewhat corrupt political establishment, the former is an overdue and in fact fairly muted reaction against an insular and (by American standards) seriously corrupt political establishment. That is the key difference, although, sure, it also matters that while the former reaction’s vehicle for change is the elevation of a truly dangerous and morally degrading demagogue, the latter’s vehicle is a cranky dogmatic version of the haplessly idealistic character in that old Frank Capra movie, the Jefferson Smith who “Goes to Washington.”
Trump attracts all the attention. And it’s true that his support is a scandal and a significant black-mark against the reputation of democratic government. Against that of conservatism also. But the attention to him has been obscuring the fact that the far bigger scandal is Clinton and the very nature of her candidacy and power. When I say scandalous I’m not even talking about her likely indictment for secrecy breaches, about her lies on Benghazi, about her connection to Slick Willie, or the old (but ever relevant!) Whitewater charges. I’m talking about the things like this:
Thanks to several years of the Democratic party establishment strong-arming younger candidates off the field for Hillary, the only agent for fundamental change remains Bernie Sanders.
That’s from Paglia’s recent piece “Fight the Soulless Juggernaut.” More:
Democrats face a stark choice this year. A vote for the scandal-plagued Hillary is a resounding ratification of business as usual–the corrupt marriage of big money and machine politics, practiced by the Clintons with the zest of Boss Tweed, the gluttonous czar of New York’s ruthless Tammany Hall in the 1870s.
Or as I’ve put it here, the Democrat establishment has allowed Clinton to become a Crassus for a cause, and in such a craven way that no one who counted dared over the last four years to step forward and insist upon the obvious observation that she’s a terrible candidate, that her only political skills are of those of the elite deal-making, favor-trading, slander-threatening, and money-grubbing kinds — when it comes to oratory or personal connection with voters, she is simply bereft of natural talent, and the stench of the corruption of her character over the years outweighs any expert coaching that might compensate for that lack of talent. She seems false, because she is false. All she really has is C-minus strategic and policy chops, and A-plus dogged determination.
Moreover, ordinary Dems are subjected an implicit pressure, and especially from the de facto Democratic operatives in the media, to pretend to have enthusiasm for her, when what they really feel is that the whole thing is morally corrupt and morally revolting. Sanders is a vehicle for making that shameful participial adjective into proud action verb.
That, if you follow Paglia’s argument, must be the fundamental basis, if it is at times a subconscious one, for the attraction to Sanders. Regardless of what his supporters tell themselves and tell the world, it is not the inherent appeal of democratic socialism in these truly scary economic times, nor a related obvious villainy of our big corporations, that has pushed most of them into the Sanders camp. It is idealism simply, and revulsion simply.
Perhaps the big majorities of Southern black voters who are set to hand Clinton big victories Tuesday like the one she just won in South Carolina are too practical to get caught up in this: They know she has better chances in the general than Sanders, and they know they can make her feel beholden to them. In a limited calculus of what you can expect from democratic politics, that thinking really is more adult. And of course Sanders has an inept campaign organization and has only belatedly begun to get his message through to blacks. What else would you expect from our leftist Jefferson Smith?
But it remains the case that what is really troubling for Democrats of any color who still want some soul and principle to their politics, is that the elite insistence upon Hillary is no isolated nor merely incidental-to-the-personalities-involved dynamic. It is all too characteristic of a party elite that seems beholden to questionable-at-best structural/moneyed interests and that is regularly fronted by utterly shameless scoundrels, such as Harry Reid, Bob Filner, Wendy Davis, Anthony Weiner, Al Sharpton, Sheldon Silver, too many in Chicago to name, and the sitting president about whom a prominent constitutional scholar has written a book of 200-plus pages, nearly every one of which goes into yet another instance of Lawlessness. And it gets no better behind the frontmen, when we go to the Democrat leaders who as class have highly unethical locks on the key positions in academia, media, entertainment, arts, and the federal bureaucracy, and who regularly give us episodes such as last year’s attempt by Robert Redford and Co. to revise and nearly reverse our understanding of Rathergate. The corruption, and of every sort, is everywhere you look.
When Paglia thinks upon such things, and it is notable that the tail end of her piece rails far more about the institutional corruption seen in our universities than that seen in our corporations, she even rouses herself up to quote the old Mario Savio lines about the “machine.”
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!
Screw the consequences, she’s saying. In this year of Trump, anything can happen. No one actually knows if Clinton can beat him, if he’s the candidate, or heck, beat anyone, given the public’s regular mood swings against her. So this is the best moment for taking it to the corrupt Democratic elites. If nothing else, it will damage the machine and cleanse one’s own soul.
How is she wrong?
All other things being equal, it would be childish and irresponsible to support Sanders. The numbers suggested by his policy proposals simply do not add up. They are not even in the ballpark! The man is bereft of the executive experience needed for a president, and has no notable experience with foreign policy. Were he to be elected president, we should certainly expect foreign adversaries such as Iran, China, Russia, and Islamist terror organizations to try to take advantage of his perceived weakness and cluelessness. And most of all, he is highly unlikely to become elected president if pitted against any Republican candidate, perhaps with the exception of Trump.
So those Democrats who have zero openness to conservative ideas and who think that all is justified in the attempt to keep the Republicans from gaining the White House, supporting Sanders is totally irresponsible.
But this is no ordinary year, and Paglia’s piece, let alone this one, isn’t written for those kinds of Democrats.
One possible consequence of Democrats going for Sanders is that he could win the presidency. The odds against that are pretty steep, but still, we must ask ourselves: What would a Sanders presidency be like? Paglia obviously knows with the Senate either near a tie or still held by the GOP, and with the House remaining GOP, that Sanders won’t be able to do all that much in terms of big domestic policy. In most areas, he will wind up doing pretty much what Obama already is. But Paglia feels that Sanders is “an honest and vanity-free man who has been faithful to his core progressive principles for his entire career.” Whatever Bernie Jefferson Smith Sanders does in the rough-and-tumble fights to cut deals with a GOP Congress to get some of his economic agenda through, or in the calculated continuations of Obama’s agency and executive-action to run around it, it will be basically decent.
Now I have less confidence that a man who honeymooned in the USSR is such a morally good egg. Having once been a college-aged democratic socialist myself smitten by Michael Harrington, but also having read Stanley Kurtz’s still-important account of Obama’s own democratic socialist past, Radical in Chief, I know that this ideology has a shiny idealistic side (Harrington’s prose at its most inspiring), but is always linked to and covers over a deeply hate-abetting and Lie-utilizing side (to take one example out of thousands, Obama’s actual practice with groups like Acorn and UNO).
But even from a conservative point of view, a Sanders presidency doesn’t look so bad, at least compared to the alternatives of Clinton or Trump. The man’s moral compass is wrongly oriented toward the red star, but at least he has one. Policy-wise, a Sanders presidency would be the same deal as with Clinton: Little of the grandly promised domestic agenda would be get through Congress, so it would be all about the deal-making and ways of going around Congress. Can any conservative tell me why we should want to rather be making deals with Clinton as opposed to with Sanders? I suppose some real RINO beltway types might prefer the former, but Clinton is far more likely to drive the hardest bargain possible, and the most-corrupt side-deals to boot.
Do I hear the “adults” of both parties saying, but foreign policy, foreign policy! Well, yes, if that is your number one concern, you should oppose Sanders by all means. He will likely be awful at it. Like Carter but worse.
But what the world needs in the longer term is a United States that has re-stabilized itself internally and re-established a pre-2004 level of bipartisan consensus-making on foreign policy. That cannot happen with Trump, and is highly unlikely to with Clinton. It could be more likely to happen after four miserable years of Sanders’s foreign policy failure are piled atop Obama’s eight. And the reality is, none of our enemies, despite the havoc and genocide they can reap upon their neighbors, yet pose a truly dangerous (Axis-powers level, or Soviet level) threat to us, or are likely to be able to do so anytime soon. Things are bad, but are a long ways yet from being 1930s-bad.
For Democrats determined to vote Democratic in 2016, the choice again is between the realistic prospect of a Clinton presidency, or the longer-odds prospect of Sanders one. Clinton would remain tangled up in several ongoing scandals, and given her high likelihood of following Obama’s pattern of unconstitutional executive actions — on illegal immigrant amnesty, she has promised to go further than Obama did — she would likely provoke serious threats of impeachment in the House, which the GOP might well go through with despite the impossibility of conviction in the Senate. The Republicans have been afraid to truly go after Obama’s unconstitutional actions because of his race, but they will have no such qualms with Clinton, and in the wake of the Trump boom will feel obligated to to prove they are not wimps. Obstructions, funding-freezes, shut-downs, investigations, impeachments — that is what a Clinton presidency would consist of.
And what would Democrats really get on the positive side from this Clinton presidency? Only a slighty more left-leaning domestic policy than what we’d get under a Republican president could be enacted by her, whatever she might promise. Contrary to what Paglia says, her foreign policy would be fairly similar to Obama’s, if not quite so weakness-telegraphing. So that’s it. There’s not even good odds for Supreme Court seat or two. Republican strategy with a president Clinton, especially one continuing the lawless patterns of Obama, might be to confirm no-one and just let death and retirements take their course in reducing the size of the Court; what is more, the same might be the Democratic strategy with a president Cruz, Rubio, or even Trump, if they manage to squeak a win in the Senate. So, actually, with respect to the Supreme Court, there may turn out to essentially no difference between a Sanders winning, a Clinton winning, or a Republican winning in 2016. Basically, unless Democrats also win the Senate, all they stand to get with Clinton is “defense of status quo” and “more partisan gridlock,” but with having to yet again tolerate and defend all the corruption Paglia is rightly outraged by.
So it is a truly adult gamble in such circumstances to try to nominate Sanders, for if you succeed, you either get a Republican presidency that won’t do decisive damage to the nation but that will finally prod the Democratic Party to undertake serious efforts at self-reform, or you get a fairly ineffective but sincere, soulful, and principled president. One that idealistic young people can embrace. And as a bonus, Sanders might have a better chance than Clinton of being able to beat Trump, if God forbid, that demagogue captures the Republican nomination. In such a contest, you might even be able to convince ethics-concerned conservatives like yours truly, who will never vote for Trump or for Clinton, to cast a vote for Sanders. Finally, how can you really look yourself in the mirror if you don’t try to nominate someone besides Clinton? Doesn’t your own soul’s integrity count for something in all this? Isn’t there a long-term cost if that is repeatedly ignored?
Now of the few Democrats who read this, I know it will seem absurd to many of them that they ought to listen to any advice offered from a conservative like me about the state of their own “political soul.” And if I say, “Well, take it from Paglia” the obvious response is “you are highlighting her rant because it benefits your side for Sanders to be the nominee.”
Well, yes. And more than that. I think the a) really adult position is to cease being a Democrat and to join the conservative side. That’s what I did back in 2001.
What is more relevant however, and what really distinguishes what I’m saying from what Paglia does, is that I honestly think that the b) next-most adult position, one I sketch for those doggedly determined to stick with the core Democratic Party creeds, is to vote Republican in 2016 precisely as a way to force a significant portion of the party to begin the ethical-cleansing and re-positioning reform that is so direly needed. Build for a better day, as I put it once, to enable a new wave of Reform Democrats:
By “Reform” Democrats I essentially mean a reprise of the New Democrat movement of the 90s, this time accompanied by larger emphasis on civility and support for the Constitution. The intellectual spirit of this reprise would involve a return to something akin to the open-mindedness that characterized The New Republic of the Peretz era at its best. The Reform would especially seek to strengthen Democratic expectations and procedures for disowning party members linked to various kinds of corruption or vile behavior. The reason this prospect is so important, despite how unlikely it appears at present, is that we cannot maintain our republic indefinitely so long as the Democratic Party retains its competitiveness along with its present characteristic corruption-abetting, mendacity-expecting, demonization-demanding, and Constitution-flouting traits. Out of a certain moral imperative, and out of a witness to the good traits of liberals I know, I continue to stubbornly disagree with several of our blogs’ commenters who say a Democratic return to self-moderation is impossible.
So there you have it. Whatever we make of the deep irresponsibility that has taken over the present Republican populist revolt, and whatever we fear or predict will come of it, it isn’t right to lump the Sanders supporters with the Trump ones. These two populist revolts are very different ones.
The Sanders folks have many flaws, sure. They typically convince themselves that it’s the corporations that they’re most upset about, and thus many of them are still mired in the common Democrat sin of willfully not seeing the growing corruption problems plaguing their party in particular. Even the best of ‘em only see what Paglia lets herself see, which is still too little. And their willful blindness about the history of socialism, even democratic socialism, is ugly indeed. In the aggregate, I’d guess they have less understanding than the Trump supporters about what is going on in America, so blinding are their various dogmatic stances.
But they aren’t, let us note, backing a man bereft of all shame. One who openly brags of his ability to cheat and smear.
Nor would their long-shot hope of a Sanders presidency, if achieved, maim their party’s unity for a good decade or so.
And by God, if they’re going to resist the implicit compromise that the Clinton juggernaut demands of their soulfulness and integrity, then we should cheer them on! The corruption over there is growing very rank — it is of a far more serious sort than what afflicts the GOP, a party that after all still hosts a real primary contest. If anything can happen in 2016, then why wouldn’t every thinking American want a rejection of the Clinton machine and all that it stands for by rank-and-file Democrats to at least be one of them?