Archive for February, 2020
The Theorist Class
Monty Python’s Life of Brian, seen as primarily a satire about religion, also mocks the British left. Brian joins a group called “Peoples Front of Judea (PFJ),” dedicated to overthrowing the Roman Empire. But their biggest enemies are other similar groups – splitters, as they call him – the Judean Peoples Front, etc. The PFJ mostly make speeches and condemn Roman rule. When they do act – as in one scene to kidnap Pontius Pilate’s wife – they end up fighting with another group with a similar plan, leading bored Roman soldiers to arrest all of them.
Simply: the divided left in the UK at that time were so concerned with speeches and visions, and fighting each other over ideological purity, that they failed in any practical effort to get something done. Even when they have a chance to save Brian from Crucifixion they choose not to, as his death will have symbolic value for the cause.
One problem the British left had was what I call the theorist class – left wing intellectuals whose analysis of society leads to a theory of exploitation and capitalist dominance which are structural characteristics of the system, defining politics across the political spectrum.
These theories are not inaccurate. They show institutional and structural racism, a capitalist economy that is so skewed towards protecting and enhancing the interests of the wealthy that it veers wildly from the free market paradise defenders of the market describe. Mundane politics – that is traditional elections, and contests between establishment parties – are impotent in bringing true structural change. What is needed is a kind of revolution, usually put forth as social movements that will persuade, organize and then advance a political cause that will question the foundations of the existing system and restructure them to combat oppression and exploitation.
A trendy way to talk about the structural advantages built into the system around race and economics is to discuss “privilege.” Those who talk about privilege are really referencing theories on social structure, which have been around for a long time.
Again, these theories are strong and well supported. Society is structured along lines of institutionalized and embedded racism, economic advantage, and structural barriers limiting much of the population. The structure rigs the game, if you will, and assures that political action from the establishment poses no serious threat to the system.
This logic leads the theorist class to another conclusion: it is pointless to give any support to the establishment left as a true alternative to the right. They may talk about the poor, they may condemn racism, but deep down their policies and actions reinforce the system. Worse, they create the illusion they want to bring about fundamental change when their policies are really designed to simply uphold existing injustices.
Social structures as such are difficult to change. Yet they do change. Politics can matter. The biggest error the theorist class makes is in how they assess practical politics through their theoretical lens. By defining the “establishment” as being wedded to the system, politicians on the establishment left are dismissed as “corporatist tools” too wedded to big money and power.
But social theory has limits. Social structures do exist, but humans also have agency. This is an old dilemma in the social sciences – what role does agency play vis-a-vis social structures? Structures constrain, privilege, and limit agents (people), but people can still act and transform social structures. Indeed, compare the US now to the past. Blacks were slaves, women couldn’t vote and were unwelcome in the work place. Over time those things were rejected, even as institutionalized racism and sexism remain strong in many facets. These changes are real – the fact an openly gay man can be a serious Presidential contender is a sign of very recent social change.
The problem I have with the theorist class is not that their theories are wrong – they are rather accurate. Rather, their belief that change is impossible without some kind of social upheaval or transformation is misguided. Change happens, it just happens slowly. Moreover, establishment Democrats are real humans with beliefs, values and often a strong desire to fight for social justice. Dismissing them all as corporate shills commits the error of labeling. When humans are labeled, it often leads to a caricatured definition of those defined by the label, hiding the complex reality of each individual. Dismissing all “establishment” folk with a label creates the illusion that they are incapable of trying to promote meaningful change.
So the theorist class dons a self-righteous attitude that only they understand the need for radical change, with establishment politics as the enemy. They are fighting the noble fight, understanding what should be obvious, but somehow gets ignored by the public. The job is to start a movement of people who see the need for change, and then upend the oppressive and discriminatory structures that created embedded injustice.
Yet that almost always fails. When actual revolutions occur, the results are usually disappointing. The fact is that social structures flow not just from those with power, but also how people think. That changes only slowly – but it does change. Rather than demanding radical upheaval, it’s possible to work within the system for little victories, trying to slowly transform society and chip away at injustices. That means joining the practical political battle without demonizing or dismissing those more willing to work within the system, or who are not bold enough in demanding radical change.
That’s not satisfying. When one has a sense of what ought to be, it’s very difficult accepting what “is,” if what “is” falls short of the ideal. But rejecting the possible to pursue the ideal can lead to a loss of both. Rather than gradual change, refusal to engage practically can lead to political results that simply enhance existing social structures. By dismissing the “establishment” with a label, the chance for little victories and small steps to a more just future is denied. In short, theory can enlighten and explain, but in and of itself it does not provide a guide for action. Politics remains the art of the possible.
Assessing the Top Five Democratic Candidates
Bernie Sanders: Sanders is an inspiring campaigner with a core program that is consistent and unwavering. His supporters call that “authentic,” while detractors call it “intransigent.” I think it’s a strength, so I’ll go with authentic. He also has drawn a core of intense supporters who have not only attended rallies and volunteered, but have given him money – he has raised more money than anyone else. That is a strong base upon which to build a campaign. But the Iowa primary also showed a weakness. The county by county results showed Sanders running up the vote in university towns and extremely progressive population centers, while Pete Buttigieg had steady popularity across the state. It is not clear that Sanders can draw in the moderates and independents enough to win. Moreover, while I think attacks on his “socialism” are usually misplaced, they may be extremely effective in the general election campaign. Finally, Sanders is old – he had a heart attack earlier in the campaign, the health questions will linger. In Iowa Sanders expected a clear win, but that didn’t happen. He must win in New Hampshire.
Joe Biden: Joe Biden has the resume one expects from a President. He has spent a life time in politics, supporting traditional Democratic positions. To supporters, he is the perfect antidote to the wild ride of Trumpism – established, honest, experienced, and safe. He will bring stability and a return to normalcy after four bizarre years. Yet is that what is needed to defeat Trump? Trump won because the country is in transition. In part it was a backlash of the old against the social change brought about by globalization and the youth, but it was also a response to real changes in the economic viability of the middle class. People want change. To get young people out to vote, to inspire people to support a candidate, Biden’s “safe” approach may be anachronistic. Iowa was a disaster for him, but he’s never done well campaigning for President. Like Sanders he’s an “old white male,” nearing 80. Is that what America needs in this new era? If he stumbles in New Hampshire Democrats might have to accept that “safe and predictable” is not the key to victory in 2020.
Pete Buttigieg: “Mayor Pete,” as he’s called by those who stumble over his last name, is young, charismatic, brilliant, and has a background that involves valiant military service and being mayor of South Bend – a city in the heart of conservative Indiana, yet also a relatively progressive college town. Of all the candidates, he seems the best to rival Sanders both in inspiring appeal, and the ability to raise funds. It is imaginable that he could have the energy and sense of newness that can inspire confidence and hope, thus bringing out those voters the Democrats need. On the other hand, being mayor in a conservative state means there are lots of uncomfortable facts about his tenure, especially related to race. He also has shown very little appeal to minorities, a voting bloc the Democrats need even more than young people. At 38, he may have the opposite problem of Biden and Sanders – he may be seen as too young and inexperienced. And he’s gay. That is not a disqualifying issue in 2020 – but it would have been as recently as 2008. There is real question as to whether the country has progressed enough to truly embrace a married, openly gay President. If he does not get the Presidential nod, he could make an excellent VP candidate.
Elizabeth Warren: Warren is a brilliant, principled woman who has been very effective in the Senate, and has both the resume and skills to be President. Her supporters consider her the “best of both worlds” compared to Biden and Sanders. She is a true progressive, as authentic as Bernie, but she doesn’t have the socialist rhetoric in her background and is seen as reflecting a Biden like “return to normalcy.” She’s also a woman, and it’s high time the US elect a woman President. However, it’s not clear she has what it takes to truly inspire. She’s safer than Sanders, but also less inspirational. Her “medicaid for all” plan roll out was a disaster — too complex to elicit intense support, but detailed enough to give opponents plenty of ammo to use against her. She is seen as too cerebral, too untested on the national stage. Iowa was “meh” for Warren. New Hampshire is important for her.
Amy Klobuchar: Younger than Warren, Sanders and Biden, but older and more experienced than Buttigieg, Klobuchar provides an intriguing possibility. She has shined on the debate stage, and in Iowa she finished fifth – but near Biden. She has been an effective legislator, balances progressive and moderate stances, and has earned respect from those across the aisle. Her supporters say that she can unify not only the Democratic party, but also the country after the divisive Trump years. In a crowded field she’s yet to truly break through. Unless she pulls off a surprise in New Hampshire by finishing in the top three (and that’s definitely possible), she should be strongly considered as a Vice Presidential candidate. Her debate performances show her to be witty and able to think on her feet. She’s a woman – and many (including myself) believe we need a woman on the ticket. Being from Minnesota, she could be effective in helping bring Iowa and Wisconsin away from the Trump fold. If I were a betting man, I’d bet that she’s likely to be the Vice Presidential rather than Presidential nominee.
A lot of Democrats are worried that this pool of candidates is weak. I do not share that assessment. I also strongly disagree with those who hurl negative attacks – the Sanders supporters who think any bad news is part of a vast DNC conspiracy, or the Biden supporters who think Sanders is a commie in disguise. These candidates are all espousing positive visions, let’s focus on those ideas. New Hampshire will not settle the race, but might give hints. If Sanders doesn’t win outright, he’s likely in trouble. Another low finish by Biden suggests he can’t inspire. Warren needs a good showing in her neighboring state. Buttigieg and Klobuchar could find their fortunes significantly improved by an exceptional showing in New Hampshire – but a dissatisfying one will push especially Klobuchar closer to the exit (or to a potential VP role).
If after Super Tuesday, which is March 3rd, it’s still unclear, then be ready for a bruising, intense run to the Democratic convention in Milwaukee. I think, though, after March 3rd we’ll have a pretty good sense of who the nominee will be.
UPDATE: The last seven polls out of New Hampshire show Sanders averaging about a 4 or 5 point lead. He leads in six of the seven (Buttigieg in one). This sets the expectations game up for Tuesday: Sanders must win, Buttigieg must finish second or higher. Anything else will be a disappointment for each.