by Alex Knepper
That the center-left is hopelessly divided in the 2020 presidential primary — which has become something of my catchphrase for the unfolding shape of the contest — is not an accident. The center-left is tired, ideologically and intellectually exhausted, fully accommodated to Reaganism — and cannot prevent recurring outbreaks of fascism-lite a la Trump.
Liberalism since World War II has largely focused on substantively integrating a variety of demographics traditionally excluded from the liberal-democratic-capitalist system: black people, women, and LGBT+ people have, one after the other, been assimilated into the mainstream of civil society, politics and government, culture, and commerce. For quite some time, this work was fulfilled largely without acknowledging the legitimacy of any of the major claims of the two primary modern challengers to liberalism: socialism on the left, and nationalism on the right — milder forms of communism and fascism, respectively.
America is not really a ‘nation’ in the traditional sense of the term. Despite the genius of James Madison, who crafted a constitutional system devised to mitigate the effects of factional politics and deliberately slow the system to a halt when Americans refuse to cooperate, our system only seems to function moderately well. There is no God-figure who is going to intervene, no force imposed by History, when we refuse to cooperate with one another. The best way to get Americans to cooperate with one another seems to be to unite them against a common enemy — whether monarchy, fascism, communism — or for one side to simply dominate the other: the period after the Civil War, for instance, or politics under FDR and the New Deal in the 1930s, or Ronald Reagan and the revival of patriotic fervor in the 1980s. Without a common enemy uniting Americans, they are liable to collapse into internecine warfare — against one another.
The dazzling victory of World War II allowed liberalism to believe for a time that the twin threats of socialism and nationalism were defeated, or at least indefinitely suppressed. In the interim, liberalism has become more like itself; its underlying theories have been more fully actualized, extended to more and more people.
There are few groups left for whom the basic work of integration still needs to be performed. Although — we good liberals will never tire of repeating this trope — there is ‘still more work to do’, the social position of women, racial minorities, and LGBT+ people has been radically elevated in recent decades.
Liberalism is simply an exhausted ideology. Political theorists have known it for about a century now. But how has an exhausted ideology attained such global dominance? Because it became the default: the egregious excesses of Hitler and Stalin temporarily razed the theoretical ground out of which their respective ideologies grew, or at least frightened off American voters from trusting anyone promising to produce great fruit from those grounds. Liberalism by comparison seemed like a safe, middle way, especially since it was constantly making economic concessions to labor out of fear of communism from the 1930s through the 1960s and built a strong middle class — one whose edges are finally fraying and starting to break.
America has yet to really have a post-war reckoning with the legitimacy of many of the basic claims and critiques of socialism. It has yet to integrate awareness of the underlying realities of experience to which socialist critiques direct our attention. This is not so of nationalism, which has had its say: President Ronald Reagan decisively inscribed a civic nationalism into Americans’ hearts. Reaganism — reviving the idea that America is a special country with a special destiny, reaffirming the idea that the individual is the fundamental unit of civil society, and enshrining the idea that our rights are more important than our duties — was overwhelmingly embraced by the American people, and by the 1990s President Bill Clinton felt compelled to say that “the era of big government is over.”
Lyndon Johnson arguably tried to create an equivalent socialist-capitalist synthesis, rejecting both the extremes of 1960s leftist radicals as well as Goldwater-style reactionaries — but his presidency was derailed by the Vietnam War, and his demoralizing failures inadvertently set the stage for what could be considered the premature rise of the new right under Reagan. So for 40 years, we have been living with a zombie liberalism animated by the spirit of a revived civic nationalism, divorced from any sense of duty or the common good.
These items — the common good, duty — are — or are supposed to be — the theoretical wheelhouse of America’s left-liberals. Much of what makes America ‘exceptional’ can be understood through the lens of the reality that America just missed the boat on the emergence of historical consciousness, represented by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western Europe; hence the considerable differences between left and right in Western Europe versus left and right in the United States. America is permanently divorced from a full awareness of historical context owing to the fundamental Lockeanism sketched in its founding documents: the idea that the individual is the fundamental unit of political society and that government is instituted to preserve natural prerogatives or rights (especially insofar as they concern property), rather than the notion that the individual derives his individuality-as-such from the common stock of historical inheritance. This attempt to transcend or escape history is why Americans have been hesitant to embrace nationalism and socialism raw: the need for such tools has simply not been very apparent to most Americans.
But Americans cannot forever escape the underlying reality of experience that gives rise to nationalist and socialist impulses. Ronald Reagan was a destructive president in a large number of ways, but insofar as both left-liberals and right-liberals must have their say in our political system in the big-picture over the long-run if there is to be order, Reagan led us to as humane a nationalist impulse as can be imagined. Reagan locked down the actualization of the claims of nationalism in a uniquely American way, fitting its impulses to the historical context — or lack thereof — of Lockean liberalism.
But it cannot stand within liberalism on its own. We have run so far in the direction of suspicion toward government and exaltation of individual right and private property that our republic is threatening to collapse into a morass of collective selfishness, whereby everyone is constantly trying to benefit at everyone else’s expense, the idea of the common good has become unintelligible, and ‘duty’ is nothing but a word. We no longer believe we are ‘our brother’s keepers.’ This has always been a problematic tendency within liberalism, of course: but we are reaching a time when it has come to a head.
According to the Federal Reserve, nearly 90% of the wealth in this country is owned by the top 20% of moneymakers. The bottom 80% of the country is fighting over just 10% of the wealth in this country, and the bottom half of the country has a net negative net worth. Wages for the bottom half of the economy in terms of real purchasing power have been flat for decades, while the real cost of housing, healthcare, child care, and education has continued to skyrocket. The cost of consumer goods has plummeted, allowing more and more Americans to own big-screen TVs, ovens, dishwashers, and computers, but the door is closing to more and more Americans looking to really reach a middle-class quality of life, which can be attained only when access to those essentials is locked down. The financial crisis of 2008 revealed outright criminal fraud to be endemic to our financial sector; predatory and sadistic scams against workers have been normalized; household debt, student debt, credit card debt, and corporate debt are nearing record levels despite the financial crisis being in hindsight. The rise of forced arbitration clauses, non-compete agreements for burger-flippers, and the restructuring of secure jobs into ‘gig economy’ contract jobs reveal the extent of corporate indifference to the fate of everyday laborers. Unions have been severely undermined, the minimum wage is stagnant. As many people are killing themselves trying to get high in this country every year as died in the Vietnam War. Americans are as stressed out, lonely, anxious, and depressed as Sri Lankans and Iranians — although we narrowly beat out Tanzanians. The books are thoroughly cooked on unemployment and growth. After 1980, the notion of the ‘job creator’ — the theory that radically autonomous entrepreneurs, and not cooperation between government and business, is the engine responsible for American economic dynamism — made its way into economic discourse, coupled with the idea that anything government does is ‘intervention’ or ‘interference’ into what otherwise would be autonomous behavior.
A liberalism with a fervent, even manic Lockean civic nationalism yet no sense of duty or the common good — a liberalism devoted to nothing but collective selfishness whereby each individual tries to benefit as much as one can at the expense of everyone else — is simply not sustainable.
Bernie Sanders is the only viable candidate in the race who is trying to get us beyond Reaganism and toward a humane synthesis of capitalism and socialism, just as Reagan gave us a humane synthesis of nationalism and liberal universalism. It is only when Americans bite the bullet and accept some variant of what people like Bernie Sanders are pushing that they will be able to move past the zombie civic-nationalist liberalism in which we live.
The center-left is hopelessly divided because it has no clear rationale for continuing as-is. The center-left has dominated the Democratic Party since the days of George McGovern’s wipeout against Richard Nixon in 1972 — and its track record is extremely questionable. It has been unable to prevent the most egregious excesses of the economic right, and by surrendering out of the gate to what is assumed to be inevitable and implacable opposition to ‘government intervention in the economy’ it has allowed the right-wing to own the center of gravity of economic discourse.
People like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, all fundamentally accept the basic claims of Reaganism and therefore are capable only of opposing its excesses on ‘pragmatic’ grounds. But this can only retard and not stop Reaganism’s motion. When Buttigieg portrays insurance companies as guardians of free choice, when Obama appeases deficit-hawks in the elusive quest for bipartisan legitimacy, when Hillary Clinton opposes raising the capital gains tax, when Joe Biden says that Medicare for All is going to cost fifty katrillion-bajillion dollars, when Beto O’Rourke says that a wealth tax ‘punishes the rich‘, when Amy Klobuchar says that she celebrates billionaires if they’ve worked hard and earned it — all are speaking the vernacular of Reaganism.
Two candidates in 2020 offered a way out of this corner: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. I supported Elizabeth Warren because she does not just have a compelling vision but knows the language of finance and business. As one of the nation’s top bankruptcy experts and a personal finance guru, Warren can take on CEOs on their own turf; she can cuttingly take down a bank CEO or explain in great detail why and how today’s credit card companies are hawking all sorts of scams, she fought Joe Biden to his face in 2005 over the bill he championed making it impossible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. We will never have to worry that Elizabeth Warren will confuse profit and revenue, for instance.
But Warren tried to be too many things to too many people; with Bernie outflanking her on her left, she had to try to attract Democrats primarily looking for a ‘wonk’ — but you can’t be a numbers-obsessed wonk and a big-picture visionary at the same time. If you’re going to run on Medicare for All, you’ve got to run on the fundamentals, not on the numbers. Bernie is right that nobody knows what Medicare for All would actually cost when it is implemented. Warren’s attempt to one-up Bernie by providing numbers on how to pay for the program was too clever by half: it spooked her progressive supporters by making her appear too willing to take the bait from reporters and critics, and spooked those who supported her because she portrayed herself as the woman with all the plans were not impressed with her questionable numbers. She tried to be too many things to too many people. If Bernie were not in the race, she probably would have run away with the nomination. But he is, so she didn’t.
Bernie might not be able to win against Trump. But he might be able to. All of the leading candidates may or may not be able to beat Trump. Bernie’s unique strength against Trump is his authenticity — the perception that he has a great deal of integrity and therefore cannot so easily be painted as a corrupt career politician. His primary weakness is not his ‘socialism’ but rather the fact that it’s possible for Republicans to portray him as just another woke SJW, paling around with Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, trying to get gang members in prisons to vote, promoting transgender athletes in women’s sports, and so on. Every second Bernie is diverted from talking about his economic message is a second he will be losing. Oh yes: he certainly could lose.
But it’s not as if we didn’t already have this argument in 2016. We already tried running a highly qualified, brainy center-left candidate. Like John Kerry and Al Gore, she lost narrowly to a strikingly ignorant Republican opponent. How many accomplished wonks have to lose to halfwits before Democrats try something different? I was a Hillary Clinton booster and Bernie detractor in 2016, insistent that Hillary was all but certain to win and that nominating Sanders would not only be irresponsible in itself but an enormous gamble politically. We tried things that way last time, and they didn’t work out. It’s time to try something else. If Bernie loses, he might drag down moderate Democrats running in slightly-red Congressional districts — but the Democrats lost a net of about 70 seats under Barack Obama’s presidency, over a relatively mild healthcare bill, and the Democrats lost seats when Hillary Clinton led the ticket. It is impossible to overstate how comprehensively the center-left closed ranks around Clinton in 2016, and how early. Why should we listen to the same people again, advising us to try the same tactics over and over again?
The Democrats might meet a similar fate under Sanders, it’s true — but if we’re going to end up losing a lot of seats in Congress and get tagged as radical socialists no matter what we do, why not go with someone with a vision we really believe in instead of surrendering out of the gate under the assumption that the Republicans are going to shoot down any vigorous piece of legislation anyway? Obamacare was lifted from a Heritage Foundation plan implemented originally by then-Gov. Mitt Romney and the Republicans still called it socialist even as they made Romney their 2012 nominee against Obama. Every criticism by the center-left directed at Bernie applies equally to the center-left. The criticisms are not necessarily false. But the implication that the center-left is not implicated in such criticisms too is delusional.
What Bernie Sanders can accomplish regardless of what legislation he is able to sign into law when he is president is to change the conversation away from the axioms and assumptions of Reaganism. Through Sanders, we can coherently and meaningfully talk about our sense of duty and responsibility to one another and not just to ourselves; we can meaningfully talk about how and why government is a necessary and valuable partner in the quest for equity, fairness, and individual choice — and we can talk about ‘individual choice’ in the first place as being about having substantive alternatives in life, rather than merely in terms of where one’s tax money ends up within the context of offers we can’t refuse.
In other words: Bernie Sanders has the potential to be the left’s Ronald Reagan. In 1964, in his famous speech nominating Barry Goldwater in his doomed quest for the presidency against President Lyndon Johnson, Reagan declared that we were at a civic crossroads, a ‘time for choosing.’ We face today a new ‘time for choosing’ — a choice for an equal and opposite reaction to Reaganism that finally accommodates the legitimate critiques of socialism into American liberalism.
The United States can’t kick this can down the road forever, unless it wants to decline more and more into becoming a profoundly unequal society of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, in which the middle class is a perpetually-indebted, hollowed-out shell of bureaucrats and tech support functioning merely as middlemen shifting capital upward. It’s President Bernie Sanders now, or President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 12 years. If we are really opponents of class warfare, and if we are really serious about blunting the radicalization of America’s major political parties, then it’s time to end the 40-year class war by the rich against the poor unless we want matters to simply grow worse and worse.