“In the long run democracy will be judged, no less than other forms of government, by the quality of its leaders, a quality that will depend in turn on the quality of their vision. Where there is no vision, we are told, the people perish; but where there is sham vision, they perish even faster.” – Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership
Throughout the 2016 presidential race thus far, there have been interesting rhetorical parallels in the language of anti-establishment frontrunners such as Trump, Cruz, and Sanders. But the New Hampshire primaries made it evident that winners Trump and Sanders had, as the New York Times put it, “harnessed working-class fury to surge to commanding victories,” dealing “a remarkable rebuke to the political establishment, and [leaving] the race deeply unsettled.”
Throughout debates and across the campaign trail, Trump and Sanders have criticized the leaders or elites who currently “run the show”—be it economic or political—in Washington or on Wall Street. They employ “us versus them” language that pits voters against Washington insiders and their ilk. As Scott McConnell put it on Tuesday, “both campaigns are criticizing the same thing, in divergent but essentially parallel ways. I don’t think this has a precedent in American history, the leading candidates of both parties running essentially class-based campaigns against a financial elite.”
They have a good deal to criticize. Crony capitalism is rampant in our political system. Many working-class Americans on the right believe they are largely disrespected, ignored, or disdained by those elected to represent them. As Faith Whittlesey—former ambassador to Switzerland and head of public liaison for President Ronald Reagan—wrote in a Daily Caller story last week, “We have seen grave threats rise to religious liberty, the wild abuse of Constitutional guarantees and authority by activist judges and the Executive Branch. … The leading candidate of the Democratic party declares that Americans who belong to the Republican party are her “enemies,” while the president issues lawless amnesties for illegal aliens, and rewards leftist mayors of “sanctuary” cities who flout the very immigration laws which he once swore to uphold.”
Many similar sentiments are shared by those on the left: Bernie Sanders appeals to those who believe these “backroom elites” are governing Wall Street, that the big banks are taking advantage of the average American, and that the American dream is increasingly illusory for an entire generation of young people, who are graduating with mountains of student debt and struggling to find employment.
Trump, meanwhile, speaks of a ruling class that has betrayed the American dream and the American worker. He’s denounced “‘stupid’ leaders weakening America,” while railing against illegal immigrants and preying on the resentment felt by many who believe they’ve been unfairly granted amnesty. His audience in New Hampshire and beyond belong to a group that F.H. Buckley calls the “right wing Marxists”:
All that was solid has melted into air, and what begins to take its place is a right-wing Marxism scornful of Washington powerbrokers and repelled by the US’s immobile, class-ridden society. Voters across the spectrum demand radical change, and yet a bien rangé Republican elite seems content with minimal goals at a time of maximal crisis. The right-wing Marxist might hope for less conservative heart and more conservative spleen. … He has all the passion of a Bernie Sanders, but with this difference: the right-wing Marxist pursues socialist ends through capitalist means.
Interestingly, Irving Babbitt predicted many of these dynamics in his classic work, Democracy and Leadership. He warned that because of our turn away from traditional humanism, a victimhood mentality would prevail in our politics. This turn, he believed, was significantly influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who introduced a new philosophy of human nature into Western culture:
“The old dualism put the conflict between good and evil in the breast of the individual, with evil so predominant since the Fall that it behooves man to be humble; with Rousseau this conflict is transferred from the individual to society. … The guiding principle of his writings, he says, is to show that vice and error, strangers to man’s constitution, are introduced from without, that they are due in short to his institutions. … A small group at the top of the artificial hierarchy, kings and priests and capitalists, sit on the lid, as it were, keeping man’s native goodness from gushing forth torrentially. … the inevitable effect of the Rousseauistic evangel is to make the poor man proud, and at the same time to make him feel that he is the victim of a conspiracy.” [emphasis mine]
All these candidates, on left and right, present to their audiences a vision of America as a place of big versus little, elites versus working class, us versus them. Additionally, they all provide some vision of what a winning nation would look like: a place in which the little guy can succeed, the “American dream” might still be alive, might and power abroad might still prevail. While there are nuggets of truth to both their complaint and their vision, both sides have leant teeth to their cause by placing all current fault in our institutions, rather than calling their voters to responsibility, and by vesting the whole of their solution to the power of the executive—be he a wall-builder, or an advocate for free tuition.
This vision becomes appealing not only when we begin to separate as classes—into groups of urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, young vs. old, elites vs. working class. It also blossoms when community falls apart. A shining vision of American exceptionalism—and in Trump’s case, of a racism-tinged nationalism—is especially appealing when you don’t have a human-scale vision of flourishing to counter it with. Everything pools into nationalism, instead of into a sturdy localism. We have the individual and the state, without any mediating institutions or communities.
Once again, it isn’t that Americans have nothing to complain about. There are plenty of reasons for them to resent the establishment. But Rousseauistic dualism prompts us to pursue charismatic leaders such as Trump and Sanders, looking to them for a solution to our problems, rather than nurturing real accountability and change. We find ourselves promoting candidates who foment political hatred and anger: who draw people not because they have real solutions, but because they have the right rhetorical arguments.
It is obvious that Trump and Sanders are winning a lot of support because they say things in a “sincere” or “genuine” way. Babbitt believed this temptation was an outcome of Rousseau’s thought:
It seems to be assumed in certain quarters that almost any opinion is justified provided it be held with sufficient emotional vehemence. … Sincerity is indeed only one of a whole class of virtues that are often taken to be primary when they are in fact only virtues with reference to something more fundamental. Many of our ‘liberals’ conceive that it is in itself a virtue to be forward-looking, whereas it may be a vice, if what one is looking forward to should turn out to be pernicious or chimerical.
One can’t help but be reminded of the long argument that filled last Thursday’s democratic debate, in which Sanders and Clinton fought over which of them was more “progressive.”
Many also applaud Trump because he “is not afraid to say it like it is,” as if his frank (or more often, rude and insulting) manner is in itself a virtue. Though I agree with Ms. Whittlesey on many things, and applaud her inestimable contributions to both the U.S. pro-life movement and to our diplomatic relations abroad, I disagree with her when she supports Trump because “America needs another man in the no-nonsense Jacksonian mold; a Patton, a bold and adventurous fighter. We need a man who can, as Reagan did, electrify the room when he walks in, a man toward whom all heads turn.” She calls for “someone with charisma, quick wit, and determination”—someone who “effortlessly outshines the very able but lesser men who join him on any stage … a leader of superior mental agility who doesn’t apologize…”
But our politics have always been populated with charismatic, entertaining men: Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all been presidents in this vein. And their charisma, while appealing, did not necessarily make them better presidents. Nor did the bold, sweeping measures that many of them enacted necessarily help voters—at least not in the long term.
What we need instead is force of character, someone who is not afraid to do or say the unpopular thing—someone who is characterized by humility, prudence, and a moral imagination. Someone who sees inequality and injustice, and is willing to recognize that it affects all people: not just those within his or her special interest group. As Babbitt put it, “Where there is no vision, we are told, the people perish; but where there is sham vision, they perish even faster.” A lack of political correctness and willingness to “tell it like it is” does not necessarily translate into prudent policy.
We need a citizenry willing to turn away from bitter, angry rhetoric, and to instead embrace the possibility that real change must often start small; a citizenry willing to admit that sweeping solutions—whether they come in the form nationalism or socialism, Trump or Sanders—are unlikely to solve the problems that currently beset us. Instead, we must cultivate again an understanding of that “conflict between good and evil” that “behooves a man to be humble,” and that calls us all to rise above attitudes of victimhood, and urges us instead to embrace both prudence and charity.