Bernie & Solidarity
I mentioned over the weekend that I had a remarkable conversation with the Uber driver who took me to the wedding reception this past weekend in Dallas. His profile: 24 years old, African-American, college degree, drowning in student loan debt, living at home with his mom and working like mad to pay off the debt so he can start life. He is a Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer. I listened to him talk about why he’s for Sanders. All the usual woke language we hear from the Left never once came up. For him, it was entirely about a system that appears to him to have locked his generation out of what he said, “the things your generation took for granted that you would have, sir”: the possibility of a stable middle class life, including home ownership.
It was an Uber ride, not a political debate. I felt like I should not argue with this young man, but rather just listen. He was really impressive, and idealistic, in the best sense. He explained that he felt that if he wanted things to change for him and his generation, that he needed to get involved in politics. I realized, listening to him, that the things he says he wants are perfectly normal (I would have said that anyway), but I also realized that there is no reason at all for him to vote Republican. Certainly not vote Trump. And again, this is not for any reasons of woke social policy; this is about economics.
I realized that I am in a fairly stable place economically, and can afford to pay a lot of attention to my most important issues: religious liberty and abortion. I believe these issues would be supremely important even if I were poor and struggling. But I also have to concede that it would probably be hard to recognize those truths if I were in the economic position of this young man, and believed that the system was stacked against me. If you are an American politician, and you didn’t instantly sympathize with this young man — a man who was out on Saturday night not partying, but rather hustling to make money to pay off his loans — then something would be wrong with you. An American political party that is not instinctively on the side of a working man like that has real problems. Again: I am a conservative, and will vote conservative, but if you had held a gun to my head and told me to make a plausible argument for why he should vote Republican this fall, the best I could have done would have been to have created a scare-scenario involving a Sanders presidency. This guy would have just laughed. I don’t know if he shared my social-and-religious-conservative priors (as a Zoomer, I doubt it), but even if he did, he’s not thinking about religion and morality; he’s thinking about wanting to start a family, and not being able to because he can’t see a way to get his feet on solid economic ground.
The thing is, I don’t trust Bernie Sanders to change that system to make it more fair. I too am against free-market fundamentalism, in favor of economic policies that reflect more of an ethic of solidarity than oligarchy. That said, I have a great deal of skepticism about the radical left, which will come as a surprise to no one. Also, I worry that any vote for Bernie for the sake of economic change would undeniably bring in a lot of the woke social change. Bernie may care more about economics and health care policy than woke social policies, and appointing left-wing judges, but that only means he would outsource that stuff to ideologues within his administration, as Trump has done regarding judges to the Federalist Society. You may vote for Bernie to get a more humane and just economic system, but you’re going to get a rollback of religious liberty and abortion extremism in the bargain.
I also don’t think it is at all plausible to say, in 2020, that Trump has an answer to the structural problems in our economy. He has had three years to show what he’s made of. He had a great opportunity, but fumbled it, because in the end, he lacks the discipline to follow through. I will still likely vote for him, but only because voting Republican forestalls the left-wing extremism in power that I believe is inevitable. But I have no faith at all in Trump.
Having said all that, I recommend to you Ezra Klein’s piece about how Sanders is not running on socialist policies as much as he’s running on a socialist ethic. It’s an interesting and important distinction. Excerpts:
In 2015, I asked Sanders what being a socialist meant to him. “Democratic socialist,” he quickly corrected me. “What it means is that one takes a hard look at countries around the world who have successful records in fighting and implementing programs for the middle class and working families.”
When you do that, you automatically go to countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and other countries that have had labor governments or social democratic governments. And what you find is that in virtually all of those countries, health care is a right of all people and their systems are far more cost-effective than ours, college education is virtually free in all of those countries, people retire with better benefits, wages that people receive are often higher, distribution of wealth and income is much fairer, their public education systems are generally stronger than ours.
This is Sanders’s standard answer, and it’s a good one: it makes his political program legible, concrete. He doesn’t want to turn America into the Soviet Union, he wants to turn us into Denmark. But it still, I think, leaves something important out — something key to understanding Sanders’s philosophy and appeal.
In his book Why You Should Be A Socialist, Nathan Robinson makes a distinction between the socialist ethic, which he defines as “anger at capitalism over its systematic destructiveness and injustice,” and socialist economics, which “rearranges the way goods are produced and distributed.”
During a conversation on my podcast — which is worth listening to in full if you want to understand how the rising generation of young leftists understands their movement — Robinson expanded on that distinction.
“There’s the great Eugene Debs quote,” he said, “which is, ‘While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there’s a criminal element, I am of it. And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.’ And that’s not a description of worker ownership, right? That’s a description of looking at the world and feeling solidarity with people who are at the bottom with the underclass, with the imprisoned.”
Cutting the socialist ethic away from socialist economics is both frustrating and useful. It’s frustrating because it defines socialism in vague, expansive terms — a socialist, essentially, is someone who believes injustice is bad, equality is good, and solidarity is morally necessary. Lots of people who don’t define themselves as socialists believe those things to be true. But it’s useful in that it correctly describes Sanders’s ethic and appeal, and makes clear why he’s been able to build a coalition among people with no interest in a centrally planned economy.
I get that. If Bernie weren’t so far left on social issues, I would consider voting for him, for exactly this reason. There is no chance that I’m going to vote for the Democrat this fall, let’s be clear, but if Sanders weren’t so hostile to the traditional family, to the pro-life cause, and to non-liberal religion, I would probably vote for him, even though I in no way want socialist policies. (And we all know that Bernie would be the last one to get America involved in these stupid overseas wars.) I want to be on the side of that young Uber driver, who is only four years older than my oldest kid. This is why a lot of people voted for Trump in 2016 — they believed the system was rotten, and needed shaking up. He hasn’t done it. I believe that whoever takes the reins next of the Republican Party will be a politician who espouses this solidarity ethic (versus free-market fundamentalism), but who has the discipline to make good on his promises.
One more clip from Ezra Klein:
In 2016, Molly Ball, now a national political correspondent for Time magazine, made a sharp observation on why Trump was beating the rest of the Republican field. “All the other candidates say ‘Americans are angry, and I understand,’” she wrote. “Trump says, ‘I’m angry.’”
Sanders, too, is angry. And that sets him apart. Democrats who believe in, and in some cases built, the political and economic system balance a celebration of its successes — think of former Vice President Joe Biden repeating the Obama administration’s accomplishments during each and every debate — with an ongoing recognition of its failures. They recognize that Americans are angry about those failures, and these Democrats understand that anger.
Sanders helped build parts of that political and economic system, too, but he doesn’t celebrate its successes. He lives in fury over its failures. “The more you learn about what life is actually like for people at the top and bottom, the more grotesque everything seems,” Robinson writes, in what could serve as a simple, one-sentence summation of Sanders’s worldview.
Read the whole thing. It’s really important in helping one to understand what the Sanders phenomenon means, and why he’s going to be a formidable opponent of Trump’s this fall.
I’m interested to hear from conservative readers who are thinking about voting for Sanders, if he’s the Democratic nominee. What’s going through your mind? How are you thinking through this.
UPDATE: Some reasonable pushback in the comments on me for saying that I would probably vote for Bernie if not for his social leftism, and that I wouldn’t have been able to come up with a reason for this young man not to vote for Bernie. I overshot. I am not not not a socialist, and believe Bernie’s plans would bankrupt us. What I was trying, ineptly, to emphasize is that I’m really sick and tired of the Republican Party having nothing much to offer, and my eagerness to see serious disruption of the political system. It was the same reason why, in 2016, I had no faith in Trump, but was happy to see him overturn the GOP establishment. Still, I should have been tougher on Sanders’s economics.
UPDATE.2: Interesting comment from J.R. Miller:
I am a 24 year old like the Uber driver you wrote about (I don’t consider myself a Zoomer, I can remember 9/11 and dial-up. 1995-1996 doesn’t fit neatly into the Millennial- Gen-Z division)
I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my life. In fact, I donated to Donald Trump in 2016. In 2018 I voted straight-ticket Republican in one of three congressional district in the country that flipped from Democrat to Republican (MN-8, all of these seats were open). I go to a state college where guns are stored on campus for students to go hunting in the middle of one of the poorest, most rural counties in the state. I am about as conservative as anyone I’ve ever met under 40 that isn’t an evangelical Christian. I will be voting for Bernie Sanders and have donated over $100 to his campaign and I would crawl over broken glass to do it.
I am disgusted by the transformation within the GOP who have completely embraced the postmodern relativism and abandoned their principles for power. Mark my words, we have doomed this generation to Republican politics and all conservatives will be sorry when Trump exits the stage whether now or 2024. The most meaningful political debate in the late 20’s will be inside the Democratic party while the Republicans and conservatives maul each other ala post-war Vichy France or the political equivalent of the Donatism heresy.
If you’d have told me I’d do this remarkable turn in 2016 I’d have laughed in your face. is there really a case left to make when I contact my representatives and they lie to me repeatedly as if I’m an uniformed yokel and I watch the President of the United States shit all over the traditions and principles of this country for some free media coverage on a daily basis? Seriously what heritage and values are we even preserving here? Trump’s “animal cunning” (Victor Davis Hanson’s description, not mine) and the viciously self-interested politics and governance require mental gymnastics to defend. He doesn’t care about the unborn or religious liberty or 2A or freedom of expression. He cares about himself. His policies are relative to his poll numbers and he’s boxed himself in with his supporters views. Remember when he waved around the LGBT flag pandering for votes? He would’ve been the most pro-LGBT president ever if it he had evidence they’d vote for him.
Here’s the problem with where Republicans are at in regards to Bernie (and believe me, only Bernie). Trump is corrupt, Bernie is clean. Maybe praise of communism or honeymooning in the USSR would have been a dealbreaker 8 years ago but not anymore. Binders full of women was the last time a gaffe like that will be fatal- this is the era of access Hollywood. This is entirely about the checkbook and with Bernie they see a chance to finally balance the checkbook against a corrupt system. It’s not about wokeness for 50-60% of his die hard supporters.
I wouldn’t be too surprised if the woke shit is toned down in the general. This is going to be a campaign about economics. Trump can’t do anything except repeat empty platitudes about how bad socialism is, he isn’t capable of mounting a serious intellectual defense of capitalism and anyone who thinks he is delusional. Trump’s economy is a Trojan horse for the Republicans. They are going to align themselves with the wealthy “milliunahs and Billunahs” and praise their corporate tax cuts and it’s going to play right into Bernie’s hands about the rigged system and socialism for the rich and the greed of the pharmaceutical companies. If their is anything I’ve learned observing the past 5 years, it’s that nothing sells like economic grievance. People will overlook poisonous policies, labels, and personalities if it means a chance at a better life.