Extraordinary Democratic Delusions


Just when I was starting to think that The New York Review of Books was not irredeemably idiotic on political issues, they publish an article that is so conspicuously incoherent and outrageously out of touch with the political climate in the U.S. that it’s destined to be anthologized in perpetuity in collections with “Clueless” in the title. The article, “The Party Cannot Hold,” by Michael Tomasky is about the current state of the Democratic party.

The current divide in the Democratic party, writes Tomasky,

is about capitalism—whether it can be reformed and remade to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew, but without the sexism and racism of the postwar period, as liberals hope; or whether corporate power is now so great that we are simply beyond that, as the younger socialists would argue, and more radical surgery is called for.

Hmm, he’s right, of course, that there is a faction of the Democratic party that wants to reform capitalism, to remake it to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew. The thing is, that faction is the “younger” one. The older, “liberal,” Democrats have concentrated almost all their efforts on getting rid of sexism and racism, laudable goals to be sure, but oddly disconnected in the “liberal” imagination from economic issues.

Tomasky is also correct, of course, that a growing number of people in this country think capitalism in any form is simply morally bankrupt and that we need a new socioeconomic system entirely. Few of these people, however, are registered Democrats. Most of them aren’t even Social Democrats since the overthrow of capitalism hasn’t been a part of the Social Democratic platform since the middle of the last century. Indeed, Wikipedia defines “Social democracy” as “a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented economy” (emphasis added).

Tomasky either didn’t do his homework or he is being deliberately disingenuous. His view that Social Democrats are planning the overthrow of capitalism is at variance with how Social Democratic parties actually function in the many capitalists countries of Europe where they are an important political force.

Tomasky points out that Sanders, even if he were elected, would be unable to implement many of the programs that are part of his platform, that the best he’d get in terms of healthcare, for example, would be “a Bidenesque public option,” meaning, I presume, an option such as Biden is advocating for now, because as Americans know too well, politicians almost never deliver on campaign promises. The electorate is nearly always forced to accept some watered-down version of what they’ve been promised, if indeed, they get any version of it at all.

That’s likely part of the reason so many people support Sanders. Few Sanders supporters are so politically naïve that they think once he was in office we’d have universal healthcare. They assume they’d get something less than that. They also assume, however, and history suggests, correctly, that if Biden were elected, they’d get something less than he’s promising as well, which means they’d get…— nothing at all! It’s either idiotic or, once again, disingenuous of Tomasky to suggest that there’s essentially no difference between Sanders’ and Biden’s healthcare plans. Even a child will tell you that something is clearly better than nothing.

Tomasky assumes that only if someone other than Sanders gets the nomination would the left “try to increase its leverage by, for example, running left-wing candidates against a large number of mainstream Democratic House incumbents.” I kid you not, he actually says that. That’s what happens when you don’t pay sufficient attention to what is going on around you. Or perhaps Tomasky is simply being disingenuous yet again and hoping that the average reader of The New York Review of Books hasn’t been following the Sanders campaign and the calls of both Sanders and his supporters for bringing about sweeping political change by running left-wing candidates against a large number of mainstream Democratic House incumbents.

“If Sanders wins the nomination,” writes Tomasky, “it becomes absolutely incumbent upon Democratic establishment figures to get behind him, because a second Trump term is unthinkable. But the reality,” he continues, “is that a number of them won’t.”

Hmm… Why is it that a number of “Democratic establishment figures” would rather have a second term of Trump than even one term of Sanders? That’s not my charge, I feel compelled to remind readers here: It’s Tomasky’s!

Michael Tomasky, editor-in-chief of Democracy, a special correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and a contributing editor for The American Prospect, came right out and admitted that the “Democratic establishment” despite it protestations to the contrary, would rather have a second term of Trump than even one term of a genuine populist such as Sanders!

Why is that? Well, because as Tomasky observes himself earlier in the article, “Democrats have, since the 1990s, gotten themselves far too indebted to certain donor groups, notably Wall Street and the tech industry.” Yes, this is the same Tomasky who began the article in question by characterizing the very same Democrats, whom he believes are in the pocket of Wall Street and the tech industry, as wanting to reform capitalism, to remake it to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew.

And people speculated that Biden might be suffering from some kind of dementia!

That’s not the only dotty thing Tomasky says in the article. “In a parliamentary system,” he says, “Biden would be in the main center-left party.” Okay, yeah, maybe, if we suddenly had a parliamentary system in the U.S. In any other country that presently has a parliamentary system Biden would be in the center-right party, if not actually the far-right party.

The view that Sanders supporters are mostly young socialists is delusional. The very same issue of The New York Review of Books includes an excellent article about our current health-care crisis entitled “Left Behind” by Helen Epstein. Epstein explains that substantial numbers of the working poor support Sanders and that “117,000 Pennsylvanians who voted for Sanders in the [2016] primary cast their general election ballots for Trump.” It seems unlikely that all of those 117,000 Pennsylvanians were young socialists.

Tomasky’s world doesn’t even cohere with the world as represented by other contributors to the publication in which his article appears, let alone to the real, concrete world. It exists only in his fevered imagination and the similarly fevered imaginations of other Democrats who delude themselves that they are “centrists” rather than right-wing neoliberals. There are bits and pieces of the truth in Tomasky’s vision of the disunity in the Democratic party but he puts those bits together like a child forcing pieces of a puzzle where they don’t belong.

What Tomasky fails to appreciate is just how mad, in the sense of angry, the average American voter is. Epstein writes that “[i]f you include those who have left the workforce altogether, the U.S. employment rate is almost as high as it was in 1931.” She cites Anne Case and Angus Deaton as observing in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism that “[t]he amount American spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on our economy… than the Versailles Treaty reparations did on Germans in the 1920s.”

Oh yeah, people are angry. Few people are blaming capitalism as such, but nearly everyone who’s suffering economically appears to be blaming the political establishment, and blaming the Democrats just as much as the Republicans. This is clear from the people interviewed in the 2019 documentary The Corporate Coup d’Etat. These are people who voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary, but who then voted for Trump in the general election. They’re not socialists. They’re just angry. Really angry, and they’re angry at both sides of the political establishment.

Tomasky is worried about the Democratic party breaking apart. Ironically, a Sanders nomination, was probably the last chance the party had to prevent a split.  Biden is simply too much a part of the political establishment to capture the votes of the increasing numbers of people who are unhappy with that establishment.

Tomasky’s whole article appears an ill-conceived attempt to frighten genuine progressives back into the Democratic-party fold. He acknowledges that the party is too beholden to Wall Street and the tech industry, that it has gotten so far away from its populist roots that much of its establishment would rather see Trump back in office than a genuine populist. Yet he concludes the article with the observation that “our [political] system militates against a schism” in the party. No third party, he thinks, could be a significant political force.

Oh yeah? Think again, Tomasky.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the March 12, 2020 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch under the title “Extraordinary Democratic Delusions and the Madness of the Crowd.”)

Determinacy and the Self

That we create ourselves over time as the result of the decisions we make is a widely accepted perception of what has come to be understood as selfhood. We become increasingly concrete over time as we age. A natural inference from this is that there is more to the selves of adults than there is to the selves of children.

And yet, there is a sense in which this increasing concretion represents a diminution of the self. Possibilities fall away like bits of marble giving way to the sculptor’s chisel. In an important sense, we become smaller as we take on a determinate shape.

That’s part of the reason, I believe, that nearly everyone is nostalgic for childhood, independently of whether their childhood was particularly happy. The self of the child is an enormous, almost limitless collection of possibilities, a vast expanse of possibilities in which the imagination of the child luxuriates in a way that the imagination of the adult cannot. Adults fantasize, of course, about becoming rich or famous, or about career changes, about becoming an artist, or musician, or dancer, but these possibilities, if they are genuine, are heavy with the weight of improbability that does not weigh down the imaginings of the child.

There is something godlike in the vastness of the self of the child. We become human, all too human as our selves take shape over time.

The Myth of Sanders’ “Socialism”

IMG_3559Fox News has an all-out frontal assault on Bernie Sanders’ purported “socialism.” It’s a sad statement on the level of ignorance in this country that anyone could take seriously the claim that Sanders is a socialist. What Sanders is advocating is something approaching the social-welfare systems of other economically developed countries and that’s a far cry from the socialism Fox News is using as a boogeyman to frighten conservatives. The “socialism” Fox is decrying is the old-fashioned Stalinist-Maoist kind where all important industries are nationalized, most of the private property of the wealthy is seized by the state, and there are no such things as individual rights and freedoms because the very idea of “individuals” is considered capitalist propaganda.

That kind of socialism is not pretty. I traveled through East Germany before the wall came down and I was horrified by the poverty and misery. I was raised in a liberal household, so I was unprepared for how obviously unhappy most of the people I met there clearly were. You didn’t even have to meet people to learn they were unhappy. You could see it on the faces of people in the street. I was traveling with a group of students who were all on a semester abroad program. Our home base had been West Berlin, but we took an excursion through East Berlin, and then several other cities in East Germany before settling in Vienna for the second half of the semester. We’d been forced to exchange 25 West German marks for 25 East German marks for every day we were going to be in East Germany. We were ecstatic, at first, to learn how cheap everything was in East Germany. We could buy much more with our money there than we had been able to in West Germany.

We learned very quickly, however, that there wasn’t really much to buy. There were few luxury goods and those few were shoddy and of inferior quality. There were books, of course, some books anyway, but they were printed on poor-quality paper and were poorly bound. The clothes were poorly made and decades out of date. The food was bad. Even the beer was bad. I don’t think I have a single souvenir from East Germany.

A few years later, I moved to the purportedly “socialist” state of state of Denmark. The difference between Denmark and East Germany could not have been more striking. First, no one seized the private property of the wealthy in Denmark. In fact, there are quite a few wealthy people in Denmark. Anyone who has ever taken a vacation to Scandinavia will tell you that everything there is very expensive. Food is expensive, clothing is expensive. Restaurants are through-the-roof expensive! I used to marvel when I lived there that anyone had the money to eat out in Denmark. And yet people did. Most the people in Danish restaurants are Danes, not tourists. Most of the people who buy Royal Copenhagen Blue Fluted Half Lace porcelain ($500 a place setting when I wanted to select it as my wedding pattern) are Danish. In fact, everyone in Denmark seems to have some of that porcelain. Where are they getting the money? I used to see Danish women all over the streets of Copenhagen in mink coats. I once saw a woman riding a bike in a mink coat. Stuff is nice in Denmark. Good quality, I mean. Well made. People invest in quality not quantity.

I was friends with a couple when I lived there who were quite well off. The husband was a doctor and the wife had been a nurse but had quit working to raise their daughter. They had a gorgeous house in the suburbs, two cars and a sailboat that slept several people — and the wife had a mink coat. In fact, all my friends who were over thirty were pretty well-heeled. Everyone complained about taxes, of course, just as they do in the U.S., but still, they seemed to live well.

You know how they used to organize trips to Cuba and Nicaragua so people could see how things actually worked in those countries rather than simply relying on anti-communist propaganda? Well, I’m thinking of organizing tours to Denmark for conservatives who’ve been brainwashed to think what Sanders is advocating is something like they had in the former Soviet Union.

Hey people: Go to Denmark. I dare you. Go there as see how people actually live. There’s no shortage of rich people in Denmark and no shortage of privately, or publicly (as in on the stock market, not as in owned by the government) owned companies. The Danish shipping company Mærsk is the largest shipping company in the world and there are lots of other Danish companies that are not owned by the government. In fact, economic mobility is greater in Denmark than it is in the U.S.

Denmark knows that its economic future is its people so it invests heavily in them. And it pays off. People are happy there, and they have nice stuff, unlike in the former Eastern-Block countries. They must be phenomenally productive too because they work fewer hours than we do and everyone has a government mandated six weeks of paid vacation annually and yet they are still quite competitive economically given their small size.

Hmm. Say Sanders were elected and there was suddenly Medicare for all and free higher education at state colleges and universities and a $15 minimum wage? Hmm. The people who would be saved from bankruptcy caused by obscenely high medical bills wouldn’t represent a threat to capitalism as we know it in this country, au contraire. They’d be able to pay their other creditors because they wouldn’t be broke. In fact, they be out there buying more stuff (because that’s what Americans do when they get more money, they buy more stuff).

Medicare for all would also be a boon not only to individuals but to businesses, especially small businesses, because they would no longer have to provide healthcare for their employees. Of course they would have to pay people higher wages, but relief from the burden of providing healthcare would be substantial and those higher wages would enable people to, you know — buy more stuff!

Sanders’ programs, if they were implemented, would represent a revitalization of the consumer engine that drives this economy. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the effect on the economy of students who would no longer be forced to live in their parents’s basements in order to be able to have enough money to pay off their student loans. They too would have money to spend!

The wealthy wouldn’t lose their lock on power if the purportedly “socialist” Sanders won and succeeded in implementing his programs. Charles Petersen observed in an excellent article, entitled “Serfs of Academe,” in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books, that only people with Ph.D.s from one of the few elite universities, most of which are private, have any hope these days of getting a teaching position at a college or university. The same thing goes for getting into an elite law school and going from there to a large New York law firm, etc., etc. Want to be a leader in this culture, well, then, you had better have a degree from one of the Ivies, or the equivalent, and most of those institutions are private. Even if Sanders won, it will continue to be the case, that only the well-healed will be able to afford them.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when one could get ahead with a degree from a state school or even with just a high school diploma. Those days are pretty much gone, though. That’s why anyone who can scrape together enough cash to send their child to a private school does. Everything depends on getting your kid into the best possible college and private prep schools give kids a leg up. When I was a child my parents explained to me that public school was an essential democratic institution. It was important, they explained, that well-educated middle-class and wealthy people not pull their children out of the public schools. It was important, they explained, that children of all classes and backgrounds and income levels mingle. That they learn about one another, form bonds of friendship, that the middle-class parents and wealthy parents could advocate for improvements in the schools that working-class and poor parents might not be able to do because of greater constraints on their time.

One never hears arguments like that anymore though. Now it is every man for himself. Everyone who can puts their kids into private schools to give them that leg up over the kids of parents who cannot afford to do that. Nice, eh? So the kids of the “haves” they get that leg up and the kids of the “have nots,” well, they don’t, and that is not going to change, not even if Sanders gets elected and suddenly state colleges and universities are tuition free. The rich will still be getting their kids into the best schools. They will still be running everything and they will still be handing that power down to their children.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Sanders. Just look at the opposition his centrist assault on our current system has generated. If he suggested anything really radical, such as a government stipend like they have in Denmark for all college and university students, he’d risk being carted off to a mental hospital.

We will be better off if Sanders won and was able to implement his programs. People would be happier. They would be able to go to college, some college anyway, without mortgaging the very future for which they go to college to have in the first place. They would be able to get the medical care and medicine, they need. And, perhaps most importantly for our consumer culture, they would have more money to spend. That’s almost too horrible, apparently, for some people to think about.

Strange isn’t it. We’d clearly all be better off, both materially and emotionally, if Sanders won and was able to implement his programs. Why can’t conservatives see that? Or perhaps they can. Perhaps it’s the thought of people being happy that has them so up in arms. This situation reminds me of what H.L. Menken said of Puritanism. He described it as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” That’s conservatives for you — people tortured by the fear that Americans might actually be made happier.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the March 5, 2020 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch).