The Plain, ‘Popular’ Speaking Of Bernie Sanders And Jeremy Corbyn

One of the highlights of the recent Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns–one, a failed attempt to secure the nomination to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and the other a comparatively successful attempt by the Labour Party to derail the Tories in the United Kingdom–has been their plain speaking. Both Sanders and Corbyn relied on straightforward ‘messaging’; they spoke unapologetically about their political views and vision; they did not back down from supposedly ‘can’t-win’ electoral platforms; they did not waffle about or ‘triangulate. Wonder of wonders, they seemed perfectly cognizant of the fact that they would face political opposition, but that did not deter them from continuing to discuss and defend, in unvarnished terms, the democratic socialist and populist ‘agenda’ that was the centerpiece of their claim to become President or Prime Minister. If asked ‘Are you really saying that X?’–where X might be ‘taxing the rich’ or ‘supporting the Palestinian cause’ or ‘socialized healthcare’–the Sanders or Corbyn response, quite typically, was, “Why yes, that’s exactly what I meant, and here’s why.” (In sporting terms, Sanders and Corbyn decided to swing for the fences–rather than sitting on them. Perhaps they would lose; but they would only lose an election, not their integrity. They appeared prepared to pay that price.)

This plain-speaking, this directness, this unapologetic standing by and behind their political convictions, a rare species of political fearlessness, did not go unnoticed. Both Sanders and Corbyn attracted many young folk disenchanted–or just plain bored–by politics; they attracted many older folks turned off by the endlessly vacillating, weaselly language of conventional politics. By keeping their platforms simple, Sanders and Corbyn were not just comprehensible, they also managed to be inspiring. Years and years of being subjected to the inanity and indirection of political discourse has produced a diverse electorate that yearns for plain speaking and a kind of transparent, even if occasionally bumbling, sincerity. Sanders and Corbyn both ‘delivered’; neither are inspiring speakers; their prose is not lofty; they do not appear to have taken classes in oratory or rhetoric; but importantly, they did not appear ‘coached’ and bland and inoffensive either. They knew they would cause offense; they accepted such a cost as part of the price of doing politics, of trying to get a certain kind of message out and about. They also knew the rhetorical value of their manner of speaking.

It will remain an enduring scandal that the Democratic Party in the US could not quite see the wisdom of such plain speaking during the 2016 election season, and instead decided to throw its weight behind a candidate who could not bring herself to drop a language that appeared too cautious, too timid, too ready to compromise. Neither could the Labour Party in the United Kingdom; many of its members and leaders attacked Corbyn relentlessly in the lead-up to the election. In the US, we are left saddled with the dysfunctional presidency of Donald Trump; in the United Kingdom, a second election to resolve the uncertainty created by the unstable Tory-DUP coalition seems quite likely. One can only wonder what the political landscape would look like today if these candidates had not been sabotaged by their own parties.

There are lessons to be learned here; the politician who makes the effort to do so knows an attentive audience–and participants in political action–awaits.

The United Kingdom Sends Political Driving Directions To The US

Democracy’s biggest problem–without exaggeration–is the contempt politicians feel for those who elect them. The electors, the people, the voters; the heart of electoral democracies. One crystalline manifestation of this attitude occurs during those events that are designed to remind us, by their periodic occurrence, that we live in electoral democracies: elections. Then, the people’s opinions are presumed and assumed–under the guise of ‘interpreting’ their ‘responses’ to ‘surveys and ‘polls,’ all infected with their own methodological biases. They are treated as generic entities, their preferences and passions turned into quantitative assessments that terminate in gnomic pronouncements like, ‘Candidate X is unelectable.’  Or, even worse, much worse, the electors’ minds will be read, and similar presumptions and assumptions are made; these are ignorant and ahistorical and made from isolated and insular positions, infected with their ideological biases, and they result in identical assessments: ‘Candidate X can never win; his or her platform is unworkable and out of step.’ Management consultants and political experts rule the roost, while those who actually wield power–if only they knew it–are systematically ignored.

The disastrous consequences of this attitude were only too clearly on display in the 2016 US elections. The Democratic Party ran a disastrous campaign from start to finish; it ran a candidate deeply unpopular with huge swathes of the electorate; it undermined a candidate who had actually brought ‘new blood’ to the party, and embodied the best chance of maintaining and sustaining a voter coalition that had put a black man with a Muslim middle name into the Oval Office in consecutive elections; it refused to believe that a populist platform that actively sought to roll back economic inequality, which had mobilized millions of new voters, was ‘practical’ or ‘viable.’ The Democratic Party paid for its hubris; but even worse, so did we.

Across the pond, the British electorate have just shown the Democratic Party the errors of its ways. The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, laid out an uncompromisingly populist, democratic socialist platform; they did not attempt triangulation or limp centrism; they spoke to clearly expressed needs; they, in short, listened to their potential voters, they articulated a clear vision, unapologetically; and wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, they succeeded at the ballot box, disrupting a supposedly global triumph of rightwing populism. The Tory Party lives on, as does the Theresa May administration, but only just; a no-confidence vote in their hastily cobbled together coalition with the DUP is almost certain.

The Democratic Party, of course, very closely resembles a death cult these days, obsessed with a relentless drive towards rendering itself both irrelevant and politically extinct; the election for the chair of the DNC revealed this quite clearly, as does its refusal to put the Clintons behind it, and pay attention the clamoring voices of the millions of voters it stands to gain if only it would give them what they want: affordable, single-payer healthcare, housing and education for all, clean drinking water and air, a chance for their children to do better than their parents did before them. It should heed the political driving instructions conveyed to it by the British electorate: stop pulling right, turn left.

The 2016 Elections, The ‘Bernie Revolution,’ And A Familiar Pattern

In The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 Eric Hobsbawm  writes:

In brief, the main shape of…all subsequent bourgeois revolutionary politics were by now clearly visible. This dramatic dialectical dance was to dominate the future generations. Time and again we shall see moderate middle class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates’ aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them. And so on through repetitions and variations of the pattern of resistance—mass mobilization—shift to the left—split among- moderates-and-shift-to-the-right—until either the bulk of the middle class passed into the henceforth conservative camp, or was defeated by social revolution. In most subsequent bourgeois revolutions the moderate liberals were to pull back, or transfer into the conservative camp, at a very early stage. Indeed…we increasingly find…that they became unwilling to begin revolution at all, for fear of its incalculable consequences, preferring a compromise with king and aristocracy.

Hobswawm was writing these words in 1962–about the post-Bastille, pre-Jacobin, pre-Terror, French Revolution–so he knew well of what he spoke. He could well have been speaking of contemporary times and politics, of the American election season of 2016, and its ‘revolution that did not come to be’ – the Bernie Sanders Insurgency.

On November 9th, American liberals and progressives of a particular bent will wake up to find out they’ve been snookered yet again by the Democratic Party, by the same old trick that has been reliably used to make sure the minds and attention of their reliable voting demographics will not go wandering, looking for alternatives. Their support for the ‘Bernie Revolution’ earned them little other than the abuse of their own supposed ‘comrades,’ the ‘liberal’ coalition that backs Hillary Clinton’s candidacy: they were reviled as sexist, tainted by white privilege, as unrealistic nihilists.  They were urged to make cause with their political foes, urged to pull back from the brink to which they were marching the nation; they were urged to settle for a chance to ‘pull Clinton to the left,’ to get ‘their demands written into the party platform.’ Meanwhile, that mythical creature, ‘the moderate Republican’ was also persuaded to join the Clinton Coalition. That fundamentally conservative bent in American politics–which reveres that undemocratic document, the US Constitution, which claims American exceptionalism is a wholly understandable and justified attitude–asserted itself all over again, all the better with which to discredit the nascent stirrings of a mass movement (which in its populist strains found some curious resonances in the groups who supported Donald Trump’s candidacy.)

When the smoke clears, for all the sound and fury of this interminable season, little will have changed: the Republican Party will have disowned Donald Trump and gone back to its reactionary ways; the Democratic Party, having long ago moved into territory occupied by the Right, will pat itself on its back for having performed a remarkable act of sheepdogging. A familiar pattern indeed.

Paul Ryan Wants A Fig Leaf From Donald Trump

Over at The Nation John Nichols makes note of Paul Ryan’s undignified ‘dance’ with Donald Trump:

Ryan says he is “not ready” to formally endorse Trump’s unpopular presidential candidacy. Trump says he is “not ready” to embrace Ryan’s unpopular austerity agenda. But after speaking with Ryan, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus says the speaker is prepared to “work through” these differences in order to “get there” on an endorsement of the billionaire. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Ryan is being portrayed in much of the media as an honorable Republican who is courageously refusing to board the Trump train….Ryan’s maneuvering has very little to do with honor and courage, and very much to do with ego and political positioning.

As I noted here a little while ago, the Republican Party will not find it too difficult to absorb and assimilate Donald Trump. But to do so, it needs some cover, even if purely nominal. It would like Donald Trump to put down his megaphone and use a dog whistle instead, for instance. It would like Donald Trump to stop making it so hard for them to speak up on his behalf, a difficulty made especially galling by the knowledge these Republican folk have that in Hillary Clinton they have their dream electoral opposition: a figure universally reviled on the American Right who can be effortlessly linked with Bill Clinton, another bogeyman for the party faithful. The Republican Party knows the Clinton candidacy, that seeming inevitability, can be beaten by their tried and trusted combinations of obfuscation, sabre rattling, seemingly outward directed xenophobia, and loud, persistent, dog-whistling. Surely there is no need to pick new fights with new enemies here?

Little is required for party unity in the present situation. Trump would only need to sound ‘presidential’ on a couple of occasions, and those pronouncements would easily become the foci of attention for Republicans. They would allow Republicans to point to a ‘maturing,’ ‘evolving,’ Trump, and allow them to virtuously insist on conversations about ‘the issues.’ Such conversations are not possible when every news cycle brings further reports about acerbic Trump responses to official Republican condemnation.

So this picture that Ryan seeks to paint for us of a courageous Speaker holding the fort for technocratic conservatives against the advancing forces of an unsophisticated, nativist populism needs emendation; his desperate wails–‘A fig leaf, a fig leaf, my kingdom for a fig leaf!” indicate a wholly disparate set of desires and motivations. As Nichols notes, “Ryan says he “wants to” back Trump and has indicated that he hopes ‘to be a part of this unifying process.'” Ryan’s ‘wants’ and ‘hopes’ are self-serving; he does not want to be deposed by Trump, to lose his political career to this unregenerate parvenu. Ryan seeks not to become politically irrelevant, to not be shoved aside by the Trump Express that has scorched a new path through the Republican marshaling yard. Because Ryan is the one who seeks to be survivor, he will grasp at any lifeline thrown to him. Perhaps this coming week’s meeting with Donald Trump will provide him with one such.

Paul Ryan’s ‘Mea Culpa’ Speech: Anatomy of Political Bad Faith

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a significant subset of the demographic consisting of American liberals and progressives and centrists are among the most gullible political subjects of all: throw them a bone or two–i.e., a substantive or purely rhetorical political concession–and they’ll immediately drop previously held convictions. The visible reaction to Paul Ryan‘s recent supposedly bold and courageous speech, where he offered a critique of the degraded level of current political discourse and apologized for using the term ‘takers’ to describe anyone that wasn’t a ‘maker’–the former are welfare mooches, the poor, benefits recipients, the latter are presumably CEOs and business executives–demonstrates the truth of this claim quite impressively. For no sooner were the words out of Ryan’s mouth that he was immediately anointed as the leader the Republican Party has been waiting for–many lonely eyes were turned his way apparently–, his political courage and principles were praised, and he immediately began to look presidential.

Excuse me while I don’t kiss this guy.

Ryan did not name names. He blamed all and sundry for the degraded level of political discourse–a kind of ‘everyone seems to have lost their mind’ line that is vacuous and dishonest. For the ones engaging in the kind of speech that Ryan seems to be referring to are members of his own party, and moreover, the level of discourse on display in Republican debates is not significantly lower than the kind of language his party has been using for a very long time. (The loudness and shrillness has been amped up just a bit but the sentiments on display have been public ones for a very long time) The guilty–the ones lowering the quality so beloved of Ryan–have just not been using it against other Republicans. Their targets have been the same demographics that Ryan targeted in his ‘takers’ comment: the politically and economically disenfranchised.

As for Ryan’s apology for using the ‘takers’ line: the most expedient political strategy for Republicans, following their noticing that many of those who have begun to carry the Trump banner would have been considered ‘takers’ in Ryan’s old formulation (even as they continue to reassure themselves that their whiteness ensures they will never be considered ‘takers’) would be to stop describing them as such and to enroll their support for a ‘mainstream’ candidate. This apology is Ryan’s triangulation, it is his lame attempt to sound a more populist note in a symphony consisting of endless variations on the economic self-sufficiency theme.

I had noted a little while ago that the Republican Party would absorb this year’s political turbulence and move on. Ryan’s speech is part of that attempt; it aims to acknowledge the crassness on display, thus reassuring the Republican faithful that their own more carefully phrased ugliness remains kosher; it tries to lamely assert ownership of a populist platform. So desperate is Republican Party’s political opposition for signs of political reasonableness that it will accept this transparent dishonesty.

Fool me once etc.

No Happy Endings To This Election Season

Barack Obama was elected US president in 2008. With approximately fifty-three percent of the popular vote and a 365-173 electoral college margin over his rival, John McCain. His party, the Democrats, commanded a 235-278 majority in the US House of Representatives, and a 57-41 majority in the US Senate. Despite this electoral and popular mandate, an obstructionist opposition, the Republican Party, aided by the results of the 2010 elections, soon made it the case that sixty votes in the Senate–a majority immune to the filibuster–became the new standard for passing legislation. From that determined standard for throwing sand in the legislative wheels to the current declaration that no Senate vote will be forthcoming on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is a long and sometimes winding, but consistently traveled on, road. (The many actual and threatened shutdowns of the Federal government were particularly well frequented destinations on this Republican-Tea Party activist route.) That journey conveys an ominous warning for what lies ahead, even if a Democratic president were to be elected in the fall of 2016.

First, even if Donald Trump is defeated–in the most optimistic of scenarios, by a landslide of overwhelming proportions–the forces he has unleashed, that particular febrile nativism and populism, which animated by a smoldering resentment over its systematic economic disenfranchisement, targets immigrants (or non-English speakers or Jews or blacks, take your pick), are not going away any time soon. That genie is out of the bottle; it has skipped smartly several steps down the road. The next president has to deal with it; as does the nation. The most charitable view of ‘Trump supporters’ is that they are a group looking for scapegoats, turned out to pasture by policies that have sent jobs overseas and by income inequality that has shrunk their wages.  Even under that presumption, whoever becomes president has to address the populist instincts that make Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump formidable opponents to Hilary Clinton. Failing that, that same discontent will continue to roil the American political landscape, to find the ugly–and increasingly violent–forums for expression that it has during the Trump presidential campaign.

Second, were Hilary Clinton to become president, the opposition she will face will be as fierce as any that Barack Obama had to face in his term. At least in one domain, and for all the wrong reasons–sexism and misogyny being prominent ones–Hilary Clinton is a unifier, not a divider. An electoral loss to Hilary will provoke unprecedented gnashing of teeth, much wailing and rending of garments. The same reaction to her that will animate Republican vitriol during the general election season–we have most certainly not seen the worst of it–will return during a Hilary Clinton administration. It will dog her steps too, just like another version of it did Obama’s–racism in that case, sexism in hers. Without an altered political environment (including a non-gerrymandered House of Representatives), there will be little prospect of substantive legislation during Clinton’s term(s).

This election season is going to have to answer for a great deal.