Every movement fails. Until it succeeds. And then, when it does, everyone says, of course it succeeded, it had to succeed. No, actually, it didn’t have to succeed. But what made it succeed—or at least helped it succeed—was that men and women, for a time, shook off the need for certitude, let go of the bannisters of certainty, remembered that they are not scientists, and put themselves into motion. Without knowing where they’d end up.
~ Corey Robin
There is a lot of frustration and demoralization in the air. It is quite the downer. The campaigns are moving into their nasty phase, and the rest of the population is following suit, those of us who aren’t simply feeling burned out and beat up by the endless harangue. It can lead to doubts and pessimism about the entire political system.
I noticed the effect of this with my dad who is showing signs of emotional fatigue. He utterly despises Trump. And he finds Cruz to be mean-spirited and divisive. As a last resort, he supported Rubio in the caucus, even though he sees him as a weak candidate against Democrats.
My dad has been in a despondent mood. Trump’s campaign, in particular, maybe makes him more sad than outraged. He can’t comprehend what it all means or why it’s happening. I could point out that the conservative movement has been intentionally pushing the GOP to ever greater reactionary extremism for a long time, but I don’t feel like putting my finger into that wound and wiggling it around.
I want to send my love out to the world. I know it’s bad. Instead of inspiration, we get politics as usual or else something worse. I hate seeing people turn on one another, especially average people who for decades have been dumped on by both parties. The voters on the other side aren’t the source of your problem. We don’t live in a functioning democracy and those people far off in Washington don’t represent you. If you want to take back America, whatever that might mean, then you’ll have to do it with more than a vote and a fight for your party, your candidate, your group.
Let’s get straight about the basics. Bernie Sanders isn’t a radical communist. Hillary Clinton isn’t a progressive feminist. Cruz isn’t a principled libertarian. Trump isn’t anything other than a car salesman in a fancy suit. And fergodsake NO! Sanders and Trump are not the same, populist rhetoric aside. Is that clear?
That is what these candidates aren’t. But the campaigns all share a commonality in responding to the public mood. People want something different and the candidates are all trying to present themselves in that light. For this reason, I suspect voters could so easily switch their loyalties as the campaign season continues. It’s not exactly politics as usual, although not as different as some like to pretend.
Let me further clarify a point. This campaign season isn’t an ideological battle. No, Americans aren’t particularly divided, at least not in the ways typically portrayed in the mainstream media (not even Obama has divided the public). When you look at polls, most Americans agree about most things, including healthcare and tax reform, even including taxing the wealthy more. Populism is in the air, all across the spectrum.
Even so, let me note something. Pew states that there is increasing polarization, although I’d point out that it is mostly among the activists and political elite. Anyway, Pew goes on to say that (Beyond Red vs. Blue, 2014):
Even so, most Americans do not view politics through uniformly liberal or conservative lenses, and more tend to stand apart from partisan antipathy than engage in it. But the typology shows that the center is hardly unified. Rather, it is a combination of groups, each with their own mix of political values, often held just
as strongly as those on the left and the right, but just not organized in consistently liberal or conservative terms. Taken together, this “center” looks like it is halfway between the partisan wings. But when disaggregated, it becomes clear that there are many distinct voices in the center, often with as little in common with each other as with those who are on the left and the right.
Looking at various data, I’ve noted that this mix or confusion even exists within ideological demographics and, of course, within the parties. For example, Pew data (Beyond Red vs. Blue, 2011) showed that 9% of Solid Liberals self-identify as ‘conservative’. That is a broad conservative movement that includes a significant number of people who are liberal across most issues. This is how symbolic ideology can trump all else, at least under the right conditions.
Categories that seem distinct can be porous and overlapping. Plus, there are larger patterns that cut across the seeming divides. How we group people can at times seem almost arbitrary.
The following is some data from a 2011 Pew poll. Progressivism has found favored opinion in both parties and among independents, with more support than even conservatism. Meanwhile, both ‘socialism’ and ‘libertarianism’ have found growing support. Libertarianism oddly gets a more positive response from Democrats than Republicans. More interesting is the comparison of socialism and capitalism, as explained by Sarah van Gelder:
There is growing willingness to name corporate rule and global capitalism as key problems, and to look to decentralized, place-based economies as the answer. While capitalism is viewed more favorably among all Americans than socialism, the reverse is true among those under 29, African Americans and Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000 a year, according to a Pew poll. And more Americans have a favorable view of socialism than of the Tea Party.
The most telling part is the numbers among Republicans. Libertarianism and the Tea Party have lost favor, among those who are supposedly its strongest supporters. At the same time, only 66% of conservative Republicans have a positive view of capitalism, while 25% (1 in 4) of moderate-to-liberal Republicans have a positive view of socialism. Even though that means 90% of Republicans overall still dislike socialism (as of 2011), that leaves 1 in 10 with either a positive or neutral position and I bet that latter group has been growing, especially among young Republicans. Then again, the younger generation has turned away from the Republican Party and this might have played a part, as after a while it would be hard to maintain the cognitive dissonance of listening to candidates of your party who attack what you support.
The youth vote is up in the air, for both parties—as described by Morgan Gilbard:
Millennials, usually categorized as individuals between 18 and 33, are less willing to identify with a party than ever before, according to a Pew Research study in April 2015. Only 18 percent identified as Republican and 28 percent as Democrat. A staggering 48 percent considered themselves independent, compared with 40 percent in 2008.
This is particularly true of a demographic Pew calls Young Outsiders. They are 14% of the general public, 15% of registered voters, and 11% of the politically engaged. Even Pew’s Next Gen Left (12%, 13%, 11%) could be pulled right based on their weaker support for a social safety net. And the relatively young Bystanders, 10% of the general population, could be inspired to become registered and politically engaged.
Although social liberalism is popular for Millennials, including among young Republicans, there are key issues that split the youth vote and could tip the balance in either direction. Frustration with the government could lead many otherwise liberal Millennials to vote Republican, just as frustration with the economy could lead many otherwise conservative Millennials to vote Democratic. Yet much of the frustration is basically the same across the board—Siraj Hashmi reports:
“Why are we fighting the Iraq War? Why are we spending billions of dollars trying to rebuild Afghanistan, which looks like the Moon, than spending money on our cities like Detroit? Why do we not care about putting Americans first? Those are very appealing questions,” Girdusky said. “They’re [Trump and Sanders] coming at different answers, but it’s the questions that millennials are asking themselves as well.”
The youth of today aren’t the same as the youth of the past. It is today’s youngest generation of voters that has the strongest support for both socialism and libertarianism (the opposite for older generations, including when they were younger), which maybe puts libertarian socialists such as Noam Chomsky in a new position of influence. It might even explain some of the appeal of Sanders, even for rural conservatives in his state, as his ‘socialism’ includes defense of gun rights. Among several demographics, there isn’t always a perfect alignment in their opinions about various labels. Blacks, for example, have a majority with positive views of conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. This seems to be related to what Pew recently has called the Faith and Family Left (30% Black, 19% Hispanic), 51% of which “hold an equal mix of liberal and conservative values”—while religiously and socially conservative in many ways, their liberalism being specifically a “strong support for government and a commitment to the social safety net.” So, conservatism can go along with ‘socialism’ just fine but even more strangely doesn’t even have to be opposed to liberalism. Ha!
This might partly relate to what “scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology” (Jost, Federico, & Napier). Few people seem to grasp this distinction. This explains the power of culture war rhetoric (i.e., symbolic ideology) and why that rhetoric will lose power as conditions change. Populist eras tend to defy easy ideological categorizations, and the public during such times isn’t as predictably easy to manipulate by machine politics. Symbolic ideology can quickly shift and morph, allowing the operational side to emerge. When people are hurting on a basic level of making a living and getting by, the symbolic and operational can come into alignment. That is the power and potential of populism, and also its danger.
Related to this, there have been many articles about Republicans turning to join the Sanders campaign. Who are these Republicans feeling the Bern? The more recent 2014 Pew poll (Beyond Red vs. Blue) tells us who they are. But first let me tell you who they aren’t. What Pew calls Business Conservatives is a demographic that is more socially liberal and pro-immigration, while of course being strong in their economic conservatism—74% of them believe that “Wall Street helps economy more than it hurts.” That is unsurpising. Now for the other major group on the political right, Steadfast Conservatives. Close to half of them (41%) disagree with this faith in Wall Street. Most Americans (62%) think that “Economic system unfairly favors powerful,” with Steadfast Conservatives being divided on this issue (48% unfair; 47% fair), but even almost a third (31%) of Business Conservatives agree that it is unfair. A larger majority of Americans (78%) think that “Too much power is concentrated in hands of few large companies”—in response to this, division is even greater on the political right with 71% of Steadfast Conservatives agreeing and once again about a third (35%) of Business Conservatives agreeing as well, although it should be noted that it is a small majority (only 57%) of the latter who state that the “Largest companies do not have too much power.”
These are the populists that Trump is also able to tap, but also the type of person who might choose Sanders over someone like Cruz. The era of culture wars is coming to an end and class war is taking its place. A divide is growing even among upper and lower classes in the conservative movement. Also, among Independents (even those who lean Republican: Pew’s Young Outsiders), the majority sees the Democratic Party as more caring about the middle class, an attitude that puts some wind in Sanders’ sails. In US politics, rhetoric about the middle class has immense symbolic force, as it speaks to both the fears of the shrinking middle class and the throttled aspirations of the working class.
On a slightly different note, some see nationalist fervor as being an area of divisiveness and conflict, that which could negate or mute all else. Conservatives supposedly think America is the best and anyone who disagrees should leave. It is true that many ‘conservative’ politicians and pundits talk that way, but it isn’t what most conservatives think in private. The majority of all Americans across the spectrum don’t believe that “The U.S. stands above all other countries,” even as they do think it’s a great country. On this note, most Americans don’t believe the US should use its capacity of ‘overwhelming’ force to fight terrorism. And, in a different area of policy, most Americans support a path to citizenship for immigrants and support affirmative action—a majority of conservatives supporting the former and a third of conservatives supporting the latter. Patriotic and prejudicial rhetoric is effective for getting strident activists and loyal supporters excited at GOP campaigns. It’s just not likely to sway most potential voters come election time. The average American simply isn’t all that concerned about such things, specifically not in terms of a chest-beating fear-mongering attitude.
Even religion isn’t going to do much for conservatives and Republicans, not even from Evangelicals. The majority of young believers are progressive and liberal, increasingly both in terms of how they label themselves and in what they support (e.g., same sex marriage). Minorities have higher rates of religiosity than even white conservatives. According to Pew’s 2014 Beyond Red vs. Blue, the most religiously-oriented demographic is the Democratic-voting Faith and Family Left—91% affirming that it is “Necessary to believe in God to be moral,” whereas this agreed to by only 69% of Steadfast Conservatives and 31% of Business Conservatives. As for the majority of Americans, they don’t hold this religious view of morality.
Similarly, most Americans don’t take the Bible literally, do acknowledge Darwinian evolution, think homosexuality should be accepted and favor gay marriage, support abortion in all/most cases, see no reason to expect people to prioritize marriage and children over all else, don’t believe Islam is inherently violent, etc. I could point to dozens of other issues that demonstrate the liberalism of Americans (e.g., majority support of global warming and need of improved environmental regulations, such as 71% saying “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment”), at least in terms of operational ideology and I’d argue increasingly in terms of symbolic ideology as well (e.g., the progressive label now being more popular than the conservative label).
The real Silent Majority, left and right, are those tired of the divisive and mean-spirited culture war rhetoric. Only the political and media elite remain divided by their own rhetoric. Still, the divisive minority is disproportionately vocal and influential, but my sense is that most Americans are growing tired of this minority dominating politics.
Obviously, people are beginning to see labels and ideologies in new ways, as they more and more question the status quo. You can begin to feel the change in the air. How the American public and the two main parties get described in the MSM simply no longer matches reality on the ground. The real divide is older and wealthier non-Hispanic white people versus everyone else. It’s ultimately a class divide, since most of the wealth is concentrated among the older generations and among non-Hispanic whites. The rest of the population is economically struggling or, at best, stuck and stagnating.
Let me return to the issue of what does and doesn’t divide most Americans. Over the years, I’ve talked to a variety of my fellow citizens, online and in my everyday life. I’m often surprised by the amount of agreement that exists, if and when you get past superficial divisive rhetoric. You wouldn’t know that by paying attention to the mainstream media and the partisan campaigning.
All the time, I find points of agreement with my dad who is a lifelong Republican, and this agreement usually involves the issues that get ignored by the mainstream. My mom, an old school conservative and former public school teacher, defends public education and she also supports a return of a New Deal work program for the unemployed. My second cousin is a right-wing libertarian and Tea Partier, and yet we both are inspired by the same ‘socialist’ vision of Star Wars: The Next Generation.
Heck, Sander’s own ‘socialism’ simply represents much of what most Americans state they already support in polls. One of the strongest arguments many Hillary Clinton supporters make is that they want a woman for president, but I doubt many other Americans oppose that, not even Republicans with their own female candidate. Likewise with libertarianism, even many on the political left (including many minorities) might be fine with a president who was a genuine libertarian, that is to say not an authoritarian corporatist theocon—see Reason Magazine’s take on this:
A majority—53 percent—of millennials say they would support a candidate who described him or herself as socially liberal and economically conservative, 16 percent were unsure, and 31 percent would oppose such a candidate.
Interestingly, besides libertarians, liberal millennials are the most supportive of a libertarian-leaning candidate by a margin of 60 to 27 percent. Conservative millennials are most opposed (43% to 48% opposed).
A libertarian-leaning candidate would appeal to both Democratic and Republican voters. For instance, 60 percent of Hillary Clinton voters, 61 percent of Rand Paul voters, 71 percent of Chris Christie voters, and 56 percent of those who approve of President Obama all say they would support a fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidate.
As for Trump’s followers, that is a whole other ball of wax. They are just outraged beyond all sense or reason. It really doesn’t matter what Trump says or advocates. I suspect his followers would follow him all the way to Soviet-style communism without blinking an eye, proclaiming conservative rhetoric all the while. The outrage may get a lot of attention and the mainstream media loves it for its entertainment value (i.e., advertising dollars), but it has little to do with what most Americans want, not even among Republicans.
Americans aren’t ideological in the sense that word is normally used. Social science research has shown this. Most Americans support liberal and progressive policies, even as they support symbolic conservatism. The latter is why culture war rhetoric is so persuasive. The thing about symbolic conservatism, though, is that it has no inherent meaning. It captures a mood, a sensibility, or an attitude—not so much a specific political system or worldview. When you look at the present and former communist countries, they are all socially conservative. It’s important to remember that conservatism isn’t the same thing as right-wing, which is particularly clear when one considers how socially liberal are most libertarians. Economic populism in the US in the past was strongly supported by conservatives. There is even an old history of Christian socialism.
In the end, labels are mostly meaningless. That is being demonstrated with Sanders campaign. It doesn’t matter what he calls himself. He is drawing support from many Independents and even is luring a surprising number of Republicans who are fed up with the GOP circus. In reality, Sanders is just an old school New Dealer. So was Reagan before he became a neoliberal (he never lost his admiration for FDR). There is nothing contradictory between conservatism as a general view and the economic left. Russell Kirk was the mid-20th century thinker who made American conservatism respectable again and yet he saw no problem voting for a Socialist Party candidate.
Clinton and other mainstream types point to Sanders’ history on gun policy. They see this as harsh criticism, proving he is no liberal. Such an argument merely proves how disconnected are the political and media elite. Most liberals, like most conservatives, are for gun rights. Just as most conservatives, like most liberals, are for stronger gun regulation. There is no contradiction here. As a politician, Sanders doesn’t just represent urbanites but also many rural folk. As in Iowa that usually votes for Democratic candidates in presidential elections, you don’t have to be a crazy right-winger to own a gun. On the political left, there is between a quarter and a third who have a gun in their homes (depending on the Pew demographic). That isn’t extremely different from the half of those on the political right who have a gun in their homes. It is important to remember also that conservation, a major issue supposedly for liberals, has always been strongly defended by gun-toting hunters.
None of this is about ideology in a simple sense. Nor is it about parties. Voters switch parties easier than do most politicians and candidates. Even entire parties shift over time, as with the GOP once having been the home of radical left-wingers—critics having called them Red Republicans. As for Democrats, it was common to find white supremacists among their ranks earlier last century. Obviously, the parties have changed… and they will keep changing. Until a short while ago, Sanders wasn’t even a Democrat. If an Independent politician can become a Democratic candidate, then maybe many Independent voters will follow suit.
Older Americans still live in the shadow of McCarthyism and many tremble with fear at being associated with communism and socialism, but younger Americans simply don’t give a frack about Cold War propaganda since they never knew the Cold War. Those among us who do remember it are simply tired of it and are ready for something new.
I’ll tell you what I care about—democracy! That is always the first victim of the US campaign season. I’m not a political animal. It doesn’t even take a Trump to make me despondent. Still, I care about democracy, if only as a vision and a glimmer of potential.
The first political candidate I ever cared about was Ralph Nader. That was back in 2000. I was entirely apolitical before that. It was a shock to the system when I heard Nader speak. Holy shit! This was a politician who had principles and actually believed them. You could hear it in his voice. I had never come across that before.
That was the first time I voted for a presidential candidate. It was a strange campaign to which to lose my political virginity. I felt dirty afterwards. The ugliness of that campaign season put this one to shame. Nader supporters like me got blamed for everything going wrong, even though the Democratic candidate won the election before it was handed over to Bush by the Supreme Court. Shouldn’t the Democrats instead have been mad at a system that was proven corrupt and been mad at their own candidate who bowed down before that corruption, refusing to challenge it?
It was disturbing that the members of a party called Democratic would be so accepting of a process that was shown to be so blatantly undemocratic. To many Americans, it was just corrupt politics as usual, as if there was nothing that could be done about it other than to repeat the same insanity and idiocy four years later.
Of course, the kind of Democrat that attacked Nader voters in the past are now attacking Sanders supporters now, with the DNC leadership trying to tilt the field in Clinton’s favor (e.g., shutting down debates or scheduling them when few would watch). It’s the same old game: defend the status quo at all costs, even as the status quo grows worse and worse. The reason given is that the only alternative to present problems are even worse problems. So, vote for the lesser evil, going down a road paved of good intentions, until by slow descent we all end up in hell. Third Way politics has turned out to be nothing more than an appeasement to the powers that be. More of the same will just get us more of the same, all the while expecting something different, what some define as madness.
Even Sanders isn’t some extreme alternative. On military issues, he might not be all that different from Obama who has followed the example of Bush. Even his economic views are really just mainstream social democracy, rather moderate and tame, and popular as well. The main advantage Sanders offers is the possibility of a shift in the political narrative, a chance to widen the range of allowable opinion. He isn’t much of a socialist, but just the ability to use that word in a national campaign is a breath of fresh air. It’s a sign of new options being put on the table. I’m so tired of replaying the Cold War endlessly. The Russians aren’t going to invade. We don’t need to constantly act in permanent panic mode—America against all the world, including too often American against other Americans. It’s time to look not to the past, but to the future, to new possibilities.
This is what gives me hope. The younger generations don’t carry all that baggage from last century. And it really is a heavy load on the shoulders of the Cold War generations. Americans haven’t been able to think straight about almost anything for a long time, our minds being in the vice grip of paralyzing rhetoric.
In the Cold War battle between left-wing communism and right-wing fascism (or what others call corporatism, crony capitalism, inverted totalitarianism, etc), the latter won and we are living with the results of that. Instead of Godless communism, the ruling elite promoted a religious-tinged culture war both in the US and around the world. The US and other Western governments took out the communist governments in places like the Middle East and helped to replace them with Islamic nationalism (or else ruthless dictators), in the hope that it would keep the oil flowing and neoliberal markets open. How did that work out? The youth today wouldn’t mind a bit of Godlessness at this point, maybe even a moderate dose of genuine leftism for a change.
I do believe that shifting public perception is one of the most important things we can do right now. It doesn’t matter that Sanders isn’t actually a socialist. I realize that electing him president won’t lead to revolutionary changes that will transform our government toward a functioning democracy nor our economy toward socialism. What it will do is open up a space where dialogue can begin. No other mainstream candidate is offering such an opportunity. That shouldn’t be dismissed with cynicism and supposed realpolitik pragmatism.
I sense many Americans agree with me on this. What we need right now is a way of speaking across the many divides of generations and skin color, parties and ideologies. As Americans, our concerns, our lives, and our fate is held in common. It’s not about finding the right leader to solve our problems, but to reenvision who we are as a people. We don’t need to take America back. We are America, all of us.
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(I should make note of something. I wasn’t ignoring third party candidates. I actually despise the two-party system. I like that Sanders’ campaign is opening up discussion of important issues, such as what does and could socialism mean in a democracy, and heck what does and could democracy mean in a corporatist political system. Yet, all in all, I’m more likely to vote third party. But in a sense this post isn’t really about the presidential election. My interest is in what this all means for the American people, where is it that we are heading, what is possible.)
* * *
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