This article was written on 10 Mar 2020, and is filled under Actualities, Politics.

If Not Now, When?: The Bizarre Time Warp Facing U.S. Political Democracy

No less stunning than the fear and hesitations evoked among moderate Democrats by the presidential aspirations of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren has been the certainty, particularly among younger progressives, regarding the egregious corruption and decline of capitalism, such as it has evolved into its voracious, globalist forms. The motivating premise of Democratic Socialism is indeed that as infrastructure for government and social administration, current multinational capitalism—in the social inequality that it promulgates, in the self-regulation, whether legal or fiduciary, that it flaunts, and in its structural indifference to human welfare—has reached a terminal state of bankruptcy. This sense of definitive disqualification, oddly, is a throwback to the unanticipated, decisive overthrow of Communism as a prevailing socio-political operating system in the late 1980’s, as precipitated by the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Who could have imagined, as the Wall fell, that for significant components of the U.S. electorate, by 2016, capitalism, as it evolved under both mega-parties, would have equaled its communistic counter-system in failure and irrelevance?

As the Democratic candidacies of Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchaar, and finally, Warren have stalled, the gaping fissure in the Democratic Party increasingly assumes the form of a debilitating double bind, itself structured by a split temporality: one position, in deep suspicion toward a precipitous sweeping aside of familiar institutions and processes, affording the “establishment,” in the words of David Brooks, “one last chance”; its alternative, rallying behind such figures as Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, already engaged in the demolition and correction of a capitalism radically disaffected from the needs and prospects facing working people in economic and technological landscapes transformed over the past four decades. My point here is that the key bone of contention in the current Democratic Party is less between positions and strategies than between timeframes. The question is not whether big-scale, transnational capitalism, as brought to its unregulated, heartless, plutocratic apotheosis by Trump, Putin, and like-minded global leaders is sustainable, or in any way desirable. The capitalist system is in line for major correction, and this daunting task, stateside, under Trump’s Republicans, has only one plausible candidate for its implementation, the Democrats. The fundamental question is not whether, but when: under which timeframe, at what pace, and under which desired political and social demographics. At the present moment, this overall consensus is propounding itself over a surprising range of the Democratic spectrum.

Two current pieces of political punditry by seasoned observers from significantly different vantage points will confirm this point. It is David Brooks, in his post-Super Tuesday “Biden’s Rise Gives the Establishment One Last Chance” (NY Times, March 6, 2020), who throws out this dramatic do-or-die scenario. Along with Frank Bruni and Brett Stephens, Brooks writes squarely from the center of the NY Times opinion writers. While not adverse, in other interventions, to looking backwards for solace and inspiration to John Locke, John Stuart Mill and other philosophes of classical liberalism, in the current piece, Brooks is in surprising accord with a broad spectrum of dissidents fed up with the Democratic Party:

The politics of the last four years have taught us that tens of millions of Americans feel that their institutions have completely failed them. The legitimacy of the whole system is still hanging by a thread. . . . There would be no choice but to somehow pass his [Biden’s] agenda: a climate plan, infrastructure spending, investments in the heartland, his $750 billion education plan and health care subsidies. If disaffected voters don’t see tangible changes in their lives over the next few years, it’s not that one party or another will lose the next election. The current political order will be upended by some Bernie/Trump figure times 10.

Yes, Brooks conflates Bernie with Trump in this passage. Brooks obsesses on Bernie’s assertive, unabashed style and his system-wide disenchantment with the status quo. Brooks fails to distinguish the content of Bernie’s proposed reforms to U.S. government and economics from Trump’s inventive pantomime on executive governance. Indeed, on February 27, Brooks can still post, again in the NYT, “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever.” From within the idyllic sphere of polite liberal disputation, a doctrinaire Bernie appears as the nemesis to be avoided at all costs.

All the more remarkable, then, that in his last-ditch scenario for the viability of the “establishment”—a battered platform of social welfare programs contingent (until the last few days) on the continuation of an unprecedented growth-economy—Brooks wholeheartedly subscribes to the skepticism and disenchantment emanating, precisely, from Democratic Socialism.

The bewildering timeframe that current liberals and progressives must somehow negotiate—between the inertia engulfing conventions that while woefully inadequate perpetuate a sense of familiarity, and a radically reconfigured capitalism—also strikes a dominant chord in Michael Tomasky’s “The Center Cannot Hold” (New York Review, LXVII, 5, March 26, 2020). Tomasky comes to the table with stronger progressive creds, from a variety of sources, than Brooks.

That’s the heart of the division today—the left sees liberal cowardice as the main impediment to change, while liberals blame a system that abets and even rewards Republican minority obstruction. . . . It’s not an accident that one of the left’s favored insults for mainstream liberals is “corporate Democrats.” Meanwhile liberals speak of reforms that would permit sweeping change, the ideas tend to focus on procedural matters of governance: eliminating the Senate filibuster, doing away with the Electoral College, perhaps expanding the Supreme Court.”

Tomasky’s overview is more global than Brooks’s. Bernie is less a liability than the compendium of serious reforms that an unchecked, overheated capitalism, devoid of any empathy, has necessitated. Tomasky’s piece sets off from the anomaly, noted by AOC, that in any other political system not so rigidly binary, one modulated even slightly by the spectrum of parties in parliamentary government, Bernie and Biden would not even have to share the same party umbrella. More sympathetic to Bernie than Brooks, Tomasky nonetheless applies constraints to what could reasonably be expected from a Sanders presidential victory. Elected, Bernie would of course “make congressional Democrats adapt to his priorities, like Medicare for All and free college.” He’d also leverage the thinking and policy emanating from liberal think tanks and foundations.

Then we’d have to see how his legislative program fared. Even assuming the Democrats keep the House and take the Senate, probably not that great. Medicare for All won’t pass. The bill has 118 Democratic co-sponsors in the House, only about half the Democratic caucus; in the Senate, it has a mere fourteen, and of those, three pretty obviously signed on just because they were running for President. . . . He’d get a Bidenesque public option at best. A Democratic Congress would give him something he could call a Green New Deal, but not a $16.3 trillion one, the cost of his current proposal.

Tomasky is in no way devaluing the importance of a Democratic victory here; he is simply gauging short-term outcomes realistically. In one of his most imaginative projections, Tomasky demonstrates that the progressive takeout from the Obama presidency would not have been substantially more forceful or lasting, even had Obama been graced by significantly greater majorities in House and Senate.

Even while largely receptive to the prospect of a Sanders victory, Tomasky turns dour at its likelihood of short-term transformative impact. He files this piece on February 27, 2020, a week before Super-Tuesday will resuscitate and galvanize Biden into the focal alternative to Bernie. The leading contender, as of the writing, is still something inchoate, perhaps best described as “Bernie-or-other.” Figuring the winnowing out to come, Tomasky perforce slips into the split time warp serving as our motif:

If Sanders wins the nomination, it becomes absolutely incumbent upon the Democratic establishment figures to get behind him, because a second Trump term is unthinkable. But the reality is probably that a number of them won’t. . . . In the long term, party unity will probably require a different presidential candidate, such is the overwhelming dominance of the presidential selection process in our system. This would be a person who, by dint of biography, personality, and record, would have some measure of credibility with both the left and the mainstream, and who could sell a concordat to both sides, convincing liberals to shed the neoliberal reflex to defer to certain corporate benefactors and embrace populism, and persuading leftists that the real common enemies they share with liberals are the Republicans, the Electoral College, and the Senate.

Only at the end of an intricate projective analytic centering around Bernie does Tomasky devote full attention to extrapolating the traits of his viable alternative. On February 27, the “different presidential candidate” has yet to become Joe Biden. And yet established trust and credibility, deliberation, collaboration, and deferral are foremost among the traits with which Tomasky fills in this hypothetical alternative. The choice is again between decisive correction of a severely deficient capitalist system in the short term and something more delayed, deliberate, and indirect. The encompassing environment or context for these utterly pivotal negotiations remains an utterly disastrous, because rapacious, version of capitalism, whose substantial reform must ensue. Whether these interlocking corrections transpire tomorrow or in the near future: the degree of urgency is the stake the Democrats are deciding as they continue selecting their presidential standard-bearer.

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