Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

"Because I do not hope to turn...."


I'm going to pluck up a huge chunk of this because it explains why I'm not too excited about Bernie Sanders, and why I grow less excited as I hear more from him (as if that really matters to the world, right?).

Here goes:

“A lot of the Republican candidates are funded by the oil industry?” someone offered.

“Exactly,” Sanders said approvingly. “It’s not very hard to understand.”

The campaign donations don’t hurt. But is it the whole story? People—yes, including many working and middle-class people—enjoy cheap fossil fuels, even if they’re aware that it’s poor for the environment. And the oil and gas industry is a major employer: Consider the 2.7 percent unemployment rate for December in North Dakota, the postcard state for the fracking boom. If congressmen or senators representing North Dakota—or any of the other states enjoying great wealth from the presence of oil, gas, or other fossil fuels under their feet—are looking at a bill to move away from those sources of energy, their opposition isn’t entirely the product of a peek at their campaign coffers. It’s about maintaining and creating working and middle-class jobs for the people they represent, however myopically. For all the control that billionaires and corporate special interests do exert on the political system, the largest special interest is still millions and millions of people who like the securities that they do have and reject the root-and-branch changes a candidate like Sanders proposes.

As Obama’s example has shown, a candidate can promise systemic change, but if the theory for achieving it isn’t airtight—and it rarely is—the disappointment of unmet expectations can be crushing to those who allow themselves to be captivated. That appeal to caution and realism is even more central to Sanders’ chief Democratic rival now than it was Obama’s chief Democratic rival in 2008.

Let me stop right there:  the theory can be as airtight as a sealed space capsule, and it doesn't matter.  Theory doesn't change hearts and minds:  efforts and desires do.  Martin Luther King (a little appreciated leader of change, admired though he is for having "a dream") worked hard with people to practice non-violence in the face of very real and very personal violence.  As he says in his famous Letter:

We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

It may be "theory" that engaged those people; but it was their bodies, their effort, their beatings and imprisonment and endurance, that changed the hearts and minds of Americans.  I daresay it was the ugliness of the reaction to passive protesters simply walking the streets of American cities, protesters who were beaten by police, knocked to the ground by water cannons, mauled by police dogs, that began to change the hearts and minds of Americans, that made them realize just how ugly racism is; and that we long before Dr. King announced his "dream."  Frankly, you want to bring change, that's how you do it.  Not by proclaiming yourself the leader of a revolution because you are challenging for the Democratic nomination for President.  You do it by engaging in the hard work of developing followers who want to bring pressure to bear for the needed change, and then getting them to bring that pressure, from the ground up.  That's the effort King was a part of, and that Jane Meyer and Rick Perlstein have chronicled in American right wing politics, and frankly I don't see any one politician running for President who is going to effect change absent such a grass roots effort.

Just ask George McGovern.  Or, for that matter, Barack Obama.  And it's true:  the oil industry does employ A LOT of people; and many of those people don't work for multinational corporations, or the oil companies you think of when you think of "oil companies." "[T]he largest special interest is still millions and millions of people who like the securities that they do have and reject the root-and-branch changes a candidate like Sanders proposes."  How many of those millions and millions are voting in New Hampshire tomorrow, and how many more will vote in November across the country?
Hillary Clinton has limited patience for opponents who speak in terms of political sea changes. She would have hoped that Obama’s inability to bring about a paradigm shift away from gridlocked politics would resign voters to a candidate who’s only ever promised the grind. But here we are again.

Clinton accepts straightforwardly that the battle in the country is between Democrats and Republicans who believe in different things. There is no realignment coming. You cannot disappear powerful special interests, but you can manage them. The important thing is to elect a Democrat—namely, Clinton. Sanders spends little time talking about Democrats, Republicans, or even himself. He speaks in broad, start-from-scratch terms about, say, “creating an economy” that works better than the current one. Clinton speaks of building on what’s already been built over the past seven years and keeping the White House out of Republicans’ hands. Sanders’ economic history of the last 25 years is simple and straightforward: The rich and powerful have gotten richer and more powerful at the expense of everyone else. Clinton’s pitch is that the economy has either been good or bad depending on which party was in control of the presidency.

“[Bill Clinton] inherited a recession,” Clinton said at a Jan. 22 town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, to a standing-room crowd. “He inherited a quadrupling of our debt in the prior 12 years. … At the end of eight years, we had 23 million new jobs, but most importantly, incomes went up for everybody.”

“Well, unfortunately, along came George W. Bush,” she continued. Boo! “We had a balanced budget and a surplus. We had an economy that had created rising incomes. And they want back to the same old stuff: cut taxes on the wealthy, get out of the way of corporations … and you know what happened: the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

Obama had “done nothing to create the mess he inherited, but it was up to him to fix it,” she said. “And I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves.”

Ir's not exactly a Niebuhrian analysis of original sin and human societies, but Clinton is right.  Her husband wasn't the ideological figure Sanders' supporters long for, but he did more good than harm.  The ideological figure was George W. Bush (more accurately, Dick Cheney) and the people he surrounded himself with.  Andrew Jackson was quite sure of the rightness of his positions, too; but I don't know too many people who think the Trail of Tears was a triumph of single-mindedness and determination.

Which is to say, yes, I'm still an Obama guy, despite all that has happened:

Obama himself, who once envisioned entering the presidency with a mandate for broad change that would translate into a “big bang” of bipartisan legislation on health care, climate change, and financial reform, appears to have gravitated to Clinton’s view of eternal partisan struggle. “The truth is,” Obama told Politico in a recent interview, “in 2007 and 2008, sometimes my supporters and my staff, I think, got too huffy about what were legitimate questions she was raising” about his vision. Obama used to mock what he perceived to be the Clintonian focus on small-ball measures like school uniforms after their own top legislative items were stymied in 1994. Now he’d be lucky to move forward on something anywhere near as sweeping and comprehensive.

That eternal struggle is, in Niebuhrian terms, the struggle of good against evil.  But in Niebuhrian terms it is a struggle taken on with humility, recognizing that your "good" is as likely to turn evil, or even to be evil, as it is to remain purely and wholly good.  Clinton's not exactly a Niebuhr disciple, but at least she doesn't think she's bringing change that will, in itself, be an unalloyed good.  That kind of conviction the Greeks called "hubris."  Today, we usually call it "messianic."  Either way, it's a delusion about the perfection of your intentions.

To return to the analysis:

Bernie Sanders abhors those who look at politics as “stagnant.”

“There was once a time not so many years ago,” he told the students of Concord High School, “where people felt that someone, because the color of their skin was different than mine, that person should not have the right to vote. … It took a very, very long time, and a whole lot of people to say, ‘That is wrong.’ It took a change of consciousness.”

“So the first point I want to make to you,” Sanders leaned in, “and I want you to be thinking about it, is: How does change come?”
The change he's referring to didn't come through the ballot box, or even from the legislative superpowers of LBJ.  It came from the combined efforts of the Civil Rights movement and the President from Texas, who understood the power of bipartisan cooperation.

What powers Sanders and his campaign, even after Obama’s failure to move the country to a sounder political system, is a sense that what’s happening now is untenable. Both in terms of an economy killing all but the rich, and a political system of such dysfunction that its constitutional design has been called into review.

If there is a bipartisan strand of thinking that’s caught fire this cycle, it’s the idea that promises of bipartisan cooperation from the top-down are the most unrealistic promises of all. Though the two parties are so gapingly far apart on policy that they’re not even addressing the same policy questions—one party feels that climate change is the greatest threat to world peace and security today, for example; the other is either agnostic or outright hostile to its very existence—their most surprisingly successful candidates are addressing the same structural question of tenability.
Obviously I'm not a fan of top-down changes in systems.  Maybe it's because I failed at it myself, and learned the lesson that change doesn't come that way.  I like to think it's just because I'm old enough to know better.  But the comparisons of Sanders to Trump are myriad; and there's not that much difference between the appeal of Trump and Cruz, either:

Sen. Ted Cruz offers a near mirror image of Sanders’ theory of change, promising to bludgeon the establishment “Washington cartel” into submission by appealing to the vast grassroots movement he’s sought to build. Donald Trump speaks of “dealmaking,” but his vision has less to do with ushering bipartisan cooperation than with him wielding his own personal strength against the “losers” who oversee the current, broken system.

Pundits, operatives, and other in-the-know types expected more prosaic candidates like Clinton and Jeb Bush to coast to their respective nominations as voters, having witnessed what awaits a president-elect who promised an epochal shift, settled for a more realistic view of the political process. But voters have resigned themselves to a competing realism: that a greater level of political audacity is in order, because what we have right now isn’t working.
On that last sentence:  well, maybe.  We've heard from a little over 200,000 voters in Iowa so far, and there the polls were all off the mark of the results.  It's a bit premature to decide the polls have decided this election slated for November in February, so I'm more inclined to say the voters have resigned themselves to the realism that nothing is really going to change just by going to a caucus or a primary.  After all, 2500 voters turned out for the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 2008, and Barack Obama, a virtually unknown black man with a funny name, garnered 940 votes.  The more familiar, and very white, Clinton and Saunders nearly evenly split less than 1400 votes between them.  I'm not seeing the "greater level of political audacity" just yet.

Still with me?  Time for the big finish:

Sanders’ proposed solution is a long shot, and it is not without its arguable premises. But the fact that he’s the one who’s most up-front about its difficulty is what gives his supporters the impression that his campaign is one worth joining. What Sanders knows, though, is that his own election or defeat in this primary cycle is a minor part in the movement he’s trying to create that needs to last for years and not just to spike during election seasons. That means insisting that people continue to think of big changes in their politics, not small ones—even if they’ve been burned before.
But you see, I don't think Sanders is up front about the difficulties at all.  He think's he's going to spark a revolution, one that will burn with or without him.  I'm not only old enough to remember the McGovern debacle (and the electoral revolution that wasn't after the passage of the 26th Amendment), but also to remember the "revolution" promised by Ross Perot (who yes, was a flake and a flameout, but without him the third party he was supposed to be starting withered away).  Bernie Sanders is a challenging opponent to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries; or he may be, depending on the outcome of the rest of the primaries; but he's not a leader of a movement.

And he's certainly not about to start a fire that won't be put out.  Winning to the White House would unleash a deluge of water on those sparks.

I realize this is my second long post on Sanders as a POTUS candidate.  I thought maybe it was just me, hanging around the "wrong" parts of the intertoobs.  Then again, maybe it isn't just me.    I am weary of the charade that politics is in this country.  It does feel like we've been anticipating New Hampshire's primary since the inauguration in 2013, and if I never hear about Dixville Notch again in this lifetime, it will be too soon.  The "tradition" of Iowa and New Hampshire being first in the nation is not a tradition, it's an aberration.  But it isn't going to change, so there's no use complaining about it.

Even though I just did.

SB's statistic, that Clinton and Sanders voted together 93% of the time when she was in the Senate, is telling.  I read a lot about what a "sellout" Clinton is, and how pure and noble of heart Sanders is; and I'd attribute that to his zealous supporters if Sanders wasn't declaring himself the vanguard of a revolution, language that is either messianic or delusional, depending on your point of view.  Political revolutions really don't have much legitimacy:  the English overthrew their King, then asked him back again; the French did the same, after suffering first the Reign of Terror.  The Russians threw off one dictator in favor of another.  The American Revolution only succeeded when the Constitution was adopted, and we're still fighting over what that "victory" really meant over 200 years later.  But a revolution that will end revolutions, that will upend the political and national culture and usher in the thousand years of peace and prosperity?

Not really in the cards, simply as a practical matter.  The Danes and the Swedes have the government they do because of their culture, not in spite of it.  We are too British to go that route, and every declaration that this time we will succeed in overturning 500 years of American history is merely the foolishness of the young who think history started shortly after they were born.  Would I like to see it happen?  Yes.  But I'd also like to be young and healthy until my dying day, and to pass painlessly and comfortably from this realm.

That's not going to happen, either.

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