Friday, February 21, 2020

Tragic: The Gathering

Via Viz.

Sanders opponents can take heart: David Brooks thinks he's going to win ("Why Sanders Will Probably Win the Nomination"):
My takeaway from Wednesday’s hellaciously entertaining Democratic debate is that Sanders is the only candidate telling a successful myth. Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar all make good arguments, but they haven’t organized their worldview into a simple compelling myth. You may look at them, but you don’t see the world through their eyes.
He's partly right here: Sanders really does do something the other candidates haven't been doing very well (Biden has shown a lot of skill at it in the past, but somehow never as a presidential candidate, only when he was running, brilliantly, for vice president). It goes beyond Brooks's somewhat limited concept of what a myth is—

Bernie Sanders is [like Trump] telling a successful myth: The corporate and Wall Street elites are rapacious monsters who hoard the nation’s wealth and oppress working families. This is not an original myth, either. It’s been around since the class-conflict agitators of 1848. It is also a very compelling us vs. them worldview that resonates with a lot of people.
When you’re inside the Sanders myth, you see the world through the Bernie lens.
—he's thinking exclusively, through his own terrorized lens, of the myth of relentless class struggle. Of course it's not a "myth" in the ordinary sense of a false story that explains some real-world phenomenon: "corporate and Wall Street" elites certainly do hoard the wealth and oppress the worker, as the haute-bourgeoisie did in Europe in 1848, so it's a true story, though the part Brooks hates the most isn't really quite true—the rapacity and monstrosity of the hoarders isn't a very important part of the story, and many of them are really very nice, clubbable people in their own social context who would never intentionally starve another person or kick them out of their home, alongside those who would do it in a heartbeat just for the psychopathic fun of it. But it's not exactly anybody's intention to concentrate anybody's capital other than their own; it's the structural factors driving it into ever increasing concentration almost regardless of what the capital holders do.

The more important thing is the phenomenon it explains, the sense especially relatively educated relatively young people have that they're never going to get ahead, never own anything, never stop working, never stop being anxious, never achieve the comfort their parents or more likely grandparents had when they raised a family and kept a garden and went camping for a week in summer.

Brooks is mainly interested in his own "myth", which is the same one he's always selling, that government doesn't need to do anything because one day millions of wealthy and leisured gentlefolk will come together with the poor and distressed and help them lift themselves out of the precarity: It's already happening, all over the country!
I’ve spent much of this election season away from the campaign rallies and interviewing voters embedded in their normal lives. This week, for example, I was in Compton and Watts in and around Los Angeles. The reality I encounter every day has little to do with the us vs. them stories Trump and Sanders are telling.
Everywhere I go I see systems that are struggling — school systems, housing systems, family structures, neighborhoods trying to bridge diversity. These problems aren’t caused by some group of intentionally evil people. They exist because living through a time of economic, technological, demographic and cultural transition is hard. Creating social trust across diversity is hard.
Everywhere I go I see a process that is the opposite of group vs. group war. It is gathering. It is people becoming extra active on the local level to repair the systems in their lives. I see a great yearning for solidarity, an eagerness to come together and make practical change.
No, it's not happening all over the country. There aren't enough wealthy, leisured gentlefolk to meet the challenge, and their numbers get smaller every day. Most wealthy people are as frazzled and anxious as their poorer cousins.

Brooks is so deeply a republican in the sense I was trying to develop the other day—with his longing for a world where people have learned to bypass conflict, in which everybody thinks the same thing, or for the ability to ignore all the disagreeable people who insist on thinking something different and just tear you down instead of weaving you together. He's believing in a well-known myth, of the garden we lived in before we became too woke, or the plain of Shinar where we built that tower after the Flood, where everybody accepted everyone else and we solved all our problems with humility and cheer. But he has much less sense than Sanders of how politics works. How are people going to vote for that? (The closest thing to a Brooksian candidate, Cory Booker, is infinitely better than Brooks but does indulge too often in that churchy voice of sweetness and uncriticality, and he crashed early on.)

And that's why his prediction is wrong even if it's right, because the winner of the nomination might well be Sanders, but it won't be because he's gathered all the Democrats together under a single banner of Marxism-Leninism or whatever Brooks is anxious about but because a coalition has gathered itself around the belief that he can represent their various interests, including the mythological ones, much as John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan did in their time. Mythology is very useful (Lévi-Strauss says mythology is bon à penser, "good to think" the way certain foods are "good to eat), but it isn't everything. Reagan in the soft glow of Brooks's young man memories may have embodied a myth of winning the Cold War or whatever, but in reality he was the man of an almost entirely absent character on whom voters could project any image they liked.
Elizabeth Warren inhabits a myth without expressing it clearly. It just happens to be Sanders’s myth. I thought her performance Wednesday evening was tactically brilliant and strategically catastrophic. Her attack on Bloomberg was totally through the Bernie lens. Her attacks on Buttigieg and Klobuchar were also through the Bernie lens. (Through that lens a bigger spending proposal is always better than a less big spending proposal.)
Warren was a devastatingly effective surrogate for Sanders, but she reinforced his worldview rather than establishing one of her own.
It is astonishing to me that Brooks doesn't recognize the mythic American power of Warren's personal story, as she develops it when she speaks autobiographically about her growth from the plains teenager who decides to get married and make babies instead of going to college to the brilliant college professor who creates a movement to help poor people protect themselves from their creditors and who yells at senators for their failure to act—in contrast to Sanders who has no coherent biography at all. Her attack on Bloomberg and its most effective moment began with his crude insults of women he employs and the possibility that he may be concealing worse through the opacity of non-disclosure agreements; that's not "totally through the Bernie lens", not that Sanders would disagree with her, but he'd never on his own think of such a thing.

I don't want to overdo this, but Warren is all about having a plan and making it work; Sanders is all about kvetching (why is it that the richest country in the world can't X, Y, and Z?) and being so mad he's not going to take it any more. And Sanders's seduction, beyond the frightened college kids who appreciate his almost biblically righteous anger at the forces that threaten them, is aimed at the mythical mostly male "white working class" that won't in fact vote for a Democrat to the extent it exists at all, while Warren's is meant for the actual multiethnic working class dominated by women, which will but needs to be energized.

There's a lot of talk right now about Sanders inevitably winning the nomination because he seems to have a plurality of the support, somewhere around 30% overall and 15 or 20 points or more over all the other contenders, and I continue to be unclear how that's supposed to work: it looks there's a ceiling around there and a pretty large majority of Democrats would seriously prefer not to vote for him, if they could unite or "gather" around some other figure, which is not looking too good at the moment. Still, there's a similar percentage, maybe not so big, of people who seriously don't want to vote for Biden, and a bigger one of those who would rather not vote for Buttigieg. But hardly anybody is saying they won't vote for Elizabeth Warren. If we had ranked choice voting in the primary, I think she'd very likely win. She's sort of like the inverse of Yogi Berra's comment on the place where nobody ever goes because it's too crowded; everybody loves her but they won't vote for her because she's too unpopular.

I'll tell you one thing. If Sanders does win the primary, one of the things that will help me get excited for him will be the recognition that I was wrong about this and he knew better. And that's pretty much true of all the candidates. If the one who wins isn't the one you were backing, it will probably be because they were better than you thought. Unless it's Bloomberg, then it'll be the money. But it won't be Bloomberg, right?

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