Mainstream liberalism and its champions are part of the barren, bleak cultural and intellectual terrain left by decades of right-wing ascendency and left-wing retreat.
Discarding New Deal liberalism and its goal of guaranteeing minimal living standards, a measure of social warfare, and some class mobility, liberalism accepted the supremacy of the market and its blessing of the inevitability of inequality. The new gospel of liberalism announces that economic growth and market forces will provide for all if government only “incentivizes” the private sector. This ideology was embraced by the New Democrats who won the Democratic party during and after the Reagan years.
At the same time, the social base of the Democratic Party shifted, in the post-Watergate era, away from poor and working class voters, its traditional base through most of the twentieth century, toward professionals and middle strata in urban centers and suburban bedroom communities. Issues that troubled this increasingly dominant and influential segment pushed aside the New Deal and Great Society concerns: housing and de facto segregation, public education and educational inequality, institutional racism and sexism, deeply rooted poverty and its consequent social dysfunctions, jobs, union representation, health care, public assets and services, etc.
In place of these concerns, liberals and the Democratic Party emphasize obstacles that may obstruct the full realization of the “American Dream.” The liberal agenda today addresses “glass ceilings,” lifestyle choices, and other issues that impact the safety, security, and freedom of the middle and upper-middle strata. Those falling below these markers are offered second-class schools, second-class health care, second-class neighborhoods, and second-class services. Modern liberals have shrewdly obscured this shift by creating an artificial class-- the “middle class”-- that purports to include hospital workers, food service workers, and sweatshop workers in the same class with doctors, lawyers, and financial managers. For those left out of this broad, meaningless class, the Democratic Party offers the fruits of volunteerism and charitable giving as expressed in its 2012 platform.
It is, therefore, no surprise that there is a growing distance between liberals and the Democratic Party, on one side, and the vast majority of US working and poor people who have been battered and made insecure by the economic crisis that came to a head in 2008. The 2016 primary elections and the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump demonstrate this divide, though mainstream liberals are dismissive of both.
A recent column by long-time The Nation columnist, Katha Pollitt (Why Didn’t Bernie Get Me, May 23-30, 2016) illustrates this widening division. It must be said that Pollitt is a long-standing liberal and one who, in the past, often supported the Old Democrats over the new breed. She concedes as much in a February column revisiting her past electoral choices. But as with other liberal pundits, the causes of the past do not fuel the passions of the present.
In an election year that has brought out the pitchforks and has seen insurgents take aim at the heart of the establishment of both political parties, Pollitt is oddly remote from the contests. In the opening paragraph of her commentary, she confesses “...I neglected to read the instructions on my absentee ballot, which clearly stated that it had to be post marked [by?] the day before the actual primary, and thus missed my chance to vote...” Apparently the stakes in the primary were not of any great consequence to Pollitt, at least not enough to focus her attention on casting a vote.
She goes on to explain why Bernie Sanders didn’t get the vote that she didn’t cast. First and foremost, Senator Sanders suffers from the affliction claimed of all those seeking to redirect the Democratic Party: a lack of “electability.” It’s truly a wonder how pundits can always diagnose this affliction in candidates that they do not like. It’s particularly a wonder with Bernie Sanders, who appears to be more “electable” against the likely Republican candidate than Hillary Clinton in virtually every poll taken.
But polls mean nothing, when your gut tells you something different. Especially if you warm up a tasteless stew of age-contempt, Red-baiting and fear-mongering: “I just don’t believe Americans are ready for a 74-year-old self-described socialist with a long far-left CV who would raise their taxes by quite a lot. By the time the Republicans get a hold of him, he’d be the love child of Rosa Luxemburg and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and then it’s hello, President Trump.”
I’m sure this snide remark would get an amused titter at liberal cocktail parties.
But for Pollitt, the real complaint is lack of a commitment to women’s rights. At the same time, she acknowledges that Sanders supports a “laundry list” of “causes dear to the heart of… feminists.” Further, she notes that Sanders “has a good voting record on those issues in Congress.”
So where lie his failings of commitment?
“There were all those little tells,” she says. Pollitt’s “tells” are those slights and nuances for which academic liberals have coined the term “micro-offenses.” Though Senator Sanders’ record is unimpeachable, Pollitt is skeptical of his heart. Because his word choice may have been, on occasion, questionable, because his staff may be gender and racially unbalanced, because some of his supporters may be brutish males, Pollitt can’t be sure of his sincerity.
This, coupled with a large dose of Trump-dread, denied Bernie Sanders the vote that Katha Pollitt forgot to cast, despite the fact that “... in important ways his politics are closer to mine [Katha Pollitt’s] than Hillary Clinton’s are, and his campaign for the White House is inspiring.”
This is liberalism without a soul, a personal politics that calculates “micro-offenses” with the same weight as the life-and-death issues that millions of poor and working class women and men face daily.
Katha Pollitt and other liberals, including Bernie Sanders, could further demonstrate that their commitment to women’s rights transcends a narrow, parochial vision or political opportunism by standing with others-- women and men-- against the coup in Brazil that stripped the country’s first woman President, Dilma Vana Rousseff of her position. A cabal of men organized this coup-- no doubt with US encouragement-- to deny her the term of service which she earned in the last elections. This outrage has yet to draw the attention of the US liberal mainstream.
Likewise, the vindictive indictment of Christina Kirchner, the ex-president of Argentina, on trumped-up charges has been largely met with indifference on the part of US liberals and feminists.
Where are you, Katha Pollitt and Bernie Sanders?