For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting a decent number of page views on this blog, for some reason—until a couple of days ago, when they went off a cliff. I’m not sure why. It could be totally random. It could be that I used the word “bros.” It could even be that I wrote something about David Foster Wallace. It’s kind of weird. It’s hard to judge who’s really out there. Is there a real correlation between writing something that could have made someone mad, and seemingly correlated changes in readership? (If I can’t match things I write to drop-offs in page views, how can I consider matching things I write to increases in them? Surely, they’re either random in both cases, or in neither.) Or is it just in my imagination, a matter of how I choose to think about it?
In any event, I’ll make amends by writing something in favor of Bernie Sanders’s appeal. Not that there’s any connection between him and the word “bro.” (Though I’m sure everyone remembers that opposition to the word started at least a year before the Sanders campaign’s start, and the campaign against it only started to pick up steam when it acquired some electoral valence.)
Corey Robin recently wrote an astute post, remarking that the surprising success, so far, of the Sanders campaign has to seem even more incredible to anyone approximately his age who was taught that it’s important to be realistic and measured when proposing progressive reforms. Sanders seems to prove that was wrong. Here’s a similar argument, from the blog at Dissent magazine.
If you’re my age or a little younger (I’m only a few years older than Robin is), you were probably taught to regard the late nineteenth-century Populist and Progressive movements with some disdain. Robert Hoftstadter’s The Age of Reform, which I was assigned in AP American History, my last year in high school, tried hard not to condemn the Populists and their candidate, William Jennings Bryan, but seemed content not entirely to succeed. At the same time, Hofstadter emphasized the greater sense of responsibility possessed by the Progressive movement, but couldn’t disguise its lack of attraction in our own liberal days, with its overt racism, anti-Catholicism, patronizing attitude to workers and the poor, and support for Prohibition. Regardless, if you’re about my age, probably you were taught to respect the political and economic achievements of those movements, their attitude of opposition to big corporations and support for the small businessman and farmer, and their openness to the idea of economic reform.
Within the past ten or twenty years. however, a different attitude has become evident. Nominally progressive writers, a bit younger than I am, people like Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein (now both at Vox), have laid heavy emphasis on the unacceptability of populism in today’s politics, and on the impossibility of criticizing once-contentious ideas like the perfect “efficiency” of the labor market (“efficiency” here means that everybody is paid exactly what they’re worth, all the time, without any forces operating except the purest supply and demand).
Part of this attitude has been based in the association of populism with racism. As Michael Kazin shows in The Populist Persuasion, a leftist class-based politics has been stalled in the US, in part, because of historical white racism within the labor movement. Kazin argues that it is nearly impossible to think of a broad-based popular or working-class movement for just this reason.
The Sanders campaign appears to have transcended this, appealing to white people in the heartland as much as to Black Lives Matter activists. If they have, that’s a pretty big achievement.
As big an achievement, though, is the questioning of the neo-Hayekian status quo among the “Very Serious People” establishment. When Thomas Piketty showed incontrovertibly that inequality is real, and really increasingly, and not coincidentally that measures like GDP have limitations for measuring the health of an economy, the growing concern about the GINI coefficient became unquestionably respectable. This meant, therefore, that “skills-based technological change” could no longer be used as a catch-all explanation for discomfort with the state of employment statistics—nor could its soothing prescription of “more education,” or its desperate hope that things would change for the better in a couple of years, continue to seem plausible. This, in turn, took away part of the force of the anti-populist argument: it was no longer able to simply dismiss populists as people who refused to get sufficiently educated.
What this is going to mean, in terms of future policy change, is still in doubt. As far as I can tell, the Sanders campaign’s proposals are of two kinds: incontrovertibly left-progressive or social-democratic reforms to make parts of the economy less “market-based,” and almost old-fashioned policies seemingly intended to recreate the ideals of the mid-twentieth century liberal consensus. The call for universal free higher education, in particular, seems like it is still very much in thrall to ideas about “skills-based technological change.” Helping more people to be able to do well for themselves is a terrific idea, and so is listening to people attracted to populism, instead of disparaging them. But it might be worth thinking about why populism was discredited for so long, and whether those reasons have fully gone away.