Xaxnar’s excellent diary about Kevin Drum’s critique of the Sanders “revolution” inspired me to comment, but I couldn’t keep my thoughts brief enough. I would like to offer another way to frame the argument.
Drum believes real revolution has only occurred twice in the US since we gained independence. Yet, periodically, large swaths of the Left or the Right (or, as now, both, simultaneously) lose so much confidence in “The System” that they become convinced revolution — whatever that means — is the only way out of corruption, waste, fraud, abuse, injustice, etc.
Such outbursts are metaphorically akin to “catastrophizing,” which is a psycho/medical term used to describe certain patients who do have legitimate pains and diseases that really do need attention and treatment — but their symptoms overwhelm their fields of consciousness to the point that they feel they cannot move forward toward wellness until systemic corrections are made. This perspective becomes so absolute that many patients see no middle ground between total wellness and death. Therefore every choice they make becomes so loaded and grave that they wind up exacerbating their illness with chronic, systemic stress.
But, you might argue, sometimes systems really do become fundamentally diseased — and only radical interventions at that point can reverse a death spiral.
Okay. But in order to accurately gauge the severity of disease (and the degree of catastrophizing behind proposed interventions), it’s necessary to clarify what exactly we are referring to when we imagine “The System” and the “revolution” that purports to be capable of transforming it.
Structurally, our political system is a constitutional democracy with an emphasis on individual economic freedom (not equality), as well as political and personal freedoms constrained by the rule of law (which covers, for example, property rights). We also have a relatively strong state whose job is to enable, and then enforce the always-shifting balance among these competing components.
The Left/Right poles within this system are often described cynically as being fundamentally the same. Political movement toward one pole or the other is described as “incrementalism.” In reality, though, incremental shifts do fundamentally change lives and populations for the better or worse.
Contained within The System is the liberal principle (or argument) that everyone’s basic needs be met. At odds with that principle, but still within the bounds of The System, is the classic conservative rejection of what is often summarily dismissed as “the welfare state” — dismissed primarily on the grounds that it is antithetical to free markets, but also because it is thought to inappropriately expand the state’s role. (See Roger Scruton’s latest book, for example.)
Each iteration of this ongoing debate affects real lives, not only in economic terms, but in cultural terms as well. For example, if you are a conservative you are likely to bolster your free-market convictions with a philosophical acceptance of life’s unfairness. That’s how John Wayne could support white supremacy without seeing himself as a monster. History, tradition, common law, and fate all tend to be privileged in the conservative mind, whereas change and justice are more privileged in the liberal mind. So, during the past seven years, with a liberal in the White House, we have enjoyed not only incremental economic adjustments, but also fairly sweeping cultural adjustments (e.g. gay marriage). National leadership has helped the general public grow more accustomed to a greater emphasis on justice than on freedom (Hobby Lobby notwithstanding).
Yes, change within The System (which is, again, by definition, incremental) can be quite meaningful to individuals and populations, but my main purpose here is to point out the enormity of “revolution.” Because as soon as we start debating revolution in earnest we will be forced to confront those fundamental definitional aspects of our system – rule of law, individual rights, and all the rest. That’s when the real fight will start. A $15 minimum wage is a trifle — politically — compared to revolution.
Drum’s critique of Sanders — that “he’s running a con” — sounds harsh. But there’s some truth to it. Because Sanders’ call for revolution is entirely undefined and aspirational.
On the one hand, if Sanders’ ultimate goal is to make sure everyone’s basic needs are provided for, well, that’s not revolutionary. That is the liberal pole within our current system, and we make progress toward that goal in incremental jumps and starts (including attempts to fix the role money plays in politics, etc). On the other hand, if Sanders is envisioning going outside The System, perhaps toward something approaching economic equality (as opposed to equal opportunity), then he should well know that the battle he is proposing would tear this particular country apart, at least at this particular time in our history.
Which is not to say that we, as a society, should never consider alternate systems; it’s just that we need to be honest about the enormity of such a task. As Xaxnar and Drum point out, our country is nowhere near approaching the levels of stress necessary for spontaneous revolution (and I would argue anyone who believes we are at that point is succumbing to a catastrophizing mindset). If we are indeed short of a spontaneous revolution, the work of the utopians among us is to fully imagine and debate better systems — while taking into account the pragmatic challenges of getting adequate buy-in from our Cliven Bundys and Donald Trumps.
Personally, I’m very open to the possibility of alternative systems. It’s been said that constitutional democracies such as ours come with a “penalty,” in the form of slow processes, ugly compromises, and opportunities for corruption. (That’s been the case since Year One, and pretending otherwise is catastrophizing.) But I think of it kind of like our adversarial legal system: I’m not overly enamored of it, but I haven’t yet seen a better alternative, all things considered. In either case, the status quo does allow for incremental improvements (such as crackdowns on incompetent legal representation), and even holds out the possibility of more transformational change (such as localized experiments in single-payer healthcare).
In fairness to Sanders, I don’t believe he initially intended to lead an actual revolution. He has always, in the past, played the part of ideologue within our system. His role has been to use system-condemning rhetoric to move the Overton Window leftward. So fleshing out a revolutionary model that could convincingly traverse the realities of our current world was never an actual possibility. He skillfully conflated some of today’s more stubborn systemic challenges with emotional, catastrophizing rhetoric. But there was never a realistic endgame. As a leader, he would be destined to either refocus his efforts on incremental change within The System, leading to deep disappointment and alienation among his fellow revolutionaries, or, if he doubled down on his commitment to revolution, he would inevitably lose the confidence of the vast majority of Americans as they realized the profound implications of his strident declarations.
It seems especially hard these days for those of us — left or right — who have become convinced that The System is fundamentally broken. We see legitimate problems and injustices, and wonder how anyone could accept them. But, to my eyes, abandoning our liberal leaders within The System is rewarding the right-wingers who abused The System to wreck the country – those who heartlessly obstructed any and all repair attempts, while constantly proclaiming how broken everything is. In spite of them, we have trudged, slowly and surely, toward progress (and trudging is generally the best we can do, thanks to the penalty of democracy).
Succumbing to catastrophizing is a loss of perspective. We yearn for something more perfect and more inspiring, but, with the opposition currently in turmoil (paying off its karma for all the damage it has inflicted), we are the ones now tasked with actually leading the country down a rational, compassionate path.
We should stay the course, despite all the noise.