The Politics of Anger

Mario Cuomo’s often quoted adage, “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” neglects to say that the poetry more often than not is bad poetry.  Campaign speeches are cliché ridden, repetitious, rarely inspired by genuine conviction and filled with promises that the speakers know can’t be kept.  It is an insult to poetry to associate it with the banality of campaigning.  The election of 2016 so far is singularly devoid of the semblance of poetry.  Hillary Clinton’s speeches are in the pragmatic mode of governance.  The Republicans speak the language of rage and following Trump, of crude adolescent taunts heard in mean streets.  Even Sanders, whose “visionary” stump speeches might in the ears of his audience have a semblance of poetry, rages against establishments: Democratic, Republican, Corporate and the Media.

In his final State of the Union speech, Obama lamented the rancor that has permeated politics during his time in office.   He was of course referring to fierce Republican hostility to his administration.  The rancor of voters has now morphed into equal opportunity anger against so-called insider, establishment politicians of all stripes.  The electorate seems not to realize that the indiscriminate anger permeating the political atmosphere is itself a cause of what angers them.  The multiple failures of Congress to pass necessary legislation are the result of intransigent Republican hostility toward Obama and his administration.  We want things to get done, says the public, and it votes in representatives who refuse to engage in the necessary process of negotiation and compromise with the Administration.  Rage against “the establishment” is the order of the day.  This is especially true of the Republican candidates for president, chief among them Donald Trump.   Progressives will not like to hear that Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side in his call for a political revolution has bought into the rage.  In a time when the pervasive complaint is that our politics is polarized and dysfunctional, the relentless castigating of establishments only exacerbates the polarization and dysfunction.  Let me be clear: I see no virtue, only force, in Trump’s performance and I do see virtue, though little realism, in Sanders’s goals.  Trump’s triumph in the election would be a disaster.  His authoritarian and vulgar personality and the incoherence, bad faith and vacuity of his political convictions make him dangerously unqualified for the presidency.  It might seem therefore a travesty to suggest that Sanders and Trump are comparable.  Sanders is a man of integrity, Trump not.  But they nevertheless have a political effect in common: both intensify in different ways the disabling polarization that afflicts the country.

On the Republican side, Trump directs his fire toward the Republican establishment.  The fact is that the establishment has effectively lined up with its intransigent anti-establishment Tea Party critics.  There is little difference between them.  The result has been congressional gridlock.  Having elected representatives bent on obstructing the legislative process, the electorate should reflect on its own role in creating the so-called establishment it now abominates.  Trump’s appeal to white nativist fears of “illegal aliens,” “Mexican rapists,” and Muslim immigrants makes a Trump presidency a dreadful prospect.  On the Democratic side, Sanders inveighs against the Democratic establishment.  The culprits, according to the senator, are not only Wall Street contributors to Clinton’s campaign, but also Planned Parenthood and the labor unions supporting her.  The “establishment” has become an elastic invective rather than a description of reality.  To achieve what Sanders advocates and promises (the crucial word) would indeed require the political revolution he advocates.  The country is politically and culturally divided between the liberally minded on the left, who in the interest of improving infrastructure, education and the safety net, support an active government funded by substantial taxation of the wealthy and the conservatively minded on the right mistrustful of central government and averse to taxation.  A Sanders revolution would mean the complete overthrow of the conservatively minded, improbable if not impossible, and undesirable from a democratic perspective.  Does Sanders expect a Republican dominated Congress to accede to his presumably non-violent revolution that would overcome virtually every position and policy advocated by the opposition?  Short of the political revolution, anything a Sanders administration would hope to achieve would require establishment, non-establishment and anti-establishment involvement in negotiation and cooperation.  And what would be achieved, if successful, would be considerably less than and different from what he promised as a candidate, resulting in the disillusionment of his followers.

The received wisdom about the candidates is that Trump and Sanders are exceptional in being anti-establishment; all the other candidates (with the possible exception of Cruz) are viewed as members of the establishment elites.  Is there any doubt that before Trump decided to run for president he was and saw himself as a member of the economic elite, a force in America’s greatest city and financial center, and comfortable in all the sites where elites circulate?  Sanders is another story.  I am less interested in the fact that he has been in Congress for 25 years; though having been a politician all his life, he hardly qualifies as an outsider.  He has been, let us a say, a maverick, certainly an independent.  In running for the presidency, however, on the Democratic ticket, his anti-establishment rhetoric at times includes the Obama Administration, the effect of which is to ally him with the flailing anger of the candidates in the opposing party.  Sanders does not make a sufficiently clear distinction between the obstructionist behavior of the hard right Republican conservative leadership of Congress and the Obama administration that, while delivering less than Sanders promises, has enacted legislation (at times without Sanders’s support) to save the economy from depression and has strongly advocated reducing gross economic inequality.  In constantly reminding his audiences of how beholden Hillary Clinton, an Obama supporter, is to Wall Street, he does a disservice to the liberal cause by dissociating himself from the Democratic establishment that within the constraints of actually governing stands for many of things that he himself stands for.  The establishment includes fellow members of the Senate, most of whom are supporting Clinton.  If anything is to be accomplished in the way of progressive legislation, these senators are needed to prevail in Congress.  The leader of the party would be required to campaign for their reelection.  Would Sanders, as the nominee of the party and elected leader, be fit to campaign for those against whom he is inveighing?

His goals are exemplary progressive goals:  a radical narrowing of the gross inequality gap, free tuition in public colleges and universities, a single payer health insurance law and the increase of social security benefits.  They are, as I say, exemplary, but not above criticism.  Consider, for instance, single payer.  Sanders invokes the Scandinavian countries as models of successful single payer systems, but in size and complexity these countries are comparable to American states, not to the United States as whole.  The Scandinavian states are, relatively speaking, demographically homogeneous.  Administering their health systems is comparable to an American state administering its system.  It resembles what would be local state control in the United States.  Small country single payer has an enormous advantage over what a possible single payer in a large diverse country like the United States, comparable to the size and diversity of the European Union, a more intimate knowledge of the needs of its citizens.  Installing single payer, if it were politically possible, would have a powerfully disruptive effect on the private healthcare system currently in place.  It would mean a dismantling or reducing in size of insurance companies, a significant loss in employment of those who work for the companies and a major increase in the power of the central government.  Universal health coverage does not require single payer.  Other European countries such as Germany and Belgium have successful universal health care run by private insurance companies that are effectively regulated by the government.  They would be relatively non-disruptive models for improving Obamacare.  Cultural attitudes toward government control and regulation vary from country to country.  The kind of abstract appeal that Sanders makes to the experiences of Scandinavian countries as a guide for what we should do ignores differences in cultural attitudes.  Neither the American electorate nor its representatives would accept the huge increases in marginal tax rates that Sanders’s programs would require, increases, one should add, insufficient to fund the programs.  His angry stridency on the subject as well as on other subjects does not invite open discussion and debate.  When asked how he hopes to achieve what he promises, he speaks of the strength of the movement he has created as if that movement does not have its limits in facing the Tea Party movement on the right and the Republican controlled Congress that has absorbed it.

The prevailing wisdom in the commentariat is that what Trump and Sanders have in common (and hence their appeal) is a presumed authenticity that infuses their anger.  What is authenticity, and what makes a politician authentic?  The simplest answer is that the politicians truly mean what they say.  Their views and promises have their source in genuine conviction.  How does the electorate know whether the conviction is genuine?  Perhaps the strongest evidence would be the consistency with which the politician has held his views over the years even at the risk of alienating his constituency.  Sanders, it appears, meets the standard.  His score may not be perfect, having voted 5 times against the Brady bill, which requires background checks on gun owners, votes made in the interests of his gun owning Vermont constituency.  He has, however, never wavered from his passionate commitment to what he calls democratic socialism, in a country generally understood to be hostile to the very idea of socialism.  His consistent campaigning for economic equality is proof.  Sanders passes the test with good, though not perfect, marks.  Not so with Trump, who with the cooperation of the media has nevertheless managed to sustain the myth of authenticity.   His views since he has entered the presidential race are in contradiction to views he held before he entered the race.  He was pro choice and now is pro life, was for funding Planned Parenthood and is now against it, was for accepting Syrian refugees and now “hat[ing] the very concept of it”, was for and against the flat tax—and this is only a partial list.   Trump does appear authentic in the eyes and ears of his supporters and even many of those who hold in contempt his bigoted language, its tone and “substance.”  He is uninhibited in his profanity and vulgarity; he speaks in a voice that ranges from contempt to anger, directed toward rivals and holders of office.  His is a language that has never been consistently used before in political campaigns; it would simply have scuttled the efforts of candidates in earlier times.  What makes it seem authentic is the apparent risk taken in using it.  We are so bored by scripted political speech that Trumpspeak, even when it is outrageous or because it is outrageous, commands attention.  Even those opposed to Trump wake up from the torpor of listening to his scripted rivals when he speaks.  He both amuses and disgusts, but we actually listen and remember what he says.  (He has the charisma of Cipolla the magician in Thomas Mann’s novella “Mario and the Magician,” a character modeled on Mussolini, who hypnotizes his audiences.  They do differ in the contrast between Cipolla’s bald head and Trump’s garish red hair, but resemble each other in their facial expressions, uplifted heads and pursed lips.  Politically incoherent, shallow and opportunistic, Trump is no fascist in the mold of Mussolini or, for that matter, a nazi in the mold of Hitler—as Fred Smoler has persuasively argued.  But his authoritarian personality and bigotry brings them to mind.  He is the conman, as Mitt Romney has called out, a secular Elmer Gantry.  Whatever name you want to give to his politics, it is at once embarrassing in its ignorance and dangerous in its malice.)  Trump has in fact risked very little, having capitalized on what he knows best, so-called reality television of which he is a master, and which has great appeal to audiences who speak his language in their private lives.  The fact is that Trump has the inauthenticity of a reality show performer who assumes a role in order to entertain an audience.  He said of his promise to build a wall on the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants that it was made to keep his audience from becoming bored.  He avoids questions about policies and programs, answers to which he is smart enough to know would only show up the vacuity of his political understanding.

We have only the faintest idea of what Trump’s plans and policies are.  We do know what Sanders stands for and hopes to achieve.  But here is where the question of authenticity becomes a red herring; in Sanders case, it distracts from the serious question of what can be realistically accomplished.  Given political and economic reality, it is hard to see how, if elected, he would achieve his goals of single payer, expand social security and free tuition in public colleges and universities.   Progressive economists have done the math and declared that the Sanders budget doesn’t add up.  (His political reflex without evidence has been to attribute a political motive to their findings: they are supporters of Clinton.)  And even if the budget did add up, resistance from a Republican controlled congress would be insuperable.  Sanders has used his authenticity as a club to impugn Clinton’s authenticity as an advocate of progressive policies by associating her with Wall Street banks and corporate interests rather than with the causes she and he have in common, again without any evidence that the financial support she has received from banks compromised her political decisions.   He has given ammunition to her Republican opponents.  Though not a model of authenticity, she has been unfairly singled out as an example of inauthenticity as if her rivals are clear of the charge.  Sanders’s authenticity is hard to distinguish from ideological rigidity, a distraction in the political realm from where the focus should be: the wisdom of the policies proposed and the ability to realize them.

Pundits both liberal, for example, Mark Shields and conservative, for example, David Brooks make an invidious distinction between Sanders’s visionary idealism and Clinton’s lack of a rationale for her candidacy.  Clinton views herself as a pragmatic progressive and therefore, in their view, not a visionary and without a rationale for seeking office.  It is as if a pragmatic, progressive outlook informed by decades of political experience and high intelligence does not count as a good reason for running for president. Sanders equates progressivism with revolution, that is, with radical change—as if progress cannot be achieved incrementally.   When asked whether Clinton was a progressive, Sanders responded, “sometimes, but at other times a moderate, as she proudly has described herself.”  “Progressive” and “moderate” are not antonyms.  In describing herself as a moderate and a progressive, Hillary Clinton is not contradicting herself.  The term “progressive” describes outlook or ideology, the term “moderate” characterizes tactics.  Both Sanders and Clinton are progressive, the former advocating radical change, the latter incremental change.  Clinton realistically proposes a course of action that would make for progress, whereas a Sanders revolution inadvertently would probably bring to a halt the progress that has already been made.  Clinton supports Obamacare and seeks to improve it; Sanders favors single payer insurance, the effect of which, given political reality, could mean gridlock and the undoing of Affordable Health Care without its substitution by a single payer.  We would be back at square one in the battle for universal health insurance. Sanders’s agenda is a wish list based on economic figures that even progressive economists like Paul Krugman do not find credible.

Notwithstanding the radical difference in character between Trump and Sanders, what they have in common is their populist appeal to white working and middle class discontent.  Trump exploits the ethnic and racial side of the discontent on immigration, and Sanders, of course, does not, but the difference between them seems to have gotten lost in the sentiments of voters for whom both candidates represent what they conceive to be their interests.  Worse than the establishment is a rage for mindless authoritarian solutions to difficult, sometimes intractable problems.  Advice to Sanders: Desist from constantly attacking all establishments, concentrate on the xenophobia, authoritarian personality and vulgarity of Trump and the deplorable alternatives in the Republican primaries and engage Hillary Clinton in debate about progressive policies and programs that can be realistically enacted.


Postscript:  I have been reading Max Lerner’s massive America as a Civilization: Life and Thought in the United States Today (1957).  His description of Congress applies without the slightest qualification to our day as well.  “Congress has become a problem child of the American governmental family.  It is noisy, volatile, vulnerable to pressure groups and lobbies, often parochial in its outlook, jealous of its prerogatives, insecure about its position, implacable in its vendettas, bewildered by its mounting tasks.  It has lost its reputation for great debate, has become intractable to party leadership and discipline and incapable of disciplining itself, and in recent generations it has developed fewer examples of the great leadership it once possessed.  It seems less capable than ever of forming a steady majority that can carry through a planned and reasoned program of legislation.  Only in the closing weeks of the session, under the hard driving of administration managers working with the majority and sometimes the minority leaders, does a legislative program get pushed through, with far too much carelessness and haste.”  This is a judgment of Congress during the relatively benign Eisenhower administration—even before the advent of Newt Gingrich, who, when he became Speaker of the House, is generally assigned the role of villain for having caused the polarization of the parties and its current state of gridlock.  Commentators now say that the current political situation is the worst since the Civil War.  The passage in Lerner’s book, however, points to a permanent condition in our society and constitution: a polarization always potential and too often actual.  An irony: The legislative inaction of the Republican Congress during the Obama years may have led to a nominee of its own party who promises drastic executive actions that it would deplore perhaps even more than Obama’s executive actions such as deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants.


Postscript 2.  Peter Beinart has warned against the violence a Trump presidency would bring, indeed that it has already brought.  That warning should become part of the campaign against him.  It should also be a caution on the Democratic side.  Anger, unconstrained by thoughtfulness, doesn’t solve problems.