A response to old folks (like myself)

What if your political locus is neither the social upheavals of the 1960s nor the 2008 financial crisis?

Adam Gopnik wrote an article for the New Yorker in which he contrasted the “New Left” of the 1960s, which has been appalled by the rightward shift of U.S. politics since then, with folks for whom the 2008 financial crisis, and specifically, Barack Obama’s response to it, exposed the corruption of the Democratic Party.[1] While he captures much of my experience, he misses much of my perception, and that left me feeling distinctly uneasy.

Let’s begin with the reaction to the 1960s:

For those who were around then [in 1968], the essential revelation, painfully learned, was that revolutionary politics in America lead not to social change but to accelerated reactionary politics: the “silent majority” steps into action, the rhetoric of law and order is invoked, and everything turns to the right. Except for the brief and equivocal Jimmy Carter interval, the result was an ever more rightward-moving turn in American politics for the next quarter century. So drastic was this revolution that, from 1968 to 1992, it was a commonplace to see a Democratic wipeout each November, and the political columnist Nicholas von Hoffman even asked if one of our two parties, the Democrats, was simply disappearing from the scene.

The George McGovern crowd learned that America was far more naturally right-wing than the rhetoric of the civil-rights years would make you think, and then that there was, in the terms of the time, no limit to the rightward turns that the country could take. (It is hard to remember that Ronald Reagan, a former Democrat who got widely known as a politician, rather than as the host of “Death Valley Days,” by speaking up for Barry Goldwater and warning in apocalyptic terms against Medicare, was once seen as being as much on the far right of his party as Sanders is on the far left of his, but he was.) Having lived through a rightward turn that was barely tolerable, older liberals are scared to death of a still further right-wing turn, in a second Donald Trump term, to outright, unashamed, Viktor Orbán–style authoritarianism. They are terrified not that Sanders can win but that he can’t.[2]

There is even more truth here than Gopnik states. How can that be?

When Gopnik refers to “the rhetoric of law and order,” he understates it. Neoconservatism, which prizes the U.S. system of so-called “capitalist democracy” in absolutist terms as the ideal organizing system for all people everywhere and prioritizes the defense of that system in the U.S. was born in this era. It consisted largely of Democrats who felt the party had lurched to the left and left them behind.[3]

When we speak of “law and order,” as a critical theorist, I ask, whose law? Whose order? The answer here is that law is passed largely by wealthy white males and enforced largely on their behalf against the poor and people of color. This is the difference between so-called “common” street crime and “white collar” crime, with the latter penalized, much more rarely, and even then, often merely with civil sanctions; and the former penalized with the full weight of the criminal system.[4] When we speak of crimes against Iraq, whether the United Nations sanctions that are thought to have killed a half million children,[5] or the subsequent war launched on false pretenses;[6] when we speak of bank fraud that led to the financial crisis and that went not only entirely unpunished but was rewarded;[7] when, by contrast, we speak of an epidemic of incarceration[8] and a profoundly biased and flawed criminal [in]justice system;[9] when we speak of a neoliberal political program that has widened social inequality, further enriching the rich at the expense of the poor,[10] we speak not so much of something new in U.S. politics as a radical exacerbation of tendencies that have been present from the beginning,[11] and we speak of that very discrepancy between the crimes of the rich and the crimes of the poor. It is that very exacerbation that we can attribute to the rise of neoconservatism and of its moral imperative, neoliberalism, as forming the bipartisan so-called “Washington Consensus.”[12]

Yes, it has been horrible. In my perception, each president (yes, this includes Jimmy Carter[13]) since Richard Nixon, whom I was raised to consider the epitome of evil, has been progressively worse, as we find this reaction, neoconservatism, barely beginning with the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and fully coalescing in the Ronald Reagan presidency[14] and being reinforced and accelerated ever since. Barack Obama did not merely excuse all this criminality, especially that of the George W. Bush administration, but he embraced and extended it. He is not a hero of the left, but a man who betrayed it.[15]

Gopnik, however, perceives the young who support Bernie Sanders as having a locus on the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.[16] And this is the source of my discomfort, because, even if from a very young age and even if having not always paid close attention, I have seen almost all of it. Donald Trump is a culmination, not a radical departure. Gopnik effectively downplays that and thus diminishes the need for, some would call it “radical,” revolutionary change.

  1. [1]Adam Gopnik, “Learning to Love Bernie Sanders, or Trying To,” New Yorker, March 3, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/learning-to-love-bernie-sanders-or-trying-to
  2. [2]Adam Gopnik, “Learning to Love Bernie Sanders, or Trying To,” New Yorker, March 3, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/learning-to-love-bernie-sanders-or-trying-to
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126); David Benfell, “The seven tendencies of conservatism,” Irregular Bullshit, n.d., https://disunitedstates.com/the-seven-tendencies-of-conservatism/; George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  4. [4]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2004).
  5. [5]Mohamed M. Ali and Iqbal H. Shah, “Sanctions and childhood mortality in Iraq,” Lancet 355, no. 9218 (May 27, 2000), doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(00)02289-3; David Rieff, “Were Sanctions Right?” New York Times, July 27, 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/27/magazine/were-sanctions-right.html
  6. [6]Dennis Loo and Peter Phillips, eds., Impeach the President (New York: Seven Stories, 2006).
  7. [7]Neil Barofsky, Bailout (New York: Free, 2012); Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire (New York: Metropolitan, 2012).
  8. [8]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons (New York: New, 2011).
  9. [9]Dan Simon, In Doubt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2012).
  10. [10]Daniel Altman, Neoconomy (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004); Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012).
  11. [11]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  12. [12]David Benfell, “The seven tendencies of conservatism,” Irregular Bullshit, n.d., https://disunitedstates.com/the-seven-tendencies-of-conservatism/
  13. [13]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010)
  14. [14]Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: PublicAffairs, 2000); Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
  15. [15]Cornel West, “Pity the sad legacy of Barack Obama,” Guardian, January 9, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/09/barack-obama-legacy-presidency
  16. [16]Adam Gopnik, “Learning to Love Bernie Sanders, or Trying To,” New Yorker, March 3, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/learning-to-love-bernie-sanders-or-trying-to

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