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Defeating the Prince of the Darkness of Our Times

On the 2020 Election / Against Ideology

This essay, the third in a series against ideology (for earlier ones see here and here), considers the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination in the U.S.. In it, I reflect upon the prospects for the continuing struggle for democracy in America, for American democracy as an incomplete project, as Habermas might put it.

I hope Elizabeth Warren will be the next President of the United States, though I would be satisfied with Joe Biden, and pleased with Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker or Jay Inslee, or with any one of the other sixteen or so candidates, none of whom has much of a chance; it seems to me. But who knows? My priority, which I suspect is true for most of you reading these reflections, is to defeat the prince of the darkness of our times.

Yet, it is even more important to assure a decisive and meaningful break from the darkness, not only from Donald Trump, the despicable man, but from Trumpism: the anti-intellectual, populist, authoritarian, racist, sexist, exploitative regime, ascendant in the U.S. and well beyond.

Trumpism consistently makes all the problems of our times worse, undermining constitutionalism, democracy and human rights, increasing inequalities, robbing from the poor, giving to the rich, defending privilege, disenfranchising the oppressed, aligning with dictators, destroying international agreements, weakening the global economy, making war more likely, and most disastrously, ignoring the clear and present danger of climate change and environmental catastrophe.

That it has come to this in my country, at this point in my life, leads me to despair. How is it that an election choice in the United States is a choice between dictatorship and democracy? So many ideals set back, so many norms transgressed. An intelligent, principled effective response is imperative. I know that American democracy has long promised more than it has delivered, but working to complete its project has been a significant part of its ongoing history, a part that Trump has attacked.

I also know, as a student of Hannah Arendt, that the means of politics constitute the ends. I am concerned about the upcoming Democratic debates and primaries with this in mind. My major concern: that the way the various candidates and their supporters will campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination will undermine the chances of decisively defeating Trump and Trumpism, and even if this turns out not to be the case, it could diminish the promise of a post-Trump era.

I worry about a subtle, but toxic, combination of ideology and cynicism. I tried to explain my concern about ideology in recent posts, but I am afraid I may not have been understood. The danger of cynicism is a related matter to which I will turn in my next post.

Against ideology: While I would be happy to support any one of the serious Democratic candidates, I worry about how the contest among them will proceed, about ideological judgments. I worry that some of my friends on the left perceive an unprecedented opening to socialism in America that must be fully exploited, seeing an opportunity to move history forward. I fear that for them compromise, at this crucial moment, is out of the question. My friend and colleague, Nancy Fraser, suggests this position here. I also worry about more centrist critics, such Cass Sunstein, who warn against any reference to socialism. They see danger in the opening to socialism, either because they fear that it provides Trumpists with an opening to divide and conquer the opposition to the great leader, or because they genuinely oppose significant alternatives to the prevailing political and economic order. To simplify a bit: the central question for my friends on the left can be succinctly summarized as socialism or barbarism, for my more liberal friends as “liberal democracy or the dueling populisms of the left and the right,” drawing false equivalences between neo-fascism and democratic socialism. When too much is invested in these stark contrasts, ideology enters, for example, in the way some are tempted to even contrast the most progressive of the candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

It may very well be true that Warren and Sanders come out of two distinct political traditions. As Shawn Gude puts it in Jacobin: “Warren’s political tradition is the left edge of middle-class liberalism; Sanders hails from America’s socialist tradition. Or, to put the distinction in more personal terms: Warren is Louis Brandeis, Sanders is Eugene Debs.” To decide on one or the other on these grounds may make some sense. But to imagine that Warren and Sanders presidencies would be fundamentally different because of this is to overestimate the power of political ideas and to overlook the gift of democratic politics. Such imagination, I believe, is ideological, not totalitarian to be sure, but ideological nonetheless. To think that collaborating across the line that divides Warren and Sanders, or for that matter, historically, across the line that divided Brandeis and Debs, is problematic, as it confuses the two meanings of the word compromise. The positive meaning is crucial for the success of democracy, both as an end and a means. Beyond the left, as we face the harsh realities of Trumpism, this is critical matter.

Totalitarian ideologies completely conflate interpretive truth and politics, culturally revealed linguistically in newspeak, with an enforcement of the politically correct. (I analyze this in Beyond Glasnost and in Reinventing Political Culture. My guide in these analyses was Hannah Arendt’s classic “Truth and Politics.”) Ideologies of a less extreme sort include a less intimate, but still too close relationship between interpretive truth and politics. Thus, knowing the truth that socialism is the social system that follows capitalism, and that all socialist projects hitherto have not really been socialism, makes it possible to draw the strongest of distinctions between Sanders and Warren, along with Biden, Harris, Buttigieg, Booker, Inslee, et.al. This involves superior understanding of the true connection between the past, present and future, based upon a purported knowledge about the course of history: from feudalism to capitalism to socialism. This position among those on the left has its liberal counterpart among those who demonize socialism. They have their true understanding of the necessary relationship between capitalism and freedom, in which history ends with liberal democratic capitalism. In the United States, this is a much more consequential ideological practice.

As the primary is developing those on the left of the Democratic Party are managing to control the agenda, re-inventing the political culture among Democrats. Sanders, obviously, has significantly contributed to this, strongly supported by the results of the 2018 elections, with the brilliant actions of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others. And Warren’s campaign moves this forward. With each of her policy plans, she is presenting concrete alternative approaches to major political economic challenges. As Thomas Kaplan and Jim Tankersley have ably reported in The New York Times, she is not only making her case to progressive voters that she should be their preferred candidate, she is actually making arguments that those on the left, right and center have to confront on the pressing issues of our times.

I applaud the way this leftward shift has been collaboratively achieved by these politicians, as they have been pushed by and are responding to the social movement achievements of Occupy Wall Street, the movement for black lives, union agitations (notably among teachers) Fight for $15, the Women’s Marches, MeToo, LGBTQ movements, and much more. From my point of view, this is where the real radical action is, i.e. in The Politics of Small Things.

Yet, I worry that not only Trump and the Trumpists will attack these meaningful developments as socialist. I worry that the ideological “moderates” in the Democratic Party, including some who will compete in the primaries, will do so as well. I think we should welcome debate about principles and policies, as we reject lazy ideological commitments and cynical ideological reports and attacks.

As the election season opens, the large cast of aspiring Presidents is working to introduce themselves, offering different emphases as they present alternatives to Trump. Biden most directly is arguing for a restoration of the status quo ante, for the normality of the Obama-Biden years. Sanders continues to call for a revolution, presenting himself as the leader of a movement for a radical break, not only from Trump, but also from the political economic order of recent decades. Warren seeks to combine Biden’s and Sander’s approaches in her multiple plans that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Buttigieg emphasizes electoral reform and his ability to make compelling arguments about the link between fundamental American values and the challenges of our times. Harris uses her experience as a prosecutor, forcefully addressing the excesses of Trump ‘s presidency, “speaking truth, demanding justice”; Booker promises to bring Americans together, underscoring the good we have in common. And, Inslee sharply focuses on the existential threat that climate change is.

Although they are in competition with each other, I think it is crucial to recognize that their positions taken together offer a coherent Democratic Party challenge to Trump and Trumpism. It goes something like this: The past three years have presented a radical break from the norms of democratic practice at home and abroad. While progress was made during the Obama years, much was left undone, and many problems persisted then and have since escalated, including great and intensifying economic inequalities, racial, gender and sexual injustices, a political system with fundamental anti-democratic elements, a hyper-polarized disuniting nation, and climate change. The candidates offer different policy formulations on similar, if not identical, policy goals: ranging from abortion rights, to universal healthcare, to immigration reform, to reinvigorating commitments to international alliances and agreements.

There are important differences among the candidates on issues, of course. The campaign will and should be about them. But there is no stark divide, as ideology of the left and right would suggest. The divide can clearly be bridged, especially when facing Trumpism. More positively, the policies of any one of the candidates administrations are likely to be quite similar. A moderate Democratic President, say Biden, will need the support of progressives to enact his policies, and he can be compelled to work to reach at least some of their goals as well, and a progressive Democratic President, say Warren, will need the support of moderates to enact her policies, and she will be compelled to enable them to reach some of their goals as well. And with collaboration and with compromise, they will likely have broad democratic legitimacy and have the capacity to close the book on our long national nightmare.

If the contest, on the other hand, becomes an ideological battle, with true believing moderates and progressives fighting each other rather than keeping their eye on the clear and present danger, those who are seeking alternatives to Trump, may in fact assure that he prevails.

I agree with Sławomir Sierakowski, as he reflected upon the significance of Zuzana Čaputová’s victory in Slovakia’s presidential election: while a weak opposition can empower right wing populists, a united opposition can prevail against them. Donald Trump and Trumpism can be defeated. Victory requires a democratic opposition in which differences are addressed through political contest, compromise and collaboration, not through ideological assertions and judgments. Both the ends and the means can re-constitute American democracy as an incomplete project.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar. 

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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