Bernie and the Silver Bullet

If last night’s rowdy slugfest of a Republican debate answered any questions, other than “How is it possible to fall asleep in a room of bellowing men?” (I did in fact doze off), it’s the question of when Cruz and Rubio would wake up and start doing what they have to. The fascinating structural dynamic of the Republican race so far has reflected the near-universal belief that Trump cannot ultimately win nomination. To the other candidates this has dictated two tactics: first, a reluctance to attack Trump, since they hope to pick up his candidates when he inevitably fails; and second, a readiness to attack one another, since each wants to be the sole candidate left standing to finish off Trump. Do you see the Game Theory 101 dilemma here? As long as multiple opponents stay in, Trump prevails; yet none will drop out, because they believe Trump can’t prevail. Kick that down the road long enough, and guess what happens? Last night we saw the partial undoing of this logic, as both Cruz and Rubio at last turned their guns on The Donald. Whether it is too little, too late, remains to be seen.

But it’s the Democrats I want to talk about. I wrote previously about uncertainties regarding Bernie Sanders’ political philosophy – about the blurring of “social democrat” and “socialism” in his rhetoric and program. If you think this is a merely semantic issue, you might want to tune in to this episode of NPR’s On Point, with Tom Ashbrook, which aired a couple of days ago. In it Paul Starr, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, locks horns with Jonathan Tasini, labor activist, Sanders supporter, and author of The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America. Their barbed back-and-forth illuminates a divide between traditional New Deal-style American liberals, and Sanders’ legion of tribunes for... well, for something else.

At stake are such issues as tax rates, infrastructure investments, election reforms and the like. But really at stake is a larger disagreement about what ails our country right now, and what medicine is best. In an essay in The American Prospect, “How Guilded Ages End,” Starr joins many other social critics in asserting that we’re living in a “Second Gilded Age,” one of “stagnant incomes in the middle class and runaway gains among a small elite.” He goes on to argue that “limiting the political power of concentrated wealth is a cause with deep American roots and wide support that is a difficult but achievable long-term goal.” To that end he recommends “no single solution, no silver bullet,” but an array of tax, market and political reforms – ending the “carried interest” provision, increased taxes on capital gains, cracking down on offshore tax havens and other forms of tax evasion, bolstering antitrust laws, rethinking and reconfiguring corporate governance, reversing Citizens United, and so on.

You might think a liberal like Starr would support Sanders. But no. Starr’s dismissal of Bernie is summed up in this piece in Politico, where he calls Sanders “not a credible candidate.” Starr believes that the Sanders program would be fantastically costly (“tax increases that have no historical precedent in peacetime”), that its promises for free college tuition and health care are unrealistic, and that its implementation would place an amount of trust and power in central government that is neither acceptable to, nor good for, the nation. Pie in the sky, in other words. “The campaign he has been waging is a symbolic one,” Starr writes.  “[His] ideas would be excellent grist for a seminar. But they are not the proposals of a candidate who is serious about getting things done as president—or one who is serious about getting elected in the country we actually live in.”

From the Sanders’ team’s point of view, liberals like Starr see the problem accurately – Starr’s own essay uses the phrase “oligarchic dominance” to describe what is threatening our system – but they don’t want to do enough about it. They diagnose big, but prescribe small; when Starr insists that “public policies can limit inequality while promoting growth,” Sandersites hear code for “business as usual.” Meanwhile, to a liberal reformer like Starr, who believes fundamentally in capitalism, what Sanders wants to do won’t work, can’t be paid for, and represents a kind of “old-fashioned socialism” that is antithetical to American traditions.

Narcissism of small differences? Or a significant divide?




Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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