NORFOLK, Conn.—I suppose this past week or so is a harbinger of the political season to come. Anyone who reads the columns knows I have little respect for the political process in this country. It is an offense to be invited to vote in an election wherein money counts for more than the electorate’s wishes. But we’re in it now—the campaign cycle, I mean—and those who emerge winners will have very large decisions to make.
On the Republican side, it’s a case of taking seriously a lineup of deeply unserious people. This I did in two columns this week, which post here along with this entry in Cú Chulainn. Here I’ll make a point I neglected in both pieces.
I look at Bernie Sanders and this thought comes to me: Long ago, most of us had Kindergarten exercises in which we pressed hands into wet clay. Staying with the image, Bernie is the hand. The clay is the popular response to him—wildly beyond most people’s expectations. Bernie’s interesting, but the impression in the clay is even more so to me. How do we read this? What is it going on beneath the surface of American political culture? More to the point, how powerful is this beneath-the-surface force? Where’s it going to lead?
As a child of the 1960s, I find I must never take the leash off my optimism. It’s ever there animating my thoughts, but a wariness acquired back in the old Age of Aquarius never leaves me. I knew more fools in my cohort than I did wise heads. This said, we have the Greek groundswell that carried Syriza to power, albeit the party has just capitulated. We have Podemos in Spain, and “We Can” will take a very serious run at a place in the national power structure in coming elections. We have Sanders, of course. And in England we have Jeremy Corbyn, a principled leftist and the suddenly emergent contender to lead the Labour Party. I liked Corbyn before this morning’s papers arrived, but I knew I liked him when I read an extraordinary opinion piece in the Guardian by none other than Tony Blair: “Even if you hate me,” the treacherous liar wrote, “Don’t send Labour over a cliff by choosing Corbyn.” Endorsements this persuasive don’t come along often, have to say.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS come to? Readers ask in letters sent in via this site. I honestly don’t have any kind of nickel-plated answer. (That’s my nickel-plated answer, thus.) But the possibility that something important is occurring in various Western political cultures cannot be missed. A lot of us are so accustomed to thinking as Toynbee was taught when a boy—“History is something that happens to other people”—that the danger of missing it is as present now as the danger of too much optimism.
Think about those on the list I just laid out. Especially but not only in the cases of Corbyn and Sanders, you have something quite interesting: “New Labour” and the “New Democrats” aren’t new anymore, you have to conclude. They’re old. The “new” bargain with the neoliberal order is already discredited in many quarters and getting there in others. And what was once judged old, as in “old Labour,” looks rather new, if you see what I mean.
I couldn’t be more pleased. I never saw any reason to abandon the classic political principles that united the ever-quarreling left. (Well, once in a while, at least loosely.) I thought all that bargain-with-capital stuff was nothing more than a cheap, flimsy lunge for power—and a ripoff in its use of the traditional Labour and Democratic Party bases as a launching pad. I don’t buy it, to put the point another way, that support for Corbyn or Sanders is an act of political suicide. And honestly, it pains me to say it but I think Tsipras is wrong to cut the pending bailout deal with the E.U. and other creditors. Follow the logic out and you find it leads nowhere. It produces ever more of the same—cheaply enameled versions of the neoliberal order.
This is always true but true in spades now. We need a fundamental change of direction in numerous spheres of public life. This is our blessing and our burden all at once. Take the climate question as a sort of objective co-relative, which I think is legitimate, and you have to say we find ourselves in emergency circumstances.
I’ve never respected people who are out feeding pigeons on the ends of limbs. That time is over now.