In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a presidential election going on, so get your historical metaphors readied for the quick-mouthed pundits. Let’s take the lens off all the historical precedents and metaphors flung around for Donald Trump—Henry Ford or Ross Perot or Mussolini or… Instead, ask the other-side-of-the-aisle questions: Is Bernie Sanders’s surge, given added muscle by his razor-thin loss to Hillary Clinton in Iowa, looking like Barack Obama in 2008, except without the charisma or the sing-song quality of our sitting president? Or is he like—ironic as it might seem—Hillary’s husband in 1992, clearing out identity politics and trying to aim for some white working class voters? Or is he, Lord have mercy, like George McGovern, as I heard on NPR the other day, a man so far to the left that he might wind up pushing the Democrats—and he isn’t even one of those in the first place—off the cliff? The scramble is on. Take your bets.
A good place to look, right now, are those small magazines (online and off-) where sometimes a larger historical perspective can be found—one that doesn’t succumb to the cheap-o, instantaneous, and throw-off commentary but rather focuses on the larger picture while trying to get perspective that helps us understand political prospects a bit better. And in the case of the Democrats, it might be best to check out left-leaning small magazines. Over at Dissent (reader caveat: I sit on its editorial board), Jedediah Purdy makes a strong case that the Sanders-Obama analogy—especially the collective surprise at how well a challenge to a more “establishment” candidate is doing—is off. I’ve always thought that Sanders has none of the charisma or gift for campaign poetry that Obama did.
Purdy takes this idea further, arguing that Sanders’s talk about a “revolution” is really about building movements, not about promoting a charismatic candidate. Here’s Purdy: “This is a campaign about political ideas and programs that happens to have a person named Bernie at its head, not a campaign that mistakes its candidate for a prophet or a wizard (or the second coming of Abraham Lincoln, who gave us the now-cliché phrase about better angels, but had no delusion that words could substitute for power).” Point well taken; but let’s come back later to that movement reference.
Over at The Baffler, Chris Lehmann has penned—in typically stringent prose that small magazine is known for (the ghost of H.L. Mencken haunts it)—an attack on the center-liberal punditocracy’s chorus of “Bernie Sanders Is Not a Serious Presidential Candidate.” In doing so, he quickly blows up any potential analogizing Sanders with either Obama or with Clinton (Bill, that is). As Lehmann makes the case—and I think it’s a smart one but still might need a bit more development—Sanders represents a pushback against the “DLC-New Democratic” model of politics, which too quickly embraces Wall Street interests. For Lehmann, Sanders is a return to the idea that the left can and should invoke “working-class interests” against the privileged. Of course, it’s necessary to remember that Bill Clinton, in his original run back in 1992, was all about winning back the white working class, but that this “majoritarian” approach meant de-prioritizing race as a determining factor in contemporary society and American history. That might help us understand why Black Lives Matter was so quick to take Sanders to task.
At the younger magazine, Jacobin, the editors have grown especially happy about the return of “socialism” to the American lexicon. Some editors suggest that Sanders should use the term even more and do a better job at teaching what it means. In the course of debating Sanders’s candidacy, writer Paul Heideman has made the best and the worst Sanders analogy—all the way back to FDR. The problem here is that FDR had a charisma that his own wealthy and privileged background no doubt helped groom; he won voters based, in part, on his smile and sense of confidence. Sanders lacks all that.
But here’s what I think is the most important point that Heideman makes about the analogy, which I believe, goes to the heart of why wide-span historical thinking can help us get a better handle on our contemporary world. Here’s Heideman: “FDR…did not come into office promising the ‘four freedoms’ Sanders has celebrated, but rather a balanced budget. It was only in the face of the growing wave of class struggle in the United States that FDR himself began to embrace more reformist policies, and that a section of the American ruling class could be persuaded that such reforms were necessary to placate that struggle.”
Bingo! The New Deal—which is one of those moments in American history when socialist ideas (Social Security) came to the fore, albeit in tempered form—did not just have an FDR sitting at the helm, pulling the strings. It had a burgeoning, growing labor movement springing from the grassroots, ready to fight for improving working conditions and willing to vote for an FDR. And what seems missing about Sanders’s call to “revolution” at the grassroots—besides the record-breaking small donations that stream into his coffers and the impressive Iowa caucus ground game—is that it’s rather hard to show where on the ground there are movements that bolster his own call for massive changes to the American political system. Labor certainly doesn’t constitute it today; and I don’t think the episodic (or defunct?) Occupy movement can be labor’s equivalent.
So, herein lies some legitimate liberal handwringing: If FDR is the analogy, and I think in terms of Sanders’s ideas that the analogy works, then where’s the movement that buttressed the most radical phases of the New Deal now? Sometimes historical thinking can help us get a better handle on things, even if it might make some of us slightly nervous.