Political Myths and Mything the Point

By Mike Koetting March 11, 2020

David Brooks’ recent column, “Why Sanders Will Probably Win the Nomination,” at this point seems to have been seriously premature. But what he got right and wrong is worth revisiting.

The gist of his column was that Sanders would probably win the nomination because he had a story—Brooks call it a “myth”—that is simple, easy to get your head around, and coherent in its own way. The other candidates didn’t. (Actually, Brooks thought Warren did too, but he believes it was just a different version of Bernie’s.) Brooks see the Sanders’ myth as having the same “us versus them” structure as the myths told by Donald Trump, just with different villains. Brooks argues that not only are both myths wrong, but their “us-versus-them” narratives are obstacles to the “great yearning for solidarity, and eagerness to come together and make practical change” that are the real underlying wish of ordinary people.

There is truth, myth and obtuseness here.

I share the belief that Sanders (and Warren) were the only Democratic candidates with coherent narratives. The overriding motif of the other candidates was that they weren’t Trump and they weren’t Sanders. True, not being Donald Trump, as Joe Biden might say, is a big f___ deal. Not being Donald Trump calls up a virtual cornucopia of desired values—tolerance of diversity, respect for the rule of law and the machinery of government, belief in science and expertise, and a commitment to a greater degree of equity. These are not to be sneezed at.

Still, it lacks explanatory power. It doesn’t explain how we got where we are or what steps would actually get us somewhere else. Nor does it explain what battles Democrats will take to a Republican Party that has dug so much into bunker mentality that campaign talk of compromise seems almost fatuous.

Of course it is not as black-and-white as Sanders lays it out. But there is a coherent, and important, story here. Starting with Ronald Reagan, portions of the Republican party—backed with stunning amounts of corporate capital—have undertaken a systematic effort to roll-back the New Deal. They have neutered labor unions, let inequality grow almost unchecked, reduced regulation willy-nilly wherever it got in the way of profits, rigged the electoral system where they could, and gutted the federal treasury to give tax breaks to the rich. This is history. It is not, as Brooks rather snidely labels it, a myth. It resonates with many people because it is largely true and because there have been real consequences in people’s lives.

The rest of the Democratic field, especially Biden, have tiptoed around this story. Don’t get me wrong. Joe Biden is essentially a good guy and I think as president he might well accomplish more than Sanders on issues I care about. But I am talking about the big picture, not incremental change. The unwillingness to be honest about the extent and causes of the current American malaise is a limitation on what can be accomplished because it doesn’t go for the jugular of what’s most wrong. Columnist Steve Chapman is probably right when he says “Joe Biden is good enough.” But that’s not a long-run prescription for undoing the damage of the last 40 years. That will require consistent and persistent effort–the political equivalent of house-to-house (House-to-Senate?) fighting. The unraveling of the New Deal was a deliberate, well-financed effort extending over many years. On what basis could we expect reversing that effort to be accomplished with less tenacity and clarity of purpose?

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden

Which brings me back to Brooks.

He is right that the American people are yearning for “solidarity” and “practical change.” But he is posing his own dangerous myth if he is suggesting that these somehow negate the story Bernie Sanders is telling.

Brooks misses that from the start when he trivializes the essential truth of the Sanders story:

Everywhere I go I see systems that are struggling — school systems, housing systems, family structures, neighborhoods trying to bridge diversity. These problems aren’t caused by some group of intentionally evil people. They exist because living through a time of economic, technological, demographic and cultural transition is hard.

Yes, living through these transitions is hard. But it’s a lot easier if you’re in the 10% of the population that has seen significant increases in their economics over the last 40 years than the 50% whose conditions have been largely stagnant. Part of the reason for that stagnation is that one portion of the population has wielded the machinery of government more for their benefit than for the common good. We do get a bit side-tracked when we focus too much on how evil some people are and how much we need a complete revolution. There are many forces in play so assigning causation is tricky. But neither should we forget for a second that in our communities the consequences of these transitions have been wildly asymmetrical.

It is also necessary to keep in mind there is no road to frictionless solidarity. Struggle is built into the nature of democracy. To pretend otherwise is delusional. In the Sixties, most Americans thought civil rights activists were too aggressive, wanted change too fast. But we cannot get to social solidarity by asking large parts of the populations to be patient and keep taking it for the team. We will always need people willing to poke the status quo to achieve a more perfect union. Conversely, consider how Barrack Obama fared when he sought solidarity without a robust battle plan for wresting it from those who had other interests. Sustainable solidarity can be achieved only if a country can confront the inherent tensions in democracy and continue to create working solutions. Simply papering over them won’t work.

Moreover, it is enormously harder—perhaps impossible—to get to “practical change” when the mechanisms of government that could and should be a critical part of these changes are in fact working against them. Right now, Trump and the Republicans are specifically working to make school systems, housing systems and family structures more difficult to maintain. The local housing or school system—the difficulty of maintaining your family—may be where the rub is most immediately felt. But the underlying macro-structures that facilitate or obstruct change cannot be dismissed as “myths.”

In the same sense, Brooks’ fascination with local solutions is incomplete. It is good to remind us that without applied, practical work at the local level by engaged citizens, social solidarity is not going to happen. But local initiatives are not an alternative to a national government that uses its powerful tools to improve the commonweal. Denigrating the importance of the national government because it is currently dysfunctional is irresponsible to actually achieving “practical solutions”.

Brooks does get two important things right. First, the change must be embraced by people in their daily lives who can see how they tie directly to problems that most concern them. Second, the problems facing our country cannot be solved by simple” us-against-them” dynamics. Correctly identifying enemies and problems is an important first step. But it is only a first step. We must be devoting equal attention to the dynamic that gets us beyond these clashes and actually creates national solidarity, practical adaptation to the technological, demographic and cultural transitions that are buffeting the country. You need a real plan for that. And you need a plan that deeply recognizes that government policy by itself is not a panacea. The plan must explicitly engender the local and individual efforts that Brooks describes. Structural change is essential, but will not be sufficient to achieve the social solidarity that the country does long for. We are all tired of the hate and bickering.

The Sanders narrative, while containing vast amounts of truth, will not get us there. Hard to imagine that Joe Biden can get us there either. Hopefully he can stop the bleeding while we look for a leader who does have a coherent story rooted in the real life-and-death struggle going on in America but also soulfully embraces Obama’s message of “one America.”

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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