Welcome to the first Freedom Friday without Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia!
In Scalia’s Jesuit spirit, I have a confession: this is difficult to admit, but…it’s 2016, and I still receive magazines in the mail. Well, okay, one magazine. And yes, the issues pile up all over the house.
Still, I was thrilled to receive this week’s The New Yorker and see the cover’s celebration of African-American culture! Sumptuous and splendid. I thought: hey, what if every writer inside is black?
One quick glance at the table of contents told me: no such luck. And that made me wonder: what if blacks had written these same articles?
The piece that leads “The Talk of the Town,” and thus the issue, is about Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton vying to attract black voters. It’s fine, although it’s lacking the “don’t patronize us” motifs that I (truly) appreciate when I read The Root.
But yes, this column is about populism. The New Yorker generally prints something called The Financial Page between The Talk of the Town and the features. Its writer, James Suroweicki, understands financial markets, but doesn’t prioritize earning money over every other kind of value, in the manner of The Wall Street Journal. In the latest issue, written after the New Hampshire primaries, Suroweicki begins:
A week ago Sunday, one of the two eventual winners of the New Hampshire primaries assailed the power of corporate lobbyists over the U.S. government, labelling them ‘bloodsuckers.’ He attacked defense contractors for forcing the government to buy missiles it didn’t need. He blasted oil companies and insurers. And he vowed to use the bargaining power of the U.S. government to drive down drug prices. Surprisingly, this was a speech not by the democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders but, rather, by the self-proclaimed billionaire Donald Trump.
He goes on that these two are “channelling profound disaffection with three decades of American economic policy. Trump and Sanders are popular not just because they’re expressing people’s anger but because they offer timely critiques of American capitalism.” Spot on and right!
Trade isn’t the only reason that blue-collar workers’ standard of living has declined; automation and weaker unions have also played a part. By focussing on trade, though, both candidates are acknowledging something important: what has happened to U.S. labor was not a natural disaster but, in part, the product of government policies designed to accelerate globalization and expose American workers to foreign competition. That admission is more than working-class Americans have got from most Presidential candidates…even if neither candidate wins the nomination the basic anxiety they’re responding to is here to stay. American workers used to believe that a rising tide lifted all boats. But in the past thirty years it has sunk a whole lot of them.
Welcome to the party, Suroweicki. This is the kind of rhetoric that makes sense to everyone with eyes open, whether their skin is black or white or brown or red or yellow or plaid. Then The New Yorker makes this weird move (again, I realize people like me, who read this magazine’s articles in order, without the Internet, could fit together in a broom closet) by publishing, on the page after the Financial Page, Jill LePore’s “The Party Crashers,” subtitled Is the new populism about the message or the medium? LePore sets the scene a little bit, then reveals her thesis:
The people who turn up at Sanders and Trump rallies are wed, across the aisle, in bonds of populist unrest. They’re revolting against party élites, and especially against the all-in-the-family candidates anointed by the Democratic and the Republican leadership: Clinton and Bush, the wife and brother of past party leaders. (More attention has been paid to the unravelling of the G.O.P.; the Democratic Party is no less frayed.) There is, undoubtedly, a great deal of discontent, particularly with the role of money in elections: both Sanders and Trump damn the campaign-finance system as rigged and the establishment as corrupt. But to call the current state of affairs, in either party, a political revolution isn’t altogether accurate. The party system, like just about every other old-line industry and institution, is struggling to survive a communications revolution…Democracy takes time. It requires civic bonds, public institutions, and a free press. And in the United States, so far, it has needed parties.
LePore goes on to offer one of the weakest defenses of the two-party system that I’ve ever read in either a book or respected periodical. Oh, she starts well enough, back to the crucial Presidential election of 1800, when the nascent Federalists and emergent anti-Federalists created a schism that became a centuries-long duopoly. Well, she doesn’t use that word, which is not exactly a surprise. She speeds us through the rest of the history of the party system, closely linking it to communications history, which is apparently closely related to “what people want,” not that she bothers to make that link. Revving up toward her conclusion, she writes:
The Internet, like all new communications technologies, has contributed to a period of political disequilibrium, one in which, as always, party followers have been revolting against party leaders. So far, neither the R.N.C. nor the D.N.C., nor any of their favored candidates, has been able to grab the wheel. Trump, meanwhile, is barrelling down the highway toward the White House, ignoring every road sign, a man without a party. The fate of the free world does not hinge on this election. But the direction of the party system might. And that’s probably worth thinking about, slowly and deeply. Parties, while not written into the U.S. Constitution, do sustain our system of government. As the political scientist V. O. Key pointed out, half a century ago, “They perform an essential function in the management of succession to power, as well as in the process of obtaining popular consent to the course of public policy. They amass sufficient support to buttress the authority of governments; or, on the contrary, they attract or organize discontent and dissatisfaction sufficient to oust the government. In either case, they perform the function of the articulation of the interests and aspirations of a substantial segment of the citizenry, usually in ways contended to be promotive of the national weal.”
Did LePore think that an extended 50-year-old quote would buttress her case because of its age-old, sage-old wisdom? In fact, her quote does the opposite. Sure, through 1966, the Democrats and the Republicans had a reasonable (though hardly spotless) record of responding to public concerns. Certainly the richest 1% were not the only ones benefitting from any prosperity, as anyone knows who has heard anyone say “The top tax rate under Eisenhower was 90%.” But what have the donkeys and elephants done for us lately? Really, Ms. Lepore, what? I mean, besides authorize torture, wars based on lies, trade agreements that have decimated the working class, and as the frosting on the cake, a financial crisis and bailout that has, during the Obama years, sent 95% of economic gains to the upper 1%?
Parties used to get disintegrated for a lot less, back when Andrew Jackson was doing the disintegrating. LePore is trying to put the Democrats and the Republicans in the same place we put the flag, Mom, golden retrievers, Arlington Cemetery, and apple pie. But we know better. Maybe, maybe, those two parties helped usher some of the positive changes of the twentieth century, like the civil-rights movement and the end of the Cold War. (On the other hand, I can quote you biographers of Martin Luther King and Mikhail Gorbachev that are convinced that the duopoly stood in the way, or at best, the positive change would have happened without those parties.) The reason LePore offers no specific defense of these two parties in this century is that their behavior is basically indefensible.
LePore pretty much finishes by writing:
The American party system is not only a creation of the press; it is dependent on it. It is currently fashionable, indispensable, even, to malign the press, whether liberal or conservative. “That’s the media game,” Sanders said, dismissing a question that Cooper had asked him during CNN’s town hall. “That’s what the media talks about. Who cares?” But when the press is in the throes of change, so is the party system. And the national weal had better watch out. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that the accelerating and atomizing forces of this latest communications revolution will bring about the end of the party system and the beginning of a new and wobblier political institution. With our phones in our hands and our eyes on our phones, each of us is a reporter, each a photographer, unedited and ill judged, chatting, snapping, tweeting, and posting, yikking and yakking. At some point, does each of us become a party of one?
Not with real populism, which goes way beyond waving pitchforks at rich people. Real populism can be expressed in these seven words: policies of, by, and for the 51%+. That, Ms. LaPore, is the true “national weal.” (As I’ve explained many times, while preserving the rights of minorities. Note all the issues Suroweicki brought up; if the Democrat-Republicans had put those issues in the hands of voters and votes had gone otherwise, who’s rights would have been abridged? No one’s.) Where LaPore sees atomization, many others, not just myself, see new democratic possibilities, 40-year-old obsolete operating systems that could finally get their upgrades.
Now, let’s be very clear that Sanders and Trump are hardly always populist; sometimes they’re merely populist-adjacent. And they are very, very imperfect messengers, for very specific reasons. But as Suroweicki says, their critiques are timely, and “even if neither candidate wins the nomination the basic anxiety they’re responding to is here to stay.” Black people know this, having suffered disproportionately during Democrat-Republican policies in this century. It would have been nice for The New Yorker, in an issue with such a Beautifully Black cover, to give the position of LePore’s piece – the first real feature of the week – to someone who understood the working class better.
However, the LePores of the world were given a great gift, a day after her words were sent to the publisher: the death of Justice Scalia. All of a sudden, the press – and to be fair, everyone’s Facebook and Twitter feed – is full of partisan warfare, with everyone rushing to quote Mitch McConnell and Barack Obama from a decade ago in order to prove the hypocrisy of their partisan opponent. Jill LePore and those who agree with her must feel relief; as their beloved two parties gear up for the most consequential Supreme Court nomination in a generation, they must be thrilled at the parties’ renewed relevance. Well, be careful what you wish for. Nine more months of partisan finger-pointing, even if it does result in the sort of Justice LePore wants, will almost certainly increase most Americans’ desire for a different type of justice – one that reflects these two parties having a lot less power.