Ross Douthat: Bernie Sanders and the twilight of the technocrats

(Damon Winter | The New York Times) President Barack Obama drapes his arm over the lectern as he speaks at a campaign event at the Fillmore Miami Beach at Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach, Fla., June 26, 2012. "If the exhaustion with technocracy makes a socialist a viable nominee, that exhaustion plus a solid economy explains why the socialist may yet fall to an even more archaic breed — a party politician," writes Ross Douthat.

In last Sunday’s column, I argued that Democrats looking for someone to unify their fractious coalition should take another glance at Bernie Sanders — on the grounds that he’s more popular across the party’s different factions, more unifying, more exciting and more potentially appealing to non-liberals than his critics tend to assume.

There was one point I gestured at but didn’t stress, which is that in nominating Bernie, the Democrats would be embracing one of the key forces in American politics right now — the distrust of technocracy, the sense that the smartest guys in each political coalition can’t really be trusted, the feeling that the whole model of credentialed meritocracy is corrupt and self-dealing and doesn’t deliver on its promises.

In the Democratic coalition more than the Republican one, meritocracy and technocracy have long been unifying forces. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama represented somewhat different party factions, but they both embodied wonkery, a vision of competence and expertise governing to some extent above ideology, in which there are assumed to be “correct answers” to policy dilemmas that a disinterested observer could acknowledge and the right technocrat achieve.

The candidates carrying on this tradition in the Democratic primary are Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and the late-entering Michael Bloomberg — Buttigieg and Bloomberg as center-left figures, Warren as the progressive promising to direct her “I’ve got a plan for that!” wonkery to more ambitious ends.

But Sanders is different; he has policy plans, too, but he’s fundamentally a moralist arguing for a politics of righteous struggle, in a way that separates him from Warren as well as from Buttigieg or Bloomberg. And just as Donald Trump benefited in 2016 — and figures like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush suffered — from a sense that the GOP’s libertarian and neoconservative intelligentsia bore some responsibility for the double disasters of Iraq and the financial crisis, Sanders benefits from a widespread left-wing disappointment with what the Obama-era politics of expertise produced.

This disappointment has been strongest on health care, where Obamacare’s most popular provision was the simple socialism of the Medicaid expansion rather than the complicated, expert-fashioned architecture of the exchanges. But it’s also palpable in education policy, where after two decades worth of technocratic experiments — Race to the Top, Common Core, etc. — we have chronically disappointing test scores, persistent racial gaps, the same basic stagnation despite reformers’ best-laid plans.

On both issues and others, the appeal of Sanders has less to do with the details of his plans and more to do with a simple formulation: The experts had their chance; let the moralists and radicals have theirs.

However, that’s only one possible response to disillusionment with technocracy. The other response is to prefer a return to transactional politics, to dealmakers who keep the system running rather than optimizing for efficiency, to machine politicians who aren’t going to dramatically improve the status quo but also aren’t likely to embrace clever plans that accidentally make it worse.

This is clearly the appeal of the other non-technocrat in the Democratic field, the still-front-running Joe Biden. Of course the former vice president also has plans and policy papers — no Democrat lacks them — but even more than Sanders he’s running as a non-wonk, an anti-technocrat, the guy who’ll shout “malarkey!” when the clever McKinsey guy shows up with the white paper and says you need to overhaul a popular program because there’s a more efficient way.

Despite his constant invocations of Obama, Biden no less than Sanders (and much more than Buttigieg and Warren) is running against the Obama governmental style, and especially the first-term Obamanaut confidence in intelligence and expertise as the essential oil of governance. If Sanders woos voters by saying, why not elect a moralist instead of an expert, Biden woos them by saying, how about we just elect a [expletive] politician?

In this contrast Sanders comes out ahead with the many Democratic voters who don’t think old-fashioned dealmaking is really possible anymore, and also with the important swath of disaffected voters who don’t like politicians or the Democratic Party, but do want to experiment with radicalism in Washington, D.C.

But Biden’s status quo-oriented version of the anti-technocratic pitch is better suited to the economic moment. America has systemic problems, certainly, but institutional sclerosis and futility are much more tolerable when the GDP is running hot and unemployment is at a generational low. As long as that environment persists, there is an obvious constituency, in Biden’s party and in the country, for pushing out Trump but otherwise eschewing grand ambitions, and just letting the expansion run as long as it can go.

So if the exhaustion with technocracy makes a socialist a viable nominee, that exhaustion plus a solid economy explains why the socialist may yet fall to an even more archaic breed — a party politician.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.