Ross Douthat: The second defeat of Bernie Sanders

Three months ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders lost his chance at the Democratic nomination for president, after a brief moment in which his socialist revolution seemed poised to raze the bastions of neoliberal power. But the developments of the last month, the George Floyd protests and their cultural repercussions, may prove the more significant defeat for the Sanders cause. In the winter he merely lost a presidential nomination; in the summer he may be losing the battle for the future of the left.

Throughout his career, Sanders has stood for the proposition that left-wing politics lost its way after the 1970s by letting what should be its central purpose — the class struggle, the rectification of economic inequality, the war against the “millionaires and billionaires” — be obscured by cultural battles and displaced by a pro-business, pro-Wall Street economic program. This shift has made left-of-center political parties (in Europe as well as the United States) steadily more upper middle class and conservatism steadily more blue collar, but the promise of Sandersism was that the transformation need not be permanent: A left that recovered the language of class struggle, that disentangled liberal politics from faculty-lounge elitism and neoliberal economics, could rally a silent majority against plutocracy and win.

The 2016 Sanders primary campaign, which won white, working-class voters who had been drifting from the Democrats, seemed to vindicate this argument. The 2020 Sanders campaign, however, made it look more dubious, by illustrating the core challenge facing a socialist revolution: Its most passionate supporters — highly educated, economically disappointed urbanites — aren’t natural coalition partners for a Rust Belt populism, and the more they tugged Sanders toward the cultural left, the easier it was for Joe Biden to win blue-collar votes, leaving Sanders leading an ideological faction rather than a broader working-class insurgency.

Now, under these strange coronavirus conditions, we’re watching a different sort of insurgency challenge or change liberalism, one founded on an intersectional vision of left-wing politics that never came naturally to Sanders. Rather than “Medicare for All” and taxing plutocrats, the rallying cry is racial justice and defunding the police. Instead of finding its nemeses in corporate suites, the intersectional revolution finds them on antique pedestals and atop the cultural establishment.

And so far, as my colleague Sydney Ember noted last week, this revolution has been more unifying than Sanders’ version — uniting the Democratic establishment that once closed ranks against him, earning support from just about every major corporate and cultural institution, sending anti-racism titles skyrocketing up the best-seller list, even bringing Mitt Romney into the streets as a marcher and inducing Donald Trump to make grudging noises about police reform.

Ember quotes law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the theorist of intersectionality, marveling at the change: “You basically have a moment where every corporation worth its salt is saying something about structural racism and anti-blackness, and that stuff is even outdistancing what candidates in the Democratic Party were actually saying.”

All this, from one perspective, vindicates critics who said Sanders’ vision of revolution was too class-bound and race-blind all along.

But the longer arc of the current revolutionary moment may actually end up vindicating the socialist critique of post-1970s liberalism — that it’s obsessed with cultural power at the expense of economic transformation, and that it puts the language of radicalism in the service of elitism.

The demand for police reform at the heart of the current protests doesn’t fit this caricature. But much of the action around it, the anti-racist reckoning unfolding in colleges, media organizations, corporations and public statuary, may seem more unifying than the Sanders revolution precisely because it isn’t as threatening to power.

The fact that corporations are “outdistancing” even politicians, as Crenshaw puts it, in paying fealty to anti-racism is perhaps the tell. It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of reeducation, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts.

In our cultural institutions, too, the official enthusiasm for the current radical mood is suggestive of the revolution’s limits. The tumult and protest is obviously a threat to certain people’s jobs: The revolutionaries need scapegoats, examples, wrongthinkers to cast out pour encourager les autres, superannuated figures to retire with prejudice. But they aren’t out to dissolve Harvard or break up Google or close The New York Times; they’re out to rule these institutions, with more enlightenment than the old guard but the same fundamental powers. And many of the changes the protesters seek are ones that the establishment can happily accommodate: I can promise that few powerful people will feel particularly threatened if the purge of Confederate monuments widens and some statues of pre-World War II presidents and Franciscan missionaries come crashing down as well. (Though renaming Yale might be another matter ...)

So the likely endgame of all this turbulence is the redistribution of elite jobs, the upward circulation of the more racially diverse younger generation, the abolition of perceived impediments to the management of elite diversity (adieu, SAT) and the inculcation of a new elite language whose academic style will delineate the professional class more decisively from the unenlightened proles below. (With the possible long-run consequence that not only the white working class but also some minority voters will drift toward whatever remains of political conservatism once Trump is finished with it.)

Yes, serious critics of structural racism have an agenda for economic as well as cultural reform. But that agenda isn’t what’s being advanced: Sen. Chuck Schumer will take a knee in kente cloth, but he isn’t likely to pass a major reparations bill, the white liberals buying up the works of Ibram X. Kendi aren’t going to abandon private schools or bus their kids to minority neighborhoods. And in five years, it’s more likely that 2020′s legacy will be a cadre of permanently empowered commissars getting people fired for unwise Twitter likes rather than any dramatic interracial wealth redistribution.

I am a cynical conservative, so you can dismiss this as the usual reactionary allergy to the fresh air of revolution. But it’s also what an old-guard leftism, of the sort that Sanders attempted to revive, would predict of a revolutionary movement that has so much of the establishment on board.

The destiny of liberalism, for some time now, has looked like handshake agreements among corporate, academic and media power centers, with progressive rhetoric deployed either reassuringly or threateningly, depending on what’s required to keep discontented factions within the elite in line. The promise of the Sanders campaign was that the insights of the older left, on class solidarity above all, could alter this depressing future and make the newer left something more than a handmaiden of oligarchy, a diversifier of late capitalism’s corporate boards.

The current wave of protests will have unpredictable consequences. But right now, their revolution’s conspicuous elite support seems like strong evidence that Bernie Sanders failed.

Ross Douthat

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