The tempest in a teapot from the other day, where Matt Bruenig lost his part-time job at Demos for being rude in tweets to Neera Tanden, is interesting for a number of reasons:
- First (as I kept spamming journalists Saturday night), because it’s absurd that Bruenig didn’t lose any bien-pensant respect for calling publicly for riots and violence in a city that subsequently saw a huge rise in homicide, but is heavily sanctioned for being rude to the head of the Center for American Progress;
- Second, because it’s funny how lefties like Bruenig take on the same role as various conservatives who lose their jobs for saying the wrong thing online and then immediately start GoFundMe campaigns;
- Third, because the actual source of their argument- Tanden’s ties to Clinton and Clinton and her husband’s support for 1990s welfare reform- is one of the most conclusively supported policies of the last several decades, a measurably huge success that not only took large numbers of people out of perpetual dependency but quite possibly helped drive down crime rates and almost certainly played a large role in the great gains in black women’s economic outcomes over the last twenty years. (The contemporary Democratic Party is like Robert Jordan’s Dragon Reborn, except instead of forgetting about killing its family in a former incarnation it forgets what a giant disaster AFDC was.)
Putting all that aside, Bruenighazi encapsulates in a nutshell why Hillary is having so much trouble finishing off Bernie. It’s safe to say that many left-liberals imagine contemporary politics primarily as a two-dimensional space, as follows:
In this view, it is possible for an activist primary to move the Democratic Party to the Left on economic policy while also embracing a strong core of intersectional identity politics.
An alternative view is that there is a “Policy Possibilities Frontier” analogous to the production possibilities frontier in economics.
In this case, a move along the PPF– not just in terms of achievable policy, but in terms of stated goals and rhetoric for a political party– involves trading one kind of good for another:
Why would that be the case? I think it has to do with what you might call “Politics as Mirror.” Political parties are not merely a vehicle for achieving certain ends or even just a way of communicating one ideal of justice but also a way of communicating respect for one portion of society or another. The implicit hierarchy advanced by a political party creates a way for voters to see themselves as valued and respected members of a community, but the construction of these communities or tribes depends on a consistent set of values about who deserves veneration and respect.
One of the most obvious developments of the last few decades has been the development of an identitarian elite: the Rich, Powerful, and Diverse, who can empathize easily with plutocratic Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, as long as he is played by a non-white actor and sing hip-hop infused songs. Sonya Sotomayor (BA Princeton, JD Yale), Barack Obama (BA Columbia, JD Harvard), Michelle Obama (BA Princeton, JD Harvard) are probably all amenable to slightly higher marginal tax rates, but any serious changes in the economic system would threaten the institutions from which they draw power and prestige.
Hillary Clinton (BA Wellesley, JD Yale), Neera Tanden (BA UCLA, JD Yale), and Samantha Power (BA Yale, JD Harvard) are probably even less amenable to serious economic disruption, but they are obligated by the Power of Rhetorical Radicalism to pretendthat their proposed extensions to identitarian power are radical and pathbreaking rather than fundamentally (small-c) conservative. As Hillary said,
“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”
Of the 15 permanent representatives sitting on the UN Security Council — where I have the privilege of representing the United States — I am the only woman. The UN is currently in the process of selecting a new Secretary General — a position that, in its 70-year history, has never been held by a woman. Not long ago, I was discussing the race with another ambassador to the UN, and I made the point that it is important that women be encouraged to apply. In response, the Ambassador asked: “Do you want to look at a pretty girl or do you want someone who can actually get the job done for women?” I was shocked. But perhaps I should not have been.
My point is not that the UN or Yale have done a particularly poor job of advancing women’s rights. My point is that the enduring inequalities we see in institutions like these reflect systemic injustices that persist in our societies — to the detriment not only of the people who are subjected to discrimination, but to all of us. And acting as if we have overcome these entrenched biases is part of the problem.
To the vast majority of you, this is obvious. To some of you, it is something you have experienced personally. You may come from a country where you cannot openly practice your religion without risking attacks or persecution. You may have felt it on this campus — when the gate to your residential college was closed and locked as you walked toward it. You may have felt it living in a college named for a man who once argued that enslaving your ancestors was a “positive good.” You may have felt it upon hearing U.S. politicians call on our country to ban people of your faith. So when you hear people claim that the work is finished, you say: Not for me, it’s not. Not for us.
And some of you who have poured a lot of yourselves into these and other struggles over the past four years might look at all that remains unchanged and feel discouraged. Whether that’s inside Yale, with the name of a college that did not change, or a faculty that does not look nearly as diverse as you and the rest of America do. Or outside Yale, in the horrific situation faced by refugees, whose situation only seems to get worse despite all that you and your peers have done to try to make it better.
The construction in this speech of some of the luckiest young people in the world- and Power herself, her last name a wonderful cosmic joke- as particularly disprivileged is really breathtaking. But contemporary ideology requires that we turn a blind spot to power (and Power) as it is actually held and practiced.Hillary must present the continuity of Obama-ite power as if it were revolution, and Samantha Power must present her silver spraypainted sneakers and joking description of herself as a “rando” as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from the truth of the world as it actually exists.
The cognitive dissonance there is stunning, and it keeps people going to the polls to vote for a septuagenarian socialist rather than approve the anointed successor who keeps claiming to be the underdog.
And so it is with Bruenighazi. I think socialism is a very bad idea, am predisposed to continuity and small-c conservatism more than anything else. Bruenig himself seems to me wildly irresponsible in his writings and beliefs. But if just calling a Clintonian advisor a “scumbag” online gets you fired– well maybe the story we’re being told about how power works in the society is more full of holes than a leaky collander.
And it’s awfully hard to vote for that.