The Conservative Rhetoric of Bernie Sanders
How his tone & gestures undercut his message & engender Bernie Bros & possibly, actually, help the GOP.
Here is a thesis that’s sure to be unpopular: both the message & persona of Bernie Sanders create these very deep & not-so-nice associations in the brains of a certain (growing) subset of his supporters. This effect is the exact effect George W. Bush had on his supporters in those two or three post-9/11 honeymoon years, ’01-’03, when the War On Being Afraid gripped us heart & mind & soul; & it’s the exact same effect Donald J. Trump has on his core supporters (his loyalists).
It’s got less to do w/content, which I think very few sane human beings would disagree with, at least the part that’s diagnostic, & everything to do w/tone, w/demeanor. I don’t want to bury my lede, so here it is. Bernie Sanders is utilizing two very old & very American archetypes, & he’s linking them together in the minds of the people paying attention. Those archetypes are: (1) the Underdog/Outsider or, i.e., the little guy going up against the big guy — he’s playing the David to the multinational corporations’ faceless homogenized Goliath (in cahoots with the Democratic establishment); & (2) the Pater, the fatherly scold, or what the cognitive linguist George Lakoff calls the Strict Father: his message to the voting public is that there are segments of the population — rich people, mostly — who are acting like caffeinated children let loose in a toy store and doing tremendous harm to the rest of us in the process, & so will, therefore, be punished, if you vote for Bernie Sanders. Now, again, the diagnostic part is nearly impossible to disagree with: the income gap between rich & poor is higher than it’s ever been, just about, and it’s growing all the time: for example, & as Sanders himself is fond of saying, a single family, the Waltons (of Walmart), have more $$ than the bottom 42% of the American population combined. That’s six people who are wealthier than 134,000,000 other people combined, many of them employees of these same six people, who in a brutally surreal coup de grace pay them minimum wage. Walmart employees are effectively indentured: they’re paid only enough to afford Walmart products. The income gap between rich & poor in fact is nearly identical to the gap witnessed the year before the Great Depression. That’s a serious Red Flag. And look, it’s no secret either that the markets are running at levels higher even than pre-Recession, which means the people who sank the economy back in ’07-’08 are now doing just fine — better, in fact, than before. The rest of us, however: not so much. We’re still feeling it. You’re still feeling it, I guarantee, even if you don’t quite realize it: while stuff’s gotten much, much more expensive in pretty much every category, wages have stagnated.
What we make has not kept pace w/what we spend. I’m 40K in debt as I type this, to offer a personal example, simply because I studied abroad for three weeks in the summer of 2008 & then went to grad school for two years. And I went to grad school by the way, because I could not find a decent job — I worked in two supermarkets for about three years after getting my BA, putting various items on shelves (I did this for another ten months after grad school, too). And now you can add 10K to that total, because my 16-year-old Mazda just died three days ago & I’ve bought a new (used) car. I’m complaining, but stuff like this is the norm for a lot of people: the American Dream — a car, a nice house in a nice neighborhood, a yearly vacation to a cool place & sending the kids to college — will run you, these days, about 130,000K a year. This is affordable for just 1 in 8 households — the middle class is not so middle anymore, if you’re charting this out via Gaussian distribution. My generation, the young adults who came of hiring age just as the Great Recession hit, is still in the wilderness, jobs-wise, despite the fact that lots & lots of companies are now hiring recent college grads at pre-Recession rates. This will continue, I think: when you’ve got those big gaps in your resume, you become less competitive in the marketplace, which leads to ever-greater gaps in your resume. Things snowball. Bernie Sanders is correct when he notes (as he’s been doing consistently for 40+ years w/nearly biblical doggedness) that the system is rigged. It’s a fact. Even our health statistics would appear to bear this out: suicide rates are up 30% from 2000 levels, according to the CDC. Heart disease rates are up, cancer rates are up, obesity rates are up. Heroin use & abuse & overdose is way up. Our life expectancy rates are among the lowest, in terms of first-world nations: just 81.2 years for women & 76.4 years for men. Citizens of countries like Japan & Switzerland tend to live about five years longer than US citizens, and generally speaking, if you just look at such lists, you’ll be tempted to draw a correlation between robust (and sort of socialist) economies + strong universal healthcare systems, & citizen health. People in countries w/strong economies & good healthcare tend to live longer & do so w/fewer diseases & problems, is the bottom line.
And continuing on, it’s also a fact that WTO policies & free trade agreements w/fun-to-say acronymic titles like NAFTA & CAFTA &(possibly) the newly-proposed TPP have really wounded the American economy. It’s also a fact that campaign-finance regulations need swift & deep structural reform. And too, it’s a fact that to really combat the climate crisis we’ll likely need a carbon tax which directly funds research into & subsidies for alternative energies, something which no American politician who values his or her job would actually vote for because the word tax equates w/death. Literally & historically: our country went to war to secure its freedom because it didn’t want to pay a tiny tax on stamps — because this tax went to fund a British military presence in the thirteen colonies. Colonists felt they were paying the British govt. to oppress them, basically: it was a double-outrage. You’re making me pay you to point a gun at me.
In a sense this Taxation Without Representation thing is what’s at stake today, too: many Americans feel they’re paying taxes so rich people can get richer & then continue to raise prices so that we’re paying them via govt. & via the marketplace. This is partly why a populist message against govt. corruption & corporate intrusion feels so timely; it’s why, in short, both Sanders & Trump are surging in their respective parties and, more importantly, w/independent voters. And it’s an emotional resonance — thanks in large part, again, to those embodied Underdog & Strict Father archetypes, & to the historical context, the Taxation Without Representation thing — which gets certain voters so intensely locked on to Sanders or Trump. Which then, this deep deep identification w/the candidate and the message, is why those voters then go ahead & get so goddamn vicious w/anyone who disagrees with or expresses doubt about their candidate.
You know or you’re at least vaguely aware of the facts: Bernie Sanders has now won 19 primaries & caucuses. He’s won 9,453,226 votes (as of 5/12/16, with about 97% of W. Va. reporting) — that’s 43% of all votes cast in the primaries. Which is not just impressive but absurd, because the guy is not a Democrat, even. He’s a self-described democratic socialist, which is a hybrid term & sort of meaningless within the context of contemporary American politics: he believes in democracy, but he also believes in socialism which, crudely, is state regulation and/or control of industry. It’s possible to reconcile democracy to socialism, but it’s not possible to reconcile a capitalistic democracy to socialism (i.e., a democracy in which capitalism is the base value on which the whole value system is built). It just isn’t. Not in a country this big (those Western European social democracies that American progressives like to tout? they’re far more culturally homogenous & way smaller geographically, & too, they’ve got radically different historical backgrounds — it’s sort of like advocating for the wholesale introduction of Greek-style democracy into the Persian Empire circa 5th century BCE, or it’s like force-feeding American-style democracy to Middle Eastern nations circa right now). Which this incompatibility between socialism & capitalistic democracy is why he’s proposing a revolution — this is not a campaign promise, it’s real. He means it. He wants to overhaul the system, to start anew. He wants health-care-as-mandate, as one of those constitutional rights you hear so much about come election year, & not a product peddled by insurance & pharmaceutical companies. Ditto with clean energy. He wants to break the big banks up & keep them from speculating, plus he wants to regulate the stock market, to impose taxes on speculation. He wants to tax big companies at very high rates w/o giving them any incentives to remain in our country. Ditto with estate taxes. He wants to establish a $15 minimum wage. In essence, Bernie Sanders would like to use the federal govt. to (1) create a massive & temporary # of new jobs via infrastructure & energy grid overhauls, & then (2) fund these overhauls by taxing rich people, & taxing corporations, & taxing Wall Street speculation w/o offering any real incentive for these groups to stay in-country, & then (3) help grow small businesses & create new jobs attached to those small businesses (by essentially creating an industry vacuum left in the wake of corporate & investor exits from American markets) — he wants to help establish, via heavy-handed govt. regulation, a sort of hyper-localized business atmosphere: like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders seems to deeply mistrust globalization. And, too, he hates free trade & he wants state universities to offer free tuition.
My goal here is not to comment on or critique the guy’s policy positions. You’ve seen enough of that already. Thanks to the media blitz you know where he stands on pretty much every issue imaginable; you’re aware of the pros & cons of all his positions. And possibly, too, you’re like me: you’re thankful for his candidacy & the conversations it’s sparked, & the fact he’s generated so much enthusiasm for progressive values (particularly among people who hadn’t previously participated in the process) and injected a little emotion into what’s typically a stolid intellectual exercise (Democrats are policy wonks, mostly — they’re nerds).
Instead I’d like to talk about Bernie Bros, sort of, which let me start by way of example(s):
What an astounding collection of complete bullshit. How can the American left be so fucking stupid. You’re telling me that a guy who has made his entire career about income inequality and a corporate whore who got filthy rich giving speeches to the bankers are both the same? You fucking moron! Vote for the corporate vagina.
As soon as I started reading, I realized you were never a Bernie supporter as you sound more like a hired troll to put out useless propaganda.
Lol paid Hillary troll.
The only words I have for you are specious, spurious & s**t for brains SHILL.
This is disgusting…This is blatant Hillary campaign Astroturfing and you know it!
Sounds like Hillary wrote this for you.
Any elected super delegate that throws their support to HRC should be unforgiven and targeted by us forever….at worst we’ll be a costly irritation to them, at best we’ll destroy their careers.
Stuff like this is all over the Internet. There are #dropouthillary & #neverhillary & #BerntheWitch trends on Twitter. There are Reddit threads miles and miles long. There are tons of really nasty Facebook posts. There are memes and GIFs. Misogynistic rhetoric along w/its attendant excuse (e.g., just because I don’t like Hillary means I’m sexist??). And the comments. Everywhere you look there are comments. Any article that mentions the name “Bernie Sanders” — just go ahead & look at the comments, I guarantee you will find at least one Bernie Bro, explaining things to the rest of us, doing it point-by-agonizing-point, or else just resorting to the shorthand-HRC-is-a-corporate-whore-and-the-writer-is-a-shill argument. The tactic here is to Google the writer & then “out” them as a paid shill for the Clinton campaign. And then when the Bernie-Bro-phenomenon is critiqued, Bernie Bros take to the comments thread to explain why those Bernie Bros, the nasty ones, are actually themselves shills for the Clinton campaign, just posing as Bernie supporters to give Bernie supporters a bad name.
Real true journalists, too, with publication histories you can track & who’ve dedicated their careers to coming as close to objective as one can, are accused of being pro-Hillary or of “angling for a job in the Clinton administration.” It all gets very complicated & raises really difficult & interesting epistemological questions about knowledge-and-identity-in-the-Internet-Age, but I can boil it down like this: people get nasty as fuck on the Internet. They just do. My own best friend trolled me after I’d posted an article in which the writer offered a very tepid & qualified endorsement of Hillary Clinton (he quickly deleted his trolling-comment, but not before I saw it). And such trolling isn’t new or solely the domain of Bernie supporters: there are Clinton trolls, for sure, & Trump trolls, & too I’d bet that back in 2008 you would have seen some pretty hard trolling during the Obama-Clinton primary battle. There are trolls beneath every digital rock: in sports & in fashion, in celebrity news, on Yelp, etc. etc. Any article on any major website is likely to earn itself a troll in the comments thread. So it’s not new. But I think Bernie Bros have received the lion’s share of attention because they’re trolling in defense of a candidate whose brand is built on integrity & on decency. So then, we wonder, why is it that, when so many people seem open to an alternative, progressive candidate, do these people insist on acting like dicks? Why aren’t they representing the brand?
Well, they are, or more accurately, they believe they are. These are members of what Lakoff & another neuroscientist, Drew Westen, call an emotional constituency — “groups of voters with the same emotional reactions on a given issue or candidate.” And I’ll just submit that this particular emotionally constituency is grouped & defined by conservatism, itself having the following characteristics (as listed by Lakoff, summarizing the conclusions of another researcher): “a need for authoritarianism and dogmatism (or an intolerance of ambiguity)…a need for closure (in order to avoid uncertainty), regulatory focus (in order to cultivate discipline)…in short…conservatives show a higher personal need for order, structure, and closure.”
A personal need that’s neatly embodied by Sanders, whose brand is built, as mentioned before, on tough, fatherly rhetoric, particularly in terms of tone.
On the campaign trail Bernie Sanders looks his age. He’s got a deep booming voice he projects out at you w/mesmerizing cadence, it’s both impersonal & deeply earnest, like a blind guy talking at a tree because he thinks it’s his daughter, & too he inflects w/a heavy Brooklyn accent despite all those years in Vermont. If you type his name into Wikipedia, you will discover he is grinning awkwardly in his official Senate portrait — it’s a scowl dressed up as a smile.
His grim decades-long tracking of a single theme — money, & where it goes — is not a sexy subject, & it reminds those of us w/financially-challenged fathers of all those times we were scolded for not shutting off the light after leaving the room. When I think of Bernie Sanders, I think of Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men. I can’t help it. The guy’s a mix of Dad & Grandpa to me; he is, in some basic sense, patriarchal.
I mention all this because it’s relevant to the political process: after party allegiance, the way you feel about a candidate typically determines how you’ll cast your vote. That’s a fact, & it’s got hard science behind it. Take a look at Westen’s The Political Brain or Lakoff’s The Political Mind. Take a look at the bibliographies for these books. Google “politics+neuroscience.” Do a little preliminary investigation, in other words. You don’t need to go too deep to ratify. You’ll find within minutes there’s even a burgeoning academic discipline, called neuropolitics, which pulls research & data from a variety of other disciplines (neurology, psychology, political science, genetics, etc.) to help explore the brain’s effect on/reaction to politics & politicians.
The gist of such research is basically that we vote w/our hearts & guts, & then we rationalize that choice & pretend to ourselves that such post-hoc rationalizing is actually dispassionate reasoning. We’re groupies pretending to be philosophers.
Westen boils it down this way: “People’s positive and negative associations to a candidate were better predictors of their voting preferences than even their judgments about his personality and competence,” he writes of a study by Robert Abelson & co. at Yale (Abelson’s work is canon among psychologists interested in political science; it’s been cited thousands of times). Such associations form what Westen terms networks: “bundles of thoughts, feelings, images, and ideas that have become connected over time.” Insert such networks-of-associations into a Lakoffian frame or the “smaller narratives with very simple structures” that comprise the bigger, more complicated narratives we call our lives (much the way clusters of pixels form images on your screen), & you’ve got an extremely powerful & mostly sub- and unconscious apparatus for making political decisions. E.g. combine my conflation of Bernie Sanders w/the two main characters of Grumpy Old Men or the futzy Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm, along w/the fact that I’ve lived in S. Fla. my entire life just about (a region densely populated w/old & rude retired Jewish New Yorkers), plus the fact I was raised Evangelical & in fact was strongly encouraged, in high school, to register Republican (to the point that, looking back, I & others were likely coerced) & indeed recall casting, at the age of twelve, a “kid’s vote” for G.W. Bush in 2000, & you can probably predict my emotional reaction to the candidacy-for-president of Bernie Sanders w/relative ease.
Or can you? Because what I’ve left out is my (difficult) university conversion to humanism at the urging of an Episcopalian-priest-turned-liberal-arts-professor in 2006, & my votes for Nader in 2008 & Obama in 2012, & my long-term interests in philosophy & rhetoric & science, my own Jewish background.
This is an example of what Lakoff calls biconceptual thinking — basically it’s the brain’s ability to hold two paradoxical frames simultaneously, & use one or the other for different things. Which I mention because Bernie Sanders is a walking, talking embodiment of biconceptualism; he’s utilizing rhetorical strategies typically associated w/conservatism to push a deeply progressive agenda, the end goal of which is an America that to great degree looks like the America that conservatives dream of: lots of business competition among healthy, well-paid, & deeply incentivized citizens, a robust market w/lots & varied competition which functions (thanks to the govt.’s increasingly “invisible hand”) like Adam Smith’s wildest masturbatory fantasy, etc.
But so w/regard to Bernie Bros, my suggestion here is: (a) Bernie Sanders is, in a number of ways, activating certain networks in the brains of voters, & (b) these are networks typically activated by & thus associated with conservative candidates, & so (c) some of the vicious exclusionary behavior that we’re all witnessing a contingent of Bernie supporters engage in, can in fact be explained by (a) + (b).
In a long sit-down interview with Rachel Maddow on 5/6/16 Bernie Sanders appeared in a suit and tie. He squinted at Rachel throughout thanks to the day’s brightness, and his hair looked fussed, either by wind or by someone rubbing his head. His posture was slumped & in-drawn, sort of like a turtle that got caught & stuck halfway through its retraction. He projected discomfort. The interview was at his house.
Now think about this, because it’s really weird.
In our current hypertelevised era of personality politics, in which candidates routinely trot their kids & spouses out to score points with voters & every single gesture & word is tracked & analyzed by a legion of consultants & crafted to project likeability, trustworthiness, & “presidentialness”, Bernie Sanders decides to eschew what appears to be an easy & straightforward opportunity to establish a link between himself & the concept of home. We’ve all got these incredibly deep clear feelings about our homes: it’s a place uniquely our own, where most of us feel most free & safe & comfortable, & where our value & moral systems are least threatened. And if it’s not these things, it should be (we feel) — that’s a large part of the reason why domestic violence disturbs us so much, & also it’s why, culturally, we’ve been so attuned to & interested in stories about orphans — e.g. Harry Potter & nearly every Disney movie, including the current remake of The Jungle Book — we feel a strong emotional stake in the orphan’s quest to find his true home because without it he is, to great degree, without identity, still in danger & discomfort. And too it’s why, to this very day, TV networks continue to produce for our viewing consumption great quantities of family sitcoms & dramas.
In a nutshell, it’s why Sanders’s decision to wear a suit & look grim & uncomfortable was so odd & disconcerting: here was a chance for him to engage in a politics of empathy, to establish & project, viscerally, his values & his morals — to pitch himself, not just his idea(s) — and he passed on it. This is a polarizing decision: either you applaud the guy’s commitment to professionalism & unconventional behavior, or you find the suit off-putting & impersonal.
The house itself appears in the interview as this archetypal all-American space: there is a white ranch-style fence & what seems to be (it’s really fuzzy) a redbricked house; there is, adjacent to the fence, what looks like (again, fuzzy), a tall cluster of golden wheat, gently manipulated at the top of the stalk by a gentle breeze; there is someone who walks by in the background w/a dog wagging its tail &, on the other side, there is a sun-mottled copse of trees. There is a child’s playhouse, it looks like, just behind the wheat, likely built for his grandchildren. All of these features activate the Home-network in the brain w/textbook precision, but the guy himself disrupts that network; his appearance & posture & talking points create a cognitive dissonance powerful enough to lift itself from subconscious thought & into conscious thought.
I’m harping on this single interview, but that’s just because it’s representative of most of the interviews w/Bernie Sanders that I’ve watched (the exception being his interviews w/The Young Turks): the guy is combative & glum, he’s sarcastic, he scoffs & bristles at questions to indicate he thinks they’re stupid or unfair. Likewise, at rallies, there’s the wagging/waving thing he does w/the index finger on his right hand, sort of like an enthusiastic guy at a Mozart concert imitating the maestro. There’s the revolutionary rhetoric, the anger, the constant beleaguered expression.
“Politics,” writes Lakoff, “is very much about cultural narratives. For candidates it is about the stories they have lived and are living, the stories they tell about themselves, the stories the opposition tries to pin on them, and the stories the press tells about them.” By all accounts the story of Bernie Sanders is, much like the stories of Barack Obama & Donald Trump, the story of the Outsider: non- or even anti-establishment, espousing ideals & policies typically framed as populist, deeply self-righteous in that Mr.-Smith-Goes-To-Washington sort of way. What makes me as a voter so mistrustful of the Outsider is the paradoxical desire that lives in his/her deepest darkest heart: the desire to be Inside. Anyone who runs for President does so because they’ve got an immense ambition that would make most of us uncomfortable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but look: framing your candidacy as anti-establishment is deceptive, because what you’re seeking when you run for President is to become the establishment. To rhetorically suppress that ambition, & worse, to implicitly or openly condemn another candidate for owning it, is possibly why I’m so wary of populists, & then this general wariness of populists & populism is likely why I’ve been hesitating for so long about Sanders, despite the fact that most of his policy positions track so closely to what I’d like to see happen in this country. Add in the Bernie Bro phenomenon + Sanders’ weird anti-charismatic persona on the stump & in debates, & you’ll understand why I’ve been struggling for months to figure out who to support.
I think a lot of voters feel this way. In fact, I know it: all you need to do is look at the numbers. Sanders insists that, when voter turnout is high, he tends to win. But that’s just not true: only four times so far has a candidate secured more than a million votes in a primary; three of those four primaries belonged to Hillary Clinton (the 4th went to Ted Cruz, in his home state of TX). The sum of Sanders’s top five primary performances is around 1.4 million off the sum of Clinton’s top five. As mentioned, Sanders has won about 43% of the popular vote, but conversely, this means that Clinton has won nearly 57%. In a general election, a 14-point spread would be considered a blowout.
By nearly every metric, in other words, Bernie Sanders trails. Even without those notorious superdelegates, let’s remember, the guy is still 283 delegates behind.
But so, again, what I’m suggesting is that Bernie Sanders is preaching his progressive message via a conservative frame, & that’s why he’s engendering Bernie Bro Bullshit, & too, that’s why, despite strong support among independents & young voters, he’s not exactly wowing old-school Democrats, who’ve been neurally trained against such framing.
Basically, to just go ahead & get to my point, the issue is tonal: Sanders yells & scolds & wags his finger, & voters attune themselves to such cues; the message’s vehicle & style overshadows its substance. Later on it’s rationalized by the voter as some combination of the following: he’s delusional, he couldn’t possibly accomplish what he’s seeking to accomplish, his tax plan would add trillions of debt & shrink the economy & harm business, he’s great at diagnosing the issues but his policy proposals have no substance, etc. etc. But make no mistake: for most of us, the decision is already made before stuff like that is taken into account. Our political decisions are made mostly in the old-brain regions: the limbic system in particular is a MAJOR player (that’s where our emotional intelligence is housed): “The amygdala,” writes Westen, “is involved in many emotional processes, from identifying and responding to emotional expressions in others, to attaching emotional significance to events, to creating the intensity of emotional experience…” He also identifies the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which “plays a crucial role in linking thought and emotion, particularly in using emotional reactions to guide decision making.” Lakoff, in addition, identifies both the insula & posteromedial cortex, “which must be active in the experience of empathy, say, in compassion and admiration,” along w/a mechanism termed neural binding, which “allows us to bring together neural activation in different parts of the brain to form single integrated wholes.”
The point of all this is simply to assert that Bernie Sanders is tonally activating networks of the brain signaling the Strict Father archetype, which Lakoff identifies thusly:
The strict father is the moral leader of the family, and is to be obeyed [Writer’s Note: think of Sanders’s stark statement, which he repeats like a heartbeat, that “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, the great economic issue of our time, and the great political issue of our time,” — it’s no coincidence that morality comes first in the sentence nearly every time he repeats it]…You need a strict father because kids are born bad, in the sense that they just do what they want to do [Writer’s Note: think of how Sanders frames his stance on corporations & the free market]. They need to be punished strictly and painfully when they do wrong, so they will have an incentive to do right in order to avoid punishment…For the father to know right from wrong, there must be an absolute right and wrong, and that means that categories must be absolute…
Now, okay, it’s really, really important to note that the substance of Sanders’s message is progressive, & draws on what Lakoff terms the Nurturant Parent model: “Nurturance is empathy, responsibility for oneself and others, and the strength to carry out those responsibilities.” The issue is the tone undercuts this, as does the persona, which confuses & makes wary a lot of people like me, who would otherwise be receptive to the message, & too it activates the conservative network in other voters, who go on to engage in authoritarian & paranoid you’re-an-idiot-if-you-don’t-agree-with-us behavior, AKA the Bernie Bros.
Is any of this fair to Bernie Sanders, who is by most accounts a really genuine & caring human being? No, it’s not. It’s not. But as Westen asserts, “Sometimes you have to work with the brain you have, not the brain you might have wished you had.”
Within the Issues area of the Bernie-for-POTUS website, you will find Sanders’s policy proposals: these are detailed &, with a few exceptions, follow a strict, effective sequence: (1) the problem is simply stated & evidence is presented which ratifies the seriousness & urgency of the problem, & then (2) a solution(s) to the problem is proposed, often along with a price tag (typically quite expensive) + a justification for that price tag along the lines of an it’ll-cost-more-not-to-address-the-problem argument. On first glance there is little with which to take issue. But again, if you take a closer look, you’ll discover a conservative frame undergirding the progressive vision: the given evidence that confirms the problem is often framed in terms of rank: America ranks X in terms of infrastructure; America is behind so-and-so in terms of internet speed & isn’t that unacceptable, America did X back in the 1860s but look at us now, etc:
Rank is a useful way of providing historical & geopolitical context for an issue, but there’s a price, because it encourages a nationalistic outlook (an Us. v. Them mentality) which primes voters to accept & expect ever-more-extreme nationalistic policy proposals: anything framed in terms of competition tends to trigger our conservative networks, according to Lakoff. The gist of the argument is this: America should invest in infrastructure because America should have the best infrastructure of anybody anywhere. America should invest in green technology because America should lead the way in saving our planet from the effects of global warming. America should solve for income inequality because America should be setting the example for countries everywhere on how best to achieve an egalitarian society. It is undoubtedly a civic-minded strategy, but it’s not exactly Kennedyesque — this is tough to explain, but there’s very little in his actual policies to support his oft-stated We Must Do This Together message: mostly it’s all about bringing the bad guys to justice and making them pay their fair share, & too it’s about spending lots of money to create temporary jobs to rebuild infrastructure. There is little in here about actually empowering a citizenry through activism & volunteerism; no language which would encourage us as Americans to take responsibility. Nothing along the lines of Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You messaging. No overarching national project to engage the hearts & minds of citizens & encourage empathy & communal identification through participation, rather than through We Must Be The Best thinking. In fact the only issue on which Sanders urges the creation of “a movement” is campaign finance reform. You can take the splash page as an example: there’s a Contribute button that’ll take you to another page where you can donate money to the campaign, but there’s no volunteer option, not until you click through to the site. Which, even then, the Contribute button stands out in comparison to the other tabs. This may seem like a teensy quibble, but it’s indicative of priority,& it’s something Bernie Sanders may not even be consciously aware of.
Were I to point to a single failure of contemporary American politics, it would be this idea that government is simply for the people, & no longer of or by the people. That currency, & not community, is what drives us & what should drive us. And frankly, despite Sanders’s claims to progressivism, he is nearly as guilty of this thinking as Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Which, again, such selfishness tends just to perpetuate conservative framing, & there’s evidence for this in the very structure of American governance: the Republican party dominates at the state & local levels, & too the Republican party owns majorities in both the House & the Senate. There are 31 Republican governors to just 19 Democratic governors. And as David Byler notes for Real Clear Politics, “The GOP now controls 68 out of 98 partisan state legislative chambers — the highest number in the history of the party.” Republicans score a hat trick — governorship plus the two legislative chambers — in 23 states, whereas Democrats hold just 7 trifectas.
Despite media claims to the contrary, in other words, the Republican party is far more robust than the Democratic party & may very well achieve a stranglehold on all levels of govt. come November 8th. Which this GOP dominance has lots to do w/Democrats’ accepting of conservative framing techniques. And don’t look now, but Donald Trump is closing the gap in national polling & is poised, possibly, to take the presidency.
Unless, that is, we reject these harmful conservative frames our candidates are pushing on us & demand frames & rhetoric based on communal responsibility — not just via taxes (the standard put-your-money-in-the-pot-and-we’ll-do-the-rest argument that all major candidates are espousing), but through empathy & participation. Through volunteering a night or two a week. Through getting to know each other & looking out for each other in those small ways that seem so inconvenient at first. Through pushing, in non-election years, for the sorts of things we’re promised in election years — and doing so out of empathy, not out of selfishness. Implied here is a much bigger discussion we’re not even having: about our unhappiness & anxiety, our cultural fragmentation, the “echo chamber” effect that the Internet has only served to intensify, our increasing tribalism in the face of deep & massively complicated cultural dynamics, the complexities attached to every day living. That stuff is really hard to even think about, & so it’s tempting to lose ourselves in the spectacle of politics & accept the candidates’ framing of the issues. But, look, we don’t have to. We don’t. We don’t have to accept the anger that’s driving this election cycle. We don’t have to accept the frustration. This is getting mushy & cheesy & entering TED Talk territory, but it’s true. This election should not have as its central question What can [Trump/Clinton/Sanders] do to make my life better? Instead we should be asking, along w/a certain famous civil rights activist, “What are you doing for others?”
I’m aware of how simple & naive this seems, but: by consistently asking this question of himself, Martin Luther King Jr. helped transform, for the better, the world in which he lived. And, to be fair, Bernie Sanders has spent his entire political career asking this of himself. So now, instead of accepting his & others’ promises to Take Care Of Us (promises which are too often broken), maybe we should ask ourselves this question, too.