I have been brooding about something for a long time, and I have decided to try to think it through in the medium of this blog. I do not see my way clear on this matter, so somewhat uncharacteristically you will see me feeling my way to a conclusion in public, as it were.
My question can be stated simply: How should I think about American politics and public life? I do not mean by this which candidate should I support or what policies should I favor or what practical political action should I engage in? I mean rather how should I think in an ongoing way about the norms and modes of behavior that are desirable in the public and political life of the country in which I live?
Let me begin, as I am wont to do, by reviewing briefly the arc of my own long engagement with public affairs. My grandfather was a lifelong socialist of the Eugene Debs Norman Thomas variety, and my father and mother courted at Circle One of the Young People’s Socialist League in New York City, but by the time I was a little boy, they were FDR New Deal Democrats, although they did send me to a red diaper pre-school, the Sunnyside Progressive School. I was a Henry Wallace supporter at fourteen, in 1948, but my serious involvement in public affairs did not begin until ten years later, when as a young Harvard Instructor I became deeply committed to nuclear disarmament, a cause I spoke publicly for and published on both at Harvard and later at the University of Chicago. I have always dated the turning point in my political life as the morning of April 18, 1961, the morning after the unsuccessful effort of CIA backed Cuban exiles to overthrow the new Castro government. Until that point, despite my vocal leftwing politics, I considered myself a Liberal. But Kennedy was a Liberal and he had invaded Cuba, so I was forced to recognize that I was something else. As a place holder, I called myself a Radical, with very little idea what that might mean.
It has been fifty-eight years since that day in April, and much has changed in the world and in my understanding of it. I have devoted a good deal of time thinking about, writing about, and in small ways taking action in response to the seemingly endless series of evil things the American government has done domestically and abroad. I need not catalogue them; you know them all. But until quite recently, I gave very little thought to the norms of public behavior that were presupposed and served as the backdrop for my political activity.
Let me give you a very simple example. Let us suppose I am a dedicated supporter of Bernie Sanders, as a consequence of which I volunteer to canvass for him in the North Carolina Democratic primary, which this year is part of Super Tuesday, March 3rd, and hence is very politically consequential. Despite my thoroughgoing disenchantment with the United States and my deep knowledge of the endlessly evil ways in which American local, state, and federal government officials have acted for the past 232 years, I expect the local volunteer precinct workers actually to count the votes for Bernie that I have corralled and guided to the polls by my efforts. I will be alert to the possibility of fraud, perpetrated perhaps by malign Biden supporting poll workers, but I will be righteously angry if I detect such fraud. I will not smile a superior, supercilious smile and say that since America is a slough of hypocrisy, I am neither surprised nor outraged.
In short, despite my deep disagreements with mainstream political commentators, I share their professed belief that a democracy depends for its success and survival on norms of civic behavior whose public flouting and endless violation pose a threat to the possibility of social justice. And this is true not only for precinct poll workers but for Senators, Congresspersons, Presidents, judges, Cabinet officers, and everyone else who plays a role in the public life of a democracy.
Many of those commentators earlier in their careers served in Democratic or Republican administrations whose hands drip, Picture of Dorian Gray style, with the blood of countless victims, and I am so accustomed to shouting this fact at the TV screen that I forget how completely I believe in and indeed count on the norms of public discourse and behavior that they and their political employers have violated.
I say I want socialism. Well, socialism can replace capitalism either peacefully or violently. If peacefully, then the electoral processes by which this happens will require that countless thousands or tens of thousands of public officials adhere to those norms even when the votes are going against them. What is more, the administration of a socialist state will demand a level of public honesty greater than anything we see in the administrations of capitalist democracies.
If violently, then there may well be an exciting period of transition during which commitment to The Cause substitutes for quotidian norms of public behavior. But as Max Weber noted in another context, all too soon we see the routinization of charisma, and as the ecstasy of revolution gives way to the grind of administration, our protection against the inevitable lure of corruption and oppression will be those same norms, even if they are now rechristened Socialist Morality.
It is for this reason that I really do believe Donald Trump is an existential threat to the ideals I still cherish at eighty-five, and that it is a serious mistake to say, albeit perhaps merely for the sake of provocation, that a Beto presidency would be worse than a second Trump term.