This week, Bernie Sanders gave a major speech explaining his political vision for the United States. Everyone should read it—it compellingly explains how a left economic agenda is about enhancing people’s freedom. Sanders asked:
- “Are you truly free if you are unable to go to a doctor when you are sick, or face financial bankruptcy when you leave the hospital?”
- “Are you truly free if you cannot afford the prescription drug you need to stay alive?”
- “Are you truly free when you spend half of your limited income on housing, and are forced to borrow money from a payday lender at 200 percent interest rates?”
The answer, obvious to anyone other than a libertarian, is “of course you aren’t.” If you are threatened by climate change because rapacious companies have spent years inflicting disastrous environmental costs without paying for them, that’s an attack on your freedom. If all the wealth is controlled by a small number of people, and your survival depends on whether you please them enough for them to give you what you need, you’re not free. It should be beyond dispute that feudalistic social structures aren’t free, but conservatives have long succeeded in perverting the word “freedom” to describe a society where people have very little meaningful control over their workplaces and their government. By reclaiming the language of liberty from the right, as Luke Savage wrote in Jacobin, Sanders began “laying the groundwork for a sweeping redefinition of the political and economic orthodoxies that have long dominated American society—and offering millions a richer and more textured definition of freedom than most have ever known.”
But to political science professor Yascha Mounk, Sanders’ speech was deeply flawed. Not wrong, necessarily. Something perhaps even worse: It was unserious. This is because, while Sanders may have clearly spelled out the values that undergird democratic socialism, he did not spend a sufficient amount of time promising not to become Joseph Stalin. According to Mounk:
“Sanders made a strong case for the universal provision of affordable health care, the regulation of the financial industry, and generous old-age pensions. But he didn’t acknowledge… the ways in which the suppression of free markets has repeatedly fostered a different kind of oppression over the past century… He was downright disdainful of the notion that a speech on socialism and authoritarianism should seriously grapple with the long history of socialist movements that have ended in dictatorship… Thus Sanders name-checked Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini but remained silent about Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong… Indeed, the only connection between socialism and autocracy that Sanders was willing to acknowledge is the one that exists in the feverish imagination of the ignorant right: He decried the “red-baiting” in which Republicans have long engaged… What separated, say, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who ended up crushing political opponents, from the French Socialists, who respected the right to dissent, was in good part their attitude toward markets. Socialists who nationalized large parts of the economy, and severely restricted the functioning of the market, crushed freedom in two ways: First, they made it impossible for citizens to engage in private economic initiative. And second, they quickly started to abuse the power to take away the livelihood of political opponents.”
Now, one reason for singling out Hitler and Mussolini might be that Sanders mentioned them when he was talking about the time of Franklin Roosevelt, when we fought Hitler and Mussolini, and allied with China and Stalin’s Russia (both of whom lost tens of millions of lives fighting the Axis powers, for which we extended them negligible gratitude.) But Sanders was quite clear that his type of socialism requires the same kind of free press and free expression that we have today:
“Today, our Bill of Rights guarantees the American people a number of important constitutionally protected political rights. And while we understand that these rights have not always been respected and we have so much more work to do, we are proud that our constitution guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, a free press and other rights because we understand that we can never have true American freedom unless we are free from authoritarian tyranny. Now, we must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights – the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment.”
This seems pretty clear to me. The reason that Mounk thinks it was “unserious,” however, and failed to reassure him that Sanders would not become Stalin, is that it did not make clear Sanders’ position on “markets.” Mounk says that “what separated” the Sandinistas, “who ended up crushing political opponents,” from the French socialists “who respected the right to dissent,” was their attitude toward markets. But surely there was another thing that separated them, namely… their attitude toward dissent. Libertarian socialists, who always opposed the kind of “socialism” that was willing to trample on critics, have said that the problem is the willingness to persecute people for disagreement, rather than the size of the public sector. What is common to the Reign of Terror, the Red Terror, Kristallnacht, the Dirty War, and the Caravan of Death is not a particular economic program but the failure to place civil liberties as a non-negotiable precondition to any economic program.
In fact, it seems to me as if what is unserious is the idea that unless you include a section insisting that you do not plan to replicate Mao Zedong’s agricultural policies, a speech outlining your vision for left politics—one that explicitly makes clear that that vision entails anti-authoritarianism—cannot be “serious.”
But why did Sanders not address the question of “the role of the market under socialism”? Well, one reason is that Sanders isn’t a utopian socialist with a clear defined vision of what the Socialist World will look like. He’s a highly pragmatic socialist in the mold of Eduard Bernstein, who thinks in terms of the next steps toward realizing a set of egalitarian values, rather than what the perfect realization of those values would look like. You can see what his approach to governance might look like by examining his tenure as mayor of Burlington—which was characterized by a commitment to making the city more affordable for working people but has been criticized by more radical socialists for its “technocratic bias and its corporate concern for expansion.” (Nobody who has studied Sanders’ career closely can think there is a risk of him being too socialistic. Socialists have long been exasperated with him precisely because of his highly pragmatic and incremental approach.) The topic of how socialists should think about markets is an interesting one, worthy of academic papers, but I don’t think there’s an obvious answer to that question. Large parts of the economy do operate outside of the “market” already, and strong arguments have been made that the role of markets could significantly diminish in the future. Then again, there are “market socialists” who think that egalitarian distribution of capital does not require elimination of markets themselves. These are interesting debates within socialism and serious people would be engaging with them rather than demanding that every time a socialist speaks they disavow Kim Jong Un. (Only fair, since we don’t demand that every time a Republican speaks they disavow the history of authoritarian Republics like, well, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)
It’s worth reflecting on the idea of “seriousness” in American political discourse. It is a useful way to dismiss ideas for radical change without having to closely examine whether they are accurate or not, and it is also used to create a kind of “topsy-turvy land” in which objectively insane ideas are treated as Very Serious and moderate, pragmatic proposals for social reform are Ludicrously Unserious.
Here’s National Review’s Mona Charen, for instance, arguing that the Green New Deal is utterly unserious:
“Okaaaaay. So what Ocasio-Cortez and Markey have achieved, along with all of the Democrats who’ve endorsed this childish wish list, is to make themselves look like dummies, and to reinforce the impression that they are totally unserious about combating climate change. If they were committed to mitigating what they claim to believe is a looming catastrophe, you might imagine that they would study the question for at least a few minutes, and even swallow hard and make some tough choices about the way forward. That’s what others have done.”
Charen’s argument is that any major anti-climate change initiative must include nuclear energy, and that leftists who fail to explicitly make clear their position on nuclear are not serious. Now, I can actually accept Charen’s position that the left needs to confront the difficult question of how much we ought to rely on nuclear, and that those who are serious about the problem must have an answer. But I know that Charen herself isn’t serious about climate change, because the only time she writes about it she is bashing the Green New Deal! If the charge of unseriousness applies to those whose climate plans are insufficiently specific, does it apply to those who don’t seem to care about climate change at all?
So, for example, Very Serious Washington People will say that the Green New Deal is naive. Dianne Feinstein will inform us that it will never happen, tutting at the children who dare to think that we ought to mobilize to stop an environmental catastrophe that threatens their future. As Branko Marcetic notes, Democratic politicians have consistently acted as if they don’t believe climate change is a serious threat. Not only has the DNC refused to host a primary debate about climate change, but candidates who do attend a climate change debate may be banned from participating in the main Democratic debates.
This should be considered so “unserious” as to make one politically toxic. Climate change is one of the most critical political challenges of our time, yet the only people who have begun to think about how we might take it seriously are the unserious childish ones and the people who ignore it completely are serious.
The same is true in foreign policy, where those arguing that the United States should stop committing international crimes (e.g., Noam Chomsky) are treated as fringe lunatic while recommending we bomb a new country will get you an op-ed in the New York Times. (The latest from serious foreign policy thinker Bret Stephens: Let’s blow up Iran’s navy!) Jeremy Corbyn’s unwillingness to say that he would nuke a civilian population and his reluctance to use murder as a solution to international differences make him a silly child, according to serious magazine the Economist. Henry Kissinger, now he’s a serious foreign policy thinker.
Of course, I think people should be serious about things, even if the phrase “taking seriously” is rather overused. But it’s also the case that “seriousness” as currently constructed often boils to “opinions that favor the interests of the United States ruling class.” If that’s seriousness, then I think we should be deeply frivolous. What if, on the other hand, we had a definition of seriousness that treated the people who advocated mass murder and refused to confront planetary emergencies as the ones clearly too immature to participate in the political dialogue?
Yascha Mounk himself is a classic example of the Serious Pundit With Serious Opinions. Sam Adler-Bell writes that Mounk has become one of the go-to experts: “turn on BBC or NPR or the Vox-y podcast of your choice; there’s a good chance you’ll hear Mounk explaining the latest Trumpian transgression…” (Adler-Bell found that for all Mounk’s fretting about authoritarianism, he happily served Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change, which has been paid million dollars to advise the Saudi Arabian government.) So, if Bernie Sanders fails to meet the Mounk-ian standard for seriousness, what are some examples of actual serious Mounk-ian opinions? Well, in order to be a pundit like Mounk, you should try saying things like the following:
- “For about a decade, Latin America seemed to be turning away from populism and authoritarianism. This trend is now running in reverse. If Bolsanaro wins, leaders with authoritarian leanings will rule in two of the continent’s most populous and important countries: Brazil & Mexico.” Aside from claiming that Brazil and Mexico are on the same continent, is it not somewhat facile, perhaps even unserious, to lump Jair Bolsonaro and Andrés Manuel López Obrador together as part of the same political tendency?
- On Venezuela: “What’s happening is a legitimate—and inspiring!—uprising against a dictator with no democratic legitimacy. A military uprising? Yes. A coup? No.“
- “Left-wing populists might sound very different from right-wing populists in the early stages, when they are far from power, but are likely to resemble them more and more as they mature” — from “The Far Right And The Far Left Fight It Astonishingly Easy To Unite” And remember, Bernie Sanders is an example of a left-wing populist, while Adolf Hitler is an example of a right-wing populist.
- “Nationalism is like a half-wild beast. As long as it remains under our control, it can be of tremendous use.” There is good nationalism and bad nationalism, and Mounk believes “we need to fight for an inclusive nationalism.”
- “The yellow vests are increasingly looking like a French version of the Tea Party… But sure, do carry on glorifying the movement.” For a more serious analysis of the gilets jaunes I recommend the work of of my Current Affairs colleague Vanessa Bee.
Thomas Friedman has won three Pulitzer Prizes. Bret Stephens has won one. If Yascha Mounk keeps this up, he’ll probably get one too. The more unserious you are, the more likely to are to be taken seriously.
What Very Serious Opinion will you use to win your first Pulitzer Prize? Email [email protected] or tweet to us @curaffairs.
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