First of all, my apologies for the title: I thought it irresistibly appropriate, but unfortunately and unintentionally reminiscent of that awful series of potboiler novels. . .

My aim is to try to broaden this attempt at dialogue initiated by Professors Goldfarb and Zaretsky in their point/counterpoint into a multifaceted conversation between them and myself, as well as anyone else who wishes to chime in. So here goes.

While I too can understand the appeal of clearly “choosing sides”, it also makes me nervous, as it does Prof. Goldfarb. Gray is and always was a dominant hue in the moral and political realms. But gray comes in different shades, and we need to be equally clear in acknowledging both that things are more complicated than they seem and that the lines between good and bad and better and worse are often quite blurry, but also that just because a line is blurry does not mean it isn’t there.

Take the issue of Barack Obama. I agree with Prof. Goldfarb that, in context, the fact that Obama accomplished anything at all  is something of a miracle, given a Congress deadlocked not only by partisan Republican intransigence but the fact that the far-right party was essentially being blackmailed by its far-far-far-right Freedom Caucus faction to do its bidding or else face chaos (which it got, anyway). One could do worse than the ACA, than Obergefell v. Hodges, than an economy in anemic recovery than no recovery at all. And there is nothing ignoble about politics-as-damage control, which I think is a fair description of the past 7 years: faced between an ineluctable choice between evils, reason inclines toward choosing the lesser of the two. But the underlying problem with lesser-of-two-evil-politics is often a lack of imagination (that is: what did we do to make that choice between evils  “ineluctable”?), and here the grayness of the Obama administration is more than a bit blameworthy. And I think more was going on than just a lack of imagination, or even a failure of nerve. I knew that we were all victims of bait-and-switch politics as citizens when, mere days after the 2008 election, the newly announced economic advisors of Obama administration included neither Joseph Stiglitz nor Paul Krugman nor James Galbraith but Larry Summers and Robert Rubin and Timothy Geithner. This preceded any “tactical retreats” made by said administration, such as the debt ceiling compromise of 2011, so “lesser of two evils and all that” was not a valid excuse. There are many pale-gray-areas for future historians of the Obama administration to parse through, but whether it mounted a serious challenge to the reign of corporate power and organized money (let’s be blunt: call it “plutocracy”) will not be one of them.

On Trump’s “honesty” and “anti-elitism”: I really think the entire issue of “elitism v. populism” is a dodge and an evasion, for a number of reasons. First, can one really maintain that Trump is not an elitist, charter member of the .001% that he is? (If you doubt that, look at his tax plan.) Yes, he has that gritty right-wing “populist appeal” to the white working class (although a rather large percentage of his fans come from relatively affluent, tony middle-class suburbia), but is it because he is a “man of the people” or because he is, rather sadly, what his supporters would not-so-secretly like to be? That is: a man who wears his self-congratulatory resentments on his sleeve, who believes that his affluence is reason enough to admire him and his bank account an objective measure of his total human worth, who does what he wants and says what he wants because he has vault upon vault of “F-you money” to back it up? A man whose not-so-crypto-fascist fantasies of unconstrained power are a kind of wet dream to those who want nothing more than to climb the American ladder by kicking those stuck on the lower rungs? If this is populism—and I have no doubt it’s at least ersatz populism right-wing style – it is a populism in love with an elite of money, power, and status and all too eager to be manipulated by it. This kind of faux populism is best reflected in the (probably apocryphal) John Steinbeck quip: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Second. while I do not think that Prof. Zaretsky is choosing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton (nor that Prof. Goldfarb is saying he is), I do take strong issue with Prof. Zaretsky’s claim, in his response, that “it is impossible to understand Trump except against the background of the moralistic, identitarian culture exemplified by Hillary Clinton.” I think it is quite possible to do so. Trump is neither being “brutally honest” and uncalculating (he is nothing if not preternaturally sensitive to what his audience wishes to hear), nor is he being merely reactive to liberal elite superstars such as the Clintons and the DLC crowd generally. Sure, there is something oily and unctuous about the Clintons’ yuppie neoliberalism, but I think that Trump would use exactly the same playbook if FDR or RFK, with solid appeal to labor and old-left as well as new, were to be brought back from the grave.

Trump is merely the latest player in a long-standing American political sub-tradition – albeit the first to have mastered Twitter, dubious achievement as that might be.  Right-wing, nativist populism, from Andrew Jackson through Fr. Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace, Lester Maddox and beyond, has a long if not exactly noble pedigree, and it parallels a right-wing corporatist establishment elitism typified by wealthy Federalist bankers right down to the present day lords of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. One could argue that Messrs. Trump and Cruz have inherited the mantle of right-populism from the aforementioned, and are causing the same kind of trouble to the establishment Republicans that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are causing to the Clinton/Obama-led establishment wing of the Democrats. But I do not think Trump and his supporters are just a particular manifestation of a more generalized disaffection with “elites.” I do not even think it has much to do with Democrats.

Trump’s surge has far less to do with Hillary Clinton’s brand of establishmentarianism, ritual chants of “Benghazi!” notwithstanding, than it has to do with his supporters’ feeling that the Republican establishment, having talked the right-populist talk for so long since the days of Reagan, has not been walking the walk.  This is why Trump and Cruz and the Freedom Caucus are far more dangerous, in my humble opinion, than either Clinton and Obama and the other feeble liberals and neoliberals on the one hand, and the establishment Republican guardians of plutocracy, like Jeb! Bush and Marco Rubio, on the other. The latter two have much to fear, politically, from Trump. They are like the Weimar oligarchs and Junkers who thought the Nazis were “useful idiots” to be played to the benefit of the old moneyed guard. Well, look how that panned out.

Finally, I think it important to notice that words like “populism” (and, for that matter, “elitism”, “socialism”, “capitalism”, “conservatism”, “liberalism”, etc. etc. etc.) are, or have become, what Claude Levi-Strauss called “floating signifiers”: words and concepts that have been so overused and so multi-purposed that they effectively mean nothing unless one specifies fairly concretely what one is meaning by them in the context of use. To “look down on Populism” may be a good thing if it is the populism of a Trump or a Fr. Coughlin – and that is one legitimate way to characterize it. But sometimes it might be a bad thing since it is not the only way to characterize populism – consider the left-radical populisms of the Port Huron statement, or the Democratic Socialist populism of Bernie Sanders, or the green populism of Wendell Berry, or the left-conservative populism of Christopher Lasch, and so on. It is the worst kind of political-philosophical conjuring trick to slide from one meaning of a term like “populism” to another, and paint all meanings with the same brush. It is known as the fallacy of equivocation, and it works very well on signifiers that tend to float. For this reason, I prefer these days to use the term “radical democrat” to describe the politics I am most fond of and those thinkers and essayists – Michael Sandel, Dick Bernstein, Jeffrey Stout, and Sheldon Wolin – with whom I am most sympathetic. “Populist” has, sadly, floated in the company of the likes of Trump and Joe McCarthy a bit too long for my tastes, but that may just be me. I think Huey Long once took his populist slogan to be “every man a king, though none shall wear a crown.” A radically democratic counterpart slogan would be far simpler and more direct: “No kings.” This makes far more sense to me. It gets rid of what elitist arrogance shares with the corrupt forms of populism: taking human beings to be more than what they are – limited, fallible beings inevitably prone to vanity, pettiness, thoughtlessness, yet capable of greatness as long as they never lose sight of their frailties as they pursue their ideals.

To conclude: what might be a workable politics of “shades of grey”? One that recognizes the greyness – the ambiguity, the need to compromise, the exigency, at times, of damage-control and going for the lesser of two evils – without taking things to be monochrome when they aren’t. One of the shades is a lot darker than it used to be. I think there is more than a little moral and political urgency in the air, especially since Friday, November 13, 2015. And I am not just referring to the horrific events in Paris (and Lebanon, and Kenya, and so on ad nauseam) but the reaction to such events in the United States of America, which strikes me as kind of a virtual reality burning-of-the-Reichstag moment. The rhetoric of fascism is becoming more acceptable here, and I am beginning to wonder if the next step will be a rehabilitation of the very concept of fascism in some quarters, and eventually the use of the “f-word” itself (It is not beyond the pale to imagine Donald Trump, admirer of Putin, saying something like “Don’t get the wrong idea, but come on, Mussolini did have some great ideas, and he took crap from no one, and was not politically correct, and hell, he made the trains run on time!!!”). So, in light of this, I am prepared to acknowledge the shades of gray and, should it come to it, to hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton should she be the sole bulwark against this right-wing radical juggernaut. But that cannot be the end of it. Gray comes in shades. In the meantime I will campaign for Bernie Sanders vigorously, under no illusions about his chances and that, even should he prevail, that the struggle for Common Decency (see my earlier post) will be anything other than uphill. And join. And write (which is probably the sharpest tool in my kit). And make a pain of myself. Such engaged, heartfelt commitment is entirely consistent with impartiality, fallibilism, and a deep appreciation of nuance. Gray comes in shades.

Two of my favorite quotable quotes, which illustrate this conundrum, come from figures on opposite sides of the political spectrum. The conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter once commented that “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” (Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, p.243). The radical English historian A.J.P. Taylor once remarked that while he held extreme views in politics he held them moderately. (Anecdote in Terry Eagleton, Figures of Dissent, p. 175) Schumpeter’s and Taylor’s sentiments dovetail nicely. Taylor is, in effect, saying: your convictions, beliefs upon which you are prepared to act, live, and die, are nonetheless claims that need to be rehearsed, defended, and justified in public, and to yourself as well. They need to be open to revision, modification, compromise, even rejection, when time and place demand it. But until then, they can be as radical – as rooted in things – as they must be. And Schumpeter seems to be saying that the finitude of our condition – the fact that we are in Taylor’s situation of needing to moderate our own beliefs through rational discourse and inquiry – does not rule out taking stands and standing fast, again, when time and place demand it. “When time and place demand it” is another word for what Aristotle called “practical wisdom”, or phronesis, or “sound judgment.” That is something only experience and long, arduous practice can teach. But none of this is news.

So, gentlemen, tell me: what exactly are we in disagreement about?

2 thoughts on “Shades of Gray

  1. I agree with pretty much everything Michael Quirk says. In a few cases,
    its a matter of emphasis. For example, in saying we have to examine
    Trump against the background of Hillary Clinton’s moralism, I was adding
    something to the other interpretations of Trump, not providing a
    stand-alone alternative. Things like the necessity of compromise and
    listening to others go without saying in my book. I will certainly grant
    that Obama did some good things as long as Quirk says we witnessed bait
    and switch. The only real point of substance on which I disagree is
    “radical democrat” as the description of what we stand for. As in
    Sandel, Bernstein, et. al. That is really pusillanimous and inadequate
    for a few reasons. First of all, we have repeatedly seen that
    “democracy” is problematic. I am an elitist in that I believe a left
    will always be a minority. Trump represents “democracy.” Clinton, Bush
    all the rest of it. Also, we need to keep capitalism at the center of
    our vision. It is the deep structure of modern society, not an economic
    question at all. I am not good at coining terms, so I won’t provide an
    alternative to “radical democracy” but what’s wrong with Sanders’
    phrase, democratic socialism. I know it sounds grey and hoary, but it
    moves the ball forward while I don’t think Sandel and my good friend
    Dick Bernstein do. In any event thanks for an extremely thoughtful and
    well-written contribution, and Happy Thanksgiving, Eli

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments — and I hope your Thanksgiving was great too!

      As for “radical democrat”, I think I am going to have to issue a promissory note: I am working on a piece for PS that explains in greater detail what I mean by it, with special reference to the expressivist traditions of Whitman and Emerson and the Pragmatist tradition of John Dewey, as revised and amended by Jeffrey Stout and others. I also want to argue that this is a tall order, that Pragmatism so understood cuts against the usual American grain, which might make me a bit of an “elitist” too, although that’s a floating signifier if there ever was one. In any case, take this as a kind of heads-up.

      More immediately, I suppose my preference for “radical democrat” comes from two places. First of all, I prefer it to “populist” because the former catches something of the flavor that John Dewey attached to “democracy” as not just a set of procedures (voting, town meetings), or even the idea of “popular rule” but, as Dewey put it, the very form of community life itself. That is, shared practices constituted, in part, by inquiry into the good life pursued by that community, and where no one is arbitrarily excluded, and patterns of domination are challenged (which is where “the left” comes in). You could call this “populist” if you wish, but I don’t wish, since not all “populaces” are demoi. Second, I think democracy is the key ideal I want to push because of a lacuna I think is there in Marx. My mentor at Fordham, Quentin Lauer, liked to quip that Marx was a lousy philosopher (Lauer was a Hegel scholar), a decent economist, and a brilliant social critic of capitalism. I think that Marx was a far better philosopher than Lauer thought (a view which I owe to Bernstein), but I agree that what Marx teaches best is how capitalism works and works in mysterious ways. My problem with Marx is, and always was: what comes after capitalism, after the overproduction crisis to end all overproduction crises where the proletarian revolution establishes a postcapitalist social order? Marx is vague — talk of replacing “the government of men with the administration of things”, a transitional period of socialism before the establishment of true communism, etc. While I do not think that Marx was required to come up with a blueprint, his vagueness allowed the likes of Lenin and his present day epigones (I am thinking of Zizek) to be all too clear about what comes next. And it is here that I think the lacuna in Marx needs to be filled-in with a clearer account of what democracy is, why it remains “the task before us”, and why it is as as much a noun as “socialist” is. More anon.

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