This is the final part of a three-part post (part 1 and part 2), originally drafted as a lecture, and drawn from my published and unpublished writings over the past decade. They were prepared to be presented to Democracy Seminar participants in Gdansk, Warsaw, Budapest, and in Berlin (to a group of Turkish exiles). Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the lectures were postponed and the text of the lecture is presented here for the consideration of the seminar’s “worldwide committee of democratic correspondents,” along with the readers of Public Seminar.
What is to be done, in the face of the present crisis of democracy in America — and far beyond — in the midst of a pandemic?
I think that we have a clear goal: all democrats — small “d” — have to work together against Trump and Trumpism. I agree with Sławomir Sierakowski, as he reflected a few months ago upon the significance of Zuzana Čaputová’s victory in Slovakia’s presidential election: while a weak opposition can empower right wing populists, a united opposition can prevail against them.
Donald Trump and Trumpism can be defeated. Victory requires a democratic opposition in which differences are addressed through political contest, compromise, and collaboration, not through black and white assertions and dismissive judgments. But even if we agree on such a broad observation, oppositions everywhere seem unable to get their act together. Creativity and political talent are necessary, but seem to be in short supply. Yet, because I believe it is more complicated than this, I also think it is more promising. I see a manifestation of what I call “the social condition” that can be grappled with.
The Social Condition
Social life is constituted with tensions and dilemmas, including inherently unsolvable problems, where any provisional resolution of a dilemma produces predictable tensions in its wake. These are not problems we work through, but ongoing dilemmas we inhabit. The dilemmas, and the way we individually and collectively live with them, are often experienced as moments that define the kind of society in which we live, giving shape to our politics and to ourselves. That we must attempt to address the tensions knitted into the social fabric. The predictable existential dilemmas, without clear solution, is what I call the social condition. I believe that an understanding of the social condition can inform the way we confront political challenges, including the problems of democracy in America and elsewhere.
With this understanding, I think that the debate among the Democratic Party candidates for president of the United States, and their supporters, is more about form than content. It’s more about the way we do politics and define ourselves in the process, as we try to defeat Trump and Trumpism, than it is about competing political principles and public policies.
The conflict on policies has become absurd, best revealed in the recurrent shouting matches about “Medicare for All” in the primary debates. Sanders “wrote the damn bill,” in his colorful language, that would create a single public-funded healthcare system. Warren committed to this. Others proposed and supported systems that would improve Obamacare, or add a public option to it, or provide “Medicare for all who want it.”
They surrounded their proposals with lots of affect, denouncing the greed of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, warning that people might have their insurance taken away, praising choice and freedom, and the like. All while it is very clear that any one of these proposals will need to be passed through legislation that would necessarily require compromise, and be supported by a cross section of Democrats in Congress. There is no real conflict. The candidates and their supporters will have to work together to assure that healthcare is a human right, a commitment they all purport to share.
Nonetheless, something very important is involved, concerning the appeal of the black and white, and the saliency of the gray — an example of a social condition dilemma.
The appeal of Sanders is that he is principled, honest, authentic, and consistent. He is proposing a plan that would fundamentally and radically change American society, consistent with his call for a revolution. Medicare for all is both aligns with his democratic socialist commitments, and, as demonstrated by the experience in countries around the world, is the most efficient way to deliver high quality healthcare to the American public at the lowest cost. He presents himself as battling against all that is nasty in America and in American capitalism: insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, “the one percent,” and the like.
Elizabeth Warren, serious policy wonk that she is, agrees with Sanders on the goal, but has recognized that getting to the most efficient system would require steps. She recognizes the saliency of Sanders’s most articulate critic, Pete Buttigieg, who proposes the hallowed American value of freedom: “Medicare for all who want it.” Warren tried to run on the gray approach, supporting the ideal while also recognizing the practical obstacles. This gray pragmatism probably doomed her candidacy to failure, along with the not small issue of sexism as a political reality in America.
At least to begin with, it is notable that the clear and strong argument prevailed over nuance. It got the most attention. Black and white proposals generally do. They appeal to specific sectors of the fractured society — in this case, sectors in the Democratic Party. And they raise the most significant strategic question: can victory over Trump be achieved by energizing the political base of the Democrats, or does it require creating a broad coalition that opposes Trump and Trumpism, cutting across the fractures of American society?
In the primary contest, Sanders demonstrated that energizing the base — specifically the young and the most progressive — is an effective strategy. Yet, many have had their doubts that this approach would apply to the general election. The energizing strategy didn’t succeed for the campaign of George McGovern in his contest with Richard Nixon in 1972, and more recently, it didn’t lead to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as British prime minister last year.
But it isn’t so simple, of course. Trump was elected as a man of crude blacks and whites. It may be the case that Sanders would energize his diverse, young, energetic base and overwhelm Trump, pitting progressive populism against reactionary populism. The Democrats do need an energized electorate to turn out and do everything it can to defeat Trump. The notably unenergized Democratic electorate in 2016 led to the Electoral College defeat of Hillary Clinton, despite her popular vote victory. The magnetic personality and performance of Sanders are clearly significant assets that his opponents couldn’t match, and they are assets that would serve the Democrats very well, if they could be fully utilized in their struggle against Trump.
Here’s the dilemma: appeals that excite the base of progressive supporters are likely to be unappealing to the broad coalition of potential anti-Trump voters, but appeals to the broad coalition are likely to dampen the enthusiasm of progressive supporters.
With my gray perspective, recognizing that this is a manifestation of the social condition, I hope that all Democrats understand that this is indeed an irresolvable dilemma, which is best recognized as such: a dilemma that only has gray solutions. Those arguing for exciting the base must do all that they can to broaden their message and appeal, and those arguing for a grand coalition must do all they can to excite the base, even if their hearts are not fully into these gestures. This a gray solution, to a social condition problem, in our fractured society.
Postscript: Some additional examples of the social condition:
It is obviously important for a democratic society to provide equal opportunity for all young people. The less privileged should have the advantages of a good education. This is certainly a most fundamental requirement for equal opportunity. A good society, democratic or otherwise, should also encourage and enable parents to provide the best for their children, to present the world as they know and appreciate it: to read to them, to introduce them to the fine arts and sciences, and to take them on interesting trips, near and far. But not all parents can do this with equal effectiveness: some have the means, some don’t. Democratic education and caring for one’s children are in tension. The social bonds of citizenship and the social bonds of family are necessarily in tension. This tension, in many variations, defines a significant dimension of the social condition.
Another dimension of the social condition was illuminated in a classic lecture by Max Weber, entitled in which he discussed the tension between what the “ethics of responsibility” and the “ethics of ultimate ends.” In politics, there is always a tension between getting things done responsibly, as Weber would put it, and being true to ones principles. This tension can be observed in the debate about the film Lincoln. Ideally the tension is balanced, as it was portrayed in the film: Lincoln, the realist, enabled the radical Republican Thaddeus Stephens, the idealist, to realize his ends in less than idealistic ways. A wise politician, Weber maintained, has to know how to manage the tension between idealism with realism.
But this tension goes beyond individual judgment and political effectiveness. Establishing the social support to realize ideals is necessary, but sometimes the creation of such supports make it next to impossible for the ideals to be realized. Making sure that educational ideals are realized — for example, equal educational opportunity — requires measurement, but the act of measurement can get in the way of real education. Making sure that funds distributed by an NGO get to disaster victims can reduce or retard the distribution of funds to the victims. Most generally, organizing to achieve some end establishes the conditions for those who have their particular interests in the organization itself to pursue their interests. NGOs often provide for a comfortable standard of living for their employees in impoverished parts of the world, even though this sometimes gets in the way of realizing organizational ends. This isn’t a new development: Robert Michels described this in the early twentieth century, as the iron law of oligarchy: “who says organization says oligarchy.” I suggest that we think of this as a dilemma built into the social order of things.
I think one of the most fundamental manifestations of the social condition appears in the work of Erving Goffman, who explored the power of the Thomas theorem: If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Goffman was particularly interested in how people managed to define social reality by their expressive behavior.
The dilemma arises when people disagree about the reality, are ambivalent about it, or even want to flee from it. A prime example is the concept and apparent reality of race. It’s a social construction, as every college freshman comes to know. It’s a fiction, but a fiction that we cannot ignore, a fiction that we continue to treat as real, becoming a social fact. To pretend it doesn’t matter, even as it does, is to flee from enduring social problems. But attending to the problems of race carefully has the consequence of furthering its continued salience in social life. Recognize race and it continues to be real. Ignore race, and you will ignore its continued negative effects. Controversies over affirmative action policies revolve around this dilemma of race.
I worry when political actors pretend that the complications of the social condition can be easily overcome, following one formula or another, without negative political consequences. I am concerned that bad sociology also pretends that these tensions are easily resolved, often with a theoretical sleight of hand. Rather I propose gray theoretical perspective and political actions based on them.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology The New School for Social Research and Publisher of Public Seminar.