Last night, after watching Bernie Sanders debate Joe Biden, I posted some comments on Facebook. I began by wondering – half in jest – whether Bernie Sanders had read my first book.
A revised version of my doctoral dissertation, written under the supervision of Robert Dahl while I was a grad student at Yale, my book was titled Power and Marxist Theory: A Realist View. In it, I offered an earnest defense of neo-Marxist theories of power circa 1986 (drawing on the work of theorists such as Roy Bhaskar, Anthony Giddens, Steven Lukes, and Nicos Poulantzas).
I am proud of that book, even though I hold different views today than I did then, having undergone many intellectual transformations, some chosen, some not, most a complex mixture of “structure and agency” (another theme of my first book). (Indeed, my thinking was starting to change while that book was being published, and there is something of a disconnect between the last chapter and the rest of it, which was written with the SPIRIT OF SERIOUSNESS that one can only truly acquire while completing a dissertation.)
Because thinking is a dimension of experience, and my experiences have involved living in a complicated, surprising, and often agonizing world, my theories about politics, and my ways of thinking about political science as a profession, have evolved over the years.
I would never claim that all the changes in my thinking are somehow “validated” by my various experiences, notably my growing older. A proud neo-Marxist in my youth, I am now some kind of left-liberal, and occasionally I even say things that sound like Isaiah Berlin. (This does not please me. But I digress). There are plenty of smart and good people my age whose views have remained broadly Marxist, in ways that mine have not. (It would be an awful thing if intellectual life were not in many ways discordant and contentious.)
I write very regularly. I teach. For many years I edited a major journal (and during that time I worked hard, consistent with the serious peer review of research articles, to feature themes and authors dealing with critiques of liberal democracy. That very famous piece on “oligarchy” by Marty Gilens and Ben Page—entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Citizens”–I solicited it, had it reviewed, edited it, and published it). My contributions and views are “out there,” and they speak for themselves. This post is not an exposition or defense of those views.
Here’s my point.
As the human being that I have come to be – in interaction with many other human beings, including my ex-wife and two amazing children; my aging parents and extended family; countless other friends, colleagues, students, strangers, adversaries and enemies; and also in interaction with my dogs, not to mention a marvelous garden in Bucharest designed by Mihaela Miroiu – my thinking has changed. I am proud of this evolution – primarily because my views are my own, and I feel I have come by them honestly (so to speak).
When I was a grad student almost forty years ago, I seriously believed that ideological consistency and fidelity to an idea is what mattered most in life.
But everything I have experienced since has led me to abandon this belief.
As a result, when somebody like Bernie Sanders, who is running for the highest office in American politics, proudly declares that he has been thinking, saying, and doing the same things for the past forty years, this does not fill me with confidence.
Does this mean that careerism, opportunism, and incessant compromising instead fill me with confidence? No.
Do I believe that those things are all nevertheless important dimensions of politics that will never be eliminated in even the best society? Yes.
Watching Sanders debate Joe Biden in the midst of a pandemic, I experienced a sharp sense of urgency – for we’re confronting nothing less than a crisis of liberal democratic civilization.
I have long felt that Biden is a hopelessly flawed man, someone too ready to compromise with governing elites. In many ways, I dislike him. But political judgments are not judgments about “liking” someone. They are judgments about the likely consequences of handing power to someone, knowing his ways of equilibrating means and ends under always challenging circumstances, and acknowledging the many injustices that are liable remain under his leadership, no matter how hard we as citizens work to limit them.
At the same time, and particularly at this moment of crisis, I do not believe that fidelity to a rhetoric of anti-imperialism and a lifetime commitment to “the working class” (the scare quotes are deliberate because that class is much more variegated than its self-appointed tribunes typically acknowledge) by themselves recommend one for high office.
Bernie Sanders is a courageous man who had made major contributions to politics by raising important issues, mobilizing important constituencies, and inspiring people, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who I think truly represents an important part of a future worth envisioning. Sanders is a very important Senator, his campaign has played a very important role in the current primary contest, and he will continue to be an important spokesperson of the left.
At the same time, and speaking only for myself, I do not believe his consistency, and his unwavering loyalty to the values currently associated with democratic socialism, are the political virtues we need most at this moment.
I know others disagree, including smart and good people with whom I have worked, who I have taught or mentored or edited, and from whom I have learned and continue to learn.
And as an academic who is a living and feeling human being–these things can actually sometimes be conjoined!!!–I respect real political differences and arguments. I argue, and I will continue to argue.
But here I simply offer a “confession” and a kind of plea. Take seriously the possibility that some people change in response to changing situations.
Above all, take seriously the possibility that our current, very grave situation requires not intellectual consistency but flexibility, and a willingness to change, in order to meet the challenges of our own unprecedented political moment.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.