Maybe Bernie is right

I really liked this Jon Chait post that admitted his preference (and mine) for how to think about that is, admittedly, just a value judgment and that maybe we’re wrong and Bernie is right:

The basic fault line within American economic policy has pitted technocratic liberalism against ideological conservatism. Liberalism is invested in ends— higher incomes for most people, better health, sustainable climate, and so on — which can be measured, and the means to attain it thereby adjusted. Conservatism is invested in the means — smaller government — which it equates with freedom, and which does not require empirical confirmation

Technocracy is inimical to conservatism because it allows for the possibility of remedies conservatives would rule out on philosophical grounds. [emphases mine] Conservative movement economists were united in their rejection of fiscal projections which showed that Bill Clinton’s 1993 combination of tax hikes and spending cuts would reduce the deficit, or that George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts would explode it, and when those very things happened, nobody within the movement rethought their assumptions. Instead they dismiss technocrats as harboring suspicious counter-motives of their own, i.e. scientists claim greenhouse-gas emissions cause rising temperatures because they want to force governments to give scientists more power…

There is no cost within the GOP for dismissing technocratic conclusions on ideological grounds. In the Democratic Party, there is. In 2005, I wrote a little essay about the asymmetry between liberalism and conservatism — the former being inherently technocratic, and the latter inherently anti-technocratic. In it I suggested the true parallel to conservatism is not liberalism but socialism. Like conservatism, but unlike liberalism, socialism has strong moral principles about markets, government, and ownership that override any measurable impacts of a specific policy…

What Sanders’s version of socialism seems to mean instead is a reflexive distrust in markets that is the ideological mirror image of conservative distrust of government. He may not be proposing to shut down Apple (any more than Ted Cruz wants to eliminate Medicare). But Sanders does not feel compelled to constrain his policies with ordinary cost-benefit calculations. If reality intrudes upon his ideological ambitions, then reality, rather than the ambitions, must give way…

I am personally sympathetic to technocratic government. But it is important to concede that technocracy is not inherently correct; it is a value judgment. It’s perfectly valid for tax-cutting conservatives to care more about slashing government than about how this will bear upon government revenue or access to health insurance; it’s likewise valid for Sanders to care more about eliminating the role of private insurance than how this will fit into his budgetary plans. Sanders’s evident disdain for technocracy is not a campaign failure. Just the opposite: liberating the Democratic Party from the constraints of technocracy may be a primary goal of his political revolution.

I think that fairly well captures what’s going on.  And maybe it really is better for the future of the Democratic party to eschew a belief in empiricism and technocracy and simply become more like Republicans.  I hope that’s not so, as I truly fear for the country if both parties fully abandon reality-based politics, but I do think agree there’s a reasonable case to be made for what Bernie is doing.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to Maybe Bernie is right

  1. ohwilleke says:

    Shorter Chait: Bernie had soul and maybe Democrats need to remember that that’s a good thing. We are a Democracy, not a Meritocracy, and the people need to be emotionally engaged for it to work well.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    That’s all well and good but is soul compatible with capitalism? Capitalism is a hard taskmaster but it drives people to work and produce. Without that who feeds the people and satisfies their material needs?
    The trick is to put the “soul” into the mix. Religion used to unify people but not so much anymore. Nationalism still unifies to some extent but that unifying effect is crumbling because of the effects of the rigged economy and the perception that the American dream is either dead or dying.
    Also there is a perception that the American wealthy are not really Americans anymore but people who have lost connection with the spirit of America and lead lives totally separate and different than the rest of Americans. Worse, they are seen as using America as their business and reaping the profits without care for the good of all Americans.
    A successful society cannot continue with that kind of divide and the anger it causes.
    I don’t see Bernie as the leader who can achieve both an economic revolution and a rebirth of the American spirit. Both are needed.

  3. ohwilleke says:

    I’d also call attention to head to head general election polls which are starting to be meaningful as the public comes to know the viable candidates both nationally and at the level of individual states. Sanders performs much, much better in general election polling than Clinton, contrary to conventional wisdom. Soul explains a lot of that.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Do *not* think these polls are starting to be meaningful. I suspect the vast majority of November 2016 voters still have no clue about Bernie. More importantly, he hasn’t been touched by GOP attacks.

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