Evicting the conservative gaze


Pete Davis: If you had done Chapo [Trap House] in 2004, it wouldn’t have worked.

Virgil Texas: I’m not that certain. I mean, I don’t really know what most people were thinking in 2004, I was younger then. I don’t know how popular or feasible that would have been, but you know, the big reason that there has been a left resurgence, and that it uses the language that it uses, it’s not just Twitter, or the Bernie Sanders campaign, or Occupy, or anything like that, it’s austerity. You could also point to the rise of a coming into its own, new, and very large generation, and the sort of new ideas and the radicalism that that tends to entail.

PD: It’s a group of people who haven’t lived playing defense against the ascendant right, which every other generation has had to do. So they feel that they can play offense, and kind of start a new thing. And that was my experience of listening to y’all, because, and this is one of my questions, because y’all are very edgy. I am of two minds on this. On one side, I am kind of a hunky dory person, who has a deep commitment to nonviolence because you should be attacking the system and not attacking people, but on the other hand, edginess has been a part of the start of every political wave. You have to redefine the terms of the debate. You have to say, “We’re going to stop playing defense. We’re going to start playing offense.” And you have to carve out a space where it’s safe to think up an alternative, and that involves kicking out of everyone’s head what I would like to call the conservative gaze. Obama lives under the conservative gaze, because every time he says anything, or did anything, he thought, “What would David Brooks think of this?” And when Chuck Schumer has explicitly said that every time he drafts a bill, he is thinking of what a Reagan Democrat man on Long Island would think. And so, under liberalism, in the 2000s, you had to say, “Immigration is good, because we don’t want those jobs.” Or “Prison reform will save money.” Or “I don’t believe in all wars, I only don’t believe in dumb wars.” And what y’all did — my experience of listening to y’all, and the experience of all my friends listening to y’all, is you kicked those voices out of our head, and you said, “Hey, stop. Stop thinking what David Brooks thinks. Think about what you think.” I wanted to know if that’s how you think about what you were doing, or if it just so happened that way. I don’t know. Has anybody else told you that?

It is remarkable, and mostly sad, to me that, in a primary season when candidates should be competing against one another in a race to the left, the specter of the white moderate-to-conservative swing voter continues to haunt most of them. It reminds me of the 2004 Democratic primary, when two of the four major candidates (one of whom became the eventual nominee) were John Kerry and Wesley Clark, both of whom served in the military and were thought to represent the Democrats’ best hope of competing on the traditionally Republican terrain of war and terrorism. Kerry, if you recall, was known for lines like, “I’m John Kerry and I am reporting for duty”; “I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war”, and “Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn’t make it so. And proclaiming mission accomplished certainly doesn’t make it so”. Kerry’s complaints, echoed by Obama four years later, were not so much that war is misguided, but that this war was; not that sending Americans overseas to kill thousands of brown people and destabilize an entire region was fundamentally gross and immoral, but that we shouldn’t have told a bald-faced lie about it; not that the military-industrial complex is a cesspool of corruption and self-dealing, but that we shouldn’t be so cheap about funding it. The problem is not just that these arguments are wrong. It’s that even if they are correct, they ensure that the conversation about war and terrorism on Sunday talk shows will be dominated by military daddies till the end of time. By framing the problem as a lack of troops, or a lack of money, or a lack of transparency, Kerry tacitly accepted the idea that an irredeemable war could have indeed been redeemed. And who better to redeem it than a dour-visaged military man?

So it goes. Elizabeth Warren tweeted last week, “Climate change is real, it’s worsening by the day, and it’s undermining our military readiness. More and more, accomplishing the mission depends on our ability to continue operations in the face of floods, drought, wildfires, desertification, and extreme cold.” She has yet another plan, this time to “harden the U.S. military against the threat posed by climate change”, thereby ensuring “our service members’ readiness and safety, and achieve cost savings for American taxpayers”. One might hope that the military’s enormous carbon footprint might spur a conversation about its correspondingly large global footprint: that we could close down bases, cut troop levels, fight fewer (or no!) wars, and make the planet greener as a result. Instead, we’re having a conversation that a Republican would be proud of: how to pour more money into the Pentagon and its army of defense contractors in service of “liberal goals”. I’m sure John Kerry and Wesley Clark would be proud too.

Vietnam has been in the news recently, and there were two very different conversations by two very different candidates that help to crystallize the differences between my generation’s liberalism and my parents’, between the type of liberalism that I would like to see and the type that I actually do see. Ironically, the candidate closest to my age, Pete Buttigieg, represents the latter, and the candidate furthest away, Bernie Sanders, represents the former. Vietnam afforded Buttigieg the opportunity to attack Trump using language that could have been borrowed from the 2004 presidential election: “I have a pretty dim view of his decision to use his privileged status to fake a disability in order to avoid serving in Vietnam.”. (After he was attacked by the Swift Boaters, Kerry said, “Well, if he [Bush] wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: Bring it on”.) To his credit, Buttigieg did caveat his statement by saying that he’d “admire” Trump if he were a “conscientious objector”, but, once again, I question the wisdom of contesting politics on conservative ground.

Bernie Sanders was also asked about Vietnam. (This was in the context of a truly terrible NYT interview about Sanders’ support for the FSLN in Nicaragua against the Reagan-backed Contras.) His answer was markedly different. He tweeted, “I was right about Vietnam. I was right about Iraq. I will do everything in my power to prevent a war with Iran. I apologize to no one.

It’s worth quoting a lengthy exchange on this subject between the (dumb and craven) Chuck Todd and Sanders on Meet the Press. The Nation reports:

“The New York Times spent a lot of time talking about your trips to Central America. I know you got pretty worked up about those things,” said Todd. “I think the larger question, and let me just frame the question this way: The larger question’s going to be, if you’re the nominee, whether you like it or not, the right’s going to basically hammer-and-sickle you to death. How do you prevent it?”

The response that Sanders gave was, indeed, defiant. The senator rejected the constraints that too many Democrats have accepted when it comes to foreign-policy discussions.

To Todd’s core question about being “hammered and sickled” by Trump and his allies, the senator offered, “I don’t mind the right wing doing it. But I understand they will do it. I don’t want the media to do it.”

“Look, when I was a young man, I plead guilty. I voted—I worked hard, as a young man, against the war in Vietnam. I don’t apologize for that. As a member of the United States House, I helped lead the effort against the war in Iraq, which turns out to have been the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of the United States,” said Sanders. “As a United States senator, I led the effort to pass a bipartisan resolution to get America out of the war in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia. And I’ve got to tell you something, Chuck. I hope you guys pay attention to Yemen. What’s going on in Yemen now is the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people, children, dying. And I’m doing my best to get the US out of that war. And if Trump wants to go to war in Iran, that will make the war in Iraq look like a cakewalk.… so we’ve got to do everything we can to stop that.”

“If people want to attack me, because I think that war should be the last resort, you can attack me. But I’ve seen too much horror. I was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. I talked to too many veterans whose lives were destroyed by the war in Iraq,” said Sanders, who promised that “I will do everything I can to see problems solved diplomatically, rather than through war.”

The question “why is Joe Biden the Democratic frontrunner?” is the corollary to “Why do Democrats have such trouble evicting the Republican gaze?”. It takes a rare candidate to confront the media establishment, the Republican noise machine, Democrats in thrall to centrist pundits, and liberals who are afraid that open liberalism might alienate the ever-flighty swing voter. (And while I have never been a member of the first three categories, I have occasionally succumbed to the influence of the fourth.) I don’t think he will win, but in Sanders’ “defiance” I see something very appealing: the prospect of a candidate who will forthrightly articulate liberal policies for liberal reasons, and who can remind Democrats: “Stop thinking what David Brooks thinks. Think about what you think.”


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