On David Brooks’ “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever”

I have to be honest. In this election season, with all the attacks on Bernie, the support of “liberal” centrism, and defense of the status quo, I can’t help feeling discouraged – almost depressed.

My most recent source of near despair was a New York Times op-ed last Thursday by conservative columnist David Brooks. The piece was called “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever.”

Despite authorship by a conservative, it pretended to voice sympathetically the so-called “liberal” wisdom that Brooks claimed should prevail among Democrats. (Don’t you just love it when conservatives instruct liberals on how to be liberals and win elections?)

To begin with, Brooks openly red-baited the Senator from Vermont.  He brazenly associated him with the Soviet Union’s slaughter of 20 million people, with mass executions and intentional famines. He connected Bernie with slavery, Cuba, Nicaragua, communism, Nazism, and Trumpian populism.

Meanwhile, he praised Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy, and Elizabeth Warren, because as true liberals, they “worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics.” He heaped similar accolades on F.D.R. who unlike Sanders “did not think America was a force for ill in world affairs.” None of the above, Brooks said – not Humphrey, Kennedy, Warren or Franklin Roosevelt – thought or thinks that “the whole system is irredeemably corrupt.”

However, while reading Brooks’ attacks, I couldn’t help thinking: but what if Senator Sanders is right? What if the entire system is beyond the pale and liberalism simply doesn’t work? What if political opponents in the party of Trump and McConnell ensure that it doesn’t work by absolutely refusing to cooperate with Brooks’ liberals (as he put it) “in the traditional way: building coalitions, working within the constitutional system and crafting the sort of compromises you need in a complex, pluralistic society?” What if (as I’ve suggested elsewhere) the entire system been successfully seized in a coup d’état by nihilists, mobsters, pedophiles, and blackmailers – by the Republican Party which Noam Chomsky has identified as the most dangerous organization in the history of the world?

Finally, what if such suspicions about complete systemic breakdown are confirmed by the evidence including:

  • An entrenched level of wealth-inequality unprecedented since the Gilded Age
  • Capture of both parties (Republican and Democrat) by the nation’s richest 1%
  • The extreme politicization of the Supreme Court in favor of those same wealthy Elites
  • The Court’s Citizens United decision enabling billionaires to buy politicians (and the presidency itself!)
  • Resulting legal preference of corporate personalities over human persons
  • A two-tier legal system allowing the rich and powerful to perjure themselves, defy subpoenas, and/or receive light sentences for severe white-collar crimes, while harshly punishing the poor for relatively minor offenses
  • The triumph of the Military-Industrial Complex expressed in policies of permanent war
  • Climate-change denial and dismantling of environmental protection laws
  • The 75-year process of hollowing out Roosevelt’s New Deal and destruction of the labor movement
  • Rigging of the election process through voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, untrustworthy voting machines, and super-delegate arrangements
  • The consolidation of the mainstream media into a few corporate hands
  • The militarization of police forces too-often manned by trigger-happy jingoists, racists, xenophobes, homophobes, and misogynists
  • All-pervading systems of surveillance specifically geared to prevent rebellion

Doesn’t all of that (and so much more) describe a system that actually is irredeemable aside from complete revolution?

What I’m suggesting is that the Brooks piece and the evidence just advanced show how everything seems stacked against the naïve liberalism Brooks favors. Instead, the country’s condition cries out for radical reform. “America” has become a place where the injustices I’ve just listed seem baked into the structures of our lives. And the baking process involves laws that increasingly serve the elite and punish the rest of us.

(In fact, isn’t that what laws are? They are largely products of the rich and powerful concocted to ensure that they remain rich and powerful.)

When he says the system is corrupt, that’s what Bernie Sanders means. The changes required to make it less corrupt are common sense and involve structural and legal changes that would embody measures far more profound than even the Vermont senator proposes. I’m talking about small-“d” democratic steps such as the following:

  • Abolition of the Electoral College
  • Public funding of elections
  • Creation of a bi-partisan National Electoral Commission to oversee elections in all 50 states – all governed by the same rules and responsible for creating electoral districts
  • Automatic universal voter registration connected with one’s birthday
  • Establishment of a national holiday for quadrennial and biennial elections
  • Practical recognition of the fact that corporations are not people while restoring corporate tax levels to the 1968 level of 50%
  • Enforcement of a revitalized anti-trust regime to limit the size and power of corporations
  • Expanding Supreme Court membership to include an equal number of liberals and conservatives
  • Cutting the military budget by 40% to bring it in line with similar expenditures by other nations
  • Cessation of all current wars and withdrawal of U.S. forces from most (if not all) overseas locations
  • Redirection of the billions thus saved into a Green New Deal
  • Passage of laws to encourage formation of worker-directed cooperatives to compete on an equal playing field with private corporations
  • Commitment to the inviolability of international law as enforced by the United Nations
  • Withdrawal of support from countries (like Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) that refuse to conform to international law
  • De-criminalization of drug possession and de-privatization of all prisons

Now those steps are truly radical. They go to the heart of the matter which is lack of democracy here in the United States. Their mere listing reveals not only the corruption of the present system, but the deep law-enforced entrenchment of corporate power exercised by the nation’s rich and powerful.

No, Mr. Brooks, Bernie Sanders is not a dangerous man. And yes, absent his nomination, it will remain true that “the whole system is irredeemably corrupt.”

Bernie Sanders is actually quite moderate. The “remorseless class war” he addresses is a fact of life initiated by the 1%, not by Bernie. However, he represents a very small step towards winning that war.

A World on Fire: The Establishment’s Counter-Revolution against Democracy

On November 21st, conservative pundit, David Brooks published a confusing op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Revolt against Populism.” At least for this reader, it generated an overwhelming sense of information entanglement and of confusion about making sense of the world Brooks described.

I’m referring on the one hand to the welter of detail supplied in his enumeration of countries rebelling against populism. (How is one to know enough to make sense of all of that?) On the other hand, my reference is to Brooks’ all-encompassing use of the term “populism.” For him everyone from Xi Jinping to Donald Trump seems to fit into that category. How is that possible?

The purpose of this reflection is first of all to answer that question: how to make sense of the term “populism.” Its second purpose is to use that clarified term to offer a brief framework explaining the current worldwide rebellion unfolding before our eyes.

Begin with that last point – the rebellion that Brooks describes as a revolt against populism. It’s everywhere. As the author notes, demonstrations and street riots have erupted in Hong Kong, Warsaw, Budapest, Istanbul and Moscow. Angry masses are currently protesting in Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Similar phenomena surface in Latin America’s “Pink Tide,” particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and Bolivia. Brooks also includes the “Yellow Vests” in France, Brexit in Great Britain, and Trumpism in the United States.

He might well have added venues like Algiers, Argentina, Egypt, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Iraq. And then, of course, there are the permanent populist revolts entrenched in China (comprising 20% of the world’s population) and Cuba – not to mention ISIS and al-Qaeda. Finally, Brooks might also have included populist rebellion against climate change in our own country – e.g. Standing Rock, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and School Strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg.

Yes, Brooks is right: the world is in flames; it’s “unsteady and ready to blow.”  

And what’s the cause of it all? Brooks gives two answers. For one, it’s a revolt against the revived and globalized form of laissez-faire capitalism that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. In the aftermath, with the Soviet Union in ruins, capitalist ideologues like Francis Fukuyama hastily declared the end of history and their own particular system definitively triumphant. As Margaret Thatcher put it there was no alternative.

However, far from being generally beneficial and inevitable, the emergent system of world-wide privatization, deregulated markets, and tax cuts for the rich alienated the masses. They experienced globalism as favoring a relatively small number of elites, while adversely impacting wage workers, rural populations and emerging middle classes. Neoliberalism proved to be culturally destructive as well.

In response to its austerity programs for the non-elite, people everywhere gravitated to populism. That’s the second explanation of the world’s turmoil identified by Brooks – a populism so ineffective that people are rebelling everywhere.

But it’s here that his deeper confusion appears. It comes from the author’s mixture of the term’s democratic meaning with neoliberalism’s undemocratic reaction precisely to that popular thrust. It comes from his refusal to face facts. In personal terms, Evo Morales Movement towards Socialism (MAS) represents a hugely effective populism; Donald Trump and the U.S. government is anti-populist.    

To get what I mean, first of all consider the definition of populism itself. Wikipedia defines the term as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

Of course (using Maslow’s hierarchy), the primary concerns of the people everywhere are always the same: food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, dignified work, and just wages. Once those needs have been met, secondary concerns emerge such as freedom of religion, of press, and the rights to assemble and protest. According to that understanding, you might just as well define populism as democracy, and the title of Brooks’ article as “The Revolt against Democracy.”

Contrary to the impression conveyed by Brooks, that revolt is primarily embodied precisely in his beloved Establishment’s invariable reaction to the democratic aspirations just listed. It’s always the same: sanctions, regime change, coup d’états, assassinations, and outright war waged by proxy or by direct attack. Popular support for such anti-democratic tactics (insofar as they are even sought) is achieved by appealing to the economic self-interest of the elite and to the primal prejudices of “the base.”

Favorite reactionary anti-democratic themes invoke patriotism, religion, racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia. Meanwhile, the genuine causes of popular misery – including unaffordable rents, inadequate wages, inescapable debt, widening gaps between rich and poor, privatized healthcare and education, a tattered social safety net, decaying or non-existent public transportation, ubiquitous political corruption, and endless war – are left unaddressed. To call such austerity measures “popular” simply muddies the waters making it more difficult to make sense of the world. And yet this is what Brooks and standard treatments of “populism” constantly imply and say.

Such sleight of hand enables mainstream pundits like David Brooks to falsely equate “populisms of the left” and “populisms of the right.” In the process, it empowers them to admit the failures of neoliberal capitalism, but to hastily add that leftwing populism is no better. As Brooks puts it: “But it’s also clear that when in power the populists can’t deliver goods. So now across the globe we’re seeing “a revolt against the populists themselves.” After all, Brooks claims, “Venezuela is an economic disaster” and in Bolivia “Evo Morales stands accused of trying to rig an election.”

However, Brooks’ declaration of populist failure doesn’t mention:

  • The crippling sanctions the United States has imposed on Venezuela
  • Nor those placed on China, Cuba (for more than 50 years!) and Nicaragua.
  • The fact that Morales’ populist policies in Bolivia had drastically raised the living standards of the country’s majority indigenous population
  • Or that those of populist Lula da Silva had done the same for the impoverished of Brazil
  • Or that China’s policies (with enormous popular support) have transformed it into the world’s most dynamic economic force lifting out of poverty fully 20% of the world’s population
  • Or that the latter’s “Belt and Road” foreign-aid initiative has made its political economy and populist policies the aspirational standard of the entire Global South – despite the contrary efforts of the U.S. and of the EU’s former colonial powers

Above all, Brooks’ overwhelming list and standardized false equivalency doesn’t recognize the historical pattern behind the explosive situation he describes. That pattern has the former colonial powers, and especially the United States, resisting democratic populism on every front. It does so according to the pattern which follows. Here is how I describe it in my recently published The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news:

  • Any country attempting to establish a populist economy favoring the poor majority
  • Will be accused of being illegitimate, communist, socialist, authoritarian, and/or a sponsor of terrorism.
  • It will be overthrown either directly by U.S. invasion
  • Or indirectly by right-wing (often terrorist) elements within the local population
  • To keep that country within the neoliberal orbit
  • So that the U.S. and its rich international allies might continue to use the country’s resources for its own enrichment
  • And for that of the local elite.

What I’m suggesting here is that historical pattern analysis just outlined goes much further towards pinpointing the original spark that has ignited the world’s conflagration and resulting disequilibrium than Brooks’ misleading description as a “Revolt against Populism.”

Underneath many, if not all of the revolts Brooks so overwhelmingly enumerates is the heavy hand of the United States and Europe’s displaced colonial powers. They are the consistently inveterate enemies of genuine populism concerned as it is with meeting basic human need. They are the advocates and sponsors of the world’s anti-democratic forces that have (with the help of establishment pundits like David Brooks) coopted the term to confuse us all.

In other words, there’s no need to be overwhelmed rather than inspired by the unfolding worldwide revolt against neoliberal austerity and laissez-faire capitalism. At least initially, it’s not necessary for us to know the details of every country’s history and political economy.

Instead, critical thinkers should simply remain cognizant of the nature of authentic populism and of the pattern just summarized. Then, when necessary, further reading and research can confirm or disconfirm the validity of the pattern’s particular application. In most cases, I predict, its heuristic value will be vindicated.   

Sunday Homily: Pope Francis on Wealth Redistribution

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Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 8: 23-9:3; PS 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4: 12=23 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/012614.cfm

According to an Oxfam report released last Monday (Jan. 20th), the 85 richest people in the world now have as much wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people – i.e. as much as half the planet’s entire population. Eighty-five people!

The report’s publication makes clear the importance of Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (E.G.). That’s because the pope’s “Joy of the Gospel” specifically addresses the injustices of income inequalities.

The Oxfam report also reveals as fatuous a recently advanced defense of vast wealth differentials in the very terms the pope criticizes. (I’m referring to David Brooks’ New York Times column – see below.) Oxfam’s report also makes relevant the readings in today’s liturgy of the word. They address inequality by reflecting the mentality of the poor and Jesus’ commitment to the working class in first century Palestine’s social context of obscene differences in wealth between rich and poor.

Before looking at those readings, I wonder what you think of that Oxfam statistic. Once again, the richest 85 people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion – the poorest half of our planet’s population.

Personally, I find that shocking and almost unfathomable. Yet the New York Times’ David Brooks says inequality is not the problem. As a powerful apologist for the rich, Brooks alleges that only those locked into a “primitive zero-sum mentality” would believe that the poor are poor because the rich have too much of the earth’s resources.

The economic pie is continually expanding, Brooks implies. So even though good jobs have been off-shored, and Wall Street bonuses are indefensible, the problem of inequality cannot be solved by wealth redistribution schemes or raises in the minimum wage. Instead, the real solution is to educate the poor – furnishing them with the cultural attitudes and job skills necessary to lift them from poverty caused by single parent families, school drop-outs, and the resulting generations-long culture of poverty.

Brooks’ argument is hackneyed. And in its familiarity, it illustrates the fallacies about poverty commonly subscribed to by the rich. Those approaches nearly always embrace a version of trickle-down theory. They find poverty’s solution in reforming the poor and educating them for the hi-tech jobs that will emancipate them from poverty. Mainstream intellectuals reject measures like minimum wage increases and higher taxes on the rich as “populist” and as introducing class-conflict themes that are dangerous and counterproductive.

It is such dodges by the rich that were specifically rejected by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. There the pope says unmistakably that extreme wealth on the one hand and abysmal poverty on the other are interconnected. In fact, he accuses the powerful of actually “feeding upon” the powerless (E.G. #53). They’re eating them up! Francis also rejects out of hand the trickle-down mentality behind Brooks’ observations. The pope classifies Brooks’ reference to a “primitive zero-sum mentality” as itself being “crude and naïve.”

In fact, what the pope actually says about trickle-down theories can’t be repeated too often. He writes: “In this context some people continue to defend trickle-down theories . . . This opinion which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power . . . Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting.”

Pope Francis also scraps apologetics like those Brooks employs when he essentially blames the poor for their poverty and would save them by “education.” Here Francis’ specific words are: ”Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless.”

Pope Francis’ words bring a startling reminder to would-be Christians that economic questions – considerations of social justice and equality – are central to Christian faith. Francis’ words sensitize us to a reality that presents itself to believers every Sunday if we’re attentive enough to perceive the socio-economic dimensions in each week’s readings.

Today’s readings once again offer a case in point. The first selection comes from the prophet Isaiah. It recalls a time when Israel had been released from painful exile and enslavement by ancient Babylon (modern day Iraq). According to Isaiah, exile was a time of anguish, darkness, gloom and distress – the pain inevitably experienced by the exploited then and now. Liberation from slavery’s “rod and yoke” changed all of that. Darkness and gloom were replaced by light, joy and rejoicing.

Significantly for the topic at hand (inequality and its remedies) the prophet uses two poor people’s images to describe the change. The joy of the liberated was like that of peasants reaping the fields at harvest time. Now, however, the harvested crop would belong to them, not to idle landlords. In this new situation reaping the fields presaged a time when hunger would be replaced by feasting.

Even more to the point, according to Isaiah, the joy of those liberated from Babylon was like the ecstasy of rebels dividing spoils after The Revolution – when the wealth of their oppressors was finally redistributed to those who had worked so long producing that wealth in exchange for nothing but “rod and yoke.”

In other words, the reading from Isaiah refers to a time of plenty and of wealth redistribution – always the dream of the poor and dispossessed – a dream, Pope Francis reminds us, that is also the Dream of God.

It was a dream shared by Jesus. He called his revolutionary vision the “Kingdom of God.” In today’s reading from Matthew, we see the working man from Nazareth recruiting those who would help organize the poor around that concept. Matthew presents Jesus as selecting comrades like himself – from the working class. His initial selections are the poor illiterate fishermen Simon, Andrew, James and John. They would accompany him and learn from him as he confronted his culture’s rich elite – the temple priests, rich landlords (again the temple priests), and collaborators with Roman occupation forces.

Reza Aslan tells us that Jesus did all of this in a context of extreme economic inequality. Aslan writes of “the chasm between the starving and indebted poor toiling in the countryside and the wealthy provincial class ruling in Jerusalem . . . .” He describes a Jesus who as a tekton (a Greek word meaning Jack of all trades) worked daily rebuilding the opulent city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, an hour’s walk from his village of Nazareth. “Six days a week,” Aslan writes, “from sunup to sundown, Jesus would have toiled in the royal city, building palatial houses for the Jewish aristocracy during the day, returning to his crumbling mud-brick home at night. He would have witnessed for himself the rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor.”

No doubt that experience sensitized Jesus to the plight of those who shared his social location. Like others he knew, Jesus was convinced that the situation was unsustainable. As Aslan puts it, “There was a feeling particularly among the peasants and pious poor, that the present order was coming to an end, that a new and divinely inspired order was about to reveal itself. The Kingdom of God was at hand. Everyone was talking about it.”

Jesus made it the point of his work as a community organizer par excellence to focus on the advent of God’s kingdom. In today’s Gospel, Matthew says, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

And in proclaiming and working for the kingdom, Jesus did not shy away from statements that might be seen as engendering class conflict. “Blessed are you poor,” he said, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” (LK 6:20). “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (LK 6:24). “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (MT 19: 16-24). All of these statements show consciousness of class struggle.

So what are we to do about income inequalities? In 1998, a UN Development Report called for a tax of 4% on the world’s richest 225 people. The report said that such a tax (6% less than the traditional tithe) would provide enough resources to feed, clothe, house, cure and educate the entire Third World.

To the wealthy, such taxation is unthinkable. As a result, 30,000 children die of absolutely preventable starvation each day.

In the eyes of Pope Francis – in the eyes of Jesus, I’m sure – tolerating such needless deaths is sinful and runs entirely contrary to any pretensions of those identifying themselves as “pro-life.”

No, Mr. Brooks, we can’t ignore the connections between extreme wealth and abysmal poverty. Wealth must somehow be redistributed. We have the word of Oxfam and the UN on that. We have the word of Pope Francis and of Jesus too.