Dreams from My Father, Deferred

(Photo: AP/Mel Evans)

Supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders hold signs before the presidential candidate was to speak at a rally in Rochester, New York, on April 12.

When historians look back on this year’s Democratic presidential primary, they’ll be sure to point out that this was a contest—more than any that came before—that divided the electorate above all by age. In exit poll after exit poll, Bernie Sanders has dominated younger voters and Hillary Clinton older ones. Whatever the reasons for this division by chronology—and one that looms large is surely the fact that millennials, unlike their elders, have never experienced an economy that rewards any but the rich—the generation gap that has opened within Democratic ranks is something the nation has not seen since the Vietnam War.

A lively discussion has already emerged in print and online between younger and older women on the questions raised for women by the Bernie and Hillary race, some of it between mothers and daughters. When the noted translator and writer Arthur Goldhammer, a frequent contributor to the Prospect, wrote a piece for us in late March that explored the political differences between the two generations and made a case for a more moderate approach to politics, his son Zach Goldhammer, a producer for public radio and freelance writer, was moved to write his own cross-generational exploration that makes the case for a decidedly less moderate approach. As a contribution to this generational debate, we run the pieces by the two Goldhammers below. 

Harold Meyerson


Stuck in the Middle with You

By Arthur Goldhammer

Remember the old hit by the Scottish band Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You”? That song comes to mind these days whenever I talk politics with the people with whom I’ve shared a political lifetime, friends who’ve witnessed the 1960s and Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan reaction, the Clinton years, September 11, the war in Iraq, the crash of 2008, the election of the first black president, the hesitant recovery from the Great Recession, and the cliff-hanger passage of the Affordable Care Act. A few have supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, but most are backing Hillary Clinton, albeit without enthusiasm: stuck in the middle with “jokers to the right,” as the song says, and while not “clowns to the left,” certainly, a mostly younger crowd, less chastened by bitter experience and eager to believe that radical—or let us say merely rapid and substantial—change is possible despite deep political polarization.

To tell the truth, I often find this “stuck in the middle” sentiment troubling. I see the candidate’s warts and flaws as clearly as anyone and didn’t need Doug Henwood’s energetically indiscriminate indictment to know that the Clinton record is far from spotless. But the uneasiness with the former first lady, senator from New York, and secretary of state goes beyond the candidate to the position she occupies on the political spectrum.

The middle is despised for having no cachet, no glory, no heroic appeal. On the one hand, it is dismissed as the politics of the humdrum, Max Weber’s “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” On the other, it is denounced for having cunningly masterminded progressive politics’s alleged sellout to insidious repression at home, irresponsible interventionism abroad, and neoliberalism everywhere.

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Why the Revolution Is Realistic

By Zach Goldhammer

Last month, my father, Arthur Goldhammer, published a defense of the “political center” and his own qualified support of Hillary Clinton.

My father defends his tentative embrace of Clinton by recalling battle scars incurred over a half-century of political fights, along with decades of thought and scholarship. This thinking is also, I believe, personal—as someone whose political consciousness was formed in part by the anti-war movement in 1960s Cambridge, tested as a draftee in the Vietnam War, and refined through decades of studying the history of democracy both in France and the U.S.

I don’t presume to know the full story of why someone who voted for the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver as a write-in candidate in 1968—as he did—or who translated and helped champion Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2013—as he also did—is now voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016. I also don’t have much interest in trying to change his feelings about the campaign: To quote Clinton’s own blunt response to the appeals of Black Lives Matter protesters, “I don’t believe you change hearts” in the pursuit of political progress. 

What bothers me more than my father’s thoughts about this election is the way in which he and other commentators of similar stature, age, and class tend to write off the enthusiasm of younger voters. My father, in his article, does so rather courteously, but his closing passage is nonetheless tinged with some condescension:

[For those who] may not share these same instincts, because they do not share our history or are by nature optimists of the will or belong to groups of the like-minded, as we once did, who brighten every glimmer of hope and amplify every expression of support. We know these people. Often they are our children. We admire their fervor and envy their faith, but we ourselves are no longer believers.

Though this statement is intended as a call for civility, it also paints over the diverse motivations of millennial Bernie supporters with broad strokes, framing them as faded portraits of progressives past.

I don’t think I am “by nature, [an] optimist,” but I am a Bernie supporter, and I believe there are many things that are wrong with this portrayal of the youth vote as well as the Sanders campaign more broadly. Here are four broad points of critique for this logic of the middle.

The Nostalgia Trap of the Old Left

What I find particularly frustrating about members of my father's generation is their tendency to act as hoarders of historical experience. The lessons of Watergate, Vietnam, and the rise of Reagan are somehow only learned by those who witnessed them in real time. They assume that the bitterness of this left-liberal generation has not been intuited by their children and inherited in their own political formation. To say young Sanders supporters “do not share” the history of the boomer generation of Clinton supporters seems absurd. After all, we live in a world shaped by both their successes and their blunders.

Yet if the difference between the boomers and their heirs is a gap in historical knowledge, why not cheer on Bernie Sanders, the candidate who has made this campaign one saturated in history?

Thanks to Sanders’s contribution to this election season, names that had been taboo in prime-time debates on foreign policy—Kissinger, Mossadegh, Allende—have begun to be heard again. He has reminded us that a 90 percent top marginal tax rate is not some utopian fantasy, but was once a reality under the Republican presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Civil-rights discussions are now invoked not just to praise the names of famous men, but to discuss the actual legacy of community collectives like CORE and SNCC and the tactics that helped their victories to come to pass.

Meanwhile, those who are attempting to understand the present through the past via Clinton’s campaign are left with little to work from. Her campaign has stuck relentlessly to the present tense: She doesn’t want to talk about the 1990s—except when it is to her advantage—or about Iraq. She doesn’t want to talk about Kissinger perhaps because that history is personal. She doesn’t want to talk about her references to African American “superpredators” because, apparently, “no one had ever asked” her before this February. She doesn't want to talk about her own voting record on same-sex marriage, but now that it is, finally, “the law of the land,” she does like to tweet GIFs.

When Clinton has reached back into history, she has also made some notable mistakes. There was her attempt to question where Sanders was when she was trying to pass health-care reform in 1993 and 1994 (he was, in fact, standing right behind her).There was also her unforced error at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, in which she remade another former first lady into a quiet champion of AIDs activism when she was, rather loudly, anything but.

Perhaps most bizarrely, she also turned a softball question about her favorite president into a dismissal of the legacy of reconstruction. Here, her remarks were not only factually questionable but—as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out—they also echoed the logic of the Dunning School’s racist and misguided view of the postbellum period. I don’t think Clinton really believes in Lost Cause narratives about Reconstruction, but statements like these seem to be symptomatic of a politician who doesn’t really care very much about the actual history of past progress.

Sanders’s campaign, meanwhile, has fought hard to restore these stories to public consciousness. And while The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz has gone so far as to accuse younger Bernie supporters of “historical fetishism,” it seems disingenuous to reduce our choice of a presidential candidate to the motives behind buying vintage clothes or heirloom tomatoes.

Sanders’s interpretations of history might not always be immaculate: You can quibble with the idea that free trade led directly to urban blight in Detroit, for instance. Yet his campaign has nonetheless helped condense a kaleidoscopic history of various left movements into a coherent narrative that continues to evolve and adapt—a living People’s History.

Clinton’s own historical narrative, meanwhile sounds less like Howard Zinn and more like William S. Burroughs: A Naked Lunch of liberal history, with large sections cut up, reordered at will, and filled in with personal vignettes. Though Clinton’s supporters suggest that her own willingness to change her positions with the tides of history is a virtue, it’s difficult to tell which direction she will turn when her own ideology is anchored to no particular version of the past. And as Peter Beinart noted in his “unified theory” of Clinton, her own stubbornness may prevent her from altering her path in time:

If past is prologue, Hillary's would stem in significant measure from unwillingness to change course. Hillary does learn from her mistakes. But only after the damage is done. … her ‘tunnel vision’ … might produce a presidency more stylistically akin to that of George W. Bush.

So if history is not a limited resource which can be hermetically sealed in the spirit of one person or one generation, why not embrace the candidate who will aid its transmission to the next generation, and who will also help history continue to move forward in a progressive direction rather than repeat its mistakes?

A False Dualism of Political Process

My father also suggests that perhaps there is something juvenile or naïve about Bernie’s slogan of “political revolution,” one that, again, reminds him of the credos he left behind in his leftist youth:

Where once we used the word revolution with insouciant nonchalance, we now recognize the force of the second clause of the famous dictum that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” All our political instincts tell us that the “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” are not ripe for abrupt reversal.

In his defense of Clinton, he also quotes Weber's truism about the political process, that it requires "the slow boring of hard boards," a humdrum process which lacks the excitement of revolutionary declarations. This, one is to assume, is a critique of Bernie Sanders—but doesn’t Weber’s aphorism describe the senator from Vermont, the man who has been boring into the same boards (and boring his colleagues and the media) for decades; the man who was once known as the “Amendment King” for tirelessly seeking to realize his priorities through the legislative process? Clinton’s decades of triangulation, by contrast, make it difficult to tell exactly what it is that she's been working toward all these years.

Still, some insist that the difference between these two candidates comes down to their affinities for different kinds of political processes. As my father frames the argument in an earlier column, it’s a difference between the egg-breakers, who wish make a clean break in creating political change, and the sausage-makers, who take a messier, uglier but unblinking look at the political process, viscera and all.

These high-minded distinctions between different kinds of processes sound less like real political debates than like the erudite conversations of Zen masters discussing whether enlightenment is sudden or gradual. For me, this distinction between incremental versus revolutionary change is a false dualism. But this isn’t just a philosophical principal, it’s a fact of engagement that I’ve witnessed.

My political thinking was formed not primarily in Cambridge, where I grew up, or in D.C., where I later worked, but like Sanders, in the place where I went to school: Chicago, a city dominated by machine politics and filled with sausage-makers both literal and figurative.

My first experience with political revolution came from watching young community activists—many of them still in high school at the time, working with college students from the University of Chicago—organizing to bring back the university’s level 1 trauma center. The need for the trauma center, which would treat adult victims of gunshot wounds, was clear. No such facility had existed on the South Side of Chicago for decades, despite the area having some of the highest rates of gun violence in the country. Early on, I heard many University of Chicago students—even those who were deeply concerned about gun violence—laugh off these protests, just as I would later hear young reporters in D.C., even those who were deeply concerned about economic inequality, laugh at Sanders when he first discussed his fledgling presidential campaign on Meet the Press. I also heard administrators from the university hospital explain away the practicality of re-opening their long shuttered level 1 trauma center (a guaranteed money-loser), just as I have read policy wonks explain the prohibitive economic cost of providing free universal health care.

Yet despite these dismissive critics, the trauma center campaign—which began before I came to Chicago and continued after I left—eventually won. This was a political revolution on a small scale that evolved over a half-decade and which was organized almost entirely by activists under the age of 22. This revolution was not made in the volatile fashion of the Weather Underground—though Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn are still in the same neighborhood. Instead, it was the work of a sustained, deeply informed, well-organized political movement: more sausage-making than egg-breaking.

But this victory was not the work of Chicago’s Clintonian sausagemaker-in-chief, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. Instead, as a recent report from Crain’s Chicago Business notes, these services were returned primarily because organizers leveraged their demands as a condition for the community’s assent to the university’s bid for “the prestigious Obama library and a lucrative cancer institute.” In other words, a radical, sustained action from outside the political machine was needed. This was the only way to force a private institution to provide a necessary public service.

Most of the people I know who are now working for the Sanders campaign were veterans of either the trauma center fight or other related movements in Chicago. They are not bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but are experienced organizers who have witnessed both wins and losses. And though they were not able to deliver a victory for Bernie in Chicago, Cook County was not their Waterloo. Many of these organizers are still working on local as well as national campaigns. Many of their battles will drag on for a long time. Others, like the #ByeAnita campaign, which culminated in voters’ unseating Cook County’s police-can-do-no-wrong district attorney, proceeded rather swiftly. Either way, what does it matter? Their work continues.

If these organizers in Chicago are representative of those now organizing Bernie Sanders’s political revolution, this campaign will not be an overly optimistic one. Despite Tom Hayden’s recent comments, their efforts are not destined to end in “decline or division.” To try to neatly recast the activists as successors of 1960s radicals is to overlook the realities that they have already lived through, in addition to the histories they’ve inherited. There may be a reason that the anthem of this era’s civil-rights protests isn’t “We Shall Overcome” but instead is just “Alright.” And whether or not Bernie Sanders wins in the primary or in the general, these revolutions won’t end with a national election.

The Mirage of the Middle

The bulk of my father’s piece rests on a defense of the middle. Yet this defense is largely psychological. It’s meant to assuage the hearts and minds of older voters who believe they have followed a rational path toward the political center, but find that center to be a discomforting place.

So why are they there? More than anything, the “middle” seems to be formed primarily by a fear of what lies outside and to its right. The fear of a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz presidency is very real and very palpable. It is not something that anyone I know takes lightly. Despite what Susan Sarandon may tell you, the Leninist logic of heightened contradictions is not something many Sanders supporters I know truly believe in. Yet viewing Clinton, a scandal-prone candidate with high negatives, as the ultimate bulwark against Trump seems like a risky gambit. So why make the centrist stand here rather than follow the trail of enthusiasm and plant a new flag a little further to the left?

If the middle is defined not by fear or caution, but as a meeting place for otherwise disparate ideas and constituencies, the Sanders camp seems a rather attractive center. The diverse base of the Sanders’s campaign, despite the “Bernie bro” stereotype, is not rigidly dogmatic—for many, he’s already a compromise candidate. Unlike Clinton, however, he is a candidate for whom voters are willing to compromise rather enthusiastically. There are plenty of center-left folks who are now voting for Bernie who may still wish that it were Elizabeth Warren running instead, but they have mostly made their peace. He is also a compromise candidate for many on the left. For one thing, some socialists will say he’s not a true socialist: He isn’t looking to nationalize the means of production, he doesn’t have a real internationalist platform, and, of course, he’s running under the banner of the Democratic Party. This has, on the one hand, alienated him from members of Trotskyist parties like the International Socialist Organization. On the other hand, he has earned tacit approval from groups like Socialist Alternative as well as an enthusiastic embrace from the Democratic Socialists of America. Though some within these groups still worry about being "sheepdogged" into the Democratic Party, Sanders has still successfully led many self-identified socialists toward practical electoral politics. This is an incremental move toward the center that should please those who glorify the middle. Older, former members of the left may cringe when they think about the fissiparous fights of their own youth and decide it’s not worth their time to learn the various positions of these seemingly marginal groups. Yet if they take a step back, they may see that supporting Sanders is a compromise that an otherwise alienated base of voters is, for now, willing to make. So why not meet these begrudging moves toward party politics from the left with a reciprocal move away from the triangulated position of the 1990s? Wouldn’t this bring the Democratic Party closer to a more ideologically desirable middle?

Yet those who still believe that Clinton is representative of a sustainable center seem to present the middle as a rigid space, a circle with a fixed diameter. Belief in its existence seems as mystic as it is pragmatic. My hope is that the Sanders campaign can slowly re-draw these margins and circumscribe a new space for a deeply worried electorate.

You Don’t Know the Youth Vote … And Neither Do I

Often they are our children. ...

This is the line in my father’s piece that I feel I have to keep coming back to.

The Bernie Sanders “youth vote” is no more homogenous than Clinton’s “firewall” of black voters, and most do not resemble the children of the pundits who chose to write about them. More acutely, most do not resemble me. I also honestly don’t know that much about them. Though I know some campaign organizers in various states, I know almost no registered voters my age in New Hampshire, Alaska, Hawaii, Utah (and so on), and I don’t pretend to know what their motivations may be in helping Sanders win those states’ primaries. A lack of personal relationship with these voters wouldn’t matter so much if their direct opinions were included in the publications I regularly read. Unfortunately, they are not.

Ideally, robust campaign coverage would include the voices of the young and of enthusiastic people from diverse backgrounds. Yet while there are plenty of explainers about what millennials do and don’t want, it’s rare that anyone under the age of 25 is given space to deliver full-throated, editorial explanations of their own political views. It is even rarer if these voices did not graduate from a select group of colleges or do not currently live in certain media-rich urban centers. Instead, there is a demographic asymmetry in the balance of editorial voices that also leads to an asymmetry of critique, one which reflexively tends to chide millennials for their supposedly impulsive and overly personal worldviews. It’s only when this voting bloc proves to be too sizable and too organized to ignore that they are occasionally given a platform.

Even if you do happen to be a young writer at a mainstream publication, you are likely required to maintain the standardized neutral tone required for serious reporting. But when the political center is itself a political stance—as my father’s article claims—that is likely to benefit coverage of a particular candidate, this itself is not neutrality. This is not just a problem of individual publications, but a broader cultural dilemma in a media climate that equates intelligent writing with dispassionate prose.

If the boomers wonder why they haven’t been able to hear the real political views of the millennial left, it may be because there have been few public spaces in which millennials can speak honestly, in their own voices, before this election. If those voices that now represent the base of the Sanders campaign are to be heard, publications need to do more to promote strong-minded voices and strive for diversity not just of race and gender, but also of class, ideology, geography, and generation.

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