Today’s Battle: the Armchair Liberals vs. Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to supporters on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. (Bryon Houlgrave /The Des Moines Register via AP)

In the last few weeks, as the upcoming Iowa caucus has rapidly closed in upon us (now only two days away!), one by one, almost all of the New York Times editorial board has come out guns blazing to try to shoot down Bernie Sanders. Last week, I wrote about why I thought David Brooks was totally wrong. This week, it’s Timothy Egan who finds himself in my cross-hairs.

Unlike Brooks, who seemed to be laboring under the delusion that the American public is pining for the notoriously corrupt slimeball Joe Biden to take the reins of our country, Egan seems far more sympathetic to those of us who’ve fallen under Bernie’s spell. But, like a protective father warning his four year old away from eating too much ice cream, Egan admonishes us that, as sweet as Bernie’s flavor of populism may be, ultimately, with maturity comes the knowledge that it just isn’t good for us.

His piece, titled “Bernie Sanders Can’t Win: Class loathing feels so good, but it is ultimately self-defeating.” begins with Egan, presumably sitting on the couch in his comfortable home, watching “Succession,” an HBO show about America’s nouveau aristocracy and savoring his fantasy about taxing “the ultrarich into a homeless shelter.” But, despite how pleasurable the fantasy is, he knows it’s an impossible dream. Sanders, he says, feels like a “hit from the same pipe” – like crack, “Feeling the Bern” is pleasurable, forbidden, and ultimately devastating.

Why is it so devastating?

It’s simple, writes Egan. It’s the same reason that “people do not translate their hatred of the odious rich into pitchfork brigades against walled estates.” Sure, he concedes, the American economy may need Roosevelt style trustbusting, even large-scale restructuring, but the public’s will to storm the barricades just isn’t there.

Lots of Americans, says Egan, hate the word “socialism.” They don’t want a “revolution.” Today, Americans say they have unprecedented “confidence” in the American economy. Many are reluctant to get on board with anything that might jeopardize their private health insurance. Lots don’t really have a problem with the government violently rounding up immigrant families and deporting them. Should they? Maybe, he says. But, at the end of the day, they just don’t.

“Democrats lose,” Egan believes, “with fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists.” From William Jennings Bryan to George McGoven, American history of is full of our fellow citizens rejecting progressive efforts at societal reform. It’d be great, if they didn’t, Egan opines, but they do. They always do. And we’d be foolish to ignore those hard-taught history lessons.

But I’m not convinced.

Seriously, why don’t poor people in this country attack the rich?

Our country has millions of people who are homeless, hungry, angry and alienated – why not storm the exurban McMansions and plunder them for all they’re worth?

It’s easy to see why Egan himself doesn’t do that.

He’s a celebrated, well-compensated public intellectual. People with HBO subscriptions never start violent populist insurrections. Why would they? They’re set. Sure, they might participate in Hillary’s #Resistance, attending a massive antiwar demonstration or two, but that doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Even the people participating in those events know in their hearts that they aren’t really doing much besides making themselves feel better.

As long as middle-class liberals, like Egan, keep themselves in the driver’s seat of the American “left” (if you even want to call it that), nothing significant is about to happen in this country. Actual uprisings are incredibly risky. Terrifying even. If you don’t need to, why would you bother?

When it comes to poor and working-class people, however, as I see it, the main reason they don’t straight up attack the rich in this country is much more brutal than that.

It’s the police. The prisons. Private security. Few countries in the developed world have as many guns guarding their wealthy people as the American elite does. Lots of people in this country are very angry at how unfairly our current economy is treating them, but no matter how furious they may be with it, they know how severe the consequences of opposing the current societal order can be, and they know how quickly and violently any attempt to do so would likely be shut down. Standing up to the powers that be in any meaningful way usually just isn’t worth the very real material risks involved.

It’s not that people aren’t pissed. In the early seventies, when Nixon demolished the progressive McGovern campaign at the polls, almost 80% of Americans had “quite a lot” or more confidence in the American medical system. Today, that number is down to  36%. In the early seventies, 60% of Americans had “quite a lot” or more confidence in our nation’s banks. Today, that number is half of that.

Egan may rank among the majority of Americans who are critical of these institutions, but when the rubber meets the road, fundamentally, my guess is that these institutions work just fine for him and his family. If Egan’s family gets sick, my guess is they’ll get whatever medical care they need. If they need a loan or want to invest their money, our country’s banks will likely treat them just fine. Payday loans and untreated physical pain just aren’t part of life for middle class people like them.

For Egan, the word “socialism” probably evokes a skiing trip to Switzerland; “Medicare for All” is an essay he reads on his MacBook. He’s comfortable with the intellectual rhetoric, but he doesn’t have the anger or the fear that goes along with being on the sharp end of these sticks. For most Americans, it’s the opposite. The language scares them. But the anger is real. And they want somebody who’ll fight for them. Whatever else may be true about Trump, he’s certainly a fighter. So, clearly, is Sanders.

As I see it, Sanders is dangerous to the political order, not because of the taboo pleasures he offers middle-class liberals like Egan, but because of the very real material hope that his campaign has the potential to offer to the millions of Americans who are scraping by on poverty wages, the millions who lack access to quality healthcare, who live in the richest nation in human history, yet are falling ever deeper into debt.

If the Democrats want to win in 2020, they’ll put the semantics aside, and tie straight into the populace’s anger like an intravenous drip. If they can truly do that, the words won’t even matter.

Rob Korobkin

About Rob Korobkin

Rob is a software engineer, community organizer, teacher and musician. He can often be found at Peloton Labs, staring at his laptop, drafting diatribes and programming software late into the night.