Magical Realism, and Other Neoliberal Delusions

Ten observations on the presidential race and the state of American politics.


At Vox, Dylan Matthews offers a sharp analysis of Thursday night’s debate (which I didn’t watch or listen to). His verdict is that the three big losers of the night were Hillary Clinton, the New Democrats, and liberal technocrats. (The two winners were Bernie Sanders and Fight for 15 movement.)

As Matthews writes:

But just going through the issues at tonight’s debate, it’s striking to imagine a DLCer from the ’90s watching and wondering what his party had come to. Sanders was asked not if he was sufficiently tough on crime, but if his plans to let millions of convicted criminals out of prison would actually free as many felons as promised. Clinton was criticized not for being insufficiently pro-Israel, but for being insufficiently willing to assail the killing of Palestinian civilians. Twenty years after Clinton named former Goldman Sachs chief Robert Rubin as his Treasury secretary, so much as consorting with Goldman Sachs had become toxic.

Though I’m obviously pleased if Sanders beat Clinton in the debate, it’s the other two victories that are most important to me. For those of us who are Sanders supporters, the issue has never really been Hillary Clinton but always the politics that she stands for. Even if Sanders ultimately loses the nomination, the fact that this may be the last one or two election cycles in which Clinton-style politics stands a chance: that for us is the real point of this whole thing.

I‘m always uncertain whether Clinton supporters have a comparable view. While there are some, like Jonathan Chait or Paul Starr, for whom that kind of politics is substantively attractive, and who will genuinely mourn its disappearance, most of Clinton’s supporters seem to be more in sync with Sanders’s politics. They say they like Sanders and agree with his politics; it’s just not realistic, they say, to think that the American electorate will support that.

Which makes these liberals’ attraction to Clinton all the more puzzling. If it’s all pure pragmatism for you — despite your personal support for Sanders’s positions, you think only her style of politics can win in the United States — what are you going to do the next election cycle, when there’s no one, certainly no one of her talent or skills and level of organizational support, who’s able to articulate that kind of politics?


If she could turn back time:

Cher has been a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton during this presidential election year, but now she may be changing her mind.

The singer took to Twitter on Wednesday to talk about the internal conflict she feels over which Democratic candidate to support for the presidency. In the past, Cher has criticized Bernie Sanders and his campaign staff. . . .

However, on Wednesday, Cher said that after blocking people on Twitter she started to “feel uneasy” and went into “marathon research mode” with an open mind. She said that “in the quiet of the night,” she discovered that Sanders’ beliefs “mirrored” her own more than she had realized. The singer said she was “shaken to [her] core” by this revelation.

Cher went on to talk about how much she liked and respected Clinton, whom she spent time with when Clinton was running for the Senate. Cher said that she hopes the woman she fought hard for is still there, but that now she’s faced with a difficult decision.

“Realize now that I have MUCH common ground and new respect for [Bernie Sanders],” said Cher, adding that she’s torn up.

And don’t you dare say anything against Cher. I won’t have it.


Until Thursday night, I’d been seeing lots of Facebook posts and tweets from Clinton supporters citing Sanders’s appointment of Simone Zimmerman, who’s a critic of Israel, as his Jewish outreach coordinator, as an example of Sanders’s insufficient realism and political immaturity. Like the millennials he represents, goes the argument, Sanders is a starry-eyed dreamer who just doesn’t get it, who just doesn’t understand how the game is played.

Well, now we know that he does.

See how much skill, maturity, and sophistication it requires to fire someone just because she once called Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu an asshole? See how quickly a candidate can get educated to do the kind of thuggish politics you Clinton folks think it takes years of experience and qualifications for a politician to learn? And doesn’t it just give you a Jean Arthur–like thrill to see the impractical idealist forced to play politics like the most practiced of pols? Aren’t you excited, gratified, that he’s shown you he’s got what it takes? I hope so.

I can be as Machiavellian or Weberian as the best of them. I just have this cockeyed optimist belief that if the ruthlessness you’re supposed to learn in politics really requires the kind of realism and skill and experience that people who pride themselves on their realism, skill, and experience think that it requires, then that ruthlessness should involve a slightly higher order of business than whether or not a campaign staffer once called a head of state an asshole.


The men and women who drive and maintain New York City’s subways and buses think it’s more important that Sanders supports them and other workers than that he imagines we still use tokens. They’re unrealistic.


By his own admission, President “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars” made the same mistake in Libya that President “Mission Accomplished” made in Iraq. It’s almost as if that Best and the Brightest thing doesn’t always work out.

President Obama’s admission that his failure to plan for a post-reconstruction Libya was his greatest mistake — and his concomitant refusal to say that the intervention was a mistake — makes me wonder how many times a government gets to make the same “mistake” before we get to say that the mistake is no mistake but how the policy works.

I mean when you have a former University of Chicago Law School professor/former Harvard Law Review editor doing the exact same thing that his alleged ignoramus of a predecessor did in Iraq, when you see that the failure to plan for a post-intervention reconstruction is not a contingency but a bipartisan practice, don’t you start wondering about the ideology of intervention itself?

I wrote about a version of this question in a piece I did in the London Review of Books on the ideology of national security after the revelations of Abu Ghraib:

The 20th century, it’s said, taught us a simple lesson about politics: of all the motivations for political action, none is as lethal as ideology. The lust for money may be distasteful, the desire for power ignoble, but neither will drive its devotees to the criminal excess of an idea on the march. Whether the idea is the triumph of the working class or of a master race, ideology leads to the graveyard.

Although liberal-minded intellectuals have repeatedly mobilised some version of this argument against the isms of right and left, they have seldom mustered a comparable scepticism about that other idée fixe of the 20th century: national security. Some liberals will criticise this war, others that one, but no one has ever written a book entitled ‘The End of National Security’. This despite the millions killed in the name of security, and even though Stalin and Hitler claimed to be protecting their populations from mortal threats. . . .

Many critics have protested against Abu Ghraib, but none has traced it back to the idea of national security. Perhaps they believe such an investigation is unnecessary. After all, many of them opposed the war on the grounds that US security was not threatened by Iraq. And some of national security’s most accomplished practitioners, such as Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as theoreticians like Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, even claimed that a genuine consideration of US interests militated against the war. The mere fact that some politicians misused or abused the principle of national security need not call that principle into question. But when an idea routinely accompanies, if not induces, atrocities — Abu Ghraib was certainly not the first instance of the United States committing or sponsoring torture in the name of security — second thoughts would seem to be in order. Unless, of course, defenders of the idea wish to join that company of ideologues they so roundly condemn, affirming their commitment to an ideal version of national security while disowning its ‘actually existing’ variant.


What was it Jonathan Chait said last month? “Reminder: liberalism is working.”

Thought of that reading this headline from last year.


I’m always amused by the way that non-experts in the media and politics insist that on every issue, our presidential candidates should have the expertise of a university professor.

Any university professor will tell you that you can only have that kind of expertise in one, maybe two, areas.

In the wake of the controversy over Sanders’s interview with the New York Daily News, where ill-informed journalists made ill-informed judgments about Sanders’s lack of expertise, Charli Carpenter, a genuine academic expert on international relations, makes the necessary points:

Yes, he’s still vague on details. But if Sanders doesn’t know enough about foreign policy (yet) at least he’s willing to say so. Ultimately Sanders is taking most heat because he refused to bullshit his way through places where he felt out of his depth. But as a foreign policy expert, I was heartened by his willingness to say, “I haven’t thought enough about that yet,” and his comfort in acknowledging and correcting mistakes of fact or semantics. I see this as a strength, not a weakness — in my students, in my colleagues, in people generally and certainly in a Presidential candidate. The world is a complex place and none of us are or can be experts on everything. Indeed, as someone who lived under the rule of George W. Bush — a President who also knew precious little about the world but acted as if he didn’t need guidance from experts — this foreign policy “pro” finds the humility of Sanders’ stance, coupled with the sensibility and morality of his vision, not a little reassuring./blockquote>


I’m seeing a lot of folks posting this piece, attributing the election victory of a right-wing Republican judge in Wisconsin to the failure of Sanders supporters in Wisconsin to vote in that down-ballot election or to vote the right way, and more generally going after Sanders for not doing enough for down-ballot Democratic candidates. (And there have been many other pieces like that, in Mother Jones and elsewhere.)

I find this a peculiar line of attack, particularly for people who say that it’s what leading them not to support Sanders and to vote for Clinton instead.

Many of these folks voted twice for Obama, and would vote for him again, despite the fact that he presided over the greatest loss of down-ballot seats of any two-term president since Harry Truman. Under Obama, Democrats lost 11 governorships, 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, and 913 state legislative seats and 30 state legislative chambers.

According to various analysts, that’s about twice the average of postwar presidents. Yet somehow we live with it. But Sanders’s failure to get a judge elected in Wisconsin? That’s crossing a line.

Oh, and by the way, in 2008, there was another election of a Republican state supreme court judge in Wisconsin in tandem with the state primary. The Democratic incumbent lost that judicial election — despite the victory in that primary by a certain senator by the name of Barack Obama.

I don’t mind good solid critiques of Sanders, but I find these kinds of concerns to be little more than a performance of hard-headed civic realism, replete with that usual combination of requisite journo-speak (“down ballot”) and faux wonkery.


Dateline for this headline: August 11, 2015.



Arthur Goldhammer is one of the most brilliant and acclaimed translators of our time. He’s also firmly in Clinton’s camp. Zack Goldhammer is a radio producer/freelance writer and Art’s son. He’s also firmly in Sanders’s camp. They disagree, and argued it out here.

Their exchange brings out the generational divide so clearly, between the Boomers who, in this case, voted for Eldridge Cleaver as a write-in candidate in 1968 — and as I’ve argued before, have been repenting for their sins ever since — and the millennials who, well, have other memories and experiences.

What I particularly like about Zack’s response is this: “For me, this distinction between incremental versus revolutionary change is a false dualism.”

Nothing sets my teeth on edge more than these earnest droning lectures we get — not from Art, whose earnest droning lectures I love (seriously, he’s a good guy) — about the need for realism and moderation against our youthful penchant for revolution and idealism.

In part because at the age of forty-eight, this is hardly my first time at the rodeo. (Nothing like being lectured to by journalists who are half my age about the need to grow up.)

But more important because the distinction is itself so surreal, so much the idée fixe of the Luftmensch, so much an artifact of academic seminars and common room debates. When I hear these lectures, I don’t hear someone who’s had real political experience, someone who’s been around the block; I hear someone who’s a college freshman and has just read this really exciting text — it could be Reinhold Niebuhr, Czesław Miłosz, or the latest squib in Vox — and decided, maybe after a bad encounter with an annoying campus activist, that he’s discovered the secret of the universe.

And who then slips into a lifetime of enchantment, periodically emitting, in an incantatory mode, words like “moderate” or “slow” or “nuance” or “subtle.”

Now that’s what I call Magical Realism.