If a Blue Check or a Grey Wolf self-owns in the woods does it make a sound? No. Because no one knows what that means.
And nobody cares about the discourse.
Last week, Will Menaker of Chapo Trap House made an offhand comment about the Democratic Party’s intelligentsia. His point was crystal clear: the working people of America, particularly those under forty, are in favor of a political agenda and a style of class politics considerably to the left of the Democratic Party, whose leadership brought us the Trump presidency.
After all, this intelligentsia — ensconced in think tanks, academia, and media — not only have lined up behind a disastrous and unpopular agenda for decades, but also vigorously fought, denounced, and smeared all those left Cassandras who tried to tell them that it was all going to end just like this.
As Menaker put it, these affluent members of the professional class should — to use language so harmlessly geeky and arcane that I can’t even believe it’s controversial — “bend the knee” to those of us whose solutions are far more closely aligned with the needs, hopes, and dreams of most working people in America.
The bad faith flowed, smeared, and crusted over like toddler snot in mid-tantrum. And once again, for the gazillionth time in the last two years, the Democratic intelligentsia resorted to its favorite tactic: pretending that this new socialist and Berniecrat movement from below was little more than a gang of soccer hooligans throwing batteries (or chairs) in the faces of the most vulnerable members of the electorate.
To hear them tell it, left criticism for the Democratic Party leadership — affluent at the bottom, filthy rich at the top — was somehow disdain for voters who have little say in the party’s direction. By this standard, the GOP of the 1890s belonged to the black workers who adamantly voted for it, and not the wealthy robber barons who controlled it.
It’s a neat little trick: talking shit about a think-tank employee raking in a doctor’s salary somehow becomes talking shit about a retired black grandmother in South Carolina dutifully heading to the polls every couple of years to vote “D.”
But in the curious world of the Discourse, it’s more than a trick — it becomes their own little reality. They simply think-piece and tweet it all out until it manifests itself as “common sense” in their little corner of society. That whole big world happening outside of the Discourse doesn’t matter in the slightest.
They can pretend that “RUSSIA!” is a winning issue even as poll after poll shows indifference from most workers. They can click their heels and say that Bernie Sanders has a “black women problem” even as polls show that women of color are among his strongest supporters — white men are in fact his very weakest demographic. No number of polls or studies will convince them otherwise. Because in the up-is-down-black-is-white world of the Discourse — where all white males went to Bard or Oberlin and talk too aggressively about Marxism and David Foster Wallace — truth is entirely subjective and extremely Online.
So is the liberal intelligentsia just stupid? No. Or are they just lying? Not exactly.
The Discourse is a land of make-believe. And in a country as materially unequal as ours, it only makes sense that the intelligentsia would ensconce themselves in this zone of detachment, gentrifying reality far from sight. It’s a zone much like the one in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where individuals can pretend as if they’re shaping reality itself. The gulf between the material day-to-day lives of the haves and the have nots has never been this wide. And the Discourse is a land disproportionately controlled by the former, pretending not-very-convincingly to represent the latter.
This mass alienation from politics has been a long time coming. In 1967, the great Marxist intellectual Isaac Deutscher sat down with a group of college radicals to discuss their political prospects. And far from uncritically celebrating the student uprising that had begun across the Western world, Deutscher was more pessimistic:
You should go on with your protest, but it will be effective only if it can pass from the word to the deed. You are not capable of the deed, but the young worker is — provided you move him — because he is right in the middle of the productive process that sustains the existence of society. You are effervescently active on the margin of social life, and the workers are passive right at the core of it.
Today, the situation is close to reversing — the young socialist and Berniecrat left running as fast as they can towards that “passive core” of society while the Democratic Party’s leadership crosses its arms and moves ever closer to “the margin of social life” — the professional classes who’ve actually seen their fortunes rise since the financial crisis.
We’re running downfield with government jobs for all, free college, and Medicare for All while the liberal intelligentsia haughtily flies the banner of: “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” — the party’s proposed motto for the 2018 elections. While the socialist and Berniecrat left takes it for granted that all Americans unconditionally deserve the good life, the Democrats want to see your resume first.
Bernie Sanders isn’t the most popular politician in the country because Americans have suddenly become socialists. He’s beloved and trusted because he’s the first person on the national stage to speak to the mass discontent of our oligarchical times. The first person to burst into the elite zone of detachment and shout, “The building’s on fire.” The liberal intelligentsia in the Discourse, however, just sees a bull in their china shop.
But it’s we who represent the many. And the Democrat intelligentsia who represents the powerful few. And Menaker is right — by definition, a mass social-democratic movement does not live or die by professional-class enthusiasm for it. They are the people in the way. And they are the ones guarding the agenda of the powerful.
Both Sanders and Corbyn are widely popular in their home countries, despite being hated by the transatlantic liberal elite who said neither of them could ever catch on with the public. The liberal discourse is disproportionately a professional-class party over tapas and Chardonnay. It will never be the bellwether for socialist politics.
The social democracies of Scandinavia, whose policies Sanders explicitly champions, were made possible by militant working-class organization from below — not liberal wonks and elites. Norway’s own Labour Party was a member of the Communist International during its early days.
You can imagine how the Norwegian liberal intelligentsia of the time must have felt about that. It was quite a while before those polite professional class liberals “bent the knee” to Norway’s fiery social-democratic activists.
But when they finally did, the party those activists built managed to control their country’s parliament for the better part of a century. Whereas here, the Democrats have been reduced to their lowest level of state power since the latter days of antebellum America, when they were in fact the party of reaction. This is even more unforgivable when you consider that today’s GOP remains deeply unpopular. And yet, they can still win and they can still govern. It’s a testament not to Republican strength but to the opposition’s incredible weakness.
The movement around Sanders no doubt caught a lot of affluent liberals off guard in 2016. In this country, they’re not used to having so many left-wing critics who they can’t easily dismiss as marginal. I have a little sympathy for some of them.
But while the waters of the Discourse might feel warm and balmy to a liberal intelligentsia on the defensive, they might want to take a closer look at what they’re swimming in and ask themselves: How much of it is water and how much of it is just their own piss?