For the first time in a generation, a cohort of young lawmakers is injecting the Democratic caucus with a dose of populist dynamism it hasn’t seen since before the 1990s. But as figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez break with the compromised liberalism of the Clinton and Obama eras — ahead of a 2020 campaign cycle almost certain to involve a confrontation between a left-leaning base and a corporatist party establishment — an ossified old guard is still clinging to its shibboleths for dear life.
During a Sunday morning segment with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, West Wing and Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin had this to say when asked which Democrats he thought were performing well in the Trump era:
I like Kamala Harris a lot. I like Joe Biden a lot. I really like the new crop of young people who were just elected to Congress. They now need to stop acting like young people, ok? I think that there’s a great opportunity here, now more than ever, for Democrats to be the non-stupid party . . . that it’s not just about transgender bathrooms. That’s a Republican talking point they’re trying to distract you with. That we haven’t forgotten about the economic anxiety of the middle class, but we’re going to be smart about this — we’re not going to be mean about it.
It says a great deal about the state of American liberalism that a screenwriter best known for crafting middlebrow dramas famous for their circuitous dialogue remains a house intellectual — none of it good.
Perhaps better than any other cultural artifact, Sorkin’s The West Wing chronicled the moral and intellectual decline of a post–New Deal Democratic Party, reveling in its shift to a vacuous center characterized by deficit hawkishness, technocratic proceduralism, and smirking, credential-obsessive Ivy League pretension. Serving as a morale booster for Bush-era liberals, the saga of the fictional Bartlett administration ultimately reflected and informed the politics of the Obama presidency and the world views of some of its most influential partisans and operatives.
Its absurdity notwithstanding, the West Wing creator’s patronizing intervention is yet a further illustration of how deeply embedded the discredited politics of the 1990s remain in the liberal imagination, even — especially — amid the ongoing nightmare of the Trump presidency. In no more than thirty seconds, Sorkin’s flourish managed to evoke virtually everything wrong with DNC liberalism in the twenty-first century: from its reflexive condescension toward the young and the vulnerable (note the pejorative reference to “transgender bathrooms”) to the various ways it fetishizes personality over program, delights in punching left, and elevates intelligence over ideology.
Indeed, just like the real-world liberalism it has channeled and shaped, Sorkin’s politics have always been concerned more with aesthetics than any specific or programmatic impulse towards reform. The West Wing universe, after all, is one in which an idyllic, two-term liberal presidency warmly embraces the military-industrial complex, cuts Social Security, and puts a hard-right justice on the Supreme Court in the interests of bipartisan “balance” — all the while making no observably transformative changes to American life. What matters most is how politics look and feel and whether the briskly striding people who staff the corridors of power possess diplomas from the right schools. Idealism, such as it is, has more to do with an abstract faith in American institutions and their inherent greatness (as in, “America is already great”) than any particular desire to make the world a better place or see a coherent set of values reflected within them. In Sorkin’s parochial fantasy, politics at its noblest and most high-minded consists mainly of wonkish sophistry and elegantly crafted speeches designed to offer vague comfort while saying nothing.
If this sounds at all familiar (putting aside the actual plot lines of the show’s seven-season run) it’s because the liberalism that defined the Clinton and Obama eras very much cleaved to a similar script, rooting itself in charismatic yet technocratically minded figures behind whom the elite brokers and corporate actors that dominate American society largely carried on business as usual — even as millions lost their jobs and homes, saw their wages stagnate, and were crushed by the collective avarice of banks, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical giants.
Challenged by the Sanders insurgency in 2016 and rattled by Trump’s victory, the liberal intelligentsia might have taken stock and reflected — if only out of pure self-interest — on their own failures and the deficiencies of their worldview. With a few exceptions, this has not been the case. If anything, Sorkin’s condescension towards progressive lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez suggests that the only thing many elite liberals still know how to do is double down, demand deference, and preach the feel-good platitudes of presidencies past.
Elsewhere in his interview with Zakaria, Sorkin condemned Trump in the following terms:
It is not the role of the president to stoop to the lowest common denominator . . . it is the role of the president to try to elevate us all. And we have had presidents both Republican and Democrat who have been fantastic at doing that, who can put a lump in our throat, and who can appeal to the better angels in our nature.
Praising John F. Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama, he continued:
You can make people understand that there’s more that unites us than divides us, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself . . . [you can] paint a picture of a tomorrow that’s better than yesterday. Honestly, it’s good speechwriters . . . is what you need.
However we account for it, this is a liberalism that lost its bearings and backbone long ago; amid the defeats and disappointments of the Nixon and Reagan eras, it not only embraced retrenchment and capitulation but chose to turn them into its cardinal political virtues. As Republicans moved rightwards, Democrats leaned into their role as the more respectable, more inclusive wing of American capital and the various postures it demanded of them — from valuing feel-good rhetoric and symbolism over substance to believing the only mature politics consists of an endless series of compromises among increasingly conservative positions.
Several decades on, it’s unclear how many of those who continue to champion this ineffectual philosophy do so merely out of habit, given that it already suffered what should have been its final and fatal humiliation with Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016.
Nevertheless, for the first time in a generation a significant chunk of the Democratic base seems both able and willing to look beyond the realm of fantasy and consider real alternatives. Whatever happens in 2020, don’t expect Sorkin or his fellow Adults In The Room to grow up and abandon their road to nowhere.