A recent New York Times op-ed column by David Brooks ponders the question of why four outside-the-mainstream candidates are causing such a ruckus. He considers Trump, Carson, Sanders, and England’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “the anti-party men,” all pandering to a phenomenon he calls “expressive individualism” as opposed to a communitarian philosophy of building coalitions and “tolerating differences.”
Fair enough. Brooks can be an interesting observer. But I almost stopped reading when I came to this willfully uninformed sentence:
“These four anti-party men have little experience in the profession of governing.”
My editor’s red light lit up. Let’s review:
Trump? Check. Dr. Carson? Obviously. Corbyn? Maybe. (Though being dissed by Brooks as a “tolerated dotty uncle” doesn’t necessarily offset 30-plus years as a Member of Parliament.)
But why lump US Senator Bernie Sanders in with a pair of politically inexperienced party-disrupting American loud-mouths?
The subtle dig at Bernie Sanders has become something of a New York Times pastime, but this one is particularly mind-numbing.
Sanders has “experience” governing going back to 1981 through two of our three branches of government. I have written in this space before about how Sanders ran the city of Burlington, Vermont with stunning efficiency. I think he may even have surprised himself with his focused management, knack for hiring great administrators, and his buck-stops-here approach, making sure that streets were plowed, garbage picked up, and citizens’ complaints were handled and resolved quickly and respectfully. Say what you want to about his lowercase “s” socialism, but this guy proved in his stint as mayor that he knows how to run an executive branch – albeit in a small city.
I’m not suggesting that running one tiny, but thriving, city alone qualifies him to run the massive minefield known as the federal government. But Brooks is surely aware that Sanders has served a quarter of a century in the US Congress, which clearly qualifies as significant “experience” in governing. As a member of the legislative branch, Sanders distinguished himself for 16 years as Vermont’s lone US Representative and later as US Senator — always as a political Independent, which couldn’t have been easy. Despite philosophical differences with his colleagues in both parties, Sanders proved that he could work productively with people who don’t share his core beliefs, and that he could, well, govern.
So I had to take a couple of deep breaths before deciding to forge on. Brooks rewarded my persistence with more politically blindered hot air, when it finally occurred to me that he has it topsy-turvy.
After a few paragraphs rehashing some fairly obvious tropes about how we, as a nation, have always had a tension between what Brooks calls “self and society,” and about how “compromise and coalition-building” has become “a dirty and tainted activity,” the Times’ moderate house conservative concludes with this:
“I wonder what would happen if a sensible Donald Trump appeared – a former cabinet secretary or somebody who could express the disgust for the political system many people feel, but who instead of adding to the cycle of cynicism, channeled it into citizenship, into the notion that we are still one people, compelled by love of country to live with one another, and charged with the responsibility to make the compromises, build the coalition, practice messy politics and sustain the institutions that throughout history have made national greatness possible.”
In other words, someone who campaigned on the theme of bipartisanship, someone who repeatedly said: “We aren’t red states. We aren’t blue states. We’re the United States”? Someone who held dear to his belief, against all evidence and odds (and probably to a fault), that he could find common ground with his political opponents?
Did Brooks forget that guy already?
We’ve been living with this “sensible” leader for 7 years. We know exactly what happened: Compromise, coalition building, and bipartisanship were no match for the bullies and experienced loudmouths who see Brooks’ vaulted philosophy as naiveté and weakness, and put their own quest for power and riches ahead of “love of country.”
Perhaps that’s another reason these “anti-party” juggernauts have hit a nerve: even the most politically mature voters, those of us who understand the art of compromise, have seen how this plays out. Brooks’ nostalgic vision is as outdated as the old Kremlin Hot Line. If the last 7 years prove anything, it’s that the winners in Washington are the ones who shout the loudest. As voters, we’ve been taught, carefully taught, that if we want to elect leaders who reflect our own values, we have no choice but to align ourselves with the candidate with the biggest megaphone.
And that’s where Brooks has Sanders exactly wrong. He’s not an “anti-party” outlier. He’s an experienced — read that again, Mr. Brooks — politician running on the same platform he has always run on — and won. Brooks’ words above, so wistfully crafted about electing a leader with community spirit and a love of the United States of America, could almost be as accurately applied to how Bernie Sanders has acquitted himself as a politician, especially in terms of treating opponents with respect, as they could be applied to President Obama. (Though admittedly Sanders is less likely to compromise his core principles.)
Though I fear that the conventional wisdom is right — that Sanders is too far out of the mainstream to be elected — his surprisingly successful campaign to date isn’t because of some “expressive individualism” taking root among the rank-and-file. It’s a recognition by his supporters that it’s our standard issue elected officials themselves who have drank the “expressive individualism” Kool-Aid, and are behaving, not as some “citizens of a joint national project,” but as if they have, in Brooks’ words, “congregate[d] in an ideological bubble,” convinced that “the purest example of their type” will win.
The anti-partiers are among the members and leadership of the House and Senate. Trump and Dr. Carson are just screaming to get in.