Thursday, January 30, 2020

Bernie Sanders, Joe Rogan and the Politics of Conviction

If you're relying on me to inform you about the Bernie Sanders/Joe Rogan controversy, you need to read more widely.

The short version is this: Joe Rogan is a podcaster with a brand of anti-PC anti-establishment angry comedy, who is popular with ... exactly the sort of crowd that likes anti-PC anti-establishment anger. He endorsed Bernie Sanders, and Sanders loudly trumpeted the endorsement.

On one level, Rogan's endorsement is a big coup for Sanders insofar as it gives him credibility with the proverbial disaffected White voter. Sanders ability to appeal to this crowd is central to his "electability" case.

On another level, Rogan's "brand of anti-PC anti-establishment angry comedy" often in practice has been vicious racist, transphobic, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant. So Sanders is taking a lot of flak from people who think the supposed standard-bearer of the left shouldn't be aligning himself with that sort of reactionary hatred.

Sanders' defenders think this is all yet another bad-faith cheap shot from the "establishment" desperate to take Bernie down a peg. After all, how many other candidates have accepted endorsements from morally compromised figures (Henry Kissinger is a popular target) and not gotten half the backlash? Many of the critics rejoin by saying they are not anti-Sanders per se -- some are even backers -- but feel especially betrayed that Bernie Sanders is elevating and amplifying the voice of the likes of Joe Rogan.

So that's the controversy in a nutshell. And I have two points. First, when people argued that Bernie Sanders could build a different sort of political coalition because he could uniquely appeal to disaffected White voters, this is what they meant. They may not have realized it was what they meant; there's been quite a bit of romantic naivete that when these voters back Sanders they were doing so because they've become converts to a true-blue socialist vision that goes all the way down, and in comradeship they would join the left cultural issues right alongside economic ones. But in reality, this was always going to be the way that it worked -- if Sanders was able to build a novel coalition that brought back these angry White male voters that had been attracted to Trump back into the fold, they were going to come with all the baggage that made them Trump-curious in the first place. As I remarked last year, it's fine to say "that's politics" and accept that political coalitions always will entail alliances with some unsavory sorts. But one can't just wear blinders that this is what one is doing.

Which brings me to point number two. One of the reason Bernie Sanders, in particular, is taking flak over this sort of arguably unremarkable political compromise is because so much of his campaign's organizing narrative is based on the idea that he doesn't compromise. In contrast to an establishment that is hopelessly tainted by disreputable associations and opportunistic corrupt bargaining, Sanders stands as someone who will always do the right thing, even if it's the hard path. He has his convictions, and he sticks to them. That's what makes him stand out, and -- for his more passionate supporters -- that's what makes other Democrats unpalatable. They play the game. Sanders will overturn the game table.

What Sanders is finding out, though, is something Max Weber observed years ago: nobody who is actually seeking to exercise political power can get away with the pure politics of conviction. One will always have to compromise, there will always be instances where one has to sacrifice ideals on the altar of expediency. Sanders is getting hit harder for the Rogan endorsement because in some ways the very controversy falsifies one of his core campaign narratives. When you've held yourself as the beacon of uncompromising conviction, obviously you're going to take a few shots when you so publicly engage in a political compromise -- accepting Rogan's backing (and the disaffected White voters he may bring with him) and the expense of excusing his anti-egalitarian rantings against various other marginalized groups.

It's kind of like conservative legal originalists. They get on such a high horse about how they're the only legal interpreters who are apolitical and unideological and just calling "balls and strikes". And so when they inevitably have to engage in judgment calls and contested interpretation -- and those calls and interpretations oh-so-shockingly skew towards their political priors -- there's going to be some extra mustard on the ensuing denunciations. It's not that adherents of other legal theories are immune to those sorts of behaviors. But they haven't dedicated their entire public profile to declaring they are so immune (and therefore superior).

Me, I'm a pragmatist -- I've long since come to terms with the fact that politics entails political compromises, so I don't get too exercised when I see it in the wild. Whether or not I think Joe Rogan's endorsement is a net positive or negative, it is not in the family of political misconduct that particularly bothers me (for similar reasons, actually, to why I don't get too worked up that "Linda Sarsour is a campaign surrogate!"). All it tells me is that Bernie Sanders is a perfectly ordinary politician -- and to be honest, it never occurred to me to view him as anything else.

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