Am I Still a Progressive?
Monday Notes
Am I Still a Progressive?
I'm torn on how to talk about Biden's fitness for office. Maybe it's because of my own partisan blinders.
Published on: Dec 6, 2021  |  

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I don't think I would have been able or willing to write the piece that our new associate editor Derek Hudson recently wrote—"We Need Talk About Biden." Basically, Derek argues that Biden's mental fitness shouldn't be a taboo topic and that the unwillingness to talk about it might actually hurt Democrats. If it's going to come up in 2023 and 2024—and it most certainly will—then we should start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

A couple of interesting things strike me about this argument. First, because almost everyone (on the Democratic side) immediately stopped talking about it once Biden got the nomination, I had forgotten that it wasn't taboo. In effect, my sense of what was real was altered over time by what I saw my peers saying or not saying. And now I have no memory, at least not one that I can access, of all the comments from Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, Tim Ryan (still have no idea who this is), and even Biden himself about how discussing "fitness" for office was fair game.

I'm still uncomfortable talking about it and I certainly wouldn't express a strong opinion on it one way or another. Which raises the question of why. That's a big part of what we try to do at Wisdom of Crowds, not to win an argument, but to interrogate how we come to believe the things we believe.

I think the "why" of it is tied to the existential nature of our politics. As I argued in a previous piece, this existential tenor—which is unusual in advanced democracies—will be the fundamental political challenge of our time.

As it turns out, democracy doesn't produce consensus, civility, or any shared understanding of what it means to be a nation. Democracy, in tandem with higher levels of educational attainment and access to unlimited information, can radicalize populations, as we're finding out in real-time. As political philosopher (and our own co-curator of The Democracy Essays) Samuel Kimbriel has written, "For many Americans, it no longer appears that democracy naturally produces a population that can live peacefully together (nor even, perhaps, that it should)."

It is difficult to overstate the extent to which this challenges the American self-conception. If democracy is good, then shouldn't it lead to other good things? If democracy is good, and it leads to bad things, then is it actually good?

In theory, existential politics might be "good" in some ways, in that it allows citizens to be fully, unapologetically themselves. They are liberated from the demand or expectation that they suppress their true commitments in the name of the common good. In practice, however, it doesn't always work out this way. Which brings me back to Biden and the perils of highlighting his age and agility. Because politics is, or feels, increasingly existential, it distorts our incentives. We worry about undermining our own "side." Or that fellow liberals will see what we choose to highlight to a wide audience as a betrayal, a step too far.

On any number of issues—Biden's fitness but also race, wokeness, and crime—liberals find themselves under considerable pressure to prioritize loyalty and advocacy over truth. It's simply too costly to go against the tide if you want to remain in good standing. There is no end to this way of thinking, unfortunately, and we are all susceptible to it. In a zero-sum political struggle, anything that could conceivably undermine morale or support on your side is perceived as helping the other side. And the other side is an existential threat, after all. So normal political discussion must be suspended until the threat passes. But what if the threat never passes?

Have I Left the Left?

Some have attacked me for not actually being a liberal, a Democrat, or on the left. (Although I tend to clarify that I'm of the left, not necessarily on it). My views don't neatly fit into a tribal understanding of left and right, outdated categories in any case. That said, even I sometimes worry about letting reality mug me to such an extent that I lose sight of why I even care in the first place. This is one of my concerns with a preoccupation with wokeism as the overarching crisis-problem of the moment, something to which I occasionally find myself tempted. I've sort of gone back and forth on this, but I think this debate from July 2020, right here on Wisdom on Crowds, accurately captures my dilemma.

Which brings me to two fascinating television shows I've started watching, mostly by accident—the fictionalized Dopesick and the documentary series Philly D.A. The former is about how Purdue Pharma was able to hook millions of Americans on OxyContin, fueling an opioid epidemic that cost an estimated 453,300 lives from 1999 to 2016. The latter is about the remarkably punitive nature of Philadelphia's criminal justice system, focusing on the twin roles of mass incarceration and "mass supervision," which is what happens after convicts are released but find that they're not actually free. These two narratives underscored, at least in my own mind, why I still align myself with "progressives" on certain substantive issues. Both shows do a good job of reminding us (and me) of the obvious: that there are bigger injustices than the left's language policing, as annoying and stifling as it can often be (although, of course, if you're actually fired from your job for saying the wrong thing, then that's likely to be perceived as a pretty central issue).

In the case of Dopesick, the lack of regulation, bureaucratic corruption, and misaligned market incentives allows an opaque pharmaceutical company to co-opt doctors and outmaneuver authorities, selling a dangerous prescription drug under false pretenses and through deceptive promotional strategies. It's a reminder that a vigorous and even paternalistic-seeming state might (sometimes) be required to fight on behalf of "progressive" causes. In the absence of such a state, equipped with resources and political will, millions of Americans will find themselves at the mercy of rich corporations that cleverly manipulate an already corrupt system.

Philly D.A. attempts to document a once-in-a-lifetime political experiment. Although it's a documentary, it feels like a thriller, in part because I'm so embarrassingly un-knowledgeable about my home city. I'm not actually sure how the experiment turned out, and I'm resisting the urge to do a Google search. In brief, Larry Krasner was a left-wing civil rights attorney who's been part of "the movement" for decades. On a long shot, he runs for district attorney of Philadelphia, an extremely powerful position, and actually wins—a first for progressives. Krasner is entrusted with running a status-quo oriented bureaucracy of 600 people, basically a kind of mini-"deep state," not to mention that the city's powerful police union tries to undermine him at every step.

And this is Philadelphia, one of the most mass incarcerated cities in a country that is one of the most mass incarcerated in the world. What happens when an outsider, who has opposed the system for decades, actually gets the chance to run it in his own image?

For any of us who are, or were, on the left, it's basically the animating question of late-night debates in dorm rooms and dining halls. What happens when you replace the convenience of outrage with the hard realities of power? And is it worth it, if it requires making political—and moral—compromises in the process? To what extent can a deeply entrenched system even be changed?

I guess I'll find out.