Cynical Expectations of Government

Cursory glances at America during the second half of its century evince a clear and depressing pattern: small moments of sunlight, of genuine progress, are outweighed by massive, costly, counterrevolutionary actions. An idealistic, forward-thinking president was gunned down before being able to do more than draw blueprints. Freedom Summer was followed by the assassinations of America’s two greatest black leaders, men who could have, conceivably, still been at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 1990s. The next wave of idealistic college students, like the ones who practically shut down Berkeley in 1964, found themselves drafted and sent to Vietnam instead; the president who escalated the conflict ended up watching his Great Society falter and crumble for the cost of the war. His successor, who was genuinely believed to have the bona fides to make inroads to end the Cold War, turned out to have cheated his way to a second term and resigned; his successor pardoned him; his successor, who could speak morality to the right and peace to the left, was emasculated by a righteously angry mob in Tehran, opening the doors for an actor to waltz into the Oval Office twice. Gay liberation, already struggling head-on against a conservative pseudoreligious coalition, was devastated by AIDS just as gay rights and a gay political consensus were reaching unprecedented heights; the world’s most advanced scientific community and most powerful government did virtually nothing. For twenty years, every positive action had its disproportionately destructive reaction.

It’s not surprising that a generation and more have reacted to these moments with an increasingly skeptical and, ultimately, a downright cynical perspective of government. And I don’t blame them: if I had lived through the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, Watergate, the storming of the American embassy in Tehran, and AIDS – not to mention other events I’ve actually witnessed within my memory, like 9/11, the war in Iraq, the Great Recession, and Ferguson – I would be more than a little disconcerted myself. I already don’t vote for several reasons (though if Bernie wins the Democratic nomination, I may disregard how unimportant my individual vote is and go stand in line for him); it’s incredible that Boomers not only vote, but believe they have a civic duty to do so. But there’s nothing gallant or noble when that belief in civic responsibility is being mixed around with cynicism, creating a potent lye cocktail.

Bernie Sanders is too far left to win the nomination, or he doesn’t have enough cachet with non-white voters, or he can’t deliver what he promises, or he’ll get skunked in the general. Ignore the fact that Hillary Clinton has essentially been running since the moment she left the State Department in 2013, and has built up a massive war chest and running total of endorsements. Ignore the fact that his result against Hillary Clinton in Iowa is the equivalent of the Warriors beating the Sixers 108-105. Ignore the fact that, after tonight, Bernie Sanders will lead Hillary Clinton in the delegate count for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

It’s not that any of that is wrong, really. It’s that, after growing up in a world that showed us time and again that the powerful exist only to extend their power, and that any chance at progress will be scuttled almost immediately by an omnipresent, shadowy cabal hellbent on maintaining the status quo. It’s the mindset that says, “Better to have the drop on some Goldwaterish candidate and win the general than ask people to really give a rip and canvas their surroundings for a guy who seems to have ideas.” Better to crown Clinton as the next nominee – and the next president – than to have a little faith. We have passed the crisis of confidence; we swam past that long ago. Americans have cannonballed into a stinking, stagnant morass and called it business as usual.

In Iowa, Bernie Sanders collected 84% of the vote from people between 17 and 29. In the past week, the stories about Sanders’ way with the young folk have proliferated. Carol Costello has a piece about why young voters can’t be ignored, especially in the Democratic primary. Dasha Burns reads  the Clinton-Albright-Steinem trio as moms (nobly, for Burns) trying to berate their daughters into returning to the second wave. (“Voting for a man who matches your political point of view, even when a woman is running? That’s like, against the rules of feminism!”) Costello, as per two weeks’ ago’s headlines, looks for the “righteous anger” perspective among younger voters in both Sanders’ and Trump’s campaigns. Burns’ argument boils down to the two familiar points leveled against Sanders by pro-Clinton second-wavers: not only is Sanders unelectable, but Clinton is a woman, and for America to reach that point would be important. (I’ll continue to rant against the former point; as for the latter, I would note that Barack Obama’s second term has been characterized by violence against black bodies: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Clementa Pinckney, and many, many, more. I’m fascinated by why so many people who decry Sanders as impractical will make themselves blue in the mouth talking about why, from a symbolic perspective, Hillary Clinton is important.) Burns represents a large and amusing cross-section: people who are shocked that young folks don’t vote, and then surprised when they come out in numbers to vote for “the wrong person.”

The worst article I’ve read on Bernie Sanders and the youth vote comes from Alexandra Schwartz of The New Yorker, which is printed forty-seven times a  year so people can read Andy Borowitz make a two hundred word joke worthy of a college newspaper. For Schwartz, Bernie Sanders is the avatar of useless youthful idealism.

So purity, a highly useful principle to make use of while running for office, is all but useless to politicians who actually arrive there, and the voters least likely to see that are young ones. The belief in the possibility of true purity might be a delusion for most voters, but it’s a privilege of youth, the province of people for whom the thrill of theory hasn’t yet given way to the comparative disappointment of practice. It’s a rite of passage into political adulthood, when the contours of the world seem sharper than they may ever be again, and the notion of the correspondence between the politician one votes for and the one who arrives in office is still intact—that moment of “very heaven,” as Wordsworth’s famous line about witnessing the start of the French Revolution as a young man has it.

Why can’t we trust our government to work for plain folks rather than big business and a military-industrial complex, indeed. How mature Schwartz is: she is a political adult, above things like “principle” or “ideals” or (heaven help us!) “purity.” When Barack Obama’s policies were pushed to the middle, Schwartz said she had to grow up and accept “political adulthood.” At least when she became an adult, she put away childish things. God grant me the serenity to never grow up, if that’s the case.


I don’t pretend that Bernie Sanders will be elected. I don’t pretend that Bernie Sanders would achieve the breadth or depth of his agenda, nor do I pretend that campaign promises constitute a genuine political action plan. But I do know that supporting Sanders and not supporting Clinton is not a sign of foolishness. I’m not stupid because I want Bernie Sanders to be president; his beliefs match up with my own. I believe that income inequality must be addressed, and despite Schwartz’s assertion that income inequality is so 2012, I’m of the opinion that it’s still, like, a problem.

I don’t think any candidate in the race in either party, short of Sanders, has the slightest interest in anything other than self-aggrandizement, which, in the system that people like Schwartz think I ought to hurry up and accept, means a slavish devotion to corporate interests. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and, yes, Bernie Sanders, I will have to climate change. I will have to live with bright young people who will cripple themselves with debt getting the bachelor’s degree that is the bare minimum for gainful employment. I will have to live with cronyism, income inequality, and the purposeful squelching of the middle class. I’m not worried that Bernie Sanders wasn’t a middling Secretary of State and thus lacks executive experience. (Name a major Clinton policy win on Iran, Russia, North Korea, the Eurozone…I’ll wait.) I’m not worried that he doesn’t know what to do with Syria or ISIS, because no one else does either. I’m not worried that he won’t appeal to someone who’s never left some ingrown county in Middle America. He talks about things that matter to me, and things that happen to matter to people my age: from our perspective – and I’ll speak for Millennials here whether or not I have a right to – everyone else is yapping like there’s still a Soviet Union, or some question about whether or not trickle-down economics work. We voted for Barack Obama because he stood for Hope; we’re fighting for Sanders because he stands for the Future. Of course it’s ironic that it’s the guy in his mid-seventies has the ear of the people in their twenties. It’s amazing that no one else has even tried to whisper in those ears in the first place.

We are tired – only in our twenties, and already tired – of being told by older generations that we are wrong for thinking what we think, believing what we believe, when fifty years ago, an entire movement was predicated on young people doing just the same thing. There’s nothing audacious or utopian about wanting to live in a just nation and wanting to be happy. If Sanders represents that best chance, then so much the better and godspeed.

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