[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
The blogger, pundit, screenwriter, and all-around mensch Noah Millman has come up with a brilliant idea–Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator from Vermont, and Jim Webb, former U.S. Senator from Virginia, both of whom (the first officially, the second unofficially) are part of that small mix of people who at least theoretically stand between Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, ought to meet together for some debates. Whether or not Clinton participates. Whether or not it connects either candidate to the actual caucus and primary machinery which will be slowly creaking to life over the next several months. Whether or not it makes a difference to Clinton’s almost inevitable coronation in Philadelphia 14 months from now. They should debate, Noah says, because it would “educational and politically important” for people to see just how often these two men from supposedly opposite wings of the Democratic party–the first a self-proclaimed democratic socialist and progressive, the second a populist defender of the party’s blue-collar base–actually agree. This is the sort of idea which any Porcher–that is, anyone who cares about local places, local traditions, and local democracy, whether they do so for radical or reactionary reasons or both–ought to wildly applaud.
Why? Let’s lay out the obvious caveats. Yes, it’s true that anyone who really takes the cultural and communitarian work of building up localism seriously can’t care too much about who resides in the White House–a little, of course (the actions or inactions of the person at the top of our ever-more-dysfunctional national government can nonetheless enable or squelch any number of locally-experienced blessings or harms), but not much more than that. And yes, it’s also true that, given the role of big money, big media, and other establishment forces in the presidential selection process, urging a couple of probably easily marginalized voices in a mainstream political party to spend their campaign time arguing with each other could seem the very definition of a boutique political program. But despite those good reasons to set Noah’s suggestion aside, I think there is–particularly for those who, like me, find the find America’s increasingly oligarchic and imperial corporate state deeply threatening to the kind of humane and empowering governance that democracy really ought to be all about–a much more important reason to use whatever tiny influence we have to urge his proposal forward: because there is, buried under mainstream state liberalism, a left conservative stream in American thought, and it would be delightful to bring together two spokesmen who, however imperfectly, can point to it.
What is that “left conservatism”? I’ve written plenty about it before; suffice to say that Norman Mailer got it mostly right: it is the idea that achieving Burkean ends (protecting and promoting the families and communities that are the repositories of those traditions which give richness to civic life) will require a Marxist perspective (particularly regarding the alienating and exploitative social power of concentrated wealth which capitalism fundamentally accepts as legitimate). Why might Sanders and Webb have something to contribute to that possibility? Because, as Jack Ross and Damon Linker have pointed out, Sanders’s embrace of policies like a single-payer health care system, or the public financing of elections, or more government regulation and spending to combat burgeoning inequality, serves Jeffersonian purposes, one which points not towards today’s economically centrist and culturally radical Democratic party, but rather towards “the original middle American radical Eugene V. Debs and the quintessential progressive isolationist Norman Thomas.” (Sanders is hardly a Marxist revolutionary, but he does give voice to economic complaints which America’s gospel of growth considers utterly heretical. When he harshly criticized economic priorities which celebrate “23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers” but do almost nothing to prevent environmental destruction and the concentration of wealth, the libertarian/free-market/rational-choice punditocracy went completely apoplectic, assuming that only a drooling moron could possibly fail to recognize that it is exactly consumer maximization which supposedly fuels the engines of self-interest and thus economic development…leaving completely aside, of course, the small point–pun intended!–that perhaps consumer efficiency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.)
And as for Webb? Some elements of his populist positions are arguably even more radical than Sanders’s, because–as a comparison of their voting records and official statements makes clear–Webb is even a stronger opponent of the surveillance state, imperial overreach, unnecessary military action, and all the other elements of America’s superpower costuming than just about anyone else on the Democratic side of the aisle. (In fact, Webb is perhaps even stronger on this point than libertarian Republican hopeful Rand Paul.) Perhaps this is because he isn’t approaching such matters primarily from an intellectual or ideological perspective, but rather one born of his commitment to attending to that which is most local to him: those aspects of the American experience–its people, its places, its institutions–that are not well served or defended by constantly identifying distant threats to globalized commitments, whether military or economic. Does that make Webb parochial, perhaps even defensive, in a country so thoroughly pluralistic? Perhaps. But as admitted Jim Webb fan-boy Millman put it, imagining Webb’s response to the culture way questions which would invariably haunt anyone seeking the Democratic party’s nomination (Webb has been critical of affirmative action and other race-based civil rights proposals), “I am not running to make the Democratic Party more appealing to people who look like me, or who have my cultural background. I became a Democrat because I realized that the Democratic Party already held the best promise of standing for ordinary Americans, and for rejecting the kinds of policies, foreign and domestic, that have done them so much harm. And I’m running for President to make sure the Democratic nominee keeps that promise.”
Principled localists can be forgiven for reading that comment and dismissing it–as well as all the intriguing ideas being tossed around by Sanders’s people–as just words. For certain, taking too seriously the claims and proposals of people whose passion and ambition and connections lead them to believe they can throw their hat into America’s largest political ring of all is a sure route to disappointment–and for people who want to keep our eyes on local threats and local possibilities, it threatens to be a distraction too. But distracting as it may be, the presidency really does matter. And that means, at the very minimum, that calling for those determined to win that prize to fact genuinely challenging conversations and arguments along their way matters as well. Millman is, I think, not much of a friend to the whole Porcher idea, but he’s suggesting a development here which anyone who is attracted to the notion of conserving and empowering lives lived in part on one’s front porch, with one’s family, in one’s neighborhood, ought to support. Good for him–and good for Sanders and Webb doing what they can, however indirectly or unintentionally, for the left conservative cause as well.