Debunking the case against Sanders: Bernie's liberal critics, like Jonathan Chait, resort to fatalism and blind trust in the status quo

The attacks centrist pundits lob at Sanders are just a thinly disguised defense of the existing power structure

Published January 20, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

 bernie sanders (AP/Andrew Harnik)
bernie sanders (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Argumentum ad nauseam refers to the logical fallacy that an argument is correct by virtue of it constantly being repeated. Argumentum ad hominem is the fallacy that a point is wrong because of personal critiques of the person making it.

A new logical fallacy should be added to the list: Argumentum ad centrum, or the flawed claim that an assertion is accurate because it is from the ideological center.

The argumentum ad centrum is increasingly popular in politics today, as working-class people all around the world become more and more frustrated with the status quo. The rapid rise of left-wing alternatives to an increasingly right-wing political modus operandi — with Bernie Sanders in the U.S., Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and more — has apologists for power on the ropes, desperately clutching for any argument that can beat back the dissent and discontent.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the incessant liberal attacks on Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose unexpected presidential campaign has, in mere months, taken U.S. politics by storm.

Columnist Jonathan Chait lobbed a series of argumenta ad centrum at the Vermont senator in "The Case Against Bernie Sanders." The article, published this week in New York magazine, went viral with tens of thousands of shares.

The crux of Chait's argument is that Sanders is too extreme of a candidate, and that U.S. politics is too far to the right, for him to get anything done. It is not until the final paragraph of his piece that Chait, an unabashed Clinton aficionado, makes it clear that he does not endorse "Sanders's policy vision." Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his points perilously teeter-totter back and forth between vapid political tea-leaf reading and baseless condemnation.

"What the next president won't accomplish is to increase taxes, expand social programs, or do anything to reduce inequality, given the House Republicans' fanatically pro-inequality positions across the board," Chait argues. "The next Democratic presidential term will be mostly defensive, a bulwark against the enactment of the radical Ryan plan. What little progress liberals can expect will be concentrated in the non-Sanders realm."

In other words, Chait is essentially telling the American left to simply give up, because the cards are stacked in the interest of power. His entire article is a defense of fatalism and political resignation, covered with a thin veneer of liberal analysis.

"It seems bizarre for Democrats to risk losing the presidency by embracing a politically radical doctrine that stands zero chance of enactment even if they win," Chait adds.

One could imagine similar pieces written in the early 19th century, with respectable pundits haughtily chiding abolitionists for being too extreme and unrealistic, insisting that slavery is reforming and getting progressively less brutal; or in the late 19th century, with popular columnists chastising suffragists for taking such clearly outlandish and utopian positions.

Chait further confirmed these suspicions in a tweet, writing, "Even if you agree with Sanders' ideas, which I don't, they're badly mismatched with the powers he would have."

The New York magazine columnist's piece is, in essence, an extended argument from the center. In painting Sanders' candidacy as a dangerous and extreme political gamble, Chait tries to graft a superficially attractive sheen onto the asinine axiom that the truth necessarily lies somewhere in the middle.

We have all heard the argument before: The truth lies not on the right or the left, but rather safely in the middle. It has become increasingly popular in U.S. politics, as the Republican Party has veered into the far right, and the Democratic Party has retreated to the center, since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s.

The Week's Ryan Cooper has described Chait as a "squishy moderate." Chait has openly called himself a "liberal hawk," and was one of the loudest liberal cheerleaders for the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Chait has constantly shielded President Obama from the many, many substantive left-wing critiques. If he has a relationship with power, it is one of deference, not dissent.

Cooper observed that "Chait and his cohorts on the center-left seem a lot less interested in drilling down into [deep political questions] than in policing the left boundary of acceptable politics."

In this sense, Chait's politics are by no means unique. Rather, his piece and the arguments it puts forward can be seen as a case study of how many establishment liberals have reacted to the rise of a new left.

What Chait and fellow pundits fail to acknowledge, nevertheless, is that Sanders' supposedly extreme policies are in fact supported by a majority of Americans. For many years, most Americans have expressed support for universal healthcare. The constant military interventions and wars called for by hawks like Hillary Clinton are wildly unpopular. And the vast preponderance of Americans dislike Wall Street, and have little faith in a political system they see as subservient to it.

According to the 2014 General Social Survey, an exhaustive study based on data collected over a 42-year period, just 15 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in banks and financial institutions, down from 42 percent in 1977. Eighteen percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in major corporations, down from 31 percent in 1984. And only 5 percent have a great deal of confidence in Congress, a record low.

Chait's arguments will not fare well with this American public, a populace that has little faith in the institutions onto which he falls back for support.

Distrust of the grassroots

All of this begs the question: If Sanders' views are supposedly so absurd, then why are they increasingly popular?

The odds are certainly not in the self-professed democratic socialist's favor. Sanders refuses to take money from corporations, immediately making it an uphill battle for him in a field awash with corporate cash. In the meantime, Sanders continues to break records with millions in donations from working-class Americans.

Moreover, leading media outlets have consistently failed to give Sanders proportionate coverage — devoting exponentially more time to far-right Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. And yet, despite the adversity, Sanders' message is clearly resonating with people.

Chait concedes that "Sanders is earnest and widely liked." He also admits that Sanders "has tugged the terms of the political debate leftward in a way both moderates and left-wingers could appreciate," at a time in which the Democratic Party has been moving further and further to the right. And he acknowledges that "Sanders’s rapid rise, in both early states and national polling, has made him a plausible threat to defeat Hillary Clinton."

His response is to flatly insist that "we" should not support Sanders "as the actual Democratic nominee for president."

When Chait says "we," one cannot help but wonder about whom he is referring to. Chait purports to speak for the American left, but he readily recognizes that Sanders is very popular among left-wing Americans — and only increasingly more so. Poll after poll shows Sanders beating Clinton in the critical first two primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And among young voters in particular, Sanders is even more popular than Clinton.

At the heart of Chait's argument is a deep suspicion of popular movements. "Sanders offers the left-wing version of a hoary political fantasy: that a more pure candidate can rally the People into a righteous uprising that would unsettle the conventional laws of politics," he boldly wrote.

"Sanders's version involves the mobilization of a mass grassroots volunteer army that can depose the special interests," Chait snarkily added, exuding disdain for the masses. "The People" should simply give in to the conventional laws of politics and settle for the inevitable victory of the Clinton dynasty, we are told. So much for democracy.

Like many liberal pundits, Chait makes no effort to address the import of social movements. His argument is fundamentally anti-populist, in the sense that average people have virtually no say in how politics works.

Meanwhile, social movements are on the rise throughout the U.S. Black Lives Matter has established itself as the new civil rights movement. The environmental justice movement is making huge strides. And the movement for Palestinian human rights is growing more and more every year.

Instead of seeing Sanders as an important figure in a revival of '60s-era progressive grassroots movements that could push all of U.S. politics to the left, Chait implores us to give up and accept political inevitability.

One gets the strong impression that Chait actually fears the rise of Sanders, and what it could mean for the continuation of the status quo.

He is by no means alone in his views. Rather, Chait represents the centrist or even right wing of the Democratic Party -- those sterile liberals who disguise defense of the status quo as the politics of pragmatism.

Defense of the status quo

"Nobody works harder at being wrong than Jonathan Chait," Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi quipped on Twitter. Few American journalists are as familiar with Wall Street's seemingly endless corruption and nefarious machinations as Taibbi.

Chait's politics of pragmatism leads him to attack Sanders on a variety of fronts — healthcare, Wall Street and minimum wage.

"Sanders has grudgingly credited what he calls 'the modest gains of the Affordable Care Act,'" Chait wrote, criticizing Sanders' "exceedingly stingy assessment." Here we see Chait fabricating critiques out of whole cloth. In reality, Sanders made it absolutely clear in the fourth presidential debate that he helped draft the ACA -- even while criticizing it.

Senator Sanders wants to move beyond Obamacare and "finally provide in this country healthcare for every man, woman and child as a right." Chait is telling Americans they should simply give up before the fight even begins, because they are up against huge odds.

Like many liberal defenders of Obamacare, Chait also treats healthcare and health insurance as if they are synonymous. They certainly are not. Obamcare has done little to stop corporations from charging out-of-control premiums. Perhaps this is no surprise, given how corporations helped write Obamacare — which was based on legislation first proposed by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney.

Health insurance corporations are still making exorbitant amounts of money exploiting sick Americans. The skyrocketing prices have led many Americans to simply pay fines instead. Sanders wants a solution once and for all to the country's broken, corrupt and inhumane private healthcare system, and he is proposing universal healthcare, a solution that virtually all of the industrialized world has adopted.

Chait also criticized Sanders for calling for a breakup of the big banks. He insists big "banks are actually breaking themselves up" under government penalties, and further regulation is unnecessary. His argument reminds one of the right, which insists that Wall Street does not need harsher regulation, because it is already supposedly stifled enough.

This is not surprising, considering Chait is a fan of capitalism who lamented that "there is a long, grim history of left-wing movements being hijacked by their most radical elements," and blasted the Occupy Wall Street movement for being "filled with Marxist drivel." It is fascinating to hear liberals peddle arguments that sound like they were lifted from Fox News.

Consonant with these views is Chait's subsequent insistence that Sanders' defense of a $15 minimum wage is too high. He acknowledges that economics research shows raising the minimum wage does not have a noticeably large impact on unemployment, but claims $15 is so high it may anger employers.

What about workers? MIT's Living Wage Calculator estimates that a living wage for an adult with a child would need to be $26.19 in New York state, $25.26 in California, $23.51 in Colorado, $21.06 in Texas or $18.67 in Kentucky. All are well above $15.

The notion, latent in Chait's argument, that things will simply continue to get better by virtue of inertia (argumentum ad inertia?) continues in his discussion of the 2008 financial crisis. Chait credits the Obama administration for the fact that unemployment has decreased and median household income has increased since the crash. Both metrics are indeed approaching pre-crisis levels. But Chait fails to acknowledge that the pre-recession economy was far from ideal.

Being poor, getting robbed by Wall Street's financial chicanery, and then getting your money back does not change the fact that you were poor in the first place. Again, this argumentum ad centrum is predicated on the notion that things are good if they return to the status quo.

Before the Great Recession, economic inequality was still gargantuan —  and has only increased since then. Poverty and hunger were widespread. In 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13 percent of Americans lived in poverty, including 25 percent of black Americans, 25 percent of Native Americans and 21 percent of Latinos. Millions of American struggled. Returning to the way things were is not enough for most Americans.

Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer and richer. The richest 0.1 percent of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. How are Chait and his ideological confrères going to deal with this problem? Obama sure didn't.

Besides, even with things back to pre-recession levels, they are only temporary. What Chait also conveniently failed to mention is that economists are constantly warning we may be on the eve of a new crisis.

Punching left

"The despairing vision he paints of contemporary America is oversimplified," Chait wrote of Sanders.

Centrist critics like Chait are wont to claim that the left's criticisms of society are "facile" and "oversimplified." This is a popular response to left critiques -- a common deflection. The world is a complex place, so, naturally, nothing is completely simple.

Like many liberals criticizing politicians like Sanders, Corbyn or others today, Chait insists leftists are economistic, lambasting them for focusing too much on inequality and exploitation. It is never surprising to see these arguments coming from people who express their political opinions for a living. Countless liberal columnists, with Ivy League degrees framed in their expensive condos, positively bristle at the puerile "Bernie Bros" and "Corbynistas" stressing the importance of class, and yet are bewildered when these arguments prove to be incredibly popular among actual working-class Americans.

Sanders represents a new era of left-wing politics in the U.S., and centrists like Chait cannot wrap their heads around it. It challenges the chokehold they have maintained on American politics for decades.

One of the favorite pastimes of these centrists is punching left. Chait's attack on Sanders is just one among many. The soi-disant "liberal hawk" has constantly blasted the anti-war left, and penned multiple pieces condemning environmentalist socialist Naomi Klein, defending capitalism from her critiques.

"It is not the right but the center-left that provides the main target of Klein's polemic," Chait lamented in one of such pieces. We see the echoes of Chait's ideology here. Any leftist who challenges Democratic Party orthodoxy is a traitor, and must be thrown to the wolves.

Clinton, like Chait, constantly rails against Republicans in the presidential debates, in order to draw attention away from left-wing critiques. When Sanders calls her out on some of her objectively right-wing policies, she calls for unity against Republicans.

The ultimate irony in all of this is I am not even a big fan of Sanders. Jeremy Corbyn is a democratic socialist; Bernie Sanders is a European-style social democrat. But, in the context of the 21st-century U.S. — which, for a variety of historical reasons, has long been significantly to the right of Europe — a social Democrat running for president does seem quite revolutionary.

I am very critical of Sanders' foreign policy in particular, which leaves a lot to be desired. He opposed the catastrophic Iraq War, but supported the disastrous war in Afghanistan, and Obama's prolongation of it. He criticizes U.S. regime change policies, but backed the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. He speaks of the importance of acting on behalf of human rights, but firmly defended Israel's brutal war on Gaza, which left more than 2,250 Palestinians dead, the vast majority of whom were civilians, according to the U.N.

In short, Sanders is not a hawk, but he is not anti-war either.

This said, given how much both hegemonic parties in the U.S. love war, Sanders is almost as anti-war as it gets. And he is of course nowhere near as bellicose as Hillary. Longtime progressive activist Ralph Nader recently joked in an interview on the Empire Files that Clinton "has never met a war she didn't like."

Despite my strong criticisms of Sanders, nonetheless, I constantly find myself having to defend him from the vacuous liberal attacks on him -- and on the left overall.

These centrist pundits maintain ties to power. Chait embodies precisely the liberal establishment that Sanders rails against. And he has benefited well from the system. He appears to be unable to entertain the notion that most Americans, who have been exploited by it, are sick and tired and demand something new.

Centrist liberals cannot grapple with the fact that the American people are tired of the Clinton dynasty and its strident neoliberalism, bankrupt center-right politics and seemingly infinite capacity for corruption. They can't wrap their heads around the fact that left-wing Americans are tired of the "liberal hawks," with their cozy relationships with Wall Street and their fetishization of U.S. power. They want something new. As imperfect as he is, Sanders represents that.

Chait's piece is just the beginning. Expect more and more articles with similar centrist talking  points, as Sanders' popularity increases throughout the U.S.

After all, defending the status quo is a profitable enterprise.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

MORE FROM Ben Norton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Democratic Primary Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton Jonathan Cha New York Magazine