The Meaning of Super Tuesday

What is the Meaning of Super Tuesday, you ask. I’ll tell you.

Start with the facts. Biden made a comeback. Sanders won California. The other candidates either got pushed down, or dropped out, mostly to support Biden. The one candidate who was clearly defeated was not Sanders but Bloomberg, whose candidacy lacks any clear rationale or support, and looks increasingly petulant and pointless. My only hope is that Bloomberg doesn’t drop out before I finish my series on stop and frisk, because I don’t want to have started it for nothing.* Anyway, what does all this mean?

Try, if you can, to cut through the noise on this. Almost everything that is being written on this subject consists either of pointless cliches or insult matches. To get lost in such byways is to start the process of losing one’s mind.

Biden’s the front-runner. What does he represent? First, perhaps not so obviously, the primacy of domestic politics over foreign policy. What matters to Biden is what’s happening back home, not how we’re relating to the rest of the world. The only fixed points in his foreign policy are his hostility for Russia, his support for Israel, and his willingness to continue (or even accelerate) foreign intervention. As for domestic politics, Biden essentially endorses a capitalist political economy in the context of a regulatory welfare state.

The people who voted for him agree with all three things. Like Biden, they’re relatively indifferent to foreign policy. Despite everything you’ve heard about flag-waving “flyover country’s” deep concern for the trials and tribulations of “our vets,” what Super Tuesday shows is that they’re not too worried about them. It’s not so much that they agree or disagree with Biden’s passive acquiescence in our foreign policy interventionism as that they passively acquiesce in his passive acquiescence. And when faced with a choice between capitalism and socialism, they’ll take capitalism over socialism. They’re capitalists by choice and interventionists by default.

What about Sanders, the second-place finisher? Unlike Biden, Sanders’s politics involves more of an integration of foreign and domestic policy; he’s willing to multi-task. Still, Sanders focuses more on domestic policy than he does on foreign policy. Tulsi Gabbard is the only Democratic candidate whose views represent the primacy of foreign over domestic policy; Sanders doesn’t go that far.

In essence, Sanders’s domestic policy involves allegiance to socialism. Some have disputed that it really does, but Sanders says it does, and his supporters support him because (or insofar as) they think it does. So for electoral purposes, it does. In foreign policy, Sanders is the most anti-interventionist of the major candidates (ignoring Tulsi Gabbard as a minor candidate). He’s also the most critical of Israel (more so than Gabbard). And despite the jabs about his support for socialist dictatorships in the past (which I neither endorse nor dispute), he is, in the present, more critical of our alliances with foreign dictators than Biden.

So Sanders’s supporters are socialists and anti-interventionists by choice. Where Biden’s supporters are unconscious of the bifurcation they accept between these things, Sanders’s supporters are self-conscious about the need to see them as two aspects of one phenomenon.

The polarization and division in the Democratic Party is a function of these two visions of politics: capitalist interventionism and socialist anti-interventionism. As a Democrat, I feel entitled to dispense advice to my party. As the fools they are, I’m sure they feel entitled to reject the pearls of the wisdom I offer them. But here they are.

Forget Election 2020. It’s lost already. Suppose Biden is the nominee. Even if he wins the general election, he’ll only do so by divine or demonic intervention. For instance, the coronavirus might wreck the economy, push down the stock market, and in that way finally discredit Trump. But if that happens, Biden will have won a Phyrric victory. He’ll defeat Trump, but then have to fight the coronavirus. I almost prefer the idea of Trump fighting the coronavirus. It seems fitting that a person of his ilk would have attracted a deadly virus to our shores, and seems like poetic justice that he should have to struggle with a plague. But this is unfair to the people who may have to suffer from it, including me. So never mind.

Anyway, even if Biden wins, the Democratic party will still suffer from internal division. You can’t paper over the fundamental difference between what Biden represents and what Sanders does. The obvious truth is that it makes no sense for one party to contain supporters of both visions. In a better world, the Democratic Party would break into Biden-like and Sanders-like parties (not factions, but parties). Or maybe Biden would represent the Democrats, and Sanders would become the front-runner of a third-party left.

If the Democrats had real intellectual honesty (and despite my cynicism, I think many of them do), they would say these things out loud. They would stop fixating on irrelevant side-issues, stop insulting one another, and stop living in a TV-induced fantasy-world in which clever sound-bites and an addiction to “gotcha” discourse function as substitutes for thought.

Instead, they’d have a debate about the relation of foreign to domestic policy, about foreign policy itself, and about the relative merits of socialism versus capitalism. Whoever won that debate in the eyes of the largest number of Democrats would retain control of the Democratic Party. The losers would go elsewhere and make their own party, or join pre-existing third-parties. Yes, it would make the Democratic Party smaller. But it would clarify the message of both factions fighting over it. In clarifying that message, people would grasp what they stand for, and either rally to it or reject it. Which would make the winner bigger.

If they want to have a debate about American foreign policy, they’ll first have to acknowledge the facts about it. In other words, they’ll have to acknowledge that our foreign policy is, as it stands, extremely dangerous, extremely expensive, kills an enormous number of people, inspires an enormous amount of hatred, involves mind-blowing moral double standards, imposes a huge toll on American soldiers (and their caretakers), but offers no obvious offsetting gain for all that expense.

I grant that things are more complicated than that, but that much is undeniable, and if at that point, the interventionists-by-default want to become interventionists-by-choice, that’s one thing. What matters more is that they stop pretending that they can ignore the carnage that they’re supporting by remaining interventionists-by-default.

In other words, these people have to make a choice: Do they want war or a move toward peace? Do they want to keep killing foreigners or want to stop? Do they want to keep invading and occupying other countries or withdraw? Do they want to support foreign dictatorships and occupations or stop doing do? At a certain point, the only way to shock them out of their indifference would be to stop expressing sympathy for them when they get blown up or shot by foreign terrorists. There’s no better shock than a taste of one’s own medicine. The big problem here is that it’s hard to know who deserves sympathy and who doesn’t. But it may be shocking enough to point out that some don’t. If you ardently support war, those who don’t have no reason to shed tears when it comes your way. They have some reason to hope it does come your way, if only to shut you up.

If the Democrats want to have a debate about capitalism versus socialism (and they should), they’ll need definitions of both terms, and some mutually acceptable procedure for how to apply those definitions to empirical facts, including historical ones. If one side uses “capitalism” and “socialism” one way, and the other uses it in some incommensurable way, they can’t communicate about capitalism versus socialism. Nor can they figure out how to discuss the merits and demerits of concrete cases of capitalism or socialism (the US vs. the Scandinavian countries, etc.); they’re talking past one another. In that case, the contending parties will have to have a second-order discussion about semantics. It’s a little doubtful that the American electorate can do that, but the fact remains: that’s what’s needed.

What doesn’t make sense is an insult-trading match or clever derby in which one side flings the worst of America at the other, calling it “capitalist,” while the other side invokes the worst excesses of the twentieth century Sino-Soviet bloc, calling it “socialism.” In that case, we sit around pitting Biden’s support for segregationists against Sanders’s support for Castro, and so on, deploying one atomistic sound-bite after another in the hopes that once flung together, they’ll add up to something worth taking seriously. Which might make sense, if only political discourse were like a painting co-created by Jackson Pollack and Georges Seurat.

When we get bored with that, we descend lower, pitting Biden’s gaffes against Sanders’s bellowing, or Biden’s touchy-feeliness against Sanders-dissing-women-by-dissing-Warren-by-dissing-the-possibility-of-a-woman president. All of this is so dishonest and so beside the point. Ultimately, the people who promote this sort of discourse will have to face facts: Whatever was true of them in the past, Biden isn’t a segregationist. Nor is Sanders a Castroite. If Biden’s gaffes may indicate senility to some, Bernie’s heart problems underscore his age as well. If Biden’s touchy-feeliness creeps some people out, Bernie’s bellowing turns some people off. Etc. Etc. To fixate on such issues is to turn politics into the equivalent of a grade-school playground, and confess one’s desire to remain in it forever.

Everyone reading this has probably managed, in the literal sense, to make his or her way out of the grade-school playground. Nothing about the world dictates that when it comes to politics, we have to jump back in. If we jump back in, it’s because we choose to. When we do, we meet our own worst enemies, and it’s us. Ultimately, that’s the Super Tuesday “takeaway” that’s worth taking away.

*He ended his campaign in the middle of my writing this post, goddamn him.

3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Super Tuesday

  1. A different (but substantive) take on Super Tuesday by Kevin Vallier:

    He has a point, but I don’t think he reckons with the bad faith of the centrists in the Democratic Party in dealing with either Bernie Sanders or Tulsi Gabbard. I also think it’s misleading and problematic to lump “hatreds and radicalisms” in one phrase as dangerous currents roiling American political life. But enough with the side-bar commentary. You can probably figure out how we differ.

    That said, I agree with his criticism of the Republican Party.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Will Wilkinson, not on the meaning of Super Tuesday per se, but on the meaning of Super Tuesday + Big Tuesday:

    I see Will’s argument here as more specific and more prescriptive than mine, but essentially compatible with it. He implicitly agrees with my take on Biden as capitalist interventionist, with the interventionism as a default. The Warren add-on that he proposes is compatible with my take on Biden as capitalist: Warren is a capitalist, too. I don’t know how receptive Biden will be to Warren, but that doesn’t change very much. What’s interesting (to me) is Will’s implicit endorsement of Biden’s default interventionism, and his failure to say anything about warfare or Bernie’s principled anti-interventionism. So “spiraling regulatory capture” is a problem, but ongoing warfare isn’t? Why isn’t ongoing warfare just a particularly grotesque instance of “spiraling regulatory capture”? Why the imperative to “clawback” systemic corruption but not systemic military intervention?

    Given this truncated view of the political scene, Will is happy to belittle Bernie’s socialism (which I don’t mind), but also willing to ignore Bernie’s anti-interventionism (which I do mind). I’ve seen Will off-handedly belittle Tulsi Gabbard for the benefit of his New York Times readers, but I’d like to see him provide an argument for why it is that domestic policy so obviously enjoys primacy to foreign policy when what we’re voting on is the presidency. The conduct of foreign policy is largely a prerogative of the president. Systemic corruption and domestic regulation is a legislative matter. If we’re electing a president, why not focus on the things that are squarely within the ambit of presidential prerogative and control? It’s the executive that’s negotiating with the Taliban, and the president who could withdraw troops from Iraq with the stroke of a pen. We know in rough outline what Bernie and Tulsi think about that. But what do Biden and/or Warren think about it? What does Will himself think?

    I think readers of this blog know what I think.


    • … Warrenism is jealous of the political rights of citizens and therefore hostile to electoral practices — like gerrymandering, voter-ID laws and felon disenfranchisement — that deprive vulnerable citizens of equal representation. That extends to Senate rules, like the filibuster, that stymie majority rule in an already anti-majoritarian system….

      If only the majority party in the Senate could do whatever they want without any procedural roadblocks, I bet we’d get political outcomes much more like the ones that Will and Elizabeth Warren want to get.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s