A perceptive essay by Tony Annett

A perceptive essay by Tony Annett July 6, 2016

in Commonweal. Here’s a snippet:

Neither party, then, offers a compelling vision of human well-being. The Republicans stand up for the unborn and families, but they refuse to address the economic and social roots of abortion and the precariousness material conditions that threaten so many families. The Democrats support basic economic fairness and stand against racism, but they are most animated by the right of each individual to choose their own conception of the good. They are more interested in tolerance and diversity than in true solidarity. Neither party espouses a conception of freedom oriented toward the common good. Libertarians dismiss the very idea of a common good, seeing only a collection of individual people with individual interests. Latter-day progressives start from a slightly different point of view but reach a very similar conclusion; they argue that a commitment to pluralism precludes any notion of a common good. Missing from both views is the deep sense that “we are all really responsible for all.”

SO IS THE POLITICS of the common good dead? Not just yet. For much of the past year, it seemed to be undergoing something of a revival. The unlikely champion of this revival was a septuagenarian Jewish democratic socialist from Vermont. Bernie Sanders rode a wave of rising support because he spoke an older, barely remembered language—the language of the moral economy. This is what a lot of people failed to understand about his campaign. When Sanders spoke about widening inequality, the growing power of corporations, or the havoc wrought by the financial crisis, he was not merely pointing to technical problems that could be addressed with technical policy solutions. Rather, he was describing a fundamental moral failure that could be fixed only with a fundamental shift in values and norms.

No other recent presidential candidate has spoken this language. Of course, Sanders toes the progressive line on issues like abortion. But those issues are not what distinguished his campaign. What distinguished his campaign and inspired such fervent support was the promise to recover the common good. This was especially true among younger voters who came of age in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. This generation backed Sanders in overwhelming numbers. His message resonated less with older Democrats, who were unaccustomed to this kind of naked moral appeal on economic matters. There was a time, of course, when the Democratic Party was quite comfortable with the politics of the common good and the language of the moral economy. But over the past few decades, Democrats were taught to eschew the class-based politics of the New Deal and put their trust in a different class—the class of technocratic experts in government, business, and finance. And so they hammered Sanders for a lack of specificity, never appreciating the centrality of his moral language, which sounded to their ears like little more than hollow rhetoric.


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