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Welcome to the New Legitimation Crisis: Bernie Sanders vs. the Plutocrats

In these dangerous times, we might be pardoned for finding comic relief in the spectacles that are constantly playing out, as our uncomprehending ruling class stages displays of its own rank incompetence, its unfitness to govern. We might be excused for mocking the emperor's new clothes.

Chris Matthews of MSNBC waits to go on the air inside the spin room at Bally's Las Vegas Hotel & Casino after the Democratic presidential primary debate on February 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chris Matthews of MSNBC waits to go on the air inside the spin room at Bally's Las Vegas Hotel & Casino after the Democratic presidential primary debate on February 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

In the wake of Bernie Sanders' blowout victory in the Nevada caucuses, Anand Giridharadas took to MSNBC to chastise the punditocracy and out-of-touch elites for their lack of curiosity, their inability to comprehend the public's yearning for more meaningful democracy. Giving unsolicited advice to the privileged orders, he noted that their thinking was stuck in twentieth century frameworks: "This is a wake-up moment for the American power establishment. Many in this elite are behaving like aristocrats in a dying regime—including in media. It's time for many to step up, rethink, and understand the dawn of what may be a new era in America."

"Biden now enjoys a small delegate lead over Sanders. Spigots of big money will now open up to float the former's wobbly candidacy. Things are back to normal, aren't they?"

Tucker Carlson, a rightwing Fox News personality, put it this way: "The story of American decline is the story of an incompetent ruling class. You'll hear many self-serving explanations for it. But the truth is, it's that simple. . . But at this point, it's clear the population has grown tired of it. Donald Trump's election is one clear sign of that. The rise of Bernie Sanders is another. The ruling class, in other words, is losing its grip on power and the ruling class members can feel it. They can smell it. It terrifies them."

Frank Bruni, a mainstream liberal columnist for the New York Times, writes of the Democratic candidates at the South Carolina debate: "They seemed to be in the grip of some larger existential crisis, their understanding of their party's dynamics challenged, their sense of its destiny upended…."

Meanwhile, Chris Matthews—now pushed into retirement—could be heard clutching his pearls, exasperated that the old cold war smears no longer seemed to be working their magic—indeed, that all of the standard-issue calls to centrist unity against the socialist menace seemed to be breaking down.

The Democratic Party establishment was granted a temporary reprieve on Super Tuesday—a fragile restoration of normalcy in the most unlikely person of Joe Biden, whose frequent gaffes and erratic behavior on the campaign trail raise serious questions about his stamina. Notwithstanding, media elites breathed a collective sigh of relief. Writer and pundit Jon Meacham crowed in mellifluous tones that America had returned to "normalcy" on NBC News, a theme that resonated across multiple platforms.

Biden now enjoys a small delegate lead over Sanders. Spigots of big money will now open up to float the former's wobbly candidacy. Things are back to normal, aren't they?

Things Falls Apart

Flashback to a previous era of political breakdown: In 1968, student-led uprisings erupted in Paris and quickly spread across Europe, taking established parties of the left by surprise and putting governments everywhere back on their heels. In the wake of these events, Frankfurt School sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas reflected on questions that have undergirded the interpretive social sciences since their beginnings. His 1973 book, "Legitimation Crisis," asks: How do socio-political orders underwrite their own legitimacy? How do societies, specifically modern capitalist societies, cohere? Under what circumstances might they come unglued?

Habermas gleans the history of capitalism in two parts. Unregulated nineteenth-century capitalism necessarily produced class conflicts and economic meltdowns, but the modern state has developed mechanisms to offset these tendencies: It monitors inflation, provides unemployment benefits, modulates the money supply, and channels investments. In short, the welfare state buffers class conflicts and tames the business cycle.

Regulatory and redistributive mechanisms contain capitalism's economic crisis tendencies, but they also displace them, making way for other sorts of overlapping crises. What Habermas calls a "legitimation crisis" occurs when elements of the public perceive a democratic shortfall—that is, when people feel underrepresented in the political system or aspire to goals that cannot be met under the existing system.

Habermas’s disquisition included important caveats and open-ended questions. He notes, for example, that “it is an empirical question whether the new form of production of surplus value can compensate for the tendential fall in the rate of profit”—that is, whether the administrative state can stave off economic crisis indefinitely. The system, he also observes, seems to be increasingly eroding the institutions that it needs for social reproduction: traditional institutions such as religion and family that sustain authority, meaning, and social connection. And at a time when many were celebrating an enlargement of the scope of democracy, Habermas espies instead an ongoing “revocation of bourgeois ideals:” a redefinition of democracy to exclude political equality and recast the democratic process in much narrower terms as the hatching of compromises among ruling elites.

Legitimation Crisis Today

The concept of legitimation crisis remains useful today, if we are to understand what kind of moment we are living through.

Decades after Thatcher and Reagan inaugurated a third phase of capitalist history, little remains of the class compromises and regulatory functions through which the system was stabilized in the postwar era. In scaling back the welfare state and busting unions, neoliberal revisions to rationales of the state put on stark display the predatory nature of capitalism. The resulting social formation has fewer buffers and more shocks. It is more susceptible to crises of various kinds.

"The concept of legitimation crisis remains useful today, if we are to understand what kind of moment we are living through."

The 2008 economic crisis cast in high relief the nature of the resulting social contract. The financial meltdown was "contained"—it was to be a Great Recession, not a Great Depression—through state intervention on highly asymmetrical terms. The public picked up the tab for the financial sector's reckless gambling while the working-class people who were sold bad loans saw their meager assets liquidated. Modern elites thus enjoyed private profits and socialized risks.

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The politics of "Hope and Change" that surged during the first throes of the crisis turned out to be little more than an electoral swindle. The Rust Belt remained in free fall, white working-class life expectancies declined precipitously, black Americans lost half of their wealth, and the Obama administration's signature "reform"—the Affordable Care Act—expanded healthcare coverage by shoring up and subsidizing private insurance companies. And for all that, Obamacare still leaves about 45% of the working-age population either uninsured or (more commonly) underinsured.

These and other democratic shortfalls have contributed to a progressive unraveling of the neoliberal political order. But although this order is rapidly coming to an end, it is not yet clear what will replace it.

The Right, not the Left, was first to seize the moment. Brexit, the rise of ethnonationalism across the North Atlantic, the collapse of center-left parties—who have been all-to-willing to take on the task of legitimizing the failing status quo—and the election of Donald Trump gauge the depths of an ongoing transnational legitimation crisis.

When Trump meddles in federal investigations and tweets a vision of executive power more sweeping than even the Deciderism of Baby Bush, the president's base remains nonplussed. No doubt this is symptomatic of the growing partisan polarization of American politics, as anyone can see, but it is also an index of legitimation crisis, which the Right is keen to accelerate. The Right no longer even pays lip-service to time-honored ideas like separation of powers or limits to presidential caprice. The Republican establishment cares only about tax cuts for the rich, the Republican base about giving the finger to largely symbolic elements of the neoliberal order ("political correctness"), which are seen as attacks on traditional institutions.

These are dangerous times.

At the same time, the rapid advance of democratic socialist ideas provides a different measure of the waning of the political order. The speed with which Sanders has gained control of the political narrative shows that masses of voters long for a break with the Democratic Party's version of the neoliberal contract, which coaxed elements of the left with radical-sounding talk about identity (and eventually intersectionality) while giving away the farm to the banks. And when a large portion of Bernie’s supporters tell pollsters that they won’t vote for any other Democratic nominee, they, too, relate a story about polarization. But more than that they express a total loss of confidence in candidates close to the political establishment.

"The speed with which Sanders has gained control of the political narrative shows that masses of voters long for a break with the Democratic Party's version of the neoliberal contract."

These are heady times.

Our Work in the Wake of Super Tuesday

If we have entered a period of protracted legitimation crisis, as the foregoing analysis suggests, then socialists should view our tasks accordingly. We must resolutely oppose restructurings of the political order along authoritarian lines, obviously. At the same time, we should not lift a finger to rebuild the legitimacy of the neoliberal capitalist political order. We also should be wary of attempts to merely restore the status quo ante (the administrative rationales of regulated capitalism, eloquently espoused by Elizabeth Warren's "capitalist to the bone" campaign, now suspended). Instead, we should accelerate the ongoing legitimation crisis, but from the Left. Over the short term, we should push hard for the decommodification of healthcare and education. On the longer term, we should strive to build a social order that begins to break with the rule of private property and private profit, and thus goes beyond both the predatory capitalism of the present day and the managed capitalism of the antecedent welfare state.

Getting to either our short-term or long-term goals will take a while and will involve many obstacles and reversals.

Super Tuesday represents one such temporary reversal, although Bernie came away from it with almost as many cumulative delegates (573) as Biden (664). The establishment party hacks who brought about the present state of affairs would like for us to cry uncle. What they still don't understand, although the evidence for it has been mounting shrilly since 2016, is that a large share of the public has lost confidence in their fitness to govern. The public now embraces desires that cannot be met under the existing system.

"Going forward, we have the platform; we have the issues. These have broad public support already... It's going to be a damn good fight!"

Trump's middle finger up the nose of the establishment is one sign of this legitimation crisis; Bernie's success at putting democratic socialism on the agenda is the other.

Going forward, we have the platform; we have the issues. These have broad public support already. Exit polls show that even in states that went for Biden, majorities want to replace private healthcare insurance with a public plan and support free college tuition. Bernie can still find a path to victory by doubling down on such issues and by drawing stark political contrasts with Biden, who has always represented the banking and credit card industries. It's going to be a damn good fight!

In the meantime, we might be forgiven for laughing when Democratic establishment attacks burnish Bernie's popularity and push up his approval numbers. We might be pardoned for finding comic relief in the spectacles that are constantly playing out, as our uncomprehending ruling class stages displays of its own rank incompetence, its unfitness to govern. We might be excused for mocking the emperor's new clothes. And we might be forgiven for relishing the public humiliation of the establishment's hacks and shills, whether they be mainstream media figures and their hangers-on—foundation grifters who stake their reputations on the identity politics vulgate—or academic sheep who take themselves for lions, staking out ever-more-radical positions but always in terms designed to erase the class condition of society.

In short, we might remind ourselves of what sort of time we are living through and how deeply the rot saturates all the institutions that legitimate class rule.

Roger Lancaster

Roger Lancaster

Roger Lancaster is a professor of anthropology and cultural studies at George Mason University and author of Sex Panic and the Punitive State.

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