Breaking The Gentlemen’s Agreement

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I believe that the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media is so great that the only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need is through a political revolution when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say: Our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.

These words were spoken by Senator Bernie Sanders during the first Democratic Party debate among presidential candidates who hope to win the party’s nomination. The Washington Post has made a full transcript available online. In it, the word “billionaire” appears 13 times, all of them voiced by Sanders. Here’s another sample:

I am the only candidate running for president who is not a billionaire, who has raised substantial sums of money, and I do not have a super PAC.

Right now, the internet is abuzz with accusations that pundits, who have pretty much claimed universal victory for Hillary Clinton, ignored the type of informal (and unscientific) polling reflected in social media (Sanders’ name was posted more on Twitter than all the other candidates combined, and won the U.S. News Facebook poll by a landslide, for instance). Meanwhile, the inside baseball pundits, who do claim their predictions are scientific, have no question that the first debate made Clinton even more likely to win.

None of the candidates are perfect, of course (sad to say, not one of we observers is perfect either), but I admire Sanders for many reasons, not least of which is his willingness to be educated: by activists from #BlackLivesMatter and others committed to racial justice, by climate crisis activists, by economic justice activists. If he wins, I will rejoice.

But the question that is engaging me now isn’t who will win. It is stupefyingly boring to treat the election like a multi-year horse race, and handicappers like genius horse-whisperers. I’m thinking about how easily the culture of electoral politics is transformed by the simple introduction into this mortally wounded and dismally corrupt process of a single candidate who is willing to speak forthrightly about so many topics the electoral gentlemen’s agreement has previously foreclosed.

I’ve seen this phenomenon time and again in settings that have nothing to do with elections. In each milieu, there’s a tacit agreement that certain topics are off-limits. Everyone knows not to ask the faculty members assembled for a symposium how their own university’s policies – and indeed, their own salaries – are implicated in that institution’s proclivity to gobble up surrounding real estate, displacing thousands. Everyone knows not to point out to a funder trumpeting a new grants program that the same core group of grant recipients has consistently received funds despite several prior such proclamations of new policies, so why bother pretending?

When everybody knows and abides by such rules of conduct – when everybody internalizes the stories that tell us how the game is played – the people who made the rules and whose power is protected by them benefit from our passive compliance, and everyone else loses.

In every such situation I have seen, it takes only a single individual to rupture the accord that sustains the status quo. You just have to ask the forbidden questions, raise the forbidden topics, out loud. That is what Senator Sanders is doing. It takes confidence and chutzpah and a kind of presence we rarely see on the political stage. And showing up this way makes him a role model for us all.

In prior elections (and I expect in the Republican debates to come too), anyone who dared to hint that there may be something fundamentally undemocratic and dangerous about the growing polarization of wealth in this country would be loudly denounced for formenting “class warfare.” This is slightly ironic, in that the concept came into common usage through Marx and his followers, who saw an essential conflict between the owning, ruling class and the working class as the engine of radical social change. In recent decades, though, the epithet has most often been used by fat cats who want to discredit anyone who has the temerity to point out the disastrous social consequences of their entrenched privilege. Here’s a nice compilation from a dozen years back, charting the Republicans’ skyrocketing use of the term as a club to beat critics of their polarizing economic policies.

But what’s true is true. Warren Buffett had it right back in 2006: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Bernie Sanders is speaking this truth, fighting back in no uncertain terms, and thus shifting the debate.

I wish I could say the shift will be permanent, but of course, the gentlemen’s agreement is renewable. All that’s required is for the audacious to sit down and shut up. I have an idea that audacity is viral. I think if we ask the foreclosed questions as often as possible in as many domains as possible, it will get easier and easier for others to do the same. What topics can’t be raised in your world or mine? Have we got more to lose than Bernie Sanders? To the contrary, there is everything to gain.

The great Charles Brown, “Don’t Fool With My Heart,” just because.

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