Bernie?

I recently came across a most interesting piece on-line that deserves thoughtful consideration. It was written by a woman by the name of Rebecca Unger and it begins as follows:

I am a 22-year-old Democrat living in New York City. I work in a creative industry that pays a low salary. I am socially liberal: I believe in LBGT rights, a woman’s right to choose, women’s rights across the board, racial equality, gun control and confronting climate change in a major way. I am upset about income inequality. I believe rich people should be taxed more to help fund policy initiatives that benefit poorer people: healthcare and education and better infrastructure, for example. And yet the idea of voting for Bernie Sanders never once crossed my mind.

This is not about disagreeing with the message Bernie is preaching to Americans — I happen to agree with a lot of what he says. This is about the simple fact that his is an idealistic, naïve agenda that could never be put into practice in America. In this country, to legislate even one tenth of such an ambitious plan would take degrees of cooperation, sacrifice, even manipulation and such an immense amount of ‘give-and-take’ tactics that an idea that once stood untarnished, glistening at the campaign podium, would come out looking like a child’s napkin after a meal of spaghetti Bolognese. Yes, there may be some white patches left around the edges, but no bleach will ever get out all the stains.

Rebecca says much better than I do something I have been trying to say for some time. As exciting as Bernie is and as attractive as he is to all of us who care about the future of this democracy, there are serious questions about his ability to get a single thing done were he elected to the presidency. Unless he could somehow bring enough Democrats along with him into office (who are not bound to corporate sponsors), he would face a belligerent and uncooperative Congress — the same Congress that Barack Obama has had to deal with for eight years — and there is simply no way such a group would support any of his programs. And this is true even if it were proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that his programs are feasible and of tremendous benefit to the country — as, indeed, they are.

The problem is the Congress, of course. It has been bought and paid for by the corporations and they are not about to allow a politician of Bernie’s ilk to stand in the way of inreasing their profit margins. They will doubtless meet and agree, as they did upon Obama’s election, not to support any of Sanders’ programs. And we will have another four years (at least) of gridlock. This would be bad for the country, to say the least.

Thus, despite the fact that Hillary has many battle scars and is a far less principled politician (and there are precious few of them any more) she does have the experience and political savvy to know how to get progressive programs through a recalcitrant Congress. She is flawed, to be sure, but those who now support Bernie Sanders and who insist that they will not support Hillary if she is the Democratic nominee are terribly naive. After all, the alternative — given the nature of the Republican candidates, especially the one who is currently leading the pack — is simply unacceptable. In the end, we must be realistic. And in this regard, Ms Unger’s determination not to vote for Sanders strikes me as equally unrealistic. Again, consider the alternative.

The sad fact is that Bernie has been an outsider all along as an Independent Senator from Vermont. He has few, if any, powerful friends in the Senate who could support, much less sponsor, any of his programs. He is right about so many things. But he is reminiscent of Don Quixote flailing against windmills. And, as we all know the windmills win in the end. It is sad, because Bernie represents a possible way not only to restore the middle class, as he says, but also to return a semblance of the democratic system to a government that is heading non-stop toward oligarchy. Hillary wouldn’t stop that trend, sad to say. But she is assuredly preferable to the alternative — no matter which off those clowns the Republicans finally come up with. And if Sanders were to become the candidate I would most assuredly vote for him even though I agree with most of what Ms Unger says. I prefer an ineffective idealist to an ignorant despot.

Machiavelli’s Relevance

I always enjoyed teaching a graduate course in business ethics which was required for the M.B.A. our university offered. It was usually filled with people who were “out there” in the “real” world working hard to better themselves; they were hoping the M.B.A. would give them a leg up. These were older, experienced students who drew on multiple experiences and were sure to have important and interesting things to say. One of the things I did each semester was to require that each student pick a book from a list, read and critique it, and present their results to the class as a whole. One of the books was Machiavelli’s The Prince. Strange choice, some would say. But, aside from the obvious parallels with today’s politics, the students were amazed at the relevance of that book to the world they were becoming increasingly familiar with, the world of business.

Accordingly, I thought it might be worth putting down here a few of the more pithy comments Machiavelli wrote and ask the reader whether or not he or she agrees that Machiavelli, like any great thinker, had things to say that are still pertinent today. First, a comment from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Titus Livius to set the tone:

“I believe it to be most true that it seldom happens that men rise from low condition to high rank without employing either force or fraud., unless that rank should be attained either by gift or inheritance.”

Now, from the more popular Prince:

“. . .there is such a great difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.”

” . . .to be feared is much safer than to be loved. For it is a good general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.  . . . since men love at their own inclination but can be made to fear at the inclination of the prince, a shrewd prince will lay his foundations on what is under his own control, not on what is controlled by others.”

“. . .those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”

“. . .you must be great liar and hypocrite. Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”

“Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have . . .  virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, but few know what you really are . . .  I will venture to say that when you have [the virtues] and exercise them all the time, they are harmful to you; when you seem to have them, they are useful. It is good to appear merciful, truthful, humane, sincere, and religious; it is good to be so in reality. But you must keep your mind so disposed that, in case of need, you can turn to the exact contrary.”

“There are three sorts of brains: one understands on its own, another understands what others tell it, and the third understands neither itself nor other people. The first sort is superb, the second sort is very good, the third sort useless.”

Was Machiavelli serious, or was he being satirical? Scholars still disagree.

Truth and Lies

In his superb autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, the author discovers to his dismay that he cannot trust any politician — of any stripe. They all lie. It’s part of Henry’s education and it is disillusioning to a young man brought up by honest parents in Boston in the early nineteenth century when he would like to think there were still a few honest politicians around. Perhaps Adams is jaundiced and exaggerates his case. Or perhaps not. But it is a lesson for us all. As William Evarts tells Adams in London during the Civil War while Adams’ father was attempting to keep the British from taking sides with the Confederacy, “The world can absorb only small doses of truth, too much would kill it.”

While this sounds like a line people in power like to hide behind, it may be a truth nonetheless. We would like to think not. We would like to think that in a democracy where we depend on knowing something about the people we are asked to vote for we would be able to find out where they stand and what they hold dear. But apparently not so. Our problem is not only an ignorant electorate, but media that refuse to tell us what is true about men and women whose life is made successful by how well they delude the public. Note the compound difficulty here.

The latest example of the lies that go to make up the political world, is revealed in a book about Fox “News.” called The Fox Effect. In a blurb for that book, we are told that “the largest audience of any cable ‘news’ outlet with relentless discipline [delivers] the right-wing message of the day.” This wouldn’t be so bad except that the audience of tens of millions mistake what they are seeing for the news of the day. And, for the most part, they think they are getting the word straight from the horse’s mouth. I dare say the audience considers itself well-informed while remaining ignorant.

This is not to say that the other news agencies are beyond bias. There’s no such thing as straight reporting. If six people saw a fight on the street we would get six different stories about what happened. Reporting is a tenuous business at best. But good journalism, like good history, is about trying to sift through the conflicting versions of what happened to find the kernel of truth at the core. And there are agencies who make an earnest attempt to do just that. But not Fox “News.” Their goal is propaganda, pure and simple. And the fact that it is allowed to pass as honest news is one of the embarrassments of our age.

So we have an ill-informed and miseducated population seeking truth from frequently unreliable sources about politicians who wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them in the butt. All of this combines to make the democratic experiment a bit of a failure, it would seem. But like Henry Adams, we must learn to accept the ugly truth about the lies that are fed to us daily and somehow muddle through. Let’s just consider it part of our education that takes us from young pie-in-the-sky idealists who think that the world is all about trust and honesty to realists who know that this simply is not the case. Cynicism is just around the corner, of course, and it would certainly result if we came to believe, as Adams did, that we are better off not knowing the truth about politicians and what they are really up to. But I prefer to think we deserve to know, that there are reliable sources, and I will continue to resent Fox “News” and other similar fonts of deception, believing that in a democracy the public deserves to know the truth, even if it hurts, and even if a great portion of the public doesn’t want to know it or is too stupid to know it when they hear or even see it.