Live Interview: What Happened to Our Politics After the End of History? with Luke Savage

Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau at the White House in 2016. (Olivier Douliery / Pool | Credit: EPA)

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Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: Without further ado, let’s introduce our good friend of the show Luke Savage. Luke is a Staff Writer at Jacobin, Co-Host of the Michael and Us podcast, and author of the forthcoming book The Dead Center: Reflections On Liberalism and Democracy After The End Of History, which will be out in April from OR Books. Luke, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Luke Savage: Thanks so much for having me, guys. It’s great to be back. It’s been a while.

Nima: It has been a while. I feel like you were on for a long while and then we were like —

Adam: Yeah enough with that guy.

Nima: But you’re back and we’re thrilled.

Adam: So you have a book coming out, what day is the book coming out for those who are? What’s the publishing date?

Luke Savage: That’s a very good question. I don’t know if there is an official publishing date yet. If you preorder it, you can get 15 percent off, I just wanted to drop that in.

Adam: So your book covers a large scope of topics, which I’m eager to get into, many of which we’ve touched on on the show in various forms. But obviously, the title kind of, maybe we’ll start from there, sort of says it all, which is The Dead Center: Reflections On Liberalism and Democracy After The End Of History, that is a double entendre I believe, if it’s not I have news for you, you have a double entendre and your title, which is to say that the center is both dead, which is to say it’s out of ideas, but it’s obviously very much alive, which you address as well. Let’s sort of, I guess, begin the clock with this kind of end of history narrative in the ’90s and 2000s that, I think, at the beginning of the recession in 2008, and to some extent even the Iraq War, began to kind of dissolve in front of our eyes, and the center has since been kind of limping along, which you write about, but it’s still very much ascendant in obviously very key ways. So I kind of want to talk about your impetus for collecting these essays, and writing this book, and putting into some coherent thesis as to both what the problem is and what the diagnostic is, and what the solution is, as you see the sort of failures of the supposed end of history in the year of our Lord 2022.

Luke Savage: Sure, it might be useful, I guess, to kind of sketch out what exactly I mean by, you know, the end of history and why I’m kind of, I mean it’s a concept I invoke a lot, and it can be a very slippery concept but I also think it’s a useful shorthand for the very particular way that our political horizons have been constrained and limited since the 1980s and 1990s. I think that in many ways, our own political age is quite unique and it’s important to understand that because so much of what’s frustrating and dysfunctional about it, I think, really stems from this unique character, this kind of sense of future-lessness. So I guess, just very quickly, I think you could, speaking very generally, could say that really, for centuries, there were different and sometimes competing notions of progress as a kind of collective human enterprise that was driving us forward and what’s special about the so-called end of history is that it’s really ground any sense of forward momentum, you know, or even the possibility of forward momentum to a halt. I mean, in the 20th century especially, you had a wide variety of political projects, even some of them associated with liberalism, that were really able to conceive of the future in kind of much grander terms than we’re able to now, and in the 1990s, you know, it suddenly became axiomatic for a variety of reasons, more or less across the entire political spectrum, but I mean, liberals were really the vanguard of this, it became axiomatic that market-based liberal democracy was essentially the name of the game going forward. So, you know, not only was the communist experiment finished, you know, all of the big political projects that define the 20th century, those were done. So that also includes the mid century idea kind of European idea of social democracy. It includes the idea and the trajectory that was associated with sort of progressive liberalism of the New Deal era in America, et cetera, and I think that has left us in a very peculiar place that, as I said, as I think, I mean it’s unlike any moment or kind of historical era that I’m aware of, broadly speaking, our culture and politics have been suffused with a kind of future-lessness, and I think you see that manifest in all kinds of different ways. An obvious one the book deals with is, and we’ll talk about this some more later I’m sure, but is, you know, the very conservative and shallow offerings that you now get from prominent liberal figures. So one of the things I’m really interested in exploring in the book is what happens when the so-called progressive side of the political spectrum retains the liturgy and the language of progress, but has long ago dispensed with or surrendered any tangible notions of those things. So I guess just include, and you guys might want to follow up, the book’s subtitle, as you mentioned, is Reflections on Liberalism and Democracy After the End of History. Now, I suppose a more accurate, but less catchy title that I couldn’t really put on a book or a subtitle, might have referred to the end of the end of history, because that’s really my idea here. I mean, over the past decade, we’ve seen the first real ruptures in the end of history consensus in my lifetime anyway, you know, however, fleetingly in Great Britain because of the Corbyn project, and in America with the two Sanders campaigns, and you know, a number of other things as well, we’ve kind of experienced the stirrings at least of potential alternatives to this, potential ruptures in the consensus, so the book is written and subtitled in a spirit of optimism as well, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Nima: It’s this idea that after the fall of the Soviet Union, that it’s like, well, proof point, liberal democracy, so-called is the only game in town,

Adam: Which is neither liberal nor democratic.

Nima: Right, and then what has happened since kind of a failure of imagination, of even the possibility of maybe the world could be different, or the world could be fairer, or better or more just, to be admittedly hokey about it. But I think that there’s kind of like a, you know, a finality to like, ‘Oh, well, this is the kind of American ’90s, Clintonesque project,’ that’s it, and then it’s just variations off of that. Now, at the beginning of your book, though, Luke, you know, you kind of note there’s a seminal moment in especially modern political life, in the election of Barack Obama, and you had just talked about this kind of sloganeering, this kind of nod, there’s the lexicon of progress of change, of hope, but not actually the follow through, that’s not actually the policy, it’s just kind of the marketing, you know, but noting the really kind of important moment, November 4, 2008, would you say that history ended again then? Did it start up anew? You know, it’s kind of a key moment that you identify in your own awakening and awareness, especially politically, you were 19 at the time, you’re a Taylor Swiftian generation, Adam and I are old grizzled men so, you know, remember that slightly differently.

Adam: Whoa, whoa. Hold on. I’m not in your demo buddy. Don’t age me.

Nima: (Laughs.) Generationally, Luke, for those your age, why can you point to that moment, other than being an understandably historic moment in general, even not to be smug or lame about it, it was, but also, what did it signify?

Luke Savage

Luke Savage: Well, in my own case, I was perfectly teed up to experience the Obama moment in kind of the fullest and most evangelical way possible. I had just started, you know, I just moved to Toronto, I was in my first year of university, I mean, a liberal campus in a major city, I mean, granted it wasn’t in the United States, but downtown Toronto, this was the perfect milieu for like the maximum Obama effect, and I think that there was a widespread sense of the time and, you know, it went beyond my own particular milieu, but there was a widespread sense at the time that, you know, this really was something new, and that’s because more effectively than I think any other modern political figure, and Obama is really the key to understanding so much, because he’s really the superlative expression I think of a lot of the things that I identify and complain about in my book, but more than any other modern political figure more effectively, he presented himself as a champion of progress and of democratic renewal, and, you know, he attracted more support from younger voters than I think anyone had before — although I think, I mean, Sanders never got to a general election, I think in the primaries Sanders later surpassed Obama’s total — but very significant support from younger people, a lot of enthusiasm, and I think what many of us did not understand at the time was that, as you put it Nima, I mean, history really wasn’t a sense, just kind of ending again. I mean, it was kind of the exact opposite of what we thought it was. It was really the status quo consolidating itself, albeit under a new umbrella, and with a new albeit, you know, it turned out pretty fleeting kind of sense of dynamism, and I think for that reason it was a Rubicon crossing moment for many people, or at least not the event itself, but the events that came after, and particularly people of my generation, people of our generation, broadly speaking — although it sounds like there’s some dispute about to which generation all of us belong — but you know, the stars into 2008 I think a lot of people really belonging to different political tendencies, to some extent anyway, the stars did seem aligned for at least some kind of progressive change, even if you were a cynic about Obama, or you were skeptical — and I mean, in my own defense, I did maintain a certain skepticism about Obama in 2008, and I would say, I turned against him quicker than some anyway — but you know, if you go back to the punditry from 2008, which I actually do in one essay in the book, I mean, it is absolutely, it’s very instructive to go back and read that stuff because it’s absolutely gushing about a new political consensus that’s on the way, there’s going to be progressive, liberal hegemony for decades to come, Democrats are going to control Congress, they have ironclad control of Congress sort of in the way that they often did after the New Deal, and all of that is significant, because when you’re promised something like that and it doesn’t happen, and you know, in the case of Obama, it’s important to note here that the administration was coming to power at a very significant moment, not just as support for the war on terror and the legitimacy of the war on terror waning, but also amid what was then the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and so we all ended up watching as, you know, this new liberal administration that had talked a pretty good game when it was campaigning, I mean, basically sat back and did very little while the financial sector was allowed to kind of just get off the hook without really paying much of a price. There was no significant overhaul, certainly nothing on the scale of the New Deal of the American or the global economy, and meanwhile, millions of homeowners and renters and all kinds of people were just allowed to sink. The administration did not care to do anything about that. In Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, which came out, I guess, at the end of 2020, you know, he’s quite explicit about that. I mean, he dismisses all alternatives, even to this day, when it’s clear how catastrophic the administration’s negligence was, he dismisses the possibility they could have done anything else. I mean, he says something to the effect of that the calls for more radical action would have involved a violence to the social order, a wrenching of social and political norms that would have caused more harm than it would have provided assistance, something like that, I’m paraphrasing. But so it’s very significant that there was this initial enthusiasm that was so strong, and then this was the result that we got, and I think people reacted to that in a variety of ways, I mean, some people just became reactionaries, a lot of people were more likely to switch off of politics entirely or to become more cynical about them, understandably, but I think for a lot of other people, the conclusion you can draw from something like Obama and the conclusion many of us did draw was that, well, if this isn’t what’s needed to actually create any kind of progressive momentum moving forward, clearly, we need something else and let’s think through what that is, and I think, you know, in the kind of decade or so after 2008, a lot of people arrived at a basically socialist answer to that question.

Nima: Yeah, I remember in 2008 watching this all play out and like, the first thing Obama did after locking up the presidential nomination in I think it was like June 3, 2008, the next night, he spoke at AIPAC and I was like, mmm.

Adam: Right. So I want to talk about these ideological priors and these kind of assumptions about the end of history, which is a way of saying that sort of capitalism is unchallenged, that anything else is unserious, and really what we’re debating is variations of capitalism, are we going to have a kind of nicer capitalism or not nice capitalism, which is where this idea of Obama as a figure of progress becomes very shaky, because how do you define progress and what does that mean? And I think a lot about the “behind the closed doors,” quote, James Bennet, who was the opinion editor of New York Times 2018, Ashley Feinberg reported on it for The Huffington Post, when he was asked about why there’s not more, for want of a better term, why there’s so much right-wing content in the opinion section of The New York Times, and he said, I mean, just totally flabbergasted, he said, quote, “I think we are pro-capitalism. The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress that we’ve seen.” This, of course, is someone who sort of shapes public opinion, and this is something you hear a lot. This is kind of, those who kind of came up in the 2000s, the Obamas, the sort of Freakonomics to the West Wings, we had reached the end of history, anyone who thought any kind of meaningful alternative, aside from, again, maybe a few tweaks here and there, was just unserious, and that this was like climate change or the laws of physics or gravity, it was settled, and we had to kind of move on, and you look back at the Obama years, and he never really marketed himself as anything other. He was going to be a kinder, gentler machine gun hand, he was going to prosecute the war on terror nicer, he was going to pretty much defend the axioms of capitalism with an occasional scolding here and there on the margins, and that’s basically what he did. He marketed himself as a kind of, to the extent to which it was progress, it was mostly superficial or kind of in rhetoric, and again, in the context of Bush, some of the younger listeners may not appreciate this, but that was a huge, that seemed like a huge difference, at least in tone, right? But you write a lot about these kinds of underlying assumptions, and then when things started to fall apart, like the economic crisis, increase in poverty, the 500 civilians killed in drones in the first four years, the sort of vulgarities of Iraq, Obamacare still leaving 26 million uninsured, there was obviously Occupy, which was its own kind of beast in response to the full right-wing astroturf populism of the Tea Party, that it wasn’t really working. And then, of course, that those fractions, the obsession in his last six months of jamming in the TPP, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and these kinds of trade deals, which nobody likes, and aren’t popular, that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders opposed, but it was this really important thing where he had to go on Jimmy Fallon to talk about the importance of passing the TPP, and everyone’s like, what the fuck is going on?

Luke Savage: Yeah.

Adam: Why is this so important? That set the stage for Donald Trump. That these failures of the end of history, this complete ignoring of these forces, it used to be an axiom that failures of the liberal state produced the raw material for fascism, and then that became unpopular, because it became an excuse for fascism, I guess, but I never quite understood that, like it somehow made it okay, or something? Because economic anxiety, which, of course, is overblown, but it’s definitely, it can be an antecedent to these things, it’s one of many factors, right? So I want to ask you about Trump, and where Trump fits into this framework that you write about, because obviously, he is not a typical neoliberal, though his economic policies are pretty much just copied and pasted from Wall Street, but doesn’t sort of operate in that language of progress, and in fact, very clearly markets himself as the bulwark against progress. So, talk about Trump, how he sort of fits into this worldview, and of course, the big fear is, what every kind of Bernie bro and even leftist of any stripe says is that we’re going to get Trump in 2024 because we actually haven’t dealt with the underlying reasons why he was there in the first place we’ve just been doing a series of band aids. Now, obviously, that’s a self-serving diagnostic because it confirms my worldview, but go ahead.

Luke Savage: Yeah, I mean, I certainly think that’s true. I mean, Trump is, in some ways, a difficult figure to characterize because, I mean, as you said, I mean, his, you know, a lot of his, yeah, his economic policy, which is carbon copy of, you know, Wall Street economic policy, his signature domestic achievement, if you want to call it that, was the long heralded Republican tax cut for the extremely wealthy, for billionaires, but I mean, it is a case that at least when he was campaigning, Trump did things that were not traditional things that we see from Republican primary candidates, and that turned out to be very effective, and every time, thinking back to 2016, every time Trump did something that kind of rebelled against the, what the prevailing wisdom was, the prevailing wisdom within the political class, the prevailing wisdom within the media, I mean, he just got more popular first within the Republican primary field, and then during the general there was this widespread sense that a Clinton victory was totally inevitable, but I’m pretty sure if you go back and you look at the polls in September, in October, Clinton was ahead, but they were remarkably close, much closer than they should have been. I don’t think it’s possible to imagine a figure like Trump having the success that he did without the preceding eight years, and I suppose specifically without the preceding six years, because I think, you know, the Obama administration had a window, if it had been a different kind of administration, if it had been the type of administration that a lot of people thought and hoped it would be, it could have used its congressional majority, and then briefly it’s super majority between 2009 and 2010, when they had 60 votes in the Senate, they had this hugely popular president, they could have used that to bring in the kind of popular and transformative legislation that actually might have secured Democrats an ironclad, you know, congressional constituency for, you know, at least another few years, very difficult to imagine Donald Trump succeeding without the climate of despair and political futility and hopelessness that I think particularly the latter two thirds of the Obama years really fostered where, you know, you mentioned Occupy Wall Street, of course, Black Lives Matter also started during the Obama presidency, I mean, there was just a widespread sense, and a well founded one, that Obama wasn’t playing 24 dimensional chess, you know, there wasn’t going to be some great moment, there was no gold at the end of the rainbow, this was it, you know, technocratic sort of centrist management with, you know, better speeches than usual and a president who’s more charming than the average president. That was kind of the limit of where this was going to end up, and Adam, as you just mentioned, I mean, Obama was spending the final months of his presidency promoting and defending this hugely unpopular trade deal, which of course, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were all on board with as well.

Adam: Hold on, the point of order, Hillary Clinton supported it, and then when she started running, opposed it nominally, but every single write up was so funny, like Vox and Newsweek would be like, ‘But nobody really believes her.’ So she ostensibly opposed it because it pulled so badly, even among Republicans.

Luke Savage: But of course, she didn’t have much credibility to do that, and actually, one anecdote I was just going to bring up was, she had that book Hard Choices, which was sort of her pre-election book. I think the first edition actually came out kind of early, like in 2014, or something. There was a hardcover edition and then there was a softcover edition that came out later. In the hardcover edition, the TPP, there’s this gushing language about the TPP. I think that’s where she famously described it or infamously described it as the gold standard of trade deals, and guess what passage did not appear in the edition that came out closer to the election, and actually, you know, early punditry on Clinton’s candidacy in 2015 when she launched her campaign, it was actually a bit of a trope to say that like, you know, she’s doing all this populism. No one remembers, but Clinton said something about how she wanted to topple the billionaire class or something right when she launched her campaign, and the response from the media was, well, obviously, we know this is bullshit but she asked me to say this stuff, and that was just openly discussed, and when the political climate is such and the media environment is such that people are just openly speaking like that, I mean, of course, a demagogue like Donald Trump is going to have oxygen and room to succeed where he otherwise wouldn’t because the political class that he’s attacking just has no credibility with many people, and, you know, the people that were actually enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton, I would argue, is a pretty small minority. It was a very specific niche of people too, at least in terms of, you know, well, the people that were most active on Twitter certainly supporting her campaign. I’ll just leave it at that.

Nima: I mean, you know, you mentioned this idea of almost public cynicism about the PR and marketing of politics, right? I think, before Obama, obviously it was there, it was known, sure, but there was the Obama campaign winning marketing awards, I think, kind of flipped a switch in a different way, and then that, as you said, was I think exploited because it was like, ‘Oh, this is just like a PR game.’ Really it’s like reputation management, it’s all of this shit, and then, you know, Luke, you were also just talking about the media, of course, now, it’s Citations Needed, I don’t know if you know, but we talk about media a lot, and so we’d love to kind of hear from you about certain figures that you write about in your book, folks like David Brooks and Chris Matthews, James Carville, really just essential figures, but you know, liberal figures, right? Not a Bill O’Reilly, not a Tucker Carlson, like ostensibly liberal media figures that are essential to this project of continuing to manufacture consent, and obviously, because you discuss pop culture so often, not only in your writings on the West Wing — and in preparation for this interview, I definitely rewatched A Few Good Men, just to make sure that I really had it — but you know, also through your podcast, Michael and Us, discussing how political ideology really shows up in TV and film, and so would love to just kind of hear from you about how quote-unquote “liberal media,” not the railing against all media is liberal and the kind of phony right -ing huckster ish way, but in this, you know, these kind of liberal pundits, the kind of ideologues that get all the screen time and are really essential to moving forward or rather, not moving forward, I’d say, rather maintaining a status quo of this neoliberal status quo, like where do you kind of fall on that? Why is it essential to talk about these people, to understand what their own particular perspective is?

Luke Savage: So a major theme of the book is that, you know, there’s a whole section of the book where there’s just essays about individual political personalities, and part of the reason for that, and we can talk about this some more later, but part of the reason for that is that I think that as kind of the horizons of politics contract, and in the United States especially, when you get less and less ground that’s actually being contested by the two major parties and more and more areas of agreement, you know, individual personality, you have to fill the void with something so individual personality becomes a part of that, and I actually think there’s an analogous process that happens really beginning in the 1990s, with pundits and with pollsters and with political professionals more generally, because as political horizons retrench, one of the things that happens is politics become more and more professionalized. You have, broadly speaking, I think fewer people that come from activist backgrounds, fewer people who’ve cut their teeth, even in kind of the more, you know, hardscrabble machine politics that used to be a major feature of politics, particularly in the United States. So politics becomes more and more professional and one of the results of that is that pundits and pollsters and consultants, in some cases, kind of become celebrities in their own right. I mean, one of my favorite essays in the book, I mean, it’s not the most sophisticated one, it was one of the funnest to write, is the essay on James Carville, who is, you know, not actually a fascinating figure, but I think as a phenomenon is a fascinating figure, because he’s so illustrative of this process. I mean, James Carville rose to prominence because of his role in the Bill Clinton campaign in ’92, which was documented in this entertaining and I think, ultimately pretty shallow documentary, The War Room, which was made by D.A. Pennebaker, who is one of America’s most significant documentary filmmakers, and that, I mean, that documentary, I guess we shouldn’t exaggerate its singular influence, but I think it played a pretty formative role in kind of creating this kind of mythos around, you know, the the backroom boys of politics, and obviously, that had been around for a long time, but in the ’90s it really intensified and so, you know, a guy like Carville, I mean, he’s a political consultant, he works at a firm, Cohen’s a firm or something like that, that obviously is involved in political campaigns, but it seems to me that he spends much of his time just sort of playing a consultant on TV and playing one in the media and sort of playing an ironic version of himself in ads and things like that. He’s actually done a lot of, as I discovered, a lot of ad campaigns, I think, for Nike and a number of other companies, and you see an analogous process in relation to kind of pollters as well, and other kinds of figures that are adjacent to all of this. But I think one of the implications of that, and this is part of understanding why the media is so frustrating today, and why in some senses, it’s kind of post democratic is that figures like this I think exist to kind of mystify politics. They exist to entrench the idea that all of this stuff that’s happening is very distant from you, the viewer, you get to consume this, this kind of infotainment, but your role in this is to kind of be a passive consumer of it, and insofar as you’re allowed to think about this stuff, they’re instructing you to think about it as if you are yourself a pundit or a consultant. So this is, you guys maybe have done a whole episode on this, but I’m sure you’ve recognized this kind of trope of electoral punditry, where people are really almost actively encouraged to vote and kind of campaign not on the basis of their own political preferences, but based on some kind of abstract idea that they may be getting from Nate Silver or that they’re drawing from polls or that they’re getting from pundits or whatever.

Adam: We call it pundit brain. Yes, we did a whole episode on it, where everyone becomes deputized as a game theorist who has to figure out the most optimal way of maximizing their particular vote regardless of their own ideological preferences.

Luke Savage: That’s right. And, you know, there’s an essay in the book on Amy Klobuchar who is a really, I mean, again, not an actually a fascinating figure but fascinating phenomenon, because here she was the figure that got repeatedly these effusive writeups about how this is the most electable Democrat, and just never really pulled above the, you know, single digits.

Adam: Well, that’s the thing with James Carville, he went to go rescue Michael Bennet, and then he got a point, I think he had literally one caucus person who showed up.

Luke Savage: Yeah, I looked that up and in that caucus, I think it was Iowa, write-ins for Donald Trump in a Democratic primary beat James Carville’s pick.

Adam: That was his, yeah.

Luke Savage: So that’s the cage and Clausewitz strikes again with his electoral sorcery.

Adam: Yeah. He’s electable in the general election, but nobody in the primary likes him.

Nima: Brilliant.

Luke Savage: Just to finish on the Amy Klobuchar point. Nate Silver had a write up that I quote in the book where, I mean, you tell he’s quite anguished as he’s writing a sentence, but he says something like Amy Klobuchar has all the, you know, assets of an electable candidate so the fact that she’s polling so badly suggests, and you can just like hear him stroking his chin, that it suggests that ordinary voters don’t think about electability the same way pollsters do. I mean, that’s such an incredible statement for a person who, you know, his job ostensibly is to measure and understand public opinion, and that’s a remarkable kind of accidental confession there.

Adam: Right, but they’re not doing it the right way.

Luke Savage: Right. It’s time to dissolve the people and elect a new people.

Nima: Install a new people.

Adam: Right. Yeah. So let’s fast forward here, because we need to talk about the Empire Strikes Back, which is Joe Biden, and that — to the extent to which we’re all just a bunch of bitter burned out Bernie bros licking our wounds and settling old ideological scores from 2016, which I will never stop doing motherfuckers — let’s talk about the sort of ascension of the Biden campaign obviously, unlike 2016, which I do think was definitely heavily favored, and we now know kind of in many key ways against Sanders, the DNC kind of settled on Clinton and everything else was basically reverse engineered around that. Now, obviously, Biden, you have the sort of Obama phone calls and such but without, you know, necessarily appealing to nefarious backroom deals — although there was — Biden won, he was very popular, his very popular association with Obama, charming guy, does that sort of cutesy, Irish uncle thing where he says offensive things and sort of gets away with it. But he kind of reestablished the center, as it were, the sort of quintessential centrist — you can even look at profiles from the ’80s, where he literally calls himself a centrist and that was his whole shtick — so clearly, some plurality of people still thinks that the center order is either good or preferable to the alternative. Without getting too much into the circular problem of people not being sufficiently socialist because they’re being propagandized, not because my ideas are bad, let’s talk about the sort of current state of play as you see it. Is this just a band aid situation? Is this just kind of a holding of center while shit falls apart around them or do you see this as being a vindication of that system? Obviously, the polling is not great, Build Back Better shit the bed, there doesn’t seem to be any political or moral or ideological cohesion in the party. Obviously, everyone’s gearing up for a huge meltdown in November of 2022. So what is your take on the current state of the center and what about your prognostications or lamentations of post 2020 do you think have been proven correct or incorrect?

Luke Savage: All of them have been proven correct or just about all of them. I mean, you know, you kind of asked to what extent can Bidenism be understood as a, or should it be understood as a kind of reigniting of the center versus of band aid. I mean, I think it’s very much the latter and I maintain that I think without coronavirus, there’s a very good chance Donald Trump would have been reelected. If you look at the, you know, this is obviously I hate to sound like a pundit really, but if you look at the economic indicators, as flawed as those are, from sort of January 2020, before COVID hit, the conditions existed by which an incumbent president tends to be reelected in terms of these, you know, very crude measures of quote-unquote “economic performance” that are used. I think that Bernie Sanders was the only candidate in the Democratic field who had a strategy that might have been able to beat Trump without coronavirus. I think that Donald Trump so hideously mishandled coronavirus, and also that, I mean, just the things were just looking so kind of bleak, and everybody was so exhausted by, you know, the fall of 2020 that even, in my opinion, the pretty lackluster campaign the Democrats ran, you know, it was able to get out a record number of voters. Of course, Donald Trump got more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016 but Biden won by something like 8 million votes. So people were certainly motivated to beat Donald Trump. But I think Biden winning the Democratic nomination, as opposed to any of the other stop Sanders candidates is also significant because, as you said, Adam, I mean, in 2016, the Democrats had decided, I mean, this was going to be Hillary Clinton’s coronation. I mean, no one remembers poor Martin O’Malley, but you know, he didn’t make it outside of Iowa, and then it ended up being surprisingly close with Sanders, and that wasn’t, you know, that wasn’t what was supposed to happen. 2020 wasn’t like that. I mean, 2020 and many of the essays in the book, at least in the section on political personalities, were written during this time, but I mean, 2020 they just were kind of scrolling through every few months, like a new figure that was going to repeat, you know, some version of Obama’s meteoric rise and that, I think, really —

Nima: Bloomberg.

Luke Savage: Michael Bloomberg. I mean, it’s I mean, if you go back before the thing actually started, there was talk about Oprah, there was talking about Mark Zuckerberg, I mean, there was like, are the Democrats can have their own celebrity? And then when it started you had all these you know, you had Beto, you had Pete, you had Kamala Harris was going to be a front runner, Kristen Gillibrand was going to be a frontrunner, you have all these people that no one remembers, Eric Swalwell, Bill de Blasio ran for president.

Adam: Poor Bill de Blasio.

Luke Savage: Bill de Bungler did not go anywhere in that campaign.

Adam: I was sitting there the other day and I was like, wait, Bill de Blasio ran for president, did I dream that? There was a moment, you know, you’re kind of like half awake or something.

Nima: It was both, he did, and you also dreamt it.

Adam: And you’re like, did he run? And I’m like, and I turned to Sarah, like did Bill de Blasio? Oh yeah he did run. So weird.

Luke Savage: But there were so many of these people, and that reflected, you know, people looked at what happened in 2016, in the GOP, and they thought, ‘Well, maybe it’ll be me,’ and I was definitely part of it. But I think it also reflected the fact that, you know, the liberal project was and is quite incoherent, and in the end, it turned out that the figure who was able to carry the, you know, consolidate the anti-Sanders forces with, obviously, with a lot of help from the media, and a number of other things that, you know, we don’t need to get into here, because then we’ll just digress for the rest of the night and only talk about, you know, what happened in March 2020, but, you know, Biden ultimately was able to consolidate, you know, having completely bungled the early primaries, and I think come fourth in Iowa, or fifth or something, doing badly in New Hampshire, et cetera, he was able to consolidate the anti Sanders forces, and it turned out that the last, you know, what was behind the emergency glass when Liberalism, Inc. smashed it was just this kind of avatar of old, you know, Democratic machine politics, this guy who’d been in DC, you know, was first came to the Senate in 1972. So really it was just kind of an echo of Democratic consensus, I’m not sure what the plural is, past, and, you know, had this association with Obama, and so I think that’s a reflection of the weakness rather than the dynamism of liberalism. It’s a reflection of the incoherence, and we’ve seen that carried into Biden’s first term. We’ve seen it carry beyond the Trump era, because, you know, the Biden campaign really did two things, it sort of told the justice Democrats wing of the Democratic Party, that you’re not going to get all the Sanders stuff, but don’t worry, there’s gonna be a public option, there’s going to be this hugely progressive agenda that’s more progressive than anything you’ve ever seen. You’re going to get a kind of American social democracy, really, that was the pitch. At the same time, you know, if you watched the DNC, this was very similar, in many ways, was worse than the 2016 DNC, there were, you know, they had John Kasich speak, they had Michael Bloomberg, it was grotesque. So Biden was really pledging to do two things, and what people like me were writing at the time, contrary to the sort of view that Biden was going to bring in a second new deal, was that all you really had to do to know Joe Biden was just look at his record, and I think that that’s largely been borne out as he’s governed. I mean, they did table, you know, they had the American Rescue Plan, which was more money than you would have expected Joe Biden to spend in a single go, and then they did table these kinds of bigger spending plans, but there wasn’t a strategy. I don’t think they undertook a strategy that would be the strategy that you would do to actually pass these things. They very much adopted a conventional, you know, ‘We’re going to do everything inside the beltway, we’re going to broker, we’re going to try to get bipartisan support for things like the infrastructure package,’ all of that, and where we’re at now is that Biden’s term is consisted of really, you know, two bills, a rescue plan that provided short term relief and had some good measures that have not been extended, and then this bipartisan infrastructure bill, which I’m not an expert on climate policy, but I’ve been reliably informed is actively counterproductive on the environment, and I think it’s safe to say that any legislation passed with the support of — what was it? — ten Republican senators, is probably not anything to brag about, and it’s certainly not going to reignite the lost flames of American liberalism. So that’s, I think, where we’re at right now.

Adam: I want to talk about the limits or the problems of electoralism for the so-called left, because I do kind of wonder myself, especially with the urgency of climate change, climate chaos, and issues of the kind of fraying around the edges of liberalism and a potential Trump reelection in 2024. For some people listening, to do the Fox News ‘some say,’ some say that we talk about prescription, we talk about how to fix the problem, right? We’ve sort of pissed and moaned for the better part of an hour, we’ve talked about the problems of liberalism, but ultimately, our advice would be go vote for some Bernie like candidate really, really hard, and there are those who would say, radicals, anarchists, communists, et cetera, that we’re all wasting our fucking time trying to find some AOC to run on some bullshit social democracy platform, and all it does is sheepdog a bunch of fucking voters and waste our time for two to four years. I’m sort of curious what you say to that, specifically, around the issue of climate, more and more people are drawn to radicalism, more and more people are drawn, at least in theory, to blowing up pipelines and assassinating oil executives, instead of tweeting at Joe Manchin ‘I’m mad,’ which, you know, we can argue one’s more juvenile than the other, but within the failures of liberalism, and the failures of a Sanders type candidate actually winning, much less being able to implement any of this really awesome stuff on his to do list, where do you think that kind of either, it can be nonviolent, doesn’t necessarily have to be violent, but nonviolent or violent revolutionary politics in North America, which I know it’s hard to imagine, time was it wasn’t, but now it is. Where do you think that fits in? I mean, what would have to be the social conditions or the absolute fraying of the liberal state for that to really be seen as an alternative option? Because I think a lot of people are drawn to that more and more.

Luke Savage: Well, fortunately, there are more options available than just blowing up pipelines on the one hand or tweeting at Joe Manchin on the other.

Nima: Incidentally, you could do both at the same time. I just wanted to note that.

Luke Savage: You could.

Adam: Then let’s talk nonviolent, let’s talk nonviolent, and let’s say mass protests, like an Occupy-type situation, something like that.

Luke Savage: Sure. I mean, I participated in some Occupy protests, and I’d certainly like something that, I mean, I liked that the extra parliamentary spirit of those protests were good. I think often, they suffered from a certain incoherence. So I’m sure it varied depending on where you were, but the one in Toronto that I went to, I mean, there were lots of like, Libertarians there, and Ron Paul supporters and stuff like that.

Adam: Yeah that was true in New York, too. That was true in New York. Yeah.

Luke Savage: Yeah. It was kind of all over the map. So one of the places where I think there’s been progress since that time, though, obviously, we’re a long way from power, that there’s a lot more coherence to at least some of the radicalism that you see today, and that’s definitely a good thing. I mean, I certainly understand being frustrated with electoral politics. I mean, I am as well, and it’s, I mean, to think how far we’ve come from the, I mean, the really unprecedented horizons of kind of January and February of 2020, what it seemed like might be about to happen, and for few very short moments, I mean, after the Nevada caucus in particular, but it seemed like, almost certainly was going to happen, to go from that to a Biden presidency, where, yeah, probably Democratic wipe out in the midterms, even the compromised agenda Biden was talking about is not, you know, it’s not really going to happen probably or most of it’s not going to happen. I feel very demoralized along with everybody else and I think what we saw in 2016, again, in 2020, with the two Sanders campaigns, and with some of the congressional campaigns and such that were inspired by it is that electoral activity can be very constructive, I mean, it can bring a lot of people together, it can mobilize a lot of people, and even if you don’t win, it can be, you know, a successful impetus for organizing, and I think despite the defeats of both of those campaigns, it has been, and I certainly think whatever the limitations of the very small left contingent that exists in Congress, I mean, I think it’s better to have those people in Congress than it was to not have them, I think we just, we got to hope that there are a lot more of them. But for the time being, and always, electoral politics are not, are not the only game in town, and I mean, I certainly think, you know, one of the things that I’ve been inspired by, one of the few things I’ve been inspired by really has been these organizing efforts at places like Starbucks, and you know, I don’t have a great feeling about what’s going to happen in Bessemer but I think it’s an extremely encouraging effort, nonetheless. So all of that is important, too.

Adam: They’re not mutually exclusive, obviously.

Luke Savage: No.

Adam: I mean, I guess the reason I ask is because in terms of timetables, and what the actual timetable we have to do certain things it strikes me as like, we’re going to get a squad member every two years for the next 100 years. I mean, without descending into cynicism, now obviously a multi prong effort involving whatever mass protests, electoralism, all the above, like why not? And even radical organizations with the sort of normalization of socialism saw a huge uptick in membership. So I do think it can kind of feed off each other. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s all just a bunch of sheepdogging waste of time, although I think that kind of sometimes happens.

Nima: Well, right. And so to bring us back to one of the main theses of your book, Luke, is, you know, 2020 saw a lot of different things happen, right? We were just talking about the first part of 2020 pre pandemic, and kind of the electoral machinations, the early caucuses, early primaries, but then by the middle of the year, we get historic uprisings following the murder of George Floyd, and I’d love for you to talk a little bit before we let you go about the then kind of liberal laundering of mass movements through this kind of capitalist sieve, right? What happens to these movements with genuine grassroots support, popular support, what would be known as radical ideas, as opposed to what is actually allowed to be talked about in any kind of Overton Window, but then you get on the other side of it, once it gets toward election time, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, let’s corporatize this, let’s make sure no one says Defund anymore.’ Talk to us about how movements can be “liberal-ed,” and just buffed out of any kind of real aspiration, real movement toward a future, thus, reaffirming the idea that we’ve already hit the end of history, and you’re not allowed to go past a certain point of what we are told is possible.

Luke Savage: Yeah. I mean, I’m glad you brought up the George Floyd protests, because I think they’re very symptomatic of the post democratic character in many ways of the moment we’re living through. I mean, here you had these, you know, the many accounts anyway, the largest social protests, at least in modern American history, possibly ever, tremendous energy, right, a genuine and widespread popular desire to see big changes in the way that policing works, and a really genuine desire to grapple with the history of systemic racism in America, and, you know, I mean, with perhaps a few small exceptions with the election of a Democratic administration, that in the campaign period, aligned itself quite explicitly, the Democrats, you know, aligned themselves in many ways, quite explicitly with the George Floyd protests, even as they were sort of distancing themselves from the Defund the Police stuff, with full unified Democratic control of the US government has there been a single significant, you know, reform that’s come out of that? I don’t think so. And more to the point, in Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union, he had that incredibly cynical and grotesque line about we’re going to “fund, fund, fund the police,” I mean, just to kind of like, everything’s a Sister Souljah moment or whatever.

Adam: Yeah.

Luke Savage: And so the George Floyd moment, the George Floyd protests is very important. They’re important in how we think about liberalism, as well. But I think, as I said, important, thinking about the kind of post democratic character of this moment, because there was all that energy, and it didn’t really have anywhere to go, because political institutions are in many ways, you know, very distant now and very severed from any kind of not just popular movement, but really, from popular sentiment at all, in many cases. I mean, you can poll on all kinds of things. I mean, it’s just an obvious one, which will be non controversial here, but I mean, Medicare for All, right? I mean, you poll on that, and it’s very popular, particularly among Democrats, and yet in 2020, I mean, there’s really only one Democratic candidate, one in the field, who actually campaigned on Medicare for All, so the political system is very unrepresentative of, even though it’s a, you know, problematic and very generalized concept, anything resembling the popular will, and what you see with the George Floyd protests is that, you know, that energy has to go somewhere, and, you know, it ends up getting channeled because liberal capitalism is very adept at kind of absorbing its critics and, you know, it’s kind of dissenting currents. It ends up getting channeled into contra the radical aspirations of, you know, the people who went out in those protests, it gets channeled into the names of a few things changing, I mean, maybe some statues coming down, not that that’s a bad thing, you know, Confederate generals and stuff like that. But you know, it’s hardly transformative political change, it gets channeled into all kinds of just increasingly absurd things like all kinds of corporations aligning themselves with Black Lives Matter or adopting the legality of social justice.

Adam: Yeah, a bunch of squishy nonprofits. I mean, that’s truly why they had to go after it with such an aggressive tack to Defund because unlike other slogans, Defund cannot be removed from its radical roots. It is in the name, it is unambiguous, it is not an aspirational Black Lives Matter, it is not a even Occupy chant, it is like no, we’re going to Defund, which again was originally was Abolish the Police, even that was a compromise, but Defund is such a specific thing.

Nima: It’s an actual policy position.

Adam: Well, you couldn’t launder it through the Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Nike PR firms and so it was tricky and had to go.

Luke Savage: I think that’s exactly right. So yeah, you just get these increasingly sort of, because that energy has no, you know, the political system is very unresponsive to democratic pressure, the energy just goes into these increasingly vulgar sort of, yeah, corporate sloganeering and stuff that, you know, the number one best selling author in America briefly becomes a corporate HR consultant that does seminars for Amazon and Google and stuff about anti racism that, you know, I haven’t read the book, I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about, from what I understand, the book kind of implicitly concedes that these don’t actually work anyway. So it’s kind of a pessimistic management style, HR thing, not through the fault of the people that were involved in the protests, or because the aspirations and the kind of sentiment was defective, because there’s nowhere for that energy to go, this is where it goes instead.

Adam: Because tomorrow democracy is broken, e.g. your book, which everyone should check out.

Nima: Everyone should check it out. I think that’s actually a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with a friend of the show Luke Savage, Staff Writer at Jacobin, Co-Host of the Michael and Us podcast, and author of the forthcoming book that we’ve been discussing today, The Dead Center: Reflections On Liberalism and Democracy After The End Of History, which will be out in April of 2022 from OR Books. Everyone can go and you are encouraged to go and pre order that book now. You can do that through the OR Books website that is orbooks.com. You can find the book The Dead Center there, please do pre order it, and thank you again, Luke, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Luke Savage: Oh, thanks so much, guys. Thanks for helping me get the word out on my book and for having me back. Let’s have it not be three years until my next visit.

Adam: Yeah, let’s not wait another three years next time.

Nima: Yeah, this is really great. I will do the thing that I do, which is thanking everyone for listening today to this Citations Needed live interview. Of course, you can always follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. So that will do it for this live interview, Luke, again, thank you for joining us. Thanks everyone, especially our patrons for joining us tonight and we will be back very soon with another full length episode on our regular schedule so stay tuned for that. Thanks, everyone, as always. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.

[Music]

This Citations Needed live interview was recorded with a virtual audience on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 and released on Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

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Citations Needed

Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.