Here's what Democrats must offer Americans to counter national conservatism
During a 1910 speech on women’s suffrage, an Illinois state factory inspector named Helen Todd popularized a phrase that should be understood as politically axiomatic. Speaking to a crowd about the economic necessity of “life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security,” Todd implored the audience to not forget that any viable movement must also guarantee the “Roses of life, music, education, nature and books.” Todd’s sentiment of “Bread for all, and roses too” would be forever inextricably linked with the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike of 1912 when the sloganadorned banners, was chanted, and was sung.
In December of 1911, a month before the beginning of the strike, the radical poet James Oppenheim quoted Todd in The American Magazine as he declared: “’Bread for all, and Roses, too’ – a slogan of the women in the West.” In June 1912 labor activist Rose Schneiderman implored a Cleveland audience that “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” This sentiment, conviction, belief, and faith – that politics must not only speak to the head but the heart – has an even longer genealogy, the ancient Roman physician Galen wrotein the third century that “If thou hast two loaves of bread, sell one and buy flowers, for bread is food for the body, but flowers are food for the mind.” In some ways Galen’s formulation is even more honest, for it underscores a reality that people willtake roses even over bread, that even more important than material circumstances is a feeling of meaning. And people will take meaning where they can get it, even if what’s being offered is illusory.
“Bread and Roses” has been a venerable socialist slogan since the first decade of the twentieth-century, but beyond narrow partisan meanings, it expresses an inviolate truth of how any system, party, or ideology must effectively orient itself. As with Todd, Oppenheim, and Schneiderman, a reinvigorated left must speak to our solutions as being ones that don’t just supply wages, security, and standard of living (and they must do those things of course), but which also supply meaning, purpose and transcendence.
Our reality in 2019 is that not only do we face a deepening economic crisis, but a pandemic of spiritual malaise as well. According to the metrics of financial analysts who move imaginary numbers around on a screen our economy is doing “well,” but anyone who sees increasing inequity, the massive concentration of wealth among a small segment of the population, or who even has just been trying to find a job, will question just how healthy our system actually is. From the embrace of conspiratorial perspectives to the anemic non-sustenance of our digital obsessions, we’re very much a culture that is purposeless, that is without overreaching meaning. Since the sophistries of Ronald Reagan’s supply-side nightmare became national holy writ, more and more of the public has been denied their bread, first among the working class and now increasingly among a professional-managerial class. But what connects disparate phenomenon from the insanity of anti-vaxxers to the epidemic of opioid addiction is that we’ve been denied our roses as well.
We’re at a cultural inflection point, whereby the late visionary Marxist critic and philosopher Mark Fisher could note after the 2008 financial crisis that “Neoliberalism is finished as a project, even if it lurches on, thrashing about like a decorticated terminator.” As a term “neo-liberalism” is a theoretically contested one, but separate from the erroneous confusion that somebody unfamiliar with the phrase might have in conflating it with whatever FOX News happens to call “liberal,” it actually refers to the totalizing market worldview which enshrines a certain capitalist ethos as the best way to organize every aspect of society, whether that worldview is embraced by Republicans or centrist Democrats who propose some social reforms even while Wall Street functions unfettered. Outside of the Cato Institute nobody on the right or left is terribly excited by the libertarian project anymore, even while centrist Democrats are content to believe that privatization and deregulation are what the masses of people actual want (it isn’t). Fisher was correct that the irreconcilable contradictions in that worldview signaled its ultimate death, even while much of the ruling class, from media to government, is still unaware of neo-liberalism’s demise. What the neo-liberal project has generated – as embraced by both Democrats and Republicans – is a culture rapidly in collapse. Into that vacuum comes any number of political alternatives, and those that will be the most successful will be those that speak of meaning and purpose in addition to material concerns. What roses will we offer to the survivors?
Any party, politician, or perspective which offers meaning, which gives us roses, will have an advantage as we face the inevitable economic and social collapse of the neo-liberal paradigm. The roses being offered don’t even have to be real. This is crucial because if the left doesn’t speak in the language of meanings, if the left more importantly doesn’t believe in that vocabulary, then an unscrupulous far-right will use that rhetoric instead. What the current spate of illiberal, authoritarian, and neo-fascist movements around the Western world promise is a type of meaning, a steel rose covered in razor-sharp thorns. In their rhetoric of nationalism, ethnocentrism, misogyny, homophobia, and Christian supremacy they offer their own bouquet of withered black flowers. An irony in this, for they offer roses, but no bread – a bait-and-switch which will herald the eventual power failure of Trumpism in the United States. Part of Donald Trump’s popularity, no doubt, was that he seemed to offer lip-service to the concerns of the white working class, while also providing purpose in his xenophobic, nationalistic, and fascistic rhetoric. It's important to understand that “economic aggrievement” alone wasn’t what catapulted him to power, especially since it was the white middle class more than the working class which aided his victory. Rather we’re to remember that formulation of bread and roses, of how Trumpism as a movement, no matter how malignant it is, was able to speak to both head and heart for those that thrilled to its cancerous ecstasies.
Which gets to my point that the meaning which a political movement offers need not be real, true, or good. Watch a video of Trump’s political rallies which function as revival meetings, and you’ll understand how his movement offers its followers a cracked type of transcendence. This is not to apologize for his supporters, nor is it to exculpate or exonerate their beliefs. Every supporter, every voter, is responsible for their actions. We must allow for the possibility of their redemption, and hope that they’ll be convinced of their errors, but that is their task more than it is ours. Rather it’s to explicate how meaning operates in politics, and to advocate for a vigorous defense of actual purpose on the left; less to convince potential-future-former Trump supporters than to steel our own resolve. Because if we’re involved in a struggle it’s as spiritual as it is political.
What makes this all the more crucial is that despite his seeming unshrinkable base of support, despite his complete enabling by a hypocritical Republican establishment, despite the Democratic Party’s malpractice in not holding him to account save for the staging of increasingly lame political theater, Donald Trump will thankfully one day not be president. Perhaps he’ll be impeached and removed from office (though obviously unlikely), or hopefully he’ll lose reelection in 2020 (less likely than some self-satisfied commentators assume). But in whatever way he leaves the White House, whatever future nightmares he’s willing to inflict on this country (and let there be no doubt to the depths of his potential perfidy), entropy alone ensures that his reign is not eternal. That’s the good news; the bad is that unless we address both economics and meaning, whatever replaces Trumpism could be worse.
Because the literate class of the far-right understands that Trumpism’s inconsistences, contradictions, and outright lies are such that sooner or later it will lose its thrill, and so they’re already laying the intellectual groundwork for what will supply meaning for Trumpism’s followers after its been pushed into the dustbin of history. Imagine the effectiveness of a politician who shares Trump’s hard-right worldview, who agrees with all of the noxious racism, misogyny, and nationalism, while being disciplined enough not to get into Twitter feuds with B-list celebrities. A Donald Trump who is able to spell is a lot more terrifying than the Donald Trump that we have now – and look at all the damage that the current one has been able to do.
Currently the most threatening ideology to emerge in American politics is something its supporters call “National Conservatism,” a hard-right philosophy that in some sense correctly diagnoses the excesses of free-market neo-liberalism, while prescribing a virulent cure of ethnocentric nationalism. At the National Conservatism Conference held in Washington DC last month, Christopher DeMuth of the Hudson Institute bemoaned the “ideology of atomized, free-floating individual autonomy,” which would seem to be a surprising (and welcome) castigation of the libertarian ethos of ruthless individualism, until you realize what rankles him isn’t capitalism per se but human self-autonomy. Rather what he offers is that old gruel of “social customs and national traditions [which] are a firmer foundation for political order;” an explicit rejection of the covenantal idea of American identity in favor of a culturally absolutist understanding of nationality based in a European and Christian definition of the self.
Because the meaning which National Conservatism supplies is the meaning accrued through membership in a group where people happen to look kind of like you – and that’s a fairly limp form of transcendence. Yet we shouldn’t underestimate a foe that is able to correctly identify the intrinsic value of such transcendence, for DeMuth understands that religion as broadly constituted is among the “central arenas of human endeavor – institutional embodiments of human understanding and aspiration, or human excellence and folly. To oppose them is to oppose human nature.” National Conservatism has as its court philosopher the Israeli academic Yoram Hazony, who advocates for a tonier, more polite version of Trumpism and who speaks openly at events like the aforementioned National Conservatism Conference of “our independence day” from the idea of universal rights in favor of a return to “Anglo-American traditions.” Daniel Luban writing in The New Republic explains how Hazony’s “career checks every box for the current nationalist international,” as the philosopher ironically rails against the “scourge of rootless cosmopolitanism on the continent.”
If Hazony is the theorist for National Conservatism, then it’s legislative point-man is the junior senator from Missouri Josh Hawley. The senator speaks a language that in some ways abandons the free-market orthodoxy of traditional conservatives as he warns about income disparity and inequity, or advocates the breakup of tech giants. Yet the end purpose of such seemingly progressive goals is the implementation of a far-right nationalism grounded in Hawley’s particular evangelical religious convictions. When Hawley stood on stage at the National Conservatism Conference, the only elected official to do so, he railed that “our national solidarity has been broken by the globalizing and liberationist polices of the cosmopolitan agenda,” a speech that even if delivered in polite Midwestern twang barely conceals its fascistic inclination. If you’re worried about Trump, you need to be paying more attention to Hawley as well. Writing in The New Republic, Alexander Zaitchik explains that both Hazony and Hawley represent a nascent “post-liberalism,” figures whom reject the “Enlightenment legacy of pluralism, the primacy of individual rights, and the hard separation of church and state.” That such ideas now have a place in the academy and government should terrify everyone committed to liberty, egalitarianism, and social justice.
Even more so because what the National Conservatives are offering, and will be offering, to voters is an “alt-liberty grounded in place and tradition, bound by social relations and obligations, rooted in the Bible,” as Zaitchik writes. What the National Conservatives are presenting is a vampiric version of meaning, purpose and transcendence. What must be said – what can’t be emphasized enough – is that these are plastic roses that they’re selling, they’re trash-bags painted red with the hope that the public won’t notice the difference. Neither place nor tradition are actually transcendent; where you’re born is an accident of contingency and no infant has any traditions but that which is imparted to them. To build a society – to hope for meaning – based on place or tradition alone is to court the standard conservative fallacy from the era of Edmund Burke onward. It’s to make an idolatry out of antiques and dirt. But here’s the crucial thing: people will take even fake roses if they’re being offered roses.
By contrast, a vigorous left has the obligation, the responsibility, to once again explain how meaning is found not in insularity, but with universalism, not in tribalism, but in solidarity. A case must be made that socialism doesn’t just administer to our material needs better, but to our spiritual ones as well, that it supplies bread and roses. Philosopher Martin Hägglund writes in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom that social democracy is the ideology which best supplies meaning, where “we will be intrinsically motivated to participate in social labor when we can recognize that the social production is for the sake of the common good and our own freedom to lead a life.”
For those who believe that going far to the left is a risk in the 2020 election, I’ll postulate that not going far enough will ensure a Trump victory, and perhaps a Hawley victory some dark day down the road. Note that the choice of the word “socialism” is important, because centrism, moderation, and triangulation won’t supply meaning; the Democratic Party leadership (as opposed to its elected left vanguard) still thinks that neo-liberalism is a system which works. But where neo-liberalism valorizes the individual, and National Conservatism the tribe, Fisher wrote that socialism advocates “Everything for everyone. All of us first.”
Ed Simon is the associate editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and is a regular contributor at several different site. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.