Forget the Kitchen Table: All Politics Is Aspirational

Politics Features Centrism
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Forget the Kitchen Table: All Politics Is Aspirational

Let’s talk about the kitchen table. Those two words are code for “approved aspirations.” Nothing less, and nothing more.

The idea is pretty simple: “You have to get away from aspirational politics.” But what does that amount to? Let us turn to McSweeney’s, which just published a staggeringly beautiful satirical piece, “Put Aside Your Purity Politics and Embrace My Feckless Centrism”:

You might think that the candidate voters select is self-evidently the best candidate to win the general, as they have already proven they have some sort of popular support. But what really wins elections is “electability.” Electability is a perfect metric I invented that rejects flawed models like polling data and past election results and favors the views of myself and other wealthy, white op-ed columnists. ... You need to accept that we both want progress. I want Medicare For All (in a very limited form that will still let me sell prescription drugs at five hundred times the cost) and a Green New Deal (hopefully long after I’m dead and my children have secured their place in their hermetically-sealed bunker). The fact is, you can’t have progress too quickly.

Centrist and conservatives share rhetorical DNA. They either redefine progress, or claim that progress is unrealistic. By contrast, centrist and conservative ideas are supposedly rational and sane. Anything else is pie-in-the-sky country.

But here’s what they’ll never admit: All politics is aspirational.

By way of analogy, consider how consumer culture works. Adidas and Apple sell you an ideal version of yourself. How many people who bought Craftsman tools were literally craftsmen? There’s zero chance that everyone who buys Nike is already fit. We purchase goods as promissory notes for what we want to be.

What is true in consumer life is true in politics. Politics sells you an ideal society, and the ideal self that would live in that society. All political positions aspire to something that isn’t real yet.

We vote, march, and organize to create a world that we would want to live in. In a larger sense, we engage in politics to build a civilization that would make us better. This behavior happens on every level of human life: Why do we want cool friends? In part because we suspect that being around them will make us cooler by proxy. We suspect that even if we are not cool, we will somehow learn to be cool by proximity; we’ll pick it up, somehow. Half of dating is about finding a person who will make you better.

If all politics is aspirational, that means that practically all political faiths are revolutionary. This truth makes centrists and conservatives uncomfortable, specifically because they define themselves by not being revolutionaries.

The right have this line they use. About how they’re the calm ones. How they represent an instinct of preservation. How they embrace an imperfect world, and how this makes them the opposite of utopians. How they’re standing against the progress of history.

This argument is nonsense. And always has been. Conservatism is aspirational. As Corey Robin points out, conservatism is about hierarchy. Some people are high, some people are low.

The right, above all else, desires ever-more-restrictive hierarchies. The status quo is never conservative enough for them. The idealized pasts they claim to protect? Made up. Visions pasted together, like Frankenstein’s monster and Picasso collages. The right-wing past is constructed from half-remembered snatches of TV shows, Facebook memes, gauzy childhood daydreams, and a constant tissue of low-level suburban anxiety. Their present-day beliefs are crafted to favor whoever’s currently on top. That’s why, despite their name, conservatism always wants to conserve different things. Two hundred years ago, that meant protecting the aristocracy and the clergy. Nowadays, that equals guarding the one percent.

Their views are a dozen times more radical than the so-called radical left. The right wants impossibilities. I’m not even talking about the two big ones: a gigantic wall, and for Trump to become competent. I mean their quieter goals: no more immigrants (good luck), for women to not be in charge of their bodies (impossible), for corporations to pillage forever (you eventually run out of people to exploit), for Americans to forget about climate change (Wikipedia exists).

The centrists also have unworkable ambitions. If conservatives love the imagined past, the centrists love the imagined now. America is already great, they say. All we really need is to fiddle with the dials, they say. Why even have ideas? They get in the way of the discourse.

But centrist politics is aspirational, too.

Like the right, the center wants an America that doesn’t exist: the rational Republic of meritocracy. In the centrist view of the world, there are no poor, just bystanders whose talents have not been properly utilized by the all-seeing market. There are no sick people, just folk without “access” to “affordable” health care. In the Centrist World, there are no eternal wars of foreign entanglement. Instead, there are regrettable but necessary police actions—and such duties are the obligations that come with being the benign overlords of the world.

During the last election, the Clinton campaign and many of its followers charged progressives with wanting “ponies.” With aspiring, in other words. Abigail Tracy of Vanity Fair recounted it this way:

But no 2016 foe apparently occupies so much of Clinton’s headspace as Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist from Vermont who, she argues, hijacked the Democratic primary and derailed her White House bid by misleading voters with his utopian, pie-in-the-sky proposals for free health care, free college, and free ponies for all. “Throughout the primaries, every time I wanted to hit back against Bernie’s attacks, I was told to restrain myself,” Clinton writes, comparing Sanders at one point to the deranged hitchhiker in There’s Something About Mary. “Noting that his plans didn’t add up, that they would inevitably mean raising taxes on middle-class families, or that they were little more than a pipe-dream—all this could be used to reinforce the argument that I wasn’t a true progressive.”

Imagine: wanting your family and friends not to go bankrupt from hospital bills equals wanting “a pony.” Wanting an end to student debt is a “pony.” Wanting us not to bomb people is a “pony.”

Our perspective is changed, once we grant that all politics is aspirational. And here is where the charge of ponies dies.

Progressives don’t want ponies. We never have. We are aspirational, but we are realistic in our aspirations. We want things that are necessary, easy, and sensible. We want what many other countries already have. We’re talking about nations that are far poorer and weaker than the United States.

Universal healthcare has endured in thirty-two developed countries. Lots and lots of nation-states manage to get through the year without bombing Yemen. The realms of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Finland have free college tuition, and they haven’t fallen into the sea.

In the uncertain science of politics, this is as close as you get to proving a hypothesis true.

The ponies belong, I’m afraid, to the other teams.

What does the center want? Essentially what conservatives want: for the mass of humanity to support an elite. Forever. For the right, it’s an elite of birth, and for the center, it’s an elite of “merit,” but the idea of a favored class of people remains.

Progressives will return political and economic power to the stablest platform in the world: the decent, diverse mass that makes up the American people. Nothing else makes sense.

Moreover, if all politics is aspirational, then why not be our best selves?

If you want to be a better person, why wait for tomorrow? You can be the hero you want to be, right now.

You don’t need a wealthier America to fund health care for all. You don’t need to invent morally perfect human beings to stop bombing other countries. You don’t need a technological innovation to save you from climate change. You can pass laws which will change the world today. Don’t tarry to do the right thing. Do it now. That’s the problem with only living in the future: it always ends up being right about now.