Jim Sleeper Interview Transcript
MATT JACOBSON: OK, just as a start do you mind while I set my levels, would you just say and spell your name, please?
JIM SLEEPER: Sure. J-A-M-E-S S-L-E-E-P-E-R. James Sleeper, or Jim Sleeper actually, which is better.
JS: That’s what I’ll go by, is Jim.
MJ: That’s great. Do you mind just as a start– oh, do you need that?
JS: No, no, no, just so that I don’t have to talk too loud. I just want to make sure you’ll pick it up without my having to… OK, good.
MJ: No, we’re fine. Do you mind starting just by giving me a kind of biographical thumbnail sketch: Who you are, where you’re from, what you’ve done, what you’re doing now?
JS: Sure, sure. Presently, I’m a part-time, I’m a lecturer in political science at Yale. And I’m a writer. I’m basically a writer– is that coming through?
MJ: Yeah, we’re good.
JS: –ethnic and racial relations and politics in New York and nationally. How’s that, that’s good?
JS: And it took me a long time to realize that what I think I’ve been doing all these years as a writer is looking for some kind of civic republican tradition that is inevitably Left in many ways, but draws certain wisdom from certain kinds of conservative sources too– certain things from Edmund Burke and others.
The more deeply I think about what kind of country this is and how we might conceivably mobilize it, I think it’s a country that is plagued by capitalist excess, but that the only way to get at it is through reaching into some deeper currents that are in the country itself that are not definably Marxist or definably Left. And it’s very hard to explain what that is, because it sometimes means I wind up criticizing the progressive side. But of course I abominate what the Conservative movement has become and what corporate and finance capital have become. And you know there is a long tradition of American resistance to capitalist excesses that was not always only Leftist. It was indigenous. Some of it was southern agrarian.
So I am mucking around among these undercurrents looking for traction points– ways to communicate with a public that might respond to those kinds of appeals.
MJ: How would you describe your own kind of coming to consciousness politically, but also your political education?
JS: It’s interesting. My parents were Hubert Humphrey Democrats, pro civil rights. But I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s that way. They were fans of Adlai Stevenson and so on. And when I came to Yale as an undergraduate in 1965, that’s essentially what I was.
And I think I was radicalized more by the Vietnam War than by the civil rights movement, which of course I had supported, but in the traditional liberal way. It was in confronting what the American state was becoming in the Vietnam War that I really began to question a lot of the basic assumptions of the American Republic. I spent years on the Left– in the activist movement Left– as a consequence of that.
I wrote for the Village Voice and I’m still on the editorial board of Dissent, the Democratic Socialist Quarterly. And I think a lot of my journalism was always basically about rousing the people– awaking people– that kind of muckraking impetus with a progressive bent.
Lately, I don’t know whether it’s partly just because I get older or because my views of what’s possible have been more nuanced– and we’ve learned some of this from watching Obama– what is and isn’t possible and what its pitfalls are, my writing is a little bit more reflective and I’m reaching for other currents than the usual kind of movement mobilizing type of writing that I’ve done in the past. So I’m struggling with that. That’s where I’m basically at.
MJ: What’s your own sense of, as a writer, who your public is or your publics? How do you think about the kind of fragmented electorate that we’re looking at and how do you define who you are trying to reach?
JS: That’s a good question. I think the only public that I can reach because of the way I write are young and middle-aged people who are interested in civic republican leadership– that’s small “r” on the republican you know– people who are trying to figure out how you can balance the contending forces in ways that allow us to move forward– people who are already aware of that dilemma and who are reaching for it. Now that can include community activists, organizers. I hope it does. But I think it also includes students and young people and those who already agree with me in older age.
So it’s not a very large public that I’m reaching for anymore, although I still do newspaper work and still publish things for larger audiences and enjoy being in contact and dialoguing with them.
MJ: Do you still think it’s possible to change minds with writing?
JS: Not with print as such. But I think we always overestimate it. Maybe when Tom Paine wrote Common Sense — you know print was the only medium there was — and so you changed minds. And everyone was literate. Now people are aliterate. They’re not illiterate. But they don’t read seriously.
MJ: Right. And they also, I mean, one of the things that’s been so striking in the last– well especially in the last decade– but probably in the last three– since the coaxial cable probably as a turning point– that people have their kind of own boutiqued realities–
MJ: –and they cherry pick the available news. They are so entrenched in their own data sets and their own views that there’s no really public common anymore, and I wonder how you face that as a writer?
JS: First of all, I agree with that. In fact, Seyla Benhabib says it’s as if people are walking around with bubble wrap around their brains and they just let in what they want as they read. So I’m agreeing with what you’re saying. I’m extremely frustrated that way.
I find that the general mass media is so corporate dominated that I find it harder and harder to get published there, except sometimes when the stars align right. And so I wind up blogging in places like Talking Points Memo, which has a political junkie, left of center, policy wonkish readership. And so there is a certain amount of preaching to the converted or holding internal debates. I think all I can do or the way I meet it, is I try and pitch what I’m writing to those who are trying to reach a mass audience but who check in with places like the ones I write for to take their bearings. I write with them very much in mind. I do not write to preach to the converted, preach to the choir, to rouse the people who already agree with me. I write to be a little counterintuitive and pull in those who I know are just kind of peeking into the site and say, here are some things you ought to carry back to the mainstream. So it’s very nuanced in that sense. And I get good responses fr! om people.
All of these blog sites have three audiences. There’s those who post the comments, which run the gamut from the ridiculous to good. And then there are those who write to you personally. Many people read these sites and would never post a comment, but they do read them. And they xerox, they print it out. And then there are those who will link you and comment on what you’re saying somewhere else. So those three layers make it reasonably satisfying. And in the old days, when I did a column for the New York Daily News, I could ride home on the subway and watch people reading my column, but I never felt that it had all that much impact. I’m not so sure that the vast audience really converted into political mobilization. It was kind of a distraction, a moment’s entertainment on the subway, or whatever.
MJ: Right, OK. Well, let’s talk about this current moment that we’re in in the U.S. I’ve been traveling around talking to all sorts of different people, and the phrase “this current moment” has a lot of weight and a lot of power. People get very passionate about the idea that this is an extraordinary moment in many ways. There’s no consensus at all about what’s important about it, what’s significant, what’s interesting. But there is this wide sense from right to left and in-between that this is an extraordinary moment. When I say that phrase to you, what comes to mind? What is it about this moment that strikes you?
JS: Frankly, Edward Gibbon’s description of the moment when Augustus was leading Rome from being a republic into an empire. I think that during the Bush years, especially if we rolled this moment back just a few years and take the past five years, this moment is a time when we still have the forms and institutions of a republic but the centralization of power and the swiftness and darkness of the strong undercurrents that are anti-republican is really frightening.
I sense that in the media. Of course we sense it in the industrial, in our health care, and military-industrial nature of things. I feel that there is a kind of corporate ethos which has nothing to do with the Lockean entrepreneurial capitalism that one might have supported and is really frightening. And I think this current moment is a moment in which we are on the verge of losing the soul, as well as the institutions, of a vigorous republican– small “r” republican– polity, where people are vigorously engaged in self-government. I think people are vigorously engaged in distractions, like Tea Party explosions and things like that. That is not self-government.
Alexander Hamilton had a great quote– a great remark in one of The Federalist Papers where he said, “It seems that it has been left to Americans to decide the important question whether a people can really govern itself through reflection and choice, or whether it will always have to depend for it’s political constitution on accident and force. ” This is that moment. We’re figuring out whether we’re going to be able to keep this. And it really does depend ultimately on a vigilant citizenry. And there isn’t any ideology or set of institutions that can guarantee that spark of vigilance, and virtue, and balance in people. The American Republic was always staked on that. And it reached it only in the breach. It was often worse than that. We know there have been many terrible moments of mob violence, of breakdown. So I console myself with that– that I say, well is this current moment really more perilous than McCarthyism was or than World War I, when the government was almost t! otalitarian? I don’t know the answer to that.
MJ: Are there any– well, so let’s parse this out a little bit. First of all, are you hopeful?
JS: I’m hopeful without being optimistic. I’m hopeful. In other words, I still think it’s possible. I do think the Obama campaign, while it has led to many disappointments, it was more than an extended Michael Jackson performance in which a bunch of kids on the internet got excited. It was more than that. There was something really stirring in the public. I don’t think it’s been well sustained or well organized. But that really made me feel that I was not alone. After the 2004 election when Bush was reelected, I think many of us really thought we’re heading into a tunnel that it’s going to be hard to come out of. And the Obama campaign lifted that fear and opened things up again. But since then I think we’re learning, those of us who may have had some illusions, that the Office of the Presidency is constrained and driven by a powerful confluence of forces that he alone cannot turn aside. So in that sense I’m hopeful that if this dawning awareness that we all have can lead to! a second kind of movement with new leadership– not just his but somebody, some other’s– a combination of wise leadership and a new stirring. I’m hopeful.
MJ: We’ll talk about the first year of the Obama administration, but let’s back up and talk about that wave of hope from roughly maybe February to November of ’08– the campaign season, first the primaries and then the general election. Can you tell me your experience of those months: what you saw, what you felt, what your sense of possibility was during that time?
JS: I started out early in 2008 probably very worried. I was still haunted by the 2004 election and what had ensued– the miserable four years of Katrina and all of it. And I wasn’t sure that Hillary Clinton would survive the Fox News “vast right wing conspiracy,” as she called it. I don’t call it that, but I understand why she said that. I thought these forces are so powerful that once again we’re going to watch the Democrats fight each other and then get slaughtered. So I started out skeptical and thinking that maybe on balance Hillary was best, but I felt doomed. I would never warm to John Edwards. I don’t know why. I had a visceral feeling that while he was saying the right things, I just didn’t click with him. Obama I was watching, but like many other people, especially me as someone who has spent years writing about racial and ethnic politics, here I am the great champion of transracial hope in terms of the things I write– the antithesis of identity politics– and yet! I thought, but the country isn’t ready. You know, I remember, when I was going around saying to people early in 2008 was, it’s an actuarial question: how many of the people who will never pull the lever for a black man are still alive? We have to wait for a layer of people to just pass from the scene before a guy like this can get elected. And I said, I don’t know if we’re there yet.
As I listened and watched his cadences and the poetry of the campaigning, I realized that he was hitting all the right notes that mattered to me. And I became a strong, hopeful supporter of his. And I watched him go through his trials with Jeremiah Wright and all these other things. And I began to just really see that something was coalescing around this guy. Frankly, it was everything that I felt that I had been saying in my books and in my journalism and there had been no one to point to. I was always just saying how Al Sharpton was getting it wrong, or how this one or that one. Here was a guy who got it. And clearly what was exciting to me was that a lot of other people got it. It wasn’t just me writing The Closest of Strangers or Liberal Racism. He got it. And other people were warming to it. There was something post-racial about it: his dogged refusal to get down into that muck– I loved that. There were people to my left who were saying he can’t be really representativ! e of the right things. I wound up feeling OK, he is 1/3 Harvard neoliberal, he’s 1/3 Chicago pol– neither of which two things I admire very much, but you have to have that to get elected. And he’s 1/3 legacy of the civil rights movement community organizer, Reinhold Nieburh– you know, a wise man. And I said, the 2/3rds are going to outvote the 1/3, but this the best one that I get. And so that’s how I felt.
MJ: Do you remember the moment that you first thought, wow, this guy could win?
JS: I don’t know that there ever was a moment. I really was haunted by the actuarial question. I remember toward the end, the polls were so weird. I think I was always on tenderhooks. I was never going around saying he’s gonna clinch it. And you remember, I mean I’m sure many others have mentioned this, that in the week before the election, everybody’s mood was going up and down, despite the nuttiness of Palin, and you could see all the neocons sort of defecting and saying whoops, this isn’t what we bargained for when we joined the right. But you thought, oh my God. So, no, I know that there was a moment when I felt that he deserved to win and that he was playing it right. But I just was never one of those people who thought, oh this is going to happen.
MJ: Can you describe some of what you saw around you? You were on a college campus through that period?
JS: Yeah, basically in New York and at Yale. Basically, well, that’s right, yeah.
MJ: And were you sensing a different kind of response among your students to Obama than you had seen before?
JS: Yes. Students were warming to him regardless of whether they were moderates or leftists or something. And even some of the “honorable conservative Republican” types– he was turning their heads. They were kids who had taken their own liberal education seriously enough that they picked up on certain resonances. And I remember talking with a couple kids who had been in the party of the right in the Yale political union and they just felt that he had a certain nobility, a certain character. They recognized what it meant to be a black man coming through. They were not racist in their inclination. They realized that this was something formidable. And they were embarrassed by Palin.
And I actually know, and I can mention this because it’s not private– I’ve mentioned it in a TPM post– Scott McConnell, who was the editor of The American Conservative magazine, was campaigning for Obama in Virginia in November, and in the end of October. These are people who– and some kids at Yale were like that– they just felt that he was saying something they believed in. And to me what it was, was this civic republican kind of thing: the idea that we’re not just in a republic where we have checks and balances and representatives, but there’s something that binds us together. There’s a political culture that has to be nurtured with certain ideas of justice and fairness that we may disagree about how to apply them, but we spend some energy doing that. Obama was rejuvenating that. That’s what I felt. And I saw people around Yale responding to that.
MJ: So what’s been your assessment of the first year of this administration? Here we are almost a year to the day– a year and a week into this administration.
JS: I’m one who was inclined to give him a lot of slack at first. I did not approve of the Geithner and Summers, the economy stuff. I’m not an expert on the economy. But I thought he went a little too far to the center. I knew he had to reassure a lot of people. And that he had to play his cards very carefully. I think he erred too much on the side of caution there. And I think that in many other ways, he kind of lost his momentum. This wonderful networked support movement that he had built had to be turned into a political organization. They kind of dropped the ball. They decided to play the inside beltway game. I think on the health care thing, I’m one of those who felt he gave too much over to Congress. I think he should have gone for it. I think he was right to try and do health care and get it through, but I think he could’ve rammed it through instead of letting them dither as much. Not quite rammed it through.
JS: I contrast him with FDR in the following sense precisely because FDR was a son of the plutocracy. He had grown up with great wealth. He had a certain aristocratic self-confidence, so he could get up in Madison Square Garden in 1936 and say, the bankers hate me and I welcome their hatred. Barack Obama, we soon discovered, cannot do that. First of all, if a black man just arches an eyebrow, people think he’s full of rage. But secondly, he himself did not grow up with that sense of aristocratic entitlement. So he couldn’t quite do what even Ted Kennedy could do, which is rail against the powers that be. I think we wanted to see a little of that.
MJ: Are we the beginning to now– I mean the State of the Union address and in his meeting with the Republican caucus last week? The tenor of both of those events was different from what we have seen in the previous year.
JS: Yes, yes.
MJ: How portentous is that in your view?
JS: I think it’s his best and highest card. I don’t think he’ll ever be convincing as an out and out populist. I think what was convincing in the State of the Union message and in the meeting with the Republicans in Baltimore was his civic republicanism saying, look, let’s stop trying– you know, he called them on their tactics in front of everyone. He didn’t really denounce them as a bunch of plutocratic money changers, which I would have loved. He didn’t do that. He basically said you have ideas. I have ideas. He tried to embarrass them by standards that everyone does profess to hold: the standards of fairness and decency and equity in the debate.
MJ: Is that going to have traction with this crowd?
JS: No. I think it helps him because I think a lot of Americans did watch and they said, I believe that too. And I do think the Republicans and the Fox News shouters have gone a little too far. But will those people stop doing it? No. And they will be right back to it. And they will be appealing once again. He may have given a couple of them a mild crisis of conscience.
I think that the undercurrents in this society are really bad now. We have a “malevolent transformation,” to use a term that the psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan talked about. People’s wiring is– thanks to a lot of things that are going on, and I do think that Fox News is part of it. I do think that the right-wing media assault plays on people’s weaknesses and accustoms them to processing information in terms of fear and mistrust. And there’s no incentivization to do it otherwise because there’s a lot for these people to be mistrusting and fearing. They got the wrong target, though. Once you’ve become psychically wound up in processing information that way, you would feel almost like a chump if you turned over to a more positive kind of constructive way of doing like he did in the campaign. And I think that this is the great danger. I don’t think he alone– he can set an example and he can be very instructive. And I think he was that in the State of the Union and in the co! lloquy with the Republicans. But I think the undertows are so powerful that it’s going to take more personal witness on the part of more people against those undertows.
MJ: What’s your sense, as a journalist, what is your sense of people like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News shouters as you called them, do they believe what they’re saying? Or is this is this a ratings game? Is it half and half? How do you understand their view of the world and their own understanding of the things they say?
JS: I think that ratings lust has driven them to believe that they believe what they’re saying. In other words, I think they’re reaching for a hot button. I think intellectually they’re very confused. If you really could get them in an ideal speech situation in which you were debriefing them on what they really believe, after reciting the usual conservative knee-jerk pieties, you would find that they’re very confused. And that they don’t really know what they believe. But they do have these “irritable metal gestures” as Lionel Trilling once said, that seek to resemble ideas. They are very, very committed to those gestures. They do get so much reinforcement in terms of the audiences for doing that. So I think they began with certain beliefs– Reagan Democrat type beliefs: I’m a good guy; I’m basically a populist, but these liberals have screwed it up. They began telling themselves that. They believe that. But the ratings lust has overtaken and overdetermined their commitment ! to staying with it and saying it. It’s a feedback loop that’s reinforcing itself. I would like to think that after Katrina and after the miserable things in Iraq and after the melt-down in the economy, that they would finally have pinched themselves. But they don’t seem to be able to.
MJ: Well, and the more astonishing thing is how much kind of ideological space they occupy on the right side of things. I mean they’ve become really important to the Republican party–
MJ: –in a way that, it’s kind of mind-boggling.
Among elected officials, are there any Republicans who you still to look to for some sense of the kind of civic-mindeness that you’re talking about?
JS: No. I’m sure there are some. I think we saw in Baltimore they’re very good at pretending to be choir boys when they get up and address the President in front of the nation. They can sound civic republican. We want to dialogue with you. But no, I think the thoughtful ones have been driven out of the party for the most part. Look at these purity tests that they’re now experimenting with the Republicans. They’re trying to draw up a list of standards. And unless you meet eight out of ten, you won’t be supported by the party in your campaign. That’s a real litmus test that forecloses thought. It just short circuits any kind of honest debate. So I don’t have much hope for the Republicans. I don’t know where it’s going to come from.
You asked something else with that question though, I’m not sure–
MJ: No, I was just curious because I know that–
JS: You know who I felt saw this? I think if Sam Tanenhaus tells the truth when he writes Buckley’s biography, when he finally publishes it, William F. Buckley I think was in despair at the end of his life. I think he saw what it had come to. He did not like these Bill O’Reilly type people. We know from his own Crossfire program he had a different manner. He sustained friendships across ideological divides. I mean I thought his ideas were fatuous, but he at least believed in a certain civility. And I think he looked at what both the Republican party and the conservative movement had become. Apparently he said to Tanenhaus or someone, we should never have let the neocons in. He really was despairing.
MJ: Let me just ask you one last thing. We haven’t yet about the economic collapse. What’s been your experience of that? I was talking to someone who lives here in New York, who’s unemployed, and she said– and it’s really haunting and bizarre– because you can read about the scale of the crisis in the newspaper, but there’s no kind of public markers of it, other than vacant real estate around the city. But you don’t see bread lines, you don’t see–
MJ: –there aren’t the kind of visual markers in our public culture the way there were in the Depression. And so what’s your sense as a New Yorker?
JS: Well, I’m living in Midtown now. And I’m a good observer of the cityscape: not only of all those vacancies all along Fifth Avenue, but the traffic is lighter on the streets too. The car traffic is lighter, because not as many people are coming to work. It happened at New Year’s. Many people had leases that ran out at the end of the year. Businesses staggered on until the end of the year. We got back from a couple weeks away in January, and I really noticed it. Now what that means to me, those vacancies mean a lot of people are sitting home frantically sending out their resumes: secretarial type people, lower management people, and they’re not finding anything. So I don’t know if that will lead to bread lines, but I think a lot of people are right now running through the very, very last of what they’ve got. So I think it’s getting worse.
MJ: Yeah, I think it is too.
JS: I think the visible markers– I guess my answer to your question is, we may see soup lines. I hope it won’t come to that. We’re gonna see more visible markers soon.
I’m experiencing it as a writer. The publishing industry is in a tailspin. It doesn’t even know what it’s going to do. And I think we writers are going to be back like on Grub Street, or a Balzacian… or a Trollope–we’re going to be begging for crumbs. Magazines that would pay you $5,000 for an essay are no longer there. And they know that you’ll write for free because you gotta write, you gotta write, you want your audience. That’s how they’re treating us now. Sorry, we can’t pay you. I joke that for blogging at TPM, I make minus $1.00 a word, because of the time I spend writing, they don’t pay anything, you know. And I have to xerox my own — You know, that can’t go on forever. I mean I have some savings and I do do my teaching. But I think a lot of people like us who don’t have the benefit of tenure are– you do, right?
JS: Yeah. God bless you. But those who don’t, I think they’re really on thin ice now just keeping up appearances. A year from now, who knows? What do you think? I mean you must be, you’re talking with people.
MJ: Yeah. I agree with you. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. And I think, in part, I think it’s already worse than we know, in a certain way.
JS: Yes, I agree.
MJ: I mean, I think there are a lot of people living with their families. I mean there’s a kind of hidden unemployed.
JS: That’s right.
MJ: That can only go on for so long.
JS: That’s right.
MJ: And I think the number of people who are one paycheck away from crisis is enormous. I think the number of people, as Obama said in the State of the Union, the number of people who are one illness away–
JS: That’s right.
MJ: –from crisis is enormous. But I do think there’s a kind of hidden homeless, and I don’t know how many millions of people we’re talking about, but I think it’s a lot.
JS: That’s right.
MJ: People who have graduated college, who are back living with their parents. People older than that, who either have had a career or have had half a career and now are living with relatives. I mean there’s, I think, more going on than meets the eye.
JS: I think that’s right. Yep, that’s my sense also. I mean our daughter is 24 and she’s at LSE now, so everything is in abeyance. But what she sees among her peers, it’s not good. And you see in the columns that the kids write in the Yale Daily News, they are scared. They’re lining up for interviews with the banks and Goldman Sachs. It’s not that they believe in it, but they want to make something. They see nothing else out there. I don’t know what form it’s going to take.
MJ: Yeah, I’m not sure either. Well, this has been great. Is there anything that you feel that we should have talked about, that we didn’t touch on?
JS: Nothing is jumping out. It’ll come to me over lunch, which then it’ll be too late because it will be noisy down there. No, I just really worry that it’s just what we’re saying. My sense is that beneath the surface, while people are keeping up appearances, we are headed for something really scary politically and that nobody– I thank God that Obama is in the White House but, you know David Brooks, who is my least favorite person as a columnist, had a column the other day that was exactly right. He said Ross Perot is coming. He didn’t mean the Ross Perot. He said somebody is going to be popping up soon saying the Democrats can’t solve it, the Republicans are ridiculous, I’ll solve it. And I think people are going to go for that, with the right kind of folksy spin.
MJ: Is it inconceivable that Sarah Palin is that person?
JS: I think it’s inconceivable. But look at– we had Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger elected. That’s not inconceivable. Somebody like that. She’s a little too far gone.
MJ [Laughing]: One can hope.
MJ: Well, with that, thank you very much.
JS: Alright, my pleasure.