Sanders is Representing Agapé [Ag-AH-pay] Love for Millennials (and Beyond)

Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.

Democrats in remaining primary states are now making decisions about whether to continue supporting and campaigning for Bernie Sanders the surprisingly successful underdog in the Democratic primary for President or line up behind the current frontrunner and Democratic Establishment candidate Hillary Clinton.   Sanders still has a chance to win a majority of pledged delegates if primary voters feel positively about Sanders and negatively about his opponent Clinton, that they will support Sanders.  The role of grassroots Sanders campaign volunteers is crucial here.  There are many aspects to voters’ decision-making but I want to highlight one feature of his candidacy that goes beyond differences in policy between Sanders and Clinton.  I think that those decisions revolve also around differing understandings of what kinds of love people need to survive and thrive.

While in the English the word and concept “love” is largely undifferentiated, the ancient Greeks used four words to describe different types of love.  Differences in types of love have been a topic of some discussion among Christian theologians throughout the history of Christianity, in part because the Christian part of the Bible, the New Testament, was originally written in ancient Greek.   The author of the Christian allegory and beloved children’s book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and amateur theologian C.S. Lewis, wrote in 1960, a popular theological/philosophical book called “The Four Loves”.   Christian theology has tended to appropriate discussion of pre-Christian Greek concepts of love for Christianity alone, as it is an evangelical faith.  Here in contrast, my application of these distinctions in types of love is secular: anthropological, psychological, philosophical, and political.  I believe that these differences in types of love exist in the world independent of religious doctrine and are partly observable in behavior and personal expressions of real people.

Among those four types of love in ancient Greek is agapé (ag-AH-pay) or the verb agapao, to love.  The word agapé is used to describe a transcendent love of humanity that is sometimes translated as “charity”; unlike the English translation “charity” though agapé is based on duty, not differential feelings of love for one or the other person or specific magnanimous acts.  Agapé also can be used to describe the sense of duty of parents or elders to their children.  Service to others as a choice, related and unrelated, is an expression of agapé. A less elegiac view of agapé is that it is a form of social “glue” that can be weakened or strengthened by individual acts as well as by acts of government.

Catholicism and other Christian denominations have adopted agapé as the description of the love of God for man and the love of man for God.  The image of Jesus Christ as a kind of early socialist, with a transcendent and abundant love of humanity, is common in many sects of Christianity.  The ancient Greeks had terms for other types of love, using the term “phileo” or a more fraternal, familial love and then “eros’ which describes sexual love and passionate love more generally (not necessarily sexual).  In Greek, “storge” is also used to describe familial bonds, in particular the tolerance of others and empathy with them.

While many politicians like to think of themselves as motivated by agapé love, it is hard to sustain a predominant influence of this type of love in a politician’s life, especially during the course of a long political career, pressured by powerful and/or wealthy interest groups.   Politicians are often drawn to specific groups of people with whom they share more of the phileo kind of love, emotional ties based on familiarity or mutual self-interest.  Political leaders and public leaders (religious and non-religious) are then, in the view I am advancing here, more or less convincing in their representation of agapé in words and actions.  A life of public service must at least pay lip service to an agapé connection to humanity (as opposed to, for instance, a career in the private sector, where there is less of an assumption of an agapé relationship to the world).

As with the charitable, other-directed actions of the biblical character (and perhaps  as well the historical individual) Jesus Christ, emphasizing agapé as a fundament of society, tends towards what is viewed in the current political spectrum towards social democratic or socialist policies.  The right-wing is more oriented towards policies and politics that defend the familiar (based more on phileo) and cast aspersions on the unfamiliar or those who appear to be in a lower stratum of society.  A commitment to agapé mandates that one “love one’s neighbor as thyself” and embrace the stranger, positions that are incompatible with the predominant social-political orientation of the Right.

Secular deontological ethics (the pursuit of the good by following good rules or developing and following better new rules), an important basis for a vital civic life and functioning social institutions, is only put into effect via some expression of agapé by individuals in their actions towards others.   Civilization, including a functioning legal system, an economy that endeavors to improve social welfare and successful, fair market transactions, is impossible without a fundamental assumption of trust, of belief, that can be characterized as agapé.  Though some might take the last statement as prescriptive and metaphysical rather than descriptive, I could list off thousands of daily activities by billions of people that are impossible without the existence of such basic trust.

The Neoliberal Era and Agapé

Neoliberalism is the dominant political-economic philosophy of the last four decades and almost by definition it attempts to marginalize the expression of and devalue agapé love in the public sphere.  As neoliberalism assumes but never attempts to prove as a grounding assumption, we are mostly creatures driven by a drive to maximize our individual “utility” on markets  or quasi-markets within other social institutions. In the neoliberal view, as people are motivated almost exclusively by narrow personal interests, agapé has no place in public life.  To neoliberals, agapé either doesn’t exist within the core institutions of public life or, it must be privatized and made subsidiary to the goal of individual gain.  Neoliberal social scientists/political ideologues like James Buchanan with his public choice theory have conceived, in the guise of science, of a public sphere without a commitment to a common humanity or common interests of any community of people.

A belief in the importance of agapé in public life, could only, if we maintain the assumptions of people like Buchanan, function as a self-delusion or ruse to defraud others.  In the latter case, politicians would use the appearance of agapé love for humanity, to appear to be interested in serving others, when the politician is interested only in him or herself and close associates and family members.  Much neoliberal and right-wing discourse (right-wing radio; social media,  Fox News) is filled with stories of how people are tricked by the assumption of agapé that can, in their view, never be trusted or relied upon.  Corruption is then the norm and actual public service is literally an accident or serendipitous, rare event.  A life of service is viewed as an anomaly to the norm of ego-focused striving and “utility maximizing”.

To try to maintain agapé love as marginal or unthinkable within public life, neoliberals have either denied its existence or derided those who seem to stand for an inclusive humanity as a fundamental unit of social life, a bulwark of civilization.   Alternatively, neoliberals attempt to privatize what appears to be agapé via the proliferation of private foundations, supported by the wealthy, maintaining, as it were, the appearance of humanitarianism and love of humanity within distinct private bounds.  In this context, the appearance of charitableness can become just another accoutrement of wealth.   In fact, neoliberalism has tended towards a social Darwinist view, where social goods like charity can be concentrated among the “winners” of society, by which it is implied those who have more money.

Neoliberalism inherits its worldview from mainstream neoclassical and Austrian economics that see social welfare as depending largely or entirely on the functioning of markets, while denying or ignoring the role of society-wide institutions like governments and laws.  Mainstream neoclassical and heterodox Austrian economics, assume away any form of social “glue” and of group behavior, preferring to see society as composed of social atoms without fundamental connections with each other.  The ideological boost of the standard though highly unrealistic presentation of economics in tens of thousands of Economics 101 classes, taught to tens of millions of students, has given neoliberalism surprising durability despite a history of disastrous social and economic results when implemented as policy.

The Sanders Candidacy and Millennials

During the 2016 Democratic primaries, the strong appeal of Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian, ethnically Jewish, self-proclaimed democratic socialist, to younger voters, is beyond dispute, though not entirely explicable using conventional means.   A few years ago, millennials were thought to be, in typical media treatments, apolitical, self-focused, and addicted to social media at the expense of a focus on politics and even non-cyber reality.  This year, Sanders, an insurgent candidate with a decidedly left of center platform, routinely wins 65-80% of the demographic 30 and under among primary voters.  There are a number of ways to interpret Sanders appeal to the young that use conventional economic interests.

It is clear that most younger people in the US are now trapped in a world that is now “worse” and on the path to “still worse” than what their parents and grandparents experienced.  Student debt weighs down college-educated people while those without college degrees are facing diminishing opportunities for well-paying work in industry or in service jobs.   A lucky few young people “make it” in the worlds of tech, media, or finance but a majority don’t.  Among current candidates for President, Sanders is consistently the candidate proposing the most far-reaching solutions for student indebtedness and boosting wages.  In this way, younger voters are voting their self-interest, as conventional political analysis would suggest, though for most current voters, free college will come too late to relieve current debt burdens.  Furthermore, Sanders’ stance on climate change is more consequential than his opponent’s and some of the young are becoming increasingly aware of the dire climate situation which they are inheriting from their parents and grandparents.  This also could be interpreted through the framework of young people voting their narrow self-interests.

I think though the idea that Sanders is essentially pandering to the young via appeals to their individual self-interests and that millennials are mostly rational calculators of their own financial gain are only partial views of Sanders’ success with younger voters.  The view of Sanders as simply tapping into self-interest overlooks what I think are some critical personal factors related to Sanders public persona, probably his own actual personality, and my experience interacting with people around the Sanders campaign, including phonebanking for the Sanders campaign.  Sanders’ appeal to the young partly hinges, in my belief, on a yearning for a new introduction, against the dominant neoliberal consensus, of the role of agapé love in public life and in our culture more generally.  My position is that both self-interest and a longing for hope and support in a general sense co-exist in young people’s view of Sanders.

Sanders has shown himself to be fairly scrupulous in introducing an almost entirely different public persona into the American public sphere, than what is currently common.    Personal ambition seems to play a relatively minor role is his aspirations to become President.  It is unlikely that he would have run if Elizabeth Warren had declared , and he seemed to delay his announcement until it was clear that she wouldn’t run.  His run is the realization of a lifetime of political work and belief in socialist and egalitarian ideals that he has hoped would have a greater role in American politics than they have to date.  He is, much of the time, extremely courteous to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and has been protective of her at times, against the attacks of the Republicans and sensation-seeking media.  His “Not Me, Us” slogan seems to be heartfelt and is a marked contrast with Clinton’s ego-focused campaign “I’m with Her”.  In a narcissistic age, Sanders seems to be a non-narcissist and a promoter of getting beyond narcissism.   He appears to be trying to BE a good person by good acts rather than SHOW others that he is a good person.

The reception by young voters (and younger) of Sanders’ public persona seems to be more spontaneous than simply the above-mentioned calculations of interest: Sanders is accepted, it appears lovingly, as an icon, a symbol of caring in a world that has become uncaring and increasingly dangerous for many.  (Before the Michigan primary, I called a household in far-north Marquette, Michigan where the 10 year old who answered the phone was a Bernie supporter) The individual details of his speeches and policy positions are subsidiary to and may flow from this iconic position as a leader representing what I am calling here agapé love for the American people and for humanity more generally.   Some of those policy positions are not what I would wish them to be (and some seem to be calculated compromises with a dysfunctional American political system) but I am more of a policy wonk than most voters, especially around issues of climate change and economics.  It is not clear now but maybe Sanders may occupy a place in American political life not unlike Martin Luther King, one of his influences, as an inspiration for continued activism.

Effective Action on Climate Requires Agapé Love for Humanity

People who have read some of my work know that I view climate change as an ongoing and now intensifying catastrophe, not fully acknowledged by leaders and most ordinary citizens of countries around the world.  To effectively address climate change will require a complete revision of how most of us do business and conduct our lives.  That revision will require us to take collectively a substantial evolutionary step as a species if we are not to wipe ourselves out (or at least wipe out civilized existence and the comfortable economies upon which we have come to depend).

This impending catastrophe is currently still too slow-moving for many of us to realize how much we are endangering ourselves and more importantly the young and those to come.  It will require us, collectively, via our large-scale political decisions and then lifestyle changes following from those decisions, to place agapé love in the center of our lives and thinking for a decade or more, perhaps forever.  Without a reinforcement of duty to humanity as a whole it is inconceivable that we and our political leaders will act effectively and in a timely fashion to transform our energy and land use to make a difference in the process of climate transformation we are witnessing now.

The recently signed Paris Agreement while perhaps an improvement over the Kyoto Agreement 20 years ago is still a feel-good measure out of synch with the physical reality of emissions and a changed climate.  The national commitments of emissions reductions (and then policies that would implement those commitments) will not quickly enough stop high emitters from emitting so much and, is in the details an agreement to warm the planet far beyond the 1.5C goal and 2.0C  limit that was agreed was dangerous in Paris.  Some calculations indicate that concrete emissions reductions PROMISES and not actions put us at 3 degrees plus above pre-industrial or early-industrial warming, which all acknowledge as unacceptable.   The UN and the UNFCCC process, draped as it is in professions of agapé love for humanity is only as powerful as the individual national policies that are actually implemented on the ground.  We appear in the last few months to be somewhere around 1.5C warming above pre-industrial levels (depending on which baseline you use.).  The Climate Mobilization, an organization in which I participate and support, had a die-in on Friday, the same day as the signing of the Agreement, to dramatize the lack of decisive action contained in the Paris Agreement.

Sanders, starting cautiously in his early policy statements on climate change, has recently talked of facing climate change as a WWII-style challenge that requires a similar emergency response as happened in the Second World War.  The Climate Mobilization, as do I, holds a position that the only rational response to climate change is a similar full-scale mobilization of social and economic resources over a period of a decade or more.  With Sanders, it is a hopeful sign to hear public figures call for something similar.  It may be that it is in part Sanders’ commitment to what I am calling agapé that has emboldened him to take a more forceful position on our greatest challenge

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