Self-Identification & Primary Hostilities

In case you haven’t been paying close attention, the Democratic presidential primary has dramatically heated up in recent weeks. Bernie Sanders has closed the gap in polling in Iowa and nationally, while building up a lead in New Hampshire. As polls have tightened, the Clinton campaign, their surrogates and many online supporters have gone into attack mode.

What is disheartening to me is that this could be a primary where big ideas are debated and we have a serious discussion of what direction the Democratic Party wants to take the country in coming decades. To be sure, we are having this debate, however it is being played out in increasingly uncivil tones. I’m no shirking violet and I do not think there’s anything wrong with heated political debate. But it is frustrating to see friends and organizations I respect wade into vicious attacks on each other over the candidates and who people support.

I have a sense as to what is causing the rising acrimony. Policy ideas are, generally, fact oriented things. Many different ideas can be easily arranged on a spectrum, with the political philosophies of left and right representative of different polls, and policy solutions conforming towards different points on the spectrum. Arguably there is no normative value associated with different spots on the spectrum. The concept of single payer healthcare is inarguably to the left of Obamacare, which is inarguably to the left of a system where there is no public subsidy for private health insurance.

Where this becomes fraught in today’s political environment is that people have very different, values laden senses of political identifiers. For people who use them to describe themselves, words like “progressive,” “centrist,” or “conservative” tend to mean “a good person.” Thus someone may proudly claim to be a “bold progressive,” a “staunch conservative,” or a “realistic centrist” as if those adjectives increase the person’s worth. And in the tribal realm of politics, individuals apply their assignation of self-worth not just to how they view themselves, but by supporting candidates like them, who fit these same billings and amplify their own worth.

The problems emerge, as we are seeing in the Democratic primary, when someone views themselves as a “bold progressive” and supports a candidate like Hillary Clinton in a race that also includes Bernie Sanders, an inarguably more left (and thus “progressive” in today’s parlance) politician. To say that Sanders is to Clinton’s left is a statement of fact – it has no moral value, nor does it impart any assessment on the worth of the candidates nor their supporters. It just is.

But for people who explicitly or implicitly take “progressive” to normatively mean “a good person,” then someone being more progressive means that they can lay claim to being “a better person” than our Clinton supporter. No one likes to feel like they are worth less than they see themselves, so they fight back against this idea (even though it is purely implicit and premised on the normative application of “progressive” as a designation of self-worth). They defend themselves from this perceived attack. They look for the tiniest of holes in the ideological spectrum, searching for issues to find spots or moments where their preferred candidate is to the left, and thus the True Progressive. We see this in the primary fight where the Clinton campaign has sought to turn Sanders’ lifetime “D-” NRA rating into a liability based on a handful of bad gun votes. The triumphant Clintonite response to this, “A-ha! Bernie is in the pocket of the NRA! He is no True Progressive!”

This also speaks to why we are seeing a real hatred of Sanders emerge in the Democratic establishment, which is almost exclusively backing Clinton and increasingly public in their disdain for Sanders. Democratic “elites” are flocking to Iowa, driven in part by fear and part out of a hatred of Sanders.

The campaign and its allies had planned all along to escalate their efforts at this point, as the caucuses near. However, Democratic governors, senators and other party leaders said they are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, surfing a wave of populist frustration to the nomination. And they were quick in interviews this week to dispense advice to Clinton.

Within the Democratic elite, where Clinton enjoys near-universal support, the antipathy toward Sanders has grown steadily as he has emerged as a potential Clinton slayer. All week, McCaskill has been loudly predicting an electoral catastrophe if her party nominates Sanders.

As much as there will be a massive rending of garments in Washington if Hillary Clinton fails to win from the position of presumptive nominee, the Clinton supporters are not wearing desperation well. They’re taking it personally and it is showing.

At least, this is what I am seeing. It could explain the anger and hatred at the increasing success of Sanders’ campaign. If everyone feels like he exists as a finger in their eye, a statement that they are not as good people as they thought they were, then anger is an understandable reaction. Whether it is justified is a different question, but at least this could explain it on an individual, emotional level.

On Krugman’s Critique of Sanders’ Single Payer Plan

I’m not going to attempt an exhaustive look at the critiques of Bernie Sanders’ single player health care plan. There are a lot out there, which is not surprising given how big an idea Sanders has put into play. For weeks the drumbeat from the Clinton campaign, surrogates and some in the press has been to ask, “Where is Bernie’s single payer plan?” Now that he has produced one, the immediate pivot has been to tear it down with an argument that amounts to, “Bernie’s single payer plan is unrealistic because it is a single payer plan.”

There’s a lot that gets packed into these criticisms, but I wanted to take a look at one from a very respected source: Paul Krugman. Paul Krugman’s takedown of Bernie Sanders single payer health care plan contain three main fallacious arguments in my view.

The first is his lede & description of Obamacare: “It more or less achieves a goal — access to health insurance for all Americans — that progressives have been trying to reach for three generations.” That is a re-writing of history. The long standing goal, as Senator Sanders repeatedly pointed out last night in the debate, was universal health care, not access to health insurance. To wit, if the goal had always been the sort of insurance access kludge we got in Obamacare, Obamacare would have been arriving as the clear demand, not the bartered, lobbied, crafted, kludged end-product that we ended up with. Obamacare might be an effective delivery vehicle for “access to health insurance for all Americans” – and its expansion of Medicare are even more effective – but it certainly did not deliver health care as a right. To that end, as much as it was a generational accomplishment for the Democratic Party, it did not leave the health care box permanently checked on the list of goals for the the Party.

The second issue I take with Krugman is that his first two objections to Sanders’ plan are attempts to be pragmatic, yet ignore what Sanders is actually saying. They are, effectively (1) incumbent players have lots of power and (2) it will be hard to convince the public that the tax costs to them are worth it (as rich people will spend lots of money opposing the bigger hit to their wallets).

I don’t doubt that these are accurate descriptions of reality and why passing single payer would be hard. But I think it is incredibly disingenuous to raise these points as reasons that Sanders’ plan is bad, while ignoring that they are fundamentally connected to Sanders’ argument that we need a “political revolution” in America that gets money out of politics and ends the influence of major lobbies like the health insurance, pharmaceutical and financial industries so that we can do the things we need to do like pass single payer healthcare.

Sanders has throughout the campaign presented a coherent argument about how fighting income inequality, passing single payer healthcare, achieving criminal justice reform, and fighting climate change (among many other issues) are all intrinsically linked to the need to reduce the influence of mega corporations, millionaires and billionaires in the political process. Not only is it not news to Sanders that there are major forces aligned against him, it is fundamental to his whole campaign’s argument.

It is dishonest to look at Sanders’ single player healthcare play in the absence of the political analysis that it exists in, then try to discredit the Sanders’ plan as unfeasible on the basis of this exclusion. This is what Krugman’s first two points about Sanders plan being likely to face opposition from powerful lobbies and rich people does. It ignores the fact that Sanders is saying the exact same thing.

Krugman’s third point is that voters wouldn’t stand for this sort of disruption to their insurance plans. Well, today, maybe that could be true. But if we envision a future where we have had our “political revolution,” where money is being forced out of politics, the rich are being made to pay their fair share to help healthcare exist as a human right, then perhaps Americans will be not only willing, but anxiously awaiting the minor disruptions which may come in the process of switching from the kludge of health care and insurance programs we now have to a more unified one that offers them richer benefits.

Sanders’ whole campaign has told the story of how he wants to create a different America, one that is more equitable, that is less corrupt and is built to work for the people, not billionaires. It is no doubt an aspirational story. There are no doubt many pragmatic arguments to be made against such a vision being achieved in the next year or two or four. But focusing into one part of the Sanders vision and trying to discredit it for lacking the very terms found in the rest of that vision is fundamentally dishonest.

Moreover, the highly pragmatic and conveniently disingenuous critique of Sanders is no accidental artifact induced by Sanders’ specific proposals. The likelihood is that there is no single payer plan that could be constructed and presented in such a way so that the political pundit class, establishment Democrats and the entire Republican Party would look at it and say, “Gee, that is a highly pragmatic and achievable plan that we can all see passing within the first four years of a Sanders administration.” None. The response we are seeing now is always the response that we would see from Clinton and centrist self-described wonks.

That is what it is. It does not mean Sanders should not be campaigning for single payer nor that he made a mistake by articulate a plan. Presenting a vision, grounded in a wider analysis of the political process, for how we can deliver health care as a right in America is a critically important step that Sanders has taken. It pushes the envelope on what has been presented by American presidential candidates. We are having a debate about single payer health care in America – that is a good thing! This is a necessary step for us ever actually getting single payer. It isn’t going to happen absent a politician running on it, building a movement of support for it, and having that movement force it forward over loud, monied opposition.

Bernie Sanders knows this would be a dogfight. He’s told us so for a long time. And as of January 2016, he’s the only candidate pushing forward into the fray.

Charles Pierce on Sanders, Clinton & Trump

Charles Pierce is on point here about the why and the how Sanders has made the primary race with Clinton a close fight:

The simple fact is that, if HRC has lost her lead at the moment, she has lost it to a superior campaign.

And it’s not as simple as the “populist anger” narrative would have you believe. Sanders has been running a 50-state campaign since before he formally declared his candidacy. He went to South Carolina. He went to Mississippi. He drew large and approving crowds in both places. He has stayed doggedly on message, directly refusing to help the elite political class in its pursuit of shiny objects. He repeatedly has emphasized that the pursuit of his policy goals, which all have to do with breaking the power of impending oligarchy and its threat to self-government, cannot be limited simply to electing him. And that’s where the easy narrative falls apart.

Pierce goes on to explain how Sanders’ populism is distinct from Trump, a meaningful difference in a media environment seeking easy answers for what the Beltway press finds to be two inexplicable campaigns:

Sanders punches up at the elites that, frankly, have more power in our politics than he does, or than you do, or than any politician does. He tells his audiences that he can’t do it alone, that the money power has grown too great for any one person to combat. He needs them more than they need him. He is not Napoleon, he is a democratic politician. And that makes all the difference and that’s why the “populist anger” narrative is a shuck. Anyone who says they could vote for either Bernie Sanders or He, Trump has been living for the last nine months with their head in a laundry bag.

The respective appeals of the two men are similar only on the simplest and least consequential levels. On the most profound levels, the two campaigns couldn’t be more different. Bernie Sanders is where he is because the positions and the policies he has been championing all his career have come back somewhat into favor ever since some grifters broke the world economy and then made off with the rubble. That is why he’s different from Donald Trump and that is why Hillary Rodham Clinton is noticing that things in the rear-view window are closer than they appear.

Bernie Sanders & the intersectionality of movements

At Ecowatch, Ted Glick has a strong piece on the need for urgent action in the face of the climate crisis and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Glick connects the grassroots, people-powered movement that is fueling Sanders’ campaign with the Vermont senator’s strong positioning on climate action. Presidential campaigns provide rare moments of political engagement, popular attention, and a space for big ideas to be brought to the forefront. Glick also notes, rightly, that Sanders’ outspoken belief in the need to excise corporate money from the political process is almost certainly a fundamental precursor to actually achieving the sorts of executive, legislative and regulatory actions needed to confront climate change on a national and global scale. Quite simply, as long as dirty energy companies and multinational corporations can make their voices louder than the public, it is highly unlikely that meaningful action will happen on climate change and energy policy.

Lastly, Glick highlights how Sanders’ campaign is living proof of Naomi Klein’s theory that economic inequality and climate change are issues and movements that must be treated as intersectional if there is a chance for success in confronting them. More recently, Sanders has begun talking forcefully about another major, intersectional issue in America – racism and white supremacy, especially vis a vis the criminal justice system. Sanders has both spoke out and introduced legislation that would create pathways for education and employment, instead of the prison industrial complex, for young black Americans.

Taken together, it’s becoming clear that the Sanders presidential campaign is becoming a locus for grassroots movement building that recognizes the intersectionality of the major issues of our time and is seeking to build power by speaking to them and organizing around them. I don’t think we’ve seen a presidential campaign like this in many decades, so it’s hard to predict how far this formula can take an outsider like Sanders. But as of yesterday, he is surging within striking distance of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, so I wouldn’t write it off.

Bill de Blasio and political multitudes

Over at Jacobin, Samuel Stein has a review of Eric Alterman’s new book on Bill de Blasio’s first year as mayor. The whole piece by Stein is worth a read, in no small part because de Blasio has been held up as a populist progressive icon of the highest calibre, with little scrutiny on his whole body of work or how well his actual policies reflect on a rising left populist movement in America. But Stein’s closing line strikes me as critically important, not just for how the left thinks of de Blasio, but any Democratic politician.

Praising the mayor for his genuinely progressive accomplishments while discounting or disregarding his conservatism isn’t merely a cop-out. It’s a lie. It dances around the perils of his programs. And it puts the Left in the position of defending a figure it should be fighting.

To put it differently, politicians contain multitudes. Just because someone is good on one set of issues – rhetorically or in practice – doesn’t mean that they’re good on all issues. Elizabeth Warren is a brilliant advocate for the middle class, for breaking up Wall Street banks, and fighting rampant corporate power. But she’s pretty milquetoast on, say, foreign policy and has adopted some very establishment positions as a sitting senator that many on the left would disagree with. Likewise Howard Dean’s vocal opposition to the war in Iraq was critically important for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in 2003-2004, while today he lobbies for Big Pharma and is squarely in Hillary Clinton’s corner. I say this not as a reflexive discount of Clinton, who will certainly be good on some issues and bad on others, but as a recognition that Dean is a fairly centrist Democrat who happened to be right on the Iraq War.

Politicians serve the public. They serve as ciphers for the political ideologies ascribed to them. It does no political movement any good to let politicians get away with behaviors that reflect negatively or are diametrically opposed to the movements they are presumed to represent. Celebrate a politician when it is deserved and criticize when it is deserved – that’s the role of a movement.

Live streaming isn’t new to American politics

Dan Pfeiffer puts it well when he describes Meerkat as a platform “no one seems to know how to use…yet.” It’s brand new and may well be offering something that people find applications for, in politics or beyond. But for now descriptions of how Meerkat is going to change the 2016 elections are premature. Pfeiffer’s hype of Meerkat seems to be a bit much to me, particularly given his apparent ignorance of other live streaming platforms from the present and recent past.

For starters, Pfeiffer seems to be unaware that live video streaming technology already exists and has been around with varying degrees of success since before Barack Obama was even nominated by the Democratic Party for President in 2008. UStream and Justin.tv launched in 2007. Qik launched in 2008. YouTube has had live streaming functionality for quite some time too.

These platforms launched before smartphones with decent video cameras were ubiquitous. But they existed and they have been (and are) used quite widely — to broadcast live streams of puppies, of baby bears, of concerts, and yes, American politicians.

In spring 2007 I went to work for Chris Dodd’s presidential campaign. Dodd, at the time a five term Democratic Senator from Connecticut, never got above two or three percent in national polls and exited the race after the Iowa caucus in early January 2008.

Prior to that exit, though, we deployed live video streaming as a core part of our campaign’s engagement with the public. As deputy internet director, I traveled with Dodd on essentially all of his political trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Michigan and other early states. Along the way, I used UStream to live stream anywhere from one to three speeches and Q&A sessions per day.

People following the presidential primary were able to engage in the same dialogue with a candidate as residents of the early states. Using UStream’s embedded chat functionality, as well as monitoring comments on the sites where our streams were embedded, we were able to bring in questions from people across the country into Dodd’s Q&A sessions with voters in New Hampshire and caucus-goers in Iowa.

The technology was simple and easy. A small camcorder hooked up to a laptop and broadcast on UStream. For the best streams we would use an ethernet cable, but the best was rarely possible. Most of our streams were done over wifi or even a Verizon air card. I was able to set up live streams in back yards at house parties in New Hampshire or in greasy spoon diners rural Iowa. At big political forums I was able to run live streams from the press risers alongside CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.

We promoted live streams on Twitter and kept a scroll of recent tweets and streaming feeds on the home page of the campaign’s website.

During the Google & YouTube-hosted debate in South Carolina we even UStreamed senior campaign staff commenting and fact checking what was being said during the course of the debate in real time. According to UStream, that feed have over 10,000 views. Following the debate commentary, I broadcast live from the post-debate spin room while Senator Dodd answered questions from reporters.

Again, this was in 2007.

The Dodd internet campaign, under the leadership of Tim Tagaris, turned our website into a video hub for speaking directly to voters. Tagaris’s vision was to give people greater access to Dodd and the campaign via streaming video — to create “Big Brother” for politics with brand new technology. We built DoddTV — a multi-channel repository for live streams of speeches, saved videos of Dodd talking on key political topics, and interviews with senior campaign staff talking about our work. DoddTV even included a live stream of the Dodd campaign headquarters to watch staff work (naturally we didn’t broadcast sound).

To state the obvious, the Dodd campaign’s innovative use of live streaming technology and public engagement via streaming video did not move the needle an inch in the Democratic presidential primary. Maybe it’s because we were eight years ahead of our time. But more likely it’s because the forces of political sentiment in America are too big to be influenced by one technology platform or one medium of engagement.

I have no clue if Meerkat will revolutionize political engagement during the 2016 cycle and neither does Dan Pfeiffer. Maybe the spread of smartphones with good video cameras and faster data connections will bring live streaming into politics in a bigger way than we did in 2007. Maybe the fact that recording broadcasts for later viewing is actually a really key feature for spreading what happens at political events won’t be relevant to Meerkat’s growth in politics or beyond.

I just hope we can have a discussion of Meerkat that recognizes the technology platforms that came before it, as well as the applications that those platforms were deployed in, before we anoint live streaming as the “new” technology of the 2016 election cycle.

Cross posted from Medium.