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.

On the 2014 elections & ideas

The Democrats got beat pretty badly in the midterm elections. This is not a big surprise. But the losses have generated countless pieces about why they lost, how they could have avoided losing, what messaging would work better, how Democrats can better convince the citizenry to put their faith in them and so forth. To me, it’s a massively unsatisfying oeuvre.


I came to realize a number of years ago that by and large the people and centers of power in the Democratic Party don’t share my set of beliefs. There are no doubt some leftwing and populist politicians in the Democratic Party – obviously Elizabeth Warren tops the list – but they don’t run the party, they don’t run the party committees, they don’t drive the legislative agenda. Power in the Democratic Party is centered in individuals who are conservative, who hold neoliberal views of work and the economy, and have deep ties to finance capital. The majority of Democratic office holders and their supporting infrastructure falls into this latter category and spends an awful lot of time talking about how Democrats are wrong to use populist or anti-bank messaging.

This is a realization of fact. There is no normative quality to this, it’s simply the world we live in. And it’s a world where the existence of a Warren or a Sherrod Brown or a Mike Honda within the Democratic Party does not mean that it is in fact a populist or even a left political party.

Here are a few other somewhat disjointed, post-election thoughts…


A common thread in election epitaphs has been that Democrats aren’t conveying their ideas well. As a counter-point, Noam Scheiber describes the nature of Obama’s ideology:

How could these two legacies coexist in one presidency? They emanate from the worldview that Jarrett and Obama sharecall it “boardroom liberalism.” It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on highone that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.Is this not a perfect description of the Democratic Party today? Generally positive on social issues, but full-blooded in their support for corporations, for profits, for the 1% and the bottom line.

Notwithstanding his early career as a community organizer, Obama, like Jarrett, is fundamentally a man of the inside. It’s why he put a former Citigroup executive and Robert Rubin chief of staff named Michael Froman in charge of assembling his economic team in 2008, why he avoided a deep restructuring of Wall Street, why he abruptly junked the public option during the health care debate, why he so ruthlessly pursues leakers and the journalists who cultivate them. It explains why so many of his policy ideasfrom jobs for the long-term unemployed to mentoring minority youthrely on the largesse of corporations.

This doesn’t describe a problem of rhetoric. Plenty of Democrats ran and lost using populist messaging, just as plenty of conservative Democrats ran and lost using conservative, Republican Lite messaging. Focusing the debate on the impact of messaging not only ignores the fact that Democrats have a clear record while in varying degrees of power over the last six years, but has the unseemly quality of treating American voters like rubes to be moved by marketing campaigns.


Matt Stoller, in the course of a must-read book review of Al From’s The New Democrats and the Return to Power, makes a very strong case for the need for ideas. Opening on the occasion of the many hair-rending after action reports within Democratic circles as to what happened, Stoller writes:

Everything is put on the table, except the main course — policy. Did the Democrats run the government well? Are the lives of voters better? Are you as a political party credible when you say you’ll do something?

This question is never asked, because Democratic elites — ensconced in the law firms, foundations, banks, and media executive suites where the real decisions are made — basically agree with each other about organizing governance around the needs of high technology and high finance. The only time the question even comes up now is in an inverted corroded form, when a liberal activist gnashes his or her teeth and wonders — why can’t Democrats run elections around populist themes and policies? This is still the wrong question, because it assumes the wrong causality. Parties don’t poll for good ideas, run races on them, and then govern. They have ideas, poll to find out how to sell those ideas, and run races and recruit candidates based on the polling. It’s ideas first, then the sales pitch. If the sales pitch is bad, it’s often the best of what can be made of an unpopular stew of ideas.

Still, you’d think that someone, somewhere would have populist ideas. And a few — like Zephyr Teachout and Elizabeth Warren — do. But why does every other candidate not? I don’t actually know, but a book just came out that might answer this question. The theory in this book is simple. The current generation of Democratic policymakers were organized and put in power by people that don’t think that a renewed populist agenda centered on antagonism towards centralized economic power is a good idea.

Democrats writ large aren’t populists because they don’t believe in populists ideas. Expecting them to be a vehicle for ideas that they don’t hold isn’t a reasonable expectation.


Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor in New York, has a good op-ed in The Guardian that brings up a number of ideas that he sees as fertile ground for a resurgent American left, unserved by the Democratic Party.


Frankly I don’t care if the Democratic Party becomes a vehicle for leftwing ideas or if left movements emerge that can force policy action or if a left third party emerges that builds real, sustained political power. But I do hope there is a home for these ideas in this country.

There are potential sources for left ideas to be put forward and spread publicly. The ideas can be pushed for by left Democrats, by the Working Families Party, by #BlackLivesMatter, by Occupy, by labor, by environmentalists, by a new third party that represents workers, people of color, women, immigrants, youth… There’s a lot that can by done and is already being done. Like Stoller points out, it doesn’t really matter what we call it, as long as the issues that must be confronted are so confronted with good ideas, unbound to Democratic electoral frameworks.


There has been real energy come from youth and working people lead movements like Occupy Wall Street (and the notable mutual aid offshoots Occupy Sandy and Occupy Homes), the Dream Defenders, Moral Mondays, fast food worker organizing, direction action activists against the Keystone XL pipeline and quite powerfully, in the anti-racism, anti-police brutality protests surrounding the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and sadly many others.

But what needs to come first is the ideas, ideas that can weave these somewhat disparate but complimentary movements together. I’ve said for a long time there’s a potential political party/movement that aligns closely around the values of young people and people of color/immigrants. You end up going basically with Occupy + Millenials + Internet Freedom. Core issues, in no particular order, would include:
  • Anti-racism in general and anti-police brutality/profile in particular
  • Legalized marijuana, end the war on drugs
  • Marriage equality
  • High minimum wage
  • Student loan / debt reform
  • Workers rights on the job, particularly against fast food and app-based employers
  • Net neutrality
  • Regulation of financial markets
  • Spending for renewable energy development / ending fossil fuel state

These is a great list of issues that Democrats have thoroughly failed to serve their natural, historic constituencies on. Maybe there’s space for someone to bring forth ideas that address them. I don’t hold out hopes that this will happen within the Democratic Party, but I’ve been wrong before.


Alex Pareene offers up some great strategic advise for Democrats in DC:

If Democrats want to get the big pundits on their side, they should pull a Boehner and just name whatever it is they’re trying to pass “The Simpson Plan.” That should be the name they use when they reintroduce card-check. And cap-and-trade. Planned Parenthood should rename itself “The Simpson-Bowles Planned Parenthood” and then no one will ever again try to defund it, I promise.

The funniest part of this is that Pareene thinks Democrats would introduce legislation to provide any sort of increase in power for America’s workers.

Fake Dem Andrew Cuomo’s Very Bad News Cycle

First Chris Hayes of MSNBC absolutely obliterated NY Governor Andrew Cuomo for his refusal to intervene on behalf of the Democratic caucus in the NY State Senate.

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Then Alex Pareene of Salon piled on:

Cuomo doesn’t hide his conservative tendencies — they’re part of his sales pitch, especially upstate and outside New York City — but he’s in an enviable position of being able to run and govern as a conservative while retaining a progressive reputation, because he’s, you know, a Cuomo and a big-city blue state liberal governor who got gay marriage passed. His response to Sandy has raised his national profile even more, and barring the sort of disastrous scandals that have sunk the last couple of New York governors, he’ll keep being mentioned whenever people bring up 2016 candidates until the day he announces his intentions. But Democrats ought to know what sort of Democrat he is. If Cuomo allows Republicans to subvert the will of the voters of New York, so that he has an easier time cutting taxes and rolling back regulations, he shouldn’t be allowed to sell himself to future primary voters as a progressive.

Cuomo is clearly positioning himself for a 2016 presidential run and has been for a long time. He’s been good for gay rights and may end up being good on public financing of elections, but he’s horrible for labor, working people, and the environment. He’s a pro-Wall Street DLC-type LieberDem of the worst variety and it’s important progressives who may see him make the occasional good statement not be conned by Cuomo.

Cuomo is clearly playing a very cynical game of trying to wedge different parts of the progressive Democratic base against each other to maintain a facade of progressivism while running for President. He should not be allowed to get away with it.

Fighting for jobs

David Dayen makes the astute point that Elizabeth Warren is succeeding in her Senate campaign by actually fighting for job creation. Dayen writes:

Warren has not allowed the American Jobs Act to vanish. In every debate, she has brought up the trio of votes the Senate held on elements of the AJA, noting that Scott Brown voted against those bills each time. Brown then mumbles something about taxes. But only one of the two is seen as fighting for jobs, with an actual plan in writing to create them.

It’s pointless for Obama to have generated the American Jobs Act in the first place if he never planned to use it in his re-election as a second term set of agenda items. Otherwise, his “jobs plan” is a warmed-over stew of long-term goals with little differentiation from what Mitt Romney has on offer. Obama borrowed from Elizabeth Warren once before, culminating in the “you didn’t build that” speech. Her borrowing from Obama has been much more politically successful. He should learn from it.

Someone tell Michelle Rhee that Dan Malloy just isn’t that into her

Disgraced former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee is on a quixotic search to pretend she’s a Democrat in good standing, despite her pursuit of taking away workers’ rights and helping Republican governors bust teachers unions. In her Washington Post op-ed on how real Democrats support her education prioritization strategy, which reads like a Joe Lieberman op-ed arguing that real Democrats support endless war, Rhee offers up an example of how Democratic governors have worked with her on education issues.

Increasingly, those who staunchly side with unions at any cost appear to be in the minority, while more Democrats are saying we have to look at education differently. In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) pushed through a law bringing more accountability into schools over early and strong union objections.

Gee Michelle, that sounds really impressive! Except, oh um, this statement from Malloy’s Senior Communications Adviser Roy Occhiogrosso:

“As much as the governor respects people’s rights to be a part of the education dialogue, Ms. Rhee has at times been a divisive figure. And the governor is determined to try and have this discussion about education reform in a way that’s not divisive.”

Governor Malloy actually worked with the teachers’ unions on education reform, not Rhee, who as you can see above, from whom he has publicly distanced himself.

There’s certainly a question about where the Democratic Party stands when it comes to supporting workers’ rights. There are certainly some elected officials like Rahm Emanuel, Andrew Cuomo and Arne Duncan who support Rhee’s brand of union busting. But there are also a lot of Democrats who still stand up for workers’ rights, including the rights of public teachers. For Rhee to say that the Democratic Party is squarely in her camp is an overstatement. But to say Dan Malloy is with her is an outright lie.

An accurate use of the word “cynicism” in politics

Matt Taibbi, in a highly enjoyable Q&A with the Village Voice about Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, makes the rare move of accurately using the word “cynicism” to describe its appearance in American politics:

I think a lot of what Occupy is is disappointed idealism. A lot of the people who thought, in Hunter terms, that Obama was the “Great Shark” who was going to come and right all the wrongs. And then they realized that he was very much, for all his good qualities, a conventional Democratic party politician, and all the negatives that that comes with. I think people were extremely disappointed, and that’s why they’re all out on the streets right now. There’s a tremendous cynicism embedded in mainstream American politics right now, where people who are in Washington and live on Capitol Hill really don’t think they have any obligation to be truly honest. They think that everything is a compromise. They’ve lost touch with what people actually want. And they really do want somebody who is idealistic.

This is an accurate description of why it is Barack Obama, not his left critics, who are cynical.