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.

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.