Two things that happened this week illustrate much of what’s wrong with the Democratic party.
First, Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon doubled down on Clinton’s commitment, voiced at the last Democratic debate, to avoid any tax increases at all on the “middle class.” Second, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) endorsed Clinton for president.
Taken together, these events demonstrate a long-term problem that plagues Democrats and prevents the growth of a truly power-balancing agenda: the prioritization of political opportunism over principled policymaking. Despite the presence of an increasingly viable progressive alternative, Democrats continue to lean against their own interests in the mistaken belief that it will help them win elections. Then they wonder why we’re stuck with rising inequality and a political system rigged against the majority of the population.
For starters, Clinton’s and Fallon‘s attacks on Sanders’ single-payer health care proposal were wildly misleading. Fallon cited a scary-sounding statistic about the cost of Sanders’ plan when it would actually save Americans significant amounts of money: taking private insurers out of the mix would lower overall health care costs and thus boost disposable income for most Americans. Clinton gave a similarly disingenuous description of Sanders’ plan at the debate – she said Sanders would “eliminate Medicare” when he would actually expand it (in fact, Sanders frequently touts his plan as “Medicare for All”).
Fallon is right to insist that “the wealthiest Americans finally start paying their fair share” – higher taxes on the rich could raise a sizable amount of money and are an appropriate first step – but it’s unlikely that policymakers could make the investments America needs without at least some additional contribution from the bottom 96 percent of families, the members of which, at least in Fallon’s mind (see table FINC-07), are all apparently included under the heading of “middle class.” (It’s also relevant that Sanders, much to Donald Trump’s chagrin, is far more committed to making the wealthy “pay their fair share” than is Clinton, perhaps because wealthy donors bankroll Clinton’s campaign.)
Social Security and Medicare, two of our most important and effective government programs, are financed by payroll taxes that hit the actual middle class, as would be paid family leave legislation introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (of which Sanders is a co-sponsor). Complaints about taxes that pay for these sorts of programs are supposed to come from Republicans, not the Democratic frontrunner. The Clinton campaign’s anti-tax rhetoric obscures the fact that social spending is well worth taxpayer dollars; it lends credence to attempts to gut government revenue sources and slash important programs.
Unions can’t be fans of such rhetoric, as it spells trouble in the long-run for both their members and the disadvantaged populations for whom they advocate. Compared to Clinton, Sanders also has a much better record and equivalent or better policy positions on just about every issue that unions care about. Yet the majority of national unions to endorse so far have jumped on the Clinton bandwagon (the exceptions are National Nurses United and the American Postal Workers Union).
Why are unions endorsing the candidate less in sync with their interests? The most likely reason is (what they believe to be) political pragmatism. It’s natural to want to be remembered as early allies and to want to be as involved as possible in Clinton’s policymaking process; especially if they believe a Clinton victory to be inevitable, unions may view an early endorsement as the best way to curry favor with and influence the platform of the eventual nominee.
This perspective isn’t crazy; the American Federation of Teachers in particular, the first major union to endorse Clinton, has almost certainly had a hand in Clinton’s “evolving” rhetoric on education policy. Union endorsements probably also played a role in Clinton’s reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
At the same time, the unions’ political calculus undermines progressive goals. It sends a terrible message to both Clinton and the Democratic Establishment: that even in the primary, unions care more about backing the anointed frontrunner than they care about working for candidates who actually fight for their values. As Glenn Greenwald observed several years ago:
There’s a fundamental distinction between progressives and groups that wield actual power in Washington: namely, the latter are willing (by definition) to use their resources and energies to punish politicians who do not accommodate their views, while the former unconditionally support the Democratic Party and their leaders no matter what they do…Any self-interested, rational politician — meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle — will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional.
Union support for Clinton is also misguided because Sanders can definitely win both the primary and the general election. He’s significantly more popular than Clinton among independents, White voters, and young people and has better overall net favorability ratings. While Sanders is currently much less popular than Clinton among Black and Latino voters, that’s in large part due to a lack of exposure and name recognition. As Cornel West notes, his support should grow “once Black [and, I’ll add, Latino] people find out who Brother Sanders is.”
This year’s primary election is, in many ways, a referendum on the soul of the Democratic party. Will the party’s main virtue continue to be what it isn’t (as crazy as the Republicans)? Or will the Democrats begin to live up to the principles they purport to stand for? We won’t know for at least a few months, but in the meantime, both the Clinton campaign and union leaders should take a long, hard look in the mirror.