Monthly Archives: December 2015

From Constituent to Elizabeth Warren: Please Endorse Bernie Sanders

Jesse Koklas, a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign with a B.A. in Politics and French & Francophone Studies from Brandeis University, recently asked her senator, Elizabeth Warren, to endorse Sanders in the Democratic Primary.  A version of the letter she sent is below.

Jesse Koklas

Jesse Koklas

Dear Senator Warren,

Please endorse Senator Bernie Sanders in his campaign for President. He represents the antithesis to the 1%, one of the only other voices besides yours that remains unflinching in the face of corporate self-interest.

When I moved to Waltham to attend Brandeis University, I registered in Massachusetts so I could vote for you. We met at a rally you held with Rep. Markey a few years ago. Thank you for your talk then and your work since!

I admire you and Senator Sanders for the same reason: you both boldly speak the truth. And as Senator Sanders himself has asserted and I’m sure you agree, the truth is that it will take a lot more than just Bernie Sanders to make real dramatic change to our unequal system, controlled as it is by the purse strings of those far removed from the struggles of the average citizen.

People don’t engage in our political process because they don’t feel like they can make a difference. That is a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy, and one we will never escape if we don’t start truly mobilizing the electorate.

In order to win the vote from the well-funded, politically elite candidates, we need all of the people I’m talking to in the street, in my kitchen, and at the local watering hole to come out and vote. Bernie Sanders’ message can speak to them. If these people show up and stay engaged, it will allow someone to take the conversation about our broken system to the oval office, someone who will not back down when confronted by those who still refuse to listen.

This campaign can make a statement about how our current political system has failed to represent our citizens. I think you can help people hear this statement. You could help excite voters to come to the polls for Bernie.

Ms. Warren: if these people come out and vote and become active in the political process, think about the potential: we could change laws that our entire system is based on. Citizens United could be overturned. That’s the type of thing that the Bernie Sanders campaign is all about.

I respect your decision not to endorse anyone until now, but you have an intelligent and dedicated group of constituents who trust your judgment. We know that your compass needle is perpetually pointing north and we need you to endorse Bernie Sanders. You know how to make people pay attention, and I think it’s time America paid attention to Bernie.

Your constituent,
Jesse Koklas

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election

Why I Reject Lesser-of-Two-Evils-ism

If Hillary Clinton ends up winning the Democratic nomination for president, some Bernie Sanders supporters will vote for her anyway.  I can respect that decision.  While the differences between Democrats and Republicans are often overstated – to give just two examples (there are many), the same people advise Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz on foreign policy and Hillary Clinton is at least as cozy with Wall Street as most Republicans – there are some real and important reasons to worry about a Republican White House.  The Supreme Court and heads of agencies are, in my view, the biggest concerns in this vein.  I’d have low hopes for Hillary Clinton’s appointees but no doubts that they’d be better on balance than those offered by a Trump, Cruz, or Rubio.

Yet I will not vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.  While I understand the lesser-of-two-evils mentality, I disagree with it; most of Clinton’s policy positions are unacceptable to me.  If Sanders loses the primary, I will probably vote for Jill Stein.

Wouldn’t that be a strategic blunder, some friends and family ask me?  Democrats who aren’t quite as polite ask if I’m an idiot.  Don’t I realize that this type of thinking led to George W. Bush becoming president in 2000 and that I may similarly “blow this election” by deciding to vote my conscience?

The premise of these questions, however, is completely wrong, and not just because, as Jim Hightower documented at the time, voting records show that “Gore was the problem, not Nader,” in the 2000 election.  In fact, refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election is both a principled and strategic decision that I encourage more people to embrace.

There are two possibilities when it comes to my vote: it will either impact the outcome of the election or it won’t.  If my vote won’t impact the outcome of the election, I might as well vote for the candidate with the best policy positions, regardless of his or her supposed electability.

If my vote will impact the outcome of the election, I may have to decide which matters more: (a) the differences between a bad Democrat and worse Republican over the next four years or (b) the degree to which I’d undermine our chances to enact fundamental change to a broken political system in the long-run by pursuing a lesser-of-two-evils voting strategy.

As I’ve noted before, the type of political “pragmatism” that would lead someone to choose (a) undermines power-balancing policy goals.  Because politicians and Democratic party officials know that many voters think this way, they have little incentive to listen to our concerns.  Instead, they can pay lip service to progressive values while crafting a policy agenda and decision-making process more responsive to wealthy donors than to their constituents.

That dynamic is on full display already in the 2016 Democratic primary election. Clinton is campaigning against priorities, like single-payer health care, that Democrats are supposed to embrace.  While early union endorsements for Clinton initially improved her rhetoric on education issues to some degree, she is already backtracking to assure corporate donors that her positions are unchanged.  The unions who endorsed Clinton early have no negotiating power relative to rich donors who make their support contingent on Clinton pursuing their interests; given that fact and her record, she seems unlikely to keep her promises if elected.

The Democratic National Committee’s actions are also illustrative.  The party establishment lined up behind Clinton before the race even started, and the DNC’s debate schedule is, despite their protestations to the contrary, quite obviously constructed to insulate Clinton from challenge.  DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s recent decision to suspend Sanders’ campaign’s access to its voter data (in response to a data breach by a since-fired Sanders staffer; the access was restored after the Sanders campaign sued the DNC) has caused even party loyalists to believe that the DNC “is putting [its] finger on [the] scale” and pro-Clinton journalists to acknowledge that the DNC’s behavior “makes Clinton’s lead look illegitimate, or at least, invites too many ‘what ifs.’”

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton (source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, via http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/12/9699836/democratic-debate-schedule)

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton (source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, via http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/12/9699836/democratic-debate-schedule)

Both Clinton and party leaders are making a mockery of many of the principles the party is supposed to stand for.  And pledging to support Clinton in the end – no matter what she and the DNC do – enables this kind of behavior.  It’s hard for me to see how we will ever fix our political process and reclaim our democracy by refusing to draw some lines in the sand.

I could accuse those who disagree with that assessment of propping up a sham political system.  I could say that, by downplaying the unfounded smears the Clinton campaign has spread against Sanders and insisting that we must support Clinton in the general if she wins the nomination, they are destroying the Democrats’ credibility and thus helping to ensure ever more privilege-defending and corrupt elected officials and government policy.  But it would be a lot fairer of me to acknowledge that a lot of the Republicans are really scary, that my strategy isn’t guaranteed to work the way I think it will, and that people evaluate the risks differently than I do.

Similarly, those who disagree can continue to accuse people like me of “helping the GOP” in the 2016 election by pointing out that the Democrats have extreme flaws and don’t always deserve our support.  But it would be a lot fairer of them to acknowledge that millions upon millions of people have suffered at the hands of lesser-of-two-evils candidates over the years, that an open commitment to support a lesser-of-two-evils candidate robs voters of bargaining power, and that the Democratic Party has brought voter discontent upon itself.

Hopefully Sanders will win the Democratic primary and this discussion will become a moot point.  In the meantime, it’s good for those of us who believe in social justice to push each other on our tactics.  We would just do well to remember that reasonable people with the same goals can disagree about which electoral strategy is most likely to help us achieve them.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

Good Policy Is the Goal. Compromise Should Not Be.

Matt Bruenig just wrote an excellent series of posts dismantling a misguided “Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream” from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.  Bruenig’s posts explain why the plan’s emphasis on education, work, and marriage will not accomplish its goals (I’ve made similar points about education and family structure before).  While it’s important to note that education and work (and family strength and stability, which are critically different from family structure) have value – improving education and the availability of good jobs can boost economic mobility – the evidence is clear that we will not equalize opportunities for more than an unacceptably small subset of kids until we both reduce inequality and make sure kids’ basic needs are met.

Richard Reeves, a researcher I really like who participated in drafting this unfortunate “consensus plan,” describes it as a triumph of realism over purism.  In doing so, he draws a false equivalency between what he calls “purists on both political extremes: those on the right who simply see government as the problem, and fantasize about sweeping away vast swaths of institutional architecture and funding, and those on the left who imagine that simply taking money from some and giving it to others will cure society’s ills.”

“Liberals” (or, in the parlance of the report, “progressives”) and “conservatives” are the labels DC insiders typically use to categorize people on one or the other of these false extremes, as shown below.

LiberalConservativeBut the idea that these are two equivalently absurd “sides,” and that the best course of action is thus to compromise by meeting in the “middle,” is unfortunately a major impediment to good policymaking.  It is harmful primarily because it fails to capture how certain views and proposals are more ethical and evidence-based than others.

For example, if our goal is to reduce poverty and boost the opportunities of poor children, evidence shows that the “purists” Reeves describes on the “left” have a much more legitimate claim than those on the “right.”  Government programs like Medicaid, SNAP (formerly food stamps), and the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, work very well on these fronts, as do direct cash transfers and more robust social insurance systems around the world.  Redistribution may not “cure [all of] society’s ills,” but it definitely works as intended in most cases, while gutting government programs, especially during times of economic hardship, doesn’t.  It is simply incorrect to suggest otherwise, but the categorization scheme above implies that each “side” has an equally legitimate perspective.

Consider how similar reasoning could be applied to current presidential debates on immigration.  Donald Trump’s platform (build a wall across the border, end birthright citizenship, and don’t let any poor people into the country, among other crazy ideas) could represent the perspective on one “side” of the political divide, while Bernie Sanders’ plan to bring 11 million people out of the shadows could represent the other.  Both Trump and Sanders say they want to put “the needs of working people first – [over those of] wealthy globetrotting donors” (Trump’s words).  The AEI/Brookings brand of “realism” could result in the adoption of a decent chunk of the Trump immigration agenda; it clearly isn’t an approach that makes for desirable policy.

Reeves is right that there are a “diversity of views” among those on each side of this uninformative partisan divide, and the AEI/Brookings team correctly notes that nobody “has a monopoly on the truth” – even Donald Trump occasionally has a good idea and even smart, principled politicians like Bernie Sanders sometimes get things wrong.  Yet a better political categorization scheme would explicitly note that Sanders’ policy positions are far superior to Trump’s on the two criteria that matter most: ethical considerations and the degree to which proposed policy ideas are supported by available evidence.  The tool below does so.

Political Tool.003

The x-axis is an “ethics axis” and requires us to think through John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.  As I’ve explained previously:

“Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over…the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Elevating “bipartisanism,” “compromise,” and “realism” as goals might help a group come to a consensus wherein each “side” gets some things it wants.  It does not often result in good policy platforms, however, and the Brookings/AEI plan is a case in point.  If we want final products that are truly ethical and evidence-based, we need to reject compromise for compromise’s sake and start recognizing that some viewpoints and proposals are more legitimate than others.

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Filed under Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System