Category Archives: US Political System

Anyone but Trump? Weighing Three Approaches for Social Justice Advocates in 2020

Now that Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential campaign, his supporters are faced with an important question: how to best move forward given bad (Joe Biden) and worse (Donald Trump) options for president. Our goal? Helping millions of people in need through implementation of the platform that Sanders continues to fight for and Biden opposes: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, wealth taxes on the billionaire class, decarceration, peaceful foreign policy, inclusive immigration policy, and more.

Whether or not these policies become reality is dependent on much more than presidential politics. Congressional elections will have an important impact, as will state and local elections. Building the strength of the labor movement is a must. So is the growth of independent alternatives to corporate media. Social justice advocates must continue to organize, wage effective issue campaigns, re-envision Democratic institutions, and increase the membership of promising grassroots organizations that have begun to wield power, including the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement.

But presidential politics still matter, and while no progressive-minded person would consider voting for Trump, there are three distinct presidential election strategies social justice advocates may embrace. Those strategies, along with their pros and cons, are summarized below.

No matter how we weigh any individual strategy’s tradeoffs, it is essential to understand its rationale and stand in solidarity with social justice advocates who pursue it. Attacking each other over strategic disagreements only undermines our common agenda; there is much more that unites people who supported Sanders (or Elizabeth Warren, for that matter) in the primary than that divides us.

Vote Blue No Matter Who

This strategy, embraced by Sanders himself, centers the threat posed by a potential second term for Trump. Sanders, like many of his supporters, maintained since he entered the race that he would ultimately support any Democratic nominee – no matter who it was – because of the importance of defeating the man he believes to be “the most dangerous president in the modern history of our country.”

It’s not hard to understand the rationale for this strategy: Trump, beyond his bigoted rhetoric, disgusting personal conduct, and disregard for political norms, has pursued the standard GOP policy playbook while in office. His administration has worked to gut labor laws, oppress immigrants, roll back environmental regulations, and chip away at the Affordable Care Act. He has appointed a plethora of privilege-defending judges to the federal bench, including two on the Supreme Court. Trump has also flouted the emoluments clause of the Constitution, using his presidency to personally enrich himself and his family, and seriously bungled America’s response to the coronavirus.

Social-justice-minded proponents of this strategy acknowledge that Biden has a long history of condoning millions of people’s oppression. They don’t deny that, over the course of his career, Biden has stymied school integration, helped engineer mass incarceration, worked to deregulate the financial industry, spread racist stereotypes used to deprive poor people of cash assistance, voted against LGBTQ equality, championed the Iraq War, fought reproductive rights, enabled abuses of immigrants, and fomented deficit panic. They recognize that Biden frequently lies, has been accused of sexual assault, and vehemently opposes urgently needed policy, like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, that would threaten the profits of his corporate donors. But while that may be true, vote-blue-no-matter-who proponents point out, Biden would surely appoint Supreme Court justices better than Brett Kavanaugh. He also surely wouldn’t use a pandemic as cover for helping employers bust unions. In the short run, social justice advocates will undoubtedly have a better chance of successfully pushing their agenda – and preventing as much of the serious harm a president can cause as possible – with Biden than with Trump in the White House.

Still, there is a clear downside to pledging unconditional support for the eventual Democratic nominee: it deprives social justice advocates of considerable long-term power. If Democratic party leaders and their allies in the media know you will support a Democrat in the end no matter who that Democrat is, what incentive do they have to cover and push the issues and candidates you care about? Isn’t it perfectly logical for party elites to ignore you and the millions of people their policies hurt and cater instead to groups whose support is conditional upon the pursuit of their interests, like corporate America and affluent White suburbanites? The Democratic Party has for decades done just that, relying on social justice advocates’ fears of Republicans instead of actively trying to court social-justice-minded voters.

Refuse to Support Corporate Democrats

The social justice voting bloc is big enough that the Democratic Party cannot beat Republicans without it. If that voting bloc were to uniformly and credibly pledge to withhold support from corporate Democrats like Biden in general elections, less social-justice-oriented Democrats who want to win general elections above all else would have no choice but to support candidates social justice advocates support – like Sanders – in primaries. This strategy is about destroying the electability argument that won Biden and Hillary Clinton the last two Democratic nominations.

To be clear, corporate Democrats’ electability arguments have lacked evidence for years. But they have nonetheless convinced Democratic primary voters, in no small part because their logic makes a certain sense. If the only swing voters are moderates, people who want to win general elections against Republicans would naturally maximize their chances to do so by nominating candidates who appeal to this narrow swing constituency. Social justice advocates who refuse to support corporate Democrats increase their leverage by becoming a swing constituency themselves.

The goal of refusing to support corporate Democrats, in the long run, is to achieve one of two outcomes: pulling the Democratic Party in a social justice direction or creating the conditions for the emergence of a viable third-party alternative to the Democratic Party. For the millions of people who are incarcerated, bombed, deported, and/or mired in poverty due to policies corporate Democrats support when they’re in power, it is crucial that one of these outcomes occurs as quickly as possible. The likelihood of that happening through the strategy of withholding support from corporate Democrats is uncertain, but what is certain is that, all else equal, it is much higher than the likelihood of achieving these long-run objectives through the vote-blue-no-matter-who strategy.

In the short run, withholding support from corporate Democrats does not have the same impact as supporting Republicans; that’s a basic mathematical fact. It does have a real short-term downside, however. Relative to supporting a Democratic nominee, it makes a Republican win – and the four years of increased damage that would come along with it – more likely.

The Wait-and-See Approach

Some Democratic voters have yet to declare whether they will support or refuse to support Biden in November. These voters do not hold as much power to influence Democratic primaries as those who vow never to support corporate Democrats, but when a corporate nominee like Biden emerges from a primary victorious, they are well-positioned to influence that nominee’s agenda.

The successful execution of the wait-and-see strategy involves outlining concessions that Biden must make to earn your support. Perhaps what you ultimately decide will hinge on Biden’s vice presidential choice; maybe it will be based on who he commits to put in his cabinet or his shortlist for potential Supreme Court nominees. Anything you care about is potentially on the table. 

There are tradeoffs involved in figuring out how to approach this negotiation. Ask for rhetorical overtures without staffing commitments and you’re essentially deciding to vote blue no matter who. Insist on Nina Turner as Vice President, Naomi Klein as Energy Secretary, and Rashida Tlaib as Secretary of State and you’re effectively refusing to vote for Biden. Demand Pedro Noguera as Education Secretary, Lori Wallach as Trade Representative, and Matthew Desmond as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and maybe you have a shot at getting it.

Because the wait-and-see approach can apply to fundraising, voter outreach, and other forms of activity in addition to votes, it is not mutually exclusive to voting blue no matter who or refusing to support corporate Democrats. Someone who has already committed to voting for Biden may only donate or phonebank under certain conditions. Likewise, the frequency and intensity with which Biden is critiqued by people refusing to vote for him may change in response to who he selects as his vice president or promises to appoint to key positions. In addition, these strategies complement each other. People who refuse to vote for corporate Democrats stretch the Overton Window, making other social justice advocates seem less radical in comparison. The potential to bring other social justice advocates along is the carrot that vote-blue-no-matter-who proponents offer the Democratic Party in internal negotiations, while the potential to pull other social justice advocates away is the external stick wielded by those who refuse to pledge unconditional support to the party’s corporate Establishment.

Debate the Strategies, Unite Around Goals

Vigorous debate about how to weigh the pros and cons of each of the above strategies and when to engage which strategy is healthy; joining corporate Democrats in pillorying Sanders supporters who adopt different general election strategies is not. If we are to be successful in achieving the Sanders movement’s central aim – improving millions of people’s lives through the social justice policies a majority of Americans support – we must remember who our allies are. And no matter who is ultimately elected president, we must continue the down-ballot work, movement building, and on-the-ground activism essential to advancing our shared vision.

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Filed under 2020 Election, Philosophy, US Political System

Progressive Democrats Beat Electoral Expectations in Competitive House Races in 2018

At the Democratic debate in South Carolina on February 25, Pete Buttigieg asserted that “the people who actually turned the House blue, 40 Democrats, …are running away from [Bernie Sanders’s] platform as fast as they possibly can.” He wasn’t wrong – the vast majority of Democrats elected in swing districts in the Democratic wave of 2018, like Buttigieg, oppose Medicare for All, free college for all, and other social justice policies that Sanders supports. Along with anti-Sanders pundits and Republican strategists, they contend that the Sanders agenda is an electoral death sentence, that candidates who embrace social justice policy cannot win in contested House races.

Their argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, however, and not just because corporate Democrats got thrashed by Republicans all over the country in the decade prior to 2018. The evidence from the 2018 elections in the House also fails to support Buttigieg’s electoral thesis, as progressive Democrats in swing districts performed about as well relative to expectations as corporate Democrats did.

Beginning a year-and-a-half in advance of every congressional election, The Cook Political Report publishes a running list of “competitive races” in the House of Representatives. These races may “likely” be won by a Democrat or a Republican, “lean” towards one party or the other, or look like a “toss up.” They change over the course of an election as new information becomes available. Combining the 58 competitive races that The Cook Political Report originally identified in May of 2017 and the 116 they thought were in play on the day before voters finally went to the polls, a total of 124 districts can be considered to have been “swing” districts at some point leading up to the 2018 election.

Under the assumption that endorsements from Justice Democrats and Our Revolution indicate some degree of alignment with Sanders’s social justice agenda, a progressive candidate ran in the Democratic primary in 37 of these districts. Due in no small part to opposition from the Democratic Establishment, which often bankrolled corporate alternatives, only 9 of these progressive candidates advanced to the general election. Every single one of these remaining 9 candidates ran in a district that was projected to be a Republican win. Only 2 of the districts, Nebraska’s 2nd and New York’s 24th, were even considered in play in The Cook Political Report’s original judgment back in May of 2017; the others were all thought to be solidly Republican.

None of these 9 progressive Democrats won the general election. But using the spread between the Republican and Democrat in the district’s 2016 House election and the spread between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election as comparison points, 7 of them outperformed expectations. 2 of them – Ammar Campa-Najjar in California’s 50th district and JD Scholten in Iowa’s 4th district – came extremely close to knocking out incumbent Republicans in overwhelmingly Republican districts (see below). On average, these progressive Democrats outperformed Hillary Clinton by 5 percentage points and the previous Democratic House candidate in their district by 12 percentage points.

The respective numbers for the more corporate Democrats who ran in the remaining swing districts* were slightly higher but statistically indistinguishable: they outperformed Clinton by 7 percentage points and the previous House candidates in their districts by 14 percentage points on average. The subset of corporate Democrats who beat progressive challengers in their primaries fared about the same in the general election, beating Clinton by an average of 5 percentage points and the previous House candidates in their districts by an average of 15 percentage points.

In other words, corporate Democrats didn’t outperform progressive Democrats in the November 2018 elections – there were just way more of them running in more winnable races! If there had been 115 progressive Democrats and 9 corporate Democrats squaring off against Republicans in swing districts rather than 115 corporate Democrats and 9 progressive Democrats, the Democratic Party could very easily have picked up the exact same number of seats.

What makes a district competitive and what makes a candidate progressive are up for debate, of course. Should Richard Ojeda, who supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and outperformed historical expectations more than any other Democrat running in a swing district, be considered one of the progressives? How about Katie Porter, who supported Medicare for All and is a co-chair of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign? Is it appropriate to use a more narrow definition of a swing district that excludes areas in which Medicare for All supporters significantly outperformed expectations? Should major gains from the likes of Campa-Najjar be discounted because the Republican incumbent he was running against (Duncan Hunter) was indicted? Should special elections like the one in Montana in 2017 replace 2016 elections as reference points when they’ve occurred? Given that he literally re-registered as a Republican after he flipped New Jersey’s 2nd district blue, can Jeff Van Drew’s big win really be considered a victory for the Democratic Party? These are all reasonable questions to ask and underscore the inherent subjectivity of electability analyses.

At the end of the day, as I wrote back in 2017:

A candidate’s general election viability is ultimately unknowable.  It may depend on her or her opponent’s platform, debating skill, fundraising prowess, personality, or field operation.  It may hinge on the quirks of the community she’s running for office in or how much the media likes her.  It may come down to random chance.  Electability is also often a self-fulfilling prophecy; people commenting on electability and making decisions based on their perceptions of it can actually influence it and do so all the time.

The only thing we can be certain of in the electability space is political strategists’ and pundits’ poor track records.  Many of the people who claim to know what is and isn’t possible in future elections thought Bernie Sanders would barely get 15 percent of the vote in the [2016] Democratic primary.  Many of them were sure that Republicans would never nominate Donald Trump, and once that prediction turned out to be wrong, were still absolutely positive that Trump would never become president.  It’s long past time we viewed their claims with skepticism, especially when there’s evidence that points the other way.

Good policy can sell.  Voters can be persuaded.  Political reality is not something that gets handed to us, but something we help create.  Candidates with economic and social justice platforms can win in purple districts, and they’ll be even more likely to do so if Democratic pundits stop assuming they can’t and start getting behind them.

*Pennsylvania districts had to be excluded from these calculations because the congressional map was redrawn before 2018, making the historical comparison impossible. Texas’s 32nd district, Arizona’s 8th district, and Wisconsin’s 3rd district also had to be excluded from the comparison to the 2016 House election because Democrats did not run a candidate in those districts in 2016 (these three districts were included in the calculated comparison to the 2016 presidential election).

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Filed under 2018 Elections, 2020 Election, US Political System

On Both Politics and Policy, “For All” Beats “For Some”

Medicare for All or Medicare for All Who Want It? Free college for all or free college for just the non-rich? The debate between universal (available to everyone) and means-tested (available only to those who meet certain criteria) programs has defined the Democratic primary. Bernie Sanders, often joined by Elizabeth Warren, argues for universalism, declaring education and health care to be basic human rights. Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden argue against, contending that government resources must be targeted only to those in need, rather than wasted on the rich and/or on those who ostensibly don’t want them.

On the most commonly cited rationale for each position – sustainability for universalists and resource constraints for means testers – proponents of universalism have the upper hand. Medicare and Social Security, two of the United States’s largest, most successful, and most popular programs, are as close to universal as we’ve got. By giving everyone a stake in these programs, proponents argue, their near-universality has insulated them from attack. Bob Greenstein (the President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where I used to work) points out both that these programs have been cut and that their popularity could conceivably be due to the perception that they’re tied to work rather than to their quasi-universal nature, but the Alaska Permanent Fund, a state-level universal program not tied to work, also enjoys overwhelming public support. So do universal programs that aren’t tied to work in other countries – other countries’ universal health care systems, for instance, are way more popular than our means-tested approach. It’s reasonable to expect a universal program to be more sustainable than a means-tested alternative over time.

The Buttigieges of the world counter that universal programs are too expensive; in December, for instance, Buttigieg said they would require “the kind of taxation that economists tell us could hurt the economy.” But even if you reject the notion that government spending can be substantially increased without raising taxes, concerns about higher taxes are entirely without merit. Research has consistently (and predictably) failed to support such concerns, the United States has significantly lower taxes than the rest of the developed world, and scores of reputable economists support tax proposals, like those Sanders and Warren have released, that can fund the universal programs on offer. When Buttigieg says he’d prefer to “save those dollars [that would otherwise be spent on free college] for something else,” he is presenting a false choice. It is only his and others’ political preferences, not actual resource constraints, that stand between us and full funding of all the priorities he listed: education, infrastructure, child care, housing, and health care.

Still, the most compelling case for universal programs isn’t political. It is, ironically, that they’re better at achieving two of means testing’s major goals: helping people in need and doing so efficiently. They reduce stigma, arbitrariness, usage barriers, and administrative costs.

Universal programs help people in need by reducing stigma

Most low-income people work incredibly hard to put roofs over their heads and food on their tables. Yet they’re constantly accused of being unskilled, lazy, good-for-nothing loafers in search of government handouts. Afraid of being perceived that way and/or ashamed of their economic situation, many people who are struggling to get by decide not to access the means-tested benefits to which they’re entitled. They’d rather go hungry than risk someone catching them using food stamps in the checkout line.

Correcting false stereotypes is a top priority, with universal programs a useful complement for improving the experience of people in need. If everyone received SNAP benefits (SNAP, which stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the contemporary name for the food stamp program), for example, using them would no longer identify someone as low-income. We would thus expect higher rates of SNAP usage among low-income people.

That’s exactly what we’ve seen with the school meals program following the introduction of a program called “community eligibility,” which enables schools and school districts with a certain percentage of low-income students to offer free school meals to all students – regardless of their income levels – free of charge. Research suggests that reduced stigma is at least part of the reason students at schools that have adopted this program are more likely to take advantage of school breakfast and lunch programs.

Universal programs help people in need by eliminating arbitrary cutoffs

For SNAP, the income eligibility threshold is 130% of the poverty line, or about $27,700 annually for a family of three. People who make less than that amount (provided they meet other requirements – SNAP also has an asset test and restrictive eligibility rules for various groups of people including immigrants, individuals aged 18 to 49 who don’t have children, and students) can access benefits; people who make more than that amount cannot. Under Buttigieg’s higher education plan, college is free only for families making less than $100,000 a year (and discounted for families making between $100,000 and $150,000).

Means-tested benefits typically phase out slowly – that is, benefits get gradually smaller as beneficiary income gets higher – to ensure that the sum of pay plus benefits continues to increase when people pass eligibility thresholds. But why shouldn’t a family of three making $30,000 a year get food assistance? Why should $100,001 be the level at which a family starts having to pay for college? Eligibility thresholds in means-tested programs are arbitrary and inevitably create strange, difficult-to-justify divides between people right above and right below them. Universal programs avoid this problem completely by providing the same benefit to everyone.

Universal programs help people in need by reducing usage barriers

Means testing requires some form of testing, as the name implies, to determine whether or not someone is eligible for benefits. Depending on the complexity of a program’s eligibility rules, that testing might require a form of identification, proof of residence, proof of income, or any number of other things. Eligible beneficiaries may need to mail, hand-deliver, or electronically submit one or more forms, which, as Sanders accurately observed during the December debate, “people are sick and tired of filling out.

Filling out forms and proving eligibility is much more than an annoyance for many eligible people in need. Some may not know how to read or write. Some may move and/or change jobs frequently. Some may lack an official ID. The more hoops people have to jump through to access benefits, the fewer eligible people will actually end up receiving benefits.

Government agencies can mitigate this problem with outreach efforts and assistance programs, of course. But even well-administered means-tested programs like SNAP that continue to improve in these areas don’t catch everyone they should, in part because of the access barriers means testing inherently creates – in 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, about 15% of people eligible for SNAP did not participate in the program.

Universal programs improve efficiency by reducing administrative costs

In addition to creating an obstacle for eligible beneficiaries, the complexity introduced by means testing presents a challenge for efficient government. Every form that needs to be filled out has to be processed. Eligibility has to be verified. Complex rules have to be actively managed. Means-tested programs spend a larger share of their money on administrative overhead than universal programs do.

Administrative costs for Social Security, for example, are only 0.7% of total expenses. For SNAP, one of the most efficient and effective means-tested government programs, administrative spending comprises 7.7% of its total budget. Over three-quarters of those administrative costs are “certification-related,” meaning they’re “associated with determining household eligibility.”

To be clear, the overall cost of SNAP and other means-tested programs would be many times higher, even with substantially reduced overhead costs, if they were more universal. Increased overall cost is the only real potential downside of universality. And if one were forced to choose between increasing benefits for people in need and extending benefits to higher-income people who don’t currently receive them, increasing benefits for people in need would be the clearly correct choice.

But as noted above, that choice is a false one. There is no question that the US government has the money to offer increased benefits through universal programs. The only question is whether we will choose to spend it on the worthy goals of helping people in need and improving government efficiency for everyone.

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Filed under 2020 Election, Education, Health Care and Medicine, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

Feel the Bern and Vote for These Philly Judges on Tuesday, May 21

Last Sunday, Bernie Sanders published an op-ed decrying America’s system of criminal punishment for “effectively criminalizing communities of color.” Noting efforts already underway to end cash bail in Philadelphia under the leadership of community organizers and District Attorney Larry Krasner, Sanders urged “the citizens of Philadelphia [to continue this progress and] cast their votes for progressive judicial candidates in this month’s primary election.”

Voters can choose up to 6 of the 28 Democrats running to be a judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Knowing that Philly residents compelled by Bernie’s op-ed may be wondering who deserves their vote on May 21, I asked my sister Hannah, who closely follows criminal justice issues and is my moral role model, to provide specific recommendations. Hannah is currently getting her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. She has extensive knowledge of the Philadelphia court system through both her past job in the public defender’s office and the activism she engages in with a variety of social justice organizations around the city.

Because Philadelphia’s Democratic judge pool leans conservative, there aren’t any candidates Hannah enthusiastically supports. There are, however, three judges she finds good enough to bullet vote for: Anthony Kyriakakis (#19 on the ballot), Tiffany Palmer (#23), and Kay Yu (#27). I have provided brief descriptions of those three candidates below.

Voting recommendations for Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia

#19, Anthony Kyriakakis (5th Ward): A lecturer at Temple Law and Penn Law, Kyriakakis is a private defense attorney and former prosecutor who says incarceration rates are too high, sentences are too long, and defendants are treated unequally along racial, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and class lines. He has been interested in representing low-income defendants since his time with the Harvard Defenders at Harvard Law and volunteers as a pro bono Child Advocate in family court. Campaign website: https://anthonyforjudge.com/

#23, Tiffany Palmer (9th Ward): A daughter of public school teachers, Palmer began her career in 1998 as a public interest lawyer at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights and soon became the organization’s legal director. She co-founded the private family law firm she currently works at in 2003 and has won numerous awards, including being named one of the nation’s “40 Best LGBT Lawyers Under 40” in 2011. She says her “own experience with having her long-term partner treated as a legal stranger has shaped her commitment to fairness, inclusion, and equal treatment under the law.” Campaign website: https://palmerforjudge.com/

#27, Kay Yu (15th Ward): Yu’s own experience as an undocumented immigrant has informed her advocacy for increased ballot access and voting rights. While she is an employer-side lawyer in private practice, she has also chaired the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations for four years and worked to update Philadelphia’s civil rights policy. She won several awards in 2018, including being named Attorney of the Year by the Asian Pacific American Bar Association. Campaign website: https://www.kayforjudge.com/

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Filed under 2020 Election, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion, US Political System

How Mainstream News Coverage Distorts the Policy, Politics, and Polling on Medicare For All

Jonathan Martin and Abby Goodnough discuss a brewing Democratic Party debate about Medicare For All in The New York Times. Does it mean a single-payer system in which the government covers everyone’s health care costs? Or is it just rhetoric intended to mean “I support a better health care system” without a commitment to challenging insurance industry power?

Martin and Goodnough helpfully note that only one of the five likely 2020 presidential candidates they discuss* is committed to a single-payer system: Bernie Sanders. But their article is also misleading in its discussion of Medicare For All policy, politics, and polling. Their errors are all too common in news articles and anyone wishing to responsibly cover politics over the next few years needs to correct them.

First, when it comes to the policy implications of Medicare For All, Martin and Goodnough characterize single-payer health care as a system “in which many would lose their current insurance options and pay higher taxes.” They fail to mention that the policy replaces people’s “current insurance options” with more expansive coverage that (under Sanders’ plan) eliminates premiums, copays, and deductibles. As pretty much every distributional analysis of proposed single-payer plans show, the vast majority of people will pay substantially less money in taxes plus health care costs under Medicare For All than they currently pay. The omission of these details is akin to implying Martin should have felt “uneasy” about losing his health insurance options and paying higher taxes in 2013 – without mentioning that he was replacing his insurance and making a higher income by moving from Politico to The New York Times.

sanders-tax-and-transfer-distributional-analysis

Similarly, in an attempt to support Michael Bloomberg’s claim that single-payer health care will “bankrupt” America, Martin and Goodnough cite a study from the Mercatus Center that “predicted [Sanders’ plan] would increase federal spending by at least $32.6 trillion over the first decade.” That study also predicted that combined private and public spending on health care in the United States – the most important number in health care cost estimates – would fall by $2 trillion, but Martin and Goodnough don’t mention that fact. As Matt Bruenig has documented extensively, it’s hard to read the numbers in the Mercatus report as anything other than an endorsement of Sanders’ plan.

Mercatus doesn’t want us to read their study that way, which brings us to the second way in which the Times article is misleading. Martin and Goodnough describe Mercatus as the “Mercatus Center of George Mason University,” giving it the imprimatur of impartial academic institution, when Mercatus is in reality a Right-wing think tank funded by the Koch family foundations. This neutral description is inconsistent with how the Times news pages describe other think tanks – they routinely call my old employer, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “liberal” or “liberal-leaning” – and erroneously suggests to the reader that the concerns Mercatus raises come from an objective source.

Martin and Goodnough fail to provide key context for other political opinions, too. They write about how “moderates believe” that Medicare For All will “frighten” an important crop of general election voters, for example, but don’t note that these moderates have been consistently wrong about what voters care about. If there’s any lesson to learn from the 2016 election result, it’s that people’s beliefs about what makes politicians electable should be discounted – especially the beliefs of people who ignored electability evidence the last time around.

Third, Martin and Goodnough cherry-pick the Medicare For All polling data that makes their preferred case. They acknowledge that the term itself “has broad public support,” but they highlight how support for the policy drops “when people hear that it would eliminate insurance companies or that it would require Americans to pay more in taxes.” A result from the same poll that goes unmentioned? That support for the policy rises when people hear that it would “guarantee health insurance as a right for all Americans” or “eliminate all health insurance premiums and reduce out-of-pocket health care costs for most Americans.” Martin and Goodnough also cite a Gallup poll finding that “70 percent of Americans with private insurance rate their coverage as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’” without pointing out that the number jumps to 79 percent for Americans on Medicare or Medicaid.

What Martin and Goodnough get right is that “attitudes [about Medicare For All] swing significantly depending on…the details.” If you tell people that the policy will result in them losing their current insurance, paying higher taxes, and interacting with a bankrupt federal government, they’re less likely to support it. If you tell people the truth, however – that public insurance in the United States is well-liked and more cost-efficient than private insurance, that other countries with Medicare-For-All-type systems spend way less money while covering a much higher percentage of their populations than we do, and that, under a Medicare For All system, all but the richest among us will get better coverage while paying less than they do today – people are fully on board. We need our news media to start telling the truth.

*Update (2/4/19): Thanks to a reader comment, I updated this sentence post-publication to clarify that the Times did not discuss every likely 2020 candidate. Tulsi Gabbard, for example, may also be committed to a true single-payer system.

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Filed under 2020 Election, Health Care and Medicine, Media, US Political System

How Accusations of “Negativity” and “Divisiveness” Stifle Debate

by Yvonne Slosarski and Nathan Luecking

To all the leftist organizers out there: How many times have you been called “negative”? How often have those in power accused you of being “divisive”?

If your organizing experience is anything like ours, you may be nodding your head in agreement. It’s mid-October of an election year, which means that left-leaning candidates all over the country are facing accusations of “negativity.” In DC, our city, Elissa Silverman – one of the most left-leaning representatives in DC government – was called “the most divisive politician in the city” by her developer-backed opponents.

As volunteers for Emily Gasoi’s campaign for DC State Board of Education in Ward 1, we are often accused of “going negative” by Gasoi’s opponents. Given our research, professional, and organizing experiences, we recognize this tactic for what it is – an attempt to squash legitimate disagreement.

The accusation of “negativity” or “divisiveness” tends to function in three main ways.

1) It minimizes legitimate dissent to the status quo.

The call for “civility” has historically tended to silence people who dissent from the status quo. What counts as “civil” tends to support the existing power structure and celebrate what our political morality demands that we condemn.

In DC’s Ward 1, the call for “positivity” is similarly being used to shut down challengers to corporate education reform.

Gasoi’s opponent, Jason Andrean, is a Capital One Executive for Government Contracting. He also was a board member of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a market-based education reform organization started by hedge-fund managers. DFER advocates against teachers’ unions and for high-stakes testing and charter schools as the primary ways forward in education. Gasoi’s opponent also chairs the board of Achievement Prep, a high-stakes-testing charter school in DC that has been cited for excessive punitive measures, poor educational outcomes, and high teacher turnover.

Gasoi is running for the Ward 1 seat, in part, to challenge the corporate education reform model of DFER. She knows that the finance industry has too much power in education policy and that market approaches have re-segregated schools, lessened “deep learning” for minoritized students, and denied power to the people closest to classrooms – teachers, families, and students.

But corporate education reform is the status quo in DC, so pointing out Andrean’s connections to DFER and the banking industry – and his lack of education experience – is considered an “attack” by his campaign, which wrote the following in a recent email:

Throughout this race, one of my opponents has attacked my motives and has suggested that only someone with a doctorate deserves to represent the families of Ward One. She’s even gone so far as to attack my supporters and those who believe that ALL voices have value as we work to fix what’s broken in our public education system.

Aside from inaccurately portraying Gasoi’s claims, this email suggests that there is no room for criticizing corporate education reform. But how can we be “positive” about it when the stakes are so high for our students?

2) It obscures meaningful differences.

Organizations and candidates have meaningful differences in priorities and experiences. In a neoliberal environment, “positivity” rhetoric draws on an empty notion of individual equality to suggest that all experiences are somehow the same.

Returning to Ward 1, Andrean wrote the following in a Medium piece about his candidacy:

Since embarking on this journey my opponent, Ms. Gasoi, has made it her mission to lambast my character and discredit my education experience — which she deems inferior to her own. I don’t come to this race with an Ed.D. in education policy or having spent time as a classroom teacher, but like the majority of families that look like mine, I want my lived experience to be valued and represented on the State Board of Education. My opponent often tells others that I’m a ‘banker with no education experience’ when out on the campaign trail. The reality is that we all have an ‘education experience’ and that’s why I’m running for the SBOE… [O]ur leaders should reject the notion that there’s only one type of representative we should be electing to serve our kids and families.

When Andrean writes, “we all have an ‘education experience,’” he minimizes a very important difference between him and Gasoi. Unlike him, Gasoi has devoted her entire professional life to public education. That’s part of why her priorities, unlike his, are aligned with what’s best for students in DC.

3) It takes the conflict out of politics, to ensure that the powerful win.

Civility rhetoric presumes a shared interest between groups that—structurally—are in conflict. Where one group is up because another is down, we must bring conflict into the forefront, and those in power may label such disruption “negative.”

In the Ward 1 School Board race, Andrean and his supporters have consistently shied away from his policy priorities, instead uplifting their “positivity.” For example, his campaign tweeted:

Instead of debating policy priorities, he hails himself as the “positive” candidate, thus shutting down debate over consequential policies. As Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau argued, the status quo is always just one version of the world and conflict is an inherent part of “the political.” Forced positivity cuts off debate over decisions that matter. And with no real conflict, the powerful—who often benefit from inertia—win.

Of course, quashing legitimate and consequential debate is a serious problem for people trying to choose a candidate between options. Are you supposed to choose a representative based on how abstractly positive they are? What if they gut public services with a smile on their face?

This rhetoric of “positivity” seriously obscures the real-life consequences of policies that should legitimately be challenged.

Andrean, who has been the Chairman of the Board at Achievement Prep Public Charter School in Ward 8 of Washington, DC since 2016, has a troubling track record.  Under his leadership, Achievement Prep has fostered a culture of punitive discipline, favored behavior management over classroom instruction, and responded inadequately to teacher concerns. DC voters who care about student outcomes and emotional well-being need to know this history.

In a 2018 Qualitative Site Review of Achievement Prep’s Elementary Campus, the DC Public Charter School Board observers noted that “Academic expectations and rigor were low across the campus. Class time was mostly devoted to managing behavior to keep students safe and compliant.” As the rest of DC moves towards a trauma-informed approach to discipline focused on restorative practices, Achievement Prep continues to embrace an archaic, punitive, zero-tolerance approach to behavior management. This is evidenced by Achievement Prep’s suspension rate, which is twice that of the city average. In addition, student consequences are imposed with little consistency and vary between students. The site survey reported:

Students screamed and called one another hurtful names and hit each other without consequence, while other students engaged in the same behavior received consequences inconsistently…In one observation an adult dragged a student by the hand out of the classroom when he went into crisis.

There was also a highly publicized incident in which a six-year-old girl suffered a concussion after a substitute from a privately contracted company dragged her across the floor.

In another incident in the spring of 2018, an Achievement Prep teacher was sexually assaulted by a visitor on school property. In response, school leadership put the teacher on involuntary unpaid leave for the remainder of the year. The teacher effectively lost nearly $3,000 in wages. While Achievement Prep staff organized, demanding safer working conditions, Achievement Prep leadership has not responded to this call for increased safety requirements. The lack of concern Achievement Prep leadership has shown may reflect why, of the 51 reviews posted by former employees on glassdoor.com, only 6% recommend working at the school. (Note that teacher working conditions and student success are linked, as evidenced by this study in the American Journal of Education.)

Achievement Prep

glassdoor.com reviews of Achievement Prep

Given these issues at Achievement Prep, it’s not surprising that concerns about student discipline, teacher recruitment, and management led to the rejection of Andrean’s 2015 application for a different charter school. Similar concerns drive our opposition to his candidacy and to corporate education reform more generally, and it would be irresponsible not to the tell the truth about his record. When we know the potential consequences of his winning the election, “keeping it positive” would be the lowest of lows.

Yvonne Slosarski has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Political Culture. She is an organizer and researcher on movements for economic justice, a Humanities professor, and the associate director of an honors program at the University of Maryland.  

Nathan Luecking is a School Social Worker in the District of Columbia. He is a school mental health advocate and sits on a city-wide Coordinating Council for school mental health.

 

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Philosophy, US Political System

A Plea to Progressives: Reject Russia Hysteria and Prioritize Social Justice

For well over a year-and-a-half now, prominent Democratic politicians and media figures have alleged that, in an unprecedented attack on democracy, “Russia hacked the election” in 2016 to install Vladimir Putin’spuppet,” Donald Trump, into office. Those pushing this narrative call Trump a “traitor” and accuse him of committingtreason” against the American people.

I have raised objections to the way many Democrats are talking about Russia for two main reasons:

1. Skepticism of our intelligence agencies’ claims is warranted, as history has shown. From overthrowing the democratically elected Allende government in Chile and lying about it to secretly selling weapons to Iran in the 1980s and lying about it to falsely declaring that Iraq had provided al Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction, the CIA’s history doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their credibility. The FBI similarly helped to lead us into Iraq under false pretenses (see this video from 15 years ago of none other than lead Russia investigator Robert Mueller) and has a long history of targeting anti-war and civil rights activists with dishonest smears. And as exposed by Edward Snowden during the Obama Presidency, the NSA has lied repeatedly to Americans about their warrantless spying programs. In each of these and many other instances, our intelligence agencies’ falsehoods have served deeply illiberal goals. Nobody should take their word as gospel, and everyone should be skeptical of what our intelligence agencies’ public pronouncements might be designed to accomplish. Consider the following:

a. Hysteria about Russia could lead to war – or worse. As noted above, inaccurate fearmongering helped lead us into the Iraq War in the early 2000s. The more prominent media and political figures say that “we’re in a 9/11 national emergency” and declare Russia to have “launched a war” against us, the more at risk we are of becoming engaged in an actual war with Russia, a country with a serious stockpile of nuclear weapons. In fact, a former US general and a foreign policy consultant seemed to suggest that military action against Russia might be appropriate in a recent article in Politico, writing: “This is our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11. In the past, we have risen to the defense of our values, our ideologies and our institutions. It’s time for another fight.”

One wouldn’t know it from the media narrative about Trump and Russia, but Trump has already taken a harder line against Russia than Barack Obama did when in office – he has imposed harsh sanctions, bombed a Syrian airfield, pulled out of the Iran deal (which Putin supported), sent lethal weapons to Ukraine, and increased funding for anti-Russian efforts in Europe. Democrats pushing Trump to take more aggressive action would do well to consider why Obama didn’t (and to watch this video of Obama mocking Mitt Romney six years ago for making the same type of claims many Democrats are making today).

b. Unfounded accusations of treason are used to silence dissent. Less than fifteen years ago, the Center for American Progress documented the Bush Administration’s attacks on the patriotism of anyone who opposed their narrative about 9/11 and Iraq and, more broadly, their foreign policy. Beyond Iraq, “the tactic of undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States” has a name – McCarthyism – and has a long history of being used to persecute social justice advocates.

While it’s true that the allegations of treason today are centered heavily on staunch opponents of social justice – Trump and various Republicans – Establishment Democrats have unsurprisingly also targeted Jill Stein, Glenn Greenwald, and anyone else who has dared to criticize their behavior – we are at best “fucking clueless…idiot[s]” and at worst “agent[s] of Trump and Moscow” (that we are staunch critics of both Trump and Putin doesn’t seem to matter). It is not hard to imagine the current McCarthyite climate persisting after Trump is ousted from office and used primarily once more, as it has been throughout American history, to attack proponents of a more just society.

I’m not an expert on cybersecurity and do not know the entire basis for our intelligence agencies’ claims – nobody outside of those agencies does! What we do know, however, is that the first report they released that purported to show evidence of Russian interference in 2016 contained more anti-social-justice propaganda than evidence. We also know that many widespread claims related to alleged Russian interference over the last two years – Wikileaks doctored Clinton campaign emails, Russia hacked the Vermont power grid, certain American blogs are tools of Russian propaganda, Russia tried to break into and compromise voter systems in various states, Russia interfered in the French election – have turned out to be false.

Mueller’s July 13 indictment is detailed and he may present convincing proof that the Russian government hacked various Democrats’ email accounts (there are also reasonable people who seem to believe the evidence is already convincing on that point). But given our intelligence agencies’ sordid history, we should be careful not to place our trust in them.

2. We should be focusing our time and energy on effective responses to Trump, Republicans in Congress, and the homegrown problems of systemic classism, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that long predate 2016. The only standing concrete charges against the Russian government are that they hacked Democratic emails and poured a very small amount of money into an unsophisticated, inconsequential social media advertising campaign. These activities were neither the primary reason for Trump’s victory nor particularly surprising – the United States government “meddles” in many other foreign countries’ elections much more significantly than Russia is alleged to have done here – and, as polling shows, Americans rightfully care more about issues that will directly impact their lives than about the “situation with Russia.”

To be fair, Establishment Democrats who consider themselves part of the #Resistance have generally been highly critical of Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cut taxes, and enforce draconian immigration policy. But the amount of time spent on these issues – not to mention advancing a proactive agenda for single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage, a radical restructuring of our criminal justice system, and more – has paled in comparison to the amount of time spent on speculation about Trump and Russia. In one analysis of a six-week period in 2017, for example, popular MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was found to have spent more time talking about Russia than about every other issue combined. As another illustrative example, CNN Contributor Joan Walsh seemed unhappy with Bernie Sanders for tweeting about a long-scheduled “CEOs vs workers” town hall he was hosting on the day of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki; in Walsh’s mind, presumably, Sanders should have ignored income inequality that day and been exclusively focused on questioning Trump’s patriotism. Every cover story hypothesizing that Trump has been a “Russian-intelligence asset” since 1987 draws attention away from important, reality-based domestic issues that could have had that cover space.

There’s a reason Establishment Democrats find the Russia-successfully-waged-an-unprecedented-attack-on-our-democracy-and-is-to-blame-for-all-our-problems narrative so appealing: it absolves them of responsibility both for losing the 2016 election and for failing to address the needs of millions of Americans who are suffering. They want the public to forget that they ran an undemocratic primary process in 2016 to select the less-electable, less-social-justice-oriented candidate as their nominee, that their model for Democratic politics has resulted in huge losses for the party throughout the entire country, and that Democrats have long condoned some of the policies they now profess to be outraged about. If Democratic elites can convince enough people that the current state of American politics is Putin’s fault rather than something their glaring failures have contributed to, they will have a much easier time staying in power.

None of that means that the Russian government wasn’t behind the phishing emails sent to John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee – they may well have been! It also remains true that Donald Trump lies all the time and has almost certainly done dozens of illegal things. Nobody should take statements from either him or Vladimir Putin at face value, and the Mueller investigation should absolutely proceed.

But Democrats also need to be more careful about how they approach the issue of Russia and the 2016 election. Failing to do so could have very serious consequences.

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Filed under 2016 Election, Foreign Policy, US Political System

Written in 2017, Relevant in 2018 and Beyond

With the year drawing to a close, and because I like lists, I wanted to highlight the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 that I believe remain most relevant for 2018 and beyond.

#10: The Trump administration’s ongoing attack on workers (The Washington Post, August 30)
Donald Trump pledged during his campaign, that, with him in office, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” In this piece, Jared Bernstein and I tick off a multitude of ways in which this promise has turned out, predictably, to be false. The list has gotten longer in the time since we went to press (check out Jared’s recent interview of Heidi Shierholz on how the Trump Labor Department is trying to help employers steal workers’ tips), and it will be important to continue to shine a light on team Trump’s anti-worker actions in 2018.

#9: The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor (Talk Poverty, November 20)
Speaking of the disconnect between Republican politicians’ rhetoric and their actual actions, this satirical piece outlined the way in which Paul Ryan sells his help-the-rich-and-punish-the-poor agenda as the opposite of what it actually is. With the Republican tax cut for rich people signed into law, Ryan has already trained his sights on eviscerating programs that help the poor. Don’t let anyone you know fall for how he’ll spin it.

#8: Why Medicaid Work Requirements Won’t Work (The New York Times, March 22)
Elected officials who share Ryan’s disdain for poor people will likely try to add work requirements to their states’ Medicaid programs in 2018. Here, Jared and I explain why that policy’s main effect is just to deprive people of needed health care.

#7: Seattle’s higher minimum wage is actually working just fine (The Washington Post, June 27)
The Fight for $15 has been incredibly successful over the past few years; 29 states (plus DC) and 40 localities now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Yet the not-so-brave quest some economists and politicians have undertaken to hold down wages for low-wage workers continues unabated, and they jumped all over a June study of Seattle’s minimum wage increase to proclaim that workers are actually better off when we allow businesses to underpay them. A closer look at the study, of course, reveals that it proves nothing of the sort, so keep this rebuttal handy for the next raise-the-wage fight you find yourself engaged in.

#6: Below the Minimum No More (The American Prospect, May 30)
Abolishing sub-minimum wages is the next front in the minimum wage wars; while many jurisdictions have raised the headline minimum wage, most have failed to satisfactorily address the exemptions in minimum wage law that allow businesses to exploit tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and teenagers. It’s about time we had one fair minimum wage for all workers, as this piece explains.

#5: Protect the Dreamers (The American Prospect, September 28)
Republican Senator Jeff Flake claims that he voted for the Republican tax bill after “securing…commitment from the [Trump] administration & #Senate leadership to advance [a] growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for #DACA recipients.” In this piece, Jared and I note how a clean Dream Act is the only approach that politicians who truly care about helping immigrants would find acceptable; Flake must be held accountable for supporting it. State lawmakers should also be pressured to take the steps we outline to combat the xenophobia emanating from the White House.

#4: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed” (34justice, January 9)
To date, there is at best remarkably weak evidence behind many prominent politicians’ and pundits’ claims about Russian interference in the US election. I read the report that is the basis for many of these claims when it came out in January and, as I noted at the time, it’s almost comically propagandistic. Some Democrats’ disregard for actual facts when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking and “collusion” is troubling, as is the McCarthyite climate in which people who challenge the Democratic Party Establishment are accused of being secret agents of Vladimir Putin. Those who would prefer a more reality-based Russia discussion in 2018 would do well to take a half hour to watch Aaron Maté interview Luke Harding about this topic.

#3: Amen for Alternative Media (34justice, May 2)
An obsession with Russia conspiracy theories is far from the mainstream media’s sole problem. The problem also isn’t a paucity of Republican journalists, as the May/June issue of Politico posited. Instead, as my response to Politico discusses, the mainstream media’s problem is one of subservience to power. Independent media are doing the public a great service by exposing us to information and viewpoints often absent from corporate cable and major newspapers, and it is essential that we fight to protect and promote independent media in the years ahead.

#2: The Progressive Agenda Now: Jobs and Medicare for All (The American Prospect, April 3)
Given Republican control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, one would be forgiven for urging social justice advocates to focus their energies on policy defense. But that would be a mistake, as Jared and I note in this column, both because the best defense is sometimes a good offense and because, if we want to enact the policy millions of people need, we must lay the groundwork for that policy as soon as possible. There is much more beyond a federal job guarantee and Medicare for All that we have to flesh out and advocate for, but those two big policy ideas wouldn’t be too shabby a start.

#1: We Don’t Need No “Moderates” (34justice, July 29)
Putting the right politicians in power is the prerequisite for enacting most of the policy changes we need to see. Those who tell you that “moderate” or “centrist” politicians are more “electable” than social-justice-oriented politicians are wrong, and there is never a good reason – never – to advocate for the less social-justice-oriented candidate in a Democratic primary. The results of the 2017 elections only underscore this point. It’s time we got to work electing true social justice advocates to positions of power.

Happy reading and happy new year!

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

34justice Partners with Run It Black

I’m excited to announce that 34justice is partnering with Run It Black, a podcast on “sports, politics, culture, and the intersection of race” from David Tigabu and Mike Mitchell.  Mike taught me much of what I know about podcasting, and David is no newcomer to 34justice, having previously authored a great piece for us on how the co-option of Christianity helps explain the election of Donald Trump.  Besides being good friends of mine and knowing far more about pop culture than I ever will, David and Mike have awesome insights about the connections between racism and various other forms of oppression.  Often containing fascinating historical context, their episodes are both entertaining and informative.

You can listen to Run It Black episodes directly through 34justice’s new Run It Black widget, which can be found on the top right-hand-side of our webpage on a desktop computer and towards the bottom of the page on a mobile device.  You can also tune in on iTunes.  Here’s a quick overview of the first five episodes (from earliest to most recent):

What to do about the NFL?
Find out why David and Mike are boycotting the NFL this year and what they think of the Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor showdown.

The Politics of Hurricanes
People of color suffer most when natural disasters strike, are often de-prioritized during our inadequate responses to such disasters, and will continue to face disproportionate harm if we fail to address climate change.  David and Mike explain.

Jemele Hill Was Right
Hill’s Black colleagues backed her up when she called Donald Trump a White supremacist, but ESPN didn’t.  David and Mike discuss the Right-wing backlash to race-conscious sports media before delving into some statistics on and possible remedies for the racial wealth gap.

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Disaster
As David and Mike note, our government has treated Puerto Rico significantly worse than it treats US states during times of natural disaster, a problem consistent with a long history of unjust policy towards Americans on the island.  They also comment on the evolution of NFL players’ protests against racial injustice.

The Enduring Significance of HBCUs
While neither David nor Mike attended an HBCU, they’ve thought a lot about the important role such institutions play in improving opportunities for Black Americans.  They note HBCUs’ many strengths, why some criticisms of HBCUs are misplaced, and the curious case of HBCU presidents accepting Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House.

Especially if you aren’t getting enough Run It Black between episodes, I highly recommend following the podcast, as well as David and Mike, on Twitter.  Happy listening!

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Filed under Environment, Gender Issues, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion, Sports, US Political System

We Don’t Need No “Moderates”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has apparently decided that embracing the “Blue Dog Democrats” – a group of politicians who proudly tout their commitment “to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines” – is the prudent electoral strategy for the Democratic Party in 2018.  Daily Beast contributor Michael Tomasky agrees, writing that the “reality, which many liberals refuse to accept[, is that to win a majority in the House of Representatives], Democrats have to win in 20 to 25 purple districts.  And that means electing some moderates.”

If you’re in favor of Democrats joining with Republicans to enact tax cuts that go mostly to the rich, reductions in government spending on support for low- and middle-income people, and more legislation authorizing perpetual war, this strategy isn’t totally crazy.  But if you’re in favor of “single-payer health care, a much higher minimum wage, a massive infrastructure program, a top marginal…tax rate around 50 percent, a much higher payroll tax cap, and more,” which Tomasky says he is, this strategy couldn’t be more wrong.  Even if it led to a Democratic House, it would stymie your agenda.  In New York, for example, while the Blue-Dog-esque Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) gives Democrats a nominal majority in the state Senate, the IDC consistently partners with Republicans to undermine economic and social justice.  A Democratic majority doesn’t help you very much if the Democrats who get you there don’t share your values.

Importantly, there’s also no reason to believe Tomasky’s assertion that “moderate” candidates will improve Democrats’ electoral prospects.  In fact, evidence suggests an alternate strategy holds more promise in contested (or even heavily Republican) districts in 2018.

Consider recent special elections to replace Trump appointees Mick Mulvaney (South Carolina’s 5th District), Mike Pompeo (Kansas’ 4th District), Tom Price (Georgia’s 6th District), and Ryan Zinke (Montana’s At-Large seat) in the House.  Democrats pursued the Tomasky strategy (or, as former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon seems to call it, the “Panera Breads of America” strategy) in Georgia, spending a historical record $30 million on a candidate, Jon Ossoff, who stressed deficit reduction and actively opposed both single-payer health care and taxing the rich.  The national party apparatus mostly stayed out of the other three races, but the Democratic candidates in Kansas (James Thompson) and Montana (Rob Quist) secured progressive endorsements with a platform closer to the one Tomasky theoretically supports.  Nobody paid much attention to Archie Parnell, the Democratic candidate in South Carolina, who, like Ossoff, would fit in pretty well with the Blue Dogs.

The Democrats lost all four races.  But based on how Democrats had fared in each of those districts historically, they also significantly outperformed expectations.  All of them except for Ossoff, that is, who did far better than the practically nonexistent candidate Democrats ran in the prior congressional election in Georgia’s 6th District but worse than Hillary Clinton performed there against Donald Trump.  Note also that Georgia’s 6th District is more affluent than most and thus, according to Tomasky, a place in which “the Democrat should definitely talk more about growth than fairness but can probably get away with somewhat more liberal social positions,” which basically describes how Ossoff ran his campaign.  In other words, the Democratic Party invested the most resources and got the least return on one of the “moderate” special election candidates in a district tailor-made for the Tomasky strategy.

Advocacy for single-payer health care didn’t put Thompson and Quist over the top in their races, of course, and Parnell, a “moderate” who both the party and grassroots organizers more or less ignored, came the closest to victory.  These special elections certainly don’t prove that endorsing economic justice more will win.  But they do show it can play better than a Republican-lite economic platform in heavily Republican areas, a fact also underscored by the recent results of state special elections.  In New York’s 9th Assembly District, for instance, which Trump won with 60 percent of the vote, bold progressive Christine Pellegrino just trounced her Republican challenger en route to a seat on the state assembly.

Then there’s the recent international evidence.  Jeremy Corbyn just helped the United Kingdom’s Labour Party pull off its biggest electoral swing in seventy years, defying pundit predictions of Labour’s imminent trampling from a few months before.  Some of Labour’s surge was likely due to the Conservative Party’s mistakes, but some of it was also likely due to a bold set of economic ideas Labour outlined in a new manifesto, ideas that couldn’t be more different from those the Blue Dog Democrats embrace.  Labour’s showing underscored what evidence had indicated since at least February of 2016, when I first pointed it out: Bernie Sanders was much more likely than Hillary Clinton to win a head-to-head matchup against a Republican presidential candidate that November.  That evidence only got stronger as the primary season continued; many Democrats likely wish they had taken it more seriously.  Today, Sanders – a politician about as far from the Blue Dogs as you can get in the Senate – remains the most popular politician in America.  The claim that Sanders-style economic and social justice advocacy is unworkable in the critical purple districts Tomasky references doesn’t square with the absence of moderate Democrats more popular than Sanders in those districts.

And let’s not forget that the Democratic Party has been decimated in recent years.  Not only have they lost control of the executive branch of the federal government and both chambers of Congress, they now also hold only 18 state houses, 15* governorships, and 13 state senates.  They’ve been running moderate candidates in purple districts, and that strategy doesn’t seem to be working very well.

That doesn’t mean we can be certain about what will get Democrats elected.  A candidate’s general election viability is ultimately unknowable.  It may depend on her or her opponent’s platform, debating skill, fundraising prowess, personality, or field operation.  It may hinge on the quirks of the community she’s running for office in or how much the media likes her.  It may come down to random chance.  Electability is also often a self-fulfilling prophecy; people commenting on electability and making decisions based on their perceptions of it can actually influence it and do so all the time.

The only thing we can be certain of in the electability space is political strategists’ and pundits’ poor track records.  Many of the people who claim to know what is and isn’t possible in future elections thought Bernie Sanders would barely get 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.  Many of them were sure that Republicans would never nominate Donald Trump, and once that prediction turned out to be wrong, were still absolutely positive that Trump would never become president.  It’s long past time we viewed their claims with skepticism, especially when there’s evidence that points the other way.

Good policy can sell.  Voters can be persuaded.  Political reality is not something that gets handed to us, but something we help create.  Candidates with economic and social justice platforms can win in purple districts, and they’ll be even more likely to do so if Democratic pundits stop assuming they can’t and start getting behind them.

*Updated from 16 to 15 on August 5, 2017, after West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced he would switch his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Thanks to Michael Sainato for the heads up!

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Filed under 2016 Election, 2018 Elections, US Political System