Tag Archives: political pragmatism

Pro-Clinton Writers Make Illiberal Arguments and Then Complain When They’re Called Out On It

A nontrivial portion of online comments are going to be unconstructive and/or offensive.  Especially when a columnist writes something provocative, a lot of people are going to be unhappy about it, and many of them, bolstered by the relative anonymity and psychological distance the Internet affords, will respond with vitriol.  That said, there are actually a lot of thoughtful readers out there, and even angry responses can sometimes contain good points.  Authors who take the time to consider the feedback they receive – to parse the constructive commentary from the trash – can improve their arguments and demonstrate that they’ve really thought through the fairness and implications of what they’ve written.

Unfortunately, many authors don’t do that.  And during this election cycle, this failure in self-reflection has been particularly prevalent among prominent Hillary Clinton supporters.

To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to focus on two columnists, Paul Krugman and Michael Tomasky, who share a few characteristics:

  • They’ve got wide readership. Krugman is much more well-known and writes for the New York Times, but Tomasky has a decent following in his own right; he’s a columnist for the Daily Beast and also edits Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
  • They’ve written multiple pieces in support of Clinton that express illiberal ideas and/or distort the truth – that is, they’ve done exactly the type of thing they frequently ding Republicans for doing.
  • Instead of addressing any of numerous valid criticisms of their pro-Clinton articles, they’ve cast all of their critics as “Bernie Bros” who can’t possibly have anything legitimate to say. In “An Ode to My Berniebro Trolls,” Tomasky asserts that there is “nothing” even potentially objectionable about his previous piece, “Time for Bernie Sanders to Get in Line,” except that perhaps the title was an oversell of his main point: Sanders is “going to lose” and should therefore “lay off the attacks on Hillary Clinton, the Goldman Sachs speeches and all the rest.”  Krugman, for his part, has long complained of being subjected to the “Bernie Bro treatment,” which seems to mean that he’s been called “a corrupt tool of the oligarchy.”  He has recently claimed that the Sanders campaign itself is “getting pretty ugly in a way the Clinton [campaign] hasn’t.”

If Krugman really believes that “[g]ood ideas don’t have to be sold with fairy dust” and that “getting real is or ought to be a core progressive value,” he isn’t currently putting his money where his mouth is.  And Tomasky’s insistence that he’s “open to hearing a smart argument against [his] position” would be a lot more believable if he hadn’t thus far ignored those that have been offered.  If Krugman and Tomasky are serious about “getting real,” they will begin to acknowledge and address the following points:

The “Bernie Bro” narrative is “a Cheap Campaign Tactic Masquerading as Journalism.”

Everyone who has made this point recognizes that some Bernie Sanders supporters make sexist, racist, and/or otherwise offensive comments.  We condemn those comments.  We also request that Clinton supporters stop using a sexist label themselves, one that, when it isn’t being applied to women or people who don’t even support Bernie Sanders, is marginalizing the millions of women (and people of color; the “Bernie Bro” is often cast as an angry White guy) who are staunch proponents of the Sanders campaign (Sanders is actually way more popular than Clinton among young women and, increasingly, among younger Black and Latino voters).  As a recent study confirmed about sexism, Internet harassment is a major issue but is mostly not from “the left in general or Sanders supporters in particular.”

There are numerous examples of Hillary Clinton supporters who make sexist, racist, and homophobic comments as well.  Whether you’re subject to such comments is both a function of which candidate you support and how much privilege you have (women and people of color who support any candidate are much more likely to be harassed than White men like Krugman and Tomasky or half-Indian men who are perceived to be White like me, for instance).  So let’s not go around calling people “Hillary Elites” or “Hillary Straights” or “Bernie Bros.”  Instead, let’s condemn harassment without opportunistically twisting the truth about it and focus our energy on substantive debates about issues.

The Sanders campaign’s critiques of Clinton’s record and platform have been significantly fairer than the Clinton campaign’s misleading and/or untrue attacks on Sanders.

The only specific “attack” on Clinton that Tomasky actually attributes to Sanders is his call for Clinton to release the transcripts of three speeches Goldman Sachs paid her $225,000 (each) to make during the past few years.  But Sanders’ critique here is completely fair (as is what Tomasky calls Sanders’ “anti-Rahm Emanuel tincture”).  Clinton has repeatedly claimed that the money she receives from Wall Street doesn’t influence her; the American people have a right to know how her remarks to bankers comport with her professed commitment to regulate them (though how her comments could possibly look as bad as her continued refusal to share them is anyone’s guess).

To be fair, the precise definition of “attack” is open for debate, but despite Krugman’s assertions to the contrary, the fact that Clinton’s campaign has been much more insidious isn’t.  Throughout the primary, the Clinton campaign has repeatedly distorted the truth.  Clinton has disingenuously accused Sanders of sexism and racism, made false statements about his health care plan and history of health care advocacy, and misled the public about his record on the auto industry, immigration, Wall Street, and a variety of other issues.  Her team has also engaged in red-baiting, trashed taxes Democrats are supposed to support, and co-opted the language of intersectionality to inaccurately paint Sanders  – a rare politician who recognizes the connections between social and economic issues and is advancing a comprehensive social justice agenda – as a single-issue candidate.  Clinton’s campaign might not embody “the most negative campaign of any Democratic presidential candidate…in a presidential primary season” label that her staffers have tried to apply to the Sanders campaign, but the Clinton team’s tactics have been – by far – the most negative in this year’s race.

Sanders has a very strong track record as a legislator and executive.

Tomasky incorrectly argues that Sanders is an ineffective legislator, citing a lack of cosponsors on his bills as evidence that he doesn’t work well with Congress.  Tomasky omits, however, that Sanders recently negotiated a bipartisan bill “to expand veterans’ access to health care” with John McCain, a bill which is widely viewed as a huge success.  Sanders’ Republican colleagues, despite their disagreements with him, liked working with Sanders and praised him for his integrity and work ethic, while Democratic Senators said that, without Sanders, they “don’t think [they] would have gotten [the bill] done.”

Tomasky also fails to mention that Sanders has mastered the art of adding power-balancing amendments to larger bills; his accomplishments include (but are not limited to) securing funding for community health centers in the Affordable Care Act, blocking imports made with child labor, and increasing transparency about one-time government officials’ subsequent employment opportunities.

Sanders’ record as mayor of Burlington also shows that he’s an excellent executive.  He has a history of setting big goals, fighting for them, and eventually working out the best deal he believes he can.  The citizens of Vermont love Sanders for a reason – they know his record a lot better than Krugman and Tomasky do, and it’s a damn good one.

If anything, I’d prefer Sanders were much less into what Krugman calls “hardheaded realism” than he actually is.  That’s because Krugman is wrong about how to make change; we are served best not by “accepting half loaves as being better than none,” but by reframing issues and forcing policymakers’ hands.  As climate expert Bill McKibben explains, major accomplishments like gay marriage and civil rights legislation weren’t driven by leaders all too willing to compromise; they were driven by “big, impassioned movement[s] that cleverly changed the zeitgeist.”  Sanders gets this dynamic more than any major presidential candidate in recent memory, and that’s why his “political revolution” carries so much potential to change this country’s politics.

All the evidence suggests Sanders is a more “electable” general election candidate than Clinton.

Both Krugman and Tomasky write off the head-to-head polling that has consistently shown Sanders to outperform Clinton in hypothetical general election matchups with Republicans.  Tomasky argues that “a billion-dollar onslaught” from the GOP, targeted at the “tax increases he’s proposing,” would tank Sanders.  Yet as I’ve explained before, the GOP would also mercilessly attack Clinton, and the idea that those attacks would work better against Sanders is entirely inconsistent with other polling trends.  As shown below, Clinton’s favorability ratings have been steadily declining, while Sanders’ have continued to rise as voters have become more familiar with him.

Favorability

As I’ve also explained before and the graphs below show, Sanders does significantly better than Clinton among two demographic groups key to winning a general election: young people and Independents.

Millennials

Independents

Voters in these groups – unlike voters in Clinton’s key constituencies – may very well abandon the Democrats if Clinton is the party’s nominee.  I wouldn’t personally recommend basing your vote on perceived electability, but if that’s what you’re planning to do, the evidence indicates that you should vote for Sanders.

There are substantial, important differences between Sanders and Clinton.  These differences are in some respects much larger than the differences between Clinton and various Republicans.

Krugman argues that the differences between Sanders and Clinton “are trivial compared with the yawning gulf with Republicans.”  Ironically, the context for those comments – an article about financial policy and donations – provides a compelling counterexample: Wall Street does not like Sanders, but the industry seems to like Clinton more than many of the Republican candidates, as the graph below shows.  And though many of them likely agree with Krugman that the differences between Clinton and the Republicans are larger than those between Sanders and Clinton, numerous smart people and policy experts whose existence Krugman ignores believe both that Sanders’ Wall Street plans are much better than Clinton’s and that Sanders is far more likely than Clinton to surround himself with a staff that will execute a power-balancing policy vision.

Wall Street Donations

For an even better example, consider foreign policy.  Clinton has embraced an incredibly hawkish position on Israel, used the same foreign policy consulting firm as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (among other politicians), and supported a coup in Honduras in 2009; in fact, she has earned the support of many neoconservatives for her long history of supporting civil liberties violations and aggressive interventions that have resulted in the mistreatment and/or deaths of millions of innocent people.  Tomasky is right to point out that Sanders’ doesn’t get particularly high marks on foreign policy from “actual leftists,” but there’s a reason Congresswoman and Iraq War veteran Tulsi Gabbard resigned from the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sanders at the end of February (see video below): he’s much less imperialistic than the typical major party candidate.

Then there’s the death penalty: Sanders opposes it, but Clinton, like the Republicans, is okay with it.  There’s also the subject of immigrants’ rights: Clinton’s professed outrage over Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border is hard to reconcile with her repeated support for a border barrier in the past, support she touted as recently as November 2015.  Her newfound commitment not to deport children fleeing violence is also hard to believe given her defense of such deportations a mere seven months ago.  In contrast, Sanders has consistently opposed both a border fence and deportations.

From Clinton’s support for the escalation of the War on Drugs and move to more draconian welfare policy to her longtime opposition to gay marriage to her promotion of “free trade” deals that have prioritized the interests of multinational corporations over those of the bulk of the world’s citizens, Clinton’s history is closer to many Republicans’ than to Sanders’, who has a very good (albeit imperfect) record on racial justice issues, anti-poverty work, LGBT issues, and opposing bad trade deals.  To be sure, there are some causes on which Sanders has found Republican allies, but those causes have generally been ones – like opposition to corporate welfare – that Tomasky’s “actual leftists” support.

In light of all these facts, Tomasky’s argument that Democrats should refrain from criticizing Hillary Clinton (who he thinks will be the Democratic nominee), like a similar argument from Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos, is a hell of a lot scarier to people like me than a Donald Trump presidency.  This undemocratic idea elevates party tribalism over good policymaking and “winning” over holding politicians accountable.  It presents a major obstacle to the change the world’s most disadvantaged populations desperately need, change which perpetual endorsements of lesser-of-two-evilsism will never deliver.  Such a misguided notion of “political pragmatism undermines progressive goals,” as I’ve argued before.

Sanders still has a legitimate shot to win the Democratic primary.

Half the country still hasn’t cast their ballots and Bernie Sanders isn’t all that far away from the pledged delegate targets he’d need to win the nomination; Tomasky is wrong to assert that “Sanders can’t win the delegate race now.”  Yes, winning will be difficult, but there’s still a clear path for him to do so, and as Sanders’ historic upset win in Michigan shows, an election isn’t over until the voters actually cast their ballots.  Krugman thinks an extended primary isn’t “good for the Democratic party;” I, on the other hand, think the Clinton coronation he and the Democratic party Establishment have been pushing is a whole lot worse, as it flies in the face of a lot of what the party is supposed to stand for.

All of that said, Krugman and Tomasky are right about one thing: Sanders supporters should avoid the reflexive attribution “of foul and malevolent motives” to Clinton supporters.

I know a lot of awesome Clinton supporters who do great work.  People support presidential candidates for a variety of reasons, and instead of jumping to conclusions about the character of those who disagree with us, we should listen to those reasons and evaluate them on their merits.  In fact, I’d urge everyone to extend the same courtesy to Bernie Sanders supporters, to Jill Stein supporters, to those who refuse to vote, and yes, even to people who plan to vote for one of the Republican candidates.  We should consider the possibility that others have thought through their electoral choices and have entirely legitimate reasons for making them.

At the same time, ethics and evidence matter, and it’s perfectly fine – in fact, it’s essential – to hold voters accountable for attending to them.  If you say your top priority is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, for example, you can’t possibly defend a vote for a Republican this year.  You also can’t really explain a vote for Clinton, which is why Sanders supporters were justifiably furious when the Service Employees International Union endorsed Clinton in November.

I suspect that Krugman and Tomasky don’t share all of my values and priorities.  We agree on a lot – I enjoy their writing outside of election season and appreciate much of what they advocate for – but they seem much more comfortable with the policy status quo than I am.  I reject the idea that public policy must inevitably leave millions of people behind; they very well may not.  In Tomasky’s words: “Fine. I can appreciate that.”  If more voters share Krugman and Tomasky’s values than share mine, so be it.

The problem, however, is that Krugman and Tomasky haven’t been writing about value disagreements.  Instead, rather than acknowledging and responding to the evidence and logical arguments that contradict their claims, they’ve continued to pen inaccurate and/or highly misleading articles for popular media outlets.  Is it any wonder that, in response to such widely read misinformation, they’ve received angry responses from Sanders supporters?

My best guess is that Krugman and Tomasky are suffering from a severe case of confirmation bias: they’re convinced that Clinton is the best option and have developed tunnel vision to avoid the cognitive dissonance that actually considering feedback might bring about.  But that doesn’t make what they’re doing okay.  And given how often they assign “foul and malevolent motives” to Republicans who write fallacious things, they’d do well to reflect on why it is that their readers have recently been doing the same thing to them.

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Filed under 2016 Election, US Political System

Punditry Prophecies and the Michigan Primary

Harry Enten, a forecaster at FiveThirtyEight, believes he isn’t a favorite of Bernie Sanders supporters; they “don’t exactly love me,” Enten recently wrote.  That may be true, as Enten’s coverage of Sanders during the Democratic primary has, for the most part, been extremely dismissive.  When Sanders entered the race in April of 2015, for example, Enten asserted that Sanders had “pretty much no shot of winning.”  And despite the massive growth in Sanders’ support in the time since, Enten had barely changed his tune nine months later – at the beginning of March, in an article entitled “Hillary Clinton’s Got This,” he argued that “Clinton eventually will win the nomination with relative ease.”

Enten’s underlying analyses have generally been based on polling, endorsements, demographics, and other reasonable indicators.  And Sanders supporters have long understood that Sanders’ path to the Democratic nomination is an uphill climb.  The main objection with Enten-type coverage is not that it’s based on faulty data analysis – it’s not – but that it is at least as much a driver as a predictor of election results.

What does that mean?  It means that two of Sanders’ biggest obstacles to winning the Democratic nomination – perhaps the two biggest obstacles – are the facts that many people aren’t familiar with him and that, of the people who are, many don’t think he has a chance to win.  The latter has driven organizations and individuals who should be natural Sanders allies to, because of a misguided sense of pragmatism, endorse Clinton instead.  It has also driven highly unbalanced media coverage.  These outcomes make it harder for Sanders to introduce voters to his extremely popular ideas,  his consistent record of fighting for social justice causes, and his history of legislative and executive success.

Unsurprisingly, the more voters hear about Sanders, the more support Sanders gets.  The problem is that, because of Enten-type assertions that Sanders doesn’t have a chance, fewer voters get to hear about Sanders than otherwise would.  That lack of exposure ensures lower levels of support, thus often confirming the forecasters’ original predictions and emboldening them to make new ones that further feed into this loop.  Forecaster predictions, in other words, are frequently self-fulfilling prophecies.

That’s one reason Sanders’ historic win in the Michigan primary is so important – by exposing how wrong pundit predictions have been, it has the potential to break this self-reinforcing cycle.  The results in Michigan illustrate more than the inherent uncertainty in data analyses; they show that pundit assertions about which candidates have a chance should always be viewed with skepticism.

To Enten’s credit, he responded to Sanders’ victory by owning how wrong he’s been – “Bernie Sanders made folks like me eat a stack of humble pie on Tuesday night,” Enten wrote.  Vox’s Matt Yglesias, who openly mocked the Sanders’ campaign’s chances in Michigan six days before its victory, also admitted his error.

Yet while these one-time corrections are a good start, they’re also not nearly enough.  Rather than having humility as their dessert, Enten, Yglesias, and the rest of the punditry would do well to consume a little more modesty before – not after – their future political meals.

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How Change Actually Happens

Debbie Spielberg has worked on legislation and policy at the national and local levels, including serving as Legislative Director for Congressman John Lewis (D-Atlanta).  She currently is a legislative aide for Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich (D at-large), where she works on transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental issues, and is also the chairperson of Jamie Raskin‘s Maryland State Senate campaign.  In this article, Spielberg draws on her experience working on progressive policy initiatives to explain why Bernie Sanders is the rare politician with the right theory of change.

Debbie

Debbie Spielberg

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently echoed the argument of too many pundits, elected officials and some of my good friends that Bernie Sanders is too radical and his goals too idealistic to be electable, or, even, to enjoy legislative success if he is.

They’re wrong.

I remember a conversation I had about seven years ago with an erstwhile friend of mine who was consulting with the Obama White House on health care.  He told me that they were using focus groups to determine what health care proposals they could sell to the American public.  That seemed backwards to me.  I asked him why they didn’t first determine what the best proposal was, and then use the focus groups to figure out how to best sell it to the American public.

He quickly dismissed my question.  His argument: I just didn’t understand how politics work (never mind that I had spent years working in Congress and elsewhere in public policy).  Like Krugman, he believed in accepting the terms of a debate rather than in reframing issues, as Bernie does.

Unfortunately, Republicans get why this approach is misguided.  Packaging and sales can make or break an initiative or a candidate.  Remember the sales pitch that candidate George W. Bush was a “compassionate conservative?”  Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, recognized as lies at the time, which effectively distorted John Kerry’s record as a war hero?  Going back much further, President Harry Truman’s proposal for national health care in 1948, overwhelmingly popular at the time, fell victim to negative messaging from the first-ever political consulting firm.

How politicians and the media frame issues plays an essential role in how the public responds.  Bernie is competitive in the polls, and his campaign is generating excitement among many voters (both young and old) around the country, because he understands this point. We don’t rebuild and strengthen the middle class, which is the foundation of a strong democracy, by refusing to think big.  We do it by building a movement, and that starts with unapologetic advocacy for policies that help people.

Consider the bailouts during the Great Recession.  President Obama, top economic adviser Lawrence Summers, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner should have declared that government’s top priority was to help individuals hold on to their homes (which are the largest part of middle-income wealth).  The right “sales pitch” with the right vision might have toppled Congressional opposition.  (I write “might” because we can’t know – they didn’t try.)

Instead of helping individual homeowners directly, the government bailed out (most of) the major financial institutions.  And held none of the offending executives and CEO’s of these institutions personally accountable.  Meanwhile, millions of Americans lost their homes and had to rebuild their lives from scratch.

In the same way that many well-meaning people believe that Bernie Sanders is “unelectable” (even though he has won 14 elections thus far in his life), many argue that a stimulus program focused on individual homeowners was not possible: the President and the Democrats who supported that approach could not have convinced others to rebuild from the bottom up.  I disagree.  President Obama did not take hold of the narrative and “sell” the best policies for the country.  That’s why his solutions turned out to be Band Aids, not the fundamental moves away from the Reagan/Clinton/Bush “assault” on middle-class and poor families that we desperately need.

Bernie, on the other hand, would fight for good policy ideas.  “Medicare for All,” free higher education, a $15 minimum wage, comprehensive immigration reform, addressing climate change, a focus on rebuilding our deteriorating infrastructure – these ideas would all strengthen the foundation of our country (literally, at least in the case of infrastructure!).  Importantly, though it may surprise Krugman et al., Bernie has a long record of translating such ideas into government policy that helps people.  As Eliza Webb summarizes over at Salon:

[Sanders] has combined what Krugman aptly terms “high-minded” leadership with deft policy-making, fiscal judiciousness with social liberalism, the agenda of the Republicans with the agenda of the Democrats, and strong purpose with clever bargains, to bring forth genuine, bona fide, palpable, honest-to-goodness change for the American people.

The dictionary defines radical as “very different from the usual or traditional.”  So perhaps Bernie and his ideas are radical.  With this “radical” candidate, we finally have a leader who is willing to shatter the conventional narrative and propose solutions that might actually make a difference.

I’m all in.

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Voting for Bernie Sanders, Learning from Ta-Nehisi Coates

Several months ago, Black Lives Matter activists targeted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with protests.  Many of my fellow Sanders supporters thought these protests unfair, in large part, as I explained at the time, because Sanders “has an excellent record on racial justice issues, much better than any other candidate running for president.”  Sanders backers noted that his “passion for economic justice…is intimately connected with a passion for racial justice.  Income, wealth, and opportunity inequality in this country disproportionately affect communities of color, and a commitment to addressing them is in many ways in and of itself indicative of a view that Black Lives Matter.”  Since Hillary Clinton and the Republican candidates “have almost-uniformly worse records and stances…on issues affecting Black Americans,” Sanders supporters didn’t understand “why Black Lives Matter [was] applying pressure primarily to the candidate most sympathetic to their cause.”

These very same arguments are now surfacing again in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently took Sanders to task for failing to support reparations (restitution for the centuries of plunder America has visited upon Black communities).  These arguments are still, to a large extent, fair to make.  It is also fair to point out some notable problems with Coates’ characterization of Sanders and his positions:

  • Sanders is not the self-proclaimed “radical” Coates thinks he is – Sanders is making fun of that label in the quote Coates pulls and frequently says on the campaign trail that his ideas, which are wildly popular, are not radical;
  • Sanders is not, as Coates asserts, “posing as a pragmatist” – he most definitely is a pragmatist (just a more power-balancing one than we usually see in American politics);
  • Sanders is in fact “the candidate of…unification” in the Democratic primary, despite Coates’ claim to the contrary; and
  • As Daniel Denvir and Kevin Drum have noted, Sanders’ responses to the questions he’s been asked about reparations – that he supports “making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino” – don’t sound all that different from a reparations proposal Coates himself has previously entertained.

At the same time, the thrust of Coates’ articles is entirely legitimate and extremely important, as were the Black Lives Matter protests.  “For one thing,” as I mentioned previously with regard to the protests, “while racial and economic justice are intimately connected, they are not the exact same thing.”  Coates, like the protesters before him, wants Sanders to “promote a specific racial justice platform complementary to his economic justice agenda, and [he has] every right to demand that [Sanders] do so.”  For another, Coates is justified in focusing on Sanders “precisely because he’s a natural ally and the candidate most likely to respond” productively to Coates’ concerns.

Coates hammers this message home in an excellent follow-up piece:

Many Sanders supporters…correctly point out that Clinton handprints are all over America’s sprawling carceral state.  I agree with them and have said so at length.  Voters, and black voters particularly, should never forget that Bill Clinton passed arguably the most immoral ‘anti-crime’ bill in American history, and that Hillary Clinton aided its passage through her invocation of the super-predator myth.  A defense of Clinton rooted in the claim that “Jeb Bush held the same position” would not be exculpatory.  (“Law and order conservative embraces law and order” would surprise no one.)  That is because the anger over the Clintons’ actions isn’t simply based on their having been wrong, but on their craven embrace of law and order Republicanism in the Democratic Party’s name…

[Similarly, t]hat a mainstream Democrat like Hillary Clinton embraces mainstream liberal policy is unsurprising. Clinton has no interest in expanding the Overton window. She simply hopes to slide through it.

But I thought #FeelTheBern meant something more than this. I thought that Bernie Sanders, the candidate of single-payer health insurance, of the dissolution of big banks, of free higher education, was interested both in being elected and in advancing the debate beyond his own candidacy. I thought the importance of Sanders’s call for free tuition at public universities lay not just in telling citizens that which is actually workable, but in showing them that which we must struggle to make workable. I thought Sanders’s campaign might remind Americans that what is imminently doable and what is morally correct are not always the same things, and while actualizing the former we can’t lose sight of the latter.

Coates is verbalizing here what we deserve from every politician, but especially from the candidate we are pledging to support: a willingness to advocate for what’s right, even when it’s not particularly popular.  And whether Bernie Sanders’ dismissal of reparations is semantic or substantive, whether it’s driven by true opposition or by political pragmatism, it’s wrong.  His campaign’s lack of engagement with Coates thus far, who has reached out to the Sanders team several times, is particularly disappointing.

That certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote for Sanders (and, to be clear, there is no possible interpretation of Coates’ argument that should lead anyone to vote for Clinton).  Many people who support reparations have endorsed and are campaigning for him, and there is strong support for Sanders even in the Coates household (see video clips below)!

Coates discusses Sanders and reparations with Chris Hayes.

Michael Render (also known as Killer Mike), who is “pro Reparations for any people used and abused like Blacks have been here and other places,” explains why “Bernie Sanders is our guy.”

But no politician, no matter who he or she is running against, should ever be immune from critique.  And in Sanders’ case, demands for justice from oppressed people are exactly what his political revolution is supposed to be about.  It’s thus incumbent upon Sanders supporters to stop hassling Coates for asking tough questions and, instead, to start thanking him for holding all of us – including someone who may very well be the next President of the United States – accountable for being the very best we can be.

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Filed under 2016 Election, Race and Religion, US Political System

Political “Pragmatism” Undermines Progressive Goals

The Working Families Party (WFP) bills itself as “New York’s liveliest and most progressive political party.” Founded in 1998, the WFP sought to use fusion voting and community organizing to “hold politicians accountable” to an admirable set of progressive principles including but not limited to “full public financing of elections…community control and equitable funding of our schools …a guaranteed minimum income for all adults[, a] universal ‘social wage’ to include such basic benefits as health care, child care, vacation time, and lifelong access to education and training …[and a] progressive tax system based on the ability to pay.” For many years, the WFP successfully propelled progressive politicians like Bill de Blasio into elected office.

Unfortunately, however, WFP leaders have lost sight of the party’s original intentions. Despite vocal opposition from many members, the WFP voted on Saturday, May 31 to back Andrew Cuomo in his bid for reelection as New York’s governor. While Cuomo secured the endorsement by promising to support, among other things, a minimum wage hike, public funds for campaigns, and the Democratic Party’s attempt to win control of the state Senate, his actions as a first-term governor demonstrate his unwillingness to actually pursue a progressive economic agenda. He deserves some credit for driving New York’s recent gay rights and gun control legislation, but there’s a reason big business and Republicans love Cuomo: he has worked to dismantle the estate tax and pass massive additional tax cuts, significantly undermined de Blasio’s progressive education initiatives and opposed de Blasio’s proposal to raise New York City’s minimum wage, killed efforts to publicly finance elections, tried to lift a moratorium on fracking, and consistently trampled on other progressive values.

The WFP, in large part, has itself to blame for Cuomo’s anti-poor economic policy agenda – the WFP gave Cuomo its endorsement during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign despite Cuomo’s explicitly pro-corporate platform. The WFP’s endorsement then and decision to stick with Cuomo now illustrate how a misguided concept of political pragmatism, endemic in Left-leaning circles, makes progressive policy considerably less likely in the long run.

The WFP’s endorsement was driven in part by the belief that Zephyr Teachout, the WFP’s alternative candidate, would be extremely unlikely to win in a three-way election that included Cuomo and Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate. Similar concerns about candidate “electability” surface frequently during each Presidential election; pundits and party operatives insist that votes for third party candidates are wasted. Yet psychological research and poll data indicate that liberal voters routinely underestimate the number of other voters who share their policy preferences. Fewer voters care about electability than the media would have us believe and most Americans want the distribution of wealth in the United States to mirror the significantly more equitable distribution in Sweden. As evidenced by Seattle’s recent election of socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant, claims about who is and isn’t electable are self-fulfilling prophecies; third party candidates have a chance to win when we base our votes on candidate policy instead of our perception of candidate viability. Historical data suggests that a progressive third-party candidate could be particularly viable in the case of New York’s 2014 gubernatorial election.

Perhaps even more troubling is the message the endorsement sends to Cuomo and other politicians. Cuomo has spent the past three-and-a-half years actively undermining most of the WFP’s espoused principles; by granting Cuomo its support anyway, the WFP has given Cuomo license to ignore its legislative priorities during his second term.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2011, “telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any [politician] motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle” (a description that sadly fits most politicians) “will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional.” Greenwald’s argument applies just as appropriately to Cuomo and the WFP today as it did to Barack Obama and progressive Democrats three-and-a-half years ago. Like Left-wing Democratic support did for Obama in 2012, the WFP’s endorsement, as Salon’s Blake Zeff notes, will allow Cuomo “to make a mockery of the party’s entire priorities list and then waltz to re-election” in 2014.

When we continue to support Democrats who undermine progressive causes, we enable their behavior (comic from http://americanextremists.thecomicseries.com/comics/522).

The Working Families Party’s support for Cuomo mirrors progressive support for Obama in 2012 (comic from http://americanextremists.thecomicseries.com/comics/522)

Which is more important: the difference between mainstream Democrats (like Obama and Cuomo) and mainstream Republicans (like Mitt Romney and Astorino), or sending the message, loud and clear, that the failure to enact progressive policy will hurt politicians at the ballot box? Progressives who argue for a lesser-of-two-evils approach to electoral politics aren’t necessarily wrong – there’s probably enough of a difference (though not as much as most people think) between members of the two major political parties to impact some people’s lives. However, our essentially unconditional support for Democrats-by-name-only deprives us of the opportunity for meaningful challenges to American plutocracy in the long run. Until we draw a line in the sand and punish Democratic politicians who cross it, we’ll continue to get Cuomo- and Obama-style Democrats who actively exacerbate income inequality and further disadvantage people unlucky enough to be born poor.

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