Elizabeth or Bernie, Please

16 Jul

The Democratic primary is well and truly upon us after the first round of debates, and there’s no shortage of candidates to support. How to choose between them? While “electability” is frequently brought up as a reason for why one should support one candidate or another, let me play the political science card for a second: electability it a crap concept that there’s essentially no evidence for. Those who stress the importance of electability tend to lean on the Democratic Party’s need to move right to appeal to swing voters (an imagined category that is almost entirely white). The problem is that “moderates” aren’t actually generally in between the two parties ideologically, but instead hold a variety of extreme views. It also imagines that convincing swing voters, rather than increasing base (i.e. largely minority) turnout, is what matters. When you see the turnout gap among blacks between Clinton and Obama, that’s hard to believe. Plus, early match-up polls show Trump losing against every major Democrat. Instead of voting for who you think the most electable candidate is, please vote for whoever you like the most.

Instead of gazing into a crystal ball and guessing who has the best chance to beat Trump, there are two criteria by which I’m choosing who to support. First, I want someone who is ideologically left, which combines a bunch of positions, from de-criminalizing undocumented immigration to being pro-choice to supporting high taxes on the rich and many more. This immediately cancels out candidates like Biden (maintains a misguided optimism that he could make deals with McConnell), Hickenlooper (cozy with oil companies), Delaney (“Medicare for All will close all hospitals”), Gabbard (Islamophobia), Klobuchar (middle of the road Democrat), and O’Rourke (conservative Democrat).

The second thing I want is not only candidates that hold left-wing positions, but candidates that have enough credibility to actually follow through on those positions once in office. Democrats are chronic cavers, from Obama’s reluctant arming of Syrian rebels to Pelosi’s recent capitulation on immigration funding (aided by moderate Democrats). Avoiding similar future concessions should be a major point of concern for similarly-minded people this election because so many candidates have adopted the label “progressive” and some version of left-wing ideas. But how genuine is this shift to the left among candidates? For reasons I’ll explain more about below, I think we should seriously doubt the left-wing credentials of Booker, Buttigieg, Gillibrand, and Harris.

Ultimately, there are only two candidates remaining that satisfy both of my criteria: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Why only those two? Well, first, I excluded candidates that I think have no chance. I like Julian Castro’s immigration platform, Jay Inslee’s climate change platform, and Mike Gravel’s foreign policy positions and Twitter account. However, none of the three have any appreciable chance of becoming the nominee.

A number of candidates have adopted left-wing positions, but candidates have to credibly demonstrate they’re trust-worthy. The most obvious and most believable route to do so is to have a long personal track record that accords with one’s current beliefs. Second, a candidate can have plans detailed enough to show they really care. Going back on such plans would incur too big a reputation cost. Sanders and Warren, to slightly varying degrees, do both of these things, and the other candidates do not.

I think it’s been underestimated just how important Bernie Sanders has been in moving the Democratic Party to the left. When he started campaigning, he was a loony nobody from Vermont. It was Hillary Clinton’s party. Liberal incrementalism reigned. Now, four years later, many of his signature ideas (which he’s held for decades) like single-payer health care, free college, and high taxes on the wealthy have been adopted by a number of competitors. Though his belief in these things is genuine, it’s also important to understand they’re not all his. Sanders, like Warren, has done an excellent job in allying with left-wing social movements and advocacy organizations, and championing their positions. Obama’s biggest mistake was to demobilize his supporters after the 2008 campaign, and it seems very unlikely either Sanders or Warren would do the same. Sanders’ talk of a “political revolution” might sound vague or utopian, but I think it grasps a basic truth about a healthy democracy that Obama didn’t: the public interest will be best represented when citizens are mobilized and engaged in the process of government. No matter how well-intentioned a government, this mobilization is a necessary ingredient for a healthy democracy. Especially when American democracy is stricken by a conservative Supreme Court attained by craven means, a deadlocked Congress, and wide-spread gerrymandering and voter suppression, seeking to create external pressure on those in power is a necessary strategy.

Elizabeth Warren, however, is the queen of plans. If Bernie brings the decades of fighting the good fight, Warren brings the wonkishness to implement it. It’s been well-documented just how well thought-out and numerous her plans for a Warren administration are. Anyone suggesting that her long-ago past as a Republican means she’ll move to the center as President hasn’t been paying attention to her creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, her voting record in Congress, and her plethora of plans. She even has a fantastic plan to restructure the State Department for God’s sake. A final important point is that she does not present herself merely as a wonk who has some smart policy advisers (we’ve seen that movie before). Her rhetoric about Wall Street, breaking up big tech companies, and Medicare for All positions her as an uncompromising defender of the working and middle classes. It would be quite difficult for someone so strident to move much to the right in a future campaign or administration.

How about the other four candidates I didn’t immediately rule out? Why not them? Cory Booker is good on many issues as he showed during the debate, but he’s a conservative Democrat in many ways. His charter school policies were disastrous for Newark’s public schools, he’s cozy with AIPAC (the far-right Israel lobby that would love war with Iran), Wall Street, and the pharmaceutical industry. The issue with Booker is not so much that he might move right, but that he’s long been on the right or center of the Democratic party. His attempt to portray himself as a progressive champion is nothing more than a rhetorical flourish.

Then there’s Mayor Pete. He’s smart, haven’t you heard? His candidacy has been framed around an incipient cult of personality around his intelligence. I’m not saying he’s not smart, but it’s not necessarily smart politicians that we need. Richard Nixon and Margaret Thatcher were smart. We need capable politicians imbued with good ideas and surrounded by good people. Mayor Pete has been hesitant to talk about specific policies and has even explicitly defended a lack of focus on policy. I see his point, that voters don’t generally respond well to tightly technocratic details, and prefer broader narratives (in all fairness, I thought his take on the GOP and religion was excellent). However, there are two specific problems. His critique of policy would have sounded pretty good six years, when Democrats, Obama included were failing to put together a narrative of how the Democrats would be the party of the working and middle classes. But since then, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have provided that narrative with strident attacks on economic elites. Second, and referring back to what I said earlier, his lack of specificity on policy makes it incredibly difficult to know that he won’t govern as a conservative Democrat, especially when some of his professed policy views err to the right.

Gillibrand is the candidate I didn’t immediately discard that I know the least about, partially because her campaign has made very limited traction. She’s been excellent on #MeToo, her childcare plans were impressive at the debate, but otherwise made little impression (of course, Elizabeth Warren has also proposed universal child care). My concern with her is that her record was quite conservative for a Democrat as a Representative, then became ultra-left when she became a Senator. One could argue that she was simply a victim of circumstance in her conservative district as a representative, and was freed from this burden as Senator. Alternatively, it could mean that she molds her positions with the changing political winds, which wouldn’t give me much confidence she’d govern as a leftist.

Harris has gained considerable ground after the first debate, likely due to her necessary take-down of Biden’s busing record. However, Harris has repeatedly sought to promote enough ambiguity about her positions to avoid being pinned down or been untruthful about her past record. After raising her hand during the debates saying she’d ban private insurance, she went back on it the next day. After announcing she wouldn’t go to AIPAC’s (right-wing Israel lobby) conference, she met with their leaders the next day. However, what gives me the most pause about her as a candidate is her past as a district attorney. She’s branded herself a “progressive prosecutor” but her record also shows she pushed to keep people who had been proved innocent in prison, supported an anti-truancy program that criminalized parents whose children skipped school, and failed to prosecute Catholic priests accused of child abuse. You can also listen to her here mock protesters agitating for funding for schools and not jails based on fear-mongering logic, which makes less and less sense in an era of falling crime rates. When prosecutors are a huge contributor the American epidemic of mass incarceration, I think we should very wary of someone like Kamala Harris, not only for her record, but her refusal to own up to her past positions.

Now, neither Sanders or Warren are perfect, and it’s important to admit this to have a sober appraisal of the Democratic Party (or any party really). Even if Bernie gets how class pervades society to a greater degree than any candidate besides Warren, his rhetoric on the intersection of class and race is sometimes awkward. While I think this weakness has been seriously overstated, and is unlikely to actually affect his policies (given his full-throated denunciations of problems faced by minority communities), it can be occasionally grating to listen to. Plus, he’s still quite popular with black voters. Warren’s weakness is less rhetorical, and more concrete. Her stances on foreign (security) policy hew quite close to the Democratic mainstream (I can’t think of another issue where centrist orthodoxy is more wrong than foreign policy), and it’s worrying that she hasn’t sought to define a left foreign policy in the same way as Sanders.

With all that said, there are several specific reasons that Sanders or Warren would be the best nominee. In a world where the global top 1% own almost half of global wealth, where $6 trillion of global wealth is stashed in tax havens by the super-rich (Obermayer and Obermaier 2016, 185), where the top 1% of American families have seen their wealth grow faster than anywhere else, and where the median white family has 50x the wealth of the median black family, we desperately need a President that is committed to reducing economic inequality. This entails not just raising taxes, but taking on the financial industry, major corporations evading taxes (looking at you Bezos), and international money laundering. I see no reason to believe any other candidates would do a better job than Sanders or Warren. The looming threat of climate change makes this focus even more important given the lucrative nature of the fossil fuel industry. Warren and Sanders are two most enthusiastic backers of the Green New Deal, which seeks to both combat climate change and change the economy. On other key issues like immigration, criminal justice reform, health care, and higher education, they’re also progressive leaders. Finally, I am less convinced than some that Sanders and Warren substantively disagree on how to structure the economy. While Bernie describes himself as a socialist and Warren as a capitalist, they both are basically Polanyi disciples: large parts of the economy need government intervention to prevent markets from benefitting the rich and powerful. Therefore, for voters interested in candidates with solidly left positions, I see no reason to look further than Sanders and Warren.

 

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