Friday, January 29, 2016

Sanders, Clinton, and the Mainstream "left"

The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party and the future of the United States has been joined.  On Monday, in the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton may seize the electoral  momentum that eluded her eight years ago.  If she does, even the very likely victory of Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire will not be likely to derail her, with a string of southern primaries coming up.  But if she does not, if Sanders wins the first two contests, and if Elizabeth Warren responds by endorsing him, the analogy I posited some months ago between 1968 and 2016 will become more apt.  For the second time in eight years Hillary will be fighting from behind against a candidate with far more support from younger voters (though not, at least as yet, from minority voters.)  If Sanders gets the momentum, his nomination will become a distinct possibility.

 I shall come in a moment to the issue of what I see at stake, but first I want to discuss the reaction of Boomer and Xer liberal journalists to these developments.  It appears to be almost unanimous.  One after another, the pundits of the mainstream "left"--whose views increasingly resemble those of that nearly extinct species, republicanus moderatus--are lining up behind Clinton.  To oppose Sanders, they argue, is a sign of maturity.

Jonathan Chait, in New York Magazine, writes that the evidence for Sanders's essential argument: "that the problems of the American economy require far more drastic remedies than anything the Obama administration has done, or that Clinton proposes to build on"--is "far weaker than he assumes."  Dodd-Frank has weakened, though not destroyed, the big banks, he claims, and the ACA has reduced the number of uninsured.  Chait is also nervous about the economic consequences of raising the minimum wage too high, and complains that Sanders doesn't pay enough attention to foreign threats.   Ezra Klein declares on that Sanders's single-payer plan for health care is "not a plan at all," and complains that it relies too heavily on taxes on the rich and that it has no role for the states.  Two weeks ago, my local paper, the Boston Globe--now owned by hedge fund manager John Henry--fired a double shot across Sanders's bow.  Joan Vennochi identified Sanders's outrage as "his greatest strength," but also his greatest weakness, one that reminded her of Donald Trump and would prevent him from working with Republicans in Washington, and Michael Cohen, echoing her paragraph by paragraph, says Sanders "doesn't understand how politics works."  Dana Millbank of the Washington Post strikes an avuncular pose, assuring us that while he "adores" Bernie Sanders and find Hillary Clinton a "dreary" candidate, "Democrats would be insane to nominate him."  And last but hardly least, Paul Krugman, who has been the only highly visible voice of New Deal Liberalism for at least sixteen years, argues today that the white working class is so disaffected that a coalition of the economically weak has now become impossible and that Obama/Clinton style liberalism on social issues and palliative measure on the economy is the best that we can hope for.

Now from one perspective, these commentators, I might argue, are proving me right.  On December 4 last, in probably the most important post I have ever put up there, "The Fourth Great Crisis in American National Life," I argued that more that 35 years of ceaseless Republican struggle had led us into a new Gilded Age, that Barack Obama had lost the last chance to reverse the course we were on when he came into office, and that even the nomination of Bernie Sanders was not likely to reverse the tide.  I am quite certain that none of these commentators read that piece, which I spent the better part of a year trying and failing to place in a major outlet, But they are saying the same thing that I did: that the United States in 2016 no longer has any room for genuine New Deal liberalism.  The difference between me and the rest of them is this: while I view it as a tragedy that the nation will take decades to recover from, they seem to be quite at peace with it.  Nor, given the surprising strength of the Sanders campaign, am I quite willing to give up yet.

Let's spend a minute on some key substantive issues.  Yes, Dodd-Frank--or something else that we do not understand--has apparently imposed some limits on irresponsible financial behavior, and we have had, as yet, nothing like another crash.  Personally I am among those--and there are many--who are not confident that we shall be able to say the same in 2026, say, but even if we can, that simply means that the system which Sanders rightly describes as "rigged" will be functioning more smoothly.  The system is "rigged" for the reason that Piketty identified nearly two years ago: it systematically channels the proceeds of economic growth into the capital accounts of the very rich, not into the pocketbooks of the lower 90% of the population.  And indeed, there are increasing signs that the growth or decline of our GDP is linked more closely than ever to the fortunes of the very rich.  That is why some commentators are arguing that the fall in oil prices that has put billions into the pockets of American consumers might in the net be bad for the economy--because it is hurting the oil giants and the industry that supplies them.  Chait, Millbank, Vennochi, Klein, Krugman and myself all were born into a relatively equal world thanks to the New Deal and its aftermath--as Krugman, at least, used to  understand.  Now they are willing to turn their back on that world, because they are rejecting the only candidate who wants to re-impose the measures (including Glass-Steagall) that made t possible.

As for the ACA, it has provided insurance to millions of people who did not have it, which is a good thing.  The achievement is threatened, however, by drastic increases in many premiums and deductibles which will deprive many of them of real economic security.  And as Sanders points out, in the end, the ACA did nothing about the overall cost of health care, which is notoriously at least double the cost in other advanced countries.  Sanders cleverly (and accurately) calls his plan "Medicare for all." Now that I've been on Medicare for a few years myself, I better understand how our health care system works.  Because the government pays for Medicare, doctors and hospitals have been forced to provide seniors with care at relatively low rates of return.  (The pharmaceutical industry, as far as I can tell, does just as well out of seniors as other patients.)  Insurance companies, doctors and hospitals make their profits--profits which simply don't exist in other advanced countries--by charging working Americans and their families much more.  That increases generational income inequality and can't be good for America's future  This is the problem which Sanders, and Sanders alone, wants to do something about.

The ACA is like the earned income tax credit, which both Democrats and Republicans have relied on to help the growing numbers of working poor over the last several decades.  Rather than ensure that everyone is paid a true living wage, it tries to get low wages nearer that standard by giving them a big break on their taxes.  That, of course, increases the size of the "dependent" population, the "47%" Mitt Romney complained about four years ago.  And that has negative political consequences.  The system hurts working families, and they will be vulnerable to appeals by Republicans to their resentment of people whom feel do not work unless the system changes.

Krugman hints at, but does not develop, another aspect of the failure of liberalism of the Clinton variety.  While Sanders, he says, believes that money is the root of all evil, Clinton believes that money is not "the whole story."  "Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right," and this  difference of emphasis "matters for political strategy."  What this initially seemed to mean, to me, was that Clinton was going to rely on appeals to women and minorities in both the primaries and the general election, which certainly seems to be the case.   But Krugman takes this in another direction. "If the divisions in American politics aren't just about money," he writes, "if they reflect deep-seated prejudics that progressives simply can't appease, such visions of racial change [as Sanders proposes] are naive.  And I believe that they are."  The Trump campaign has proven to Krugman, it seems, that racism and sexism are so deeply ingrained in America that the union of the lower classes has become impossible. (He feels homophobia has drastically lessened as a political force.)  There are internal contradictions in this position: if they are really that powerful, then how can Clinton possibly win by stressing these issues? Isn't it entirely possible that the white working class has gone Republican precisely because they don't think the Democrats care about straight white males?  But in any case, it is the most appalling surrender to a dreadful vision of America that I have ever seen, one of which Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy would never have been guilty.

In the climactic scene of the indispensable book and film, Primary Colors, the composite figure Libby Holden berates Jack and Susan Stanton (Bill and Hillary Clinton) for betraying the ideals they all shared when they helped nominate McGovern in 1972.  We were young then, Susan replies. We didn't understand "how the world works."   As Hillary's record of speaking engagements and public positions makes all too clear, she understands only too well how today's world works.  One can cast one's self as a fighter for the middle class and a crusader on social issues, so long as one takes care not to offend powerful economic interests and disturb the distribution of income.  I can't help but wonder whether Chait, Vennochi, Cohen, Millbank, and even Krugman also can't help but trust a system which, for whatever reason, has found a very nice place within itself for them. Yet whether that strategy can get her the nomination and the White House in 2016 depends on whether the world has passed her by.

The wild card this year is the Millennial generation, which simply cannot shut its eyes to the inequalities of our economic system because it is being so much affected by it.  Even highly educated Millennials can't afford homes in major metropolitan areas.  They are burdened with debt and uncertain prospects.  Strauss and Howe, writing in the 1990s when the oldest Millennials had not even reached puberty, expected them to save the nation and the world like their GI grandparents.  As I have said many times, the GIs did it under the leadership of the Missionaries, led by FDR,while the Millennials will not do so under the leadership of the Boomers.  (It is no accident, by the way, that the only representative of New Deal liberalism in the Presidential race is old enough to remember FDR's death and its impact on the adults on his life.)  But they could do so at the ballot box.  Their parents have forfeited their trust and they want something new.  Bernie is offering it.   That is the coalition that could conceivably get the United States back on a different track.  This may not be likely,  but if it will be delighted to have had my post of December 4, 2015, proven wrong.  And in any case, I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for keeping the ideals of an earlier era alive, when almost no one in my generation cares enough to do so.


Unknown said...

Sanders is no FDR. He does not come from the moneyed class, and his constituency in Vermont contains few if any of the power brokers that were Roosevelt's peers in New York. The conditions under which he might become president are much different than those of the 1930's, in that they are economically less severe, and the threat of a nation-wide uprising has not sufficiently gestated. The Republican congress supports the bankers, brokers and conglomerates in every way; none of the Democrats running for president will have the power to impose major liberal changes at this time in history. It is unlikely that Sanders will get the nomination, and if he does, the likelihood of his election to the presidency depends upon whom the Republicans nominate; Trump, or even Cruz, might so repulse the electorate that the election could devolve into an anyone-but type of decision. If elected, Sanders brings foreign policy weaknesses to the presidency, and a domestic agenda that will have no traction in congress. Maybe the country would be better off with a moderate Republican as president. Think of Nixon and the EPA, or Reagan and the immigrant amnesty. A Republican president might reduce the appeal of conservative pundits who so divide the electorate. And, if Republicans controlling the government actually implement the agenda they say they will, the electorate may well threaten to rise up, in which case, very like the Chinese government, the conservative government will have two choices. They will either have to implement some progressive laws as a sop to the people, not uncommon in our history, or they will have to call out the military.

SDW said...

FDR entered the presidency two years after a Democrat majority Congress was installed and already considering economic reform. Otherwise the Hundred Days could not have occurred. Unless there is an amazing relaxation of the death grip of incumbency in the Congress, I think the best we could expect from a President Sanders is a top down remaking of the Democratic Party.

ed boyle said...


    william butler yeats

The second coming

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity."

Moderation is only responsible when the results of moderate reform satisfy common sense. In the USA today only revolutionary change can bring stability through equilibrium between social groups, income or ethnic/racial. Presupposing a repeat of 2008 but worse in the economy this year or next, we can presume such a trend towards civil war type behaviour within countries globally as brutal solutions to fundamental problems are fought out with unconventional methods. Negative interest rates and QE, helicopter money, rise of racist demagogues, terrorism, riots and international conflicts, dissolution of nation states and transnational organisations. Progressive destabilization is to be expected the longer equilibrium cannot be restored.

DAngler said...

Bernie is, if anything, clear headed about what it will take for him to be an effective President. He says that unless there is an uprising of the citizenry to demand the changes he proposes, his presidency would be ineffective. All the people who are saying he can't be effective are tacitly admitting that they don't think the American working class can be mobilized to the cause. If that is true, then, we deserve what we get as the alternative -- the steady slide towards aristocracy and the death of democracy.

samuel glover said...

"I can't help but wonder whether Chait, Vennochi, Cohen, Millbank, and even Krugman also can't help but trust a system which, for whatever reason, has found a very nice place within itself for them."

I think that is almost certainly true. Even if it isn't strictly true, it's hard to deny that thanks to their comfortable positions, these mandarins are very, very far removed from problems that huge numbers of Americans face every day. (It's always worth at least an aside to note that the track record of courtiers like Chait, Milbank, et al suggests that they're a long way from clairvoyant. Anti-clairvoyant is more like it.)

There's another aspect of the Clinton-Sanders contest that I haven't seen mentioned much, but is very pertinent -- and very ironic, too. History offers some real lessons, here. Over the last quarter-century, national-level Dems have had several opportunities to take stands that might be momentarily unpopular, but were essentially correct. In purely political terms, the important thing about taking a correct stand is that while you might lose today's fight, in the long run the wisdom of your stand will be evident. Here "the long run" really means no more than four or six years in the future.

But invariably, when it really matters, many or most national-level Dems fold. They opt for the safe, "moderate", "serious" course. And then, in the same long run I mentioned above, they fret and complain when people write off their party -- even voting in general -- with the remark, "Politicians are all the same".

So, in 2008, Dems bought the "serious" consensus that single-payer health insurance wasn't feasible -- and they gave up. Refuse to fight, and sure enough, what you're fighting for isn't feasible. Prophecy fulfilled! Now, not too many years other, I'm not hearing a lot of love for the ACA's Rube Goldberg machinery.

In 2003 many congressional Dems voted against the Iraq invasion, but of course many voted for the "serious" course, including the then-junior senator from NY. HRC always seems eager to wade into military adventures all over the world, so perhaps she really was voting on, er, "principle". Otherwise, I believe essentially ALL of those Dems who voted for the war stuck their finger in the wind and went along. Steny Hoyer, part of the Dem "leadership" from my state, certainly did so. These people made their party culpable in the biggest American blunder since Vietnam.

Here's where real irony comes in: In 1992, the "serious" consensus was that Bush the Elder was invincible after his glorious Iraq victory. All the prominent national Dems, the likely candidates, bought into it. '96 would be the year -- best to play it safe now, sit it out. And so a vacuum appeared, and into it walked a not very well-known governor from an insignificant state.

Gloucon X said...

Thanks Dr. Kaiser. I consider this one of your best. It rang so true that I had to pause and gather myself at times. The ethical case for Sanders is beyond question. If after all that has happened, Americans can’t support someone who wants to tax Wall St, then this country is surely lost.

Bozon said...

Echoing your ACA remarks, there is a useful summary re medical costs and policies, in the current Florida Bar Journal, of all places, by Steven I. Weissman. He has gathered a lot of media references in one place.
All the best