Every sane American will be greatly relieved if any Democrat displaces the current occupant of the White House in 2020. However, we should be positively thrilled if that person is either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. They have contrasting strengths and weaknesses, but their most impassioned supporters are dwelling on points of contention that are either trivial or specious. We would have a much better debate if the important differences were hashed out.
Some of Sanders’ support is founded on his radical bona fides. This interests me because I happen to come from an odd place in the distant past, as someone with a prior commitment to doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism (no Mao Tse-Tung thought, thank you very much).
I’m not the only such type who has migrated to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). We know a few things. We know there isn’t going to be any smashing of the capitalist state. Marx is still enlightening, “Revolutionary Marxism” is a fantasy. Been there, done that. Now we could be on the right wing of DSA. Given our background, the radical postures of some Sanders and DSA peeps can be adorable.
By now it is a commonplace that Bernie Sanders’ version of “democratic socialism” is not different from FDR’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society.’ Sanders evinces no interest in nationalizing the means of production, the traditional socialist touchstone. In his recent speech aimed at elaborating his own vision of democratic socialism, Sanders invoked the ‘Four Freedoms’ of FDR, and more generally the idea of economic rights. Every single one of these rights (to a job, to health care, to education, etc.), which I enthusiastically endorse, can be satisfied with an expanded welfare state. Socialism in the traditional sense is not necessary.
A much-discussed point of distinction for Elizabeth Warren is her insistence that she is a capitalist and believes in markets, rather than a socialist like Sanders. Both campaigns get more exercised about this than is warranted. Sanders would not nationalize the means of production. The government would not end up owning IBM. Nor has Sanders shown any interest in any sort of economic planning. The inescapable implication is that a Sanders economy would continue to rely on markets.
Guess what? Sanders is no more opposed to markets than Warren, and Warren is no more dedicated to them than Sanders. Their differences are purely rhetorical, or what economists call “product differentiation”—the practice of inventing cosmetic differences in otherwise identical products for the sake of marketing advantage. These days they call it “branding.”
I could note that the idea that somebody is a “capitalist” by virtue of some accumulated wealth is also a non-sequitur. Of course, both Sanders and Warren are considerably better off than the average person, but properly speaking, in Marx the term “capitalist” refers to a collective body – a class. “Capital” is not a hoard of wealth but a social relation. If you owned a thousand shares of Amazon, you would be worth nearly two million dollars, which would be glorious, but it wouldn’t give you any sort of lever over the means of production. Even Trump as a Manhattan real estate hustler had little control of that sort. From a radical standpoint, neither Sanders nor Warren are capitalists in any meaningful sense.
Sanders’ commitment to socialism, if we’re talking about current or recent times, has never quite hung together. The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has proposed an interesting explanation for Sanders’ rhetoric. By relating his program to the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sanders is making socialism wholesome, even if it isn’t what his real hero Eugene Debs espoused a hundred years ago. After all, a genuine socialist of the 1930s, Norman Thomas, remarked that FDR carried out the socialist program “on a stretcher.” For Sanders, FDR’s economic rights are a point of departure from which the road leads, and for which the destination is open-ended. Today, this is the radical aspect of democratic socialism.
It’s possible that “socialism,” as opposed to socialism, will be the central bogeyman in Trump’s 2020 campaign. It could become an election problem for Democrats, or it might prove energizing. For the past hundred years, Republicans have described most anything proposed by Democrats as socialism. They may have exhausted its shock effect. Sanders chooses to own the term, rather than run away from it.
Political predictions are more hazardous these days than ever. But socialism as epithet should really be retired, as far as the intra-Democratic primary campaign is concerned. Colorado Governor Hickenlooper might testify to that, as the ship of his campaign sinks before leaving the harbor. By dwelling on it, more important matters are neglected. And the more contenders for the nomination invoke it as a negative, the more it will prove useful to Trump in the general election, regardless of whom the Democratic nominee may be.
One important policy difference between Sanders and Warren is foreign policy. Sanders breaks new ground in several places, such as Israel/Palestine and the international neo-fascist surge, which has to hearten any erstwhile anti-imperialist. Still, one would be at pains to discern much of a difference from, say, George McGovern in 1972.
Regarding the national security state, Sanders still hasn’t caught up with Senator Frank Church (from Idaho, of all places), circa 1975. To be clear, it’s all still a breath of fresh air, so leaden at the highest level has been the foreign policy debate for the past forty years.
Thus far, Warren has resolutely avoided any heterodoxy in foreign policy. She might be in the mainstream of the Democratic Party in this respect, but the mainstream leaves much to be desired. To her credit, Warren has recently taken steps to stand against a potential war with Iran, co-sponsoring a bill to this effect authored by, you guessed it, Sanders. At best, she’s playing catch-up.
Sanders has gotten lefty black marks voting for defense budgets. This reflects a failure to understand how the Congress operates. Sanders is a Democrat in all but name. He caucuses with Senate Democrats, he votes with them, and he is assigned leadership tasks by them. It is amusing to note that some senators, such as unlamented alumni like Claire McCaskill or Heidi Heitkamp, routinely classified as Democrats, may have voted differently than their caucus more frequently than Sanders, while the Sanders-is-not-a-Democratic wailing from Hillary dead-enders continues.
When the Democratic caucus arrives at consensus on their budget proposals, including defense, he is obliged to keep in step. The alternative is to have none of his concerns considered. Sanders abstention would have no positive impact on the outcome. There is no socialism in one senate seat.
Candidates are often rated against a menu of desirable stands. Items in the litany include Medicare for All, the Fight for 15, reparations, abolition of ICE, reproductive rights, Black Lives Matter, and the Green New Deal.
Ambitious, “aspirational” demands need not be scorned. They get the political juices flowing. Beckoning towards Utopia inspires people and stokes mobilization. Simplification helps folks to sort themselves out. It intensifies the energies of those already focused on a specific objective.
The downside of binary check-the-box tests is twofold. One is that an intense minority does not necessarily prevail politically, which can lead pragmatic politicians to consider incremental changes that appeal to a broader constituency. Of course, for some candidates, rejection of an ambitious goal can be a refuge from commitment of any sort.
Two is that when it comes to actual policymaking, a binary framework obviates any tactical considerations bearing on the practical disposition of issues – on actually getting shit done.
The health care debate encapsulates the most important difference between Sanders and Warren, one that does not necessarily credit either. There is a continuum of health care reform options from ObamaCare to Medicare For All. The likelihood is that under the best of circumstances, we will end up somewhere on that continuum, short of the maximum program. (The real socialist option in health care is actually a bridge further than the Sanders plan, something like the British National Health Service.)
There are multiple channels through which more uninsured Americans could obtain insurance, or better insurance. Subsidies under ObamaCare could be expanded. The minimum age for Medicare could be lowered. The income limits for Medicaid could be raised. A robust public option for insurance could be made available to all. Automatic enrollment in a universal Medicare plan – the Sanders option – is not the only possible remedy for the uninsured.
The Sanders approach entails a significant shift of finance from the private to the public sector, and the elimination of private health insurance. The merits of this option aside, its political prospects are undeniably uncertain. While it is possible that the total cost of health care could be reduced, what would be in prospect is a massive shift in payments from individuals and their employers to taxpayers. In the process, many will find their costs have decreased, and many others – perhaps not as many – could see increases. In advance of the implementation of any such reform, many will prefer the devil they know to the other kind. The vast majority might be persuaded to expect that they will benefit, but the vast minority could become a huge political obstacle to change.
Warren has shyed away from ‘M4A’ and failed the popular lefty litmus test, though in the first debate she endorsed it. For her ambiguity she is criticized. For instance, Tim Higginbotham in Jacobin asks why Warren has no plan for health care. In fact, along with her pro forma endorsement of M4A, Warren has related her own plan. It is threefold. First, it is to defend ObamaCare, to block Republican efforts to squeeze enrollment. Second, it is to target some narrow, attainable objectives, such as reducing prescription drug prices. And third, it is to pursue what she judges to be more politically tenable devices for expanding coverage.
There’s a lot of there there. Higginbotham pretends the only alternative to M4A is the preservation of the execrable private health insurance industry. Agitating for M4A is praiseworthy, but the notion that universal coverage cannot be obtained in a satisfactory way without the wholesale elimination of private insurance is simply false. The fact is that private insurance of different types survives in European social-democratic systems that provide universal coverage. As University of Chicago economist Harold Pollack recently wrote, the principle at stake is not “single-payer,” a mere means to an end, but the end itself of universal coverage.
The problem with the left critique of Warren is not that M4A is an unworthy objective, or that it is a political non-starter. It is that the practical, political difficulties of getting it are entirely glossed over. Sanders people envision the force of a mass uprising, non-violent of course, that will bludgeon the Congress into following orders from President Bernie.
This same distinction between Sanders and Warren affects virtually every item on the domestic agenda. It is less a disagreement on objectives than it is on process. But process does not typically enter the discussion.
The neglect of process, or more simply, the current political state of play, takes a lot of air out of the litmus tests. Of the House of Representatives’ newly triumphant Democratic majority, there are presently 27 members who have joined the “Blue Dog Coalition.” A hundred or so have declared fealty to the so-called “New Democratic Caucus” (descendants of the Bill Clinton political tendency, and not so new any longer). The Democratic edge in the House is fewer than twenty seats.
If the Democrats do well enough to retake the Senate in 2020, the incoming victors will be much like the moderates in the House. In this setting, the fate of the medley of ambitious criteria erected by the left is dubious, to say the least. It is fine to strive for consensus on ambitious goals. It is folly to insist upon them well in advance of any prospects for their achievement. One can make a case that polling supports the premise that the public favors major changes. But any radical analysis understands the barriers between public support and actual legislative accomplishment.
The implication is that the sparring over support or rejection of maximalist demands in the primaries, and not just in the Bernie vs. Liz conflict, is a waste of oxygen. The real action for a Democratic president may well turn out to be in the realm of executive actions, rather than legislation. A recent piece by Meagan Day in Jacobin acknowledges the near-term political obstacles to change and explores the executive orders that a President Sanders might issue. We could note that insofar as this is the most relevant field of play, whether any candidate gloms onto M4A or similar proposals becomes less salient.
I’m not suggesting that either Sanders or Warren are correct in their appraisal of the political prospects for reform. My point is that people are sorting themselves into opposite poles founded on vague intuitions: either very ambitious things will be possible, or that much less will be possible.
What should be undeniable at this point is that U.S. politics is in a fluid, not to say frightening, state. Shifts in public opinion and political forces, both good and bad, have come at a rapid and disruptive tempo. It’s hard to say how little or how much will be possible. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently pointed out in his advocacy of reparations, it wasn’t that long ago that support for gay marriage was a seriously inconvenient position for a politician. Now rejection of the institution is more of a burden. Ideally, voters would become versed in the full spectrum of progressive options and be prepared to go as far as they would like to go. Arguments about the political unfolding are a premature exercise in thinly sourced speculation.
The biggest difference between Sanders and Warren is outside the realm of legislative proposals, domestic or foreign. Sanders has been self-consciously building a movement that he envisions outlasting his own time on this Earth. He indicates that this movement and the greater mobilization it would attempt to foment is the essential foundation for genuine reform. Sanders’ organization links itself to progressive struggles outside of the campaign proper.
Sanders’ enemies have a difficult time understanding the concept of an enduring, progressive movement. Why didn’t Bernie go home once he had lost the nomination? Why does he keep grandstanding? Why doesn’t he just shut up?
I do have to ask why Sanders keeps his operations separate from the only bona fide democratic socialist organization on the ground, the aforementioned Democratic Socialists of America. Sanders’ is basically a top-down operation, not unlike the defunct Nader outfits, which raises the question of its democratic credentials.
By contrast, Barack Obama built a formidable organization to power him to electoral success, but he demobilized it once his electoral victory was secured. Of course it was never democratic either. In this way he was following the usual pattern of conventional Democratic politicians – excite the electorate up until the point where it has provided the donations and votes to attain office. After that, it’s goodbye Charlie. In this sense, Warren has thus far shown no indication of being any different.
The deck of American politics is increasingly stacked against progressive reform. We are looking at an enduring right-wing Supreme Court majority, an implacable Republican Senate elected by a national minority of white voters in rural states, the ongoing deformation of the political process by vast inequalities of wealth and unaccountable flows of money in service to that inequality, and the increasing disenfranchisement of people of color.
The likelihood is that for Warren or Sanders, and for most any other Democrat, continuous popular mobilization will be needed to advance their policies, if not to merely survive. There will be no permanent victories. Even venerable institutions of the public sector are not safe. The magnitude of the neo-fascist threat demands the reform of the Democratic Party itself.