Paul Krugman writes that he has a unicorn problem: Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are promising things that won’t get passed by Congress, but he believes Clinton’s are backed up by realistic numbers and Sanders’ aren’t. So Hillary is promising unicorns and Bernie is promising magical unicorns, and that’s a problem for those like him who don’t believe in magic.
He arrives at this conclusion by only referencing those who agree with him, then conflates that with most liberal policy wonks. (He later writes that it’s based on the opinions of “I and most of my wonk friends.” Much better!) He apparently doesn’t think the analysis of economists who disagree with him are worth dignifying with a response. Nor does he address some more prosaic items - that, for instance, a sketched out proposal on the campaign trail is not a finalized document ready to be signed into law, or that single payer systems do actually exist in the world. The very idea that America could have it, under any circumstances, is something Krugman treats like another unicorn. (He’s smart enough to not come right out and say that though.)
In his words, “nothing like that is going to happen in America any time soon.” TINA - There Is No Alternative. But if something like that is going to happen, ever, how will it? The US has had a center-right paradigm for decades, which means the status quo provides, at best, highly complex technocratic modifications to the existing system. But what if, say, a presidential candidate made Medicare for all a central plank of his platform? Not just an endorsement of the idea somewhere deep in a policy paper but who highlighted it in stump speeches over and over?
And what if that candidate got a huge popular endorsement of the idea, won primaries based on the message and was even competitive for a major party nomination based on it? In that scenario it starts to become an alternative. In Krugman’s fatalistic view our current governing philosophy is preserved in amber for all time. Of course single payer is not realistic right now. A Sanders victory would be a big contributor to getting it there, though.1
As someone who leans Sanders, Krugman’s analysis falls flat. We already have a single payer system, other countries have universal single payer systems, this stuff can be worked out. And the process of doing so - even just having an extended discussion of it - helps change the discourse from hostility to the idea to consideration of it. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing, nor do I see how else he proposes to get to there from here.
Now, maybe he is only interested in preaching to the choir and doesn’t care about persuading anyone. Fair enough. But I have to say, anyone who wants to offer a sobering critique of Sanders from the left might want to look at something else: Sanders’ approach to politics. If there are things he does - and there are - that would work against the kind of changes he advocates, it would give pause to even his most ardent supporters. If he’s unwilling to share credit, doesn’t want to campaign with or otherwise boost candidates who embrace his vision, if he insists on getting 100% of his way and is a terrible negotiator - these things could sabotage a far less ambitious agenda.
It would also help Krugman’s case if he didn’t give Clinton a pass on everything. To take just one example from this week, she proposed a $2 billion program to address the school-to-prison pipeline. Which sounds great on its face, but then it turns out the key component involves flooding schools with social workers - presumably with the message “here’s how to stay out of trouble, kids.” In other words, a kinder and gentler version of bringing super predators to heel.
Her proposal essentially treats the root cause as pathology and not institutional racism. Might that money better be spent on criminal justice reform, de-militarizing police forces or ending ridiculously punitive teaching methods? The fact that Krugman is comfortable blandly asserting Clinton’s proposals are fine and good while giving unreasonable levels of scrutiny to Sanders’ makes it hard to view him as some kind of objective arbiter.
But anyway, Clinton’s proposal is in the end just another illusion, right? Krugman’s rather cynical subtext is that nothing can change so you may as well make peace with the way things are. Unicorns are everywhere, none of it is real, the best you can do is settle for the candidate offering the least outlandish lies. Here’s the thing though. Every last goddamn decent and humane thing America has ever done started out as a unicorn. And then enough people noticed it was really a horse with a papier-mâché horn.
1. Funny enough, Trump winning the nomination would contribute to it as well. This election season, more than any other in recent memory, is running not on the liberal/conservative axis but the insider/outsider one. In the former, social issues that Democrats and Republicans disagree on dominate. In the latter, economic policy that they largely agree on (in Washington anyway) but are broadly disliked elsewhere come front and center. Trump’s defense of Social Security and Medicare, his criticisms of trade deals, and so on are all heretical for Beltway Republicans - but it isn’t hurting him with voters. The GOP base is not as rigidly opposed to economic populism as many on the left suppose. If Republicans in Congress start hearing from constituents demanding they pass a Medicare expansion, they’ll pay attention. As the saying goes, Democrats hate their base, but Republicans fear theirs.
Over the weekend Paul Krugman raised his (ahem) concerns about the electability of Bernie Sanders. It seems that Krugman, who will be the first to tell you he is completely neutral,1 has reviewed a post from a site with a curiously anti-Sanders stance and has concluded that a Sanders nomination would invite a “McGovern-Nixon style blowout defeat.” To avoid that fate liberals would be wise to vote instead for Hillary Clinton. And those who stubbornly insist on voting for Sanders should be prepared to explain their temper tantrum.
My initial reaction was to almost laugh. Krugman is an enthusiastic Clinton supporter who engages in the same kind of cherry-picked analysis that he is so quick to perceive in others. He’ll eagerly link to the latest Vox piece supporting his position. But less congenial evidence, when it gets acknowledged at all, gets passive-aggressive and unsourced hit pieces. He’s a big Clinton fan, has a history of alleging calumny by supporters of other Democratic presidential candidates, and is every bit as blinkered as the “feel the Bern” types he holds in such contempt.
But anyway, while he says we may “consider the evidence and reach your own conclusions” (thanks Paul!) he cautions that we should not “decide what you want to believe and then make up justifications.” So lest I be accused of epistemic closure I’ll take the Krugman Challenge and look at electability for a minute.
What are the chances of a McGovern-style blowout if Sanders wins? Sanders and McGovern share one very important similarity: neither would receive any support from the Democratic party establishment. Give that whatever weight you will.
Now for some differences. First, there is not an incumbent Republican president running for re-election. Second and somewhat related, the Republicans look like they will be nominating a candidate who is toxic outside of the GOP base. So even if you think Bernie really is a big scary radical, this is an unusually good year to nominate one. Third, the Archie Bunker-type union leaders who hated the goddamn hippies and withheld support from McGovern have been replaced by a new generation of leaders - many of whom have welcomed Sanders’ run. Ideological sorting has made a candidate like Sanders much more appealing among the party’s current constituencies.
Fourth, Sanders matches up very well against Republicans, at least by some measures. Fifth, and conversely, polling is also unreliable at this stage. Sanders’ good showing now could evaporate, or maybe it doesn’t even exist, or maybe it does and only gets stronger, or who the hell knows. It’s way too early for that, but God knows it’s too early for the kind of extended thought experiments Krugman approvingly links to as well.
All that said, I think electability arguments are mostly red herrings. The idea that one must vote based on a kind of cost/benefit analysis (which may itself be deeply flawed!) is largely specious. Citizens can cast their votes for any number of reasons, and no one - certainly not Paul Krugman - is in a position to tell them that some ballots are more legitimate than others.
What he derides as “believing things, and advocating for policies, because you like the story rather than because you have any good evidence that it’s true” could also be characterized as an endorsing of a platform. It’s saying, this is what I want. This is what’s really, really important to me. I don’t care if you think it doesn’t stand a chance of becoming law. What you are offering is not what I need. Who is Krugman to say people should not use their votes to express that sentiment, whatever its chances of electing a candidate who endorses it? Pushing for policies from outside the mainstream is the only way any of our major social programs made it into the mainstream.
An approach like Krugman’s amounts to a perpetual continuation of the status quo. Maybe we’ll nibble at the edges, but no fundamental changes will ever happen (feasible is the new serious, dontcha know). So we should, grudgingly if necessary, resign ourselves to the savvy course of betting on the horse that has the best odds. As someone who’s been very critical of third party candidates, I think that’s a load of crap. It’s not the voter’s job to decide to who is most electable, it’s the candidate’s job to become electable.
1. Yes he acknowledges that he has opinions, but in the very next sentence positions himself as objectively floating above the fray, just trying to raise awareness. To borrow from Charles Pierce, please to be giving me a fking break professor.
Back in the 1980s Cleveland Browns fans were firm believers in the Three Rivers Curse. The archrival Pittsburgh Steelers began playing in Three Rivers Stadium in the early 1970s, which coincided with their becoming one of the elite franchises in the NFL. Since most years they were very good, they always beat the Browns in their annual home game. After fifteen years or so it took on a life of its own.
In the mid-80s the players who led the Steelers began to retire, and the Browns began to put together lots of promising young talent. One such player was an outspoken wide receiver named Webster Slaughter, and when a reporter asked about the dreaded curse he replied: “I’ve never lost there.” And what do you know, Webster, Bernie and company went into Pittsburgh and won.
That quote came to mind while reading analysis of this year’s Democratic primary. Many of us on the left who came of age in Ronald Reagan’s America have a sort of ongoing case of political PTSD from then. We’re like beaten dogs (or Dawgs) who have an inculcated sense of resignation because we grew up at the dawn of an era of conservative ideological ascendance. For most of our adult lives “liberal” was an insult, Democratic presidents governed from the center-right (NAFTA, welfare “reform,” repeal of Glass-Steagall and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, etc.) and Washington was wired for Republican control.
We’ve come to believe that the only changes progressives can realistically expect will be achieved through technocratic incrementalism - and we’ve been supplied with lots of evidence to support that thesis. The era of big government is over, right? That’s not an immutable law of nature though; it’s culture. It may look unchangeable, but that’s also how an era of liberal ascendance may have looked to a conservative - during a time when, say, a Republican president derisively rejected out of hand calls to weaken Social Security.
To the right’s great credit, they fought and won a war of ideas. There was an inflection point in the late 60s. The nation’s ideological arc began to bend towards conservatism, and by 1980 it had triumphed. Yes the GOP lost elections along the way, but the right succeeded in changing the governing philosophy of the nation. New Deal-style liberalism was effectively banished from national discourse. With that as a formative culture it’s (I hope) understandable why many in the older cohort have a timid approach to policy, and why we may instinctively be content with whatever scraps fall from the table.
If that culture hasn’t fundamentally changed, then the prudent choice for Democrats would be a candidate who pledges to work within that culture. One who promises to change it only invites electoral disaster.
I’m sure there are as many opinions on the state of our political culture as there are observers, but here’s my take: 2006 represented another ideological inflection point - this time a slow turn back towards liberalism. It takes a long time for that change to be felt, though, and political establishments are usually the last to know. So when voters handed control of both houses of Congress back to the Democrats, party leaders treated their new mandate like a museum piece that had to be locked away lest a careless move shatter it into a million pieces. Most notably, Harry Reid looked out at an electorate that had soured on the Iraq war and basically said, oh what the heck let’s keep it going.
But two years later that same electorate put a black man who opposed the war in the White House, which by itself (no matter what else you think of him) was a profound shock to the political system. Then came the mass protests over Scott Walker’s union-busting agenda1 and the emphatic repudiation of John Kasich’s. Large-scale resistance to worker-hostile legislation was alive and well, it turned out. On the national level they were followed by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, each a high profile and systemic critique.
In other words there is a skepticism towards received wisdom, and an openness toward radical intervention, that could hardly have been imagined ten years ago. People aren’t asking wonks to construct highly detailed and narrowly tailored solutions to structural problems, they are demanding fundamental change.
If you’ve spent the last few decades internalizing the message that such a thing is impossible, then it will seem, well, impossible. There are very logical reasons why we have voluntarily limited our imaginations and clipped our aspirations, but doing so may have made us slow - too slow - to check if the ground has shifted beneath our feet.
Into this walks the new generation. I have an eighteen year old who will vote for the first time this year, and he is wildly enthusiastic for Sanders, as are all his friends. In one sense it’s entirely typical. Age fifty seems to be the break point; Clinton is way ahead over that, Sanders way ahead under. But voting preference aside, it’s just been interesting to observe their forming sensibilities.
On the one hand they are filled with youthful idealism/naiveté, and I want to say to them: good for you, shoot for the stars - but also understand that there are forces in play you may not even be aware of. (Prior to the Iowa caucuses my son was astonished that Clinton was even close to Sanders because no one he knew planned to vote for her.)
I want to set his expectations because I know how easy it can be to get disappointed and discouraged. I want him to understand it’s a marathon and not a sprint, that it’s important to be engaged even when that’s not the most exciting thing to do, and that sometimes he’ll have to settle for half a loaf - or no loaf at all.
Having said that though, maybe I’m a bit hidebound - and captured by a framing process that is already dated. I expect things to be a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been. It should just extend indefinitely into the future, right? And while every four years there’s always a darling who makes the base say “this time is different,” and that hasn’t been true yet, that doesn’t mean it never will be. Things are the way they are until they’re not.
Looking not just at my preferences but at the environment generally, it seems like there’s an openness to the kind of changes that liberals have dared not dream of for a very long time. We’ll never know if they can happen if we don’t push for them. Meanwhile there’s this whole generation coming behind us that’s basically saying, “we’ve never lost there.”
And you know what? They haven’t.
1. Yes, Scott Walker got his legislation passed and won his recall to boot. But his presidential campaign is already dead, Kasich’s is as well though he hasn’t figured it out, and neither man has any national prospects of note. Don’t think for a minute that the sight of a guy with a bullhorn and a COPS FOR LABOR sweater angrily denouncing Walker from the Wisconsin statehouse, or pictures like this (Cf.), haven’t made the other GOP candidates reflect on what kind of winning coalition would be possible with those kinds of policies.