Saturday, November 21, 2020

More No Bullshit Progressivism

In a recent post, I coined the term "no bullshit progressivism". In the interests of promoting this idea further I offer a number of recent examples that I think qualify. Excerpts below and links below that.
"With few exceptions, the vast field of [Democratic] presidential contenders endorsed single-payer health care and vowed to decriminalize the crossing of the southern border by undocumented immigrants.
There was only one prominent exception to the rule: Joe Biden. Most pundits wrote the septuagenarian off as a walking anachronism, a throwback politician too old to sense the way the wind was blowing. But it turned out that Mr. Biden understood the Democratic electorate much better than his rivals. His vow to improve the lives of working-class Americans through gradual changes proved more appealing—both to his party and ultimately to the country—than Bernie Sanders’s talk of democratic socialism. And his promise to restore the nation’s soul after four years of Donald Trump struck a deeper chord than Elizabeth Warren’s determination to match the president’s fighting spirit.
The results of the election show just how popular Mr. Biden’s emphasis on inclusive economic growth and cultural moderation is among Americans as a whole. Down-ballot races and referendums also suggest that Mr. Biden’s emphasis on policies that will help the working-class without hobbling capitalism is capable of winning majority support in the country. It is striking, for example, that a clear majority of Floridians voted in favor of gradually increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour."
--Yascha Mounk in the Wall Street Journal
“All 14 of California’s majority-Latino counties voted [the initiative to reinstate affirmative action in the state] down,” The Times’s Michael Powell notes. When forced to choose, most Americans evidently think that the policy is unfair and unlikely to benefit them.
Affirmative action’s losing streak is part of a larger issue for Democrats: America is more culturally conservative than progressives wish it were. Many voters — across racial groups — are moderate to conservative on affirmative action, abortion, guns, immigration and policing.
One option for Democrats is to keep doing what they’ve been doing, political costs be damned. Some progressives argue that each of the issues I just listed is a matter of human rights and that compromise is immoral. Ultimately, they say, the liberal position will become popular, as it did on same-sex marriage.
The other option is to assume that not every major political fight is destined to have a left-leaning resolution — and to look for ideas that are both progressive and popular. Such ideas certainly exist, including some that reduce racial inequities.
Typically, these ideas are economically populist and race-neutral on their face while disproportionately helping Black and Latino Americans."
--David Leonhardt in the New York Times
"Florida’s minimum wage increase, meanwhile, should be an enormous blow for racial equity in the state. According to data assembled by University of Massachusetts researchers based on the American Community Survey, slightly below 53 percent of Florida Latinos and slightly above 53 percent of Black Floridians earned less than $15 an hour in the 2013-2017 period....Biden did not run ads highlighting his support for raising the minimum wage, and though he and Trump ended up arguing about it in the second presidential debate, it was not a mainstay of his rhetoric. Certainly during his victory speech Biden did not list a minimum wage increase as among his policy priorities, instead voicing a non-specific commitment to “root out systematic racism.”
But however defined, systemic racism is not something that Congress is going to pass a law against. And the California ballot initiative showed that some in-vogue antiracist concepts continue to have very little appeal among the public. But economic measures designed to lift the low-wage workforce — whether raising the minimum wage or expanding Medicaid — are more popular these days than ever before, and they do an enormous amount in practice to close racial gaps. After a fall election campaign that was both successful and, in key respects, disappointing for Democrats — who continued to lose a large majority of non-college white voters while, this time, also slipping with non-white voters — a renewed focus on the classics could be the best way to win the two outstanding Senate races and rescue Biden’s hopes of being able to really govern the country.
Thinking about this issue reminds reminds me of the odd extent to which contemporary progressives have started doing the politics of race and class backwards.
White people, occupying as we do a privileged position in American life, are on average considerably richer than Black people. Consequently, from the New Deal onward programs designed to help the needy have held a disproportionate appeal to Black voters who disproportionately benefit from them (Eric Shickler’s book Racial Realignment is a great account of how northern African-Americans got incorporated into FDR’s coalition even while he remained terrible on civil rights issues). Then, because most voters are white, conservatives try to associate economic redistribution with racial redistribution to try to get white people to oppose it. Progressives for generations tended to downplay racial angles to maximize the size of the coalition for redistribution, and the traditional debate inside progressives circles was what to say about the fact that race-blind, class-centric measures would never fully close the racial divide.
But in recent years the internal dynamics of progressive spaces have gotten this turned around. These days the perception is that if you want to generate enthusiasm for class politics you should emphasize racial angles.....Because Black people have, on average, less wealth and income than white people, anything that redistributes wealth and income from the haves to the have-nots reduces racial gaps. But the politics of these framings are perverse. It’s particularly perverse because the kinds of people who spend a lot of time thinking about race from a progressive point of view are precisely the people who in other contexts are inclined to emphasize what a big deal racism has historically been in shaping American politics.
That’s why liberals from FDR and LBJ to Obama tried to downplay it when possible — they were trying to win and help people! After all, there’s no special features of unions or Medicaid or the minimum wage that leads them to close racial gaps — all egalitarian economic policy has this effect.
My suspicion is that this is a weird tic of campus politics that has followed graduates into the professional arena where they unconsciously started deploying it in less appropriate contexts. If you’re in a dorm at a fancy college and you can convince an administrator that something is racist, the administrator will probably put a stop to it. At the same time, “this is bad for poor people” just isn’t going to get you far as a campus argument. After all, these schools more or less openly auction off a number of admissions slots to wealthy donors (while, of course, practicing affirmative action to keep things diverse) so they can hardly take a hard line on class politics.
But electoral politics in a democracy isn’t like that. And to the extent that the US political system isn’t democratic, it’s mostly tilted in favor of over-representing white people with no college degree. So if you actually want to close racial gaps by raising the minimum wage, expanding union membership, expanding Medicaid, and reducing student debt, the last thing you want to do is to sell people on the idea that this is really all about race."
--Matt Yglesias on his new Substack site
"Marc Farinella — a frequent adviser to Democratic campaigns for Senate and governor and now the executive director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Survey Methodology — voiced his concerns in an email:
"The party is being pushed too far to the left, thereby jeopardizing Democratic candidates and incumbents in suburban districts. Many Democratic candidates are feeling compelled to give lip-service to — or at least not take issue with — unrealistic and out-of-the-mainstream policy proposals in order to avoid running afoul of the activist minority who dominate primaries and who could make the difference in general elections."
Race, according to Farinella, continues to be problematic terrain for Democrats:
"This year, some major Democratic candidates forcefully pledged to “build wealth for Black families.” Of course, we must do that. But, upon hearing this pledge, I bet many white middle-class families wondered if these candidates were calling for an expensive new social welfare program to help ‘someone else,’ and wondered why government isn’t also helping their families build wealth since many non-Black families are struggling, too."
To remain competitive, Farinella argued,
"Democrats have to focus more on policies that lift all boats and that give everyone — not just targeted groups — a chance for a better life. Fighting to ban exclusion for pre-existing conditions is a step in the right direction. So is protecting Medicare. The reason these policies work so well for Democrats is, at least in part, because they are not perceived as giving special treatment to one group over another."
Farinella stressed that he is
"absolutely not suggesting that Democrats abandon their commitment to fight for disadvantaged or oppressed groups. But I am suggesting that being the champion of each struggling group individually is not a substitute for being the champion of the working class and middle class collectively."
Dane Strother, a Democratic consultant whose firm has represented candidates in states from New Hampshire to Montana, was more outspoken in his view:
"Four years ago, Democrats’ final messaging was “which bathroom one could use.” This year it was Defund the Police. The far left is the Republicans’ finest asset. A.O.C. and the squad are the “cool kids” but their vision in no way represents half of America. And in a representative democracy 50 percent is paramount.".....
Bernard Grofman, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, shares Strother’s assessment but is still more assertive in his belief that the far left has inflicted significant damage on Democratic candidates. He wrote by email:
“Defund the police” is the second stupidest campaign slogan any Democrat has uttered in the twenty first century. It is second in stupidity only to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 comment that half of Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables.”
Moreover, Grofman continued,
"the antifa “take back the neighborhood’” in Seattle, where a part of the city became a police no-go zone, with the initial complicity of Democratic office holders, hasn’t helped either, especially after someone was killed within the zone. That allowed the Democrats to be seen as in favor of antifa, and, worse yet, to be portrayed as in favor of violence."
Even more damaging, in Grofman’s view,
"have been the scenes of rock throwing demonstrators and boarded up stores that Republicans have regularly used for campaign fodder and that were a long-running story on Fox News. Every rock thrown, every broken window, is one more Republican vote."
--Tom Edsall in the New York Times
"Liberals need to adjust their political strategy and ideological ambitions to the country and political system we actually have, and make the most of it, rather than cursing that which they cannot change.
There are certainly some profound democratic deficits built into our federal constitution. Even federal systems like Germany, Australia and Canada do not have the same degree of representative inequality that the Electoral College and Senate generate between a citizen living in California versus one living in Wyoming.
There is also next to nothing we can do about it. The same system that generates this pattern of representative inequality also means that — short of violent revolution — the beneficiaries of our federal system will not allow for it to be changed, except at the margins. If Democrats at some point get a chance to get full representation for Washington, D.C., they should take it. But beyond that, there are few if any pathways to changing either the Electoral College or the structure of the Senate. So any near-term strategy for Democrats must accept these structures as fixed.
The initial step in accepting our federal system is for Democrats to commit to organizing everywhere — even places where we are not currently competitive. Led by Stacey Abrams, Democrats have organized and hustled in Georgia over the last couple of years, and the results are hard to argue with. Joe Biden should beg Ms. Abrams (or another proven organizer like Ben Wikler, the head of the party in Wisconsin) to take over the Democratic National Committee, dust off Howard Dean’s planning memos for a “50 state strategy” from the mid-2000s and commit to building the formal apparatus of the Democratic Party everywhere.
This party-building needs to happen across the country, even where the odds seem slim, in order to help Democrats prospect for attractive issues in red states (and red places in purple states), to identify attractive candidates and groom them for higher office and to build networks of citizens who can work together to rebuild the party at the local level.
A necessary corollary of a 50 state strategy is accepting that creating a serious governing majority means putting together a policy agenda that recognizes where voters are, not where they would be if we had a fairer system of representation. That starts with an economics that addresses the radically uneven patterns of economic growth in the country, even if doing so means attending disproportionately to the interests of voters outside of the Democrats’ urban base. That is not a matter of justice, necessarily, but brute electoral arithmetic.
That does not mean being moderate, in the sense of incremental and toothless. From the financialization of our economy to our constrictive intellectual property laws to our unjust tax competition between states for firms, the economic deck really is stacked for the concentration of economic power on the coasts. Democrats in the places where the party is less competitive should be far more populist on these and other related issues, even if it puts them in tension with the party’s megadonors.
We also need to recognize that the cultural values and rituals of Democrats in cosmopolitan cities and liberal institutional bastions like universities do not seem to travel well. Slogans like “defund the police” and “abolish ICE” may be mobilizing in places where three-quarters of voters pull the lever for Democrats. But it is madness to imagine that they could be the platform of a competitive party nationwide."
--Steven Teles in the New York Times
“The fact that we do badly among people without a college degree is very bad — not for any moral reason, but because people without a college degree live outside of cities, and rural areas are strongly overrepresented at every level of government,” [David] Shor told The Hill.
He added: “The reality is, whether you are talking about single-member districts, the Electoral College or the Senate — one way or another, all those things over-weigh rural states. So our current electoral coalition is not consistent with wielding legislative power.”...
Some progressives have argued that the party needs to do more to energize its grassroots supporters, an idea summed up in the slogan “embrace the base.”
But others, like Shor, are not so convinced.
Democrats, he argued, “have a real tendency to focus on controversial, almost sexy, things, and as a party we need to become more bland and less controversial if we want to get cultural conservatives to vote for us,” he said."
--Niall Stanage in The Hill
This may not be the kind of politics some people want. But it is the kind of politics that will actually work.

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