Thursday, October 8, 2015

How Change Happens in Democracies

Greg Sargent makes an interesting case for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.
Sanders’ message is clear: Skyrocketing inequality is an urgent threat to the country. It’s the result of deep and intractable structural problems with the economy that require correction through major government intervention — via unabashedly redistributive policies that include big tax hikes on the wealthy to fund massive social investments. Our economic problems are enormous and call for major structural change. Nibbling around the edges just won’t do.
"Nibbling around the edges" is how a lot of progressives tend to look at more incremental (or pragmatic) change. In his podcast with Marc Maron, President Obama described how he sees it differently (this is my summary, not a transcript):
The emphasis on “hope and change” during the 2008 election captured our aspirations about where we should be going. But the question becomes, “how do we operationalize these concepts into concrete actions?” When it comes to specifics, the world is complicated and there are choices you have to make. The trajectory of progress comes in fits and starts and where you’re going is balanced by what is and where you’ve been. Progress in a democracy is never instantaneous and it’s always partial.

As president, sometimes your job is just to make things work. And sometimes your task is to make incremental improvements. It’s like steering an ocean liner and making a 2 degree turn so that 10 years from now we’re suddenly in a very different place. You can’t turn 50 degrees all at once because that’s not how societies - especially democracies - work. As long as we’re turning in the right direction and we’re making progress, government is working like its supposed to.
The case the President made is not simply for more centrist change - as many progressives assume - but for change that creates a progressive trajectory. It's the same point he made when talking about reaching a global climate accord.

The argument Sargent makes in favor of Sanders' approach leads people like Paul Starr to call his supporters delusional.
To some extent, both the conservative and progressive frustrations have the same origin—limited power in a divided government. Neither side is able to get its way because neither party controls all the levers of power...

On the Democratic side, the candidates are unlikely to race to the left in a way that’s comparable to the Republican race to the right. But the idle talk about adopting single-payer health care and emulating a Scandinavian welfare state has a similar air of unreality about it. Without a total remaking of American society and politics, these ideas have no chance of being enacted outside of Vermont (which didn’t get anywhere with single-payer after initially approving it).

I get that Democrats need to inspire their base, but I have never found political delusions inspiring.
But give Sanders some credit. He is being very clear that the only way his agenda will be enacted is with a veritable progressive revolution. That means not simply a Democratic majority in the House and super-majority in the Senate, it means a progressive majority and super-majority. I hate to be a Debbie-downer, but the chances of that happening are pretty much zilch.

Short of that, we have to begin talking about how candidates will deal with opposition (both intra and inter party). That is true whether we are talking about a President Sanders or a President Clinton (the two candidates Sargent was contrasting). It is exactly why Obama talks about how change happens in democracies. Given the enormity of the challenges we face today, it is important for Democrats to have a candidate who has thought that one through.

I would suggest that a lot of this comes down to that quote from Andrew Cuomo: "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." But it is often the disconnection between the two that feeds anger and cynicism.


  1. Sanders knee-jerk opposed TPP before even reading what's in it. Isn't that the same as knee-jerk Republicans who opposed the Iran nuclear deal before reading it?

    1. We don't yet know what the TPP will contain, but the rumors are that it will contain provisions that will fight human trafficking and child labor, and allow for unions and minimum wages -- the sort of thing that not only progressives but every single decent human being should be in favor of. Assuming that holds true, there is going to be a record scratch sound emanating from Vermont that we'll all be able to hear with the unaided ear, as Sanders suddenly has to figure out how to do an about-face without admitting that he completely jumped to conclusions on the TPP.

      What each and every left-leaning politician should have been saying all along: "without knowing the exact content of the TPP it would be premature of me to make any pronouncements, save one: if it's a repeat of NAFTA, I will not support it". There, all the Leftie cred without the BS.

    2. Thank you, King. There is an earlier version c. 2013 that was filed and I partly read. S. 1900, it satisfied a lot of my worries and yes, it had massive protections for labor AND the environment among other things. If the final bill is bad, oppose it. If it's good, support it. But there is no room for opposition in ignorance. THAT is indefensible.