Wherein an Iowan writes about leftist politics, philosophy, and maybe baseball.
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Let’s start with an argument. It’s a general argument about electability, but that’s no fun. Instead, I’ll use the more provocative case of Bernie Sanders. The motivating claim is that electability stands in tension with systemic change. Or, to put it differently, that not being a threat to the capitalist system is a prerequisite to … Continue reading "The Electability Dilemma" The post The Electability Dilemma appeared first on Base and...
Let’s start with an argument. It’s a general argument about electability, but that’s no fun. Instead, I’ll use the more provocative case of Bernie Sanders. The motivating claim is that electability stands in tension with systemic change. Or, to put it differently, that not being a threat to the capitalist system is a prerequisite to attaining electability. Replace ‘Bernie Sanders’ with any other candidate and it works roughly the same. With other candidates, it’s usually so obvious it approaches triviality.
Here’s the argument.
1. Either Bernie Sanders is electable or he isn’t.
2. If Bernie Sanders is electable, his presidency isn’t a threat to capitalism.
3. If Bernie Sanders isn’t electable, his presidency isn’t a threat to capitalism.
4. Therefore, a Bernie Sanders presidency isn’t a threat to capitalism.
I said earlier this argument is trivial for most candidates. You can probably see why. Replace ‘Bernie Sanders’ with ‘Hillary Clinton’. Or with ‘Joe Biden’. They’re obviously not threats to capitalism. Among the candidates not named Sanders, none – despite some of the campaign narrative – presents even a minimally plausible threat to capitalism.
But Sanders is a bit more provocative. Lots of people think his presidency would be a threat to capitalism. We know he was a socialist back in the 1970s. Jacobin thinks Sanders is still a socialist, albeit one who advocates a social democratic route to socialism. Both think Sanders represents a threat to capitalism, whether in the short or the long term. But the above argument contradicts all this.
I’ll look at the argument in more depth, and at each premise in turn. I think there’s a lot we can learn from it.
So this one looks straightforward enough. He is or he ain’t, right?
Maybe. Some people argue electability is a myth of some kind or another. People often center this claim particularly around specific candidates, such as Joe Biden. Others argue the electability of certain types of candidates, like white men, is a myth.
But these claims don’t threaten the ontology of electability, so to speak. They’re arguments that people make bad decisions about who’s electable, not that there’s no such thing as electability. Other arguments do threaten that ontology. Kate Manne, for example, argues that ‘electability’ is a social fact we create. There’s no such thing as a candidate who’s more or less electable before the pundits start punding. Once people frame the issues, candidates become electable. There’s a rich philosophical literature around this, particularly Ian Hacking’s book The Social Construction of What? As well as my own book Classify and Label.
I suppose there’s an even stronger view that that ‘electability’ simply doesn’t exist, whether as a construct or not. Sherrod Brown sometimes talks like this. I’ll set this view aside because I think it’s extremely implausible.
The point is it’s more complicated than it looks. But for present purposes, I’ll assume electability exists in some form. Probably a form close to what Manne describes. And that each candidate either fits into the box or doesn’t.
I guess this is the big one, right? Jacobin, Sunkara, some of the DSA Caucuses, et al., mean to deny it. And I’m not exactly going to endorse this premise, though I do find it powerful. Here’s why.
Elections serve a certain function in the capitalist system. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll say this function is to shape the contours of discussion and action. They do this through allowing (limited) public input into the operations of the state. They allow this input up to levels safe to the overall system, and the system is elastic enough to open and close input as needed for its own sustainability.
And so, let’s say we have a Eugene V. Debs here or a Communist candidate there. They bring new ideas into the system, push them in, and the system filters those ideas through various processes. The capitalist system defangs those ideas and gives them an institutional structure. We can draw a line from, say, the Socialist Party of America, through ideological and practical filtering, to mainstream programs like the New Deal aimed at sustaining capitalism.
This is straightforward in at least one sense. You can’t enact policy if you don’t win. I mentioned Eugene V. Debs above, right?
But might even an un-electable (or just un-elected) Bernie Sanders help build a movement threatening capitalism down the road? Sure, it’s possible, but it’s unlikely. At the very least, I’ll say a Sanders campaign can’t be (and shouldn’t be) the core of such a movement. If we want to talk about elections, better the campaign emerge from the movement than create the movement.
We’re a bit far from the point, so let’s get back to it. If you look at campaigns like the 2016 Sanders campaign or the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign, the main function of these campaigns is to serve as a pressure valve in the capitalist system. They bring new issues, and later new voters, to the attention of the Democratic Party, its officials, and some of its constituents. They ultimately help the Democratic Party become more responsive to public demand.
Sanders, in particular. By pushing the Democratic Party to adopt the Sandersista Trinity – single-payer health insurance, a $15 minimum wage, and free college – Sanders put the Democrats on better footing for the future and he drew a number of voters to the 2016 Clinton campaign. Maybe he does something similar with his newer policies, like a robust Green New Deal, student debt cancellation, sector-wide wage boards, et al.
OK. OK. I’m getting to it. These Sandersista policies would leave us better off than we are now. Much better in some cases. But the endpoint of all this social democratic electoralism, divorced from strong broader movements against capitalism, probably isn’t socialism. Norman Thomas, perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate, once noted that FDR appropriated socialist ideas for decidedly non-socialist purposes. And even Sanders frames his message in very FDR-friendly terms.
Sector-wide wage boards are a pretty good example here. In most cases, particularly the European social democracies the policy’s SEIU defenders cite, these are tools for class peace, not class war. The point of sector-wide bargaining, in most cases, is to preempt the need for the use of strikes. This is why Matt Dimick, in a recent article in Catalyst, called it a ‘counterfeit liberty’. And this is, of course, why Pete Buttigieg endorsed the idea. Unlike the obviously milquetoast Buttigieg, Sanders does have a plan to make it easier to strike. But this is all pretty dangerous territory without a plan to transition it to a prolonged, sustained fight against capitalism. It doesn’t naturally go in that direction. We have to push it there.
The argument doesn’t quite work. It’s too strong. There could be a genuine electoral threat to capitalism, and we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility. But the argument pushes us to think about why such a threat is very unlikely. For an anti-capitalist candidate to both threaten capitalism and maintain electability, we’d need to see a lot of changes to society.
Elections don’t often offer threats to the system, nor effective avenues for popular change. And it’s because that’s not their function. We often talk about electability and whether ‘good candidates’ are electable without this background in mind. That’s a mistake.
Back in 2017, Bernie Sanders introduced a Senate bill on Medicare for All. It’s hardly the first version of this proposal. John Conyers introduced a less detailed version of it in the House each term since 2003. But Sanders has done more than anyone else to popularize the idea in US politics. So much, in … Continue reading "Medicare for All: Did They Flip-Flop?" The post Medicare for All: Did They Flip-Flop? appeared first on Base and...
Back in 2017, Bernie Sanders introduced a Senate bill on Medicare for All. It’s hardly the first version of this proposal. John Conyers introduced a less detailed version of it in the House each term since 2003. But Sanders has done more than anyone else to popularize the idea in US politics. So much, in fact, that just about all the major Democratic presidential contenders hopped on board. Literally co-sponsoring the bill in the case of the senators running for president.
And that’s no exaggeration. Here’s a list of Medicare for All co-sponsors who ran for president: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. Let’s not forget several others also endorsed the proposal: Pete Buttigieg (!), Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang.
But times get tougher when you’re running for president. It’s one thing to announce a bold agenda, but it’s another to defend that agenda during the invisible primary. Consequently, it’s time to ask which ones chickened out. Who pulled a flip-flip on Medicare for All?
One notable thing about the 2020 campaign is this. Some candidates play around with the phrase Medicare for All. So I’ll start by getting clear about what I mean by it. There are two Medicare for All bills in the current Congress: the Bernie Sanders Senate bill and the Pramila Jayapal House bill. Vox provides a pretty good overview of the Sanders bill and the Jayapal bill. I won’t repeat everything Vox has to say.
Here’s the gist of it. Medicare for All is a public health insurance program with a single-payer (i.e., the government), while health care delivery remains mostly private. Any proposal worth the name has the following features: a.) it’s one health insurance program administered by the federal government; b.) it provides comprehensive coverage, including dental, vision, mental health, and prescription drugs in addition to standard ‘health care’; c.) it’s free at the point of service (i.e., no copay or deductible); d.) it provides government insurance to everyone (i.e., it’s universal).
And that’s it. The DSA Medicare for All campaign provides a similar overview. And I basically follow DSA’s lead here. They add a fifth condition, namely a jobs and severance initiative for people who’d lose their current jobs with private health insurance companies. And that’s fine with me. I suspect any bill that actually passed would include a jobs provision, though I wouldn’t call this an essential feature of the program.
One thing worth noting at the outside is what Medicare for All is not: it’s not a simple expansion of the current Medicare system to include everyone. The current Medicare system, while it works for lots of people, fails multiple conditions. Most notably, it’s not comprehensive and it’s not free at the point of service.
And so, any candidate peddling mere expansions of the current program to more people isn’t advocating Medicare for All.
Booker doesn’t really say much about health care these days. And with that, it’s worth starting with something of a tension involving all of these candidates (except, of course, Bernie Sanders). By endorsing Medicare for All, they endorsed a social democratic proposal. But none of them (except, again, Bernie Sanders) is a social democrat. And so, they’ve made a mess they’re now cleaning up.
That’s why we’re here in the first place with all this flip-flopping.
Now back to Booker. Why doesn’t he talk much about health care? Because he probably doesn’t really support Medicare for All. But we don’t know for sure. What we know is that he’s made comments supportive of private health insurance, suggesting he’s not on board with the universal nature of Jayapal-Sanders.
The Booty Judge wins the award for most outrageous flip-flop. Here’s what he had to say in 2018: “I, Pete Buttigieg, politician, do henceforth and forthwith declare, most affirmatively and indubitably, unto the ages, that I do favor Medicare for All, as I do favor any measure that would help get all Americans covered.”
Don’t believe he said that? Here’s the tweet.
Now, Buttigieg endorses ‘Medicare for All Who Want It’. Sounds like the same thing, right? But with more…freedom? What could be bad about that?
The trouble is that Buttigieg equivocates on ‘Medicare’. His public plan, which he calls ‘Medicare’, has practically nothing in common with the Medicare plan in the Jayapal and Sanders bills. It meets none of the criteria I listed earlier. In particular, it would include all of the various confusing features and extra charges (e.g., copays, deductibles, lack of dental and vision care, et al.) that plague the current plans offered on the Obamacare exchanges.
Ultimately, the rhetorical problem with the Buttigieg plan is that if people had the Jayapal-Sanders plan as an option, they’d all choose it. Thus, ‘Medicare for All Who Want It’ is either self-defeating or self-fulfilling. In other words, the Buttigieg plan is fucking horseshit. And gives us more reason to suspect he might be the worst candidate.
Castro reneged sometime over the summer. He stated it most explicitly at the Iowa CCI Forum last month. While he wasn’t very clear on what he advocates, I think the basic idea is that he wants to expand the current Medicare system to more people while retaining some form of private system for at least a number of years.
But I think there are a couple of details to consider with Castro. First, his website still lists universal public health insurance as a goal. That puts him closer to Sanders and Warren than to the other candidates. On the other hand, Castro’s comments at the CCI Forum and the debates cast doubt on whether he’s serious about this goal. Especially in light of the fact that he’s been pretty weak for most of his political career.
But, second, Castro’s health care platform is a potential backup in the event of the failure of Medicare for All. Assuming a President Sanders or President Warren tries to get it passed and can’t, strengthening Medicare and gradually expanding it is probably the next best thing. Done properly, opening up the door to everyone to choose a comprehensive Medicare program would achieve universal coverage eventually.
As with Tom Steyer below, I don’t think Gabbard is a serious contender. As a result, I’ll keep this brief.
In theory, Gabbard said about the same thing as Booker. She claimed she wants a role for private insurance in the system. But she went much further than Booker and outright adopted the ‘choice’ language of, e.g., Buttigieg and Harris. Added to Gabbard’s general unreliability on…pretty much everything, I’m declaring her a flip-flopper until proven otherwise.
Harris not only flip-flopped, but she also had the nerve to release a totally different plan using the ‘Medicare for All’ label. What’s in Harris’s plan? She wants the public to run a health insurance marketplace that includes a wide range of private insurance plans. Not only does this fail to build a single-payer system, in principle it could privatize much of the current Medicare system.
And so, Harris probably wins the award here for biggest scam.
Sanders is the only clear and unambiguous “No”. Sanders hasn’t flip-flopped, and he’s not going to. Why? Medicare for All is the centerpiece of his Sandersista Trinity from 2016 and his comprehensive social democratic platform of 2020. It’s core to the Sanders brand.
Sure, if he’s elected president he might support a lesser plan as a backup. But Medicare for All is his core demand on health insurance, and it will remain so.
Steyer reneged on Medicare for All very early. In terms of health care positioning, he’s much closer to Biden and Klobuchar than to anyone else on this list.
Warren’s views on health care are difficult to unravel, and I tackled the issue in a longer post elsewhere.
But here’s the basic idea. In the early months of the campaign, Warren doubled and tripled down on the Jayapal-Sanders legislation. But, ultimately, she rejects the idea of a broad tax base. This is a problem because a broad tax base is required for a sustainable, universal public health insurance program. She released a funding plan with some very optimistic assumptions that skirts the broad tax base, but the funding plan probably doesn’t work as written.
So, in theory, she’s still a Medicare for All supporter. But, in fact, it conflicts with her underlying political philosophy. She’ll probably flip-flop at some point, but not yet.
Officially, Yang still claims he’s on board. But I don’t believe him. Why? Two reasons. First, Yang frequently conflates ‘Medicare for All’ with a ‘public option’ in his statements on health insurance. This at least suggests whatever he has in mind falls well short of the Jayapal-Sanders legislation. And, second, Yang is basically a single issue candidate. I think just about everything’s optional for him after his universal basic income proposal, which is the entire reason he’s running for president.
‘Prison abolition’ doesn’t sound complicated. It’s abolishing prison. Done. Put that shit through a spell check, clock out early, and fly a kite. But it is complicated. Go figure. I recently saw a Twitter thread on the term ‘prison abolition’. Here’s the background. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote some tweets explaining and defending limits on the prison … Continue reading "Prison Abolition: Variations on a Theme" The post Prison Abolition:...
‘Prison abolition’ doesn’t sound complicated. It’s abolishing prison. Done. Put that shit through a spell check, clock out early, and fly a kite. But it is complicated. Go figure.
I recently saw a Twitter thread on the term ‘prison abolition’. Here’s the background. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote some tweets explaining and defending limits on the prison system, using ‘prison abolition’ as a hook. Carissa Byrne Hessick, a criminal law professor and director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project, responded.
Hessick largely agreed with AOC, but she objected to AOC’s use of ‘prison abolition’. She thought AOC misused the term. Why? Well, AOC doesn’t advocate abolishing all forms of imprisonment or confinement under a judicial system. Rather, she wants to close most prisons and release many prisoners. Since ‘prison abolition’, according to Hessick, means to eliminate all of those things, AOC misused the term. Perhaps in a politically motivated way?
Is Hessick right? I’ll argue she’s not. Or, at least, I think we can build a coherent concept of ‘prison abolition’ that doesn’t abolish all forms of confinement. Whether AOC’s on board with this is a separate issue.
Lots of people responded to Hessick’s Twitter thread with error theories. Those theories answer the question, ‘why did AOC misuse the word ‘abolition’?’ Here’s the gist of those theories. Since no one (or hardly anyone) advocates ending literally all forms of confinement, they must have some other attachment to the label ‘abolition’. In many cases, they’re attached to ‘abolition’ because it’s connected to the anti-slavery movement. Prison abolitionists want to build an analogy between prison and slavery.
For my part, I’ll admit there’s something here. Many prison abolitionists do draw some form of an analogy between prison and slavery. Michelle Alexander uses it, to some degree, in her book The New Jim Crow. In that book, she draws an extended analogy from slavery to Jim Crow to prison. And Ibram X. Kendi uses the analogy in his book Stamped From the Beginning, where he ties this system to evolving ideas of segregationism and assimilationism.
But I think this line of thought quickly hits its limits. For one, it’s an uncharitable reading. Surely people know what ‘abolition’ means, and surely AOC isn’t inclined to distort it for political gain. We could at least give her the benefit of the doubt. And this line of thought doesn’t really accord with how I understand ‘prison abolition’, for whatever that’s worth.
Let’s start with Angela Davis, a well known prison abolitionist. Davis draws the slavery analogy. But I think her views are more complicated than that. She’s worked with prison abolition movements since the 1960s, and she summarized her views in the 2003 book Are Prisons Obsolete? Let’s look there.
The fact is she frames her objections to prisons in several ways. At various points in the book, she says she wants to undermine beliefs about the inevitability of prison in our social lives, consider whether the prison is an obsolete institution, and fight against the prison-industrial complex. I’ve teased these out because they’re separate ideas. We can connect them, but not they’re not obviously the same.
Davis co-founded a group called Critical Resistance. While they use language similar to Davis, they get a bit closer to what Hessick calls ‘prison abolition’. Yes, they focus on mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, which we can tease apart from a stricter kind of abolitionism. But they also call for the elimination of imprisonment and policing.
You’ll find a similar story when you look at other groups. My initial inclinations are probably closest to a group called Community Justice Exchange. They explain their own take in more detail in their pamphlet. And they also very helpfully discuss alternatives to prison and policing.
As a result of all this, I don’t think prison abolitionists misuse ‘abolition’. In fact, I think we’re looking at precisely the wrong half of the term ‘prison abolition’. I think Hessick and at least some prison abolitionists really disagree about what ‘prison’ means.
Like any other issue, I approach prison as a social system with certain functions and roles, particularly as a builder of social relations serving deeper economic roles. Probably not a shocker for a blog called ‘Base and Superstructure‘. I’m hardly the first person to do so. Foucault more or less started a cottage industry on it with his book Discipline and Punish. And the field of science studies built itself around treating science this way.
That aside, the point is this. Hessick assumes ‘prison’ refers to literally any form of confinement by a judicial system. And probably some prison abolitionists make this move along with her, though I think not many. Why? Because this is, in some sense, too broad. Prison isn’t just any kind of confinement by a judicial system. It’s a particular kind of confinement associated with certain stages of social and technological development. It creates particular social divisions, and it aids the creation of an industrial reserve army in various ways.
Thus, the prison is a peculiar feature of the kind of society that has gone through industrialization. It’s a way to confine people on a large scale as a part of a regime of disciplining the workforce. The kind of prison abolitionism I advocate is the abolition of that. I think about abolitionism in terms of abolishing a particular kind of prison system. Not just any old means of confinement.
One thing I like about Critical Resistance is that they leave the question of what replaces prison fairly open-ended. And that’s as it should be. We need to do a lot of work around looking at community-based forms of justice, but we haven’t yet settled on anything definitive. After we do that work, we can say a lot about what a post-prison society looks like. But we can’t do it prematurely.
Lack of good prison alternatives severely limits our activism. Whether we like it or not, some people out there do threaten the world around them. We might consider serial rapists largely undeterred by the present system. And we might consider the 1000+ cases each year where police officers kill someone. What about, say, Amber Guyger or Brock Turner? What do we do with these people?
Advocacy groups wrestle with difficult decisions along these lines every day. Particularly anti-sexual assault and racial justice groups. For a good example local to Iowa City, consider the Domestic Violence Intervention Program. Groups like this must decide whether and how to use the criminal justice system to fulfill their mission. Why? Because in most cases, they don’t have good alternatives.
It’s also tough on a personal level to navigate these issues. I don’t think rapists or killer cops should run free, but I also have deep reservations about pushing for them to go to prison or advocating they go to prison. It’s far from clear to me it’s a good idea to, e.g., advocate that judges who give rapists light sentences get recalled, or object to a ‘light’ sentence for a killer cop that would probably be a stiff sentence in an actually fair and equitable society. As a result, I typically remain silent on cases like this. In theory, I think we probably should continue confining (a much smaller number of) people who represent a grave threat to those around them. But in what form, and to what end? Those are much more difficult questions.
The greatest challenge for prison abolitionists, in my view, is this. If we study these issues, and we decide that we need some form of confinement of people dangerous to society, how do we create a form of confinement that is not prison? And should we?
I started the 2019 baseball season warning against overreactions and other folderol. And then I managed to get caught up in it a bit myself: too many home runs, MLB juiced the ball to speed up the game, etc. At the end of October, as it turns out, we’re concluding a very traditional baseball postseason. … Continue reading "2019 World Series (and Postseason)" The post 2019 World Series (and Postseason) appeared first on Base and...
I started the 2019 baseball season warning against overreactions and other folderol. And then I managed to get caught up in it a bit myself: too many home runs, MLB juiced the ball to speed up the game, etc.
At the end of October, as it turns out, we’re concluding a very traditional baseball postseason. The teams with the two best starting rotations made the 2019 World Series. They’re trading wins on the road, as both teams struggle with relief pitching. And to top it off, they’re using some of starting pitchers in relief.
Go figure. As usual, baseball throws something unexpected at us. Well…I’m here for it. I’m hoping all this at least slows the growth of relief pitching for 2020. Not optimistic, but hoping. Maybe some teams start seeing the value of having a third or fourth starter who works deep into games.
Anything else stand out to you?
So, social democracy and taxes? I’m going to approach this topic from a couple of angles. First, I’ve made some efforts in the past to distinguish between progressivism, social democracy, and socialism. But I want to say more about this. I think these terms, albeit unsettled, pick out importantly different political philosophies. Taxation forms an … Continue reading "Social Democracy and Taxes" The post Social Democracy and Taxes appeared first on Base and...
So, social democracy and taxes? I’m going to approach this topic from a couple of angles. First, I’ve made some efforts in the past to distinguish between progressivism, social democracy, and socialism. But I want to say more about this. I think these terms, albeit unsettled, pick out importantly different political philosophies. Taxation forms an entry-point to thinking about these differences.
Second, Elizabeth Warren recently worked her way into a bit of a jam. She’s struggling with how to pay for Medicare for All, a set of bills proposed by Pramila Jayapal and Bernie Sanders that would create a robust, comprehensive, world-class single-payer health insurance system. Warren worked her way into this jam, I’ll argue, because she’s a progressive who backed her way in to endorsing a social democratic idea. The news endlessly covers the entire kerfuffle, but I think the press sees this less as a philosophical problem than a policy problem. On the contrary, I think it’s primarily a philosophical problem opening up over the topic of taxes.
What’s the difference between these three views? I’ve teased it out a bit previously in posts on Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro. Here’s what I had to say there about the respective political philosophies of Sanders, Warren, and Castro:
Sanders is a social democrat, maybe or maybe not a progressive, and not a democratic socialist.
Warren is a progressive, but neither a social democrat nor a democratic socialist.
Castro is maybe or maybe not a progressive, but neither a social democrat nor a democratic socialist.
I think that’s cryptic enough for a start. We might be able to learn a bit about the differences by looking at the policies of these three candidates. So, what does all that mean?
I trace US progressivism to its roots in the early 20th century. It’s a middle and upper middle income movement, notably a reaction to growing corporate power. As it happens, big business grew sharply in power at the turn of both of the 20th and 21st centuries, thus explaining the return of the ‘progressive’ label. Progressives center process reform (e.g., ballot initiatives and referenda, recall of politicians from office, et al.), government efficiency and services. They call for means-tested programs aimed at the neediest, and they want to run a clean government by stamping out corruption.
If this all sounds like the Elizabeth Warren campaign that’s because Warren’s a textbook progressive. One, she repeatedly talks about corruption and process reform. And, two, she wants to harness growing wealth to benefit the needy. As opposed to, say, eliminating wealth and putting working class and poorer people in charge. We’ll return to that topic shortly.
Social democracy started as a gradual route to socialism via the electoral process and existing institutions. It was, in short, a thesis about the transition from capitalism to socialism via elected representatives cumulatively appropriating economic institutions and power in the name of the public. See, for example, Eduard Bernstein‘s The Preconditions of Socialism.
But that’s history. ‘Social democracy’ doesn’t really mean anything like that now. At this point, social democrats want to mobilize a broad base of people to create a system taking care of everyone’s basic needs under capitalism. And social democrats think we can do so while reducing income inequality, easing the marginalization of certain social groups, et al. In a social democracy, the state provides universal access to basic needs like health care, housing, education, food, water, et al. And the system draws upon a large base of working class people, unions, and so on to achieve these gains.
What’s the difference between this and progressivism? Social democracy centers working class people and other marginalized groups. Not merely as the people who benefit from need-based programs, but as the protagonists in movements. Working class people are literally the ones organizing and achieving the gains. Progressivism, by contrast, is grounded more in terms of advocacy, charity, or even noblesse oblige. It’s about wealthier people organizing to use their privileges to benefit others.
As a quick aside, there’s also the issue of how social democracy differs from socialism. But I think the answer is simple enough, at least in its broad outlines. Whereas social democracy preserves the capitalist system in some form, socialism doesn’t. It abolishes it. Whereas the social democrat might advocate for public ownership of certain basic public needs, the socialist goes further and advocates for public ownership of the entire economy.
Social democrats like Bernstein wanted to use social democracy as a transition point to socialism, but the end point of socialism defined the program. They still shared with Marxists the ultimate goal of socialism. And that ultimate goal is what social democrats now reject, and it’s why they’re no longer socialists. They’re no longer interested in doing for other sectors of the economy what they want to do for basic needs and public goods.
In current times, social democrats sometimes adopt proposals for those sectors like sectoral bargaining, shared board seats for workers, et al. that give workers a greater share in capitalist wealth. But the greater share depends on maintaining capitalist wealth in order to work.
Well, then. Great. There are differences between the three views. Got it. Why does it matter, and what’s it got to do with Elizabeth Warren and her plans to pay for Medicare for All? Does this mean Warren doesn’t advocate for social democracy?
It’s tough for Democrats to talk about taxes, especially to talk about taxes on middle income people. For that reason, we might use tax policy to talk about what separates these views. And at the moment, the competing statements from Sanders and Warren regarding how to pay for Medicare for All makes the biggest splash in the middle income tax pool.
Sanders admits the need for tax increases on middle income Americans to pay for the program. And he does so directly. Not only at debates, but also in his list of payment options for the program. To be fair, he plays it a bit coyly. He shrouds the tax increases within other tax plans targeting the wealthy. But at the end of the day, when you ask him he’ll say that we need a broad tax base to accompany Medicare for All. Probably through imposing something like additional payroll taxes to make the program work its best.
Warren doesn’t admit this. She talks circles around the question of middle income tax increases, and she goes out of her way to try to pull the impossible (and arguably inadvisable, see below) “wealthy people alone should pay for it” rabbit out of her hat.
This all flows neatly from their commitments to social democracy and progressivism, respectively. Sanders the social democrat wants to build a world where a broadly democratic state provides for basic needs, owns certain public utilities, and builds support from a working class and middle income base. Warren the progressive wants to encourage the flow of capital while using surplus wealth to provide services for the neediest.
The Sanders program requires a broad tax base to work, because working class and middle income people are central both to building and sustaining the program. The Warren program not only doesn’t require a broad tax, but actively avoids one. To someone like Warren, taxes on middle income people involve directly taking money from those who are supposed to benefit from the noblesse oblige of the wealthy. Thus, she thinks middle income taxes are counterproductive. She’s going to try as hard as she can to avoid it.
Hence, the political problem Warren faces now on how to pay for single-payer health insurance. She’s endorsed Medicare for All, a social democratic program that only a broad social democratic tax base can pay for. But she’s no social democrat. And she totally opposes social democratic tax policy. And hence, why this is no problem at all for Sanders. As I said above, he’s got an entire list of options for funding the program.
Here’s a final question: Are there any benefits to a broad tax base of the sort social democrats tend to prefer?
With any social program, we face a risk of political opposition. Public health insurance creates an additional risk. Meaning that conservative, libertarian, wealthy, et al. interests might lobby for reduced health care under the Jayapal-Sanders Medicare program. Why? In order to save money and reduce their tax burden.
Of course, every major social program faces a version of this problem. The current Social Security and Medicare programs face the same worries. And yet, generally we don’t reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits. Not only that, but for the most part we don’t really come close to reducing those benefits.
One reason these programs are relatively secure is that they draw on a broad tax base and benefit a broad range of people. When we all pay and we all benefit, it’s tougher for criticism to gain traction. These kinds of programs really aren’t a bad deal for the wealthy, and they’re an actively good deal for almost everyone else.
Consider, by contrast, the progressive move of taxing only the wealthy, or only certain businesses, in order to benefit a relatively small group of people. Corporate interests have a playbook for defeating programs like this: demonize the small groups of beneficiaries, build resentment among everyone from wealthy to middle income people, and then chip away at the programs or eliminate them outright. Moreover, since progressivism needs the wealthy classes to generate the wealth it uses to pay for its programs, those programs remain especially vulnerable to the playbook.
And so, there’s the issue of Elizabeth Warren and Medicare for All. I suspect she’s…OK with the program. She needs to cut into the Sanders base to win the nomination, and endorsing Medicare for All helps her do it. But I don’t think it’s a disingenuous move for her. The program would help her accomplish her goal of serving the needy. However, ultimately, I think she’d prefer something else. And her progressivism leads her in these different directions. In the shorter term, she’s going to continue struggling to come up with a payment plan because she philosophically rejects the one payment plan that works.
Where will she go from here? She might endorse full Sanders-style social democracy on this one issue and support a broad tax base. Alternatively, she might release a single-payer plan with benefits far less generous than those Jayapal and Sanders offer (i.e., she might just offer people the current Medicare plan without the strong Jayapal-Sanders improvements). And, for a third alternative, she might just reject Medicare for All outright and revert to something more like what the other candidates advocate.
We’ll find out.
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