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In the Interest of Moving Forward:

This is Not What I Intended to Write


 This could serve as a fill-in-the-blank for so many tragedies both natural and man-made going back decades or going forward, whether one of our now frequent once in 500 year storms, western wildfires, or whatever next new scary way the earth teaches us about natural consequences.

I wrote that and have been frozen in place for several days struggling to move forward.  Rather than start over I'll try to move through the struggle here.  My intent has been to write about the Democrats lasting commitment to neoliberalism and austerity and building a vision that leads to electoral success. I've been moving in this direction over the course of several posts. I'd planned on referring to an article by Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan official, on why he won't call himself a Democrat --spoiler, their vision is too small. I also wanted to make use of a Robert Reich article where he details six positions Democrats should take moving forward. Several weeks ago I had a conversation with 3 good friends, all really smart academics that helped me to reframe some of my political thinking and wanted to reflect on that here; essentially around the false dichotomy that has been set up between incrementalism and what I would say is effective vision setting. Recognizing the way that language builds and reflects perspective I don't know what the opposite of incrementalism is and this should be a clear indication of what I think of incrementalism.  I'll come back to that.

I returned to this blog with the intent of reflecting on trends rather than current events, but observing and thinking about current events is precisely one of the reasons I've been struggling to finish this post. It's difficult to ignore the destruction wrought by a series of massive storms and the inadequate government response, which is a byproduct of 40 years of austerity. One point that's been made repeatedly on Twitter is the effectiveness of Cuba's preparation and response to hurricanes on the island and with aid throughout the Caribbean. It's the result of investment in human expertise and physical infrastructure. I'm also confounded by and fixated on the strong response for and against Hillary Clinton's new book, based on the excerpts, and a news/propaganda site created in her name. My initial reaction was annoyance and has grown more negative with the intensifying discussion. I think this too has been part of my struggle. It's peripheral to my intended topic, but feels like a relevant distraction. Probably the biggest struggle to writing this, if I'm honest, is that Bartlett and Reich beat me to it.  Those two articles basically comprise my thesis:  the Democrats lack vision and should be more aspirational. Is there a single problem for which either party offers solutions for fixing the problem rather than ways to just make it better? Thinking about our stagnant wages, the number of people surviving check to check, 28 million without health insurance, millions more who can't afford to use their health insurance, the growing chid poverty rate, ascendant white nationalism, massive climate upheaval, and all of the blinkered history that led to this presidency to call the Dems response woefully inadequate is woefully inadequate. I'm realizing that the distraction has become relevant to my post because it serves as a stand-in for my frustration with Democrats and white liberalism in general.

To be clear, for some, the primary of 2016 has remained as alive and relevant as the Civil War has for racists. The release of the book is not to blame for this but it has caused an intense re-litigation of the primary and mythification of what happened. I've already expressed my belief that people drew the wrong conclusions from Hillary's primary win about why she lost and they're just doubling down. One thing that was said during the primary in various ways was that Hillary would be a fine president, but not the nominee to fit the times.  The truth of this should be obvious right now.  She won the nomination, but less than a year later her opponent's positions have become the positions of Dem party voters and increasingly its politicians. For example, her position, and that of many mainstream Dem politicians, was that single payer would never happen, blaming the politics.  At one time she explained that people wouldn't support it because the idea was somewhat foreign, they didn't understand that Medicare was single payer. Rather than driving the politics on this, increasingly elected officials have been acting as anchors or struggling to recognize the change in public opinion.

This is the thing with neoliberalism or market-based liberalism and the politics of incrementalism.  It starts by arguing from the position of what is politically possible rather than making any argument for what is morally necessary beyond the need to act. It is philosophically an automatic concession to conservative politics, and has been for 30 years. It's the politics of 'wait your turn.'* That's how we ended up with the ACA, Romneycare before it was Obamacare, representing the 'socialist takeover' of our healthcare system. The problem has been as the Republicans have grown less restrained by reality the centrists have continued to move to the right with them. Democrats have been great about moral stands after public opinion has changed, as with marriage equality on the national level. They also did a great job of making the moral case for health care reform.  The problem is that they staked their political futures on the wrong thing, something that was too easy to undermine. The ACA was a great step forward, but not a great final step, since mostly through Republican assholery 28 million remain uncovered. The final step should be the goal of universal healthcare, which has been a central Democratic objective since Truman. It's a politically stronger position than spending 8 years just in defense of what you've passed, forcing your opponents to argue against both what is and the better thing that might be.

This kinda brings me back to the distraction, which I guess has become the thing I'm writing about, and the idea of the moral position and how I now see the schism on the left. In the conversation with my friends we had a back and forth about incrementalism vs. what we were calling radical change. Even as the discussion continued there was friction around the binary we were using, it never quite fit. One friend, thinking systemically, saw it as macro vs micro*, which I now do as well. The friction was that we were calling radical ideas that were not only practical but were being applied in real time. Things like single payer, for which there is a well funded lobby behind making it seem radical. Looked at in this way it becomes incrementalism vs. doing what almost every other nation does. If we think of it as macro vs. micro, we are discussing specific structural changes and specific actions to help bring about those changes, Dems have been all action and no vision. In a sense these are the functions that the two wings of the party serve, vision and practical action. The progressive left provides a vision that tries to center moral clarity and the liberals provide practical direction for reaching the vision. If, knowing that 28 million people still lack healthcare, you have argued against single payer you can't be offended if this equation leaves you off the side of moral clarity.

Through my Twitter addiction I've been exposed to a number of people who argue for incrementalism in goal-setting for the left.  I'm coming to realize that is a more accepted position than I expected. To the people who believe this I ask why do you like losing so much? This is what I added to our conversation:

I see a desire to unite on the left and it's a useful paradigm shift to think in terms of ideals, especially when they are not feasible. It says a lot that there are senators and Governors moving on Medicare for All, free public higher education, and $15 minimum wage. What was once derided as the promise of free ponies are growing as consensus positions for the party. This would be a good moment to realize how stifled our political imagination has been for decades. What was "radical" a year ago has become mainstream. This is the time to build visions that push past conventional wisdom, that aspire to moral ideals, not as a political litmus test, but because we need at least one political party focused on confronting actual problems faced by its human constituents. With the idea of moving forward, looking through this lens it's incredibly difficult to understand the point of Hillary's book, the tour, and the propaganda site. The intensity of the discourse feels problematic. I think about all the time she spent demonizing the current occupant of the White House as an existential threat before his arrival, for her return to the public eye this feels inconsistent with the depth of the threat she rightly detailed. I'd like to be proven wrong but considering all of the problems we're facing this doesn't seem like part of an effective strategy for galvanizing her supporters to collaborate on new positions instead of continuing to argue the past since arguing the past is what the left has returned to doing.


After watching the web extra of her interview with Jane Pauley I can only conclude that the book and tour will play no part in advancing Dems in 2018 or 2020, and will actually act as a drag on party prospects as energy continues to be focused on 2016. Someone has begun referring to it as a slam book, and that feels incredibly accurate. One can argue about Bernie's timing for conceding the primary, or even that his continued presence was divisive. It would be incredibly dishonest to say, as she does in the interview, that comparatively she bowed out gracefully as soon as the delegate count was against her, especially since he never cited her possible assassination as his reason for remaining in the race. Read this detailing of her departure from the 2008 campaign and compare it to her description in the video. I think you too will conclude that we're in for a lot of unnecessary fuckery in the next election cycles.

h/t Zach Metz



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