To reiterate, success depends on the intersection of both street politics and electoral politics. But for today I am focusing on the latter.
In all the midterm autopsies published or broadcast in the past month, the one agreement among the dissectors is that a lack of enthusiasm even worse than usual kept away voters who could have made the outcome very different Nov. 4. But that's pretty much where the agreement ends. I'm in the camp that says if the Democratic Party is going to survive, much less thrive, it's got to have a message that will resonate, not just in presidential years when a candidate at the top can mobilize people but also during the midterms that have been so damaging in most of the past 20 years.
Not a focus-grouped message of campaign consultant mush, although special care with language is important. But rather a message with real meaning. Sen. Bernie Sanders has provided such a message. A message and simultaneously a platform of economic populism. Regulars at Daily Kos may have read Sanders' post on the subject.
The Nation last week published an excellent John Nichols' interview with Sanders about his economic agenda. Here's a taste:
“This country faces more serious problems today than at any time since the Great Depression,” says the senator. “We have already, in the midterms, gone through an election where there was no substantive debate about the most important issues, which is why you have, I think, the lowest voter turnout since 1942. The idea that we could go through a presidential election, where you have all these right-wing Republicans on one side talking about their issues and then, within the progressive community, not to discuss issues like the collapse of the middle class, the growth in poverty, the fact that we’re the only country in the industrialized world without a national healthcare program … not to discuss climate change when the scientific community tells of that we have a short window in which to address it; not to discuss these and other issues would, I think, be horrendous for this country. Absolutely horrendous.”
Always uncomfortable with political discussions that get bogged down by process and personalities, Sanders does not spend time bashing Clinton or other prospective contenders. He rejects the narrow constraints of horserace politics and asks the essential question: “Do we have a desperate need for a candidate, or candidates, to be representing the middle class and the working class of this country, standing up to the billionaire class, raising issues that are never talked about here in Congress, or in the media? The answer is absolutely, absolutely yes. But the other side of the equation is, if you do have that candidate—myself or anybody else—doing that, you have to figure out and be certain that you can run a strong and effective campaign.”
Every progressive political campaign—whether it's for a ballot issue or a candidate—should form a contrast with conservatives without any blurring of the lines. It should take a clear stance on the side of Americans with little or no power and wealth, and demonstrate vigorous support for the common good.
Sanders' economic agenda has the makings of that. This is the condensed version from his website. (You can read more details in his post that I linked above.)
• Invest in our crumbling infrastructure with a major program to create jobs by rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, waste water plants, airports, railroads and schools.
• Transform energy systems away from fossil fuels to create jobs while beginning to reverse global warming and make the planet habitable for future generations.
• Develop new economic models to support workers in the United States instead of giving tax breaks to corporations which ship jobs to low-wage countries overseas.
• Make it easier for workers to join unions and bargain for higher wages and benefits.
• Raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour so no one who works forty hours a week will live in poverty.
• Provide equal pay for women workers who now make 78 percent of what male counterparts make.
• Reform trade policies that have shuttered more than 60,000 factories and cost more than 4.9 million decent-paying manufacturing jobs.
• Make college affordable and provide affordable childcare to restore America’s competitive edge compared to other nations.
• Break up big banks. The six largest banks now have assets equivalent to 61 percent of our gross domestic product, over $9.8 trillion. They underwrite more than half the mortgages in the country and issue more than two-thirds of all credit cards.
• Join the rest of the industrialized world with a Medicare-for-all healthcare system that provides better care at less cost.
• Expand Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition programs.
• Reform the tax code based on wage earners’ ability to pay and eliminate loopholes that let profitable corporations stash profits overseas and pay no US federal income taxes.
What Sanders proposes is not even close to being radical even though it may seem so after so many years of our hearing the opposite. It doesn't lay out a plan for what we once called "economic democracy" and that we still very much need. It doesn't go nearly as far as I personally would like to see in a number of areas. (Nor as far as Modern Monetary Theorist Joe Firestone would like
For instance, we need an industrial plan like almost all the developed nations have as well as some developing nations like China, India and Brazil. We also need a permanent government job and job-training program. We need, as Sanders has previously said, to break up the largest banks.
There are also many places where his agenda should be beefed up. For instance, investing $1 trillion in infrastructure and all the jobs that would create is an excellent if obvious good idea. Letting what we've already built crumble is myopic for all kinds of reason, including the potential for loss of life and the fact that the long-term deferred maintenance the nation has been engaged in means higher costs later on.
But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost us at least $3 trillion, probably more like $4 trillion. The American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to invest at least $3.6 trillion just to get our existing infrastructure into a state of good repair. But what about new, innovative infrastructure? What we really need is $1 trillion in infrastructure investment each year for at least decade. That's what we're spending now on the military when everything is totaled, including the interest payments for the cost of past wars and medical costs for injured and disabled veterans.
I could go on. But as Sanders himself acknowledges, his agenda wasn't intended to cover all the ground on every progressive's wish list. It's really more a whetting of our appetite for a new direction, the first spin of the wheel in turning around our Titanic system instead of just rearranging the deck chairs.
It is a start very much in the right direction, and it's well within the traditional Democratic stances of the not-so-distant past. So if the pondering about it that he's doing ultimately spurs him to run, I hope he chooses to do so as a Democrat to get the message in that agenda as much amplification as possible. An independent campaign at the presidential level would be a guarantee that the message gets buried and the possibility of the candidate turning into a spoiler, something Sanders has made clear that he wants no part of.
Pie in the sky some will say of that modest agenda. Too idealistic. Too quixotic. Too many obstacles. Too many foes. Since when, I'd like to know, do progressives subscribe to a No Can Do attitude? Our activist predecessors struggled until victory against great odds, sometimes for decades. Do we not measure up?
Is there anything in Sanders' agenda that most progressives would find objectionable? Would a campaign that included these dozen items be likely to turn out the Democratic base or keep it at home?
Of course, a Sanders' candidacy is the longest of long shots. The latest CNN/ORC poll shows 65 percent of Democrats and independents supporting Hillary Clinton and just 5 percent backing Sanders (his first appearance in this recurring poll). Putting together a campaign infrastructure for a serious run is no easy matter, and Clinton already has a formidable one in place. And even when you're the populist candidate, you have to raise money. Clinton's got backers with very deep pockets. It's doubtful there are any billionaires phoning Sanders and offering to open their wallets.
The reality is we have yet to build some of the crucial pieces of the progressive infrastructure and the progressive movement necessary for creating a political environment where a candidate like Senator Sanders can actually be elected president. If we are ever going to rise above being mere ankle biters, we need to build both.
Nonetheless, having Sanders in the 2016 race, seriously in it, repeating his populist message, encouraging the party to move left, would be very good for Democrats, for progressives in and out of the party and for the nation.
Of course, progressive Democrats need to have a lot more on our minds than presidential candidates. We need to stop accepting what we are presented by hidebound party officials and recruit our own candidates to run for school boards, city councils, mayorships, state legislatures and Congress to produce a deep bench of progressives at every level of government in as many places as possible. We need to elect people who look at Bernie Sanders' economic agenda and instead of ignoring or downplaying it say: We can do so much more.
Getting to that point will require megatons of work. What my grandfather used to call organizing calluses. Both movement calluses and party calluses. The latter will require a fresh approach at the most local of local levels, the nation's 192,000 precincts. An approach that uses asymmetric tactics and strategies to compete against the moneyed interests that will, for a long time to come, outspend us in all but rare cases. But that's an essay for another day.
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