Belle Sawhill is an economist I greatly admire, so I carefully read her Twitter-thread critique of a piece I recently posted in the WaPo. My piece makes the case that technocratic policy wonks, like Belle and me, should not be overly critical of ambitious, even unrealistic, policy proposals by the new socialists. True, they often eschew the path dependency by which many of us are constrained. But they signal to key constituencies that, relative to establishment or centrist Democrats, they’re going to bring a new, aggressive fight to the powerful, well-endowed forces that have long been aligned against the progressive agenda. I argue that: “What Trump should have taught us by now is that if people believe you’ve got their backs, you can do things never imagined by the status quo. In this
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My piece makes the case that technocratic policy wonks, like Belle and me, should not be overly critical of ambitious, even unrealistic, policy proposals by the new socialists. True, they often eschew the path dependency by which many of us are constrained. But they signal to key constituencies that, relative to establishment or centrist Democrats, they’re going to bring a new, aggressive fight to the powerful, well-endowed forces that have long been aligned against the progressive agenda.
I argue that:
“What Trump should have taught us by now is that if people believe you’ve got their backs, you can do things never imagined by the status quo. In this regard, the new socialists are saying to the majority that has long been left behind, “We’ve really got your back.” Moreover, their analysis of market power is far more convincing than Trump’s promotion of fear and divisiveness.
Yes, the socialists are eschewing path dependency, and not all their plans pass technocratic muster. But, for now, that’s beside the point.
What is that point? To enlist poor, middle-class and diverse America in the struggle to take back their country and their democracy from the oligarchs who are actively undermining it.”
Belle argues that I’m advocating “politics first, policy later,” and that this strategy invokes significant risks. These include a) alienating a public that is more moderate than activists, b) exposing D’s “to barrage of criticisms from right, painting them as socialists who will raise taxes, take away freedoms, and scare away swing voters, including Rs unhappy with Trump,” and c) deepening distrust of government by promising big and delivering little, if anything.
Instead, she recommends: “A simple values-based agenda that provides good jobs, honors personal responsibility, diversity, community-based efforts, and demands integrity from public servants.” That sounds good, but we’ll all have to read her new book (looking forward to it!) to understand what she’s suggesting. Surely a “values-based agenda” means different things to different people.
In fact, such differences make me skeptical of Belle’s claim that the public is more moderate than activists. That may be true in Conor Lamb’s district, but it’s demonstrably not so in Ocasio-Cortez’s or Jahana Hayes’ or Ayanna Pressley’s or Andrew Gillum’s or Stacey Abrams’.
I suspect Belle is thinking about general elections, not primaries, where activists tend to be more prominent. Still, it’s hard for me not to see what the Times calls a “surge of progressive energy on the left among nonwhite voters and white millennials” as a critical movement pushing our politics in a less moderate direction. Individual elements of the socialist agenda poll well among the general public, sometimes even with Trump voters. President Obama just endorsed Medicare for All and debt-free college, planks of the new socialist agenda. In fact, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that a slight majority of Republican voters support Medicare For All. These poll results suggest to me that young people are increasingly uninspired by status-quo, establishment, middle-way arguments.
Next, there’s no question that right-wing opponents will make all the accusations Belle notes under “b” above. But they already make all these accusations – President Obama was routinely called a socialist for pushing an agenda with which I suspect Belle is very comfortable.
So what? I’m not going to let their cat calls dictate my policy agenda. I’m sure that universal coverage, higher minimum wages, employment supports, access to quality education from pre-school on up, promote freedom. And it’s my—I’d argue “our”—job as policy wonks to make the case.
If that means more tax revenue, which it does, then we must be honest about that too. The fact that one party will only cut taxes and the other will only raise them on a narrow sliver of the richest voters is simply unsustainable and inconsistent with meeting the challenges of climate change, aging demographics, infrastructure, health care, poverty, affordable, quality pre-school through college, and more.
Finally, I can envision an endgame that raises, not lowers, trust in government. If the Ds were to take back the Congress and the White House, the lions would have to sit down with the Lambs. That is, Democratic moderates would have to work with the progressive insurgents to hammer out a compromise policy agenda in the areas above. I doubt they’d end up with single payer and free college, but I’m optimistic that they’d get part of the way there.
That might well disappoint some activists, but it would have a potentially much larger, positive effect in tapping the growing recognition that we need a functional, responsive, representative government that can help to solve real problems.