Sunday, February 07, 2016

Bernie at Georgetown

Continuing with the discussion of Bernie Sanders' political philosophy and framing, he gave a Big Think speech at Georgetown University last November.

The whole theme of his "socialism" and talk of "revolution" don't bother me about him, even in terms of "electability" in the general election, for reasons I explained in the previous post. And for Democrats for several decades, claiming you're more "electable" than another Democrat means, "I'm more like the Republicans than my opponent."

This topic matters in the campaign because the herd opinion is that Sanders is running essentially a frivolous campaign. As Ed Kilgore writes, "there's no question elements of the media and political opponents alike would love to depict Bernie as an aging, strident ideologue serving as a pied piper to uninhibited and 'idealistic' youth." (Is Bernie Sanders Vulnerable to the Kind of Media Pile-On That Took Down Howard Dean? New York 02/04/2016)

Bernie's campaign has posted a video of the Georgetown speech on their YouTube account, Democratic Socialism and Foreign Policy 11/19/2015:

A transcript of the speech is available from In These Times, Bernie Sanders: My Vision For Democratic Socialism in America 11/19/2016.

In a basic sense, Sanders is attempting to popularize a long-established political science and economics perspective, in which the "welfare state" is broadly considered social-democraticm in contrast to the state socialism of the Soviet Union and other states at one time or another in the "socialist camp" of nations. And also in contrast to the neoclassical economic fundamentalism broadly known as "neoliberalism," which does not refer to "liberal" in the American political sense but to the type of Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning practiced by Angela Merkel's Grand Coalition goverment in Germany, which has become the dominant EU elite perspective on the world. The US Republican Party also embraces neoliberalism, even though to Republicans the word "liberal" in any form is like holy water to a vampire.

Sanders told the Georgetown audience, speaking of President Franklin Roosevelt:

And he acted. Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combatted cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country.

And that is what we have to do today.

And, by the way, almost everything he proposed was called “socialist.” Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country was “socialist.” The concept of the “minimum wage” was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as “socialist.” Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another, as “socialist.” Yet, these programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.

Thirty years later, in the 1960s, President Johnson passed Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to millions of senior citizens and families with children, persons with disabilities and some of the most vulnerable people in this county. Once again these vitally important programs were derided by the right wing as socialist programs that were a threat to our American way of life. [my emphasis]
I would note that Sanders is referring in that passage to FDR's 1937 Inaugural Address, after his resounding re-election in 1936.

But in his immediate action, he decided to embrace balancing the federal budget as a priority, which temporarily short-circuited the long recovery from the Great Depression and pushed the country into a new downturn. Or, at a minimum, acted as a pro-cyclical force when a contra-cyclical one was needed. FDR changed direction when he saw the results. But I hope we don't see a President Sanders in 2017 making balancing the budget his top economic policy priority!

And whether you call it the New Deal, the Great Society, socialism, or just good ideas, he wants to address real problems in an immediately realistic way:

Today, in America, we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but few Americans know that because so much of the new income and wealth goes to the people on top. In fact, over the last 30 years, there has been a massive transfer of wealth—trillions of wealth—going from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent—a handful of people who have seen a doubling of the percentage of the wealth they own over that period.

Unbelievably, and grotesquely, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

Today, in America, millions of our people are working two or three jobs just to survive. In fact, Americans work longer hours than do the people of any industrialized country. Despite the incredibly hard work and long hours of the American middle class, 58 percent of all new income generated today is going to the top one percent.
This is also an important statement on his policy goals:

Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.

It is a system, for example, which during the 1990s allowed Wall Street to spend $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions to get deregulated. Then, ten years later, after the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior of Wall Street led to their collapse, it is a system which provided trillions in government aid to bail them out. Wall Street used their wealth and power to get Congress to do their bidding for deregulation and then, when their greed caused their collapse, they used their wealth and power to get Congress to bail them out. Quite a system!

And, then, to add insult to injury, we were told that not only were the banks too big to fail, the bankers were too big to jail. Kids who get caught possessing marijuana get police records. Wall Street CEOs who help destroy the economy get raises in their salaries. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant by socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for everyone else.

In my view, it’s time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just Wall Street, billionaires and large corporations. It means that we should not be providing welfare for corporations, huge tax breaks for the very rich, or trade policies which boost corporate profits as workers lose their jobs. It means that we create a government that works for works for all of us, not just powerful special interests. It means that economic rights must be an essential part of what America stands for. [my emphasis]
I can't help but recall that Jerry Brown made this sort of political corruption a central issue in his third and last run for the Presidency in 1992. He argued then that the system of campaign finance was legalized bribery. It sounded edgy and "extreme" at the time. Now it's painfully obvious. And about 100 times worse than it was in 1992.

Sanders offers the following in a more defensive but unapologetic mode:

So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this:

I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.

I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas.

I believe that most Americans can pay lower taxes - if hedge fund managers who make billions manipulating the marketplace finally pay the taxes they should.

I don’t believe in special treatment for the top 1 percent, but I do believe in equal treatment for African-Americans who are right to proclaim the moral principle that Black Lives Matter.

I despise appeals to nativism and prejudice, and I do believe in immigration reform that gives Hispanics and others a pathway to citizenship and a better life.

I don’t believe in some foreign “ism”, but I believe deeply in American idealism.
The Clinton camp has adopted a two-track approach in opposing Sanders which sounds muddled to me. They argue on the one hand that Clinton is more progressive on some issues than he is. On the other, they say his proposals are too unrealistic to ever get enacted and she can deliver more practical results.

It's essentially a rehash of her framing against Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries. And both were arguably more applicable in 2008 than today. Obama was generally vague about his proposals. He allowed voters to think he was more progressive than Hillary. And it turned out that's what Democratic voters wanted, someone who represented a significant change in both policy and demographics, a change not just from the Cheney-Bush Administration but from the cautious "pro-business" centrism of the first Clinton Administration.

Clinton is still the obvious "horserace" favorite for the nomination. But it seems to me there's definitely a confusing message. Paul Krugman is obviously if unofficially pro-Clinton for the primaries. He is probably more frank than the Clinton campaign would prefer in describing the Clinton/pragmatist position (Half A Loaf, Financial Reform Edition 02/03/2016): "The reality of the Obama era, for progressives, is a series of half loaves. But after all the defeats over the previous 30 years, aren’t those achievements something to celebrate?"

But this is how the Clinton pitch inevitably sounds to the Democratic base: Clinton, for half a loaf! I saw a satire label on Facebook (which unfortunately I can't find again even with Yahoo!) that said something along the lines of "HILLARY CLINTON - Because Real Change Is Just Too Hard."

But one of the most appealing things about Hillary for the Democratic base is that she's a fighter. And after eight years of frustration at Obama's sad pursuit of Bipartisanship as a benefit in itself, it's easy to imagine that she will act from Day 1 as President without any illusions about the nastiness and intransigence of the opposition. But her message in the primaries doesn't capitalize on that. Instead, it's sounds more like a pitch to the Bipartisan chimera that Obama chased for years, producing pre-compromised proposals that the Republicans then attacked as radical threats to freedom.

But who knows? Hillary Clinton could turn out to be a more transformative progressive President than Bernie Sanders would be. But her campaign so far gives us much reason to doubt that.

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