In the Land of “No We Can’t”

The Trump administration’s surrender to Covid-19 is just a symptom of a larger dysfunction. Whenever a problem calls for collective action, whether that problem is a disease, mass shootings, climate change, economic inequality, out-of-control police, chaotic elections, or systemic racism, Republicans tell us nothing can be done; we just have to live with it. And until we can banish them from positions of power, we do.

In 2008, a young black senator with an odd-sounding name, facing a well-known and well-financed rival with the full backing of his party’s establishment, won the Democratic nomination for president. He went on to a landslide victory in the fall, with large majorities in both houses of Congress riding on his coattails. The slogan he ran on was “Yes We Can”.

Like most effective political slogans — “Make America Great Again” has the same quality — “Yes We Can” meant different things to different people. Most obviously, African Americans heard it as: “Yes we can elect one of our own. We don’t have to pick our leader from a list of white men drawn up by other white men.” But depending on what you were listening for, “Yes We Can” could also mean: “Yes we can reform our healthcare system” or “Yes we can rebuild our infrastructure” or “Yes we can overcome inequality” or “Yes we can do something about climate change” or “Yes we can offer all our children a 21st-century education” or “Yes we can create enough jobs for everybody” or “Yes we can get our troops out of Iraq”.

In all of its interpretations, “Yes We Can” meant that we weren’t stuck. We aren’t doomed to watch our country (or planet) decay — perhaps retaining the freedom to complain about it, but not the power to choose a new course. Instead, we can band together, elect a government that represents our real interests, and focus the power of America on shaping the future we want.

Obama himself put it like this:

When the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful, and told that it can’t be done, then it doesn’t. I’m running for president because I want to tell them: Yes We Can.

Yes vs. No. Opposing “Yes We Can” is the Republican belief that government is never the solution, it can only make problems worse. And so, if some nationwide problem keeps you up at night, all you can do is change your individual behavior or circumstances — assuming you can afford to.

If your town’s public schools are poorly funded and badly run, you can move somewhere richer with better schools, or find the money to send your kids to a private school, or quit your job and homeschool. Ditto for infrastructure and public services: If your town can’t afford to fix its potholes or keep the parks open, move somewhere that can. If you don’t want to die in some country you don’t care about, stay out of the Army. If climate change worries you, buy a Prius and recycle. If you can’t find a job, start your own business. Search out better health insurance and pay what it costs. Buy a gun to defend your family, and if you can’t stop imagining a mass shooting at your child’s school, pray.

It’s all up to you. You’re on your own. If you can’t solve it, don’t look at us, because No We Can’t.

Around the world. The dirty secret of “No We Can’t” is that lots of other countries do take collective action, and so they already enjoy the nice things Americans can’t have. Every other first-world country has universal health care; if you get sick, you get the care you need and your family doesn’t go bankrupt. And they provide that health security by spending less of their national wealth on it.

Thursday’s New York Times included a number of compelling graphs showing America’s unique dysfunction. Only in America does increased GDP not lead to increased life expectancy. A smaller share of our economy goes to worker pay. We imprison more people. Our “free market” system provides the most expensive cellphone service in the world.

Just about all the countries of Western Europe and Scandanavia have free college. Little Costa Rica can run itself on sustainable energy for months at a time. China, Japan, and Europe have extensive bullet-train networks. China is building enormous public-infrastructure projects. Finland is beating homelessness and has the best schools in the world. Fourteen other countries offer their residents faster internet than the US does; average download speed in Taiwan or Singapore is more than double ours.

And while we watch our public infrastructure and services decay, other countries give their citizens beautiful presents like the Hovenring bicycle interchange in the Netherlands,

or the Oodi Library in Helsinki, whose library director describes it as “book heaven”.

Imagine proposing marvelous things like that in an American city.

Covid. The most obvious current example of “No We Can’t” is the Trump administration’s surrender to Covid-19, which now we are told we just have to “live with” — unless we get unlucky and die of it. I often criticized George W. Bush’s response to 9-11, but at least he never told us we just had to live with mass terrorist attacks.

Public health is the original us problem. Throughout history, no matter how rich or powerful you might have been, you were in trouble if the people who prepared your feasts or changed your bed linens got the plague. At the margins, there were things you could do individually to try to save yourself, but ultimately the solutions had to come from the public sector: sanitation, pure water sources, untainted food supply chains, quarantines, and other treatment plans that contained diseases before they spread.

No matter how much medical technology advances, that aspect of it hasn’t changed: Public health is a public problem. Nothing you can do on your own is going to find a Covid-19 cure or vaccine. And you can try to be careful, but nobody is completely self-sufficient, so eventually you’re going to deal with other people. If they’re infected, you’ve got a problem. We’re all in this together.

Public-health problems are solved by government action, or they’re not solved at all. Early in the pandemic, we heard stories of governments that got ahead of the spread and took effective action to protect their populations. South Korea has gotten a lot of attention, partly because its first verified case of Covid-19 appeared on the same day ours did: January 20. The Koreans used the full public-health playbook: aggressive testing, quarantining, contact tracing, and public-information campaigns to encourage good hygiene.

It worked, and despite occasional flare-ups, it continues to work. As of yesterday, South Korea had 13,030 total cases of Covid-19 and 283 deaths. Adjusting for population, that would be like the US having around 85,000 cases and 1,800 deaths. Actually, we’ve had 2.9 million cases and 132,000 deaths.

Americans more-or-less sloughed that comparison off. Whatever the Koreans did couldn’t possibly have worked here, because No We Can’t. Through March and April, we ignored South Korea (and Taiwan and New Zealand and even Germany) and instead focused on what was happening in Italy and Spain. Looking down rather than up reassured us. We had it bad, but so did a lot of other places. We weren’t some special loser country.

But now we are.

Europe locked down harder than we did, and its people whined about it less. European political leaders united behind their public health officials, so basic hygiene measures like mask-wearing didn’t become political issues. It shows: Even including Italy and Spain, the EU as a whole, with about a third more people (446 million) than the US, now averages less than 4,000 new cases a day. This week, Arizona (population 7.5 million) has been averaging around 3,600 new cases each day, hitting a peak of 4,877 on Wednesday. The US as a whole hit 50,000 new cases for the first time on July 1, and stayed above that level for four days. (Yesterday was “down” to 43K, but I wonder how much of that was due to fewer tests being done over the holiday weekend.)

In the face of that horrifying comparison, the Trump administration has just decided to move on. His televised daily briefings ended in April, not long after his inject-bleach embarrassment. Since then Trump has talked about the virus only to minimize it, mock Joe Biden for wearing a mask, urge states to ignore the recommendations of his own CDC, and assemble his own supporters In rallies that have all the earmarks of super-spreader events. In highly promoted speeches on Friday and Saturday, Trump neither acknowledged our national failure to contain the virus, nor proposed any plan for the future beyond waiting for a vaccine — which we can’t even be sure is coming at all.

Other nations can beat this virus, but No We Can’t.

The post-policy GOP. The Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell noticed the pattern, and connected its dots like this:

Much as they gave up on coronavirus containment, U.S. political leaders previously gave up on solving our epidemic of gun violence. And on our high numbers of police-perpetrated killings. Also our high rates of child poverty, uninsurance and carbon emissions. On these and other metrics, the United States fares worse than most if not all other industrialized countries. Yet U.S. officials — from one party in particular — treat these crises as imaginary or unsolvable.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had a similar epiphany:

Covid-19 is like climate change: It isn’t the kind of menace the [Republican] party wants to acknowledge.

It’s not that the right is averse to fearmongering. But it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate — people of a different race or supercilious liberals.

So instead of dealing with Covid-19, Republican leaders and right-wing media figures have tried to make the pandemic into the kind of threat they want to talk about. It’s “kung flu,” foisted on us by villainous Chinese. Or it’s a hoax perpetrated by the “medical deep state,” which is just looking for a way to hurt Trump.

Steve Benen, who writes the companion blog to the Rachel Maddow Show, elaborated on this theme at book length in The Imposters: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics. Benen coined the label “post-policy party” to describe the current GOP. His book goes issue by issue, and shows how Republicans have systematically ditched their policy-making apparatus in favor of marketing, with the result that they have plenty of good one-liners, but no programs they’re ready to implement once they take power.

The most obvious example is health care. Republicans have been running against ObamaCare since Obama proposed it in 2009, and Trump has been claiming since 2015 that ObamaCare “can be replaced with something much better for everybody. Let it be for everybody. But much better and much less expensive for people and for the government.” What would that “much better” replacement look like? We still have no idea. “Repeal and Replace” was a nice slogan, but once you’ve heard the slogan, you’ve heard all they have.

That’s true across the board. There are no Republican policies, just slogans.

You can see that in Congress, where the Democratic House passes bills that the Republican Senate never debates. Nothing comes back in the other direction. If the Democratic solutions seemed to liberal to Mitch McConnell, his Senate could amend those bills with Republican solutions and send them back. But there are no Republican solutions, so the bills just sit in Mitch’s in-box.

You can see it in the presidential campaign. Ordinarily, candidates for president are dying to tell you what they want to do in office. (For comparison, here’s the Biden policy page.) But here’s how Trump answered Sean Hannity’s question about the “top priority items” for his second term.

One of the things that will be really great — the word experience is still good, I always say talent is more important than experience, I’ve always said that — but the word experience is a very important word, a very important meaning.

I never did this before, never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington maybe 17 times and all of a sudden I’m the president of the United States, you know the story, riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our first lady and I say this is great but I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York, and now I know everybody. And I have great people in the administration. You make some mistakes, like an idiot like Bolton, you don’t have to drop bombs on everybody.

What American problems does he hope to address in the second term? None. He’ll grapple with imaginary enemies like Antifa, and “far-left fascism“. He’ll protect our endangered statues of Confederate generals, but not our soldiers in the field. He’ll continue tweeting and preening in front of crowds and playing at being president. But he won’t actually lead us in accomplishing anything, because No We Can’t.

The Republican Party must be removed from all positions of power. Much ink has been spilled lamenting the loss of bipartisanship, and waxing nostalgic about the deals cooked up by Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, or Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan. Usually this is presented in a pox-on-both-houses tone, as if the two sides were equally intransigent.

Here’s the point that is often lost: You can’t compromise with people who aren’t trying to do anything. If you and I both recognize a problem and each have our own approaches to solving it, chances are good we can work something out. But if I care about climate change and systemic racism but you claim both are hoaxes, or if I want universal health care and you don’t care about healthcare at all, or if you fake concern for the budget deficit when my party is in power, then forget about it the moment you take office, or if I want DACA dreamers to have a path to citizenship, and you won’t say what you want for them … where can we go from there? What can I offer you in exchange for your help with my agenda?

Steven Benen is right: Our two-party system only works when we have two governing parties, two parties that have directions they want to go and policies they think will take us there, two parties that have plans for dealing with the nation’s problems. At the moment we only have one such party, the Democrats. Our political system will be broken until Republicans get serious about governing again.

And they won’t until the electorate forces them to. That means voting them out, up and down the ballot. You don’t have to believe that the Democratic direction is ideal, just recognize that they have a direction. You may wish they would go much farther or faster, but at least they want to move. If we enter 2021 with Biden as president and two Democratic houses of Congress, we can at least try to address our national problems.

But if Republicans are left holding any lever of power at all, we’ll be stuck in the Land of No We Can’t.

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  • D. Michael Wells  On July 6, 2020 at 11:13 am

    An incisive and articulate essay that captures much of what I have been feeling about politics for several years. Thank you.

  • Eileen Prefontaine  On July 6, 2020 at 11:26 am


  • Anonymous  On July 6, 2020 at 11:41 am

    So insightful. Thank you for the article.

  • Bill  On July 6, 2020 at 12:10 pm

    This problem easily goes back to the time saint Reagan declared that “ the government IS the problem” . When the republicans articulated their “starve the beast” agenda, they were in broad daylight, relinquishing any responsibility for managing the government. Audacious, simple and straight forward,……selfish dereliction of duty.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On July 6, 2020 at 12:14 pm

    It comes from the conservative attitude that society is composed of individuals, with no sense of the collective. To take one example, when you ask a conservative to wear a mask, you’re asking him to inconvenience himself for the benefit of strangers who may not share his values, and besides, he keeps hearing from his leaders that masks don’t work anyway. So you’re asking him to engage in a pointless ritual for no reason other than virtue signaling.

    It would help if the president were to remind us that we’re all in this together, but he’s going in the opposite direction.

  • Lan Mosher  On July 6, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    Spot on! Too band that those who need to read it and learn from it, won’t! What is wrong with us? Even banana republics throw regimes less evil than Trump’s. Trump is responsible for many more deaths than Bin Ladin, why does he survive?

    • George Washington, Jr.  On July 6, 2020 at 1:43 pm

      Well, he’s not responsible for more deaths than George W. Bush, and what happened in Iraq was completely preventable. While Trump’s abysmal response to the pandemic has undoubtedly resulted in more deaths than necessary, we were never going to escape this unscathed. We’re a very large country with a tradition of individualism. I’m sure Hillary would have handled this better (like, way better), but comparing us to New Zealand is unrealistic.

      Trump stays in office because as you say, the people who need to read this will never see it. Or if they do see it, they’ll react the way they did when Doug did a column on rewriting the Second Amendment a while back. People who ordinarily never look at this site came out of the woodwork for that one. It’s worth looking at just to see the reaction.

  • Wade Scholine  On July 6, 2020 at 2:05 pm

    I see it as not so much “No, we can’t” as “Oh no you won’t,” or possibly “Don’t you dare.” Or maybe a bit of each.

  • Robert L Morris  On July 6, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    You’ve summed it up perfectly.

  • Deb Riegle  On July 6, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    Phenomenal article. Every issue that is of immediate concerned has been addressed and shone a light on the inadequacies of the current party in control of America.

  • ccyager  On July 6, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    You nailed it, Doug. I think the last 3 paragraphs would be the perfect intro to your policy page for your presidential candidate website. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder about Obama’s slogan “Yes We Can.” I think the Dems need to do something like “Power back to the People” or something like that. How could the GOPers argue with that since they think the people have to solve the country’s problems anyway? What truly astonishes and dismays me is that trumpsters don’t seem to see that he has nothing to offer them or the country except a “show.” Or that he’s actually dangerous because of where he sits every day. I sent in my primary absentee ballot today. One down, one to go.

  • coastcontact  On July 6, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    Well written. The problem is 45’s followers remains loyal. Add to this use of every fear tactic he could suggest, he could win in a landslide.

  • Guest  On July 7, 2020 at 11:14 am

    It’s nice to see the Sift rooting for universal healthcare now. A welcome shift from apparently cheering the defeat of the one candidate who put it on the map and took it seriously. Just so we’re clear, Biden has never seriously pushed universal healthcare and said he would veto M4A if it came to his desk, right? Like the Charlie Brown and Lucy routine we got last time, a public option is being dangled before us yet again, but will this time be different? I’m not sure. I hope so. Do questions about how much money is being funneled into the Biden camp from insurance companies and healthcare lobbyists matter? (The Biden policy page link offered here re-directing to a donation page is self-writing satire).

    Overall though, this piece reads like another exercise in “lesserevilism” ie republicans are the worst, so if we can just vote the centrist liberals back in office all will be right and no need to look critically at the underlying power dynamics and neo-liberal track record. This may lift the morale of comfortable liberals, but for those of us on the left who can see and want to make progress on any number of pressing, systematic problems and oppressions, it’s about as comforting as “whataboutism” from the right.

    The rousing Obama rhetoric about yes we can was betrayed by his own administration on a number of issues (public option, torture/Guantanamo, anti-war, etc) but that’s certainly not specific to him. The infamous 2014 Princeton study proved that for the last four decades across either regime, legislation is written by a rich and powerful elite and not at all guided by the people in a meaningful way. Warren in the 2020 debates took Delaney to task for “running for president of the US just to tell us what we can’t do and what you won’t fight for.” And taking a step back, Delaney’s overall policy stance is not that different from those of Pete, Amy, or, let’s face it, Joe Biden himself. Lesserevilism does us the disservice of sweeping such issues under the rug and ultimately preserving the racist and murderous policies/institutions that influence the material conditions of the most vulnerable among us, regardless of who is in the White House. Because when Lucy pulls the football out from under us, and then assures us that it is fine because the Republicans wouldn’t have showed up on the field at all, it is cold, cold comfort.

    • weeklysift  On July 7, 2020 at 11:23 am

      I could never get past the scenario where Bernie sends M4A to Congress, it gets voted down, and then what happens? Obama expanded access to health care, Biden will expand it more, and that’s how we’ll ultimately get to universal coverage.

      • Guest  On July 7, 2020 at 1:51 pm

        Thank you for the response, Doug. To answer your question, what happens then would be compromise from a starting position of having a just, equitable, cheaper, and, per other advanced nations, completely doable system on the table. But with a bully pulpit and a mandate, with a majority of democratic voters in favor of M4A even in states which Sanders lost, with thousands of Americans losing their employer-decided insurance in this pandemic, etc I’m not as pessimistic as you are on what the chances may have been. But that’s all purely academic at this point.

        All I can plead otherwise is to please consider the parallels between your belief in the incrementalism presented on healthcare as the means to an end, and MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail where he recognized the same white moderate power structure on a different issue as being one “who paternalisticlly feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.'”

      • George Washington, Jr.  On July 7, 2020 at 4:59 pm

        A majority of voters are for M4A until they find out that under Sanders’ plan, private insurance would be outlawed and everyone would be forced to go on the government plan whether they wanted to or not. Once they learn that, support plummets. A majority of Americans favor universal health care, on the assumption that they will be allowed to keep the plan they have if they want it. So the compromise will be a public option.

        Throughout his career, Sanders has demonstrated an inability to compromise. That tenacity allowed him to push the Overton window to the left, and made topics like universal health care, free college, and a $15 minimum wage mainstream positions when they were fringe ones a few years ago. That’s had an effect on the national debate but isn’t helpful in Congress where you need to compromise to achieve results.

      • weeklysift  On July 8, 2020 at 1:24 pm

        GW Jr.’s response points in the same direction as my main difference with the progressive movement: I believe that they grossly overestimate the popularity of their agenda.

        I am ready to be convinced otherwise if candidates with a progressive identification start winning congressional seats in swing states and districts. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. The 2020 presidential primaries were a good example: Even in primaries that Bernie won, centrist candidates collectively got more votes than progressive candidates. As soon as the centrist field narrowed to Biden, Bernie couldn’t win because not enough people wanted to vote for him.

        One result of progressives’ overestimation of their support is that they then have the mystery of why more Democrats in Congress don’t identify as progressives and vote for things like M4A. Since lack of popular support is off the table as an explanation, they’re then driven to grossly overestimate the amount of corruption in the Democratic Party, and to assign mystical powers to Nancy Pelosi or the DNC.

      • Guest  On July 8, 2020 at 5:40 pm

        George and Doug, I’m grateful for your sincere comments. My original comment (which specifically doesn’t mention Sanders by name) was meant to pursue a clear-eyed appraisal of Biden re healthcare, a critical look at the lesserevilism on offer, and the need to push Biden to the left on behalf of the thousands of victims of our for-profit system. In reply, you rather seem set on rehashing Bernie’s 2020 run, denigrating the man himself, and strawmanning progressives at large. It makes me wonder whether we agree on basic goals. Perhaps the intent of the OC is “too far down the line”, perhaps I should first go back to defending more foundational goals and principles like justice, democracy, and the glorious tradition of classical anarchism to question and dismantle unjust power structures. Because honestly it’s not clear we are in agreement there.

        But, my friends, so that you don’t think I’m blowing off your points, I’ll address them. The polling data show just as much, if not more, reason for optimism around M4A than your pessimism: ( ). What I actually said in the follow-up comment is that a majority of democratic voters favor M4A, which the preponderance of polling data supports. Is that a gross overestimate of its popularity? I leave it to the reader.

        Bernie has an inability to compromise, but then, he’s also known as the Amendment King for good reason.You admit he can push Overton like few can, so combine that ability with the bully pulpit to consolidate public support, and maybe he provides enough cover for centrist Ds to jump on board? A categorical “no we can’t” seems too confident, but again, if it fails at that point, we start compromising from a position of a full loaf rather than a slice of bread on the table. That’s a good thing, right, to negotiate from a position of strength? Because when “merely” a public option was offered last time, it was the first thing kicked off the table. Biden is again starting from a public option position, and who knows how robust it will even be when everyone sits down to compromise. Will it be actually public, ie, available to all Americans? Or will there be limits, loopholes, and provisions for the protection of insurance company profits? Or will it again be chopped away completely? I honestly don’t know. But it’s on us to push him to the left, to a more equitable and just system, so that we do not again countenance tens of thousands of fellow Americans dying from lack of insurance every year and thousands more facing financial immerseration even with insurance.But perhaps we have different goals here.

        Lastly, I both reject the assertion that progressives grossly overestimate their policy support (strawman), and the following conclusion Doug offers. No progressive I know finds it a mystery in the slightest that more D’s in congress don’t vote for things like M4A. To paraphrase Carville, it’s the money stupid! It is no mystery, it’s been documented by the Princeton study and countless others. There is a financial and career incentive for politicians to follow the party line and the big money donors that help write that line. Pelosi and and DNC don’t have mystical powers, they hold the purse strings and appointment powers. It’s not the progressives who fail to acknowledge this, it’s usually centrists, and comfortable moderates for whom the status quo has been just fine thank you very much. I believe this is linked to MLK’s finding that it is the white moderate that is the biggest road block to progress, rather than the KKK’ers, which in turn exposes a main lie of lesserevilism.

      • Bill  On July 8, 2020 at 10:12 pm

        Guest….whew…where to start? Sitting here in the bleachers reading these exchanges, it’s clear written exchanges are clumsy at best. My take is that you, Doug , George and I are pretty much pointed in the same direction but each with different paths forward. I think we can all probably agree on the need to continue to push the Biden effort towards bolder and more substantive positions. However, I did not sense, on second reading, any denigration or rehashing of Bernie or his run by Doug or George

        On the issue of the most productive and effective bargaining positions and tactics,…those, by definition will be a function of the circumstances on the ground at that moment in time. the R’s still hold the Senate?, do the D’s still hold the House? What kind of majorities? Etc. We haven’t reached that bridge yet.
        Keep your powder dry.

        I have to agree with Doug on his observations re: progressives overestimating the degree of policy support for their positions. Not a “straw man“ at all,… indicated by the midterm and primary results.
        In addition, data from the polling and charts that you linked to clearly id’s the 3 primary reasons M4A hasn’t been more universally embraced.
        1) Loss of choice, 2) Cost/tax increases, and 3) distrust of government.
        The progressive wing clearly failed to adequately address those three issues.
        Let’s have them present an honest discussion on M4A, it’s advantages, disadvantages and true costs, both in $ and otherwise. At best, the progressives were less than candid about these issues, especially the costs.
        Like you said, it’s about the money……….!

        Finally, with regard to incrementalism or “lesserevilism”….I’m all for setting the bar high and having high expectations. Characterizing variances or compromises to your ideal position as “lesserevilism” makes a great slogan or bumper sticker.
        However, it still doesn’t present a defensible and sale-able alternative to the issues at hand.

      • weeklysift  On July 9, 2020 at 9:39 am

        Guest: “It’s about the money” is precisely the overestimation of corruption I pointed to. It’s about trying to get elected. If the voters were there, the politicians would be too. But the voters aren’t there.

      • Guest  On July 9, 2020 at 10:46 am

        Thanks, Bill! Enjoyed your response, and totally agree re clumsiness. I need to keep that in mind to be better.
        Both their original replies still read as centered on Bernie, but that’s just my reading.
        I do believe that we are pretty much in the same direction but the devil is in the details and the path taken matters perhaps even more. Consider that earlier in the MLK passage from LfBJ, he specifically acknowledges that the white moderate proclaims he agrees with his aims, and yet obviously the road blocks persist.We can be facing in the same general direction, but if I keep delaying us, saying now is not the time to start the race, or sure we can start but let’s re-tie our shoes for a third time just in case, etc, we aren’t going to get very far, and the boon of facing the same direction becomes increasingly less helpful.In the meantime, people are dying.
        Bargaining is hugely affected by the circumstances on the ground, sure, but general principles like starting from a position of greater power rather than less surely hold. Last time we had a public option to start with a D congress and Obama-Biden White House, and that wasn’t enough. Keep powder dry now, and not push the D’s toward greater equity/justice, seems too risky given the history.
        Agreement on policy positions does not equal support for any given specific candidate, centrist, progressive or otherwise.
        Incrementalism is an offered means to an end or theory of change (that MLK and others are extremely wary of for good reason) whereas lesserevilism is more of a framing or a stance that whitewashes history and makes the game all about the ballot box. The alternative to the latter is to instead take a critical look at the history on both sides, and to not just vote out the Rs, but to push the Ds towards greater democracy and justice between whiles.
        Again, sorry for the clumsiness!

      • Guest  On July 9, 2020 at 11:01 am

        Doug, perhaps corruption is too loaded a word. Perhaps you can agree the system has built-in incentives? For pols, yes much of it is trying to get elected. Can we agree that it takes money to get elected? That there exists an industry of big money lobbyists that funnel cash into campaigns for pols that will serve their interests? That D leadership specifically will reward, with money and access/appointments, those who likewise serve those big money interests? The 2014 Princeton study, do you deny its findings? I’m trying to frame this as plainly as possible, no overestimation. This isn’t some shadowy conspiracy, it’s happening quite openly. You come off as dedicated to not just underestimation, but no estimation at all on this issue, which is strange given how reasonable and empathetic you are elsewhere.

      • weeklysift  On July 9, 2020 at 12:26 pm

        Guest: I have seen the Princeton study and I agree with the main conclusion: that big money can move its issues to the top of the national agenda, and in areas where the larger public either isn’t paying attention or loses focus, big money interests can get what they want even if the public wants something else.

        What I’m objecting to, though, is a mode of discussion where the mere fact that someone disagrees with a progressive proposal is taken as evidence that they’ve sold out to the big donors.

        The People vs. Money dichotomy ignores one important piece of the equation: Sometimes Money gets what it wants by well-funded propaganda campaigns that sway People. That’s what happened to HillaryCare back in the 90s. It looked popular in the polls, and then a deceptive national ad campaign raised a bunch of doubts about it, and support wasn’t there any more. Not only did it not pass, but the Democrats got wiped out in the 1994 congressional elections.

        So if I’m a politician looking at a poll saying that some large number of people support M4A, I have to ask myself “If I come out for that, how many of those people will still be with me after the big negative ad campaign?”

        Politicians like Obama and Biden have made the calculation like this: We’ll do the piece of the job that we believe we can get through. And then when people see that it works, we’ll try to add on to it, step by step, until we get what we want.

        It’s a legitimate approach. It’s not the only approach, and there’s an argument to be made whether it’s the best one. But I have often seen that argument short-circuited by the accusation that the only reason a Democrat would be against M4A is that they’ve sold out. I don’t think that style of debate serves the cause of democracy.

      • Guest  On July 9, 2020 at 4:02 pm

        Thank you Doug, this is clarifying. It seems rare to have honest discussion like this. First of all, I of course acknowledge that it’s not the case that the ONLY reason any Democrat would be against, say, M4A, is that they’ve sold out to big donors. I’m not looking to “cancel” or short circuit an argument with such blanket accusations. But history and the data suggest that money is a significant factor (and per the Princeton study, as far as actual legislation goes, perhaps the main factor). I wonder if you’d go as far to deny that? Because to deny the enormous effect of money in politics in dangerously utopian.

        The People vs Money example you give is worth looking at, because it seems to directly undermine your point. People were for fixing a broken healthcare system, until a well-funded deceptive propaganda campaign undermined support. Is this not a textbook example of big money winning out over people? It seems so to me. Was that campaign grassroots (people powered) or corporate in nature? Were those same interests also funding specific candidates as well as party leadership? The big money corporate interests can fund candidates, parties, but also media as you point out. Different pathways in support of the same power structures. If I can make a reading suggestion, please pick up Manufacturing Consent again, which goes into this dynamic in detail.

        I submit that your hypothetical politician considering M4A is not just thinking about potential negative ads down the line, but they are also thinking, will I be blacklisted for re-election support and appointments by party leadership if I rock the boat on this issue? Will I get that campaign donation from XYZ insurance company if I support M4A? These questions get answered, per the Princeton study, more often than not in one direction. Curious how you would deny that.

        I realize you are presenting a condensed snapshot of the supposed Obama-Biden calculation, (and we can’t read their minds) but it seems taken directly from Obama’s messaging/spin on it. Another view on what happened, and which is supported in the records, is that Obama-Biden invited industry “titans” to write the legislation. Literally a case of big money writing the legislation. Similar as to what happened with the bailouts.

      • weeklysift  On July 11, 2020 at 6:45 am

        I doubt the party leadership plays the role you assign them. Nancy Pelosi wants to hold on to her majority. If a progressive candidate is the best bet to win a district, I don’t think Pelosi is going to “blacklist” that candidate and support a weaker one. And I think you overestimate the effect of a company pulling its contribution from a candidate.

        The problem for M4A isn’t money, it’s that politicians don’t trust the voters to show up to support it. If that ever gets proven wrong — if, say, an AOC-like candidate wins a Senate seat in Missouri (like moderate Claire McCaskill) or Alabama (like moderate Doug Jones) — then you’ll see both the party leadership and a lot of rank-and-file Democratic candidates turn on a dime, even the ones who have been getting contributions from insurance companies.

      • Guest  On July 14, 2020 at 11:04 am

        This is fascinating because I can’t recall any citizen, from the left or the right, arguing against the case that big money plays a central role in politics, yours is a very unique stance. There’s plenty of cases/facts that undermine your position in various ways (just off the top, the DCCC blacklist, Clinton buying a controlling share in the DNC and redirecting money meant for down ballot races into her own coffers in 2016, or the most recent progressive primary victories even in places where the dem majority wouldn’t be effected either way, look at the money flowing in to the centrist candidates, etc etc) but there may be a deeper perspective issue at play. I would love to see your review of Chomsky’s Understanding Power!

        Would also be curious to know, as you reject the central role of money in politics and it’s power to shape legislation per myriad cases, what other mechanism do you suggest for the findings of the Princeton study?

        The final point on trusting the voters to show up is trivially true on some level, but if you dig a little deeper it’s also somewhat utopian thinking. There are loads of money in preventing even having the choice of a progressive candidate on ballot (see Kentucky, McGrath raising $40M for one among many) let alone having voters show up. To insist that they show up first means assuming the mechanisms of big money would have already been overcome (had voters been able to overcome the dishonest propaganda against HillaryCare to use your example) and that’s why it’s utopian. By dismissing the mechanism of money in politics, the pursuit of a more just and democratic system becomes all the more difficult, as you’re ignoring an important field of play. Not the only one, sure, but a big one.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On July 7, 2020 at 11:30 am

      Unfortunately, the choice is between Trump and Biden, not Trump, Biden, and some perfect candidate who will push for everything you want. Instead of complaining about “lesseroftwoevils,” ask yourself which one will be more open to listening to progressive concerns. You might also want to think about why the progressives didn’t get enough support to win the nomination (hint: it’s not because of a conspiracy or the DNC “stealing” the nomination for Biden).

      Biden wasn’t my first choice; in fact, he was my next-to-last choice. But I’m voting for him because he will be an improvement on what we have now. If you want a progressive president, you need to work on electing progressives to local, state, and congressional offices. And you may find that the country isn’t as progressive as you think it is. The blue wave of 2018 wasn’t because progressives won big, but because centrist Democrats flipped a lot of red districts.

    • Bill  On July 7, 2020 at 12:13 pm

      Guest.. In the real adult world, life is full of compromises and tough choices. Welcome to the canteen my friend. Now, as George said above, who’s more likely to listen to progressive causes? The work and struggle doesn’t end with your vote in November…..that’s just the beginning. Step one, let’s first get the R’s out of these positions of power.

      • Guest  On July 7, 2020 at 2:15 pm

        Thank you for the words, Bill. Perhaps I should have included in my original comment that I completely agree that the left needs to vote strategically (ie, vote in the affirmative against Trump and pull the level for Biden). We would have wanted all the Biden voters to get behind Bernie against Trump, so turnabout is fair play. We agree that the work doesn’t end at the ballot box. What I’m trying to push back against here is the lesserevilism stance presented that seems to make it all about the ballot box on one hand while whitewashing the neo-liberal track record with the other. There’s no accountability for “our guys” because “the other guys” are the worst, demonstrably so. But, we find that voting the R’s out is not enough, the first two years of the Obama admin proved that most recently. We need to keep pushing the Overton window to the left, and Biden liberals specifically, because they will not go there on their own, left to their own devices and donors. To fall into lesserevilism, to paint all democrats as yes we can saints and all republicans as no we can’t ogres, is ahistorical, and in my view, antithetical to achieving the goals we ostensibly share.


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