Tag Archives: 2020 election

The Democratic Healthcare Debate

The differences are less stark and less consequential than either the candidates or the pundits would have you believe.


If you listened to the opening segment of Thursday’s Democratic debate, or the media discussion of it that followed, you might imagine that the ten candidates are sharply divided on healthcare. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Democrats’ disagreements branch out from a fundamental agreement on two principles, both of which are wildly popular with the general public.

  • When Americans get sick, they should get the care they need.
  • Paying for needed care shouldn’t drive families into bankruptcy.

Republicans, by contrast, focus on cost rather than coverage, and plan to control costs by inducing money-conscious Americans to forego care. They envision a nation filled with people who over-use the healthcare system, and would do so even more if it weren’t so expensive (as if we all viewed a night in the ER as entertainment, and would happily schedule unnecessary colonoscopies just for kicks). And if those expenses result in hypertension patients trying to save money by doing without their prescriptions, or diabetics getting priced out of the insulin market … well, those are the sad-but-necessary results of keeping taxes low and profits high.

So the debate the Democrats are having, about how to achieve the twin goals of care without bankruptcy, just isn’t happening on the Republican side. [1] If you believe that sick Americans should get care that doesn’t bankrupt them, you should be a Democrat.

The debate. As you listen to the arguments among Democratic candidates, you need to bear that fundamental agreement in mind. The disagreements are all about how to achieve those goals: Go straight there with a massive expansion of Medicare to cover everyone, or move more gradually by adding a public option to ObamaCare? Replace the current private-insurance system (with its familiarity as well as its profiteering and inefficiency), or build on top of it?

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is backing a lawsuit that would declare ObamaCare unconstitutional and make all its provisions void. Insurance companies would once again be able drop coverage for people with preexisting conditions. [2]

Why the tax gotcha? One fundamental difference between Medicare-for-All and our current healthcare system is how it’s paid for: Many treatments that are currently paid for through premiums and co-pays would be paid by the government, i.e., through taxes. The taxes would be progressive, so the burden of payment would shift towards the wealthy.

I don’t fully understand why, but for some reason both the media and the candidates are treating this like a gotcha question: Interviewers are asking it in a challenging way and candidates are dodging it. I’m not sure why it’s so hard to say, “Payments you used to make through premiums and co-pays, you’ll now make through taxes, and unless you’re very rich you’ll probably pay a lot less.” If I were an MfA candidate, I’d back that up with a pledge: “By the time Congress has to vote on a package, independent analysts will have weighed in on the costs. And if it doesn’t save middle class households a substantial amount of money, we won’t do it.”

That said, there is one group of people who will pay more: Those who could afford to buy health insurance, but have been successfully betting that they won’t get sick. They’ll have to pay something in taxes rather than the nothing in premiums that they’re paying now.

How it will play out. The MfA vs. public-option debate comes down to two points.

  • The Medicare-for-All candidates (mainly Sanders and Warren) are right about efficiency. A universal healthcare system that covered everybody for everything would deliver better healthcare at a lower price than we’re paying now. That price would fall entirely on the government, so government spending would go up even as total healthcare spending went down.
  • The public-option candidates, who want to let the private health insurance industry keep running, but give people the option of a Medicare-like system, are right about the politics. Rightly or wrongly, large swathes of the public don’t trust the federal government enough to bet everything on a big government program with no alternatives.

Warren was right to point out that no one loves their insurance company. (Mine is Aetna right now, and no, I don’t love it.) But I think a lot of people like the idea of having another choice if MfA turns out not to be as great as advertised.

The problem is that some of the gains a universal MfA would produce depend on the universality: Doctors would only need to know one system. Public health programs with diffuse benefits could be instituted without worrying exactly who is going to pay what when. The public option would still be more efficient than private insurance, but not as good as it could be.

In the end, though, this debate is not going to make a difference, at least in the short run. Even if Sanders or Warren get elected, together with a Democratic House and Senate, the new president will still find that the votes aren’t there for Medicare for All. As we saw with ObamaCare, the program will be whatever it needs to be to get the last few votes. In other words, even with Democratic majorities and the elimination of the Senate filibuster, it is the 50th Democratic senator and the 220th Democratic representative who will call the tune. They will be moderates from swing districts.

So one way or the other, the program will get scaled back to a public option. If that program is allowed to go forward without sabotage (as Trump has been sabotaging ObamaCare), the public option will gradually gain public trust, setting up an eventual universal program that may well resemble Medicare for All.


[1] Given the wide popularity of the two fundamental Democratic points — sick people should get care without going bankrupt — Republicans generally avoid detailed discussions of healthcare. Block whatever the Democrats want to do and repeal ObamaCare, and then something will happen that solves everybody’s problems.

That came clear in the repeal-and-replace debate in 2017. The replace part was always vaporware whose details could only emerge after repeal.

That scam is still going on. WaPo’s Paige Winfield Cunningham reports that the White House has given up on the health care plan it said it was writing, to be released only after the 2020 election. “The Republican Party will become the Party of Great Healthcare!” Trump tweeted back in March. He promised “a really great HealthCare Plan with far lower premiums (cost) & deductibles than ObamaCare. In other words it will be far less expensive & much more usable than ObamaCare.”

Cunningham notes that there is no sign anyone is working on this. Groups that you’d expect to lead the charge for a Republican plan, like FreedomWorks, say they haven’t been told anything about it.

The problem is that there’s no Republican consensus for a plan to implement. RomneyCare was the only healthcare plan the GOP had, and their idea-pantry has been empty ever since Obama used Romney’s plan as the basis for his proposal.

The usual Republican answer, the free market, is a non-starter here. Private health insurance companies make money by insuring people who don’t get sick. Given its freedom, no company would insure sick people.

[2] Trump claims to want coverage for preexisting conditions, but has put forward no plan for how that would happen. BuzzFeed summarizes:

The GOP argument is that Obamacare disappearing would be so catastrophic — regulated markets would collapse, millions of low-income people would lose Medicaid, insurers could once again deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions — that Congress would have no choice but to set aside their differences and pass a replacement.

We saw something similar play out with the Budget Control Act of 2011. Supposedly, the automatic budget cuts (the “sequester”) that would set in if Congress couldn’t come to an agreement were so onerous that of course Congress would come to an agreement. We’ve been dealing with the sequester ever since.

In general, if somebody’s plan is so onerous that it can only be announced in the face of an emergency, I want no part of it.

Looking for President GoodClimate

Wednesday, CNN devoted its entire primetime schedule to letting voters question ten leading Democratic presidential candidates (the same ten who qualified for the debate this Thursday) about their plans for dealing with climate change. I didn’t spend the full seven hours sitting in front of my TV, but I did read all the transcripts, which you can find here.

I suppose it was naive of me to hope that these townhall Q&A sessions would settle which candidate would be the best president for the climate. You may come away with a different impression, but mine was that none of the candidates eliminated themselves and none stood head-and-shoulders above the others. All agreed that climate change is a serious problem that requires significant action, and that taking that action is going to be difficult. None put forward the fossil-fuel industry talking points that you would hear in a comparable Republican setting: climate change is a hoax, the climate is always changing, nothing can be done to stop the climate from changing, doing anything will be too expensive, or the US should wait for other nations to do something first.

The things they disagreed about were fairly technical: a carbon tax vs. a cap-and-trade system vs. direct government regulation; exactly how much should be budgeted for fighting climate change and where it should come from; whether nuclear power plays any role in our post-fossil-fuel future; how much sacrifice should be expected from the average person; how to mitigate the sacrifices asked of vulnerable populations; and so forth.

In short, any of the ten would contrast strongly with Trump’s positions on the issue. (To the extent that Trump has done anything about climate change, he has opted to make it worse: pulling out of the Paris Accords, trying to roll back Obama’s automobile-gas-mileage standards, rolling back limits on power plants burning coal, rolling back regulations on methane leaks, and so on.) But which of them would be the most effective president for fighting climate change?

Reading the transcripts told me less about the candidates that it did about myself and what I’m looking for. I think that President GoodClimate has to jump several very different hurdles. He or she needs to have:

  • a vision
  • a plan that carries out the vision
  • a message to rally the public behind the vision and the plan
  • the ability to leverage the vision, plan, and public support to push Congress to pass the needed legislation and appropriate the needed money
  • the ability to use the gravity of the crisis, the example of US action, and US soft power to push other nations into action.

Jumping each hurdle requires a different skill-set; we need a president who can jump them all.

The vision and the plan. The example everyone uses for this is President Kennedy setting the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy announced that vision in 1962, and it came to fruition right on schedule in 1969.

The reason this is a good parallel is that Kennedy himself had no idea how to land a man on the Moon, and in fact no one did at the time he set the goal. New techniques and technologies had to be invented for the project to succeed. At the same time, though, he managed to set a goal that was realistic. If he had announced that we would land a man on the Moon by Christmas, it wouldn’t have happened. And when Christmas came and went with no Moon landing, public enthusiasm for the whole project might have waned.

Those advances would not have happened, though, if Kennedy (and President Johnson after him) hadn’t put serious resources into making them happen. Also, the plan involved immediate action as well as speculative research. Project Mercury was already underway, and John Glenn had orbited the Earth earlier that year. When NASA had a serious setback (the cabin fire in 1967 that killed the crew of Apollo 1 during a ground exercise), the country had the tenacity and commitment to continue.

So what I’m looking for in a climate vision and plan aren’t just the most ambitious goals and the highest price tag. The vision and the plan have to ring true in some way that is hard to define. The plan needs to reach beyond what we know how to do right now. (For example: If we’re going to generate much, much more of our electricity from wind and solar, we’ll need better ways to store power on windy and sunny days.) But it can’t reach so far beyond that it loses credibility. And it has to start by ambitiously doing the things that we already know how to do; we can’t twiddle our thumbs and then depend on some magic invention appearing in the nick of time a decade from now.

An aside on cheeseburgers. It’s predictable what’s going to happen when the next president announces his or her X-trillion-dollar climate plan, which also puts limits on the fossil-fuel industry, raises the cost of certain environmentally costly consumer goods, and bans others entirely: Fossil-fuel companies (both in their own voices and by funding unofficial spokesmen behind the scenes) will become advocates for “freedom”, and there will be either a real or astro-turf uprising against this “government overreach”.

You could see this already in the questions in the CNN forum. Several candidates had to answer questions more-or-less like: “Am I still going to be able to eat cheeseburgers?” Plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs also came up. The-government-is-coming-for-your-cheeseburgers has been a very effective pro-carbon argument.

The right answer to this challenge is multi-faceted, and it’s hard to make all the points at once. Part of the answer is to invoke the seriousness of the problem and shame the triviality of the question: Do you really want to condemn your grandchildren to a Mad-Max hellscape so that you can keep eating cheeseburgers, burning inefficient lightbulbs, and using plastic straws? The World War II generation accepted gas-rationing and a number of other artificial hardships to save the world from fascism. Is there nothing you’re willing to give up for future generations?

The second facet is to bring the question back to reality. Yes, the carbon footprint of a cow is much greater than a comparable weight of chickens, or a potato patch. So yes, as a country we need to shift our eating habits so that we consume less beef and dairy. But that doesn’t mean we have to ban cheeseburgers. Maybe a cheeseburger becomes more expensive. Maybe it turns into an occasional treat rather than a staple of your diet. But the government is not coming for your cheeseburgers.

Third, the crimps on your personal lifestyle are going to be a small part of a much bigger change. You’re not going to have to bear the whole sacrifice. This is what Elizabeth Warren was getting at in her answer to the cheeseburger question:

This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. That’s what they want us to talk about. … They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers. When 70 percent of the pollution of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries.

And finally, we’re going to try to be smart about this, so that changes will be as painless as possible. Lightbulbs are actually a good example in this regard. When the Bush administration decided to change the nation’s lightbulbs, it didn’t just ban incandescent bulbs overnight and make us light candles or sit in the dark. The wasteful bulbs are off the shelves now (at least until Trump finds a way to bring them back), but instead we have better bulbs: longer-lasting, cheaper to operate, and so on.

Beto O’Rourke, for example, expressed his confidence in the ingenuity of American farmers and ranchers to produce the same foods with a smaller carbon footprint. (I don’t doubt that he’s right about that, but I question whether it will be enough.) And yes, today’s paper straws aren’t as good as plastic straws. But is it truly beyond the limits of science to make an equally good straw out of paper or some other biodegradable material?

Or take cars. I drive a 100,000-miler hybrid Honda Accord. My current tank of gas is getting over 45 miles per gallon, and that’s not unusual. If government standards had insisted on 45 mpg decades ago, everyone would have been forced to drive underpowered subcompacts. But I don’t suffer from a lack of room or pep in this car. Similarly, today’s all-electric cars won’t take you as far in a day as most of us would like go on a long driving trip. But someday soon they will. A future of electric cars powered by wind and solar doesn’t mean we’ll have to give up on driving the family to Yellowstone.

Rallying support. So anyway, President GoodClimate is going to face well-funded resistance that will appeal to people’s fears and resentments. Combating that is going to require a lot of political skill, simultaneously shaming people out of their petty self-centeredness and inspiring them to take on the challenge of saving the world.

Who’s up to that? Who can create not just a vision and a plan, but a message that raises public enthusiasm around implementing the plan, even if it requires some sacrifice?

And suppose the public does support the plan. That doesn’t necessarily mean Congress will pass it. We see that now in gun control. Universal background checks (which might have stopped the recent Texas shooting) are ridiculously popular, with 97% support in one recent poll. They’ve been popular for years now, and yet somehow they don’t happen. In Congress, a small, intense, well-funded resistance can overcome broad but lukewarm popular support.

That points to a different kind of political skill, the ability to put together deals that make things happen. We tend to think in either/or terms about this: an inspirational progressive visionary like Sanders or Warren, versus a moderate deal-maker like Biden or Klobuchar. But the next president has to do both.

Tomorrow the world. In a Republican presidential debate in 2015, Marco Rubio said “America is not a planet.” He was making the defeatist point that no one country, not even one as important as the United States, can solve the climate problem by itself. Even if we do everything right, it won’t make any difference if no one else goes along.

This is a common conservative trope: Collective action is impossible and individual action inadequate, so we should just do nothing.

If we buy into that line of thought, though, we condemn the next generation to a world of rising seas, expanding deserts, mass migrations, and war. The tens of thousands of migrants who currently try to cross our borders every month will be nothing compared to the masses we’ll see when much of Bangladesh is underwater and new deserts have appeared in places that now support a booming population. Even within the US, how much hotter can places like Phoenix or Houston get and still be habitable?

Fortunately, the image Rubio evoked — of the US doing everything it can and the rest of the world dragging its feet — is the exact reverse of the truth. In reality, the US is the country holding the world back. Why should India stop burning coal if the US won’t? Europe is way ahead of us in adopting sustainable electric power. Today, the biggest challenge facing environmental activists around the world is how to make change happen without the United States.

So it would be a huge improvement if the next president just went along with what other nations are doing. (If only we could invest in mass transit like China and in solar and wind power like Germany.) But the world needs more than that. The US combination of economic, scientific, and military power makes us uniquely positioned to lead. Until Trump started tearing them up, we had meaningful alliances with most of the other major powers. It would make a huge difference if we could be the world’s good example rather than its bad example.

So even as the next president turns American climate-change policy around, he or she has to be working with the world to raise standards, and to establish trade policies that promote climate-positive action around the world, rather than allowing carbon-pollution to shift to the country with the lowest standards.

The next president can be a rallying figure internationally, as Kennedy was we he said “Ich bin ein Berliner”, or Wilson was when he enunciated his 14 points for ending World War I. Who can do that? The next president also needs to be a negotiator like FDR and an alliance-builder like Truman or Eisenhower. Who can do that?

I don’t know, or at least I don’t know yet. The climate forums have just given me more questions . The answers I’m looking for are only partly contained in the programs the candidates outline on their web sites. They also require evaluating character and talents.

These are harder questions than I had thought, so it’s going to take a bit longer to make up my mind.

Republican Whataboutism Gets More Desperate

Trump has been promoting many of the same white-supremacist themes that are found in mass-shooter manifestos. That can’t be excused or explained, so his cultists need to divert your attention.


Whataboutism is the tactic of responding to criticism of a politician you like by asserting (often falsely [1]) some equivalent wrongdoing by someone on the other side. (Examples: responding to mention of one of Trump’s 10,000 lies with “What about when Obama said you could keep your health insurance?” or to Trump’s birtherism by claiming Hillary Clinton started it.) Whataboutism has long been a tactic favored by conservatives, but Trump has taken it to a new level: It’s hard to come up with an example of him addressing a criticism any other way. He never explains or apologizes, but instead launches some new accusation against someone else.

David Roberts points out the general moral immaturity of a whatabout response

One thing to note is the bizarre implicit assumption that if responsibility is equal on both sides, then … we’re fine. We’re even. Move on. In other words, it’s not the damage done, or the principle violated, that concerns [WaPo columnist Marc Thiessen], it’s *blame*. We need not strive to be good as long as we are no worse than the other side. It’s the moral reasoning of a [10-year-old], focused exclusively on avoiding responsibility or sanction.

Gonna be lots of right-wing whataboutism focused on antifa and environmental extremists in coming weeks. [Conservatives] need to head off the growing consensus that [right-wing] terrorism is a unique problem.

This week saw two prominent attempts at whataboutism, both aimed at diverting attention from Trump’s role in promoting the false claims that inspired the El Paso shooting and have inspired other acts of white-supremacist terrorism.

  • What about the liberal views of the Dayton shooter?
  • What about Rep. Joaquin Castro revealing the names of Trump donors in his district?

Dayton. Roberts was specifically responding to the Thiessen column “If Trump is Responsible for El Paso, Democrats are Responsible for Dayton“.

But if Democrats want to play politics with mass murder, it works both ways. Because the man who carried out another mass shooting 13 hours later in Dayton, Ohio, seems to have been a left-wing radical whose social media posts echoed Democrats’ hate-filled attacks on the president and U.S. immigration officials.

The difference between the two cases is pretty obvious: The El Paso shooter justified his rampage in a manifesto that used Trumpist rhetoric about the “invasion” of our southern border. [2] His massacre took place near that border, and targeted Hispanics under the assumption that they were the “invaders”. Similarly last October, the man who slaughtered 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh believed Jews were organizing the immigrant “invasion” caravans that Trump had been making the focus of his midterm-election messaging, and the MAGA bomber targeted people he saw as Trump’s enemies.

A window of the MAGA bomber’s van.

But so far no one has found any connection between the Dayton shooter’s left-wing views and his crimes. If the Dayton shooter had shot at “the president and immigration officials”, that would be comparable. In future, if someone follows up his retweets of Elizabeth Warren statements by, say, shooting some of the bankers or drug company CEOs Warren criticizes, that also would parallel the El Paso shooting (and we could expect Warren to issue a statement telling her supporters not to be violent). But the Dayton shooter did nothing of the kind.

In the wake of the El Paso shooting, Hispanics might legitimately fear further attacks from copycat killers; but fear of a copycat Dayton shooting afflicts anybody who goes out in public rather than some group criticized by Democrats.

Picturing what a comparable liberal shooting would look like just emphasizes the Trump connection to El Paso.

“How do you stop these people? You can’t,” Trump lamented at a May rally in Panama City Beach, Fla. Someone in the crowd yelled back one idea: “Shoot them.” The audience of thousands cheered and Trump smiled. Shrugging off the suggestion, he quipped, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”

Trump wasn’t horrified by the suggestion that someone might shoot Mexican border-crossers, and did not say it would be wrong. Instead he talked about what his followers could “get away with”, as if it’s natural to want to shoot Hispanics, but politically incorrect to say so out loud. If the El Paso shooter was listening to that exchange, it’s fair to assume that he was not discouraged from his plans.

“Hate has no place in our country!”

You have to go back to 2017 to find any kind of legitimate liberal parallel: the shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise by someone who once volunteered for Bernie Sanders. Unlike Trump, who denounced the El Paso shooting in general terms (in one of his read-from-the-teleprompter statements that look as insincere as a hostage video) without acknowledging any connection to it, Sanders did the responsible thing:

I have just been informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign. I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be: Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.

Trump, on the other hand, undercut even his general denunciation of the shooting by implying that the shooter might have had a point: Limiting immigration should be part of the response. It’s as if Sanders had proposed that Republicans respond to the Scalise shooting by ending their attempts to repeal ObamaCare.

Trump also undercut his anti-white-supremacy statement by reverting to the both-sides rhetoric he used after Charlottesville: He’s against not just white supremacy, but “any other kind of supremacy“. (Both Trevor Noah and Seth Myers wondered what “other kind of supremacy” Trump might have had in mind. The Bourne Supremacy?) He’s also against “any group of hate”, and singled out the amorphous anti-fascist group Antifa, as if hating fascism is similar to hating Hispanics or Jews, and as if the Antifa body count (0) bears any comparison to the many dozens killed recently by white supremacists. Matt Bors makes the point with a cartoon.

Shaming Trump donors. The second whataboutist controversy started with a tweet on Monday: San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro listed the names of 44 San Antonians who had given the maximum allowable personal donation to Trump’s re-election campaign, and commented

Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’

He got the names from publicly available FEC records; you could have looked them up yourself had you been so inclined.  And he used those names for the purpose that the disclosure laws intended: So that the public knows who’s bankrolling a political campaign.

Castro was clearly trying to shame the people he listed, and you might imagine Castro’s Twitter followers, especially Hispanic ones, deciding not to do business with big Trump donors: If money I give these people might flow through to ads that threaten me, maybe I’ll deal with somebody else. (This logic is similar to why so many LGBTQ people are reluctant to eat at Chick-fil-A. It’s also why #CancelSoulCycle has been trending after word got out that owner Stephen Ross was hosting a multi-million-dollar Trump fundraiser in the Hamptons.)

But nothing in Castro’s tweet suggests violence against these donors, and in fact there is no established pattern of violence against Trump donors. But conservatives needed to divert public attention from the violence Trump incites by accusing some Democrat of inciting violence too — because, as David Roberts pointed out, that would make it all OK from their grade-school moral perspective — and Castro was what they had to work with.

So Donald Trump Jr. went on Fox & Friends to compare Castro’s list of Trump donors to a “hit list” that the Dayton shooter had kept in high school. (As far as I know, none of the people on that list were targeted in the Dayton shooting. So even if you buy the idea that there’s a comparison, we’re talking about a list of fantasy targets, not actual ones.) Ted Cruz accused Castro of “doxxing” his constituents. (Falsely. [3]) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted:

Targeting and harassing Americans because of their political beliefs is shameful and dangerous.

And I suppose that is true if you assume that someone has been targeted and harassed, rather than just called out for sponsoring insults against their neighbors.

So the whatabout here is equating a direct connection to several real-world mass murders with a fantasy about what some Castro-follower might do, even though none of them have actually ever done such a thing, and there are no examples of similar crimes.

What does it mean? Whataboutism isn’t new, of course. (What about Hillary’s emails?) But new whatabouts point out where conservatives believe they’re vulnerable. And the less convincing the whatabouts are, the more desperate the need for them must be.

If you meet whataboutism in the wild — in face-to-face conversation or in social media — it’s important not to get distracted by it. [4] Call it out for what it is (that meme at the top of the page is kind of handy) and restate the point the whataboutist is trying to divert you from. In this case, that’s Trump’s role in promoting the rhetoric of white-supremacist terrorism.


[1] Since the point of whataboutism is to derail a criticism rather than refute it, a false assertion often works even better than a true one, because the discussion then careens off into evidence that the assertion is false. Suddenly we’re rehashing the details of what Obama or Clinton did or didn’t do, while the original criticism of Trump scrolls off the page.

The assumption behind refuting the false whataboutism is that the Trumpist will be embarrassed to be caught saying something untrue, and so will stop repeating the false statement. But the essence of Trumpism is that shame is for losers, so refutation is pointless.

[2] A wrinkle in this argument is that the El Paso shooter seems to have worried that his actions might reflect badly on Trump. So he made sure to state that his views predated Trump’s candidacy.

the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric. The media is infamous for fake news.

But his concern for Trump’s image belies his point, and whether or not his murderous rage against the Hispanic “invaders” predates Trump’s rhetoric is irrelevant. Nobody is saying that Trump invented white supremacy or anti-Hispanic racism. Rather, he (along with many, many conservative opinion-makers) has promoted and mainstreamed ideas that have been floating around in the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi underground for decades.

Trump’s rhetoric is a Nazi gateway drug. After you get used to the notions that Central American refugees are really “invaders”, that immigrants are spreading crime and disease, that white Christians are victims, that people of color who criticize America should “go back where they came from”, and that political correctness is a far more serious problem than racism — all core Trump points — then when you chase a link to the Daily Stormer or some other Nazi site, 90% of what you read sounds perfectly normal.

So, for example, if you marinate long enough in TrumpWorld, and then start to wonder how these illiterate Guatemalan peasants are organizing their invasion of the US, the neo-Nazi answer — Jews like George Soros are behind it all — jumps out at you like a revelation.

[3] True doxxing reveals personal contact information like a home address or personal phone number, and typically violates an assumed boundary (like when someone attaches a name, address, and phone number to someone else’s Twitter handle). But donors to political campaigns know that their names are being recorded for the public record. Suzanne Nossel explains:

It’s fair to question whether Mr. Castro’s tweet was prudent or decorous. But to refer to it as doxxing or online harassment is inaccurate, and sows confusion over what online abuse actually looks like.

CNN adds:

Richard Hasen, an expert on election law at the University of California at Irvine, said neither the boycott calls [against SoulCycle] nor Castro tweet appears to cross the line into the “unconstitutional harassment” of donors. “Being called a bad name on Twitter is not the kind of harassment the Supreme Court was talking about” in allowing exemptions [from disclosures] for people who face a real threat of harassment, he said.

Republicans can’t have it both ways here. They want to allow unlimited political donations because “money is speech”. But when you speak in the public square, people know who you are. At the very least, an ad whose donors you can’t track down should end with “The sponsors of this message have chosen to remain anonymous” so that we can assume the worst about them.

[4] Don’t do the kind of lengthy explanation I’ve done here; this was for educational purposes only. Having seen a couple of whataboutisms dissected in detail should make it easier for you to spot new ones.

Campaigning in a Traumatized Nation

Trump has damaged our country in ways too deep to fix with an executive order or an act of Congress. The campaign against him needs to reflect that somehow.

Two rounds of Democratic presidential debates are behind us now, and everyone I know was dissatisfied with them. We’re all casting about, looking for somewhere to assign blame. There are plenty of places to look.

  • Maybe it was the overcrowding. Spreading twenty candidates over two nights didn’t give any one of them a chance to put forward a coherent vision of what the country needs.
  • Maybe it was the moderators. Both CNN and MSNBC wanted to see conflict rather than thoughtful discussion, so questions often ignored the forest of beliefs all the candidates share, and focused instead on a few contentious trees of dubious significance.
  • Maybe it was the candidates, none of whom managed to overcome the format, the time limits, and the competing voices to deliver the clarion call we wanted to hear. The heavens did not part, and no ray of light illuminated the Chosen One.

All that is true, and yet I think my disappointment has another cause. Candidates standing behind lecterns, arguing about funding mechanisms and timelines and the meaning of whatever one or another of them did or didn’t do decades ago — it all seemed so ordinary. It’s exactly what Democrats would be doing if it were 1976 and we were hoping to replace Gerald Ford, a nice conscientious guy who happened to be wrong about a few things.

It’s not that I’m disappointed with the policy proposals of any particular candidate. But any set of policies seems inadequate as an answer to the Trump phenomenon.

My regular readers know that I think Trump has terrible policies. On climate change, for example, he seems to be working to bring on disaster as fast as possible. His trade wars are stupid. He loves all the world’s bad guys (Putin, Xi, Kim, MBS, Duterte, Bolsonaro …) and does his best to piss off all the good guys (Trudeau, Macron, Merkel …). His immigration/asylum policies are largely illegal, not to mention intentionally cruel. He’s been trying for years to take health care away from millions.

And yet, the real impact of Trump strikes much deeper than any of that. He both reflects and exacerbates something horribly wrong in our country. All forms of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism have become more acceptable on his watch. Lying has gone off the scale. All sense of fair play has vanished from our politics. Countless norms and practices that were supposed to protect us against corruption and tyranny have been scrapped. We used to worry about how lobbyists would influence government officials, but now we just appoint lobbyists to high office and eliminate the middlemen.

Raising the minimum wage or canceling student debt isn’t going to touch that.

I thought George W. Bush was a terrible president, certainly the worst of my lifetime up to that point. And yet, a change of policies seemed adequate to put him behind us. If Obama could have succeeded not just in avoiding the Depression Bush had set us up for, but also in ending Bush’s wars, closing Guantanamo, and reversing the tax cuts that had put our nation in such perilous fiscal shape, the negative legacy of the Bush years would have been almost entirely sealed off. Wrong-headed mismanagement had been the problem, and good management could fix it.

That’s not true this time. Something deep and dark is happening to our country. If we are fortunate enough to elect a Democrat in 2020, the new president will have to deal with a traumatized nation.

Bush told a few big lies, but Trump has damaged the very notion that we can find common truth. Any fact he doesn’t want to face is “fake news”. Any criticism is met with wave after wave of conspiracy theories against whomever has had the effrontery to call him to account. All inconvenient expertise is painted as corrupt, and countered with opinions “I heard” or “a lot of people are saying”, even if those opinions contradict each other.

Trump doesn’t just oppose anyone who looks into his actions, he dismisses their right to do so. Congress has no business overseeing his administration at all. The courts owe him deference that no other president has received. Investigating his misdeeds is “treason”.

America has always debated where the common good might be found, but Trump destroys the entire idea of the common good. He does not speak at all to the 54% of the electorate who voted for someone else. He stereotypes entire races, religions, and ethnicities, offering them as scapegoats for whatever afflicts his followers. If you are the wrong color or speak the wrong language, you can either support him or “go back where you came from”, even if you are a citizen, even if you were born here, even if the people of your district have overwhelmingly elected you to represent them in Congress.

And it’s not just him. He has a following. People don’t just like him or his policies, they like the fact that he insults and abuses other Americans. He has done little or nothing to help most of the people who voted for him, but they love how mean he is to the people they resent. The Republican Party as a whole now doesn’t even pretend to favor democracy. Elections are simply about winning, and it doesn’t matter whether you win via massive amounts of corporate cash, by making it hard for people to vote, by gerrymandering districts so that you retain power in spite of being opposed by a majority of voters, or even with help from foreign enemies.

If Democrats win in 2020, they can change a lot of those policies: restrain corporate political influence, end gerrymandering, guarantee the right to vote, and so on. But the Republican willingness to subvert democracy will still be there, as well as the belief that some people’s votes should count more than others, or that a loss is not really legitimate if it is based on votes from someone other than white Christians.

The crisis in this country goes way beyond the usual policy discussions, to the point that debating how fast to phase in universal health care or whether crossing the border without a visa should be a civil or criminal offense … it almost mocks the sense of trauma I feel, and that I think a lot of people share.

That’s why many of the most memorable lines of the Democratic debates have nothing to do with policy. When Kirsten Gillibrand said her first presidential act would be to “Clorox the Oval Office“, she was speaking to that sense of a deeper wrongness than can be fixed by an executive order. The White House needs an exorcism, not just a new resident.

But the candidate who most often points to the deeper trauma is the most unlikely candidate: Marianne Williamson. She has no qualifications for a high executive office and her policy agenda has a lot of holes, but she speaks the language of spiritual transformation rather than ordinary politics. In an otherwise critical article, Tara Isabella Burton sums her up like this:

Williamson, a self-help spiritualist (and sometime adviser to Oprah Winfrey), preaches a gospel of “love” and “oneness,” blending a chipper New Age sensibility with progressive politics. In the Democratic debate Tuesday, she condemned the “dark psychic force” of hatred that she said Trump has unleashed, saying it could be combated only by “something emotional and psychological” — which only she could bring forth — accompanied by a dose of “deep truth-telling” on the subject of race. She’s called for a “moral and spiritual awakening” in the United States.

NYT columnist David Brooks claims that she “knows how to beat Trump” via an “uprising of decency”.

Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.

He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.

We are all subtly corrupted while this guy is our leader. And throughout this campaign he will make himself and his values the center of conversation. Every day he will stage a little drama that is meant to redefine who we are, what values we lift up and who we hate.

The Democrats have not risen to the largeness of this moment.

I haven’t risen to the largeness of the moment either. But I sense the need, and I’m struggling to figure out what it would mean to address it.

Remember 1980, when conservatives were not just hurting politically, but felt that America was slipping away from them? Vietnam, Watergate, double-digit inflation, bankrupt cities, gas shortages, rising divorce rates … they also felt a sense of crisis that went beyond policy. From this remove, we tend to remember the policy agenda of the Reagan administration: low taxes, deregulation, strong defense, free trade. But 1980 was also the high point of the Moral Majority, which called the country back to the old-time religion of fundamentalist Christianity.

1980 wasn’t just about political change. It was about spiritual transformation. That’s how it changed the country in ways that we’re still dealing with today.

The Left also has an old-time religion, but it’s not the liberal Christianity Pete Buttigieg wants to invoke, or any form of institutional religion. It’s the hippie idealism whose wisdom found its way into countless songs: All you need is love. Everybody come together, try to love one another. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden. Give peace a chance.

There’s a power there, and I’m not sure how to tap it. But I hope somebody actually qualified to be president figures it out soon.

Don’t Panic

Trump is using the same tactics that failed so badly in 2018. It’s not some stroke of genius. It’s all he knows.


I know. I felt it too.

When that crowd in North Carolina started chanting “Send her back. Send her back.”, it was like watching the videos of the Nazi book-burnings, when the flames shot into the sky, and people kept tossing more books onto the pile with a look of revelry on their faces.

The world just goes crazy sometimes. And once it starts, why should it stop? Why won’t that wave of insanity just sweep away everything in its path, leaving behind a country forever changed into something dark and unrecognizable?

Don’t panic.

The news coverage didn’t help. Pundits of the left and right alike were telling us that Trump had seized control of the narrative, and so the 2020 election won’t be about health care or climate change or anything Democrats want to talk about. It will be Trump against “radical”, “socialist” women of color. You may want to discuss democracy and corruption and the rule of law, but the only response you will get is to be asked why you hate America so much.

Don’t panic.

This isn’t some masterstroke of political genius. It’s a one-trick pony performing his one trick.

It’s frustrating, because there’s no immediate way to prove to ourselves that this appeal to America’s darkest impulses won’t work. It’s tempting to want to lash back somehow, but the election won’t happen for another 16 months, and that’s the response that really matters.

There are immediate things we can do, of course: Write a check to candidates with a healthier vision for America, or to organizations that do good work on issues we care about, or to any group that makes us feel hopeful. Volunteer. Organize. March. We can show our courage in public. (My hat is off to the 150 or so constituents who greeted Rep. Ilhan Omar, the target of the chants, at the Minneapolis airport. “Welcome home,” they chanted.)

I grant you: None of that will strike the decisive blow immediately. But what we need isn’t to lash out. It’s to be determined. Figure out what kind of determined mindset you can hold for the next 16 months, and get there as soon as you can. Battles like this aren’t won with flashes of anger. They’re won with day-in, day-out effort.

And don’t panic. Laugh, if it helps. Here’s how Trevor Noah handled the racist tweets that led up to the North Carolina rally. I found it hilarious.

And don’t forget: We’ve seen this before and it didn’t work. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, Trump similarly seized control of the narrative. He turned the focus of the news towards immigrant caravans that were “invading” America, and painted the Democrats as the party of MS-13 and open borders. The result was the most decisive popular-vote total in a long time: Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats won 53%-45% nationwide. (Only gerrymandering stopped the Democrats from having the largest House majority in decades.)

2018 proved that Trump’s one trick could firm up his support among his base. That’s probably why Democrats lost Senate seats in North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana. But it’s also probably why they won in Arizona. Trump’s base is not a majority of the country. It’s not even the 46% who voted for him in 2016. Chants of “Send her back” won’t just bring Trump’s followers to the polls, it will bring the marginal voters Democrats need in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

We’ll get through this, as long as we don’t panic, don’t get intimidated, and don’t lash out. Channel your anger into determination.

What I Learned from the Debates

This week, 20 Democratic presidential candidates participated in nationally televised debates in Miami: ten on Wednesday and ten on Thursday. In all, the candidates were on stage for four hours. Watch/read for yourself: Night 1 video, Night 1 transcript, Night 2 video, Night 2 transcript.

The Democratic Party was the real winner. Ratings were excellent. With occasional exceptions, the candidates were all well-spoken and their remarks had substance [1], though they did talk over each other too much on Thursday. They also all stayed within shouting distance of the truth. The AP fact-checking column on the first night sounds like quibbling: Beto O’Rourke, for example, said the Trump tax cut will cost $2 trillion, when the official estimate is only $1.5 trillion. The checker admitted that the debate featured “a smattering of missteps … but no whoppers”. CNN’s fact-check of the second night covered just about all the claims that sounded suspicious; a great many of them produced the comment “This is true.”

By contrast, any five minutes of a Trump speech will include several whoppers.

Some pundits criticized the candidates for not going after Trump more (especially on the first night), but I liked that. Trump tries to paint Democrats as just Trump-haters, rather than as thoughtful people with a different (i.e. morally defensible) vision of what America is and where it should go. The first round of debates didn’t fit inside that frame. Trump tweeted “BORING!” during the first night, probably because the conversation was about America rather than about him.

What I was looking for. Pollsters like to raise the question: “Which is more important, finding a candidate who agrees with you or one who can beat Trump?” To me, at this point, that seems like a false choice, because we don’t know who can beat Trump yet.

The conventional wisdom says that Trump has abandoned a lot of traditional Republican values, so there should be a large bucket of moderate Republican and Independent voters who Democrats could flip with the right candidate and policies. (David Brooks claims to be one.) The 2018 results seemed to confirm that, as moderate Democratic candidates flipped House seats in a lot of suburban districts. (538 calls these the Romney/Clinton districts.) Presumably they got votes from educated professionals (often women) who used to consider themselves Republicans.

On the other hand, consider this point Pete Buttigieg made to CNN’s Don Lemon on Friday:

If we were sitting here in 2007 saying let’s find somebody so electable, so palatable, so easy for swing voters to get comfortable with that he can carry Indiana for Democrats. I’m not sure people would have said Obama.

But Obama did carry Indiana, which Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton never managed to do. So I think it’s easy to imagine that we know more than we actually do about how 2020 will play out. People will tell you that Democrats are surrendering Ohio or Iowa or somesuch state if they nominate a progressive like Warren or a non-white like Harris or Castro. But who really knows?

There are polls, of course. One recent poll had Biden beating Trump by 13 points, Sanders winning by 9, Harris 8, Warren 7, and Buttigieg 5. But all that could change really fast. (Just a month before the election, Hillary was ahead of Trump by 14 points in one head-to-head poll.) Most Americans have never thought seriously about a Buttigieg/Trump or Harris/Trump match-up, so why should we believe that the opinions they express now mean anything?

That’s why I watched the debates thinking about more than just who I agree with. I was also trying to figure out who is good at this game. Who can handle the back-and-forth of debating? Which candidates can make people listen to them and take them seriously? Who has a vision that, if people do listen to it, they’ll find compelling?

Nothing in Obama’s 2007 resume picked him out as the guy who could carry Indiana or come within a whisker of taking North Carolina. But if you saw him speak to a crowd or debate his rivals, it was obvious that he could play this game.

What the candidates needed to do. Going into the debates, candidates fell into three general categories:

  1. ones you know well: Biden, Sanders, and (to a lesser extent) Warren
  2. ones you’ve heard of if you’ve been paying attention: Harris, Buttigieg, Booker, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, and maybe a few others
  3. ones whose names you might recognize in print (maybe), but you probably couldn’t come up with if you saw their pictures.

Success meant different things in each category.

  • Category 3 candidates just needed to get on the map. They’re racing to become relevant before their seed money runs out. If they said something that made you google them, they succeeded.
  • Category 2 candidates needed to prove they belong on stage with the well-known candidates. A category-2 candidate can play a somewhat longer game than a category-3 candidate. If you came away thinking “I could see that person as President”, that was a successful performance.
  • Category 1 candidates had a chance to complete the sale. If you were already leaning towards one of them, a good performance could cement your support, and possibly upgrade you from a silent supporter to a donor or volunteer. They needed to reinforce your prior ideas about their virtues, avoid a major gaffe, and put your doubts to rest.

Several candidates “won”. When you look at things that way, you realize that it was possible for many people to “win” the debate simultaneously. [2] My impression was that among the category-3 candidates, the big winner was Julián Castro. People were definitely not talking about him before the debate, and afterward they were. I think Tulsi Gabbard made her rep by taking out Tim Ryan on Afghanistan. [3] (I think Ryan is toast.) I thought Eric Swalwell’s pass-the-torch theme fell flat. (As Marco Rubio discovered in 2016, you don’t get credit for your youth if you don’t have any new ideas. And “We need new ideas” is not a new idea.) None the moderate candidates really broke out, but some (Bennet, say) might have positioned themselves to claim the center lane if Biden collapses.

In category 2, Kamala Harris was the big winner, with Cory Booker also having a good night. On Thursday, Kamala went toe-to-toe with front-runner Joe Biden and scored. The night before, Booker looked generally solid and impressive.

I feel like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg lived to fight another day. Neither was a star, but both looked like substantial candidates. (Buttigieg had an issue to face — the police shooting in South Bend — and he did it forthrightly.) Beto O’Rourke, on the other hand, amplified people’s doubts rather than quelling them.

I hesitate to comment at all on Kirsten Gillibrand, because watching her evokes a sexist response that I can’t seem to turn off. She may be saying something perfectly presidential, but she always looks and sounds like a lightweight to me. I don’t know if it’s the dumb-blond stereotype or what, but I have to keep reminding myself to listen to her and judge her fairly. (None of the other female candidates strike me this way, and I have no idea whether other men share this reaction to Gillibrand.)

In category 1, Biden had to have lost ground. He avoided any fatal gaffes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is still the leader in the next round of polls (which should appear in a few days), but if you had doubts about him before, you have more doubts now. Meanwhile, Bernie was Bernie. If you liked him before, you still like him now, but I doubt he convinced many new people.

Elizabeth Warren hadn’t been seen on this kind of stage before, so she had the most to prove; and I think she did. She still needs to learn some debate-craft (like look at the camera — not the moderator — when the question is being read). But she was poised and well-spoken. Her signature virtues of commitment and authenticity came through well. If you went in thinking “I like Warren’s ideas, but I don’t know … ” she might have made a believer out of you.

Here’s some snap-polling from 538 and Morning Consult. The interviews were done immediately after the debate, so I don’t think they captured the full effect, which doesn’t hit until people start comparing notes with each other.

Black candidates and black voters. A similar dynamic is playing out for both Harris and Booker, who are the black candidates in the race. One of the big questions is where the black electorate — which makes up a substantial portion of the Democratic primary electorate, and is an actual majority of Democrats in most southern states — is going to settle.

Historically, blacks have been “conservative” voters in the sense that they are slow to change their loyalties. If they feel that they have a relationship with a candidate, they tend to stick by him or her rather than go for the fresh face making big promises. (Unsurprisingly, Mayor Pete has essentially zero black support so far.) Everyone remembers how much black support Barack Obama eventually had, but forgets that most of those supporters arrived fairly late — mainly after his Iowa victory proved that white people would vote for him.

At this point in 2007, Hillary Clinton was getting a lot of black support in the polls, just as Joe Biden is now. Bernie Sanders couldn’t pry that support away from her, and blacks in South Carolina and the subsequent southern primaries saved Clinton’s candidacy after Sanders’ early win in New Hampshire.

Prior to this week’s debates, an Economist/YouGov poll (Question 46) had Biden with 39% of the black vote, compared to Harris with 5% and Booker with 4%. Clearly, black voters weren’t just looking to see if there was a black candidate in the race. I suspect they are paying special attention to Harris and Booker, but they’ll have to be convinced to move away from Biden.

I’ll be watching the next set of polls to see if the debate convinced them. In particular, Harris’ jab — that Biden was opposing busing at a time when Harris herself was being bused — looked very effective. (Of course, I’m a white guy judging this from the outside.) Biden’s response — that he only opposed busing imposed by the federal government, not community-generated plans like the one Harris benefited from — was unconvincing to anybody who knows the history. Federal intervention was necessary precisely because so many communities resisted school integration. Many communities integrated “voluntarily” only out of fear that the federal government might take the decision out of their hands.

Who can play this game? Which of these people can I picture doing well in a campaign against Trump? [4] The candidates that impressed me in those terms were Harris [5] and Warren. I think either one would look good next to Trump: Warren is a truth-teller where Trump is a bullshitter. Harris is a bulldog prosecutor who will make her points and won’t be distracted. Both of them have an authentic toughness that will show up Trump’s phony bluster.

In a purely physical sense, I think Cory Booker would look good against Trump. At 6’2″, Booker is shorter than Trump’s claimed height (6’3″) but taller than Trump is in reality. (I see something symbolic in that.) Booker is younger and fitter than Trump, and makes a more imposing physical presence. (Trump would not stalk Booker on the debate stage the way he stalked Clinton, lest Booker turn and face him. It’s a simian thing.) He also radiates a dignity that would contrast well with Trump’s sleaziness.

That said, everyone should remember that it’s still early. Recall the 2012 Republican race: Mitt Romney was the early front-runner, but a series of candidates-of-the-week had their moments and briefly passed him: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. But Romney ultimately was nominated. The same thing could happen with Biden this year.


[1] Author Marianne Williamson stood out as the least “presidential” in the field, making a number of statements that sounded more New-Agey than Democratic. Like this from her closing statement:

So, Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me please. You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So, I sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field and, sir, love will win.

But even she had some important things to say about policy. For example, she identified one reason why Americans spend so much on health care: the unhealthy diet pushed on us by Big Agriculture and subsidized by the US government.

What we need to talk about is why so many Americans have unnecessary chronic illnesses so many more compared to other countries and that gets back into not just the big Pharma, not just health insurance companies, it has to do with chemical policies, it has to do with environmental policies, it has to do with food policies, it has to do with drug policies.

If you want that message in more traditional academic terms, check out this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

[2] Friday, Rachel Maddow made the case that each of the 20 candidates had some particular moment they could point to with pride and build on going forward. Not sure I would go that far.

[3] During the debate I kept asking myself: “Wait. Why don’t I like Tulsi Gabbard?” Then I did some googling and remembered: She’s Putin’s favorite Democrat, probably because she likes to downplay the significance of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Since Gabbard announced her intention to run on Jan. 11, there have been at least 20 Gabbard stories on three major Moscow-based English-language websites affiliated with or supportive of the Russian government: RT, the Russian-owned TV outlet; Sputnik News, a radio outlet; and Russia Insider, a blog that experts say closely follows the Kremlin line. The CIA has called RT and Sputnik part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.” …

Coverage of other Democratic presidential hopefuls in pro-Kremlin media has been for the most part perfunctory, limited to candidates’ announcements or summaries of their relative prospects.

A Truthdig article defending her against the Putin’s-favorite charge included this paragraph:

Gabbard’s run for president invites any number of legitimate criticisms. Her past jeremiads against “radical Islam” have reportedly earned the praise of Steve Bannon, and she has professed a curious admiration for India’s Hindu right; the LGBT community remains leery of her candidacy despite her support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act; meanwhile, her anti-interventionism can appear “shot through with a pernicious nationalism,” as Branko Marcetic observes in Jacobin. 

[4] People are way too quick to jump to the question: “How will he or she do in a debate against Trump?” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Trump decided not to debate. He’d have some BS reason for chickening out — like his reasons for not talking to Bob Mueller (even though he claimed he wanted to) — and his followers would take whatever-it-was as The Truth.

[5] Prior to the debate, I hadn’t been impressed with Harris, despite all the political insiders who seemed very impressed. In her CNN town hall in April, she seemed tentative. Way too many questions got a non-commital answer like “We need to have that conversation.” At the time, she didn’t look like the right candidate to rally the country against Trump.

This week she did look like that candidate. We’ll see if that transformation holds.

Socialism: What’s in a word?

The word socialism has become a little like the word God: something we can almost all believe in as long as we get to define it our own way. Depending on the speaker, socialism can mean Denmark or Venezuela or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or even the National Socialism of Hitler’s Germany. In FDR’s day Social Security was denounced as “socialism” and in JFK’s day Medicare was. Now those programs enjoy almost universal popularity. So are we all socialists now?

If socialism means buying things collectively through the government, then your local fire department is socialist, and so are the national parks and the interstate highways. Who doesn’t like them? On the other hand, if socialism means buying everything collectively, so that we eat in big government cafeterias rather than in our own kitchens and dining rooms, that would be a lot less popular. So which is it?

And if we can’t decide which it is, why are we talking about it at all?

What Bernie said. Bernie Sanders wants to have that discussion, and I don’t think any of the other Democratic candidates do. Wednesday, he gave a major speech (video, transcript) embracing socialism and attempting to define it his own way.

We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.

He listed these economic rights:

  • The right to a decent job that pays a living wage
  • The right to quality health care
  • The right to a complete education
  • The right to affordable housing
  • The right to a clean environment
  • The right to a secure retirement

How others responded. Among this cycle’s Democratic candidates, none of those rights seems terribly radical. True, not every candidate would agree with all of them. The more moderate ones would see them as goals to work toward rather than rights that need to be delivered immediately. (Let’s extend quality health care to more people, even if we can’t get a universal program passed.) Each candidate would have a different interpretation of those rights (what jobs are “decent”? when is an education “complete”?), of the kinds of programs necessary to ensure them, and how to pay for those programs. But nothing on that list should inspire shocked pointing and cries of “infidel!”

All the same, nobody joined Bernie in endorsing socialism by name. Elizabeth Warren, the candidate whose policy proposals are probably closest to Sanders’, noncommittally said, “I’ll have to hear his speech.” But Warren has kept the word capitalism in her proposals (as in the Accountable Capitalism Act). She styles her program as a reform of capitalism, not a revolution that replaces it with socialism.

Other candidates were more critical.

Of the two dozen Democrats running for president, some are ready to sign on to ideas Sanders has pioneered, such as Medicare for All, but none agree with democratic socialism as a way to govern, or as a pitch that will defeat President Donald Trump. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who was booed for condemning socialism two weeks ago in a speech before the California Democratic Party, laughed at the title of Sanders’s speech when I read it to him. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado let out an exasperated chuckle. “I don’t think the American people even know what that means,” he told me. “Nobody in my town halls talks about democratic socialism versus oligarchy and authoritarianism.” When I read the title of the speech [“How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism”] to Senator Kamala Harris of California on Monday after an event in Dubuque, she responded with a simple “Huh.”

Republicans, on the other hand, love to talk about socialism, and to label Democratic proposals “socialist”. One favorite technique is to dismiss a Democratic proposal as “socialist” without identifying any specific flaws, as if socialism were a plague that can only be fought by quarantine. Before he officially became a politician, Ronald Reagan attacked a proposal similar to Medicare like this:

I know how I’d feel, if you, my fellow citizens, decided that to be an actor, I had to become a government employee and work in a national theater. Take it into your own occupation or that of your husband. All of us can see what happens: Once you establish the precedent that the government can determine a man’s working place and his working methods, determine his employment, from here it’s a short step to all the rest of socialism — to determining his pay, and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go, or what they will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.

So sure, the idea that Grandma can go to the hospital after she falls sounds good, but it’s socialism. Before long we’ll all be living in government dormitories.

My own view of capitalism and socialism in America. Debating socialism and capitalism, as if they were two distinct roads and we could only choose one, seems misguided to me.

When I look at America, I see capitalist and socialist economies existing side-by-side. We commonly go back and forth between them without thinking about it. Your driveway is part of the capitalist economy; the street is in the socialist realm. When your kids play in the front yard, they’re under the aegis of capitalism. If they go down to the park, they’ve crossed into socialism.

(In Debt: the first 5,000 years, David Graeber also posits an underlying communist system, which we instinctively revert to in emergencies. When the flood hits, you rescue your neighbors in your boat — without going through either a market or a government office — because you have a boat and they need rescuing. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.)

What we’re mainly arguing about when we talk about socialism is where the boundary between the two realms will be. Should our kids be educated in public schools (socialism) or private schools (capitalism)? If we raise taxes to improve the library (socialism), maybe I won’t be able to afford to buy as many books (capitalism).

In my view, the balance has shifted too far in the capitalist direction, and needs to shift back. Market forces are doing a really bad job of organizing our health care (as I see in my own life). Pro-capitalist Republicans deny climate change because capitalism has no answer for it.

So while I have no desire to destroy the capitalist system root and branch, I want to move the boundary to shrink the portion of the economy it commands. I don’t think we need public dormitories and cafeterias, but I also don’t think we want capitalists manipulating the insulin market.

What’s in a word? Whatever politicians say in their speeches, only a few libertarian radicals want to get rid of socialism entirely, and only a few communist radicals want to get rid of capitalism entirely. We’re going to continue living in a mixed economy and arguing about what activities belong in each realm. So the idea that we’re going to accept or reject socialism once and for all is unrelated to the world we actually live in.

But we keep trying to have that conversation, and it seems that every politician but Sanders (Republican and Democrat alike) has come to the same conclusion: Democrats are better off talking about their specific policies — universal health care, free college, sustainable energy, etc. — than having an abstract argument about capitalism vs. socialism.

So why does Bernie want to have that argument? I think the word socialism symbolizes a point he wants to make, something that’s key to his political identity. The argument about socialism has become a metaphor for a more nebulous question: How screwed up are things, what caused it, and how big a change is necessary to set the country on the right track again?

Joe Biden’s message is that Trump screwed things up. The country was more-or-less on the right track under Obama, and we just need to get back there. Trump’s extremism has shown Republicans what their flirting with white supremacy and subverting democratic norms leads to, and once he’s gone they’ll be more reasonable. So there’s no need to change America’s underlying system, we just need a new president — preferably one with a majority in both houses of Congress, like Obama had for his first two years.

Elizabeth Warren’s message is that the turn towards unfettered capitalism is the problem and it began around the time of the Reagan administration. She uses her personal story to say: We used to have opportunity. You could buy a house on one income. You could work your way through college and graduate without a mountain of debt. Now, irresponsible banks throw the world economy into a near-depression, and they get bailed out. CEO pay is out of control. More and more chunks of the economy are monopolies or oligopolies.

So Warren’s message is one of reform: We need to get capitalism back under control, so that it works for the many again instead of just the few.

But Sanders’ message is that America is screwed up at a much deeper level, and it was never really on the right track. In his speech, he points to FDR’s New Deal not as a time when things were going right, but as a time when people had a vision of a better system. In his speech he said:

Over eighty years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.

This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.

Unlike Trump, Bernie doesn’t think America can be made great again, because it was never really great. For a while we had a vision of greatness, but we left it unfinished. We don’t need reform, or the mere updating of old values to new circumstances. We need transformation and even revolution.

And let me also be clear, the only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution – where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy by having the courage to take on the powerful corporate interests whose greed is destroying the social and economic fabric of our country.

And that, I think, is why Sanders embraces the label socialist, while other Democrats shrink away from it. To him, the word symbolizes a whole new system, a revolutionary transformation.

In short, Bernie is appealing to a level of discontent that no other candidate (except maybe Trump, who represents a vision of authoritarian revolution; I would compare him not so much with Hitler as with Franco) sees. Sanders sees a country, a political system, and an economic system that is too far gone to be reformed. Rather than build on what has come before, he prefers a blank-sheet-of-paper approach. Rather than make deals with some collection of the current power brokers, he wants a peaceful popular uprising to blow them away.

So the argument about socialism is really an argument about that extremity of discontent: How many people feel that way? Some, definitely. But are there enough of them to win a nomination and presidency?

Bernie thinks there are. Other candidates disagree — and I guess I do too. But that’s what campaigns are for: We’re going to find out.

What should “electable” mean?

I want to beat Trump as much as anybody does, but figuring out which candidate has the best chance isn’t as simple as many make it sound.


Democrats and other liberals may be splitting their loyalties among more than 20 candidates at the moment, but nearly all of us agree on one thing: It’s vital that we beat Donald Trump next year.

If Trump has four more years to assault the norms of democratic government, the rule of law, and the separation of powers, by 2024 the country will be virtually unrecognizable. For four more years, the US would be fighting for climate change rather than against it. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court would rise from 5-4 to 6-3 or 7-2 — locking in for decades the advantages corporations have over workers and consumers, upholding all the tools of minority rule, and constantly inventing new rights for conservative white Christians. Executive-branch corruption would become even more blatant, with Congress unable even to investigate it, much less do anything about it.

We can’t let that happen.

Searching for the anti-Trump. So there’s very good reason why a large chunk of the Democratic primary electorate lists “somebody who can beat Donald Trump” as their top criterion when looking for a candidate to support. Polls on this question are volatile and depend significantly on how the question is phrased, but all of them show electability as a huge factor. One poll in February found 56% of Democrats preferring “a Democrat you do NOT agree with on most issues, but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump” to “someone who agrees with you on most issues, but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump”. Only 33% made the opposite choice. A more recent poll phrased  the question differently [“What’s more important to you – that Democrats nominate the presidential candidate whose positions on the issues come closest to yours, or the candidate who seems most likely to defeat Donald Trump in November 2020?”] and showed smaller but still sizeable emphasis on winning [47% for “closer on the issues” vs. 40% for “more likely to win”].

Admittedly, it’s easy to overstate those results, because poll respondents undoubtedly assume that any Democrat will share certain core positions. Democratic candidates may, for example, disagree about whether universal health care is an immediate priority or a long-term goal, but none oppose it in principle. They may have more ambitious or less ambitious plans for dealing with climate change, but none argue — as Trump has — that Obama was already doing too much. Within these bounds, though, a large number of Democrats are willing to sacrifice ideological purity for someone they think will win.

But there’s a problem. Electability is not an objective quality. Without much argument, we can sort candidates into bins like male and female, white and non-white, gay and straight, young and old, and perhaps even progressive and moderate. But who is electable and who isn’t?

The economist John Maynard Keynes once compared investing in the stock market to gambling on a beauty pageant: You win not by betting on the most beautiful contestant, but by identifying the one that other people will find beautiful. That’s what we’re trying to do when we search for an electable candidate. It’s not enough to find the one who would be the best president by your own lights; you need to pick out the one that other people will vote for. The New Republic’s Alex Pareene doubts that anyone can do that:

While the impulse to vote according to how you think a candidate would appeal to people who don’t share your priorities might make sense in theory, practice has revealed time and time again that no one involved in electoral politics—from the pundits down to the caucus-goers—has a clue who or what Americans will actually vote for.

WaPo’s Dan Balz examines past failures to predict electability, starting with Donald Trump in 2016, and going back from there to Barack Obama in 2008, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Jimmy Carter in 1976. All started their campaigns by outcompeting candidates that the consensus said were more electable, and then proved their own electability by getting elected.

I confess to feeling conflicted about all this. I recognize what critics are saying, but I really, really want to beat Trump in 2020. So I want electability to mean something. But how should I look for it?

False notions of electability. Polls only help up to a point. Several polls have Joe Biden beating Trump by the widest margin, while one recent poll had Beto O’Rourke as the Democrats’ best bet. But do polls now tell us much about who the voters will support 18 months from now, after a long (and presumably dirty) campaign? Biden’s candidacy already seems a bit dull; by Election Day will marginal voters be too bored with him to show up? Beto is more exciting, but also less well known. I expect the Trump campaign to have limitless resources to devote to smearing his opponent. Will the mud more easily slide off of a candidate we already know well? Or does a long career just provide more targets?

I had similar qualms in 2016. Leading up to the primaries, polls consistently showed both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton beating Trump, but Sanders by a wider margin. (Hillary ultimately did beat Trump by 3%, which wasn’t quite enough to counter his Electoral College advantage.) But Republicans had been smearing Hillary for decades, and had not yet begun to go after Bernie. So I tried to imagine how they would in a pre-New-Hampshire-primary post. How durable, I wondered, would Sanders’ poll lead over Trump be once he had his own invented scandal, like Obama’s birth certificate or Hillary’s role (whatever it was supposed to have been) in Benghazi? (This time around, Republicans are already working to create a scandal for Biden.)

Another thing electable shouldn’t mean is white straight Christian male. A black man and a white woman have won the popular vote in the last three presidential elections. Nancy Pelosi was supposed to doom Democrats’ chance of taking the House in 2018, but she didn’t. Women like Amy Klobuchar have won Senate seats by wide margins in the kinds of states Democrats need to win in 2020 (Minnesota). Kirsten Gillibrand’s first seat in Congress came from a red district in upstate New York. Pete Buttigieg may be the first major gay contender, but I want to see what actual voters have to say before I eliminate him.

I’m also suspicious of ideological definitions of electability. The centrist version says that Trump has abandoned the educated suburban Republicans, whose votes might be available to a Democrat moderate enough not to scare them away. 2018 seemed to bear this out; the gains that allowed Democrats to retake the House came mostly in suburban districts that had formerly elected Republicans. But the long-term record of this idea is poor; Republicans have been constantly shifting to the right since Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination from incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976, and yet somehow the abandoned center never provides enough votes to sweep Democrats into uncontested power. Instead, Democrats’ refusal to defend their left flank has pushed ambitious liberal ideas out of the national conversation entirely, and (until recently) has caused the center to move steadily to the right at the Republicans’ pace.

So electable can’t just mean moderate. It also can’t just mean progressive. The left-wing theory of electability is that in a polarized country, elections depend on turnout, so the candidate who best excites the base is most electable. Since turnout tends to be lowest among the poor, non-whites, and young people, candidates who appeal to these groups — generally more progressive candidates — should do better than moderates.

As sensible as that may sound in theory, evidence of it actually working is pretty thin. I’m still waiting for the progressive version of Marco Rubio: In 2010, he ran as a Tea Partier, won the Republican primary against an establishment candidate, and then went on to capture a Senate seat in a purple state. Stacey Abrams almost pulled off an even more impressive feat last year in the Georgia governor’s race, but fell short (with some voting irregularities that may have made the difference). So far, successful progressive stars have come areas that Democrats would hold in any case, like Vermont (Bernie Sanders), Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren), and Queens (AOC). They’re winning blue districts by matching the people who already vote, not by stimulating new turnout that flips red districts.

Both sides try to claim Barack Obama as an example of their theory working, because Obama’s 2008 landslide did everything right: He inspired new turnout and he held the center. In the most impressive Democratic victory of recent years — Doug Jones winning a Senate race in Alabama — Jones won as a moderate alternative to the far-right Roy Moore, not as a progressive. But he got a big turnout from black voters anyway.

How the 2020 campaign shapes up. Trump won in 2016 with only 46% of the vote, and many his voters did not have a particularly high opinion of him. (In an exit poll, only 41% of Trump voters said they strongly favored Trump, while 50% cited dislike of his opponent as their motivation.) According to 538’s weighted average of approval polls, he had a brief honeymoon period shortly after the inauguration, when his approval was higher than his disapproval, but still not over 50%. (Obama’s approval during his honeymoon period was in the high 60s.) More recently, he’s been stuck in a narrow 39%-43% approval range. No jobs report can bring that number up; no gaffe or evidence of corruption can bring it down.

In short, it is inconceivable that Trump will be re-elected because a majority of voters actually like him or want him to continue as president. The number of people who say they will definitely not vote for Trump in 2020 has been running in the 55%-58% range.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t win; just that he only has one route to victory: Some chunk of the electorate — just enough to let Trump sneak through the door — needs to conclude that the Democrat is even worse. So Trump needs to sow dissension among Democrats, as he (and the Russians) did in 2016.

To a certain extent he’ll run by raising support: He’ll take credit for the economy (assuming that it’s still good) and for a few other (mostly fake) accomplishments like the denuclearization of North Korea. He’ll remind Evangelicals how he came through for them with judicial appointments. He’ll tell nativists about the invasion of Hispanics he’s prevented. He’ll wink and nod at white supremacists, while distancing himself from the terrorists he clearly inspires. He’ll claim to have helped farmers, even though he hasn’t. He’ll conjure up another fantasy about the fantastic healthcare plan he’ll reveal someday, the one that covers everybody and costs less and doesn’t require any new taxes.

But a lot of the positive hopes he inspired in 2016 aren’t credible any more. We all know he isn’t going to fill his administration with “the best people” or make “great deals” to end the trade deficit. He’s not going to make other countries respect America. His tax cut isn’t going to pay for itself and isn’t going to provide any serious relief to working people. His infrastructure plan is always going to be vapor. He isn’t going to settle down and become more presidential someday.

In short, that 39%-43% isn’t going to grow, because he’s really not even talking to anyone else. His famous “What have you got to lose?” message to black voters in 2016 is paradigmatic: It wasn’t delivered to blacks at all. He was speaking about blacks in Detroit, but to whites in a suburb of Lansing. The point of that speech was to convince his base that he has a message for blacks. That’s all.

Without growing his base, how will he get up to the 46%-or-so that he needs to let the Electoral College work its dark magic? He’ll need to smear the Democratic candidate enough that dissident Republicans will get behind him and marginal Democrats will decide not to vote. That’s the only path to victory, so that’s what he’ll do.

How do we cope with that? The #1 thing Democrats need to avoid is framing the 2020 primary campaign as a death struggle between rival factions, one of which will lose and probably still feel disaffected in November. If Bernie-ites see beating Biden as revenge on the establishment for his loss to Hillary in 2016, or if centrists who are still angry with Bernie for pushing his 2016 campaign long past the point of hopelessness pull out all the stops to deny Bernie again, then we’re in trouble. There’s going to be conflict in the primaries, but it needs to be a fight between siblings, not enemies.

Each campaign talks about “vetting” its rivals, but there’s a difference between raising difficult issues and laying the groundwork for a Trump smear. So, for example, it’s fine to question Sanders or Warren about how they plan to pass and pay for their ambitious plans, but it’s out of bounds to make them answer for “socialism” in Venezuela. It’s fine to point out that Klobuchar and Booker are not supporters of Medicare for All, and that each has benefited from pharmaceutical-industry contributions in past campaigns. But it’s out of bounds to declare, as if it were a proven fact, that either is “bought and paid for”. And so on.

Admittedly, my Facebook news feed is probably not the most representative window into American opinion. But there’s one pattern among progressives that has me worried: a tendency to inflate Bernie’s support (the one recent poll that had him ahead of Biden got an amazing amount of attention on my feed, and the other recent poll that had him far behind got dissed on bogus grounds) combined with a persecution narrative about all the dark forces that are working behind the scenes to ruin his chances. (MSNBC is supposedly in the tank for Biden because it’s owned by Comcast, even though I’ve seen no evidence that Comcast is either rooting for Biden or interfering with MSNBC’s editorial decisions.) It’s obvious how that could play out disastrously: If Bernie’s support turns out to be less than his supporters have convinced themselves it is, the conspiracy-theory explanation of that shortfall will be ready, and Trump will be ready to exploit it to divide his opposition.

I think that all candidates currently in the race deserve a presumption of good will. No matter now much I may disagree with some position one of them takes, I’m going to listen to their justification and consider the possibility that they really believe it. I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that they must be either crazy or corrupt, as Trump is bound to claim.

Who is electable? When I judge electability, I’m not looking for a demographic profile or a particular set of policies. Instead, I’m looking for someone who will make a good spokesperson for Democratic values, who has the skills to perform well in a debate with Trump, who thinks well on his or her feet, and who demonstrates an ability to appeal to people of all races and classes and religions and genders. I’m looking for someone who can deliver an anti-Trump critique without sounding like the pot criticizing the kettle.

I’m looking for someone mud won’t stick to, who can deflect criticism with humor, and who can deliver a sting without sounding nasty. I want a candidate who can stand up to hostile questioning without getting flustered or testy or evasive. I want someone who can get specific on policy details, but never loses sight of the millions of Americans who aren’t political wonks.

Most of all, I’m looking for someone who uses the Light Side of the Political Force, someone who can raise enthusiasm without resorting to fear or anger. Fear and anger live on Trump’s home turf; going there plays into his hand, and will motivate his voters more than ours. But our candidate also can’t be dull. If none of the people who pay attention to politics this early can get excited about a candidate, how are we going to convince the apathetic to come out and vote?

As I hope you can tell, I haven’t determined yet who the most electable candidate is. I think establishing who does or doesn’t have these qualities is what this part of the campaign is for. At this point, I’m rooting for all 20+ of them. I hope one of them surprises me.

Buttigieg vs. Pence

Liberals have been yielding the high ground on religion for far too long. Maybe that’s going to stop.


There are two ways to seek people’s political support: You can lay out policy proposals to address the problems that concern them — like Medicare for All or a plan to cancel student debt — or you can show them that you’re on their side by taking on the people that threaten or intimidate them.

It’s not an either/or, of course. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has no trouble taking on the bankers who illegally foreclosed on your house while at the same time laying out policies that would stop them from foreclosing on someone else. Ultimately, a politician’s willingness to fight for you in the public square will come to nothing if he or she doesn’t also enact substantive changes after taking office.

But if you doubt the power of a pure I’ll-stand-up-to-your-enemies message, you need look no farther back than 2016. Candidate Trump’s policy proposals were often an incoherent mess. He said he’d replace ObamaCare something “fantastic” and “wonderful” that would take care of everybody. The government would pay for it, but it would neither raise your taxes or impinge on your freedom. (That’s not a synopsis of his program; that’s the whole program.) His foreign policy was both bellicose and promised an end to the endless wars. He was in favor of both LGBT rights and the religious right. He would simultaneously cut taxes, increase defense spending, and repay the national debt. He promised to build a wall, while his supporters argued among themselves about whether the wall would be literal or metaphorical.

But whatever he might propose, and however he might contradict that proposal the next time he opened his mouth, one part of Trump’s message was clear, and remains clear today: If you feel threatened by immigrants of color, by people who don’t speak English, by scientists who think they’re smarter than you, or by advocates of “political correctness” who tell you that you can’t say this or do that any more, then Trump has your back. If you’re sick of liberals calling you “racist” or “sexist”, well, Trump glories in being called those names, and strikes back at the accusers twice as hard.

A week ago yesterday, in his own soft-spoken way, Pete Buttigieg did something similar: At the annual champagne brunch of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, he took on Vice President Mike Pence by name, and challenged the religious right not just politically, but morally and religiously. When his words got national attention and Pence answered (dishonestly), Buttigieg did not back down.

The message was clear: He’s not intimidated by Mike Pence, so you don’t need to be either. And if the “Mike Pences of this world” think that they own religion or Christianity or words like morality and freedom, then Pete Buttigieg has news for them.

The speech. His 19-minute speech is worth listening to in its entirety, if you have the time. He is talking to a friendly audience of those who fight for LGBTQ rights, so it may not be as immediately courageous as, say, Catholic JFK’s speech to the protestant ministers of Houston. But in an era when everything is recorded, everything gets out, and your words live on forever in hard drives all over the world, it is quite striking.

We often hear the term “gay pride”. Buttigieg’s speech is a clear and simple assertion of gay pride. He’s not claiming to be better than straight people, but he’s also not apologizing for his sexuality or hoping that critics will ignore it. He is proud of his life, proud of his marriage, and proud of the spouse he married. He will not keep Chasten hidden and hope that his opponents will be gracious enough not to bring him up. Instead, Buttigieg talks about meeting Chasten, and adds:

One of the best things about these last couple months has been watching America meet him too, and start to fall for Chasten just like I did.

But he then goes on to talk about his struggle to accept his sexual orientation.

When I was younger, I would have done anything to not be gay. When I began to halfway realize what it meant that I felt the way I did about people I saw in the hallways in school or the dining halls in college, it launched in me something I can only describe as a kind of war. And if that war would have been settled on the terms that I would have wished for when I was 15, or 20, or frankly even 25, I would not be standing here. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water.

It is a hard thing to think about. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.

The room is completely silent at this point. What he is presenting is the religious right’s fantasy: that homosexuality is curable, and that 15-year-olds like Buttigieg could be offered the chance to sign up for some kind of conversion therapy (which is now illegal in 16 states, partly because it doesn’t work, and partly because forcing a child into such therapy is believed to increase the risk of suicide). The fantasy says that these men will be grateful later, when they look back on a life that includes wives and naturally-conceived children. But Buttigieg represents the polar opposite of that fantasy: Looking back on his life, he is grateful that he didn’t get that choice.

The real reason it’s so hard to think about is that if I had had the chance to do that, I would never have found my way to Chasten. The best thing in my life, my marriage, might not have happened at all. … How dark the thought, that the man that I admire and care about, and love sharing with the rest of the country, and even more importantly, can’t wait to share one day with raising children, might not have been part of my life at all. Thank God there was no pill. Thank God there was no knife.

And “thank God” is not just figure of speech. It segues Buttigieg into religion, and into the moral issue of marriage equality.

It’s a moral issue because being married to Chasten has made me a better human being, because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent. My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.

He explains exactly what “closer to God” means to him.

You may be religious and you may not. But if you are, and you are also queer, and you have come through the other side of a period of wishing that you weren’t, then you know that that message, this idea that there’s something wrong with you, is a message that puts you at war not only with yourself, but with your Maker.

And speaking only for myself, I can tell you that if me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.

The response. This is a story and an argument that many straight Americans have never heard: Accepting your sexual orientation or gender identity or some other aspect of yourself (that you didn’t choose and can’t un-choose) can be part of a journey of coming to terms with God.

The religious right will tell you that accepting homosexuality means rejecting God. (In a Fox News piece responding to Buttigieg, Log Cabin Republican Rob Smith says precisely that: “those on the left … have been very successful at convincing a generation of young gays and lesbians to reject God in favor of their cult of intersectionality and identity politics.”) It will tell you that gays want to tear down Christianity, and that the point of same-sex marriage is to undermine marriage in general. But Buttigieg is saying the exact opposite: Accepting how you were made is part of accepting God’s creation.

Buttigieg is challenging not the politics of the religious right, but its morality and its theology. This isn’t just about the Constitution or the law, it’s about what it means to be in right relation with God.

You can tell how threatening Buttigieg’s message is to the Mike Pences of the world by how hard they try not to hear it, and to pretend that Buttigieg said something else. Pence himself responded with this non sequitur:

I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith or attacks on the President as he seeks the highest office in the land. He’d do well to reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American.

But Buttigieg didn’t “attack” anybody’s Christian faith. He challenged Pence’s interpretation of it. In particular, there was no attack on Pence’s “religious freedom”. No one, least of all Buttigieg, is preventing Pence from believing whatever he wants, from trying to convince others to agree with him, or from living his faith. [1]

But you know what prominent conservatives did next? They attacked Buttigieg’s Christian faith. Erick Erickson, for example, described progressive Christianity as “hypocritical farce”  and “corrupt and flawed”. The Episcopal Church that Buttigieg belongs to “is no longer a Christian institution“.

Buttigieg did not back down to Pence, saying:

I don’t have a problem with religion. I’m religious too. I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people. … I’m not interested in feuding with the Vice President. But if he wanted to clear this up, he could come out today and say that he’s changed his mind, that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are.

Some very old arguments. Buttigieg’s challenge brings up several longstanding theological issues that conservative Christians would prefer to sweep under the rug. Though different, they all revolve around the notion that (in spite of the purported changelessness of Christian doctrine) the image of God that was taught centuries ago is something most people just can’t believe in today. [2]

One of those issues is predestination, the idea that God’s omniscience included knowledge of the destiny of the souls He was creating. [3] From the beginning of time, a few souls were predestined for Heaven and the vast majority for Hell. This belief turns God into a monster, because He created most of humanity for no other purpose than to torture them for all eternity.

Current religious-right teachings about gender and sexuality contain echoes of this monstrosity. If LGBTQ people in their many varieties are not choosing a lifestyle, but in fact are discovering an inner nature that has been theirs from birth, and if that nature either damns them to eternal torment or permanently cuts them off from sex, children, and the kind of deep relationship that Buttigieg describes making with Chasten, then something very similar to predestination is happening. [4]

An even larger and older issue goes back to the reformulations of the Axial Age, which never quite completed its mission: Is religion fundamentally about a list of rules and the rewards and punishments that enforce those rules? Or is it about becoming (in Buttigieg’s words) “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent”. If it is about rules, do those rules have to make sense, or is their very arbitrariness a measure of God’s majesty? [5] In the Christian tradition, this issue is the heart of the New Testament arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees. But the modern religious right has forgotten Jesus and taken the Pharisee side: The rules are the rules, and if we have to be cruel to enforce them, that’s just how it is.

And finally, there is the issue that religion itself can become a kind of idol: Rather than worshiping God, you can find yourself worshiping a scripture or a church or a set or rituals.

It’s not surprising that the religious right doesn’t want to talk about any of this.

We’re not supposed to challenge them. Conservative Christians have gotten used to being able to define the playing field. When they involve themselves in political discussions, we are all supposed to accept as given that they are good, decent people who are just trying to live according to their faith. We are supposed to accept the moral and theological premises they offer, and yield to them all the powerful vocabulary and imagery of Christianity.

But they don’t deserve that kind of consideration. They are offering us a God who is monstrous, and a religion that justifies discrimination and bigotry. They need to be called on that, not just because it’s bad law and bad politics, but because it’s bad religion.

I’m still waiting for a detailed set of policies from Buttigieg, and who knows whether I’ll like it when I see it. But this part of the message he’s gotten right.


[1] I won’t go into this in detail today, because I already have here and here. What masquerades as “religious freedom” for conservative Christians is actually a demand for special rights. They want a special exemption from discrimination laws, because they’re Christians. As the cartoon below demonstrates, it’s laughable to imagine the rights that conservative Christians claim being applied generally, to issues other than their hobby horses of homosexuality, abortion, or birth control.

[2] I mean can’t in a literal sense. If you can picture such a being at all, you will feel revulsion, not awe or wonder. If this is God, then maybe Lucifer was right to rebel.

[3] I’m describing God as “He” here, because in the theologies I’m describing, God is male. That’s not something I do when I describe my own beliefs.

[4] In contrast to Buttigieg’s coming closer to God, Chris Steadman describes (in the book Faitheist) going through a period of rage at a God who created him gay and then condemned gays to Hell.

In Evolving in Monkey Town Rachel Held Evans, whose path of spiritual growth has taken her out of Evangelicalism and into the Episcopal religion that Erickson finds so objectionable, recounts one of the first cracks in her childhood faith: Going on a mission trip to China, looking out a bus window, and realizing that a billion people out there were going to Hell. What kind of God would set the world up like that?

[5] Occasionally you’ll hear the conundrum expressed like this: Do we worship God because He is good, or because He is God? In an earlier era, this question made sense, but today we are more inclined to ask: Why would we worship a God who is not good?

Before We Even Think about Candidates for 2020

We already know how Trump is planning to beat us. Let’s go into that battle with open eyes.


President 46%. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president with 46% of the vote, beating a Democrat who got 48%. As he was being inaugurated, he briefly benefited from the wave of hope and goodwill that greets all presidents, and for about two weeks his approval/disproval rating was positive.

He quickly dissipated all that goodwill: He gave his scary “American carnage” inaugural address. We saw the flock of shady billionaires, fossil-fuel industry puppets, and alt-right provocateurs he had appointed to high office. Sean Spicer angrily told us that we didn’t really see all that empty space on the National Mall during Trump’s inauguration, and Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts“. Then Mike Flynn resigned under a cloud that had something to do with lies about Russia, the Trump family kept openly profiting from his presidency, and by April his approval was below 40%. It has fluctuated in a 37%-43% range ever since.

Whatever he says or does, or how well or badly things are going, that’s how much support he has. The unemployment rate hits record lows and the stock market record highs, but he can’t get over 43%. He all but kneels to Vladimir Putin, refers to Nazis as “very fine people”, puts kids in cages, and is identified in as a conspirator in a crime Michael Cohen has already been sentenced to prison for, but he doesn’t go under 37%.

There’s a good reason for that narrow range: Unlike all previous presidents (at least since World War II; I’m kind of hazy on the presidents before FDR), Trump continues to serve up the rhetoric his base wants to hear, and doesn’t even try to speak to the nation as a whole. Most of the things he says are easily recognized as false or nonsensical as soon as you leave the Fox News bubble. (The Washington Post fact-checker estimates that during 2018 Trump averaged 15 false or misleading statements per day.) But inside that bubble, he is a prophet; he says the (untrue) things that no other president has ever had the courage to say. Every bad claim people amke about him originates from a conspiracy between the Deep State and the Fake News Media, who are “enemies of the American people“.

Unlike, say, Bill Clinton reforming welfare, George W. Bush working with Ted Kennedy on education policy, or Barack Obama offering a “grand bargain” on the federal deficit to John Boehner, Trump has never given Democratic leaders the slightest reason to hope that they might achieve their goals by working with him. Every gesture towards compromise — like the DACA-for-Wall deal Trump said he wanted or the job-creating infrastructure bill he promised — turns out to be a mirage that evaporates in the light of day. Fundamentally, Trump doesn’t accept the premise of a win/win outcome; in order for him to believe he has won, his opponents have to lose.

Even worse, he seems to take joy in trolling groups that oppose him. He never misses an opportunity to smear Latino immigrants. He makes up derogatory nicknames (like “Pocahontas” or “Cryin’ Chuck”) for U.S. senators. Whenever he needs to rile up the racists in his base, he picks a fight with some black celebrity like LeBron James or Spike Lee. (Try to remember any previous president of either party trading insults with a celebrity outside of politics, no matter what opinions they expressed.) He refers to black-majority nations as “shithole countries“, and contrasts them with countries he’d like more immigrants from, like Norway. He encourages police to be more violent with suspects.

So how does Trump plan to win? That kind of behavior raises an obvious question: How does Trump think he’s going to get re-elected? Something like a third of the country may worship him. (Literally. It’s not uncommon to run across people saying that Trump was chosen by God to be president.) They may indeed be so devoted that they don’t care if he stands “in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoots someone”, much less if he violates campaign finance laws or commits bank fraud or is a ventriloquist’s dummy for Putin.

But how do you win an election if you don’t do anything to grow a base that’s barely more than a third of the country?

Answer — the same way he did in 2016. Eezy-peezy: Rile up your third of the country so that they’re sure to vote (and depress the rest of it so that they’re not), making them maybe 40% of the electorate. Get another 6% to hold their nose and vote for you because they’re scared of your opponent. Encourage (maybe with some social-media help from Russia) 5% or so to vote for third-party candidates who have no chance to take any of your states. (Howard Schultz has already volunteered for that role.) Then count on the Electoral College to install you in office even though your opponent has more votes.

That would sound like one of the Brain’s plans to take over the world, if we hadn’t just seen it work.

Let’s not get fooled again. If you know the trap your enemy is setting, the obvious counter-strategy is to refuse to walk into it. Since the trap is two-pronged (motivate his voters, depress and split ours) we should look for two things in a potential Democratic challenger:

  • Someone who raises progressive enthusiasm, so that marginal Democratic voters (especially non-whites and young people) are drawn to the polls.
  • Someone who doesn’t scare Republican voters outside Trump’s base (especially educated suburbanites and moderates) into supporting him.

The problem: While those two are not directly contradictory, they do generally point in opposite directions. A candidate with sweeping progressive proposals (like Bernie Sanders) tends to scare the Right, while a “safer” candidate (like Joe Biden) may leave low-motivation voters wondering why they should bother.

Moving either way increases the third-party threat. In 2016, Jill Stein got votes from people who would have voted Democratic if Bernie had been the nominee. But Schultz has openly said that his motivation to run as a “centrist” arises from fear of Democrats nominating a progressive like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Trumpists are preparing for either possibility. You can bet that any moderate candidate will face the same kinds of attacks “Crooked Hillary” did: He or she is a tool of the powerful special interests that are threatened by Trump’s attack on the Deep State. But CPAC (over the weekend) was a testing ground for attacks on progressives: They want to turn the US into Venezuela and even take away your hamburgers. The Green New Deal, Trump summed up, means “No planes. No energy. When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric.”

Any Trump challenger will face personal attacks that make him or her seem uniquely horrible. (“I mean, I don’t like him either, but couldn’t the Democrats have picked somebody else?”) It doesn’t really matter that the charges be true, only that they take time to refute. We’ve already seen this with Warren and the Native American issue. (Lots of people are convinced she made up her native ancestor in order to take advantage of affirmative action. There is zero evidence for this, but the issue never goes away.)

I think progressives underestimate the effectiveness of this kind of stuff, largely because Bernie never had to face it in 2016. (Republicans were counting on him to wound Hillary, so they mostly laid off of him, portraying him as a good guy with some wacky notions. Trump would occasionally cry some crocodile tears about the raw deal Bernie was getting.) It’s a mistake to draw the conclusion that Bernie was shielded by his fine moral character. Anyone can be lied about, and it’s usually not that hard to find some factual foundation to build a lie on. In a sufficiently large cloud of lies, the many absurd charges (think Pizzagate) can seem to support each other. (“I don’t know. It just seems like there’s something wrong there.”)

Don’t help him. The most important thing Democrats can do is to avoid slandering their front-runners. We need to make sure that candidates have answers for any serious questions that are bound to come up eventually, but attacks on a candidate’s fundamental honesty and decency shouldn’t be tossed around lightly.

So it’s fine to ask why Amy Klobuchar doesn’t support Medicare-for-All, but not to jump to the conclusion that she’s a tool of the insurance companies (unless you really know something). It’s fine to wonder how Bernie will pay for his proposals, but not to accuse him of trying to turn the US into Cuba.

And I don’t want to hear about how Kamala Harris isn’t black enough, or that Kirsten Gillibrand doesn’t know how to eat chicken. We’ll get enough of that kind of BS in the general-election campaign. We don’t need to start it now.

Can anybody thread the needle? The most successful Democratic campaigns of the Trump era have somehow managed to split the difference. Doug Jones won an unlikely senate seat in Alabama by avoiding progressive positions like Medicare-for-All, but the very thought of a Democrat beating Roy Moore inspired high turnout in Alabama’s black neighborhoods. Beto O’Rourke ran a surprisingly close race in Texas by creating an exciting progressive image without taking many progressive stands on the issues. That is also the path Obama took in his 2008 landslide. Obama himself was the excitement, not a revolutionary platform.

Texas and Alabama are both in the South, where a Democratic presidential nominee will only win as part of a national landslide. So I don’t think those races should define the limits of acceptable positions. But I think each issue needs to be weighed on the inspiration/fright scale. Reparations for slavery, for example, is a trap issue for Democrats. No one really believes the next president can get a reparations bill passed — and I don’t even know of a plausible reparations proposal — so I doubt the issue will inspire new support. But it will scare a lot of white people and lend itself to exaggerated charges.

At the moment, things look relatively good. The latest poll has Trump trailing a generic Democrat by 48%-41%. But of course, many polls showed even larger leads for Clinton at some point or another. That 7-point lead comes before the actual nominee either raises enthusiasm or gets torn down. It also comes before the Mueller report appears, and before investigations in the House nail down charges that Trump supporters have been able to wave away so far. There’s a strong chance of a recession beginning before the election, and who can guess what foreign crises will erupt between then and now?

The idea that 41% of the public might be able to look at the last two years and say, “I want more of that” is both scary and mind-boggling. But that’s the world we live in. Trump has about that much support and always has. He’s going to try to win again without building that base, and we know exactly how he’s going to try to do it. No matter what happens in the internal dynamics of our own process, we can’t ever lose sight of that.