Tag Archives: 2020 election

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.

Are powerful women likable?

OK, a lot of people found Hillary Clinton hard to like. But three more women gained the spotlight this week, and guess what? They’re unlikable too. Maybe there’s a problem here we need to look at.


Maybe there really was some unique I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it thing about Hillary Clinton that put people off. Sure, she was whip-smart, had a boatload of executive and legislative experience, could stand up to 11 hours of hostile questioning, and had put forward an impressive collection of policies she wanted to implement if she got elected, but … you know. There was just something about her that made voters uncomfortable.

Maybe it was her voice, or her hair, or the way she dressed. She was just too … something. If that many people had said that many bad things about her over the years, there must have been some fire under all that smoke, right? And behind closed doors, she was supposed to have a temper. I know, John McCain’s temper was part of his charm — he was fiery and passionate sometimes, you know — but Hillary’s temper was so … we can’t say bitchy any more, can we? But you know what I mean. It was different.

OK, let’s give people a mulligan for Hillary. And let’s give another mulligan to the people who couldn’t possibly be racist, but some ineffable something about Barack Obama just felt wrong to them. He just wasn’t like the rest of us — not because he was black, of course. Lots of people are black. But … you know. And if he claimed to be an American-born Christian, didn’t that seem kind of fishy somehow? How could we trust somebody like … well, like that, whatever “that” means.

Honestly, I’m starting to get my own ideas about what sounds fishy here, but let’s not dwell on the past. Let’s talk about now. Let’s talk about Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All three of them have been making news lately, and they’ve all been running into unusual levels of hostility. Each of them, in her own way, has some indescribable quality that raises a lot of people’s ire.

What could it possibly be?

It’s not incompetence. Nancy Pelosi is the most talented legislator of our time. She has no real competition for that title.

When she was Speaker before, the House got stuff done. Appropriations bills got passed on time. She not only saved ObamaCare, but passed a bunch of Obama’s other progressive proposals (most of which died in the Senate).

As soon as the Democrats lost their majority in the House, everybody suddenly realized that the Speakership is a hard job. Even if you lead a partisan majority, holding it together well enough to pass an agenda takes real skill. John Boehner couldn’t do it. Paul Ryan couldn’t go it. Again and again, they would fail to get a proposal to the floor, or miscount votes and see a bill fail unexpectedly. (To this day, a Republican healthcare bill with positive content hasn’t even been drafted, much less voted on or passed.) Deals they thought they had negotiated fell apart at the last minute. Boehner just barely avoided pushing the United States into a self-inflicted financial disaster.

The Speakership is hard, unless you do it backwards and in heels like Pelosi does. Then it looks easy.

When LBJ and Sam Rayburn were the masters of Congress, their skills were appreciated even by many who disagreed with their goals. Phrases like “wheeler-dealer” and “arm-twister” got used with a certain amount of admiration. But it’s hard to imagine applying descriptors like that to a woman. Instead, she (and not Chuck Schumer) was the villain of GOP campaign ads across the country. Her own party seriously discussed not letting her be Speaker again if they regained the majority. (Schumer, meanwhile, lost seats in the Senate and was not challenged.)

It’s not inauthenticity. One complaint about Hillary Clinton was that she just wanted to be president and didn’t stand for anything. But Elizabeth Warren’s political career has a definite theme: Capitalism needs to be regulated to keep big corporations from running over ordinary people.

After the crash of 2008, Warren left a cushy position at Harvard Law School and entered public life because she wanted to protect consumers from the predations of the big banks. She ran for the Senate in 2012 because Republican opposition in the Senate made it impossible to get the job she had wanted: head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (whose creation she had overseen). In the Senate, she has been a leading voice against the concentration of corporate power.

She has the working-class biography to back up her sympathies with ordinary people. Rather than being tracked for high positions early in life (like, say, Brett Kavanaugh), she came from a working-class family and her career developed slowly: She left college to get married, then followed her husband as his career took him to Houston and New Jersey. She finished a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and  taught public-school children with learning disabilities. She interrupted that career to be an at-home mother, then later went back to school in law. She started out doing legal services from her home, then started teaching, and rose in academic ranks as an expert in laws related to bankruptcy. Eventually she got to the top of the academic heap: tenure at Harvard.

When Clinton, a centrist woman, seemed like the inevitable nominee in 2016, there was a groundswell among progressives for Warren to challenge her. Only after she refused to run did Bernie Sanders get into the race and lead progressive Democrats.

So announcing her presidential candidacy for the 2020 nomination raises one obvious question of substance: Just how much regulation does capitalism need? If you’d rather talk politics, you still have a number of interesting questions to choose from: Can she recover the support of the progressives who turned to Sanders in 2016? Can the Sanders/Warren wing of the party win this time? Can she get more support from blacks and centrists than Bernie got in 2016? And so on.

Instead, Politico raised this question:

How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

Politically, it’s hard to see much resemblance between Warren and Clinton, except for this: Both of them are women who saw their unfavorability ratings spike when they started to look like serious candidates. Clinton herself explained it this way:

It’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings; when I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating. And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again, and all of these arguments and attacks start up.

It’s not a lack of passion and vitality. Another criticism of Clinton (which sometimes also gets said about Warren, though I don’t understand why) was that she seemed cold. But if you want a politician who is the opposite of cold, I’ve got one for you: new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But strangely, she also has been a target of public ire.

Since upsetting a member of the House Democratic leadership in a primary and then winning his seat in the general election, Ocasio-Cortez has been targeted both for being too poor and for not being as poor as she’s supposed to be. Predictably, the too-rich criticism was based on her clothes: “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

When Paul Ryan came to Congress, he was a “young gun”; his youth was evidence of how extraordinary he must be, to get so far so fast. But AOC’s youth just points to her being a lightweight, because there’s no female equivalent of a “young gun”.

This week, we learned of a new AOC outrage: She and her friends made a dance video in college. Unlike, say, Melania Trump or Scott Brown, she kept her clothes on, but still the video is supposed to be embarrassing for some reason. My main reaction is that this video is a trivial thing that shouldn’t evoke anything more than a trivial response; mine is that college-age Alexandria looks like somebody college-age me would have wanted to go out with (assuming away the time-travel problem). But you can judge for yourself.

Somehow, though, conservatives looked at that video and saw something scandalous. I think this tells us more about them than about AOC. As Paul Krugman put it: “The mere thought of having a young, articulate, telegenic nonwhite woman serve is driving many on the right mad.”

If just being young and nonwhite were the problem, that would be one thing. But in the context of Clinton, Pelosi, and Warren, we see that being older and white doesn’t protect a woman either. The specifics of a woman’s life and character may shape how she gets disparaged, but her unique characteristics are not why she gets disparaged.

People are starting to notice. Robby Mook may have exaggerated a little about the reaction to Warren’s announcement video, but he wasn’t exactly making this up, either.

Last 24 hours shows Trump’s 2020 path to victory:
-Dem candidate releases video that explains her background, values, vision and policies
-it never mentions Trump;
-Trump responds with childish insult;
-Media only covers insult.
All process, all on Trump’s terms. No Dem message.

Maybe Trump and the press will do that with every Democratic candidate. But I also think it works better, and the media is more complicit, against women.

Peter Beinart, I think, has this right: The facts that an article cites about Warren may be true, but still contribute to a false narrative.

Mentioning the right’s attacks on Warren plus her low approval ratings while citing her “very liberal record” and the controversy surrounding her alleged Native American heritage implies a causal relationship between these facts. Warren is a lefty who has made controversial ancestral claims. Ergo, Republicans attack her, and many Americans don’t like her very much. But that equation is misleading. …

There’s nothing wrong with journalists discussing public perceptions of a candidate. The problem is that when journalists ignore what academic research and recent history teach us about gender’s role in shaping those perceptions, they imply—whether they mean to or not—that Warren’s unpopularity can be explained by factors unique to her. They start with the puzzle of her low approval ratings and then, working backward, end up suggesting that her policy views or (pseudo) scandals explain them.

… Journalists shouldn’t ignore electability. Elizabeth Warren’s comparatively low approval ratings are a legitimate news story. But the bigger story is that Americans still judge women politicians far more harshly than they judge their male competitors. Unless journalists name that unfairness, they risk perpetuating it.

“I would have voted for the woman who isn’t running.” As the 2020 campaign proceeds, other women are likely to emerge as serious candidates. (Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, perhaps.) We can hope that the sheer multiplicity of targets will disperse the misogynistic fire. But here’s a wild guess on my part: Whichever one is polling last will get the most favorable coverage. In 2004, when she wasn’t running, many voices pined for Hillary Clinton, only to turn against her in 2008 and 2016, when she was actually on the ballot. Likewise in 2016, people who were voting against Clinton often claimed they could have supported Warren, if only she had run. But where are they now?

The Republican Party has a similar dynamic around blacks. At some point in the process, there’s a boomlet for a black candidate like Colin Powell, Herman Cain, or Ben Carson. But these waves always fade before any votes get cast. Having given cover to people who will never actually vote for a black, the candidacies have served their purpose.

We can’t let that happen in 2020. “I would have voted for a woman” isn’t an excuse any more. Do or don’t, but what you would have done in some alternate reality doesn’t matter.

For the most part, this kind of prejudice is structural and unconscious. “Woman politician” has become a category in people’s heads; it seems natural to treat them differently than male politicians, as if a political office changes when a woman holds it. (There has been a similar phenomenon in sports: For a long time “black quarterback” seemed to be a category of its own. Any new black quarterback would invariably draw comparisons to previous black quarterbacks, and be judged accordingly. Cam Newton came into the NFL as a tall, strong quarterback with speed and a powerful arm, but somehow John Elway was never the comparison that popped into commentators’ minds.)

As Pelosi’s speakership, Ocasio-Cortez’ congressional service, and the 2020 campaign continue, we’re going to have to monitor this constantly, both in the media and in our own minds.

Elizabeth Warren stakes out her message

Two of Warren’s recent proposals could shift the public debate in a positive direction — but only if she’s willing to push them with a presidential campaign.


I have been one of the people predicting that Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t run for president in 2020, or ever. It seemed to me that the door was wide open for her to challenge Hillary from the left in 2016, and that Bernie Sanders only entered the race after realizing that she wouldn’t. Since then, I have believed her claims that she’s happy being a senator and isn’t interested in seeking a promotion.

I’m going to stop doing that.

In the last two weeks she has put forward two major pieces of legislation that won’t go anywhere in Mitch McConnell’s Senate, but which lay out clear themes for a national run. You don’t have to be a presidential candidate to take a big-picture view and lay out your best visions for the country, and actually I wish more senators would. But these two proposals really look to me like a foundation on which to build a presidential platform, so I’m going to stop denying that Warren is interested in the White House.

The proposals are the Accountable Capitalism Act and the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act. Together, they point to a different strategy for reaching those voters who feel that economic growth has passed them by.

The Great Divergence. The reasons Americans might feel discouraged about economic growth are well known, and I’ve covered them in this blog many times. Between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s, wages and productivity increased together; as technology and capital formation led to more efficient ways of producing goods and services, the workers who produced those goods and services benefited. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” the adage went.

But since then, wages and productivity have diverged. Productivity kept increasing while wages stayed flat. The economy kept growing, but the people who made stuff didn’t wind up with more. Instead, just about all the new wealth accumulated at the very top. It went to the people who own companies rather than the people who work at them.

The difference that trend makes from one year to the next doesn’t amount to much compared to the fluctuations of the business cycle; whether or not you can find a job counts for much more than whether or not wages in general are increasing. But over the course of a generation it makes a huge difference. My parents’ generation (born in the 1920s) lived like kings compared to their parents. What had been luxuries when they were young — cars, houses with more rooms than people, meals at restaurants — became commonplace in middle age.

For my generation (born in the 1950s) it’s been more hit-and-miss. If you moved up the educational ladder and got into a more lucrative profession than your parents, you did better than they had. But if you stayed on the same level — say if you tried to follow your Dad into the factories or mines — you did much worse.

The generation born in the 1990s may eventually come out well, but right now things look hard: Unless they were born into at least the upper middle class, a college degree leaves them deep in debt, while not getting a degree leaves them with many fewer options than I would have had. Either way, they enter adulthood with more headaches than my generation had.

Political responses. The Republican message ignores the Great Divergence, and claims that more GDP growth will solve everybody’s problems, as if the rising tide still lifted all boats. But it doesn’t any more. More economic growth might just mean that Jeff Bezos is worth $200 billion instead of $100 billion. In the expanding part of the business cycle (like now) ordinary people may find it easier to get jobs. But they still may not find it easier to get jobs that pay more than their parents made at the same age. A full generation’s worth of growth in the national economy may not have touched them at all.

The Democratic message has mostly been that people need help from government. Depending on where you are on the economic scale, you may need help paying for food and housing, or for health care, or for education. And so there are proposals like Medicare for All, free college, or even a basic income.

But redistributive proposals — taxing the rich and spending the money on everybody else — just mitigate the effects of stagnant wages. They make it easier to live in an economy that channels all of its productivity increases to the rich, but they don’t fundamentally change that economy.

Redistribution of power. Something the Trump campaign understood and took advantage of in 2016 was that Americans are frustrated by something deeper than just the fact that they aren’t winning the game financially. They’re angry about playing a game that they feel is rigged against them. “Make America Great Again” did have all sorts of racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic (in a single word, deplorable) implications, but it also evoked a well-deserved nostalgia for that pre-Divergence world, when the game felt winnable (at least for straight white men).

Just redistributing money doesn’t fix that. If you run a race with weights around your ankles, and somebody who doesn’t carry those weights gets a big head start, giving everybody a participation trophy at the end won’t make you feel much better about losing. No, to really fix the problem we need to redistribute power.

Promoting unions would help some, for reasons Trae Crowder explains in this video.

In this country, you’re not paid for the skills you have. If that were true the Kardashians wouldn’t have a fleet of Maseratis. No, in America you’re paid based on what you can bargain for.

Those factory-and-mining jobs that Trump keeps claiming (mostly falsely) that he’s bringing back — it’s not that they’re inherently good jobs. (In the 19th century they were terrible jobs. They paid starvation wages and you stood a good chance of getting killed.) It’s that unionized miners and factory workers had the power to force the owners to give them a fair share of the industry’s profits.

Warren’s insight is that we don’t just need to give workers better tools to channel power. We also need to weaken the corporations and wealthy individuals that they bargain against.

The corporate/government power loop. In this era of corporate personhood, we take for granted that corporations are immortal sociopaths. As I noted in 2010:

Diagnostic criteria for sociopathy include symptoms like: persistent lying or stealing, apparent lack of remorse or empathy, cruelty to animals, recurring difficulties with the law, disregard for right and wrong, tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others, irresponsible work behavior, and disregard for safety. [1]

Any of that sound familiar?

We take for granted that (within the law and occasionally outside of it) corporations will do whatever they can to increase their profits. We fault a poor person for taking advantage of a loophole in the Food Stamp program, and Trump rails against desperate immigrants who take advantage of our asylum laws. But if a corporation takes a subsidy or tax cut that was supposed to encourage it to create jobs, and then it destroys jobs instead … well, that’s just how they are; it was our own fault for not negotiating a tighter agreement. If a corporation moves its headquarters to the Cayman Islands to escape taxes, what did you expect? Corporations aren’t patriotic. If a health insurance company finds a loophole that lets it kick sick people to the curb, it’s just doing a good job for its stockholders.

We forget that corporations were not always this way. In the era of the Founders, corporations were rare and were chartered for specific purposes like building a canal or running a college. The Founders themselves recalled the British East India Company as a bad example they didn’t want to recreate.

Corporations are not a natural species that we have discovered and integrated into our society. They are created by law, and they should be what we need them to be. Maybe it doesn’t serve our purposes to give enormous economic and political power to immortal sociopaths. [2]

The obvious answer is to regulate them tightly. President Grover Cleveland — how often does his name come up? — said in his 1888 State of the Union that corporations “should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people” but that they “are fast becoming the people’s masters.”

Already in Cleveland’s day, the problem was that corporations corrupt the regulating process. Not only do they have the time and money to find the weak points in whatever system we construct, but they also influence how those systems are set up in the first place. Often the laws regulating corporations are written by corporate lobbyists, and then applied by bureaucrats who hope to make a lot of money as corporate lobbyists in the future. And now that the Supreme Court has given the go-ahead to unlimited corporate political spending, a lot of politicians are either afraid to oppose them or unable to beat them.

So there’s a power loop: corporations control the government that is supposed to protect us from corporations. It’s no wonder ordinary people can’t win.

Vox looks back at the seminal Milton Friedman article “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits” from 1970.

Friedman allows that executives are obligated to follow the law — an important caveat — establishing a conceptual framework in which policy goals should be pursued by the government, while businesses pursue the prime business directive of profitability.

One important real-world complication that Friedman’s article largely neglects is that business lobbying does a great deal to determine what the laws are. It’s all well and good, in other words, to say that businesses should follow the rules and leave worrying about environmental externalities up to the regulators. But in reality, polluting companies invest heavily in making sure that regulators underregulate — and it seems to follow from the doctrine of shareholder supremacy that if lobbying to create bad laws is profitable for shareholders, corporate executives are required to do it.

Warren’s proposals. Taken together, Warren’s two proposals are aimed at attacking that corporate/government power loop from both sides. The Accountable Capitalism Act focuses on the corporate side. Vox explains:

Warren wants to create an Office of United States Corporations inside the Department of Commerce and require any corporation with revenue over $1 billion — only a few thousand companies, but a large share of overall employment and economic activity — to obtain a federal charter of corporate citizenship.

The charter tells company directors to consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders — shareholders, but also customers, employees, and the communities in which the company operates — when making decisions. That could concretely shift the outcome of some shareholder lawsuits but is aimed more broadly at shifting American business culture out of its current shareholders-first framework and back toward something more like the broad ethic of social responsibility that took hold during WWII and continued for several decades.

That sounds kind of idealistic, but there are some very practical enforcement mechanisms: Workers would elect 40% of the corporate board of directors: not enough to give the workers control, but more than enough to settle any internal disputes among the stockholders. And then, the bill would “require corporate political activity to be authorized specifically by both 75 percent of shareholders and 75 percent of board members”.

Think about what that means: The board members elected by the workers could veto any corporate political contributions or lobbying efforts. So if corporate management wants something out of the government that benefits the whole company, it could still fund that. But if it wants government help breaking its union or killing government healthcare programs or generally tilting the economy in a pro-business direction, that’s probably not going to go through.

This is a way to limit corporate political spending that gets around John Roberts’ corporations-have-free-speech notions. They still have free speech, but the process by which they decide what to say has been fuzzed up a little.

The Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act hits the government side of the power loop. A different Vox article:

The bill would institute a lifetime ban on the president, vice president, Cabinet members, and congressional lawmakers becoming lobbyists after they leave office. It would give other federal workers restrictions — albeit less severe — on entering lobbying firms. The act would also bar federal judges from owning individual stocks or accepting gifts or payments that could potentially influence the outcome of their rulings.

Warren’s bill would also mandate presidential and vice presidential candidates to, by law, disclose eight years’ worth of tax returns and place any assets that could present a conflict of interest into a blind trust to be sold off (neither of which President Donald Trump has done). Members of Congress would have to do the same with two years of tax returns.

Critics say this law would make it hard to recruit people into government jobs, but it looks to me like it would just weed out people who want government jobs for the wrong reasons. If you want to work for the FDA because you care about public health, you’ll still want to work for the FDA. But if you want to work for the FDA because you hope for a big payday from the drug industry after you leave government, you won’t.

Where this goes. Immediately, it goes nowhere. Mitch McConnell controls what bills come up for a vote, and the GOP has the votes to kill anything its corporate masters don’t like. I don’t even know how many Democratic senators would line up behind this.

What Warren has done, though, is drive a stake into the ground, and say “We need to build something here.” I haven’t read either bill in its entirety, and I suspect there will be considerable room for debate about the details. She may not have them right.

But she has the big picture right. We do need to regulate corporate activity more tightly, especially in the ways that it incestuously influences its own regulation. We need to restrain the power of corporate money in our elections. We need to make it less tempting for politicians and bureaucrats to sell out the public interest.

In the near term, the significance of these proposals is that they can shift a stagnant public debate. The right forum for that debate to get started, though, is the 2020 presidential campaign. Unless some major presidential candidate picks these ideas up and carries them into the televised debates, they’ll fade into the background.

So what do you think, Senator Warren? Will some major candidate pick these ideas up?


[1] Several of those links had rotted in the last 8 years, so I updated them.

[2] I often wonder if all the vampires who show up in our novels, TV shows, and movies are some kind of collective unconscious response to the immortal sociopaths we have to deal with every day. Don’t you ever feel like your cable or credit-card company would like to suck your blood?