Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Are reparations and single-payer equally unlikely?

For those of us interested in how the left prioritizes its various radicalisms, Sanders’s answer is illuminating...Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is “nil,” a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform...Considering Sanders’s proposal for single-payer health-care, Paul Krugman asks, “Is there any realistic prospect that a drastic overhaul could be enacted any time soon—say, in the next eight years? No.” - Ta-Nehisi Coates
One does not need to rely on Paul Krugman to notice that all Democratic legislation is doomed to failure for the foreseeable future. Republican control of at least one chamber of Congress guarantees it, just as they have guaranteed it during most of Obama's presidency.

But this is an argument against using immediate legislative prospects to set our political priorities - not an argument against setting any priorities at all. Obviously different agendas will have different levels of popular support and structural opposition, even if all of them will probably be shot down by the GOP. With that in mind, as a matter of basic tactics, it's completely defensible to prioritize what you think you can build support for, in the event that you or your successors can one day get past the Republican opposition.

Relative support

Coates seems to get this, which is why in addition to noting gridlock, he also touches on socialism's divisiveness among Americans; he does not, however, seem to appreciate how decisively this undermines his case. In the poll he links to, 47% of American say they would vote for a socialist president. But in another poll commissioned in the wake of his famous Case for Reparations essay:

  • Only 28% of respondents supported a mere government apology for slavery;
  • Only 27% supported education and job training programs for black Americans; and
  • Only 15% supported cash payments to black Americans.
It's easy enough to see how this discrepancy in support gets expressed politically. This year in the House, for example, good old Rep. John Conyers has supported two bills for consideration: a single-payer health care plan, and a commission to study reparation proposals. The first bill has 60 cosponsors; the second bill has zero.

A pragmatist, for better and for worse

It seems to me that these numbers provide an alternative justification for the priorities Sanders has set. Having considered the popularity of both reparations and single-payer, one can conclude that while he cannot win single-payer in the immediate future, a policy with 58% popular support is much closer in reach than a policy with only 15% popular support.

Of course, one can also argue that reparations are just, that it is white supremacy that keeps support for reparations so low, and that for these reasons Sanders should back immediate reparations despite considerations of political viability.

Fair enough; but this is a very different point from what Coates has argued. If considerations of viability matter - and his article insists that they do - then we can easily understand why Sanders would prioritize single-payer. There is in this regard nothing about him or his platform that is uniquely hypocritical or disappointing, and no particular reason to single him out on those grounds. His politics are governed by the same pragmatic calculations as everyone else's, for better, and for worse.