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6/13/19

Bernie Sanders should obviously campaign as a socialist

Last evening, Hamilton Nolan posted a thing rehearsing the old logic-nerd conventional wisdom that all communication must begin with definitions. He thinks that "Philosophers long ago realized" this, which is true if by philosophers we mean Ayn Rand and literally no philosopher of language post-Wittgenstein.

He then insists that we cannot have coherent conversations about socialism, since it is completely undefined - which is not to say that it is merely controversial, but that it offers "no recognizable basis from which to proceed to specifics." This, despite the fact that we have field studies showing remarkable continuity in people's ideas about socialism, even down to extremely detailed policy specifics, and despite the fact that his theory that "socialism" has no shared meaning at all is patently impossible.

Finally, we get several paragraphs pulled straight from the No Labels "About" page on how socialists and capitalists really want the same thing ("the left broadly agrees what should be done, they are functionally the same") and are simply caught in a debate over tribal semantics (insert the usual sighing about "our talking and yelling and solemn speeches and vacuous cable news crosstalk...people arguing over what a blank page says"). In conclusion, everyone needs to stop talking about socialism.



Why is Nolan doing this? Because by December of last year, he had already decided that Bernie shouldn't run. And he had already decided that all of these candidates basically want the same thing:
Universal health care? Free college? Stronger regulation of Wall Street? Forceful downward redistribution of wealth? A true “Green New Deal?” None of these things are implausible now...[Sanders should ] endorse a Democratic presidential candidate who will best carry on his own ideas. I don’t really give a damn who it is. Warren, or Kamala Harris, or Sherrod Brown, or whoever.
Let's look at that first one. Anyone remotely familiar with Warren's record on this knows that she has long been a weather vane on universal health care, hedging every nod and gesture of support with the standard centrist death sentence: "I think you have to stay with what's possible...we've really got to consolidate our gains." (There is no ambiguity here: Warren says "no" when asked if she supports single payer, and even tries to deny her past statements of support.) And since the start of her campaign, Warren has only become even more evasive.

Who disagrees with her about this? Who does the public consistently associate with support for universal healthcare? Socialists. For better and for worse, this is the cause we're linked with more than any other. And there are some obvious reasons for this: socialists are fundamentally skeptical of leaving basic human welfare to the mercy of the private sector. We are skeptical about this in a way that even the most generous capitalist is not, and this means that we were fighting for universal healthcare even when liberals were rallying around Obamacare and insisting that they did not support the socialist agenda.

It is (sadly) true that Bernie Sanders is not likely to call for the abolition of private property or the absolute expropriation of the bourgeoisie. But even when it comes to far more modest ambitions, like the nationalization of the health insurance industry, there are real policy differences between him and his opponents that anyone who is actually interested in policy can identify pretty quickly. And Nolan's feigned confusion aside, it's trivially easy to explain these differences by looking at what Warren and Sanders say they believe. That's why both Sanders and Warren have themselves stressed this difference over and over: they think it's important, too!

As long as there has been socialism, there have always been critics who are eager to dismiss it as an exercise in pedantry that's irrelevant to the real world. Even a quarter century ago, The Simpsons were already parodying this as the brain-dead truism that it is. Today, we have a candidate who would be our first democratic socialist president, running on an issue that Americans have always identified with socialism, doing it on opposition to capitalist who are taking standard capitalist positions on healthcare - and he just might win. Why wouldn't we talk about it?

6/12/19

What do people think socialism is?

It's usually pretty difficult to get good information about public attitudes towards socialism, but the past month has been a real watershed. First came a Gallup poll that I covered here which asked whether various political concerns should be managed by the government or the free market. Now comes a poll by Axios asking respondents what "a socialist system" means to them. The results, I think, are pretty intuitive, though they also send a mixed message to activists and intellectuals working within the historical socialist tradition.

6/11/19

The Tax Policy Center's dubious scholarship on who "deserves" welfare

Leonard Burman, in a new Tax Policy Center paper, argues for work requirements on welfare:
Political scientists have found ample evidence that people all over the world categorize people in terms of "deservedness" (Peterson et al. 2011; van Oorschot 2000, 2006). Most people are willing to help someone who is unlucky but are less eager to support someone who they perceive as lazy...Thus, a work-based tax credit would be much more likely to win public support than an unrestricted cash grant (such as UBI).
In my experience it's often a good idea to look at the scholarship people cite when they're trying to rationalize placing conditions on help for the poor, so I decided to take a look at the papers Burman refers us to.

6/6/19

It would be extremely good if the GOP moved left on economic issues

I do not actually think that the Republican party is moving left on economics. Judging by the caveat at the end of his latest piece - Tucker Carlson’s Praise for Elizabeth Warren Should Scare Democrats - I don't think Eric Levitz does, either.

Still, I think we should be clear about this: as the dysfunctions of liberal capitalism escalate and socialists articulate a clear, compelling alternative to laissez faire austerity, we should absolutely expect the popular consensus on economic questions to shift to the left. And we should want this to happen. We should want deregulation and tax cuts for the rich and attacks on organized labor and welfare to become so politically toxic that even our right-wing parties are afraid to touch it.

6/6/19

An early look at the Biden and Sanders coalitions

Voter coalitions in the Democratic primaries will probably shift significantly between now and when the voting starts, particularly as candidates drop out and voters adjust their calculations to the new political landscape. That said, it seems odd to suppose that current trends are going to completely reverse, and analyses based on actual polling are still much more legitimate than the kind of speculation and conjecture that has dominated talk about coalitions so far.

6/4/19

Can't beat capitalism with hashtags

The buzz around "Abolish ICE" - a slogan from the immigration justice movement that was taken up by journalists, media activists, and a handful of politicians for a few months last year - has entirely faded away. A couple of belated articles are all we have for the postmortem. By the 2018 elections, Democrats had "sprinted away" from the issue, Adam Edelman writes; in Buzzfeed, Molly Hensley-Clancy and Nidhi Prakash affirm that it "has been rejected entirely by the presidential contenders," and that it has remained "starkly unpopular with voters".

5/28/19

Everyone misread the "Sanders voters don't pay attention to politics" poll

Over the past week, multiple pundits - including Nate Silver, Chuck Todd, and Harry Enten, among others - have seized on a new Quinnipiac poll to make some confused points about how much attention Sanders supporters are paying to the Democratic primaries. The kernel of truth to their argument is that Sanders is currently winning the largest share of voters who say that they are paying little-to-no attention to the primaries. But from there, they extrapolate all sorts of conclusions that defy both basic math and common sense.

5/27/19

Gallup's new poll on socialism is full of bad news

A few months ago, Gallup released some polling that prompted a surge of sensational headlines: in NY Mag, one typical article asked "Are Democratic Voters Abandoning Capitalism for Socialism?" The answer, it turns out, was no: support for capitalism cratered by nine points in that poll, but support for socialism dropped too (by a single point). But the shift in their relative positions, giving socialism (at 57%) a clear lead over capitalism (at 47%) for the first time in a decade, was enough to spark lots of media coverage.

5/26/19

Adorno, on telling the truth

The most profound and insightful writing tells you something new every time you read it, and so it is with Adorno. Last night, re-reading his Research Project on Anti-Semitism, I came across this passage:

5/20/19

New Jacobin article on Warren's green military bill

I'm in Jacobin today with a walkthrough of the Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act - better known as Elizabeth Warren's "green military" bill.