Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.
By this author
In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman has another column defending Hillary Clinton and criticizing Bernie Sanders. That makes three in two weeks. It’s the second of these anti-Sanders columns I’d like to focus on here, the one published a week ago, titled “How Change Happens.”
Krugman starts by lamenting the tendency—evident, he says, on both the left and the right—to believe “that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.” This, he insists, is a delusion. He then goes on to make a point about half loaves being better than none and the importance of “hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends.”
Let’s start with his first point. In fact, the majority of Americans who support policies considered radical in Washington isn’t hidden at all; it’s just irrelevant. That’s because the opinion that matters when it comes to bread-and-butter issues is not general public opinion but the opinion of the donor class, a.k.a. the One Percent. On social issues like gay marriage, donor-class opinion frequently coincides with public opinion. On issues like tax rates and the minimum wage, most of the donor class disagrees with a majority of Americans. In a well-functioning democracy, the majority would prevail; in our system, the donor class does. This was the conclusion of a recent academic study that received a lot of attention—Krugman himself mentioned it on his blog.
By making campaign-finance reform the centerpiece of his campaign—and by refusing to take big donations from billionaires and corporations—Sanders is addressing this problem head on, while Clinton, who claims to agree with Sanders on this issue, continues to take as much money as possible from whoever (or whatever) will give it to her. In other words, she has very little credibility on this issue. Her campaign is funded with money from financial institutions that are also funding Republican campaigns, and much of her personal wealth comes from speaking fees paid by the same institutions.
In short, the problem is not, as Krugman suggests, that Sanders and his supporters are fooling themselves about how much public support there is for “radical” reform. The problem is that public policy on economic issues is no longer determined by what the public supports.
By most accounts (including the one below), Bernie Sanders did well in last night’s debate in Charleston, South Carolina. He certainly didn’t lose and may even have won. He was slightly sharper and nimbler than he had been in earlier debates, despite being wrong-footed yet again on the issue of gun control. Hillary Clinton, the more polished debater, had some good moments too, but she often seemed complacent. Again and again, she tried to wrap herself in the mantle of President Obama. She’s no longer insisting, as she did until quite recently, that she isn’t running for Obama’s third term. On the contrary, she presented herself last night as the candidate who would protect his legacy, while Sanders managed to convey both his respect for that legacy and his determination to push beyond it. So far, this has not been a campaign season that favors defenders of the status quo, and that is precisely the role in which Hillary Clinton was bound to find herself. She’s a very adaptable politician—some would say too adaptable—but she never had a chance of running as an outsider. Now, with only two weeks left before the Iowa caucuses, Sanders has pulled even with Clinton in the polling there, while maintaining a slight lead in New Hampshire. Clinton still has a substantial lead in most national polls, but it is becoming less substantial every week, and Sanders is already polling much better than Clinton among young voters, including young women, and in match-ups with the leading GOP candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
The leadership of the Democratic Party, which never took Sanders very seriously, is finally starting to worry. So are center-left pundits. In this morning’s New York Times, Paul Krugman takes a shot at Sanders’s single-payer health-care plan, while New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait has a blog post titled “The Case against Bernie Sanders.” One gets the sense that Krugman is slightly more sympathetic than Chait to Sanders’s underlying ideology, but both argue that Sanders’s leftist platform is unrealistic in the current political environment and could even threaten the important gains made by meliorist liberals in the past eight years. Their criticism of Sanders is a version of the argument that the best is the enemy of the good—though Chait at least would probably add that those who really care about the details of public policy know that the pragmatic good is actually better than the ideological “best.” (Chait disapproves of ideology and believes that good liberals are immune to it.)
To their credit, both Krugman and Chait try to avoid condescending to Sanders and his supporters, but there is some unavoidable condescension in their claim that Sanders is naïve in imagining single-payer health care could ever get off the ground in the United States. The title of Krugman’s column, “Health Care Realities,” suggests that supporters of a single-payer system—or what Sanders often calls Medicare for all—are, well, not quite in touch with reality. Krugman reminds readers that it was all a Democratic Congress could do to push through Obamacare, which was modeled on proposals originally advanced by Republicans. Krugman acknowledges that Obamacare is a kludge—“a somewhat awkward, clumsy device with lots of moving parts”—and that “if we could start from scratch, many, perhaps most, health economists would recommend single-payer, a Medicare-type program covering everyone.” But since we can’t start from scratch, we must settle for what’s possible now, even if it’s imperfect and inelegant. The Affordable Care Act still needs all the support it can get in the face of continuing Republican efforts to repeal it. And besides, says Krugman, politics is about trade-offs and priorities: Democrats should concentrate their energy on other issues where there is both more room for improvement and more room for maneuver rather than wasting their time on “a quixotic attempt at a do-over.”
This morning Monsignor Ricardo Urioste, who was Archbishop Óscar Romero's vicar general, died in El Salvador at the age of ninety. In 1990, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Romero's murder, Urioste spoke about him at the Jesuits' Central America University in San Salvador.
Now up on the homepage is an article by Madeleine Davies about the refugee crisis in Europe ("A Loss of Nerve"). As Davies points out, the real crisis began long before the refugees reached Europe, but it was only then that most European governments seemed to take note.
The story behind Sean Penn's Rolling Stone article on Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, has captured the public's imagination and provoked some indignation on the part of professional journalists. How did a Hollywood A-lister land a meeting with the most wanted man in Mexico months before the federales caught up with him?
Robert Louis Stevenson is justly famous for his children’s stories, but he also wrote some excellent books for adults. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes is one them. Stevenson buys Modestine, his porter and companion, at the outset of his journey in Le Monastier and sells her twelve days later in St. Jean du Gard.
The current issue of Commonweal features "The Beginning of the End" by regular contributor Paul Elie. This piece also appears in The Good Book, a new collection of essays by well-known writers about their favorite parts of the Bible. Among the other contributors: Lydia Davis, Robert Pinsky, André Aciman, Edwidge Danticat, Colm Tóibín, Thomas Lynch (another Commonweal contributor), and Tobias Wolff.
Regular readers of Commonweal will be familiar with the work of Eve Tushnet.
Just in time for today's announcement about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paul Theroux writes in the Times about the hypocrisy of billionaire philanthropists:
Like all liberals and even a few social conservatives, I believe Kim Davis’s legal case is a weak one. More importantly, I believe the moral analysis behind it is confused. As others have argued, if Davis could no longer carry out her official duties as a county clerk without violating her conscience, then she should have followed the example of Thomas More and resigned. That might have entailed a real hardship for her and her family, at least until she found another job, but the principle of religious freedom does not protect us from every kind of hardship or inconvenience.
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