AOC is Neither a Sellout Nor a Savior. It’s Up to Us to Lead the Progressive Movement.

by Keaton Weiss

From the moment I saw the first video ad of her long-shot primary challenge for New York’s 14th Congressional District in 2018, I knew that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the real deal. She’s proven me right ever since.

Mere days after being elected, AOC made her dynamic anti-establishment presence felt on Capitol Hill by joining Sunrise Movement activists in their march on Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand urgent action on climate change. In the summer of 2019, she found herself at odds with party leadership over her direct and correct description of the border detention centers as concentration camps. In September, she turned up the heat on Pelosi once again by insisting that the Democrats’ refusal to impeach President Trump over his “lawbreaking behavior” was a bigger scandal than Trump’s actions themselves (I happen not to agree with that last one, but the point remains that she’s been willing to repeatedly throw down with the party bosses.)

In October of 2019, she not only endorsed Bernie Sanders, but, given the timing of her endorsement, with Bernie stalling in the polls and having just suffered a heart attack, she almost single-handedly resurrected his campaign. Bernie’s 2016 bid had inspired her to run for Congress in the first place as a populist left firebrand, and so, not surprisingly, she came through for Bernie’s movement when we needed her most. She’s since stumped for Bernie in multiple states, most critically having filled in for him in Iowa when Bernie himself was stuck in D.C. for the impeachment trial, and has also appeared on various television programs as a surrogate for the campaign.

Given progressives’ affinity for AOC, it’s no surprise that Monday morning’s Politico story entitled “AOC Breaks with Bernie on How to Lead the Left” sparked our concern. The thrust of the article is that Ocasio-Cortez has softened on the Democratic establishment in recent months, and has begun to favor a strategy of working within the system to achieve her policy goals over Bernie’s movement-based revolutionary approach. The piece cites AOC’s reluctance to endorse many of Justice Democrats’ slate of primary challengers to incumbent Democrats in 2020, replacing her “outspoken radical” staff members with more conventional political operatives, scrapping plans for creating a “corporate-free” caucus, and, as the article puts it, “chid[ing] Sanders supporters for online harassment.”

Many progressives, including Cenk Uygur and Graham Elwood, were quick to tweet out their negative reactions to the article. Krystal Ball expressed similar disappointment on her YouTube showAlso disconcerting is that AOC’s new tactics earned praise from repugnant hacks like Neera Tanden and James Carville, as outlined in the article itself, and, worst of all, a shoutout from the ghastly anonymous tweeter, the Hoarse Whisperer, who, to make matters worse, trashed fellow squad members Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib in the very same tweet which complimented AOC’s strategic shift.

I’m certainly not going to pretend any of this is encouraging. It isn’t. AOC should endorse Cori Bush, for example, who is attempting, for a second time, to oust incumbent Democrat Lacy Clay in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. She endorsed her last time, when both of them started the cycle as underdog primary challengers, and she should do so again. Thus far she hasn’t. I’m not at all excited to learn that activists like Saikat Chakrabarti and Corbin Trent have been swapped out for Kamala Harris and John Hickenlooper alums like Ariel Eckblad and Lauren Hitt. I’m also more than a little bummed that she’s not going to start a corporate-free caucus. As understandably miffed as we might be to hear this news, progressives must keep things in perspective, lest we alienate a vital ally like AOC from our movement. And yes, she still is very much an ally.

Assessing AOC’s new, more conciliatory strategy, requires us to balance two ideas in our minds at once: that AOC can, and must, be a hugely important partner in the struggle for transformative change, but that she cannot and will not, at least in the short term, be its leader in the same way that Bernie was these past five years.

To the first point, it’s absurd to suggest that AOC has sold out, or abandoned the grassroots, or turned her back on progressives, or given in to the corrupt Democratic machine. Her endorsement revitalized Bernie’s campaign just at the moment when the party’s establishment goons were breathing a collective sigh of relief that it was all but over. She has aggressively and effectively advocated for a broad set of policy positions that are anathema to party leadership. She’s outwardly stated, as recently as January of this year, that she and Joe Biden don’t really belong in the same political party. Hell, she was such a thorn in the Democrats’ side that she feared they would use the 2020 Census and the consequent redistricting as an opportunity to eliminate her Congressional District altogether! (She also did not, as the article claims, “chide” Bernie’s online supporters. That claim was in reference to her appearance on The View in which she responded to the “Bernie Bro” smear as sheepishly as the Bernie campaign itself. So you can’t really fault her for that.)

But to the second point, we must understand that AOC and Bernie are very different political figures. AOC is a young woman at the beginning of her career who entered politics as an insurgent candidate within the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, is 78 years old, nearing the end of his tenure after having spent a lifetime in politics as a true outsider – as an independent. As such, Bernie was never burdened by the imperative to get along with the other members of his club, because Bernie was never in a club. Bernie was never part of any progressive “wing” of a political party, because Bernie never joined a party. Hillary Clinton wasn’t all wrong when she said that “nobody likes” Bernie, and that “nobody wants to work with him.” In the context of Washington, D.C., she’s probably more or less right. This isn’t to say he hasn’t accomplished things, but Bernie himself even said in his Queens rally when AOC officially endorsed him, “I have cast some lonely votes, fought some lonely fights, [and] mounted some lonely campaigns.” His career as a disliked, unwelcome, lone warrior for justice is precisely what made him uniquely well-positioned to lead this populist progressive movement as far as he has. When the time came to challenge the country’s most powerful political machine in 2016 for the Democratic nomination, Bernie was the only one to step up, because he was the only one with nothing to lose. He didn’t have to fear retaliation from the Democratic Party brass, because he’s, as we’ve all heard a million times by now, not a Democrat.

AOC is in a fundamentally different position. Whereas Bernie spent the entirety of his long career circumventing the Democratic Party apparatus, AOC, at 28 years old, has infiltrated it. And so now that she’s got her foot in the door, from her position, it makes sense to try and do as much good as she can from where she is, which is, for better or worse, in the belly of the beast. And while I certainly plan to support her efforts over the years to do as much good as possible from the inside, I also know that the progressive movement must look outside the Democratic Party for leadership in this moment.

The Politico piece mentions that many Bernie supporters are upset with AOC now, but are afraid to say so publicly since they see her as the “likely heir to his movement.” This is misguided, because there is no heir to Bernie’s movement. There can’t be, since there’s no one person poised to carry the torch at this time. We, collectively, as an independent grassroots movement with no responsibilities or obligations to the Democratic Party machine, must be our own leaders for now. And in time, if we can build a viable and robust progressive power structure that’s serious enough to the point where representatives like AOC feel they can join us and retain their influence, perhaps they will. Until then, it would be unreasonable to expect progressive Democrats to declare total war on their party, because we haven’t yet done the work of assuring them they’ll have a place to go when the war is over, should they be forced out. Remember, Democrats were considering erasing AOC’s seat entirely. Given that possibility, can we blame her for playing ball with them a little bit?

Until we build our own power from the grassroots on up, no we can’t. And so that’s our task. The good news is there are wonderful people and organizations at work right now doing just that. The Movement for a People’s Party is preparing their first convention for Milwaukee this July. Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant is a high profile third party success story who seems eager to expand the project. The aforementioned Sunrise Movement is working to primary two powerful incumbent Democrats, Richard Neal and Eliot Engel. Local Berniecrats has hundreds of excellent progressive primary challengers on the ballot this year. These are our leaders now. They’re independent activists and organizations, just like us. If we all take the reins together, there’s a good chance that the more sincere progressive Democrats will follow our lead. But it’s up to us to make that happen. AOC is no sellout, but she’s no savior either. Only the grassroots can lead the progressive movement from here.

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The Coronavirus Bill: An Outrageous Corporate Bailout – Interview w/Zach Carter

Zach Carter, senior reporter at The Huffington Post, joins us to explain why the coronavirus bill is an outrageous bipartisan giveaway to corporate power, and whether or not it can be renegotiated in the weeks and months to come.

Listen to the podcast by clicking in the SoundCloud player, or read the transcript below.

Keaton Weiss: Hello everyone, welcome one and all, this is the Due Dissidence podcast, and I have the great pleasure of being joined on the phone by Zach Carter. Zach is a senior reporter for the Huffington Post whose piece came out yesterday, it was front page on the Huffington Post for a number of hours. It’s called Democrats are Handing Donald Trump the Keys to the Country. Zach, thank you so much for making the time on what I’m sure is a very busy and chaotic day for you.

Zach Carter: Thanks so much for having me, Keaton.

KW: Thank you. One of the things I loved about this article is that it puts this kind of information in such a way that people can actually get something from it. People can actually understand what they’re reading. That’s what I said when I emailed you; I said this is informative, it’s also accessible, which really comes in handy for people like me, and most of us laymen who have a hard time following these sorts of topics. But I really loved this piece and I’m so excited to get to talk to you about it.

My first question, before we dive into the specific informative points of the article, is who actually held the cards here in this coronavirus bill negotiation? Because one of the things I took from the article, and I’ll sort of jump quickly to a couple of phrases from the last section of it here. It reads, “The House voted down the first bank bailout bill in 2008. It could do so again, and demand instead a simple relief bill for people who really need it ― working families ― and emergency measures to actually fight the coronavirus pandemic.” As opposed to all this corporate bailout stuff.

What I took from that is that a political party whose main priority was actually the material well-being of ordinary people, you would think would have the upper hand here. Because this is a situation and a crisis in which things actually have to get done. You can’t just fake your way through a crisis like this, you actually have to give people material relief. And so I think one of the things that may be helpful to understand before we dive into the specifics is who really had the upper hand going into this process. Would it be fair to say that the Democrats had a lot more leverage than they used?

ZC: Well I think in this particular case, ideology aside, whatever you think the Democratic Party does, or ought to stand for, the fact remains that Donald Trump needed a bill to pass. He needed to get a lot of money out the door. There’s no way you can fight a crisis like this without spending trillions of dollars. I have a biography of John Maynard Keynes coming out in a couple of months, that’s one of the lessons of his life story.

And I think when you have control over one of the chambers of Congress, that gives you the power to set, maybe not all of the agenda, but a great deal of it. And one of the hallmarks of the Democratic Party’s strategy since they took back the House in the 2018 elections has been to seek common ground with the President and with the Republican Senate wherever possible, so as to project a sense of cooperation to the public, on the assumption that this is a politically advantageous message to send.

I think in a crisis, you can argue that putting forward a united front has some value. But ultimately Donald Trump needed a bill, and Nancy Pelosi has power, more power in this situation than Chuck Schumer, but Chuck Schumer also has the filibuster. And individual senators, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have the power to affect the progress of the bill, to stall things, to put holds on legislation, to make a case to the public that the approach to the emergency that is the coronavirus crisis should look a certain way. And ultimately, I think in this particular case, they didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.

The Republican Party has been plagued by a lot of scandals lately. It’s not just the raw power dynamics on Capitol Hill that matter, there’s also the sort of legitimacy of the party. The Richard Burr revelations that he appears to have dumped an enormous amount of stock while reassuring the public that the coronavirus stuff was not that big a deal, and the United States was prepared for it. That didn’t look very good. I think the President’s various shifting narrative about the coronavirus, whether it’s a big hoax dreamed up by the Democrats, or what have you. I mean the fact that this is even happening is partly biological, but it’s also political. Other countries that prepared for this are doing much better. Taiwan, Singapore, even South Korea, which had a pretty bad outbreak in the beginning, has really gotten it under control. The United States is making the wrong decisions at every turn. And there’s no sense in which I think the Democratic Party has tried to, or done a good job at least, making that case. Making it clear to the public that this is a political failure as well as a once-in-a-century biological disaster.

I think in general, yes, the Democratic Party could have had a different bill if they had wanted one. They could still. I mean the bill has not passed the House yet. They’re going to vote on it I think tomorrow. So things are shifting quickly in this environment. But I think ultimately Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are happy with this bill. So I’d be surprised if that happened, but I’ve been surprised before.

KW: Right. You mentioned Elizabeth Warren, and I wanted to bring up a few tweets that she put out in response to this bill, because she did vote for it. But before we get into that I would just like to ask you about one section here, because this is a situation where, like I said, once again, this stuff gets so complicated. And this part of it would have slipped entirely by me had I not read your article, and I’m still not 100% clear on it, so I’m wondering if you could shed some more light on this.

Right towards the beginning, it says that “the new law would establish a $4.5 trillion corporate bailout fund overseen by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, with few substantive constraints. Some outlets are reporting this as a $500 billion fund, but $425 billion of that can be leveraged 10 times over by the Federal Reserve, resulting in a multi-trillion-dollar program.”

Can you explain that a little bit further? Because I read a bunch of things that said basically that he should be overseeing $500 billion of this to basically do what he wanted without the public knowing. But it sounds like what you’re saying is that that is a very misleading figure.

ZC: It’s a much larger figure. And look, I don’t blame every reporter who reported it at the numbers that are included in the bill, because this is an unusual type of accounting trick, let’s call it. I don’t mean “accounting trick” as a nefarious thing, but this is an unusual provision. Larry Kudlow, one of President Trump’s economic advisors, thinks it’s the most important provision of the bill.

Essentially, the Federal Reserve can do a lot of things that the Treasury can’t, including creating money. Actually the Treasury can create money, but only with the authorization of Congress. The Fed can issue loans, it has existing congressional authorization to do a lot of things that the Treasury can’t so. And so essentially, the Fed is just going to run 10 times as much money as Treasury is going to get from this program. So this money doesn’t just go straight out the door to companies. It capitalizes a much larger fund at the Fed, 10 times the size of initial outlay.

So I think the final legislation, it’s not $425 billion, it’s $454 billion. And so, multiply that times 10, and that’s your final arrangement. And look, I think it’s ultimately going to cost trillions of dollars to address this crisis. The government is going to have to spend like crazy. The fact that there’s a lot of money going out the door is not necessarily bad, the fact that it’s coming from the Fed is not necessarily bad. But the fact that Congress really didn’t put any strings attached to it is, I think, it’s using the model of the 2008 bank bailouts for this coronavirus crisis. And as we saw in 2008 that is a recipe for a lot of abuse, not just within the programs themselves, but it’s also a recipe for a corporate sector that is more aggressive and less accountable once the crisis is over. And also bigger and more concentrated. The biggest banks got bigger in the 2008 crisis, they got bigger after the 2008 crisis. And they got worse. Wells Fargo is sort of the poster child for big bank abuse these days because of the fake accounts scandal and everything else that seems to be going wrong over there. But they’re not the only bank. More respectable banks, quote-unquote, like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, just had dozens and dozens of settlements with federal agencies and institutions after the financial crisis, because they learned from this experience that they can get away with just about anything, and they can use these settlements as a sort of cost of doing business.

I’m really worried that with the terms of this bailout being so vague, the restraints on the use of the money being so loose, I mean in the drafts of the legislation I saw, there was not even a limitation on companies just converting the money they get from Treasury and the Fed into dividends and paying their shareholders directly, straight cash payments.

KW: Right, and that’s separate from a stock buyback. They can just pay that out in a dividend as soon as they get it. Is that right?

ZC: Right, exactly. There is a provision that says they have to retain 90% of their workforce if they receive this money, but you know, that’s 10% of the workforce being laid off. 10% unemployment is pretty bad.

KW: Yeah, and that’s only for the first 6 months, right? After that, can’t they let anyone go who they want?

ZC: Correct. The argument that you’re starting to see emerge from people who support this bill is that it’s just one bite at the apple; that there will be further legislation down the line. While I hope that’s true, because I think a lot more money is going to be required to treat this crisis than what the government has put forward so far, certainly a different strategy for what to do it, I mean we had global supply chains breaking down, we can’t get access to basic medical supplies at hospitals. The way that this bill was passed does not give lawmakers who want a more responsible package more leverage to get one the next time around. It shows they can be rolled, and be pushed into legislation that I think is ultimately very irresponsible. And I include Warren and Sanders in that camp. Both of them supported this bill and neither of them had to.

KW: I just want to talk about the stock buybacks for a quick second here. Because you do write in here that the restrictions on those buybacks are too temporary to be significant. And this was such an obscene thing that happened in the wake of 2008. You linked to a separate article that you had written that the big banks had bought back $157.4 billion of their own stock, JPMorgan alone $25.7 billion. For people who don’t know anything about what a stock buyback is, it’s basically when you buy your own stock off the market and use that to inflate the value of your company, which enriches your shareholders. What restrictions on these buybacks do you know are in this bill, and how temporary are they?

ZC: You can’t do buybacks for the life of the loan. Most of this aid is going to be structured as interest free loans from Treasury to these institutions. And so as long as that loan remains un-repaid, you can’t do stock buybacks. But this is not a particularly inspiring constraint. I mean, you could get your bailout, pay it back in a year, and then buy back $20 billion worth of stock the next, if you want. We need a longterm restriction on the ability to convert your company into cash for its shareholders if the bailout is going to mean anything. You want this money to go towards real corporate investment; either better wages for workers, or upgrades on equipment, or more research and development. You want the corporation to serve a public function, and you want the bailout money to go to something productive. You don’t want it just turned into cash that goes out the door to rich people. To be clear, stock holders are, for the most part, wealthy people. Only about 20%, I think 22%, according to this research from New York University economists, own more than $25,000 worth of stock. That was before the stock market crashed. So I think that number is substantially lower. That includes money through 401k’s and pension accounts, and all of the sort of indirect ways that people can own stock. So fundamentally, stockholders, we’re talking about wealthy people. And it’s kind of a strange thing in the way that the Democratic Party and the Republican leadership approached this bill.

It includes this one-time $1,200 payment to most households. But the payment is means tested. So it gets smaller if you make $75,000 a year, and it disappears entirely for you if you make $100,000 a year. And we can argue about whether that’s good or bad policy. In a crisis like this, I don’t think it’s a really big deal if people who make $100,000 are spending a little bit more money. That doesn’t seem like a huge problem to me. But they went way out of their way to make sure that this money was “targeted.” They did not seem to think that that applied to the money they were turning over to the corporate sector. Most of that money is going to turn into money for rich people. They put no substantive restrictions on how that money can end up in the hands of the very wealthy.

I think part of that is because smart people who were looking through the bill wanted it to look that way, and part of it is because people in the Democratic Party especially don’t understand how this works, and think that they have to support corporations in a crisis. And there’s good reason to support corporations in a crisis, but not corporate shareholders. There’s a distinction between the institution and the public purpose that it serves, and the people who receive income flows from that public purpose.

KW: There also seems to be just this general aversion to universality as a concept. This is one of the things that Bernie Sanders sort of ran up against in a lot of these debates where people are saying “why should we send millionaires’ kids to public college for free? Why shouldn’t we means test it?” There’s probably a million reasons for why that is, but there does seem to be this preoccupation with technocracy, and adding nuance to these things where there need not be, and I think part of that comes from a certain fear that if we start implementing these universal programs, or universal payouts, that that will lead to a restructuring of the economic system that the Democrats are not entirely comfortable with.

ZC: I mean, I can’t argue about what’s deep down in the ideological hearts of every member of Congress. Democrats are different, there are left wing Democrats and there are very conservative Democrats. But the power of ideology on Capitol Hill is very real. Democrats have just done things this way for a very long time. They think that it’s the responsible way to govern, and they believe that deeply. When Nancy Pelosi talks about pay-go rules and not increasing the budget deficit with most legislation, she takes that very seriously. She thinks it’s really important not to increase the deficit.

That’s not really where most liberal economists are right now. Even pretty run-of-the-mill Rubinites, people like Jason Furman who’s done a lot of work with Larry Summers very recently, don’t think that focusing on the deficit is that big a deal. And in fact in the early talks of this bill, the big disputes on the House side were not between Nancy Pelosi and the left, but Nancy Pelosi and Jason Furman, who said that her focusing on making sure that paid sick leave was targeted for particular people and wasn’t going to be a big benefit that blew up the deficit, was wrongheaded. I think it’s just a deeply ingrained habit that people who have been governing a long time become steeped in. And it’s very hard to get them to change after a certain point in time.

KW: I do want to talk a little bit about these Tweets that Warren put out, because it points to something you mentioned earlier. Late last night she put out a small thread here. I won’t read the whole thing, but she said, “We face a public health crisis that threatens to bring another Great Depression. Families, hospitals and small businesses need immediate aid. This is not the bill I wanted, but its immediate investments are vital. They are also insufficient. We will need to do more, and soon.” Then, a couple of tweets later, “I won’t block vital aid, but tomorrow we get back up and continue the fight. And I make you this promise: I will spend every waking moment watching the Trump White House and do everything I can to hold it accountable for how it spends this $450 billion taxpayer fund.”

And that raises the question of, and I guess these two things are somewhat related. Because if a one-time check of $1,200 per adult is insufficient, then there’s probably going to need to be more payments. And will those further payments provide opportunities to renegotiate some of what is in this bill? Or, will further payments be able to pass without this kind of battle? How does that play out? How likely is it that they get a chance in the not too distant future to rehash some of this stuff?

ZC: Well it’s always really hard to predict the future, especially when things are as volatile as they are right now with the coronavirus crisis. I honestly don’t know what the Democratic Party or what Donald Trump is going to support once we start seeing thousands of deaths a day from this. It’s just really hard to know. I mean, both parties are doing things that I would not have expected a month ago, for instance.

But I have a lot of respect for Elizabeth Warren. I’ve covered her for about 12 years. I think she’s probably the most prominent critic in the Democratic Party of the 2008-2009 bailouts. I think she’s certainly the most respected expert on financial policy on the progressive left, at least in Washington. But I think she’s just wrong about this. I think she’s right about the lay of the land, but I think the idea that voting for this even though she knows it’s not a good bill because she wants these small payments to go out to people, I mean she’s correct that there’s a slightly more generous unemployment benefit that’s going out. It’s like $600 more per month on average. That’s not bad, that’s a decent thing. And these checks are not terrible. There’s a little bit of money for hospitals. But the idea that she’s got more leverage next time around I just don’t think is right.

And the same thing is true for Bernie Sanders, who I also have a lot of respect for. I think he’s run two very good presidential campaigns. I think the two of them are both very clear moral communicators. But in this case, I don’t think they were terribly good legislative strategists.

KW: What did Bernie get into this bill? I’ve been seeing some things online over the course of the past few hours saying he basically got the minimum payment up to $1,200 from $600 to some of the poorer families. Do you have any more up to date info on that? I was a little unclear on that.

ZC: My understanding, subject to change with additional reporting, is that Sanders is responsible for expanding the scope of the unemployment benefit. There are a whole bunch of workers who don’t qualify for unemployment insurance if they get laid off. If you’re a tipped worker, for instance, you make like $2 an hour as a waiter, but you actually make 15 bucks because you get all these tips, you don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. That’s changed. So there’s a broader scope of people who will be getting benefits as a result of being laid off, and that is a good thing. That is a real change for the better that’s in the bill. But ultimately, $4.5 trillion for large corporations, I think he could have gotten a higher price tag.

Because if you were going to accept that as the basis for the negotiations, there’s no real reason why we have to tag any of these social welfare, social support payments, to a giant corporate bailout. I mean, corporations are going to need support, but Congress has time for them. The Federal Reserve already has these enormous facilities that are open providing direct support for corporations, which is why people like the CEO of Boeing were saying you know, “if we don’t like the terms, we’ll walk away and we’ll just get money somewhere else.” They won’t be able to get money somewhere else forever, but Congress has time.

KW: Right, they’re not in an emergency situation the way that ordinary people are.

ZC: Exactly.

KW: Because I was watching a clip where Lindsay Graham was talking to Sean Hannity about how Bernie basically threatened to hold up the bill because Bernie wants people to make more money on unemployment than at their job, and that was something that the GOP was having a hard time with, and I was seeing a lot of stuff come out about that.

ZC: To be clear, Bernie probably does want people to make more money unemployment than they make at their job, because that puts more pressure on employers to pay more. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable characterization of his position.

KW: Oh sure. He was saying that if you make $11-12 an hour, that he still wants you to get what, $600 a week? That’s more than $11-12 per hour. So that’s totally right.

My last question for you is one that I’d be really interested to get your take on. Because one of the real, good insights of this article is that, right in the last section here which is called “A Warning From 2008” is “The financial crisis of 2008 and the bank bailouts it inspired did long-term damage to the American social fabric.” And then I will skip down to the next paragraph, “The campaigns of both Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) largely grew out of the anger and resentment that the bank bailouts and the outrageous inequality of both the crash and the recovery inspired.”

I think that’s totally true. And it may be more noticeable on the Bernie Sanders side, because he more directly, obviously, and more honestly, confronts a lot of those issues. But even on the Trump side, when you really look at the core of what the Trump base, their core grievance, or certainly a fair amount of them, was that there’s a different set of rules for people with money and power. And so I think you’re totally right that this has really disrupted the social fabric in a real way.

My question is now that Donald Trump is the president, where does that go next? Where does that energy go if a similar type of situation happens right now?

ZC: Yeah, well I think a similar situation is happening. I have a really hard time predicting it. I think researching, I spent 4 years working on this Keynes book, most of his life is dedicated to moments of crisis like this, whether it’s WWI, the post-WWI inflation, WWII, the Great Depression, what we find in all of these periods is that things happen that people don’t expect. And that that tends to, Keynes believes, inspire people to become more sympathetic to authoritarian ideology. And so if you want to keep people away from authoritarian thinking, you need to find ways to make sure they’re taken care of, and feel like society, and the rules of the game for society, apply to everyone. That they’re part of a society. That there’s not just a system of power that’s being applied to them unfairly. A lot of the look-back on 2016 is focused on the absolute income levels of people and the fact that a lot of Trump supporters make pretty decent amounts of money, and that’s all true. They’re Republicans. Republicans tend to be wealthier.

The thing that I think that kind of analysis misses is that people have a certain feeling of participation in society. And if you take that away, even if you don’t totally pound them into the dust, and make them starve to death, or put them on the verge of starvation, they still feel like they got a real deal. And it makes them very angry, understandably so. I mean, this is the United States, in particular, we’re supposed to be a democracy. And when people are denied that, it’s not a fun feeling. And obviously, there are groups in the United States who are denied that for long periods of time. I don’t think they’re very happy about that. And so I think it’s a very volatile situation.

I don’t know if people blame the President or not. Right now, it looks like his approval ratings are at an all-time high. That could change. It could go higher. It could go lower. I think the Democratic Party right now, is not making a case for their own governance. They’re not drawing contrasts with the President in ways that are resonating with people. For whatever reason, people sort of look at this as a crisis where it’s some sort of foreign invasion, or 9/11, where something bad has happened to the United States and Trump is leading us out of it, rather than something that is just a complete political calamity caused by the Trump administration’s incompetence, largely. Also a lot of underlying fragilities in the economy. If we didn’t have supply chains that made it impossible to manufacture medical supplies in the United States, this emergency would look a lot different.

All of that said, honestly I don’t know. I just don’t know, but I’m not optimistic.

KW: Yeah, I think a lot of it comes back to something we said about 15 minutes ago, which is that they’re just not comfortable thinking outside the box in a way that would just simplify everything. There’s not a lot of simplicity in their messaging here. What we need to do now is get money to ordinary people. And the reluctance to just sort of distill that and deliver that, I think makes it difficult for them to draw contrast with Donald Trump. I mean, the right wing was putting out that the Democrats were holding up checks. Their messaging was that we’re ready to send you checks, and the Democrats don’t want to.

ZC: And part of it was true!

KW: Right.

ZC: That wasn’t entirely false. I just think there’s a certain way of legislating that these people grew up doing in the 80’s and 90’s. You can look at what Pelosi has proposed for the next round of legislation already. She has floated better paid sick leave, improved worker safety regulations so that people who are on the job are not exposed to terrible risks from the coronavirus, that sort of thing. That stuff’s not bad, right? But it’s just sort of taking what’s on the books and beefing it up a little bit. There’s no thought that the United States needs to take some role in how medical supplies are produced and distributed and delivered, that the government has a role to play there. It’s all just very, I hesitate to use the word “technocratic,” because I feel you can use that word to apply to almost anything, and there was technocratic stuff that does matter.

KW: Sure, but I think the way we think of “technocratic” is that we’re basically sort of tweaking the dials within certain parameters to get certain results that are a little bit better or a little bit worse. I think, in that sense, you can use the word, as opposed to like, having a new New Deal. Right? I mean, these crises provide opportunities to rethink the way we do a lot of things, and I think there’a reluctance to go that route.

ZC: I think that’s absolutely right. You need some sort of TVAS response for medical supplies. The medical infrastructure in New York is already breaking. I mean, they have mobile morgues set up.

KW: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. It’s horrible.

ZC: Yes, it’s horrible. And that’s coming to every city, potentially. Maybe not, maybe we’ll contain this. It would be nice. But I think you have to prepare for the possibility that that’s coming to every city eventually, and that if you don’t prepare for that, it’s enormously reckless. And so far, we’re not.

Moving money around doesn’t solve that problem. Even though getting checks out the door to people is important, you can’t solve that problem just by moving money around. You have to do organization, you have to get involved in production, you have to manage. It’s hard.

KW: Right. And if you don’t get that infrastructure in place, they talked about how South Korea was basically able to get their situation under control, not by forced quarantines, but by doing a very robust testing operation where they tested over 5,000 people per million.

And the other way to get it under control is the way China did it, which is basically, you have to stay home. That’s a more authoritarian route. But you have to do one or the other.

ZC: Look, the South Korean example should be a very comforting example. It just shows that you can definitely address this problem, even after it comes to you, without resorting to authoritarian measures. You just have to have a competent administration, and I don’t mean like the Trump administration, I mean literally, competent administrative capacities to get tests out the door, and get people tested. And that is clearly just not happening right now. And I’m not optimistic that it will.

KW: Well we will stay tuned I suppose. I hate to end on such a somber note. Why don’t you talk a little bit about the book that you’re writing. It’s available for pre-order now?

ZC: Sure. The book is finished. It comes out May 19. It’s a biography of John Maynard Keynes. It looks into him as a political thinker. I think most people, including myself, come into contact with him through an Econ-101 class, where they learn that he’s the guy who suggests large budget deficits in a recession to help the economy recover. And that’s all true, but it’s a very narrow aspect of his thought. I think he’s a much broader and much more interesting philosophical thinker who has a vision of a good life that, certainly by the end of his career, is much more radical than I think the economics profession portrays him.

Just to give you an example, probably the most important political achievement of his life was helping pass the Beveridge plan in the UK, which is of course where the British National Health Service comes from. He was really the financial architect of socializing British medicine. That was every bit as important to his economic and social project as deficit spending, and I don’t think that’s something that is broadly appreciated.

KW: Like you just said, that is available for pre-order now. The name of the book is The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. Zach Carter, thank you so much for making the time.

 

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Podcast: Unifying #DemExit, Coronavirus Relief Chaos, & Staying Off The Bike Paths

As Russell nurses his injuries, we muse on unifying the coming #DemExit parties, and why the establishment can’t agree on a Coronavirus relief package.

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#DemExit: A Democrat’s Guide To Why Millions Are About To Change Their Registrations.

by Russell Dobular

Personally, I believe in democracy.  I believe that given accurate information and the necessary education to process it, a majority of people will correctly discern their own best interests and vote accordingly.  But that’s very different from the situation that we have in America.  What we have is a generation raised on the internet and born into an America coming apart in the wake of 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and now a global pandemic, doing its own research and mostly tuning out official narratives, in conflict with an older generation that mistakes Anderson Cooper for Edward R. Murrow, and doesn’t seem to understand, or even want to understand, that the America they knew is long gone.  For the latter, Joe Biden is familiar and comforting.  For the former, his nomination is a cruel joke and in many ways a gob of spit in the eye of the people who are going to live with the consequences of his past policies the longest. 70% of voters under 50 voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries.  Sev-en-ty percent.  While much has been made on the op-ed pages of Biden’s demographic coalition, that coalition is a mirage.  The single greatest predictor of Biden’s support isn’t race or gender or socio-economic status; its age.  Old people took their cues from cable news and party leadership, while younger people tuned those voices out.  Unfortunately, the elderly are much more reliable voters than the young, and as a result, Biden is on the verge of becoming the party’s nominee.  But the nature of Biden’s geriatrically driven victory raises an obvious question: if young people didn’t come out in large numbers to support a candidate they were passionate about, what makes you think they’re going to come out on Election Day to cast a ballot for Joe Biden?  For this reason alone, Biden is very likely to lose to Trump, with or without a formal #demexit.

Democrats seem to live in a fantasy world in which everything we know about human psychology and voter behavior can be suspended with the simple argument, “This candidate is better than (fill in the Republican), so you must vote for them.”  If voters behaved that way in real life, Hillary would be the President right now.  And Hillary was FDR in a pantsuit compared to Biden.  If you’ve been running around attributing opposition to HRC from the left to sexism, you really don’t understand the left.  Hillary’s gender was one of the few things a progressive could hang their hat on to justify voting for her.  At least it would set a precedent.  At least it was something.  With Joe Biden there is zero rationale other than “better than Trump.”  And that’s just not the potent argument that a lot of VBNW types think it is.  Joe Biden is so bad, nominating him feels kind of like a double-dog-dare.  It’s as if Democratic consultants and donors got together and decided to find out how bad a candidate would have to be to lose to Donald Trump a second time, and Joe Biden was what they came up with.  You may not know a lot about his record now, but you will once The Donald begins to exercise his singular gift for controlling the media narrative.  There’s not one accusation that can be thrown at Trump, from sexual harassment, to dishonesty, to nepotism, to racism, to crony capitalism, that can’t be turned back on Biden.  Sure, Trump is worse on all counts, but not by much, and when Biden lies about getting arrested trying to meet Nelson Mandela, or about his civil rights activism, you can be sure Trump isn’t going let it pass like Bernie Sanders did.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Pretty much everything Biden said in the DC debate was a lie.  But you’ll find that out soon enough when he’s facing an opponent who doesn’t go out of his way to describe him as his “friend” every five minutes.

Those are just some of the reasons why Biden will probably lose to Trump.  There are many others, including his melting brain, that I haven’t gotten into because I know the propaganda machine has programmed VBNW voters to stop listening as soon as anyone points out his dementia symptoms.  And no one is really thinking yet about how much of a gift having an opponent who helped pass the bank-friendly 2008 bailout is going to be for Trump, who is on the verge of sending everyone in America making under $99,000 a year, a check, probably the first of several.  But it is my intention here to help people understand why this is happening, which I can’t do if they’re all raged out on Jennifer Rubin columns.  So, what follows is a brief explanation and summary of what the last five years have looked like from the left’s point of view.

Most Sanders voters that I know, if they were old enough, voted twice for Barack Obama and were at one time just like you: hardcore Democratic partisans, who accepted the political wisdom of the Times editorial board as the “smart take.”  Then 2016 happened, and for a lot of those people, the underlying assumptions they held about pretty much everything in the political realm were shattered by the way the primary was conducted.  Without relitigating that whole nightmare, let’s just focus on where the left went one way, and VBNW went another: if you experienced those primaries through the lens of the Sanders campaign, the core belief that the only thing holding back progressive change was the Republicans, was made completely untenable, along with the accompanying belief that corporate media outlets had sympathies that could truly be considered “left,” or even “objective.”  Once you no longer believe those things, and your political world isn’t defined by a struggle between good Democrats and evil Republicans, but by a class war between working people and wealthy elites, you’ve already left the Democratic party for all intents and purposes.  After that, keeping your registration in order to vote for progressive primary challengers is just a formality.  Functionally, you’ve already become an independent.

Now, flash forward to 2020.  Once again, Bernie Sanders is running, only this time his base of support is largely made up of people who only continue to be Democrats in order to use the party machinery to affect progressive change. And a lot of them would have left the party already, if it wasn’t for Sanders signaling to his supporters after 2016 that changing it from within was the way to go.  So, once again, they donate, they advocate, they canvass, and they phone bank.  And while they’re doing all of these things, they’re being called “brownshirts,” dirtbags,” and “Bernie Bros.”  They keep their heads down anyway and win the first three contests.  It looks like this time is going to be different.  They start to think that Democratic voters themselves have finally woken up and realized that rich pundits and consummate douchebags like Rahm Emanuel are the last people they should be listening to about “electability.”  And then Biden wins SC by overwhelming numbers.  Smelling blood in the water, the Democratic party establishment immediately coalesces around the most retrograde, least progressive candidate in the field, and executes a Monday night massacre on the eve of Super Tuesday that is breathtaking in its efficiency.  And just like that, it’s over.  So, what do you think a group of voters who were only Democrats of convenience at the start of the contest are going to do after months of being unfairly maligned and insulted by the same people who pulled out all the stops to make sure their candidate couldn’t win? Are they going to decide to suck it up and vote for a candidate they despise who’s running on the ticket of a party they are no longer a part of in any meaningful way, or are they going to conclude that Sanders’ project of reforming the party from within has been a failure and walk away?  This isn’t a moral question, it’s a psychological one.  You just can’t treat voters that way and not expect there to be fallout, much less voters who weren’t particularly connected to your party in the first place.

Another factor is the way that Democrats bend over backwards to court “moderate” voters and “Never Trump” Republicans, believing it to be the surest path to electoral victory.  Aside from the fact that there’s no evidence to support this theory, and a lot of evidence to refute it (quick, name one Democratic candidate billed as “safe,” and “electable,” who actually won the election.  I’ll wait), it also lays down the philosophical framework for a #demexit.  If Democrats only seem to care about winning the votes of people whose votes aren’t guaranteed, and you’re trying to move the party ideologically, eventually it’s bound to occur to you that not being a Democrat is a pretty sweet deal.  No one seems to vote-shame those independents and moderates.  Indeed, when a Democrat loses, the blame is often directed at the party and the candidate for not doing enough to appeal to them.  It is the unique privilege of the left to be held personally responsible for Democratic losses.  Never will you see Jake Tapper sadly hang his head, sigh, and regretfully inform his viewers that the candidate didn’t do enough to reach out to the left.  That there’s what they call in the news biz, “framing.”  And the left is tired of getting framed for the losses of a party that’s done everything they can short of directly saying, “please don’t vote for us,” to drive them out.

So, now that you understand what’s happening and why, the best thing to do going forward would be to think of the left the same way you’ve been trained to think of independents and moderates: as swing voters who you want to persuade, rather than as Democrats who owe you their votes.  Even though I hate to give that ravening psychopath a shout out, Gwyneth Paltrow has contributed a phrase to the culture that’s relevant here: conscious uncoupling.  The left is now an ex that you want to maintain good relations with, and with whom you still need to coordinate visitation rights.  So, next time you want to sit down at your keyboard and start spewing about Bernie Bros, take a second and think, “Is this going to make it easier to negotiate with my ex, or harder?”  Then take a breath, and try to come up with an argument for voting blue that doesn’t involve Donald Trump, because I gotta tell ya, that really doesn’t impress the ex.  Its one of the reasons they left you in the first place.  Try to talk instead about your own admirable qualities.  And when they point out things like how you held primaries in the middle of a pandemic in order to secure the nomination for your preferred candidate, try not to gaslight them.  Listen, and consider that they might have a point, and think about what you can do to improve the relationship.  You’re never getting back together, but you might be able to coordinate on certain projects and in certain elections.  How that plays out from here is going to depend largely on your behavior.  Are you going to consciously uncouple, or are you going to be the psycho ex screaming, “Vote Blue No Matter Who,” outside the window at 3AM, until someone calls the cops?  How you choose is going to largely determine where we go from here.  My money is on a Fatal Attraction kinda dynamic, but trust me, if you think the break-up is bad, you really don’t want to see the restraining order.

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The Coronavirus Represents Our Last Chance To Realize That the System Itself is Worse Than Trump.

by Keaton Weiss

From the beginning of the 2020 Democratic primary season, I could tell what it was all going to be about. It was clear from day one that this would be a contest amongst a crowded field of over two dozen candidates to convince the Democratic electorate not of whose vision of the future was most compelling, or whose policy set was most appealing, but of who stood the best chance of defeating Donald Trump in November. And I was right. Despite Bernie Sanders’ polling strength on every major issue from healthcare to immigration to climate to income inequality, Democratic voters have, in greater numbers, chosen to vote for Joe Biden, based on his perceived strength in the all-important issue of “electability.”

Among Democratic primary voters, Medicare for All has polled at 50% or more in every single state that’s voted so far (perhaps put an asterisk next to South Carolina, but even there, exit polls on election day showed majority support for M4A). Healthcare as an issue consistently ranks #1 among voters’ concerns. And yet Bernie himself has failed to get even 35% support in all but 7 of these 24 states. How does this make sense? Well, in these same states, when the question is asked of voters which is more important, that a candidate agree with them on the issues, or that a candidate can beat Trump, the latter wins easily. And so it’s as simple now as it was over a year ago when the Democratic candidates were all declaring their candidacies: policies be damned, we just need to find someone who can win.

Democrats’ obsession over electability troubled me from the outset for a number of reasons. First, it’s extremely difficult for even the professional pundit class, who get paid six-figure salaries to evaluate candidates in this way, to determine who’s electable and who’s not (Remember how many of them predicted that Trump wouldn’t even participate in the first GOP primary debate, never mind win a state, win the nomination, or become president?). But second, it’s often extremely easy for these TV talking heads to convince their viewers that they know what the hell they’re talking about. And when a candidate like Joe Biden declares his candidacy and holds his first big fundraiser at the home of Comcast’s chief lobbyist, the pundits at MSNBC, which, as it turns out, happens to be owned by Comcast, can, with relative ease, make the case that Joe Biden is the Democrats’ best bet to defeat Trump in a general election.

Most concerning, though, the prioritization of electability above all else reveals that to the majority of Democratic voters, Donald Trump himself is America’s biggest problem. This gets to the fundamental divide within the Democratic Party: those who feel Trump is America’s gravest threat vs. those who think the system that produced him is America’s gravest threat. Thus far, it’s clear that those in the latter camp are losing that intra-party debate, as evidenced by Joe Biden’s “return to normalcy” message and, again, his perceived edge over Trump in November, which have carried him to a commanding lead in this nominating contest.

Now, however, we’re seeing the ‘deus ex machina’ that is the Coronavirus make its entrance into this election cycle, and as it does, it’s exposing the fragility of the American system that anxious Democrats are too nervous to challenge by nominating Bernie Sanders, not because they don’t agree it needs challenging, but because they fear such a challenge would be rejected by the broader population, yielding a second Trump term. But as this public health crisis intensifies and continues to expose the structural deficiencies of our beloved neoliberal capitalist model, the Democrats, starting this week in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and Arizona, will have one last opportunity to decide not so much whether Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden is better positioned to defeat Donald Trump, but whether or not Donald Trump is actually what’s most wrong with our country at this moment in time.

To borrow from, in both form and content, Bernie’s press conference on Wednesday afternoon in which he previewed his debate strategy against Biden, Democrats in the remaining primary states will have a chance to answer the following questions:

  • Is it “worse than Trump” that 500,000 people declare bankruptcy due to medical debt every year?
  • Is it “worse than Trump” that working class families and small business owners are spending 20% of their incomes on healthcare expenditures?
  • Is it “worse than Trump” that 63% of Americans can’t afford a $1,000 emergency?
  • Is it “worse than Trump” that the United States is the only developed country in the world without a universal healthcare system?
  • Is it “worse than Trump” that the current Democratic frontrunner would veto such universal healthcare legislation even if a Democratic congressional majority were to get it to his desk?
  • Is it “worse than Trump” that we’re less than a decade away from permanent, irreparable environmental catastrophe absent major changes to our energy policy?
  • Is it “worse than Trump” that we have $1.5 trillion of our economy tied up in student debt?
  • Is it “worse than Trump” that our incarcerated population is higher than China’s?
  • Is it “worse than Trump” that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any first-world nation on the planet?
  • Is it “worse than Trump” that the 3 wealthiest people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of Americans?

And finally, is it “worse than Trump” that a virulent strain of Coronavirus now threatens to exacerbate all of those systemic failures in ways from which we may never recover?

If Democrats have the courage to answer those questions honestly and correctly (hint: “Yes!”), then there’s a chance they can course correct in the coming weeks and months. But if their answer to those questions is still some variation of “Well, kind of yeah, but really, no, because…Trump!” then there’s really nothing left to discuss. We who think “yes” will leave the party and never come back. Not because we want to, but because we have to.

Because these problems existed long before the Coronavirus outbreak, and long before Donald Trump became president. It was bad enough they weren’t addressed then. But now, as this pandemic threatens to rip the band-aid off of every festering sore that we’ve left untreated for so long, if we still can’t get an honest and serious reckoning of these issues out of this institution that is the Democratic Party, then I’m sorry, but the institution serves no purpose, and must be abandoned.

So, as much as I wince when I say this, Florida, the ball’s in your court! Choose wisely. A lot’s riding on you.

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Podcast: The Coronavirus & The Case for Social Democracy, Bernie vs. Biden Debate Preview, and More

As the coronavirus causes more disruption, the case for social democracy becomes clearer. We also preview the Bernie vs. Biden showdown this Sunday, and cover lots more.

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Podcast: #BernTheDNC Protests Set for Milwaukee in Response to the 2020 Primary – w/Eleanor Goldfield

Creative activist and journalist Eleanor Goldfield talks #BernTheDNC efforts at this year’s Democratic Convention in Milwaukee, election integrity in 2020, and more.

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