Well, Trump is sucking up to Putin and my back has stopped hurting so I think it is time to take stock. The behavior of the President is so revolting, the actions of his Cabinet so randomly evil, the behavior of the Congressional and Senatorial Republicans so maliciously cruel that it is difficult to achieve any balanced perspective on the American political scene. While I have been shelving books and putting up pictures, I have been turning over in my mind what I have read and seen on television lately. The NYTIMES Op Ed piece by Penn and Stein served, like a train wreck, to concentrate my mind, and this morning during my daily walk I sorted through my thoughts. Herewith, as best I am able, are the conclusions to which I came.
I begin with two facts that define the terrain on which political struggles are fought in America and circumscribes the realm of the possible. First, a sizable fraction of the electorate, but by no means a majority, supports or can be brought to support progressive social and economic policies – policies that I think of as constituting enlightened welfare state capitalism. Some fraction of that fraction is sympathetic to European style social democracy – strong labor unions, single payer health care, and the like – and a very much smaller fraction of that fraction of a fraction can actually contemplate collective ownership of the means of production without having an attack of the vapors.
Second, in round numbers, two-thirds of eligible voters vote in Presidential election years and one-third vote in off-year Congressional elections.
From these two facts I draw two conclusions, one depressing the other not so. My first conclusion is that at least as things stand now, a robust progressive Social Democratic-style set of institutions and proposals has little or no chance of becoming the new normal, the accepted, unquestioned daily politics for which a majority will vote reflexively if nothing special is going on. There are countries where that is indeed the norm, but America is not and is not likely to become one of them, at least in my lifetime [a short time span, admittedly.]
My second conclusion is that transient enthusiasms can have a considerable effect on the character of the government actually elected and the policies actually enacted. With only a third of the electorate voting in off-years and two-thirds in Presidential years, intensity of preference, as rational choice theorists put it, actually makes a very great deal of difference in election outcomes. The reason is simple: a passionate vote counts for no more than an indifferent one, but passionate voters are more likely to vote.
At the moment, for a variety of reasons, most of which have weird orange hair, the progressive fraction is more fired up than at any time I can recall, including the anti-war days of the Viet Nam era. People are donating money, they are calling the offices of their Representatives and Senators, they are attending Town Halls, they are even volunteering to run for local public office. This intensity of political expression and action began the day after the Inauguration, and it does not seem to be subsiding.
For these reasons, I think this is a moment, our moment, to translate the intensity on our side into some form of measurable political power. A strong, uncompromising progressive program, strongly supportive of workers’ rights and especially union rights, a program calling for a federal minimum wage of at least $15/hr., for stringent controls of Wall Street, for higher taxes on the rich, for a trillion dollar infrastructure program -- all of that can win in the present political climate. Mind you, this moment will not last – no such moments do. The coalition of actual voters making this possible will dissipate before very long, and we will have to fight endless rear-guard actions against those seeking to reverse what we have accomplished. But I am convinced this is a moment when such programs, and the candidates who support them, can indeed win.
Clearly the touchstone issue, the mobilizer, is health care, so this is the moment when we should “defend” Obamacare by proposing to transform it into universal single payer health insurance. We should make not merely the defense but the extension of health insurance the centerpiece of a comprehensive progressive program, and we should seek out candidates at every level who will embrace that proposal and run on it.
I believe that in 2018 the forces of reaction will be dispirited and will not turn out to vote. Even if I am right, the moment will not last. We must make the most of it.