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Friday, July 7, 2017


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.


howie b said...

Hi Professor:

Are you overly dismissive of the tendency of the Republicans to lie and smooth over palpably cruel and exploitative policies and people to fool themselves or act contrary to their interests?
Such a problem worries me
It is impossible to rule out and impossible to calculate, and Barnum and Murphy are hand in hand on this matter

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff,

I have been reading your blog for a long while now, and I agree with the bulk of what you say regarding politics in the US, but I have some disagreements with your view on Trump and Russia that I was wondering if you could address. As you have discussed on here before, Chomsky has argued that the one decent policy to come out of the Trump administration (or sentiment) is Trump's desire to have better relations with Russia. He believes this because, even if Trump's campaign coordinated with the Russians in the 2016 election, such a relationship could avert a nuclear war between the two powers.

My concern with your view is this: even if we assume that Trump himself colluded with the Russian government in 2016 to win the Presidency, and even if Trump himself is under the control of Putin (a worst-case scenario), would this treasonous act not still be somewhat desired so as to avoid the very real threat of a US-Russia war which would result in nuclear catastrophe? Yes, treason is something to be taken seriously even in the formal democracy of the United States, but if this treason resulted in us avoiding a nuclear catastrophe, shouldn't we be at least hesitant to want Trump impeached (assuming that other figures/administrations would simply take the traditional, hostile stance towards Russia)?

Thank you, Professor. I always enjoy reading your thoughts on these matters.

Jerry Brown said...

I am all for 'defending Obamacare' by transforming it into Medicare for All or some similar system! Might as well anyways- it is tough to defend in the present form, even though I benefit from it. Possibly benefit. If I got really sick and blew through the huge deductibles.

Jerry Brown said...

Raising the minimum wage is broadly popular across the country. As are programs such as Social Security and Medicare and even Medicaid. According to Robert Reich, and the poll he cites therein, Medicare for all is favored by a good majority.

While it is difficult to stomach the utter collapse and defeat of the sort of middling, pretendish left of center Clinton to the abomination, your posts do help to inspire some hope. Thank you, and I remain privileged and Blessed to serve as one of your readers of course.

Carl said...

The hair is not orange. You're thinking of the skin.

James Camien McGuiggan said...

The speed with which Corbyn in the UK turned a ca. 12-point poll deficit to a 2-point deficit--it was about seven weeks--and the fact that the polls are now showing Labour in the lead, on the basis of a manifesto far to the left of the Overton window, and in face of almost universally hostile media, make me extremely optimistic that a majority can be brought round to support social-democratic policies, if the spokespeople are likeable, and the opposition weak. Hell, if Trump could do it.

Tom Cathcart said...

After all these years I still like watching your mind work. Sometimes, like today, your exquisite argument leads to a conclusion I hold intuitively. But I'm still dazzled by the journey.