Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Silly Analogizing of Bernie Sanders to Ron Paul

Oh, dear.  This post of mine from yesterday is soooo yesterday.  (Okay, sooo last-weekend, to be precise.)  The attempt to paint Sanders as the Democrats’ Donald Trump has failed.  Sanders isn’t the left’s Donald Trump; he’s the left’s Ron Paul!  At least according to a rapidly congealing CW pushed by pundits that include—surprisingly—at least one progressive one.

Freelance writer Zaid Jilani writes on Alternet, in an article republished today on Salon:

In response to the high turnouts at Sanders’s events, many in the media have sought to downplay his momentum by comparing him to former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, who also inspired an enthusiastic following:

Bernie Sanders is the left’s Ron Paul.” [Slate Magazine]

Why Bernie Sanders is the Ron Paul of 2016” [The Week]

Bernie Sanders could be the Ron Paul of 2016” [Washington Examiner]

Can Bernie Sanders be the left’s Ron Paul?” [Rare]

Is Bernie Sanders the next Ron Paul?” [Fox News]

The message these outlets are promoting is that Sanders, like Paul, will be able to get an enthusiastic base but will ultimately fail in his quest for the presidency and will only make only a minor impact on the debate. The implication seems to be that Sanders’ views are on the fringe, like Ron Paul’s. But are they? Or is it just that he is the only one articulating the need to address extreme inequality and expanding social security, which millions of Americans support?

The media message seems to rely on the idea that the two men are similar because they spark genuine enthusiasm among their supporters – which is perhaps a sad commentary on American politics that there are so few candidates who can do this that when they do they are instantly compared.

Jilani goes on to deconstruct the analogy by pointing out, most importantly, that:

Paul, despite his enthusiastic and genuinely creative volunteer and donor base, has advocated ideas like completely eliminating Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Even among the GOP base, these ideas are extremely unpopular.

Ah.  I get it. There’s no reason to think that a candidate who proposed deeply unpopular policy changes is different than a candidate who proposes popular policy changes. Why would anyone think otherwise?

Okay, maybe there’s a difference between proposing, say, the repeal of Social Security and an increase in Social Security in light of the near-universal end to traditional pension plans.  No, the real problem for Sanders—according to several commentators I’ve read in the last week, including another liberal one—is that Sanders is not like Barack Obama in 2008 because, see, Sanders, unlike Obama in that campaign, isn’t campaigning on generic hope-and-change, fill-in-the-blanks-as-you-want-them-to-be-filled-in slogans, providing specifics about domestic policy proposals only kicking and screaming because John Edwards has done so and then Hillary Clinton has done so because John Edwards has done so.

Nope.  Sanders is running on a series of specific policy statements.  And irrespective of whether or not those policy proposals are popular, Sanders can’t beat Hillary Clinton because he’s  not Barack Obama.

Look.  Obama was supported against Clinton in 2008 by progressives who really, really didn’t want another triangulation Democratic White House.  People thought that’s what a Hillary Clinton administration would be, and a Barack Obama administration would not be.

But the first five years of the Obama administration turned out to be largely a triangulation administration, filled to capacity with former Clinton administration officials, most notably but far from solely significantly Timothy Geithner. So, so much has happened since 2008, most significantly, in my opinion, the movement begun in the fall of 2011 by Occupy Wall Street, and Elizabeth Warren’s election to the Senate in 2012.

The mainstream political punditry, mainstream politicians, and the army of political consultants and such are, of course, not known for mental agility.  But their particular seemingly inalterable cluelessness right now is dramatic nonetheless.

Clinton is running a really terrible campaign, almost completely devoid of in-depth policy discussion, or discussion of any kind.  Much of what she says is incoherent and almost none of what she says responds directly to any policy statements by any Republican. She made news yesterday by giving an actual uncanned, non-generic response to an journalist interviewer’s statement about Jeb Bush’s positions on immigration policy, that actually was responsive to the statement or question.  Hurray!  I mean … wow!

But as I noted in my post yesterday, the most critical fact that the political analysts and pundits miss is the significance of the fact that Democrats are beginning to realize that their party’s nominee will be running against a Tea Party or mostly-Tea-Party Republican nominee—and that, yes, a very progressive Democratic nominee’s policy positions will likely be more popular than the Republican nominee’s.

Which means that Sanders indeed could win the nomination. Largely because he is not only the un-Clinton but also the un-Obama, and that that—a genuine progressive—is what a majority of voters would choose.  At least over Scott Walker, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush.

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Ron Paul Challenges Liberals – or Maybe Not

Matt Stoller, the former Senior Policy Advisor to Rep. Alan Grayson and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute has a couple of very interesting articles posted at Naked Capitalism,  Why Ron Paul Challenges Liberals, and the follow-up, Naked Capitalism, “A Home for All Sorts of Bircher Nonsense”

These are thought-provoking, in many ways insightful, and strike me as required reading, for a variety of reasons, including some valuable historical insights.  However, one thought they provoke from me is that the main thesis is spectacularly wrong-headed.  Stollar talks about what a great ally Paul’s staff was, when working on certain issues.  I should say, “when working against certain issues” or things, like war and the unfettered evil workings of the Federal Reserve.  The correct vocabulary is worth emphasizing.  Liberals and Libertarians may find common ground in what they are against, but it is quite unlikely that they will ever find anything substantial that they both are for.

Stollar goes on to point out what he calls “a big problem” with liberalism.  This is the mixture of two elements, support for federal power and the anti-war sentiment that arose with Viet Nam and has continued though today.  In the same paragraph, Stollar says, “Liberalism doesn’t really exist much within the Democratic Party so much anymore.”  This is an important thought, but he doesn’t pursue it, and as he goes on seems to conflate Democrats with Liberals, as suits his convenience.  In the final paragraph of the first post he refers to: “a completely hollow liberal intellectual apparatus arguing for increasing the power of corporations through the Federal government to enact their agenda.”  Seriously, WTF?  I have absolutely no idea what the hell that is supposed to mean.

The second article is especially weak, and essentially devoid of any intellectual content.  Stollar decides to “highlight a few of the reactions here without much of a rebuttal.”  Why would anyone do that?  Does he believe the reactions are self-refuting?   Is he too lazy to rebut, or does he simply not have a good rebuttal?

At least he clearly sets forth the thesis of the first article:  “that the same financing structures that are used to finance mass industrial warfare were used to create a liberal national economy and social safety.”   Here is the source of Stollar’s alleged intra-liberal conflict, that Paul is somehow supposed to illuminate and inform.  Though Stollar says: “I’ll be describing in much more detail the shifting of the social contract underlying this failure, which has nothing to do with Ron Paul and would exist with or without him.”  So referencing Paul in the first place was a bit of a red herring.

He then goes on to provide extended quotes from posts by David Atkins, who he describes as “wrestling with what liberalism is” and Digby, who he simply rejects out of hand, though with a lot of words that don’t quite reach the level of snark

What Stollar describes as “contradictions within modern liberalism”  boils down to liberalism needing big government to be interventionist, as Atkins demonstrates, but not imperialistic.  But this is a totally coherent position. The problem lies not with progressive liberalism, but with the practical realities of managing a power system – which is what governemnt is – in a way that advances the common good, while holding the drive for imperialistic and domestic domination in check.  This is going to be a central practical problem with any governing system or political philosophy – at least for one that takes seriously the idea of advancing the common good.  To say it is the problem of liberalism is to ignore human nature, political reality, and the entirety of history.

Thus, a liberal can hold the positions that American involvement in WW II was necessary, but that our involvement in Viet Nam was not.  Ditto Kosovo, vis-a-vis Iraq.   One can also recognize that the only entity with enough heft to balance the power of trans-national mega-corporations is government, but Stollar does not choose to give that any consideration.

Stollar concludes: “As the New Deal era model sheds the last trappings of anything resembling social justice or equity for what used to be called the middle class (a process which Tom Ferguson has been relentlessly documenting since the early 1980s), the breakdown will become impossible to ignore.  You can already see how flimsy the arguments are, from the partisans.

I don’t know how one gets from the systematic dismantling of the New Deal by successive Republican administrations (and you can include both Clinton and Obama in this list) to the New Deal model shedding anything at all.  And, no, I can’t see how flimsy liberal partisan arguments have anything to do with an assault on the middle class that has taken place from the right.

Stollar has constructed a straw man problem.  Which is a shame, since there are real problems to be dealt with.  One is the growth of right wing populism, as exemplified by the Tea Party – at least to the extent that is is real, and not a Fox News fabrication.  Another is to harness the energy of the Occupy Movements, which provide some evidence that there is progressive populism that could be a source of real political strength.  Most critically, though, as things stand now, there is no political left in this country with any actual power. 

Corey Robin describes the central problem of American liberalism in the 21st Century, and closes the loop back to Stollar’s Ron Paul idea like this.

Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating.  The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support).  But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.

Digging a level deeper, the reason we don’t have such a spokesperson is that our political system is essentially owned by corporate interests, which is why we get alleged liberals like Clinton and Obama in Democratic leadership, while genuine progressives like Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, and even Alan Grayson are marginalized.  On top of this, the right has a vigorous and powerful propaganda machine – hence the Tea Party; and the small number of progressive voices in broadcast media is nowhere close to providing a balance.

Money owns politics, and corporate interests, along with a small entrenched elite, own the vast majority of the money.  The key to achieving progressive solutions is to get the money out of politics.  But in the wake of Citizens United, that prospect is a forlorn hope.  That is my “coherent structural critique of the American political order” in one short paragraph.

Cross posted at Retirement Blues

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