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The choice ahead is clear, write Atcheson: "We can drift toward an economic and climate related Armageddon by following polls, or we can move toward a broadly shared sustainable and prosperous world by shaping them." (Collages: via Getty Images)

Dear Democrats, Stop Substituting the So-Called "Possible" for What's Morally Necessary

The only "trap" being set for Democrats is the one which tells them very popular policy solutions are somehow impossible to achieve

John Atcheson

In a recent column in the New York Times, David Leonhardt cites a Kaiser survey on Medicare for all, and concludes that supporting it would be an "unforced error" for Democrats. 

Sherrod Brown, a genuine progressive, made the same observation. Richard Eskow, writing in Common Dreams last week shows why Kaisers' survey is flawed. But there is a bigger flaw embedded in Leonhardt's and Brown's assumption—specifically, the entire notion that Democrats should only run on things that poll well. This perspective is shared by the party's leadership, by most of the media, and virtually all of the political consultants and contributors.

It's not only wrong, it's morally bankrupt and a prescription for at least two existential crises.  It also explains why Republicans have been so successful despite being a minority party, and why the country has drifted to the right for more than three decades now, despite the fact that a firm majority of American voters remain progressive on an issue-by-issue basis.   

"At a time when folks are desperate for change, incrementalism is bad politics. But it's also a recipe for a global meltdown—literally."

Exhibit A on how this dynamic plays out is Obamacare.  Initially not popular with a majority, Republicans controlled the messaging about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) while Democrats mostly tried to hide from it, and as a result, it didn't fare well in the polls. We'll get back to the reasons it wasn't popular in a moment, but first let's look at how running from polls hurt the party.

In the 2014 midterms, Democrats did a complete swoon, running from the ACA as if it were a political poison pill, and they suffered historical losses as voter turnout plummeted to its lowest level since World War II.

Fast forward to 2018, and Obamacare became a defining issue that helped Democrats claw back some states and control of the House.  What changed?  Well, people had experienced it, of course, but the Republicans' failure to come up with a viable alternative revealed the hollowness of their criticisms.  If Democrats had defended the program and aggressively captured the messaging, while challenging the Republicans to propose concrete alternatives, it's likely that the 2014 debacle could have been avoided.

But there's another lesson the Obamacare debacle reveals.  The program itself never won a majority of Americans over, as the press reported and polls showed.  This is why Democrats ran from it, rather than on it.  But if you unpack the numbers in this polling, it broke down into three groups: the radical right-wingers who objected to anything Obama and the Democrats proposed; those who supported it; and those who didn't think it went far enough, and favored a more comprehensive Medicare for All approach, or at a minimum, inclusion of a public option.  In short, a solid majority wanted to do something about our broken medical system.  In most cases, those who supported Obamacare, also supported a single-payer government program.  So, with a little advocacy, there was a majority waiting for the taking on real, substantive, health care reform.

But Obamacare, itself, was a result of Democrats choosing to do the currently possible, rather than trying to advocate for the immediately necessary. Before the first shot was fired in the health care wars, Obama capitulated to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and applied trim tabs to a foundering ship. This was, in part, a result of the party being beholden to corporations for their election campaign contributions, but there was a lot of talk about being "real" or "pragmatic," a sentiment Sherrod Brown and the Democratic leadership still push, even after 2016's disastrous results.

But as presidential historian Jon Meacham said on HBO's "Real Time w/ Bill Maher," it is often easier to make big honking changes than to try to accomplish incremental ones.  Back in 2016, Democrats faced a choice between incrementalism—"a progressive who got things done"—and an advocate for a fundamental transition away from a rigged system. The party apparatchiks threw their weight and influence behind Hillary Clinton, a reluctant incrementalist who would have preferred to be a status quo candidate, and against Sanders, who advocated for more radical change.  Polls show that Sanders would have trounced Trump, and Clinton's ratings were always within the margin of error.

So, at a time when folks are desperate for change, incrementalism is bad politics. But it's also a recipe for a global meltdown—literally.

Today, we face two existential challenges and both demand that Democrats shape the polls rather than be shaped by them.

The first is income inequality, and it is driven by the fact that the rich and corporations have used their wealth to completely subvert the democratic process in America.  Elections are bought; politicians all but ignore the wishes of the people, while doing the bidding of the rich, corporations, and special interest;  income disparity has reached grotesque proportions globally and nationally, fueled by public policies favoring capital over labor; and with monopolies and monopsonies keeping wages low even in times of full employment, there's no solutions in the offing absent radical policy changes.

Historically, inequality of this magnitude has been a harbinger of revolutions—it presages crowds with pitchforks and torches storming the bastions of wealth.  It is an oft repeated irony that throughout history, those who would seize wealth and power are undone by their success.

"The choice is clear.  We can drift toward an economic and climate related Armageddon by following polls, or we can move toward a broadly shared sustainable and prosperous world by shaping them."

The second challenge is climate change.  In 2006, I wrote an article entitled Hotter, Faster, Worser, in which I noted that each year’s scientific research was showing that climate change and its accompanying disasters were occurring faster than previously forecast.  This trend has continued in the intervening twelve years.  Just last week, scientists discovered that the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting much faster than previously thought – which was preceded by a similar finding in 2014  and another in 2012. Prior to 2012, conventional wisdom held that climate change would have little effect on the Antarctic ice mass in anything other than geologic time.  Now, it’s happening in real time. 

Four months ago, the IPCC’s Special Report Global Warming of 1.5 C essentially said we only had 12 years left to avoid catastrophic warming and irreversible feedbacks.  In other words, no matter how bad you think climate change might be, it’s likely to be worse, unless we act now, today. Literally.

And these two issues—income inequality and climate change—have a kind of negative synergy. Climate change will create a billion or more refugees who will feed the unrest that income inequality creates.

Both demand a radical departure from business as usual, and both have viable legislative fixes, with relatively high levels of public support, and that's absent a full court press by Democrats.  In fact, the Democratic leadership and the press seem mired in the notion that it’s best to continue the failed strategy of trying to jump the Grand Canyon in ten-foot leaps.

Newly-arrived Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has been advocating a Green New Deal and a 70 percent tax bracket for income above $10 million, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has proposed a 2 to 3 percent wealth tax on large fortunes.  All three are serious proposals that would address climate change and income inequality with the urgency they demand, and they have a positive synergy—the revenue from repealing Trump's tax cuts, imposing a tax on the ultra rich, extending the payroll tax above its current cap, developing a carbon tax and applying a transfer tax on securities could help fund the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and it would effect relatively few Americans.

The choice is clear.  We can drift toward an economic and climate related Armageddon by following polls, or we can move toward a broadly shared sustainable and prosperous world by shaping them.

Sadly, it looks like we’re choosing the former.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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