Sunday, February 10, 2019

What is Democratic Socialism and does Trump Need to Protect Us from Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez?

What does it mean to be a Democratic Socialist and are Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supporters such that Trump needs to protect us from them as he declared in his State of the Union speech?

The simple answer is that historically democratic socialism meant democratic ownership and control of the means of production or of the economy, including major corporations.  Democratic socialism is not simply providing government benefits such as Social Security or health benefits.  This is enlightened capitalism or welfare state capitalism but certainly not socialism.  Conflating all this with democratic socialism is simply another effort to Red bait anyone who believes in government helping others.

 In 2015 Sanders declared:
And what democratic socialism is about  is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent - almost - own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.  That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.

That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States.  You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have - we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

For Sanders, economic justice and leveling the opportunity and income gap between the rich and poor is what part of what it means to be a democratic socialist.  Yet historically the term has meant  more that economic justice, it also included democratic control of the economy.

Democratic socialism emerges as a political movement in response to Karl Marx’s criticism of capitalism in the mid nineteenth century.  To simplify, Marx had argued that the core problem of capitalism was  a class exploitation and struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat where the latter sells labor power which is extracted as surplus value by the former.  The bourgeoisie own the means of production and over time in their race to maintain profits they increasingly replace human labor power with machines, they drive down wages placing more and more individuals into poverty.  This process creates an economic crisis, intensifying class struggle, and eventually creating conditions for a capitalist struggle.  As the theory was eventually amended by Engels, it suggested an economic inevitability for the revolution.  With Lenin, the communist party would serve as a vanguard movement to lead the revolution.  As further amended by Stalin, this party in practice was highly undemocratic.

Starting in the late nineteenth century individuals such as Eduard Bernstein in Evolutionary Socialism argued that the revolutionary tactics and economic inevitability of the revolution were not  practical or certain.  He and others agreed with much of the basic criticism of Marx but instead tied the future of a classless society to parliamentary democracy.  Specifically, the emphasis was upon linking universal franchise to socialist ideals with the hope that socialism could be brought about by elections.  For Bernstein, socialism was an ethical imperative, it was about treating everyone with respect, and it was grounded in the French Revolution ideas of promoting “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”  It was taking the ideals of political liberalism and translating them into economic democracy.  In effect, workers would have democratic control not just of the government but of the economy.

There was serious debate over whether parliamentary socialism was possible, with writers such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, and Leon Trotsky reaching various conclusions.  But the core argument about what constituted democratic socialism centered on democratic control of the marketplace–it was democratic control of capitalism.  It was about ensuring that workers and not capitalists made decisions about what to invest, not letting the choice simply remain in the boardrooms of corporate executives.

The dividing line between democratic socialism and what we might call enlightened capitalism or liberalism is significant.  John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy argued that social injustices could be addressed by simple redistribution of economic resources–the classic welfare state.  Here the government would tax the rich and redistribute economic resources, or use its power to improve the economy.  Eventually this would be the Keynesian economics of the New Deal and Great Society.  It is state capitalism for the benefit for middle class and poor, but it is still capitalism.  Yes, the government can act and manipulate the economy for the benefit of the people, but it can also do that for the benefit of the rich.  This is what the US government has essentially done for the last couple of generations, and this is the criticism that Sanders is leveling.

In so many ways, Sanders is a left liberal following Mill and Keynes–we can use state capitalism to augment  economic redistributions–but he is not a democratic socialist in the classic meaning where the emphasis is upon democratizing both the political and economic systems.  It is about subordinating market choices and the free market to serving democratic imperatives.

Michael Harrington was perhaps America’s finest theoretician of democratic socialism.  He was one of the founders of the Democratic Socialists of America.  His book The Other America in the early  1960s is one of the clearest criticisms of American capitalism and it inspired many.  But in his Socialism Past & Future he crisply defines democratic socialism as:

[D]emocraticization of decision making in the everyday economy, of micro as well as micro choices.  It looks primarily but not exclusively to the decentralized, face-to-face participation of the direct produces and their choices in determining the matters that shape their social lives.  It is not a formula  of a specific legal mode of ownership, but a principle of empowering people at the base...This project can inspire a series of structural reforms that introduce new modes of social ownership into a mixed economy.

Democratic socialism is not the central state planning of the economy where the government owns  all the businesses.  It is as Alec Nove describes in the Economics of Feasible Socialism a variety of business types, but all are connected by the idea that there is democratic control over basic economic choices.  What China has with its state-owned enterprises is not socialism, it is state capitalism, and mostly to the benefit of a few.  Few Chinese have much say over the economic choices being made in that country, one where there is a sharper and sharper class divide.

Democratic socialism for Harrington, and Dorothy Day, as well as Norman Thomas, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman, is also as Bernstein argued, infused with ethical imperatives about respecting human dignity and the banner of individual rights as articulated by classical writers such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Democratic socialism would assail  the power of the rich and of corporations in America, contending that is not enough just to tax them and redistribute wealth.  Instead, it is about saying they do not get to make the political and economic choices that govern the rest of society.  It is saying that the people get to own the economy and decide for themselves.  Capitalism does not dictate how democracy operates, it is vice-versa.

This is what democratic socialism has historically meant. Sanders may or may not be one or he may be redefining what the term means.  But orthodox democratic socialism is something different than what Sanders described in 2015, what Trump disparages, and what so many think of when the discuss matters such as free health care, college education, or other programs.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Klobuchar Sexism and the Day the Walz-DFL Agenda Died

For Amy Klobuchar, Tim Walz, and the Minnesota DFL, it was a week ripped from the opening line of A  Tale of Two Cities–It was the best of times and the worst of times.  As Klobuchar prepares to declare her presidential candidacy and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and the DFL House majority prepare to move their agenda, reality is settling in to derail them.

Klobuchar’s Management Style: Sexism or a Legitimate Criticism?
During her 2016 presidential run I posed a quiz when it came to Hillary Clinton’s campaign:  What percentage of voters would never vote for her because she is female?  I suggested 30% and most everyone thought I was way too high.  Post 2016, I think I was too low.  Going into 2020 there is still a high percentage of voters who will never vote for women for president and sexism will be the fate any female candidate confronts, whether from the voters or the media.  The same will be true for Amy Klobuchar.
A barrage of stories have emerged from the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed that Klobuchar had horrible relations with her staff  both as US Senator and back to her day as Hennepin County Attorney.  These revelations may be news to Minnesotans but have been dirty little secrets and knowledge among insiders for years.  Klobuchar’s ability to massage the local media largely kept these stories from appearing.  Yet now that she is running for president, Klobuchar is facing the rough and tumble reality of a national media which she has not similarly been able to control.  As long as Klobuchar was simply Minnesota’s Senator, making carefully crafted statements on Rachel Maddow or in a Brent Kavanaugh hearing, she was not going to be attached.  But run for president and nothing is out of bounds.
The question is how much of the reporting is legitimate or sexism?   No doubt many men in Congress are terrible bosses and work poorly with their staff yet little or none of that is reported.  There is a double-standard when it comes to female leaders and Klobuchar is confronting that standard now.  But also for so long she has enjoyed an extended honeymoon with the press, and many of the grumblings and criticisms of her have been suppressed.  Do her personnel policies speak to her fitness as a leader?  Klobuchar’s media honeymoon is over.

The Day the Walz-DFL Agenda Died
The most important and overlooked story in Minnesota politics this week was the Senate District 11 special election where Republican Jason Rarick defeated DFLer Stu Lourey.  With the  exception of one story by Channel 5's Tom Hauser, few appreciate what happened, and even then  Hauser underestimated its significance.
Senate District 11 was a solidly DFL seat for eons, held by Becky Lourey and then her son Tony Lourey.  It was part of the coalition of Senate seats at or near the Iron Range that historically help anchor the DFL majority statewide.  With prior to Tony Lourey’s departure to head Health and Human Services in the Walz administration, the MN Senate was split 34-33, with Republican majority.    Governor Walz, the DFL House majority, and Tom Baak dreamed of picking off at least one Republican Senator to move their agenda.  More specifically, the DFL message to Republicans, especially in the suburbs, was that if you do not support our proposals, especially our top-ten bills, you will be vulnerable and we are coming after you in 2020.  That logic ended on Tuesday.
First, in losing the seat, the DFL goes from 33-34 to 32-35.  Picking off two Republicans is harder than one.  It was already going to be difficult to pick up one Republican vote–the GOP had strong ideological reasons to oppose the Walz-DFL agenda.  Why should they support it and give the Democrats victories?  The DFL promulgation of their top ten bills gave the Republicans their list of the top ten things to oppose.  Frustrate the DFL in their core agenda and then run in 2020 against it.
Second, losing this seat takes away the Democratic threat of 2020.  How so?  If Democrats planned to say to suburban Republican senators vote for our bills or else in 2020, Republicans can now say that we are coming after rural, Iron Range, or greater Minnesota Democrats in 2020.
Third, in losing a solidly DFL seat, it continues a nationwide pattern too seen in Minnesota where there is a big political sort going on.  Greater Minnesota and the Iron Range are becoming more Republican, including perhaps permanently shifting the Eighth Congressional District into the  GOP camp.
Finally, all of this questions the wisdom of Walz picking Tony Lourey for HHS and the DFL thinking a third generation of Lourey’s would do the trick.  Minnesota DFL politics has been dynastic for generations–think of the names Humphrey, Mondale, Freeman, and Klobuchar.  Times change and running on familial connections does not always cut it.
The special election loss portends a near fatal blow to the Democrats successfully get much of anything they want this session, and the 2020 electoral threat has been significantly undermined.  It is too early to say deadlock in the 2019 Legislative session or government shutdown, but it is not premature to declare that the Walz-DFL agenda died last Tuesday.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Klobuchar for President? Her Chances Are Less than Most Minnesotans Think

More than likely, Amy Klobuchar will announce on February 10, she is running for president. As
Minnesota’s most popular elected official, winning her last US Senate campaign with 60% of the popular vote, everyone in the state thinks her presidential prospects are terrific.   But living in the state it will not be popular to say what this, but her prospects of being a successful candidate are against her and contrary to received wisdom in Minnesota, she faces enormous obstacles either as a presidential or vice-presidential candidate.
There are many problems Klobuchar confronts as a presidential candidate, some unique to her, some to coming from Minnesota, some given the direction of the Democratic Party, and in many ways all three of these items are connected.
Consider first Klobuchar first as candidate.  Yes she is well-known in Minnesota but nationally she is still barely a blip in public opinion polls.  A recent Washington Post poll among Democrats gave her only 2 % support.  Other polls at barely 1%.  Outside of Minnesota she remains largely unknown. Part of that problem is that Klobuchar comes from the Midwest–flyover zone for those on the coasts–outside of the major media markets where candidates such as Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren come from.  They simply have higher name recognition given their states.  This geographic isolation of Minnesota has historically been a challenge for Minnesota presidential candidates.
Second, Klobuchar is not a rock star exciting persona, instead a classic more subdued Minnesotan.  The personality that might play well in Minnesota politics does not necessarily play well on the national level.  Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, Tim Pawlenty, and Michele Bachmann resonated well in Minnesota but not so well nationally.  Minnesotans like their politicians, but the state’s exceptionalism in politics perhaps means that a different skill set and persona are needed here compared to the national level.
Third, Klobuchar faces a narrative problem.  All candidates need a narrative or message and reason for running.  Hillary Clinton’s problem both in 2008 and 2016 was that she had no narrative beyond she was not Bush (in 2008) or Trump (2016) and it was her turn now.  What is Klobuchar’s narrative?  Simply being against Trump is not enough–all the Democrats running in 2020 will be that.  Klobuchar needs to be more than that, and it is not clear what her narrative is, or it is one that may not play.  By that, most of Klobuchar’s tenure as Senator has been in the minority where she has had little chance to make substantive policy in a polarized partisan environment. Her rel record of accomplishment is thin.
Klobuchar’s major selling point is that she can reach across the aisle and work with Republicans.  It is not clear this is a selling point with a Democratic Party–especially during the primaries–that is moving to the left.
Klobuchar is running as a centrist and that is not where Democrats are now, and rarely has  “Running to the right” been a winning strategy for them at the national level.  Campaigning with the endorsement of George Will does not cut it with liberals.  Clinton in 2016 said her strength was going to be winning over moderate Republicans and winning white southerners (as she did against Sanders in the primaries), and look how well that strategy worked.  The US is even more polarized now and it is less clear that now a Democrat can garner Republican votes.  Orthodoxy in the Democratic Party is now for Medicare for all, free college education, and other big idea economic redistributive ideas.  Is this where Klobuchar is?
Klobuchar’s narrative is her experience–again much like what Clinton ran on in 2008 and 2016. She is a former country attorney and three-term Senator.  But Kamala Harris is a former state legislator, San Francisco prosecutor, California Attorney General, and US Senator; equally if not more impressive credentials, even on the topic of law and order.
Klobuchar also seems to be relying on an Iowa strategy to energize her political campaign.  First, it assumes that because Minnesota is next to Iowa and part of the former’s media market extends into the latter, people in Iowa know her.  Second, since Jimmy Carter in 1976, candidates  look to Iowa for a win to capitulate them into a subsequent victory in New Hampshire and beyond.  There are several problems with this strategy, assuming it has worked and that it will be winning formula in 2020.
Bachmann and Pawlenty thought the Minnesota-Iowa connection would work for them and it did not.  Second, since 1972, there have been 10 Democratic and eight Republican contested caucuses. Only six of the Democratic caucus winners and three of the Republican caucus winners have gone on to win their party’s nomination–only 50% does the Iowa winner go on to capture the party nomination.
But in 2020 things also change in a dramatic way–California and Texas move up their primaries to March 3, and the early voting for the former will start about the same time as the date of the Iowa caucus scheduled for February 3.  Moving up the California and Texas primaries changes the importance of Iowa and the logic of campaigning.  Relatively speaking running in Iowa was cheap by comparison to California and Texas which will take millions of dollars and lots of name recognition.  Kamala Harris for one, will be advantaged by the early California primary and if she does well there and Klobuchar not, Iowa may not matter at all no matter how well the Minnesota senator does.
Finally, what about the theory that Klobuchar’s real aim in running for president is to be I’ve-president?  Contrary to all the folk wisdom (and empirical political science including mine supports this), few if any vice-presidential candidates really matter to tickets or voters.  There is a belief in geographic or other balance with vice-presidents as running mates, ut one has to ask what would Klobuchar add to a presidential ticket?  Will she help a Democrat carry Minnesota?  Will she pick up votes in New York?  Is she a pit bull or attack dog like some Veeps are?  Simply being a nice person whom everyone likes in Minnesota does not make one a strategically good choice for vice-president.
Perhaps Amy Klobuchar will defy the odds and win.  One can wish her well.  But an honest appraisal suggests the odds are against her.