Tag Archives: sanders

Long arcs, bending

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

TW: racism, antisemitism, heterosexism, cissexism

I haven’t written much on here because, in spite of a quick look into what went wrong, I have felt woefully wordless. I don’t know that I have answers. I glued my attention to Trump early on in the Republican primary – something that many have held accountable for his meteoric rise. I kept the focus on him as the field narrowed, holding my ground that his visions were an American take on fascism.

His rise, his fall, his uselessness, his usefulness, held my pen captive for months. If anything on the internecine Clinton-Sanders competition I played referee, doling out criticisms on the basis of who seemed to be least examined at the moment. Their contest was secondary – whoever won had to win the ultimate battle, against an age-old adversary hostile to women in control of their own bodies and Jewish existence.

Well, he won. Sanders lost the primary. Clinton lost the general. Any hypothetical in which he would have won in her place was simply that – conjecture. But the allure of that was clearly strong to many, on a deeper level than asking who should have won the primary. It became about what should have been the focus of conversation.

Like many on the outside of the Republican hegemony, the repeated question of whether identity politics had eclipsed “economics” rang like a death knell – as if the clean water Standing Rock and Flint wanted was a resource disconnected from their racial demographics, as if LGBT rights do not cut at their core to cohabitation and hence housing and related industries, as if mandated health coverage of birth control and transgender transitioning care had affected no savings.

Decrying identity politics rarely sounded like a call for including a class consciousness in the politics of the day. If anything, it sounded like looking past some of the most economically deprived people in the country, on the basis of some or all of their identities, chosen or thrust upon them. Are we really supposed to believe that people spraypainting swastikas on walls are motivated by economic problems first and foremost?

ucd-swastika
A swastika, painted on a UC Davis residence, per Shaun King.

All of this was complicated for me by a more immediate sense of insecurity. At my new job, which was also keeping me occupied with something other than writing here, my coworkers were a motley crew of the terrified. A few days after the election, we held a visit for a recently departed member of the team – an Ashkenazi Jewish woman whose father escaped the Holocaust thanks to an integrated military unit and some elbow grease applied to a sealed train car in Nazi-occupied France. Gathered around the table with her were a Black Coptic Christian, people of color with temporary visas, LGBT people, Black people, Latin@ people, and others. The anxiety was tangible, and thirty minutes later it would spill out into the street – as other residents of the Bay Area blockaded almost every major street in a spontaneous expression of the same or similar terrors.

At the core of that terror is at least one question – which is whether it was actually true. The thing itself comes in a million colors, a thousand flavors, untold variations, but what we expected was some sense that this country was salvageable, this country could change, that this country was capable of more than it appeared. For the some among us, that means a capacity to think of women as its highest leaders. For others, that means a rejection of ethnic cleansing as social and economic policy. For others still, maybe that belief suddenly so fragile and subject to destruction was that the moral arc of the universe bends, and it bends towards justice, and it is slow but don’t doubt it. Well, this is a hell of a twist in another direction, shouldn’t we have a moment of doubt?

This doesn’t feel like a failure of the moment. This feels like running up against a wall. This feels like finding out something about the system. Something inescapable. Something unassailable. Some undercurrent that reversed, some tide that has decided to go out after so many years of going in.

Perhaps this cuts to the core of what the call for a refocusing of Democratic strategy sounds like to many of us. It doesn’t sound like shift in priorities, but a clarification of what has long loomed threateningly – that the White working class, and arguably a more specific slice of America than even that, thinks it stands to gain by other vulnerable people’s loss. Feeling like we’re suffocating under that idea, that may not sound new or radical, but it truly is. Historically, the White working class has on the whole checked the aspirations of wealthier White people.

Those expressions have at best inconsistently worked to the benefit of people of color, but a connection is hard to deny. Even at its most toxic – in the populist revolt Andrew Jackson rode into presidential office and later mass ethnic cleansing of much of the South – it easily mutated into other populist expressions of the day, including abolitionism. Whether the uniquely working class expressions of populism were always inclusive of a concern for what would happen to the newly freed slaves, is of course a reasonable concern. But the populist influence was undeniable, in that stymieing the wealthy often meant helping people of color and other groups categorically excluded from power.

What’s intriguing about US history is how every period you look to sees a similar level of success for working class politics and the politics of people of color – from abolitionism’s and populism’s fever pitch in the late antebellum, to the Gilded Age’s nadir in Jim Crow amid racist immigration quotes if not bans, and ultimately in a populist resurrection in the form of the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement (while trade unions brought integration into White political conversations). Maybe this isn’t a long arc, so much as a loose correlation between populism and egalitarianism.

Yet, that’s changed. We still have a White working class, which has begun to be defined culturally rather than economically by a social rejection of LGBT people, women’s rights, and other racially-loaded and not-so-loaded litmus tests. That labor politics leave open the door for discussing the unique needs of particular classes of labor – racialized, gendered, and so on – is increasingly less clear. In terms of symbolic representation, supposed the powerless apotheosis of identity politics, a narrowly defined White working class is at its greatest visibility – having been credited with Reagan’s wins, George Bush’s anemic win and ultimate loss, the turn towards Clinton, the close successes of George H. W. Bush, Obama’s rustbelt victories, and now Trump’s minority coalition win.

In short, it feels like gravity has stopped working, and a fundamental force in the universe has suddenly begun operating by another, still curious logic. A White working class at least generally hostile to the wishes of wealthy White elites has suddenly played a pivotal role in ushering in the wealthiest cabinet in history, after decades of almost erratic political behavior. That their questioning of the class structure opens doors to people of color and others endangered under the social and economic rules (mostly blatantly LGBT people, disabled people, Jewish people, women, and others) has suddenly been cast into doubt.

Perhaps, that’s the nature of this post-election, in which all sorts of things have been called projection. These distinctively vulnerable populations have no reason not to identify this concern – that the White working class has shifted its priorities in a way dangerous to those who wish they had their status. That’s a mirror image almost of what the supposed champions of the White working class have articulated as feeling – that they’re forgotten and left behind in a future accessible to people of color (among other marginalized groups). Yet, it’s the White working class that seems to be doing that to the jeopardizing, perhaps unrealized even, of other working classes.

The past fifty years have seen a sweeping transformation, but it is hard to perceive of it as that, from the other end of it. The historical record suggests a change within the politics of the White, and increasing cisgender and straight, working class – towards their advancement by means of undermining others struggling, and specifically away from organizing in ways that other vulnerable people stood to benefit from.

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Sanders’ lost opportunity in appealing to California

As Hillary Clinton’s delegate count creeps towards a hard fought win, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has increasingly hung their hopes on one state alone – California. It might seem like a curious choice. Racially diverse and a part of the Democrats “blue wall,” California seems more comparable to Illinois, New York, or Pennsylvania – all states Hillary Clinton won. Sanders’ support has largely come from more predominantly White states, both within and outside of typical “blue states” with his wins admittedly coming from places as socially different as Oregon and West Virginia.

In spite of breaking the pattern so far, there’s a certain logic to it, particularly if Sanders returned to the rhetoric he used when first launching his campaign. California was initially touted by many as a success story for the implementation of Obamacare, but the longer term frustrations with putting it in place have created an untapped political market in the state that could be decisive if addressed well.

Like all states, California’s experience with Obama-era health care reform boils down to effectively three big picture changes:

  • Health care providers and health insurance companies face greater obligations to their patients and customers, but in exchange those customers are required to have coverage.
  • In order to help people who would have trouble paying for that coverage, medicaid and other assistance programs are given greater resources and more people are deemed to qualify for their assistance.
  • In order to make accessing and assessing insurance plans easier for everyone who can pay for that coverage, those plans will be helpfully listed on online-accessible exchanges.

That seems simple enough, right? At first, California avoided most of the pitfalls and hangups that other states experienced with putting together those initiatives – the state didn’t drag its feet to expand Medi-Cal or leave it to the federal government to build the online exchange’s website. The system worked. The public health care available was enough of a carrot and the threat of a tax penalty for lacking coverage was enough of a stick, and so in 2014’s open enrollment alone 1.9 million people applied for coverage through Medi-Cal and 1.3 million people purchased insurance through the exchanges.

Hopefully you noticed the discrepancy there. People too poor to afford insurance asked the state to provide it for them, and waited a decision. People with enough wealth to buy it bought and had it, end of story. This wasn’t an abstract demonstration of class inequality. This was about access to health insurance, at times to cover chronic or vital health problems. People died from lack of care while the wait list ballooned into the thousands.

Worse yet, the exchanges and Medi-Cal application system – although tied together into one system – would permit people to apply for Medi-Cal, and only that program, if they met the income standards to do so (see answer 9). Lower income people were literally obligated to wait, and denied access to expensive care in the name of protecting them from the cost. Meanwhile, the question of whether they would be liable under the tax penalties for lacking coverage while waiting for an answer from the state remained hanging in the air.

For all its horrifying flaws, with court rulings and administrative decisions this privatized public health insurance model has seen some improvement. Many Californians do, at the end of the day, want to retain the Covered California system, but there is a sizable chunk of the electorate that could stand to hear some talk about how to shake up the system for the better. Looking at the numbers of applicants and enrolled, as a raw number it’s probably a bigger one that is open to criticism of it, even while wanting the system to exist in some form. That’s a tricky place to articulate, where we need this public system but with different ideas underpinning it, but whoever describes it first could become surprisingly popular in California.

Bernie Sanders seemed prepared to be that candidate and speak in that way towards the beginning of the primary campaign. His messages on how he envisions health care policy still speak to many of the fundamental problems a “success story” like California has seen under Obamacare. Health care, under the PPACA, has not become an essential human right that the state must guarantee, but only a public good it will guarantee you if you demonstrate adequate need. The practical application of that – that by the thousands people have to wait for that assessment to occur – is a nightmarish reversal of any talk about inalienable rights, which the Sanders campaign continues to use. In short, the implication in some of Sanders’ statements, that he would reduce or even dismantle the application process for publically-provided health care, taps into the precise flaws and frustrations with the system as is in a place like California.

But, as of now, those have stayed just implications. To be frank, it’s unclear how much any president can or would be able to shape a redesigned ACA that would address that problem. Sanders might actually have a greater ability to champion that within the legislature, and to the extent that he has, could rely on replaying clips of that in a last minute ad blitz in California. He has less than a fortnight for that now. Can he pivot back to that discussion and articulate this nuanced point about a flaw within a means-tested public health care system? It might already be too little and too late.

The featured image for this article is of the California State Senate Chamber in Sacramento, California.

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Tugging Clinton along

For several months this has been the comparatively cynical leftist view of Bernie Sanders: that his campaign is a shell game. His purpose in the otherwise largely uncontested Democratic Presidential Primary is to create excitement within liberal and specifically economically populist political circles that can then at least in part be ceded to Hillary Clinton when she (inevitably, the theory goes) becomes the nominee.

There’s been multiple responses to that among the communities targeted by that supposed campaign. Some have insisted that Sanders is the only candidate they would support so that strategy wouldn’t work. Others have staked out positions more critical of the current system – particularly on racial inequality – than Sanders, suggesting he himself would need his radical bona fides challenged. Perhaps most commonly however, people have noted that even if he or his campaign only hope to influence the election and not have him run in the general election or even win, he can still have an effect not just on popular support for the Democratic Party but on policy. The most common form of this has focused on language. The hope is that he will force Clinton into policy promises or even more broadly will change the type of questions asked of candidates in all primaries.

That’s the exact note hit by one piece hosted by the Campaign for America’s Future: that Sanders’ “hope was to ‘trigger the conversation’ about the way the economic and political system is rigged by the billionaires and their corporations. He wanted to begin a movement around a vision of how the country could be run for We the People instead of a few billionaires and their giant corporations”. You’ll notice the lack of detail, because public discussion this early in the campaign policy does tend to be pretty vague and broad. While Sanders’ campaign has led in the primary at providing details about their planned policies, few other campaigns have reached near that level of specificity or had either critics or the media ask for that. Even assuming that Bernie can pressure the rest of the Democratic field into talking similarly to him he’d have to stick in the race long enough for detailed policy rather than general rhetoric to be standard in order to put pressure on other campaigns, namely Clinton’s.

In the past week or so we’ve not only finally started to reach that time in the primary, but Sanders deliberately testing the waters to see if that dynamic of forcing other people in the primary to the left on policy can work. Clinton’s eventual adoption of a plan similar to Sander’s proposal for how to make higher education more financially accessible came with a months-long lag time. Sanders originally presented his plan in May, with the aims of it being to increase the number of people with college degrees and decrease the economic hardships for those who are in the process of attaining one. In August, Clinton capitulated on that issue and discussed a draft of a similar plan that more specifically emphasizes reducing overall student loan burdens rather than enrollment and graduation, Sanders’ focuses.

Two days ago, Sanders pressed the issue further by stating that he would pay for his plan with a tax on financial industry transactions. Today, he doubled down while circulating a petition in support of his Workplace Democracy Act – which is designed to promote unionization and related labor organization. In short, he’s testing the nature and scope of his influence after having eventually gotten Clinton to present her own version of a policy plan similar to his. Martin O’Malley appears to even be possibly doing his own pushing on the front-runner Clinton, by urging the US to embrace a more humanitarian policy on refugees. Whether these efforts can hone their ability to lead Clinton into advocating for these types of policies remains to be seen, as does that these promises can actually materialize into political action in office.

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