What next for the Democratic Party?

Let’s indulge hope, just for a moment, and play pretend. Let’s imagine possibilities, precisely because we’re pessimists and expect that even an illusion of encouraging circumstances is usually short lived, and so one might as well daydream when one gets the chance.

Along these lines, then, let’s ask what liberals/Democrats should do next?

The prompting for this bit of whimsy is, obviously, the Affordable Care Act’s most recent Houdini Act. Plus a couple of recent articles that more directly considered the idea that the Democratic Party might be about due for a new project.

This is, on a basic level, not actually all that fanciful. It does seem possible that the years-long effort to implement and defend the Affordable Care Act is, at least, ready to shift from war-of-survival to maintenance-program. I think it isn’t completely delusional to suggest, as Vox has, that Republicans are just running out of ideas to disembowel the ACA with one stroke. More importantly, perhaps, I suspect that they may also just be running out of steam a little bit. At some level. Certainly the fact that, by the time the Supreme Court finally ruled on King v Burwell, many many elected Republicans were actually quietly relieved that they didn’t have to deal with the consequences of a “victory” suggests that they may be ready to redirect resources to some other issue.

So perhaps the Democratic Party ought to be thinking the same thing. Significantly, and strange as it is to suggest, “Obamacare” arguably completes the several-decades-long project of safety net programs. Compared with e.g. a European welfare state, America’s redistributive social programs are still a net, indeed, i.e. full of holes. But as a skeleton, an outline, they do seem basically complete: old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, disability payments, and, finally, a program that at least aspires toward universal health care access (however short it falls at present). There is no longer any obvious, complete void to demand patching over as priority one.

At the same time, I might add, it looks (from my point of admitted privilege) like social equality is making reasonable progress. Racism, sexism, homophobia etc. still certainly exist, but the space in which it’s okay to be noticed practicing these -isms seems to get narrower every year. Maybe, as I will speculate with some other issues as well, progress from the bottom up is now self-sustaining here without top-down pressure. Perhaps.

All of this suggests both an opportunity and a challenge. A once-in-a-generation chance to think big and dream of something more than just building a floor is kind of exciting, in theory. At the same time, however, a description I read a few years back of legislative reform in America having “limited bandwidth” has only seemed more and more apt with time. It seems likely that Democrats will mark eight years in the White House with precisely one major legislative achievement to show for them (health care reform). It seems just about as likely that accomplishing even that much in the next decade will be a tall order. Yet that’s all the more reason to prioritize. Chance is always a factor, but for the most part this generation shouldn’t expect much further in the way of big, national progressive reform without a sustained, focused campaign for it. Plus, a party ought to have some national agenda to run on in a national election, however dim that agenda’s prospects, right?

So: what to place first in that low-bandwidth download queue? (Note: as this is primarily a look at what should be done, even if there is limited support, it won’t be constrained by present congressional malapportionment, etc., because what do several more years of locked-in gerrymandering matter when it may take 10, 15 or more years to build your case for action anyway? That said, I am going to “score” each issue and will examine political prospects therein, briefly.)

More health care reform. Obviously, there’s quite a bit still to do here. You may not get this impression from Paul Krugman, but as the Guardian notes, even by the measure of “coverage,” on which Uncle Paul likes to focus, the ACA remains a long ways from mission accomplished. Meanwhile by the measure of actual affordable access to care, well… it’s rather easy to feel like this issue remains barely begun.
For: I really still need some fucking help, here, dammit! Also, I’m not the only one, plus health care costs continues to devour American capital for a relatively poor rate of return compared with peer economies. Meanwhile, Democrats probably own this issue now like it or not, which suggests some incentive to push past “kind of adequate but very unappealing” to “actually happy about it.”
Against: Who wants to put their hand back into an industrial wood chipper again (or even, for one presidential candidate, a third time)? Volunteers?

Inequality. Can hardly leave this out of consideration.
For: Trendy, obviously. Just as obvious, potentially offers very simple pocketbook appeal. Also probably something that will be hard to fix to a meaningful extent below a national level, given capital’s tendency to dodge around local governments by pitting one against the other in a race to the bottom.
Against: This may need to be addressed nationally, but is it really suited to a single-big-push? Raise top rates, a lot, would probably fit the bill, but is that really plausible without a total war to foster solidarity? This issue, if anything, seems likely to test the limits of where cultural shifts end and legislative reform begins. A long-term campaign to tug American society back from insatiable winner-take-all greed, to some sense of satiety and sharing, certainly seems relevant. But are politicians the right people to lead it? Or is this a campaign for some other segment of society to lead, and for the Democratic party to follow with modest, supportive measures on an ongoing basis?

Nothing. Question assumptions. Does the Democratic Party really need a new primary issue? It’s a complex world, after all. More to the point, I can’t help thinking that the last two times that congress changed hands, the winning message seemed actually to be “you’re sick of them, we are not them, put us in power!” Certainly the Democrats’ 2006 victory was, as I recall it, the product of twisting around uselessly through six years of Republican atrocities until electoral disgust finally boiled over, and “hi, remember us, oh right you probably don’t because we’ve mostly just been keeping out of the way but that means you haven’t been pissed off at us about anything lately right” won by default.
For: Easy, arguably a sound political strategy.
Against: Arguments against found throughout.

System reform. Perhaps this is a good time to pause, and fix government before the next attempt to fix something else with government. Campaign finance reform, redistricting reform, Senate reform, voting rights, etc.
For: Some argue that this has to be first priority, just because nearly any other progressive reform will be hopeless so long as American democracy is rigged to serve the rich, powerful few. It’s tough to dismiss this argument. Plus (given that we’re already engaging in fantasy), it’s tempting to imagine that restoring a people’s government could actually unclog the legislative machinery, and permit real progress on multiple other issues without each requiring a generation of grinding effort for a compromised simulation of victory.
Against: Kind of abstract as a campaign issue, almost guaranteed to trigger that horrible word “wonkish.” (God forbid, y’know. Details. Thinking. Bor-ing!) Perhaps, also, just pie in the sky? Did democracy ever really work so much better, or is that just selective memory?

Climate change. Another that doesn’t really require much background.
For: The ethical argument for this project is probably as great as any I’ve listed. The fate of the only habitable living world known to us, and everyone who lives on it and will be born on it in future. Important. America has been a big part of the problem, which is all the more reason that contributing to a solution is a moral obligation. Plus, another issue that seems likely to require national (and supranational) action to address effectively. In theory, meanwhile, a majority of the electorate wants something to be done about climate change…
Against: …but that does not necessarily mean that a majority will actively vote for and support real policies that will interfere with their habits. Particularly when a large, well-funded disinformation campaign has had more than 20 years to practice their strategies to thwart nearly every conceivable solution to this issue, liberal, market-oriented and otherwise. (The one possible exception might be divestment, and that seems even more likely than economic inequality to be a campaign where any role for the Democratic Party is going to be supportive rather than leading.)

Space. Hey, we’re playing pretend, here, so why not have some fun? What’s the point of thinking big about goals for the future if it mostly ends up frustrating and familiar? Let’s go to fucking Mars!
For: I’ll believe that private space missions can amount to more than novelty rides to low orbit when I see it; until then, the goal of extending human civilization beyond a single point-of-failure seems as dependent on national effort by a big rich government as anything. It also seems very important, to me. It’s within our reach to take humanity from organic scum crawling the surface of one lone rock to interplanetary civilization. (Which would mean, for the foreseeable future, organic scum crawling the surface of two rocks, but still.) It seems like we should do that. Plus, politically, talk about exciting. Bring in a little yellow-peril space race 2 jingo, and by golly you could have a winner!
Against: There are still needs here on Earth. Space exploration is fairly cheap but manned missions are expensive. The utility of a Mars colony is, realistically, likely to be low even if it could be made self-sufficient which seems wildly improbable in the near future even by daydream standards. Politically, I see no reason to think this would be a hotcake campaign issue. Finally, I was being sarcastic about the space race bit. (I still support space colonization, but the durable popularity of xenophobia into the 21st century is an argument against spreading human civilization beyond the Earth, not an argument for it.)

Military-surveillance complex. This is a something of a mushy, messy term for all of the stupid or evil things billed to American taxpayers in the name of “national security.” Military interventions, military bases, drone warfare, gulags, mass surveillance, our massive useless and absurd nuclear arsenal, the TSA… Most of it ranges from useless to severely counterproductive; all of it is expensive.
For: Land of the free? Home of the brave? Democracy? Human rights? Plus just STOP THE GOD DAMN KILLING, and the god damn spying also. Fuck politics, just FUCKING STOP DOING THIS SHIT.
Against: Telling Americans that their country is responsible for ongoing, unjustified evil aggression is probably the least likely route to changing it. Particularly when the worst of this activity mostly takes place in a perpetual blackout of elective ignorance, while foreign criminals can murder one westerner and (thanks to their thoughtfully providing video documentation) reinforce America’s belief that “terrorism” is a real, leading threat to their well being.

Other issues… I’m sure that there are some which belong here, but obviously I’m not going to come up with an exhaustive list. Criminal justice reform arguably tops the list of “what else should be on the list,” but 1) a lot of this will need to be local reform, and 2) at the national level, right now it seems this is the rare issue that isn’t 100% calcified along party lines; is it best to see how long that can last and how much can come of it before trying a “war on women” style issue adoption?

On a related note, as I’ve written in the past I think gun control is a good idea but nowhere close to offering the returns necessary to implement it in the United States. Beating up the telcos, making college more affordable, improving transportation and transit are all good goals but seem more like “somewhere in the platform” issues than “priority message of a national crusade.” For what it’s worth I might add “trade deals,” simply to emphasize that this bullshit corporate economy-rigging should not be a Democratic priority, and if anything future campaigns should promise to defund the department that pays people to keep writing up new “trade agreements” whether or not tariffs and other real trade barriers remain an issue.

So, anyway… what to do? I don’t know! From a political standpoint, “do nothing” looks least-bad; all the rest probably mean hard hard sledding but that was kind of the point. From an ethical standpoint… I guess that if somehow forced to choose one top priority, I would probably choose climate change. None of the rest seems to approach the time pressure of this one, where each year of delay is likely to produce a substantially larger amount of additional suffering than did the year of delay before it.

Unfortunately, in terms of potential items for a long-term momentum-building campaign, this is probably the one that has already had the most attention devoted to that end for the longest time, to the least result.

Ah, wasn’t it fun to be upbeat and optimistic for a moment?

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