Some light shines through — so now what? Pragmatic Progressivism Part 2

Dear Paul Krugman,

Thank you for having long been a powerful and effective critic of received wisdoms in economics and politics. I might not have survived the administration of George W. Bush without your columns. And thanks for recently calling for fellow progressives to engage in some “hardheaded realism” about how to achieve our goals. Yes, please, let’s do that.

But as we do that, let’s also admit that what has long counted as “realistic pragmatism” for many has been just plain wrong. Recently, inside the beltway and the halls of the New York Times, “realistic pragmatism” said Trump was nothing to worry about, Bernie was a sideshow, and Hillary was as good as already nominated. (There’s lots more if you go further back: the Republicans would never threaten a government shut down and the economy just to get their way, a legal challenge to the ACA would never get to the Supreme Court. And then there’s WMD’s . . . )

So when Bernie said in the last debate that healthcare was a human right and that he would “move forward” from Obamacare towards single payer healthcare, your retort that a “single-payer system just isn’t going to happen” worries me. Yes, I wish Bernie had added more details, perhaps saying we should work towards a medicare-for-all system by gradually lowering the age of medicare eligibility over a decade or two. But if it’s true, as you say, “perhaps most, health economists would recommend single-payer,” what does it do for the general public — who generally tell pollsters they think everyone should be legally guaranteed health care  — if we tell them that “it’s just not going to happen” because of the power of insurance companies and others who are for the moment quite comfortable? It’s true that insurance companies have power, that  the necessary tax increases would cause many to freak-out, and the “disruptions” to folks with good existing insurance would combine to make the political fight a hard one. That’s a reality. But “just isn’t going to happen”? That’s just a guess. I don’t know it’s wrong, and you don’t know it’s right. Bernie’s insistence on advocating single payer/medicare-for-all has given many liberals some pause, and its generating some interesting strategic discussion. But let’s not base that discussion on truisms, on “what everyone knows.”

Bernie knows that single payer isn’t happening any time soon, and he’s been quite explicit about the limits caused by the toxic opposition either he or Hillary would face as President. His question is: what’s the best strategy given those realities? Part of his answer is we need a movement, not just a president. And he’s not against compromise. But he’s against the wrong compromises, which he has long argued and in many ways demonstrated the Democratic party has been making for decades. Do you start the discussion by saying “what’s best isn’t going to work because big money won’t let us”? Or do you start by advocating what’s best, and by involving ordinary folks in the effort rather than throwing them under the bus in favor of big money, and then doing the best you can from there. The debate here isn’t pragmatism vs idealism. It’s about what’s really pragmatic, about what’s the truly strategic way forward.

Since my last post, a few cracks have appeared in the dull gray clouds of dominant assumptions: Hillary Clinton staffers and their friends amongst the political journalists at the New York Times have for the moment decided that they were wrong to dismiss Bernie as a mere side show, that he might be a threat after all in the primaries. And he performed not just well in the recent Democratic debate, but did well by sticking to core principles, by being consistent and clear rather than by by being merely clever. (For example, when Hillary accused him of being against Obama in 2011 — a cynical, sophistic move, given all she said against Obama in 2008 — he simply rolled his eyes. For most of my life, a silly attack like Hillary’s would have become fodder for endless discussion in the media, but for now, that kind of thing is not sticking.)

So for the past week or two, the tone of MSM coverage has changed a bit, and as a result a little sunshine is showing through, and folks on all sides are for better or worse given the opportunity to think of things in a slightly new light. In the New Yorker, John Cassidy has a somewhat more measured piece than Krugman’s speaking to the issue of “realism.” Brian Beutler has weighed in thoughtfully on the strategy question in The New Republic. In response to Krugman, Jedediah Purdy has written this and this excellent pieces about “how change happens,” making the case that bold ideas are a necessary if not sufficient part of the mix of any real change. Let’s take advantage of the moment, and let’s engage in hardheaded realism, but let’s not mistake our conventions for inevitable truths. Realism requires admitting what you don’t know, and the range of things we don’t know is vast.