Normative Narratives


The Progressive Case For More Moderate Policies

If President Trump has had any positive effect on American politics, it’s that people are more engaged than ever. Think about it, when was the last time you heard that lazy complaint that “both parties are the same”?

Not only are the parties not the same, there are big differences within at least one of them. The GOP has become the party of Trump, but significant philosophical and policy differences exist within the Democratic Party. There are “progressives” like Warren and Sanders, “moderates” like Buttigeg, Biden and Klobuchar, and even an outsider-entrepreneur-populist in Andrew Yang.

When considering an ideal platform to run on, I am not talking about my personal preferences, or what may play well in politically uncompetitive parts of the country. Rather I am talking about two things:

  1. What best addresses the nation’s needs;
  2. What is most likely to appeal to independents and moderates, whose turnout and swing votes could be the determining factors in the 2020 election (electability).

Admittedly, “what best addresses the nation’s needs”, is opinion. In the next section I will defend my opinion that more moderate policies, and more of them, best addresses the nation’s needs. What is most likely to appeal to swing voters, however, is not opinion–it is moderate policies. This is common sense, strongly backed by a recent New York Times analysis of undecided voters:

“These potentially persuadable voters are divided on major issues like single-payer health care, immigration and taxes. But they are fairly clear about what they would like from a Democrat. They prefer, by 82 percent to 11 percent, one who promises to find common ground over one who promises to fight for a progressive agenda; and they prefer a moderate over a liberal, 75 percent to 19 percent.”

Making America Greater Than It’s Ever Been

After decades of inadequately investing in most Americans, many changes are needed to bring some semblance of equality of opportunity to this country.

Progressive Democrats focus on free college and healthcare, but economic opportunity goes beyond free or affordable versions of these things. It is not just healthcare and higher education reform that are needed, but also: early childhood development initiatives, investments in worker (re)training and apprenticeships, addressing student loan debt, a major infrastructure plan, an ambitious green economy plan, and perhaps the beginnings of a Federal work guarantee program (which is the real solution to automation). In other words, a realistic version of the Green New Deal.

By embracing more middle-of-the-road policies to address healthcare and college tuition costs, there is more fiscal space and political capital to spend on these other priorities. Lets consider the big ticket plans, as well as their more moderate alternatives:

“Medicare for All” vs. the “Public Option”

  • People will argue that Medicare for All is “socialism”, that it is “European”, not “American”. Yes, these are dumb arguments, unfortunately that does not matter when a large portion of the country believes them.
  • The public option–letting anyone who wants to buy into Medicare do so–on the other hand, embraces two core American values–choice and competition. It simply provides, as the name implies, an option.
    • As with the ACA, subsidies would be provided for people depending on their income.
  • One of the main reasons the ACA is less effective than it could be (aside from constantly being undermined by the GOP) is lack of providers in many areas.
  • There is more support for a public option than Medicare for all, and the gap is widening.
  • The public option is, of course, less expensive (by varying amounts, depending on the details of the plan).

Even Senator Warren’s path to “Medicare for All” is essentially just passing a public option at first, and then trying to pass a single payer health insurance law at a later date.

Free College Tuition vs. Free Community College

If someone knows they want to go to college, and is committed to seeing it through to degree completion, they should be encouraged and enabled to do so. The data shows that the higher your education level, the more you earn and the more likely you are to be employed. However, nothing good comes from a recent high school grad taking out a loan for a program they have no intention of completing, because they have been convinced that doing anything else would be a mistake.

  • Most student loan debt is driven by people attending for-profit colleges for a semester or two and then dropping out. Without the earnings bump one realizes from getting a degree, they find themselves stuck in debt.
  • We have all heard horror stories of people graduating with 6 figure debt, but these people are the loud minority of student loan debtors, and will likely be able to pay that debt off in the future.
    • For those who pursued or want to pursue expensive degrees in order to work for the social good, there are programs to help them pay down their debt (programs which can be expanded).
  • After years of conventional wisdom unwisely saying “everyone should get a degree”, the downsides of such thinking have become apparent; the decreased value of a bachelor’s degree (as they become much more common), and the increased cost (as more demand drives up prices).
  • Free Community College allows unsure young adults see if a bachelor’s degree is for them, or whether they want to go another route, without the burden of student loan debt.
    • State’s public higher education systems need to create as seamless a transition as possible from their associate’s to bachelor’s degree programs. By doing so, they would effectively be cutting the cost of a bachelor’s degree in half.
    • Some people do not want or need to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and that’s OK! This is not evidence of some moral or cognitive deficiency, nor is it a sentence to a life of poverty. We as a society need to better promote the alternatives, meaning;
    • High Schools, Community Colleges, and businesses need to provide more vocational training and apprenticeship opportunities, particularly since these jobs are projected to grow and more young Americans are beginning to show interest in them.
  • As with the public option, providing free community college would be significantly cheaper than making all public college tuition free.

Should any “moderate” plan be fully implemented, America would be immeasurably more progressive than it is today. All the progressives out there, if they truly care about social progress, should be out celebrating in the streets if a public option or free community college ever become the law of the land.

Progressive Taxation

Because bigger ticket plans are so expensive, progressive candidates have had to become innovative on taxation, most notably by proposing a wealth tax. There are also more familiar ideas to increase tax revenues, such as increasing higher end income and corporate tax rates, raising the capital gains tax, and introducing a value added tax. Then there is also adequately funding the IRS, so it can better enforce tax law.

Every other wealthy country in the world generates more tax revenue relative to its GDP than the U.S. Despite what Trump may say, I am not comparing the U.S. to socialist countries with failed states; these are the G7–literally the 6 wealthiest countries in the world after after the U.S.

Source: OECD

Note this chart ends at 2017; the U.S. figure is probably about 1% lower for 2018 after the GOP passed it’s new tax bill. That might not sound like much, but remember 1% of the $20 trillion dollar U.S. economy is about $200 billion dollars.

Doing a very rough back-of-the-napkin calculation, if the U.S. collected at the G7 average, it would easily bring in 1.5 trillion more tax dollars per year. I don’t care if your priority is reducing poverty, environmental protection, building up our military, providing better services to veterans, paying down the debt, or literally anything else, we should all be able to agree as a nation that we are leaving too much tax revenue on the table.

Moderate Democrats must also embrace more progressive taxation. For one, it hits on the widespread belief that the wealthy do not pay their fair share of taxes. Furthermore, if a candidate wants to propose a buffet of policies instead of a few main courses, it will still cost a lot of money. Being a moderate Democrat shouldn’t necessarily mean spending less, but rather spending differently. To do this responsibly still requires embracing much more progressive taxation. 

The Uneven Political Playing Field

Due to a number of factors (Gerrymandering in the House, less populous states being disproportionately represented in the Senate, the Electoral College), Trump’s GOP does not need to win national popular support to stay in power. Instead it will double down on lies, partisan attacks and other scare tactics to try to rile up its base.

The Democratic party cannot play this game. While Democrats have to be tough on Trump, they also have to try to appeal to some conservative voters. If the Democratic Party tries a mirror approach, appealing primarily to extreme progressives while ignoring moderate Democrats, conservatives and independents, all it will accomplish is breaking its own 2016 record of winning the popular vote by the largest margin in history while losing the Presidency.

Think about it, people who support the most progressive policies tend to be clustered in big cities–cities that already vote Democratic. Increasing turnout of this voting block would have less of an effect on the election than one may think.

Thanks to his words and actions, Trump has put previously uncompetitive areas in play–the so called “suburban slide” in the south. The Democratic party must seize on this opportunity and try to appeal to these voters. The party’s progressive wing should not punish it for playing smart politics; as the past three years have shown, the stakes are too high.

A New New Deal

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe absent grand policies like “Medicare for All”, “Free College”, or “$1,000 a month for everyone”, the excitement just isn’t there for any Democratic candidate and Trump wins again. Maybe most voters don’t have the capacity or desire to consider a platform that addresses the issues facing this nation with targeted policies.

Or maybe people do want that type of platform, but don’t think politicians can actually deliver it. This is a much more reasonable argument; the Federal government hasn’t been particularly effective in recent history, and it is easier to pass two bills than five.

To this I say that, in America, fatalism is self-fulfilling. If we say, “we can’t pass those bills”, and don’t even try, then we certainly we won’t pass them. If we say “we can’t tax the rich, they’ll just dodge it”, then that becomes the reality (as it has already begun to be).

Yes, there will be difficulties along the way–there always are when taking on wealthy interests. Globalization has made tax evasion more difficult to police. Today’s hyper-partisan political environment has made it harder to pass legislation that actually reflects the will of the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum. BUT WE MUST TRY. To quote FDR:

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.”

American democracy has driven some truly incredible advances in human progress and social fairness in the past, and there is nothing structurally stopping it from doing so again. The New Deal, which today’s Democratic party seems to want to emulate, was itself a large package of targeted policies addressing specific needs.

More moderate policies, and more of them, has been and continues to be the right approach to addressing the many challenges facing our nation. It also happens to be the more broadly popular–and therefore electable–platform. Whether a candidate with such a platform can make it through the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, however, remains to be seen.


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Much Ado About a “Do Nothing Congress”

A recent NYT article cast a gloomy picture for those hoping for a Democratic super-majority after the 2014 Midterm Elections.

History says President Obama should brace for another round of midterm election losses next year — and be grateful for the opportunity.

Unlike presidents who never got the same chance, Mr. Obama is in line to become only the fifth president since Harry S. Truman to serve long enough for a second midterm election, and the possibility that his party might hold or gain ground in Congress in his sixth year in office. But the unhappy record of his two-term predecessors — none of whom gained control of either legislative chamber — offers scant comfort about his prospects.

However, there is reason to believe the Democrats may retake the House. Two forces in particular are working in their favor.

1) The Democratic Party is more popular than the G.O.P (Gallup Poll):

The two parties’ favorability ratings are at the lower end of the range Gallup has measured for each, although the GOP has the lower absolute rating. The Democratic Party’s current favorability rating of 42% is similar to what it was during most of 2010 — a year in which the Democrats lost 63 House seats and majority control in that chamber.

Moderates More Likely to Prefer Democratic Party Over Republican Party

While the two parties rely on their ideological soul mates for support — Republicans depend on conservatives, while Democrats lean on liberals — both parties also need at least some support from the political center to win elections. Self-described moderates are more likely to have a favorable image of the Democratic Party (47%) than of the Republican Party (27%), which may prove problematic for the GOP next year in the congressional elections. It is worth noting, however, that moderates typically lean more Democratic than Republican.

Parties' Favorability, by Self-Reported Ideology, December 2013

The Republican Party can hardly claim to have locked up its support among conservatives, who are as likely to have a favorable (47%) as an unfavorable (46%) image of the GOP. Liberals, by contrast, are more unified in their support for the Democratic Party, with 71% viewing the party favorably.

2) People don’t like a “Do-Nothing” Congress:

Trend: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?

And the 113th Congress is a “Do-Nothing” Congress.

This Friday, the 113th Congress will end its 2013 session with a less-than-distinguished title: one of the least productive ever.

Halfway through its term, Congress has passed 56 laws. By comparison, 10 years ago, the 108thCongress passed 504 laws between 2003 and 2004. A decade before, the 103rd passed 473 laws, according to GovTrack, a site that monitors legislation.

The current Congress’s predecessor, the 112th — thought to be the least productive ever — managed to pass 284. The 113th Congress is on track to underperform even that cohort.

The original “Do-Nothing” Congress, the 80th U.S. Congress, enjoyed a Republican super-majority. By the time the 81st Congress was sworn in, Democrats had taken over the majority in both the House and the Senate.

Now, the fact that Congress is currently split–Democrats have the majority in the Senate, while the G.O.P controls the house–paves the way for much more finger-pointing than in the 81st congressional election. The experts believe only 20 something seats are truly “up for grabs”, and the Democrats need to win almost all of them (17) to take a majority in the House. However, given the relative unpopularity of the G.O.P (both among conservatives and moderates), it would appear that Democrats primed to take many of the undecided seats.

Lots of time still remains before the 2014 midterm elections, and the political landscape can change drastically between now and then. If there is one things you can predict in democratic elections, it is unpredictability.

“I don’t think there are any formulas” for midterm election results, said Ken Khachigian, a former Reagan speechwriter. “We underplay the fact that elections are elections with individual candidates.”