The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump vs. the socialists: The role of policy in today’s politics

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Let me begin with two admissions that may seem disparate but, importantly, are linked.

First, I have been surprised by the extent to which Trump supporters stick by him even when he clearly betrays their interests. Second, while I share many of their progressive goals, I have been skeptical of the socialists’ policy agenda because they never explain how we get from where we are to where they — and I — believe we should be. They ignore the path dependency that has been an ever-present feature in my career as a D.C. policy wonk.

But I’m beginning to realize that I’ve been short-sighted in both cases. Status-quo politics has been more successful than is often recognized – the anti-poverty safety net, strengthened incrementally over the years, is highly effective, and Obamacare has been a striking policy success, taking the uninsured rate down from 15 to 9 percent. But it has failed to solve fundamental problems and has been corrupted and hobbled by the toxic interaction of extreme wealth concentration and money in politics. We need an alternative, and Trump isn’t it.

Trump is so sui generis that one must be cautious in interpreting his success. That said, as conservative commentator Alex Castellanos compelling tells it, the extent to which his faithful stick by him, even when he hurts them, is a testament to how thoroughly he has convinced them that he has got their backs against those out to get them, most notably the “establishment” and the hordes of “others” that the establishment favors.

This is not a politics of policy, in any real sense, as in: “Here are realistic, well-designed, paid-for policies that will help you.” The role of policy in this politics is to amplify the “I’ve-got-your-back” signal. When Trump says, to thunderous, xenophobic applause, “Build the wall!,” he’s not talking about a budgeted infrastructure program.

In fact, Trump’s right that one cannot, in good conscience, defend today’s establishment. Federal politics is largely dysfunctional, except when it comes to doing the bidding of the donor base of the Republican Party. Those gains just noted are under attack to help pay for corporate tax cuts.

But this also makes Trump fundamentally dangerous to representative democracy. His ability to “defy gravity,” as Castellasnos puts it, his immunity, at least thus far, to public shaming or congressional oversight, interacts with his phony, fight-the-power populism to provide a highly effective cover to strengthen, not fight, the power of the elite.

It’s ironic as it is clear: While progressives like me worried about establishment, conservative candidates reversing the progress we’ve made, the ultimate anti-establishment candidate beat the field and is doing their dirty work for them, perhaps even more effectively than they could have themselves.

This is where the potential of the socialist movement comes in. Where Trump’s anti-establishmentism was always a ploy by a masterful huckster, the new socialists start from similar critiques of the status quo, but they take it to a much more promising place.

As the political scientist Corey Robin recently wrote, status-quo liberals “argue that they are merely using market-friendly tools…to achieve things like equitable growth, expanded health care and social justice — the same ends they always have pursued. For decades, left-leaning voters have gone along with that answer, even if they didn’t like the results, for lack of an alternative.”

What is the socialist alternative? As Robin tells it from 30,000 feet, it’s freedom from the “domination” of markets and the power structure they impose. As someone whohas always put power at the center of my economic analysis, this resonates.

But if “there” includes universal health coverage, free college/debt forgiveness, guaranteed jobs, unions, high minimum wages, and sovereign wealth funds that pay universal dividends, how do we get there from here?

To give a concrete example, we spend about 8 percent of GDP more on health care than other countries, with no better results. That’s $1.6 trillion, much of which is extracted by powerful lobbies in the form of excessive profits to stakeholders all along the delivery chain. They will fight tooth and nail to keep each dime.

Then there’s the price tag of the above agenda. I’ve written that progressives should shed the fiscal handcuffs imposed by the “what’s your payfor” question, especially in an era in which Republicans will never sanction a tax increase. But there’s no shying away from the fact that the other side of the “less markets” coin is a significantly larger government.

Yet, I’ve come to realize that this is a technocrat’s argument, not a political argument. What Trump should have taught us by now is that if people believe you’ve got their backs, you can do things never imagined by the status quo. In this regard, the new socialists are saying to the majority that has long been left behind, “We’ve really got your back.” In this regard, their analysis of market power is far more convincing than Trump’s promotion of fear and divisiveness.

Yes, the socialists are eschewing path dependency, and not all their plans pass technocratic muster. But, for now, that’s beside the point.

What is that point? To enlist poor, middle-class and diverse America in the struggle to take back their country and their democracy from the oligarchs who are actively undermining it.

Sign me up.