Introduction: Why Do They Lie?
Those whose main experience with politics begins with Barack Obama are often unaware that Obama was unusual in at least one respect: he was honest to the left and liberals who had strongly supported him. Obama made few promises that his policies would be anything other than corporate friendly, establishment neoliberalism. And it should have surprised no one (though it did) that that is exactly what he delivered.
Obama’s honesty broke sharply with previous campaigns. Prior to Obama, Democratic candidates would typically promise much during their campaigns and deliver little in office.
A dramatic example was the Clinton campaign which was based on the slogan “putting people first.” This was understood to mean supporting organized labor, reversing the savage cuts to the social welfare safety net, and taking on the growing power of corporations and the wealthy via increased taxation.
Not only did little of this materialize, in some cases, (NAFTA, welfare reform, the carried interest deduction etc.) Clinton administration policies were the exact opposite of Clintonite rhetoric. Putting people first meant in practice putting people last and the rich and corporations first.
This history sheds significant light on the 2020 primary race. In particular, it explains why the candidate who is arguably running the most honest campaign is the one who was closest to Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden promises little other than “a return to normalcy,” in his words, committed to “working across the aisle. . to achieve consensus” with Republicans “as our founders intended.” Biden will almost certainly make good on these promises: a Biden administration would achieve a bipartisan consensus around a dysfunctional health care system resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The bipartisan administration would make little effort to achieve reductions in carbon emissions required to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, as these are reaching catastrophic levels. Wealth will continue to be relentlessly concentrated in a tiny sliver at the top as corporations milk the federal government for massive subsidies.
Biden is being entirely honest when he passionately commits himself to these and other related goals. In this key respect, Biden differentiates himself from the other mainstream candidates in the race. While he straightforwardly tells the voters what he will not do, the others are notably Clintonesque crowing about what they will do but won’t when in office. They do not have the benefit of proximity to Obama, and so they are required to deploy the traditional, pre-Obama politics of lying and misdirection for their campaigns to succeed.
Perhaps most conspicuous of these is my own Senator Kirsten Gillibrand whose campaign touts her commitment “to rein(ing) in Wall Street risk and protect(ing) our financial system so unchecked greed can’t hurt families again.” That anything of the kind should be expected of a recipient of tens of millions in Wall Street campaign contributions is something of a joke, one which is evidently not sufficiently amusing to allow Gillibrand break the 1% threshold.
The same could be said of Cory Booker. A reliable defender of the pharmaceutical industry’s gouging of consumers, the new landscape requires his having “advocated to expand access to health care like Medicare for All.” The uncomfortable discontinuity between words and deeds likely has something to do with Booker’s campaign being mired in the single digits.
Having constructed her career as a “tough on crime” prosecutor, Kamala Harris now must confront the problem of appealing to voters well aware of the mass incarceration crisis and her role in it. Harris’s unexpectedly lackluster showing is partly due to a broad recognition that she is in no way, as she claims, “a leading advocate for innovation and reform in the criminal justice system.”
Elizabeth Warren: The Reasonable Alternative
Somewhat surprisingly the panoply of candidates representing the “reasonable” center are being eclipsed by the two front runners who give a rational basis for hope that their campaign rhetoric would materialize as executive branch policy.
One of these is Elizabeth Warren whose longstanding status as enemy number 1 of Wall Street was achieved by her efforts to combat the most toxic and predatory practices of finance and the banking industry.
Warren’s campaign highlights these accomplishments accompanying them by notably progressive positions on the Green New Deal, college debt, and labor rights.
Many Democratic primary voters are inclined to take them at face value. For some, particularly younger voters, that is understandable. Those us who experienced Clintonite peaks of triangulatory neoliberalism will take a more skeptical view: while we recognize the attraction of the Warren campaign, there is also basis for concern that many of its sharp edges will be filed down, if not altogether forgotten during a Warren administration.
One of these is Medicare for All which Warren expressed initial support for, signing on as a co-sponsor. In subsequent statements, however, Warren has been conspicuously less committed to expanding Medicare along the lines proposed in the legislation, floating alternatives such as a “public option” as a means to achieve “universal coverage”.
It is not known if Warren’s walking back her support of Medicare for All was intended as a signal to financial, business and media elites that she was, in Margaret Thatcher’s phrase, someone “they could do business with”. Whether it was or not, that is what it effectively communicated. In short order, Warren’s candidacy began to receive respectful and even favorable notice from corporate lobbying groups, most conspicuously the Wall Street funded organization Third Way which praises her “commitment to capitalism.”
Reflecting this shift in elite consensus was Warren’s media coverage. If there ever was a blackout, as Warren forces were somewhat dubiously claiming not long ago, it was clear that over the past months it had been lifted. Mentions of Warren’s campaign are not only copious but unambiguously favorable extending from liberal outlets such as The Nation, MSNBC, and The American Prospect to agenda setting corporate organs such as The New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.
Most astonishing was the appearance of what even Warren supporters were describing as “puff pieces.” These praised Warren’s humble origins and her “fighting spirit” while failing to mention Warren’s gaffe prone history as well as other significant liabilities of the her campaign-most notably her distinct lack of popularity even in her home state.
Sanders: Not Open for Business
It hardly needs to be mentioned that the other left frontrunner, Bernie Sanders has received no puff pieces in the New York Times. What has been blatantly obvious is the exact opposite, namely, a longstanding pattern of smears and bias with even the most superficially factual reportage tinged with condescension and ridicule.
This reached a peak in 2016 when, as reported by FAIR, a mind-boggling sequence of sixteen negative stories was published by a single outlet, the Washington Post, on a single day. Other notable cases included the New York Times editing out favorable references to his legislative record, as well as routine suggestions of racism and sexism emanating from Sanders Bernie bro supporters, even while hard polling data demonstrated that Sanders’s supporters displayed *more* progressive attitudes on racial justice and gender equity than did those of his opponent.
While it can’t be tied to any particular smoke filled room, the media treatment accorded Sanders reflected a deep seated, and entirely reasonable basis for concern and even fear among elites. In contrast to Warren who is seen as having the potential for “growth” and “maturity”. Sanders four decade long commitment to Democratic Socialist principle is a red flag indicating that he is someone with whom they *can’t* do business.
Conclusion: Irreconcilable Differences
That’s not to say that Sanders will not compromise. He has a long history of doing so but always as a means to achieve what his longtime advisor Jeff Weaver calls “half a loaf” for the working class which he sees as not as one among many interest groups but as his exclusive constituency.
This contrasts with the establishment for whom compromise is not a means but rather it is an end in itself. That end consists in marginalizing the public from participating in the decisions which effect their lives. As they will sometimes admit in unguarded moments, their ultimate goal can be expressed in one phrase: to keep the rabble in line.
Sanders’s politics are grounded in the exact opposite assumption. As he has repeatedly stressed, his election will constitute nothing more than the beginning of a battle in which millions of us will be required to be actively engaged. Our functioning as voters pulling a lever will be the least of our involvement. Far more important will be our role on the streets and in congressional offices to demand the complete fulfillment of the Sanders agenda.
It is becoming clear that Sanders’ “Us not Me” versus Warren’s “I’ve got a plan” is about much more than competing slogans but about fundamentally irreconcilable differences. While liberal commenters have been at pains to deny it, those self-identifying as on the left are now being presented with a stark “which side are you on” choice.
It is to everyone’s benefit for us to make it sooner rather than later.