Progressive or Moderate? Yes!


Democrats are tying themselves in knots about which of two camps they should align themselves with, the moderates or the progressives. As a Democrat who does not fall neatly into either camp, I think both wings of the party have their strengths and weaknesses and can learn from each other. Progressives have understood and critiqued the corrosive effect that the power of large corporations and wealthy individuals has had on our government, while moderates have understood the necessity of democratic compromise. Combining the best of both will increase the chances of the party’s success at the polls and in governing.

Progressives have seen clearly how the dominant force in American politics for the last 40 years has been the aggressive promotion of the interests of the affluent at the expense of the rest of us. Elizabeth Warren names this phenomenon corruption, while Bernie Sanders talks about oligarchy — government by the few for the few. Standing up to such corporate power is more important now than ever, when we we’re on the brink of a climate crisis that will require us to take on the fossil fuel industry. Republicans have relentlessly promoted the interests of their wealthy donors, irresponsibly cutting taxes on the rich, and gutting regulations that protect consumers, workers and the environment. But some centrist Democrats, while less complicit, have gone too far to accommodate corporate power. The financial deregulation of 1999 that contributed to the Great Recession of 2008, the response to that recession, bailing out banks but not giving relief to homeowners, the failure to prosecute those responsible, all occurred under Democratic presidents and were engineered by Wall Street insiders who were their top advisors. Financial regulation didn’t happen because the majority of people were clamoring for it, but because Wall Street wanted it that way. The same can be said for trade deals like NAFTA under Bill Clinton that were of far greater service to corporations than to their workers. This kind of centrism has opened the way for the likes of Trump.

On the other hand, not all of American politics comes down to the dominance of the one percent. I think the weakness of the progressive camp — the progressive candidates to some extent but even more some of their followers — is their difficulty in accepting the fact that the majority of Americans don’t agree with them on a number of issues. For example, on health care a July 2019 Marist poll shows 70 percent favoring “Medicare For All Who Want It,” i.e., a public option, versus only 41 percent supporting Medicare For All with the elimination of private insurance. While there is considerable support for some form of immigration reform, such as a path to citizenship for dreamers, and opposition to Trump’s inhumane policies and Wall, polls also show widespread support for border security more robust than progressives, who advocate the decriminalization of illegal broader crossing, seem to favor. (See Skelley, “Can the Democrats Win on Immigration Policy in 2020, April 30, 2019, fivethirtyeight.com.)

There’s an important distinction between selling out to corporate interests at the expense of the people, which undermines democracy, and being open to compromise in order to gain majority support for your basic goals, which is part and parcel of the democratic process. But you are less likely to compromise if you believe, as unfortunately some progressives do, that you possess a monopoly on truth — when you don’t debate so much as condemn, when divergence of views is treated by excommunication from the Progressive Church. Berthold Brecht’s ironic observation after East Germany suppressed a worker uprising in 1953, that the government should “dissolve the people and elect another,” applies to some degree to our current crop of progressives.

I would love to hear Bernie Sanders, to take the leading progressive candidate, make clear he understands that, in some cases, compromise is a strength not a weakness and is pro-democratic. It is extraordinarily unlikely that Medicare for All will be enacted anytime soon — when the Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate, they still couldn’t pass even a public option. Although passing a robust public option now would mean fighting insurance companies that are sure to resist it, because of the competitive pressure it would have on them, that seems to me to be eminently a fight worth having. But fighting for a Medicare for All that not only insurance companies but also a majority of the electorate apparently don’t want is not. I wish Bernie Sanders would say something like: “I stand for the principle that decent health care is a human right. And I recognize that there are different paths toward achieving that goal, and the path chosen will be dictated to some degree by public opinion and political reality.” Maybe not stirring rhetoric, but he would be both speaking the truth and reassuring some voters who don’t like Trump but might hold their nose and voter for him — or stay home — when faced with the prospect of what’s perceived as drastic, unwelcomed change.

Robert Katz

Robert Katz served as a staff attorney and supervising attorney at the California Supreme Court from 1993-2018. Before that he was in private practice representing public agencies, and worked as a newspaper reporter covering local government in Santa Cruz County. He has a Master’s Degree in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara and a JD degree from Stanford Law School.




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