Democrats and Their Promises

Of course Democratic candidates will claim to support progressive policies. Don't assume they're telling the truth.

Senate minority leader Charles Schumer joins activist groups in speaking out against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, at the US Capitol on August 1, 2018 in Washington DC. Mark Wilson / Getty

Never Believe Democrats’ Policy Promises

The Intercept had a nice scoop last week based on leaked internal documents from the Healthcare Leadership Council (HLC), the industry’s anti-single-payer lobbying machine. It seems the HLC has been having private one-on-one meetings with Democratic primary candidates to suss out their positions on health reform, and in some cases — brace yourself — what the candidates are telling the lobbyists behind closed doors doesn’t line up with what they’ve been telling voters.

The case in point showcased in the Intercept story was Hawaii lieutenant governor Doug Chin, now running for Congress, who met with the HLC last February:

Chin indicated to the Healthcare Leadership Council that he supports its position that the “best way to achieve the lowest prices for Medicare beneficiaries in the Medicare Part D program is through the current process of private sector negotiation,” according to his dossier.

As it stands now, the Medicare law, authored under the influence of the drug lobby, prevents the agency from using its collective bargaining power to negotiate lower prices for pharmaceuticals as part a benefit program known as Part D. Progressive health care activists have agitated for the government to become directly involved in negotiations. Public Citizen, a watchdog group, claims that allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower-priced drugs could save $15 billion per year from the program’s budget.

Drug industry groups like the Healthcare Leadership Council — which is funded by pharma giants Amgen, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, and Bristol-Myers Squibb — have opposed the negotiation route.

Chin’s claim, according to the Healthcare Leadership Council documents, that he supports the industry-friendly status quo contrasts sharply with what he has said in public. In July, he told local news website Civil Beat that he supports “steps like empowering the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries.

No one should be surprised when Democrats lie about their supposedly progressive policy stances on the campaign trail. My favorite example is from the 2008 presidential primaries, when Barack Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA and, failing that, to withdraw from the pact. Shortly afterward, his chief economic adviser, University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, met privately with Canadian foreign ministry officials to assure them that Obama was just bullshitting.

A leaked Canadian account of the meeting noted that Goolsbee “was frank in saying that the primary campaign has been necessarily domestically focused, particularly in the Midwest, and that much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy.” Goolsbee also advised that Obama’s promises to Democratic primary voters “should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.”

Let this be a lesson.

How Many Americans Identify as “Working Class”?

Without a labor party, Americans lack political cues encouraging them to see themselves as part of a working class. Yet despite its near-absence from the national political discourse (at least in the pre–Bernie Sanders era), a surprisingly large percentage of them have always chosen the “working class” label — in preference to “middle class” — when asked to define their class identity in polls.

A recent Gallup analysis looked into this issue and found that one major factor holding down the number of  working-class-identifying Americans is retirement status. Whereas 35 percent of non-retired adults identify as working class, only 15 percent of retirees do. According to Gallup, this isn’t driven by more conservative attitudes among older generations; even within older age brackets, retirement status has a large effect. In other words, many people think that once they retire, they can’t be “working class.”

Overall among nonretired Americans, 44 percent identify as working or lower class, 39 percent as middle class, and 18 percent as upper or upper-middle class. It would be interesting to compare the prevalence of “working-class” versus “middle-class” self-identification in the public with its prevalence in political campaign rhetoric and elite discourse. Think of Chuck Schumer endlessly intoning about how Democrats “fight for the middle class.”

Whatever’s driving people to see themselves as working class rather than middle class, it surely isn’t what they’re hearing from politicians.

Public Ownership Is Back on the Table

From Robin Blackburn’s sweeping overview of the Corbyn-led Labour Party’s policy agenda in the New Left Review. The whole article is important, providing a broad prospectus of what Corbyn calls “radicalized social democracy.”

The Labour Left’s forthright advocacy of public ownership under Corbyn has tapped a deep discontent with the UK’s privatized services. In one survey, three-quarters of respondents favoured the renationalization of rail and energy, and 83 per cent supported taking back control of water. What is needed now is a reinvention of the concept of the public good, which cannot be attained without public ownership, yet also requires multiple converging strands of accountability, consultation, determination and initiative. Corbyn and McDonnell have already begun to make a case for the greater democratic accountability that public ownership should bring—‘not the centralized and remote models of the 1940s and 1950s’, but ‘models of ownership that involve workers and consumers, based on co-operative principles’:

The technology of the digital age should be empowering workers, enabling us to co-operate on a scale not possible before. And yet too often it has enabled a more rapacious and exploitative form of capitalism to emerge. Look at Uber, Deliveroo and others. The platforms these companies use are the technologies of the future. But too often their business models depend on establishing an effective monopoly in their market and using it to drive wages and conditions through the floor . . . But imagine an Uber run co-operatively by the drivers, collectively controlling their futures, agreeing their own pay and conditions, with profits shared or re-invested.