What the Left Must Learn from the Right

To truly counter the right, progressives must hone in on specific policy goals

Consider the common threads of the conservative movement in America over the last 40 years, from Reagan to Gingrich to Bush 43 to Ryan to Trump. The styles of these men and their supporters differed, of course, but three goals above all else animated their respective paths to power and sustained their governing coalitions. And while the current occupant of the Oval Office goes much further in personifying the decay and radicalization of the right than his party may prefer, he does not dare to stray from orthodoxy when it comes to achieving the movement's goals.

The three pillars in question? Solidifying conservative control of the Supreme Court and the broader federal judiciary, enacting tax cuts (increasingly geared toward the rich), and dismantling government regulation of business, particularly the energy and financial sectors. Courts, taxes, and deregulation. There are other causes, like a robust military or a firm line against undocumented immigration, motivating certain factions of the conservative base, but Trump's rise proved that you can buck party elites on military intervention in the Middle East or business-friendly immigration policies and still win. What they all agree on—elites and voters alike—what they organize around, fundraise and spend money on, is courts, taxes, and deregulation.

To the casual observer, it's not a riveting mix of topics. But the coalition has ridden it to lasting policy changes since 1980 and what looks like a strong hold on the Supreme Court. What is the progressive answer? Constant debates over identity politics are no doubt a reflection of real racial and ideological diversity on the left, but it's also undeniable that those squabbles distract from any effort to coalesce around a few core issues.

Finding the best candidate for 2020 will and should be among the left's key priorities in the short-term, but choosing a standard-bearer from among Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O'Rourke, and others is just another reminder that personality trumps policy. To truly counter the right's enthusiasm, consistency, and discipline, progressives must hone in on specific policy goals and build a support network that will see them through to the end.

What issues should take center stage? An informal poll of politically-minded friends elicited the following suggestions:

  • Climate change

  • Criminal justice reform

  • Early childhood and public education

  • Gun control

  • Housing affordability

  • Income inequality

  • Infrastructure

  • National service

  • Opioid crisis and mental health

  • Poverty

  • Single-payer health care (Medicare for All, as the kids call it now)

  • Voting rights

I could be persuaded in many different directions here, but if I were making the call right now, I'd settle on climate, education, opioids, and voting rights.

Climate change is an economic and ecological tragedy playing out in slow motion and requires brave choices now or drastic decisions later. One side has to be fully committed to combating it, and it's certainly not going to be the right.

Education is the lifeblood of civic health and a vibrant economy. Unfortunately, many public schools in this country have languished for decades. We can't claim to be giving everyone a fair shot if an 8-year old in the Bronx isn't getting the same quality education as an 8-year old up the road in Scarsdale.

Last year, roughly 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, a figure that tops the fatalities from gun violence or traffic accidents. In many cases, these are stories of loneliness and despair, of people in real pain who got hooked on their prescription, of the unemployed or underemployed who turn to drugs to fill a void. What's more, the crisis has disproportionately devastated states like West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania where many perceive Democrats as out of touch or dismissive to their plight.

Finally, the continued assault on voting rights and electoral integrity is an insult to the hard-won progress achieved (by Democrats and Republicans) since the Civil War. Recent irregularities in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina should serve as enough proof that the problem is far from solved. - MS


What Caught My Eye

Please remember this the next time someone says Trump supports the troops in ways Obama never did.

+ Leave it to the president to paint Admiral William McRaven, commander of the successful bin Laden raid, as a partisan hack. And if you haven't seen it, watch McRaven's 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas.

+ Agree or disagree with his perspective, but Glenn Greenwald on Trump, Saudi Arabia, and America's checkered history with autocrats is worth reading.

That other story

"What Trump sells to voters is a vicarious fantasy. He shows off his appalling gold-leaf interiors and shows his selfies with celebs and talks up his tacky empire, and people think: 'Man, if I had a billion dollars, that’s how I’d live!'" Don't let the Mueller probe crowd out what is a massive story in its own right.

Because I'm sure you need more podcasts

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of America's most gifted writers and public intellectuals. Here's his excellent conversation with Chris Hayes on democracy in the age of Trump.

+ The new season of Serial is brilliant. Here's a good place to jump in.

+ Ezra Klein talks to Chris Bailey about the war for our attention.

Ten years on

"The crisis was a moment that cleaved our country. It broke a social contract between the plutocrats and everyone else. But it also broke a sense of trust, not just in financial institutions and the government that oversaw them, but in the very idea of experts and expertise." Andrew Ross Sorkin looks back on the financial crisis.