The Real Conflict in the Democratic Party

Incrementalism or bust.

Incrementalism or bust.

There is a real conflict occurring right now in the Democratic primary. And it’s not between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. While that narrative may be superficially intriguing, the consequential struggle is over whether it is best to progress society through incrementalism or by dramatic change. This ideological clash in the progressive movement will ultimately be what historians and scholars examine years from now. All the rest is noise.

The incrementalist argument for progress is embodied in the “establishment” candidates of the Democratic Party. Once in the “dramatic change” camp, President Barack Obama has morphed into what Hillary would call “a pragmatic progressive” or a “progressive who likes to get things done.” Matt Carp at Jacobin wrote an unbelievably perceptive piece which noticed that this “model of change…begins not with policy or people but with a politician.” Incrementalist progressivism rallies “around that leader’s personal qualifications, while defending past achievement and stressing the value of party loyalty” — think Clinton’s defense of Obamacare. Carp calls this type of progressivism “fortress liberalism” and laments how this overly defensive strategy has led to “the erosion of labor unions” and “the steady evisceration of the party at the state level.”

Whether you think Obama has adopted “industrious incrementalism” because he’s a corporate sellout or merely constrained by a hostile Congress (these two things are not mutually exclusive), a large portion of progressives would agree that the president has not dramatically changed America.

If you disagree with that conclusion and believe it’s a tough verdict, then you’ll have to take it up with the president himself. In an interview last year with comedian Marc Maron, Obama recognized this reality:

Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements, or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south, so that ten years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were. But at the time, at the moment, people may feel like, we need a 50 degree turn, we don’t need a two degree turn…And you can’t turn 50 degrees.

That’s a 180 degree turn (or should I say 50 degree turn!) from the dramatic change message he laid out in a 2008 speech:

Change will not come if we wait for it or some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

Obama’s ideological retreat is concisely illustrated through the titles of Jonathan Alter’s two books on his presidency: The Promise (2010) and The Center Holds (2014). It’s not a coincidence that the main philosophical battle of progressivism has so clearly manifested itself in the Democratic primary following Obama’s presidency.

When you apply the “two camp theory” to 2016, it certainly helps explain how a 74-year-old Jewish guy from Vermont gave the most qualified candidate since George Washington a tough primary. Sanders has merely catered to voters who want more immediate and consequential change, by carrying on Obama’s 2008 messaging and fitting it with other bold policies which match 2016 better ($15 minimum wage, free public college, and universal health care). When Democratic politics is understood in this binary way, we are also able to comprehend the surprisingly “yuge” generational divide in this Democratic primary – young people are fierce advocates for exciting political transformations (thus, they like Bernie), while older people tend to be more wedded to gradualism (thus, they like Hillary).*

Many commentators have claimed that Bernie’s appeal is due to Hillary’s character concerns and her ties to Wall Street, but this is shallow analysis. Clearly, these personal storylines do affect some voters, but Clinton’s troubles largely stem from barely running at all in the dramatic change camp. She is running as a technocrat, presenting “herself as a painstaking, detail-oriented manager.” It’s clearly working — after all, she’s almost certainly going to win the Democratic primary. But is it a reusable campaign strategy for future progressive candidates who don’t possess a terrific resume or a tiny field of candidates?

In ensuing election cycles we will see different Democratic politicians running new and fresh campaigns. Predictably, the skin-deep optics will be what drives our punditry (he/she is African American, he/she is LGBTQ, he/she is Hispanic). However the real story, the real substance to focus on will be which progressive tactic the candidates choose. While incrementalism looks to be the winning strategy of 2016, something tells me dramatic change is on its way.


*Although not perfectly analogous, one could make a similar argument for the Republican Party. Establishment/incrementalist candidates like Jeb!, Marco, and Scott Walker were refuted by the big (if not incoherent) change promised by Donald Trump.

Daily Clips: April 25th, 2016

The founding fathers weren’t concerned with inequality: So argues a column by Alana Semuels. I find her argument to be tepid, at best. She points out that “neither the Bill of Rights, nor the Declaration of Independence, nor the U.S. Constitution talk explicitly about the nation’s role in making sure its citizens have jobs or homes or earned enough to avoid being impoverished.”

That’s true, but at this point in world history brave people were merely trying to attain basic civil liberties. That was the main philosophical and political battle of their time. Screw universal health care, we just want to be treated equally under the law!

While Semuels notes that there is only brief mention of pledging to “promote the general welfare” in the preamble of the Constitution. Ok. But did she not read any of The Federalist Papers? If she did, she would have found that James Madison (the father of our Constitution) was very concerned with the idea of general welfare:

…the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.

2016’s scrambled coalitions: EJ Dionne contends that “ideology has mattered less in the GOP primaries this year than in the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.”

What good are hedge funds? A very good question and a very interesting article.

Tweet of the day: Can you imagine Jeb being the head of the NFL? Yeah, me neither.

Why Republicans Talk About Freedom and Democrats Don’t

Freedom is so hot right now.

Freedom is so hot right now.

Freedom, as a rhetorical tool and a slogan, is politically advantageous. Since FDR presented the “Four Freedoms” in 1941, our political leaders have uttered the word a lot. That’s not a conclusion influenced by recency bias, either. Text analysis from two American scholars shows freedom is more rhetorically popular than ever. Below is a graphical representation of how often our presidents have employed the term:

5e99fa7c7You can see that after a hundred or so years of middling usage, the word’s popularity surged with US presidents in the 20th century. While in the last forty years it went through some peaks and troughs, freedom has remained a prominent political term. An infographic from the analysis highlights this really well:

We get it Ronald, you like freedom.

We get it Ronald, you like freedom.

However, it’s clear that Obama and Clinton are bucking a modern rhetorical trend. In fact, Obama is on pace to say freedom “less often than any president since Warren Harding” — who served from 1921-1923.

Why are Democrats not saying freedom as much?

The answer is rather obvious: modern conservatives have hijacked the word freedom. (I’m certainly not claiming to be the first to notice this, I merely thought it would be interesting to compile various bits of research on the subject.) Just look at FiveThirtyEight‘s analysis on political buzzwords used in Democratic and Republican campaigns dating back to 1948. The results are unsurprising:


As the anti-government wing of the GOP has grown, so has their party’s asymmetric use of freedom. Yet their fondness for the phrase was not created in a vacuum. The word’s recent unprecedented popularity stems, in large part, from their collective reaction to Obama’s presidency. To understand why their base loves hearing “freedom,” you must empathize with how Tea Partiers are feeling.

To them, Obama appears to be a revolutionary socialist, a Muslim, and a black person who wants to dramatically transform America…for the worse. He dares to “spread the wealth” in a time of increasing income inequality. More than that, in their minds, they’re watching a president marching towards a complete government takeover of health care.

To these mentally contorted Americans, Obama seems like a total threat to individual liberty and choice. He doesn’t trust you to make your own decisions. He’s malicious and conniving. He’s coming for your guns. As Newt Gingrich so eloquently put it, Obama’s secularist-socialist regime poses “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.”

Will conservatives continue to say freedom?

Assuming Trump will be the Republican nominee in 2016, it will be fascinating to see whether or not the GOP will continue this conservative rhetorical trend. I suspect we might hear fewer mentions of freedom from a Trump-led Republican Party. Why? Because Trump, unlike previous GOP presidential candidates, is extremely authoritarian.

That’s not an unscientific take. That conclusion is backed up by a fascinating poll conducted by Matthew MacWilliams, where he found that “Trump’s electoral strength—and his staying power—have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations” followed closely by “fear of terrorism.”

These two electoral strengths of Trump both ironically call for bold interference in the lives of individuals. While freedom (as imagined by conservatives) is a concept which celebrates “non-interference,” authoritarianism represents “an oppressive exercise of central power.” An example of Trump’s preference for authoritarianism can be illustrated through his policies towards Muslims. He has promoted government surveillance of mosques and banning Muslims from entering the country, two highly intrusive policies which take away freedom. You’d expect that given modern conservatism’s love of liberty that they’d hate these policy prescriptions. But in fact we’re finding the complete opposite. All across the country, we’re seeing that a majority of Republican voters actually support these policies which celebrate authoritarian control.

We don’t know yet if Trump’s brand of conservatism is an aberration. Freedom-loving conservatives certainly hope it is. Going forward, analyzing the rhetorical use of freedom could be an interesting way to discover whether or not Trump’s rise is indicative of a larger ideological shift in the conservative movement.

Why Minimum Wage Opponents Are Dropping Big Money to Trick You

minimum wage facts

The deeply ironic act of spending money to avoid paying workers even a cent more is not new; conservative think tanks, lobbyists, and industry groups have been shelling out money in the form of campaign donations, legal services, and “educational” materials for ages. Just look at how far the airlines and Port of Seattle went just to avoid paying SeaTac airport workers $15 an hour. That couldn’t have been cheap. And we know from a ROC report that the National Restaurant Association had (as of 2014) spent close to $13M on political donations since 1989, largely to fight proposed labor laws like increased minimum wage and sick leave.

But they’re not just throwing money at guys in suits to argue that this country is becoming a nanny state, damnit! No, they are also spending decent dollars on campaigns to actively mislead you—with clever names that sound like they may be quite scholarly.

Like, you know,

minimum wage facts

…Which is paid for by the very-rational-sounding Employment Policies Institute (EPI—not to be confused with the other EPI, who actually do good work), who are in fact a right-wing think tank whose major focus is ensuring the minimum wage stays as low as possible.

Another “winner”:

minimum wage facts

…Which is a product of the Freedom Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank which has fought the unions at every possible turn.

And to be honest, I have to recognize the hustle that these groups are demonstrating. It’s extremely clever to just snatch up a domain knowing full well that people will be Googling exactly that fact. Plus, buying domains is fun! I recently did it myself!

But truly, the idea of spending real American dollars for the express purpose of spreading misinformation (more on that later) about a policy that could legitimately help people is just upsetting. And lest you think it’s not that much cash, allow me to examine.

Even just buying a website with a domain as coveted as that—hello, minimum wage dot com? Who wouldn’t want that? — is expensive, and having it designed and built is even more costly. In fact, according to a website that literally just estimates the worth of a site, is like, pretty spendy:

minimum wage facts

Yowza! $2,160? Why, that’s 298 hours worked at the minimum wage! Or, it’s how much more a worker currently making $7.25 would have after seven weeks of work if they were making $15. But of course, that’s not how much EPI actually spent; according to a 2014 tax filing, they dropped $1.7M “to maintain,, and” as well as to do other things, like buy advertisements.

minimum wage facts


That’s 234,483 hours worked at the minimum wage—or about the cost to employ more than 4,500 workers full-time for a  year—but who cares? That’s chump change to an organization (which is exempt from income tax!) whose gross receipts totaled over $3.6M.

And while all of that is a sincere bummer, and also really fishy—have you ever stopped to wonder why someone would spend more money than a minimum wage person will see in a lifetime to keep those same people from making an extra few dollars each year? Like maybe, I don’t know, racism, classism, misogyny, or greed?—the truly sad part is that they’re not even doing a good job of it. I mean, EPI has an infographic with little to no information on it and their blog posts on the subject routinely ignore very salient research from the University of Washington, UC Berkley, the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and other valuable resources.

And the Freedom Foundation’s site is a true nightmare. The FAQ is literally dummy text:

minimum wage facts

…and their research page may as well be, as it’s more than half full of citations from the same researcher who—surprise! Works for EPI!

minimum wage facts


Now, I am sure opponents of the minimum wage will gleefully point to the fact that as we speak, I am getting paid real American dollars to write this blog post. And that SEIU and other labor and interest groups have also spent money to further the idea that it’s good for the economy when workers have more money. But if that is your counterpoint—that we, too, are making it rain to push our agenda—consider who that agenda helps. I have literally no financial stake in whether or not the minimum wage goes up or down. I’m doing this because I believe that people should be able to support themselves with full-time work, and that the economy is better off when people have more money in their pockets to spend on stuff in their community. Interestingly, there’s a large body of evidence from think tanks, universities—and the U. S. government—to back me on that.

So when someone tells you a scary story about how raising the minimum wage will cost you your job, ask yourself: What are they getting out of it?



Daily Clips: April 22nd, 2016

Just a reminder that the majority of GOP voters support banning Muslims from entering the USA: The party of individual freedom, everyone!

Governor issues sweeping order to let felons vote in Virginia: Gov. Terry McAuliffe “is using his executive power to allow more than 200,000 convicted felons who have served their prison time to vote, circumventing the Republican-run legislature.” I’m sure they’ll just love that.

The most focused and effective messenger for Democrats is Elizabeth Warren:

Of all the Democrats in positions to make their voices heard at this point, Warren is the most awake.

Wide awake.

And she is saying what needs to be said about the conservatives who would be president.

What’s important is that, while she notes their whining and their failures, Warren attacks the Republicans with a focus on the issues and the ideals that are the most effective tools for countering right-wing extremism.

Tweet of the day:

Daily Clips: April 21st, 2016

Nick Hanauer and Robert Reich pen an op-ed on overtime: Our supreme troublemaker took to the New York Times to illustrate the secret reason folks in the middle class cannot get ahead. The answer? The evaporation of overtime pay in our economy.

Half a century ago, overtime pay was the norm, with more than 60 percent of salaried employees qualifying. These are largely the sorts of office- and service-sector workers who never enjoyed the protection of union membership. But over the last 40 years the threshold has been allowed to steadily erode, so that only about 8 percent qualify today. If you feel as if you’re working longer hours for less money than your parents did, it’s probably because you are.

That’s incredible. And it underlines why we live in an economy where wages remain stubbornly stagnant for the middle class.

Could Elizabeth Warren be Hillary’s VP pick? “Privately, Warren appears to covet the job.” Really? I’m not sure if there’s any truth to that or if it’s just the media trying to make a story. They go on:

She’s picked her spots, carefully choosing which issues she weighs in on. But she’s signaled recently that she would embrace with gusto the attack dog role typically played by a VP candidate. Earlier this week, she ripped into Ted Cruz for saying that seeking the presidency requires significant sacrifice. She spent another recent day going after Donald Trump.

Warren would be a fabulous VP pick for Hillary. Not only would it excite the base, it would also signify to Bernie supporters that she will not leave them behind.

 Jobs are scarce for PhD’s: 

Without serious changes in higher education, such as higher pay for adjunct professors or decreasing the time spent in graduate school, chances are thousands of new Ph.D.s in their early 30s will be struggling this fall.

Surprise, Surprise! The Chamber of Commerce Doesn’t Seem to Like Secure Scheduling

City reporter Erica C. Barnett reports on The C Is for Crank that Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce is preparing its membership for the secure scheduling law that our City Council is discussing. Maud Daudon, the president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, sent an e-mail that included the following appeal to member businesses:

The Seattle City Council has started exploring legislation that would restrict how employers schedule their shift workers. We are closely monitoring the process, and have consistently shared the message that Seattle must proceed thoughtfully: scheduling is highly complex and a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach will create more problems for employees. Furthermore, many businesses already have processes in place to directly meet the expectations of their employees. If you would like to share how you’ve adopted scheduling practices that work well for your employees, please contact Meadow Johnson, our senior vice president of external relations.

Who has the time to write all these tired cookie-cutter metaphors? (Image courtesy of marcolm at

Who has the time to write all these tired cookie-cutter metaphors? (Image courtesy of marcolm at

First of all, there is no law yet. The City Council is discussing secure scheduling with workers, employers, and labor experts, so this condemnation of a “one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach” is way too premature and constructed on nothing. In fact, based on the Chamber’s predictably negative responses to paid sick leave (PDF) and the $15 minimum wage, I think the cookie-cutter allegations of cookie-cutterism are the real cookie-cutter approach here.

And the assertion that “many businesses already have processes in place” is a curious one; just because many employers pay more than the minimum wage doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have minimum wage laws. In fact, by raising the minimum wage, we’re putting less of a burden on those good employers who pay more than their low-wage competitors. So if some businesses do a good job of scheduling, why wouldn’t they want, or why would they care, if employers with exploitative scheduling practices had to follow secure scheduling laws?

The business response to Seattle’s secure scheduling investigation has really been quite underwhelming. When councilmembers Lorena González and Lisa Herbold asked for business input into the process, they replied by saying that no laws were necessary, and that supplying a secure schedule for employees would be “one more straw that may soon break the camel’s back.” We hear these threats every time minimum-wage increases or paid sick leave laws are mentioned, and yet the camel’s back remains proudly unbroken.

The Chamber has a real opportunity here to help shape Seattle’s secure scheduling law, but they’re responding with the same cookie-cutter threats that they always drag out in cases like this. Just a thought: maybe it’s time for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce to stop fighting a proposal that doesn’t exist yet and to start bringing a good-faith effort to the secure scheduling conversation?

(To learn more about secure scheduling, please check out the fifth episode of our podcast, The Other Washington.)

Daily Clips: April 20th, 2016

How finance took over the economy: A thorough historical look at the rise of the financial sector in the US economy.

Bernie Sanders is (still) the future of the Democratic Party: Hillary Clinton may have won the battle last night in New York, but it is appearing that Sanders is winning the war. By this, I mean that while Clinton may get the nomination, Bernie Sanders’ policies ultimately represent the future of America’s left wing. As Yglesias notes:

But though Democrats are certainly the more left-wing of the two parties — the party of labor unions and environment groups and feminist organizations and the civil rights movement — they’re not an ideologically left-wing party in the same way that Republicans are an ideological conservative one. Instead, they behave more like a centrist, interest group brokerage party that seeks to mediate between the claims and concerns of left-wing activists groups and those of important members of the business community — especially industries like finance, Hollywood, and tech that are based in liberal coastal states and whose executives generally espouse a progressive outlook on cultural change.

Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. 

Raising the minimum wage could give Democrats the economic edge:

This year, the presidential debate highlights voters’ concerns about stagnant wages and the nation’s economic position. Republicans continue to argue that the answer is helping the job creators, with cuts to business taxes and regulations. If more Democrats begin to press their economic argument about growth and prosperity along with the moral argument, they will take away one of the Republicans’ few advantages with voters on domestic issues.