If Only the Democrats' Internal Debate About Focusing on Social or Economic Issues Were Interesting or Useful

by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the most predictable debates in any campaign season pits the Democrats who want to focus almost exclusively (or even entirely) on so-called kitchen table issues against those who want to spend some amount of time talking about social issues that are purportedly non-economic.

Careful readers of the previous sentence surely noticed that although I called this debate predictable, I described it in a relatively unusual way.  First, the Democrats who express concern about social issues do not -- and never have -- been absolutists about their side of the debate.  People who want to talk about racism, sexism, and other such issues have always been willing to say that of course standard economic issues are important and must be considered, asking only for some consideration of issues that affect marginalized groups (groups that add up to more than half of the population, even when only gender is considered).  Meanwhile, those on the other side of the Democratic debate are at best only grudgingly willing to say that it is OK to talk about non-economic issues in very limited circumstances, and as little as possible.

Second, in describing social issues as "purportedly non-economic," I am trying to remind everyone -- primarily myself, to be honest -- that the consequences of our ongoing problems with racism, sexism, and similar matters very much include dollars-and-sense outcomes for marginalized groups.  Yesterday's Supreme Court argument about affirmative action is higher education is one obvious example, but we need only consider the perverse combination of Republicans' insistence on women (including poor women) carrying fetuses to term but then refusing to help those new mothers with the costs of rearing children.

I want to be clear, then, that the framing that we usually see in the press -- progressives want to talk about social issues, but others want to talk about family budgets -- is both inaccurate and damaging.  Moreover, it is damaging in a predictably anti-progressive direction, as it allows supposedly "realistic" pundits and reporters to make it seem that social issues are mere special interests that distract from a winning campaign formula and alienate mythical swing voters.

After describing a nuance about the Democrats' never-ending internal debate (which the press loves to stoke), I will note an aspect of the debate that seems to contradict my progressive presumptions.  Exploring that issue will highlight what is truly at stake when we talk about social pathologies that harm people in very different ways.

In an excellent op-ed earlier this week, Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. offered a devastating critique of the "It's the economy, stupid" mantra that Bill Clinton's campaign inflicted on the world thirty years ago.  As part of his discussion, Bacon points out that this intra-Democratic Party fight is not in fact a purely centrists-versus-progressives lineup at all.  After all, among the biggest proponents of the "focus entirely (or almost entirely) on kitchen-table issues" strategy is the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.

Bacon emphasizes, of course, that it is the current mutated version of the Clintonian, triangulating, New Democratic, Third Way "realists" that is always ready to tell everyone else to shut up about social issues.  And right on cue, The New York Times yesterday published both a news analysis article and a guest op-ed that pushed variations on the Clintonites' approach.  The article's title and subtitle sound neutral --"Top Democrats Question Their Party’s Strategy as Midterm Worries Grow: Leading lawmakers and strategists are openly doubting the party’s kitchen-sink approach, saying Democrats have failed to unite around one central message." -- but the message from the always-worried Dems that the press loves to interview is clearly not that the party should have gone heavier on social issues.  Complaining about a "kitchen-sink approach" is just another way of saying, "It's the economy, stupid; so stop stupidly talking about anything else."

The op-ed in question was written by Mark Penn, whose name might ring a bell in that he was Hillary Clinton's chief strategist in her failed 2008 presidential campaign.  He made his name in politics hitching his wagon to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990's, and he followed his instincts to become a big defender of Donald Trump in 2018, even emphasizing Trump's complaints about the "deep state." Penn is an unrepentant purveyor of Republican-lite (and sometimes not even all that lite) Democratic campaign strategies.

Penn's op-ed is a useful reminder that his powerful group of insiders in the Democratic Party were never in fact believers in the economy-only mantra that they popularized.  Penn's argument, after all, is that New York's gubernatorial race now shows polling with single-digit leads for Governor Kathy Hochul not because she failed to focus exclusively on kitchen-table issues but because she supposedly failed to allay voters fears about immigration and crime as well.

This helpfully clarifies that the people who call themselves centrists are not so much concerned about being laser-focused on economics as they are about simply being conservative.  They still truly believe that America is a center-right nation that can only tolerate the kind of Democrats who hate themselves for being Democrats.  These are the people who convinced Clinton to guarantee his 1996 reelection by passing a slew of simply awful, regressive laws -- including the anti-immigrant IIRIRA, the anti-innocent AEDPA, the anti-everyone "ending welfare as we know it" law, and the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  I once referred to that set of laws as a "murderers' row," and if anything, I was too kind.

So now we have the same crowd telling us that if things go badly for Democrats next week in the midterms, it will again be the fault of the people who care about people and who refuse to follow the political instincts of the former president who left the campaign trail in 1992 to make a big show of presiding as governor of Arkansas over the execution of a brain-damaged Black man.

It is not only the graying hangers-on like Penn who are the problem.  Although I want Democrats to hold both houses of Congress next term, I almost wish that Virginia's reboot of Clinton, Abigail Spanberger, will lose her reelection race.  She has been whining for the last two years that progressives caused Democrats not to do as well in 2020 as they otherwise would have.  If she loses this month, she will whine even louder, but at least she will quickly fade away.

But is Spanberger right, and should people like me become the hard-headed realists that the Clintonites present themselves to be?  This is where Bacon's op-ed is so helpful, because he explains with impressive clarity that the self-styled pragmatists commit the most basic logical error: If A happened and then B happened, then doing not-A would have guaranteed not-B.  Too abstract?  No problem.  The B outcome is that the Democrats lost (or did not win by as much as they could have), and the A premise that is said to have caused B is that Democrats campaigned on the wrong issues -- specifically by sounding like what Howard Dean once called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

Bacon's five-point analysis is worth a full read, but probably the most important point is that "A caused B" can never be falsified:

What’s annoying about these arguments (but also useful for those making them) is that the notion that a political party will do better in elections if it talks about the economy “more” or in a certain way is almost impossible to measure or prove. If some pundit or strategist had written in June that Democrats would keep their House majority if they ran 80 percent of their campaign commercials on economic issues and Biden gave a weekly speech on manufacturing, he could write, “Democrats didn’t talk about the economy enough,” with an actual, specific metric that the party didn’t hit. I suspect this person doesn’t exist.

Moreover, simply as a matter of pure logic, even if A caused B, that does not mean that not-A would cause not-B.  "I ate a cake and gained weight" does not mean that if I had eaten a pie I would have lost or maintained my weight.  Bacon (the author, not the product of animal cruelty) also points out that most of these analyses are merely post hoc fallacies, with the Spanberger types arguing that A preceded B means that A caused B.  But if Democrats lose next week, there are plenty of other things that might have caused B -- chief among them the very real possibility that Democrats spent more time making futile plays for "winnable Republican-leaning voters" than engaging with disaffected or apathetic potential voters (who are most likely to listen to positive, not-only-economic messaging).

I could be wrong about that cause-and-effect relationship as well, but it is notable that the conversation in US politics always comes back to the idea that the Democrats lose (or win unconvincingly) by listening to their left wing.  Nominating people like Senator Tim Kaine in 2016 to be Hillary Clinton's running mate was the result of such thinking.  Admittedly, so was nominating Biden in 2020, but the evidence is at best mixed that he was the only Democrat who could have beaten Trump that year.

This standard story, then, is nothing more than what everyone repeats because everyone has heard everyone else repeat it.  It is an example of the conventional wisdom par excellence.  In any case, I noted above that one part of this argument "seems to contradict my progressive presumptions," and it does so in a way that challenges the familiar, dreary framing from the centrists-versus-progressives oversimplification that dominates much political discussion in the US.

What to make of the seeming agreement among the Bernie progressives and the Biden/Clinton centrists regarding the centrality of economic issues?  Even a casual reading of my columns over the years makes it clear that I admire Sanders in a lot of ways but am not one of his acolytes.  A big part of that is precisely because of my sense that he has no oomph regarding social issues.  Yes, he votes the right away and says the right things, but one cannot listen to him without noting that his fire is truly ablaze when he is talking about billionaires, not abortion.

Is that bad?  I also feel passionately that "every billionaire is a policy failure," and much of my writing focuses on inequality and classic kitchen-table issues like wages, employment, retirement security, and so on.  Unlike Bernie, however, I become much more exercised by the facts that women are losing control over their own bodies, that LGBTQ+ people -- most horribly kids -- are again being targeted for simply being themselves, that unarmed African-Americans are murdered in the name of the state for breathing while Black, and on and on.

In some ways, then, it could appear that I am more forgiving of economic conservatism than social conservatism.  To move the conversation to British politics momentarily, I am more outraged by the Boris Johnson/Nigel Farage Brexit alliance that exploited and worsened hatred of The Other than by the Liz Truss types who never stop pushing economic policies that make inequality and poverty worse -- for everyone (which in the US includes the sought-after Trump voters in diners in rural Midwestern towns).

This makes no sense.  Part of my blase attitude about economic issues (relative to social injustices), I suppose, is that economic policy analysis has always been my professional comfort zone.  "It's just my job" might explain a level of lethargy, I suppose, but that cannot be the whole story.

I am somewhat embarrassed to realize that in large measure this is a salience issue.  Yes, innocent Black people are murdered by police officers, but innocent Black people suffer and die also because of our terrible economic policies.  It is less visible and dramatic but no less real.  Life expectancy in 2020 was almost six years longer for White people than Black people, and for Black males it was an almost ten-year difference from Whites overall.  Women who are poorer and from marginalized groups are more likely to die in childbirth, and infant mortality rates in those communities are higher, too.

None of this means that bail reform or anti-racist social policies are unimportant, of course.  Yet it does mean that -- even setting aside my point above that the supposedly non-economic issues are in fact very much economic issues -- the Bernie wing's approach ought to be more compelling for someone like me than it is.  This in turn means that we should reject the aspect of the conventional wisdom that I noted above, which holds that the Democrats' supposed "kitchen-sink approach" represents a failure to "unite around one central message."

In the end, my objection to the economics-only (or economics-heavy) approach is not that what the Sanders group cares about is unimportant.  It is that they are wrong to act as if all other issues are less important and should be de-emphasized.  If even progressives cannot find a way to unite around a common theme of social justice that includes all of these issues, they not only betray their own values but miss out on a potentially winning message.

At the very least, I do know that if A is "failing to run a campaign on a full slate of progressive issues" and B is "Democrats under-perform," then my analysis is as good as "Democrats admitted that they had some progressive ideas and did not win every election."  Maybe better.