Jimmy Dore, AOC, and Medicare-For-All Strategy

by Benjamin Studebaker

The American left is finally discussing Medicare-For-All strategy again, thanks to Jimmy Dore’s suggestion that House Democrats could demand a floor vote on the legislation in exchange for backing Nancy Pelosi’s next term as Speaker. For too long, we haven’t been discussing our substantive goals and the available strategies for pursuing them. We’ve been locked in grim, repetitive discussions of coronavirus and the presidential election. But Dore got Medicare-For-All back on the front burner. And how have we rewarded him? He’s been subject to a slew of malicious, personal attacks. Instead of engaging with Dore’s argument, many of Dore’s opponents have turned to ad hominem, arguing that we shouldn’t listen to the argument simply because it comes from Jimmy Dore.

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It’s one thing to disagree with Dore’s strategy, but many of his opponents seem determined to even prevent his idea from being discussed. They seem more worried about defending the reputations of individual progressive Democrats, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They worry that Dore’s argument is dividing the left by causing progressive voters to doubt the commitment of these Democrats. But progressive voters are right to be worried–for years, Democrats have run on leftish, progressive platforms, only to turn toward the center as it becomes clear that their careers will stall if they continue to defend the interests of poor and working people.

Progressive Democrats can signal to their supporters the sincerity of their commitment by publicly challenging the party’s establishment. But to this point, the new members of congress who are pitched to us as champions of the left have spoken loudly while carrying a small stick. There have been verbal spats in the press between people like AOC and Pelosi, but AOC has not yet shown much willingness to inflict real political damage on the party establishment.

A soft, verbal conflict between AOC and Pelosi benefits both sides. The party is able to signal to progressive voters that it has a champion in AOC, but it’s also able to signal to its donors that the party’s leaders will not permit the left to gain a real foothold. AOC and Pelosi both get to look tough, and the Democratic Party gets to look ideologically diverse.

A hard conflict is much more dangerous for all involved. If progressive Democrats are willing to weaken the Democratic Party to punish it for ignoring their demands, the party establishment will have to work much harder to frustrate their careers. Behind the scenes, people like AOC are offered opportunities to move up if they use their clout among progressive voters to push those voters to be “reasonable” and continue supporting Democrats. Progressive credentials become a currency which these Democrats can trade in for career opportunities. Conversely, if the party establishment is seen to be openly frustrating the careers of popular politicians, it looks corrupt. Progressive voters become less likely to support the party unconditionally, and that creates opportunities for third parties, independents, and even the Republican Party to make inroads into its base.

Ultimately, most progressive Democrats conclude that a hard conflict is too dangerous to them politically. Gradually, they trade their progressive credentials in for opportunities within the party. The more they trade their credibility in, the less of it they have, and the more dependent they become on the party establishment for political survival. Slowly but surely, the outsiders become the insiders. What appeared to be an ideological struggle between two wings of the party deforms into a generational struggle between the old guard and its younger replacements.

But a hard conflict is the only way to make anything change. It’s very clear that the Democratic establishment is not only uninterested in Medicare-For-All, but in doing anything at all to please the left. Joe Biden is deliberately antagonizing progressives and comforting his donors by appointing offensive figures like Neera Tanden and Pete Buttigieg to cabinet positions. Because the progressive left fell in line and supported Biden in the general election, it lacks leverage and is not taken seriously as a threat.

The few pieces that have engaged the substance of Dore’s argument don’t pay attention to these dynamics. At NYMag, Eric Levitz suggests that Dore’s tactic can only be justified if it might potentially result in the enactment of Medicare-For-All. Levitz points out that Medicare-For-All’s support within the Democratic Party is fragile and that the Democrats who oppose the proposal don’t seem to have trouble getting re-elected. But this goes without saying–the Democratic Party features many voters and politicians who were perfectly content to support Hillary Clinton, even when given Bernie Sanders as an alternative. These voters and politicians like the American status quo and have little interest in changing it. They are conservatives, in the sense that they want to conserve the establishment consensus constructed by the Clintons in the 1990s. People who like the way politics in America has been practiced over the last 30 years are not going to support Medicare-For-All. The coalition for Medicare-For-All does not include them and never will.

It is the people who are frustrated with our politics and frustrated with the degree to which our system is rigged who can demand and deliver Medicare-For-All. At present, few of these people hold major elected offices. They don’t always vote for Democrats. Sometimes they vote for third parties or write-in candidates. Many of them vote for Republicans. Most of them don’t vote at all. They don’t vote because they don’t believe AOC–or anybody else–really cares about advancing their interests. These people will not be inspired to support the left because AOC gets minor concessions on something like PAYGO. They need to see that there is a set of politicians actively fighting for them.

The Republicans increasingly do a better job of appearing to fight for working people than the Democrats. The Republicans understood that the strategy of holding floor votes on legislation that never had a chance was essential. Over and over throughout the Obama administration, House Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, knowing full well that their legislation would ultimately fail. By holding these votes, House Republicans signaled to their base voters that they were sincerely committed to fixing our broken healthcare system. As it turned out, some of them were lying to avoid facing primary challenges. When Trump was elected with the support of the base, a handful of these Republicans turned their backs on their supporters and protected the ACA. The law was able to survive–narrowly. But the fight to get rid of it galvanized huge numbers of people, enabling Trump to win the presidency. Those House votes were strategic in the long-run for the Republicans, even though they appeared utterly pointless to commentators at the time.

The Democratic establishment isn’t interested even in putting on a show for us. At least Republicans were willing to lie to their base about their commitment to repeal and replace. The Democrats aren’t even willing to lie to us. The handful of Democratic presidential candidates who did lie about supporting Medicare-For-All immediately U-turned once it became clear that their conservative voters didn’t like the idea. Any person who aims to cater to the existing Democratic Party base will find Medicare-For-All to be unrealistic and eventually invent excuses for discarding it politically.

We have to begin building a real coalition for Medicare-For-All. That means reaching outside the Democratic Party and its base, bringing in people who are deeply skeptical of the two parties and their respective establishments. The best way to establish credibility with these people is to challenge the party establishments directly and hit them where it hurts.

I would even go so far as to suggest that the progressive Democrats vote in the Republican candidate for Speaker. The Speaker can subsequently be removed in a “motion to vacate”, but only if the Democratic leadership agrees to substantive concessions. And of course, once those concessions are secured, the Republican leadership could be invited to match them. The progressives could play both sides off against each other, ultimately granting their support to whoever is most willing to work with them. Pelosi–who blocked coronavirus relief for months–is not popular with ordinary Americans, and by inflicting political damage on her and on the Democratic Party, the progressives could begin to show skeptical Americans that they are willing to stand up to the establishment.

If they’re not willing to do that, why not? Either:

  1. They are naïve enough to believe that the professional voters and billionaire donors who back Pelosi will one day support Medicare-For-All.
  2. They are keeping their options open so that they can turn in their credibility chips for political rewards down the line.

In the meantime, the whole issue has been very revealing. There are clearly many commentators who care more about defending this new group of politicians than they do discussing Medicare-For-All. Many of these commentators have worked for these candidates and their associated organizations in the past or wish to do so in future. It’s also noteworthy that Jacobin published a piece which largely straw mans the Dore argument, while Current Affairs ran a piece that was more sympathetic. As the Millennial left ages and as Joe Biden’s presidency drags on, more and more people will begin hedging their bets and looking for opportunities to leverage their credibility in service of their careers. We see it every generation, as repeated political failures gradually harden left-wing people and eat away at them. Folks understandably want to have kids and want to live comfortably, and if they become convinced that nothing they do makes any difference, they turn mercenary. Already, we see people accusing Dore of being “cynical”, when they themselves are the ones increasingly explicitly dismissing Medicare-For-All as a pipe dream. This dismissal largely serves to make them feel better about their abandonment of the cause.

You know who never gives up? Bernie Sanders. Even in the Senate, where he’s forced to work largely alone, Bernie Sanders has managed to do more to alter the two-party dynamic than anyone else on the left. Sanders recognized that Republican Senator Josh Hawley is anxious to prove to voters that he cares about working people. Sanders used this to get Hawley to support stimulus checks, and by leveraging Hawley’s support he was able to attract more Republicans to the idea. The resulting checks are too small–$600 for those earning less than $75,000–but the more Republicans become reliant on working class voters the more opportunities there are to cleverly influence their behavior. There’s a path to a bipartisan approach which leverages the anti-establishment elements within both parties against the entrenched elites, but we need left-wing politicians, activists, and voters who are willing to use it. If we wait for the Democratic Party to embrace us, we’ll be waiting until we’re too exhausted to stay politically engaged. Progressive commentators accuse Dore of demobilizing Millennials, but it is their inaction which is killing the movement. Without left leadership, anti-establishment sentiment will continue to be wielded by right-wing politicians to serve their aims, and the future will be full of Trumps.

The clock is ticking.