Rahm Emanuel’s College Proposal Is Everything Wrong With Democratic Education Policy

Emanuel’s idea is the reductio ad absurdum of the “college solves poverty” idea…

On Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new educational proposal: starting with this year’s freshman class, every student in the Chicago public school system will be required to show an acceptance letter from a college, a trade school or apprenticeship, or a branch of the military in order to graduate. “We live in a period of time when you earn what you learn,” Mayor Emanuel said. (Democratic politicians’ attempts at folksiness are always pretty grim.) “We want to make 14th grade universal,” he also said. The proposed measure is almost certainly a publicity stunt which will have little effect in practice. But Emanuel has made it clear how he thinks educational problems should be solved.

The Emanuel plan is perhaps the stupidest idea a nationally prominent politician has publicly endorsed in the past decade. I hesitate to even explain why it’s stupid lest I insult my readers’ intelligence by belaboring the obvious. But it’s worth spelling out what’s wrong with this, because the fact that a major Obama-aligned Democratic politician is attempting to do this says a great deal about the worldview of the establishment Democratic Party. So here goes.

In Mayor Emanuel’s opinion, working-class kids are too stupid to recognize their own interests. They’re simply unaware that people who go to college earn more than people who don’t, which is why (silly them) they don’t go to college. If you just force them to go to college by flunking them out of high school unless they promise to go to college, they’ll all become highly compensated white-collar workers and America will be a wealthier place.

Allow me to propose an alternative model: working-class kids are not stupid. They’re aware that college grads earn more money on average than they ever will. They’re also aware that not all college degrees are created equal, and that a degree from a community college or some fly-by-night for-profit—the kind of school most working-class kids from Chicago might actually get into—is dramatically less valuable than one from Sarah Lawrence, where Rahm got his BA. They’re aware that college degrees aren’t what they once were, partly because so many degrees are from mediocre institutions; perhaps they’ve seen family members work hard to get that University of Phoenix diploma only to wind up little better off than they’d have been otherwise.

They’re also aware that college costs money, not only money for tuition but all the money you won’t be able to earn while you’re in school, and that people whose parents can’t support them, people who may in fact need to help support their families themselves, can’t afford to just not work for two to four years. Finally, they’re aware that college is hard, particularly for working-class kids with less academic preparation than their middle-class peers who also have less social support and need to work while their peers are studying, and that working-class kids are at a high risk of dropping out. They know that going into debt to attend a college and then dropping out with no degree can be financially catastrophic.

In other words, they know, unlike their mayor, that what happens to the average kid who goes to college—a middle-class kid from the suburbs with white-collar parents who can afford to subsidize his textbooks and partying for four years—is a very poor indicator of what will happen to them, personally, if they decide to go to college. Knowing all this, they make their choice; 62% of Chicago’s high school students decide to have a crack at college after they graduate, 38% don’t.

Now, it may well be that there are a few kids in that 38% who are making the wrong choice, just as there are a few in that 62% (very possibly more than a few) who are making the wrong choice and will just end up dropping out with debt or graduating with a worthless degree and more debt. It might be that a better school guidance program would push some kids into college for whom it’s the right decision. But Rahm isn’t proposing to nudge a few more kids into college; he’s proposing to hold the high school degree of every student in the system hostage until they all go to college, or sign up for the army, or enter an apprenticeship.

What’s likely to happen if his proposal passes? Well, trade schools and apprenticeship programs are bright enough to know that the world only needs so many plumbers, so not a lot of students are going to manage to go that route. Some will join the army, at which stage Mr. Emanuel can congratulate himself for having forced some working-class kids to die for their country on pain of facing the stigma of the high school dropout for the rest of their lives. Some will simply decide to leave high school without graduating. But many will be forced into a choice they know is the wrong one, and have a crack at whatever community college or awful open-admissions for-profit college they can get an acceptance letter from. Expect to see the already overburdened and underfunded community college system pushed to the wall. Expect to see a small boom in the for-profit college industry and the exploitative student loan industry that feeds it. Expect to see many, many students drop out of school with nothing to show for it but un-bankruptable education debt that will haunt them for years.

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And finally, perhaps most importantly, expect to see those students who do manage to graduate from whatever bottom-tier school is willing to accept them quickly discover that the degree Rahm Emanuel forced them to earn at great personal expense isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. First, because college-educated workers, like any other commodity, are subject to the law of supply and demand, and Rahm’s plot to dump hundreds of thousands more of them onto the Chicago labor market will cause supply to greatly outpace demand and prices to crater. Second, because employers will recognize that people who got a college degree from a bottom-tier school that slashed admissions standards to take advantage of the Rahm-and-debt-fueled bonanza don’t have the same skill set or qualifications as the college students they now pay higher wages. In other words, producing a genuinely more educated workforce is a lot harder than Rahm’s plan to print a whole bunch more college diplomas, but even if you could produce a genuinely more educated workforce it wouldn’t raise wages; you’d just have more people competing for the same number of white-collar jobs., and wages would go down.

(Of course, middle-class kids who went to Sarah Lawrence would still do just fine.)

Emanuel’s plan, in other words, will be a disaster if implemented. But if the plan were just his own idiosyncratic idiocy, it would be beneath refutation. Unfortunately, it’s not. The mayor of Chicago is an utterly characteristic representative of the dominant wing of the Democratic Party, and his “you earn what you learn” claptrap reflects what has been a core element of its messaging and policy for decades: the notion that we can solve poverty through education. For most of my lifetime, the Democratic Party’s answer to the apparently permanent stagnation of working-class wages has been to advise the electorate that it’s a knowledge economy and only a better-educated workforce can hope to earn more.

This is terrible policy based on obviously shoddy reasoning: while it’s true that highly educated computer programmers make a lot of money, the notion that if everyone were a highly educated computer programmer everyone would make more money is absurd, first because not everyone can become a highly educated computer programmer and second because if everyone could then computer programmers would no longer make a lot of money.

It should be emphasized, though, that  on top of being terrible policy this is also terrible messaging. When voters hear that your analysis of the economy is that it simply has no place anymore for uneducated workers, and that your plan to increase working-class wages is “educate people better for the knowledge economy,” they get three messages: first, that if you’re a low-income thirty-year-old high school graduate with a family who can’t go to school, the Democrats’ plan for you is that you’ll die poor, because hey, it’s a knowledge economy, what can they do? It’s a knowledge economy. Second, that Democrats think your poverty is pretty much your fault for not doing better in school. And third, that Democrats are so completely out of touch that they genuinely believe that becoming a high-tech worker is a serious option for your working-class kids. In other words, what you hear is that Democrats don’t know you, don’t care about you, look down on you, and have no plan to help you. Is it any wonder that you don’t bother to vote, or that if you do you vote for someone who promises to bring the jobs back?

Every time Democrats say or imply that there’s no way for people to succeed in the 21st-century economy without a college degree, they announce loud and clear that they’ve largely given up on helping the existing working class.

But if the Democratic line on education fails on policy and politics grounds alike, why are they so attached to it? I’d suggest two reasons.

First, claiming that class differences result from educational achievement flatters the American elite’s sense of its own meritocracy. If differences in income are mostly explained by differences in education, elites don’t have to worry about why their own incomes have skyrocketed over the past three decades while the rest of the country has done so poorly; it’s the natural result of market forces rewarding talent and hard work. You can see this perhaps most clearly in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’ excitement about charter schools, an excitement most of the Democratic establishment shares: charters are the noblesse oblige of an utterly self-confident meritocratic elite, an elite which believes that they earned what they have and that the way to make everyone else better off is not to take from the deserving rich and give to the undeserving poor but to make the poor more deserving. (The fact that many of these charters’ educational model is to replace those stupid, lazy public school teachers with brilliant and disruptive Yale graduates says everything here.) The education-solves-poverty line sells well with affluent white-collar professionals, and the average Democratic politician spends vastly more time addressing herself to the needs of those professionals than talking to working-class voters.

But second, and far more importantly, building an economy that once again provides decent, well-paying and dignified jobs for the working class is very difficult. It’s far easier to pretend that the jobs are waiting in the wings if only the working class were educated enough to deserve them than to take on the employers who refuse to offer those jobs. Rebuilding the American working class would require a higher minimum wage, a serious effort to encourage unionization in the service sector, and, at least in areas with sky-high unemployment (places like Chicago), a major federal jobs program to put people to work and force private-sector employers to raise wages. Every one of those initiatives would require direct confrontation with businesses big and small. Creating more innovative charter schools, or forcing more students into college, requires no such confrontation. Placing the burden of fixing the economy on working-class students and their teachers rather than on big business and the wealthy makes plenty of political sense, in its way.

But it won’t work. And liberal pundits who scoff at Trump voters by reminding them that those manufacturing jobs he promised won’t come back would do well to remember that Democrats’ agenda on working-class jobs is just as empty a promise.

After the DNC, What Now?

It’s clear that the Democratic party establishment wants a fight. Progressives should be more than happy to give them one.

Since many liberal commentators profess to be mystified by the passions aroused among Sanders Democrats by Keith Ellison’s defeat in the DNC race this weekend, allow me to explain. The Democratic Party, having suffered a nearly unbroken decade-long string of electoral defeats at every level of government, is currently weaker than an American political party has been in modern history; without dramatic change, it’s doomed, and any hope for progressive politics is doomed too. Berniecrats believe they have the recipe for change: economic populism and grassroots mobilization. Given that they won 43% of the vote in an unwinnable primary by mobilizing tens of thousands of activists—many of them young and working-class people getting involved in politics for the first time—against the full weight of the party establishment, there’s some reason to believe them, especially since sticking with the status quo means certain disaster. (A significant divide between Sanders people and Clinton people is that the Sanders crowd has a much better sense of how screwed the party is electorally.) When Ellison announced his candidacy in the wake of the election, many Sanders supporters hoped that the party establishment would be chastened or at least shaken by the catastrophic defeat of its fatally flawed candidate (a defeat many Sanders supporters predicted) and ready to make desperately needed changes.

Instead, Barack Obama and other Democratic leading lights mobilized to shut Ellison down. They intentionally picked a fight they could easily have avoided solely in order to keep the Sanders wing out. Opponents of “relitigating the primary” point out that Perez is a progressive and that the DNC chairmanship is not terribly important in the scheme of things. But this only makes things worse. Allowing a Bernie Democrat to head the DNC might have been a relatively painless symbolic way to heal the rift in a dangerously divided party. Instead, the Obama-Clinton faction took the opportunity to make it abundantly clear that they don’t want Sanders Democrats in the party and they couldn’t care less what we think.

Liberal pundits complaining that Sanders supporters shouldn’t be causing division in the party when we need to unite against Trump are doubly mistaken: first, it was Obama who chose to turn this into a fight, by actively recruiting Perez in order to squash Ellison. (And as others have pointed out, if the race was inconsequential and symbolic, why did Obama and Biden bother to pressure DNC voters over it?) Second, and more importantly, changing the Democrats isn’t a distraction from fighting Republicans but a precondition for doing so; there’s simply no reason to believe that a party run by Schumer, Pelosi and the Obama-Clinton crowd can beat Trump in 2018 or 2020, not when they’ve been losing for so long and have proven steadfastly unwilling to change. With the Ellison vote, the Democratic leadership has demonstrated that it’s not merely committed to staying the course but willing to enrage a vast, highly mobilized and deeply alienated segment of their base to do so at a moment when party unity is desperately needed. It’s mind-boggling. As Nathan Robinson puts it, “they must be trying to fail.”

So: where do the Berniecrats go from here? Faced with a party that can’t win, won’t change, and doesn’t want us, many have seriously discussed leaving. The argument for a left third party is stronger than it has been in generations; after all, the argument that progressives should hold their noses and vote Democrat was always premised on the idea that the Democrats could at least beat the Republicans. If they can’t even do that, why stay? A scroll through many a young activist Democrats’ Facebook feed will show many people threatening to do just that.

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For better or for worse, the threat will in most cases prove empty. The fact that the Democratic leadership is criminally incompetent doesn’t make it any easier to win elections on an independent or third-party ballot line, nor does it make the spoiler dynamic easier to solve. The 2016 election taught an unambiguous lesson on this point: staying with the Democrats offers progressives the opportunity to reach millions of people and build a mass movement, while going Green dooms them to irrelevance. Jill Stein spent 2016 preaching to a very small choir, too marginal even to spoil an election, while Bernie Sanders built the largest and most powerful progressive movement in more than a generation in a Democratic primary race.

Cynics will say that the impossibility of the third-party option means the Democratic leadership made a smart play: they can kick the Sanders wing as hard as they want to, because Bernie voters have nowhere else to go. That’s not quite true. The disproportionately young and working-class Sanders base could join millions of other young and working-class people who feel the Democratic Party has nothing to offer them and simply stop voting. No doubt some will do just that; it’s a price the Democratic Party leadership decided this weekend was worth paying for continued control of the party.

But for the majority of Sanders supporters, depoliticization at this moment is not an option. They face a dilemma: they’re doomed to marginalization if they stay in the party and irrelevance if they leave it. They’re wondering what to do next.

One promising option, being pushed by Our Revolution among others, is to take over the party at the local level by running for state and county positions in the party. The extent to which this is practicable and worthwhile will vary greatly from state to state: some state Democratic Parties are far better insulated from voter control than others, and some local Democratic apparatuses don’t have enough power to be worth seizing.

In the long term, though, what’s most valuable about the Democratic Party—from the progressive perspective, what’s most worth taking—is not its county, state or indeed national committees, but its ballot line. If the left wants real power it needs to win elections, and in the overwhelming majority of cases it’s orders of magnitude easier to win elections by winning Democratic primaries than by running on a third-party ticket, for two reasons. First, with ballot-access laws written by the major parties to protect their monopolies, it’s much easier simply to get your name on the ballot as a major-party candidate than as the candidate of a third party. Second, a leftist running on the Democratic line can depend on the loyalty and familiarity of Democratic voters, while a third-party candidate will need to build a new base from scratch.

Seth Ackerman lays out the case for something like this strategy in his useful “Blueprint for a New Party.” It should be emphasized that it entails quite a bit more than a series of primaries of especially reprehensible Democrats: in the long term, it requires an organization with mass membership, independent leadership and its own platform. Without organizational structure, ideological coherence and national scope, the left will remain dependent on the Democratic Party as an institution for direction and messaging, which is a recipe for losing. To put it another way: rather than staying in the Democratic Party and changing it from the inside, the left should be trying to leave it and take its ballot line with us when we go.

Hard-liners will say that affiliating with the Democrats means being co-opted towards lesser-evilism in the long term; I’m not sure. The vast majority of Sanders supporters seem capable of supporting Democrats against Republicans while remaining deeply hostile to the Democratic leadership in other contexts. The ideological challenges to a left electoral organization are ultimately less daunting than the organizational ones: the American left has vanishingly little experience running effective organizations, mobilizing voters, or winning elections.

Still, the conditions are promising. The progressive wing of the party already encompasses nearly half the party, and many rank-and-file Democrats outside the Sanders base are loudly dissatisfied with the Democratic leadership’s willingness to compromise with Trump. If we can begin to win elections and deliver on promises, we’ll attract more support. A closer look at the Ellison vote shows hopeful signs: any left insurgency will need union money and organizational talent, and the fact that Ellison attract the support of SEIU and AFL-CIO suggests that these organizations might be drawn into a left coalition after a while if it proved successful. And many other Democrats are looking for alternatives to the Democrats’ losing strategy in the age of Trump.

The DNC vote was very bad news, for the left and for the Democrats. But it did us the service of demonstrating that the Democratic leadership (including Obama, a man for whom too many progressives still feel a deeply undeserved and unreciprocated affection) cannot be persuaded. They must be fought and replaced.

Forget Swing Voters

Democrats need mobilization, not dialogue, in order to win…

Are liberal protesters losing an opportunity to defeat Trump by being too mean? That’s the contention of a Sunday New York Times “news analysis” full of anecdotes like this one:

Jeffrey Medford, a small-business owner in South Carolina, voted reluctantly for Donald Trump. As a conservative, he felt the need to choose the Republican. But some things are making him feel uncomfortable — parts of Mr. Trump’s travel ban, for example, and the recurring theme of his apparent affinity for Russia. Mr. Medford should be a natural ally for liberals trying to convince the country that Mr. Trump was a bad choice. But it is not working out that way. Every time Mr. Medford dips into the political debate — either with strangers on Facebook or friends in New York and Los Angeles — he comes away feeling battered by contempt and an attitude of moral superiority. He added: “I didn’t choose a side. They put me on one.”

The article continues in this vein: lots of conservatives who voted for Trump “feel uncomfortable” with one thing or another about the man–the racist policies, the sexual assault, the incompetence, whatever. Perhaps, the author hypothesizes, these people could be convinced to vote against Trump in 2020? Unfortunately, they also feel pretty uncomfortable about being called white supremacists on social media and compared to the KKK in protest chants. Liberals are being very mean to them. Disturbingly, one liberal woman even rejected a man on Tinder. This sort of thing makes them feel bad. If we want them to vote for us, we shouldn’t make them feel bad by having protests and calling them Nazis; we should engage in dialogue. We should stop polarizing so hard. We should be nicer.

The odd notion that a conservative small business owner from South Carolina who voted for Trump because he’s Republican and conservatives who vote for Republicans “should be a natural ally” of liberals trying to defeat Trump nicely encapsulates a model of US politics with a great deal of influence in the mainstream media and the upper echelons of the Democratic Party. Under that model, the trick to winning at politics is to find moderate, reasonable people whose views are located approximately halfway between the Democrats’ views and the Republicans’ and then convince them, through dialogue, that you, too, are a moderate and reasonable person. In this model, having a base that does things like have vociferous protests is a major weakness for a political party: it makes the whole party look immoderate and unreasonable. The general strategy for the Democrats implied by this worldview was nicely summarized by Chuck Schumer in July, explaining why Clinton would win: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Go find the reasonable (read: college-educated) Republicans and do what it takes to convince them that you’re on their side.

If you’ve been following the news in the past few months you may have noticed that this didn’t work. Clinton’s campaign strategy centered on portraying Trump as a crazy person in order to convince reasonable Republicans not to vote for him—and, you know, he kind of is a crazy person. But the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for him anyway. Why? Well, because they’re Republican. You know? They like Republican stuff. Tax cuts, welfare cuts, racist immigration restrictions, banning abortion, boiling the oceans, stuff like that. They really love those things and think they’re great ideas, and they’re not going to sell them out just because the Republican candidate has some personal issues, “uncomfortable” though they may feel.

To put it more bluntly: the vast majority of Trump voters voted for Bush in 2000, McCain in 2008 and Romney 2012 and will be voting for Trump in 2020, Palin in 2024 and Milo in 2028. Swing voters, to a fairly close approximation, don’t exist. Most Americans who vote consistently understand that the two parties represent dramatically different worldviews, and they know which one they share. The fact that some conservatives choose to describe themselves as moderate independents who are merely turned off by the Democrats’ extremism, flattering though it may be to their self-image, has very little to do with Democratic strategy in the next four years.

Where, then, should the Democrats look for votes? Not to small business owners in South Carolina, but to the 40% of American eligible voters who didn’t vote in 2016. Those voters are significantly younger, poorer and more liberal than the 2016 electorate; getting them to turn out in significantly higher numbers would tilt the US to the left hard and fast.

What would that take? The Democratic Party leadership and liberal pundits have tended to see low turnout among Democratic demographics–particularly in midterm elections–as an unalterable fact of nature to be bemoaned; in fact, it’s a problem of messaging and, especially, organization. To make it happen we need hundreds of thousands of committed Democrats to run campaigns, organize rallies and knock on doors. A vociferous, angry, mobilized Democratic base is the only way to do this.

In early 2009, as Republicans licked their wounds following their overwhelming defeat in an Obama wave year, a new movement emerged: the Tea Party. Naysayers thought that this crowd of yahoos in silly costumes calling Obama a socialist ISIS-Nazi would help the Republican Party on its way into the dustbin of history by demonstrating to the media mainstream what a relic it was. What happened was quite different: first they won a Senate election in Massachusetts, then they won everything else in 2010. While a vast influx of post-Citizens United dark money played a role in this, scholars of the Tea Party agree that grassroots mobilization was key: the Tea Partiers met weekly, made plans, propagandized, showed up at town halls, knocked on doors, and changed the face of American politics.

The Tea Partiers didn’t try to convince liberals: they aimed to defeat them. They understood that their goal was not to win over moderates through dialogue but to (the refrain was constant) “take our country back.” Their understanding of politics, unlike that of the New York Times, had less to do with dialogue than with war. Liberals would be well advised to learn from them.

Photograph of Terrie Frankel, a “Lifelong Democrat who voted for Trump,” from Wikimedia Commons

Why Republicans Are Impressive

Their disciplined commitment to a clear ideology has yielded results…

Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed with admiration for the GOP.

Pick one issue at random from the extraordinarily long list of extremely radical legislative priorities they’re about to pass. How about the plot to destroy Medicaid as we know it?

Ending Medicaid isn’t an obvious or an easy fight—it’s a very efficient program that’s been part of the American social fabric for 50 years, a program with 70 million beneficiary-constituents, one vital to the survival (economic and otherwise) of some of the most photogenically unfortunate people in America (families raising kids with major disabilities, for chrissake!), and a major source of business for the gigantic and very widely geographically distributed healthcare-provision industry. It’s also very popular; only 13% of Americans support slashing Medicaid. And no wonder: 63% of Americans say that either they or a close friend or family member has been covered by Medicaid at some point. It’s not even arguably in any kind of crisis; there’s no obvious reason to touch it.

So for Republicans, going after Medicaid is picking a big fight, one they could easily dodge. But that won’t stop them. They know that destroying this kind of program is key to their vision for America, both ideologically and in terms of budget math. They’ve known it for years, and they’ve been releasing plans and focus-grouping and developing consensus for years in the wilderness, and now they’re tanned, rested and ready. And for 95% of their congressfolks it’s not even a question—they’ll vote yes. They’ll do it in the smartest possible way, too: they’ll say there’s a fiscal crisis and it’s necessary, they’ll say it’s not a cut it’s just market efficiency, they’ll use block-granting to disown the cuts that happen and lay them on the states, and then wait till the cuts reduce the program’s popularity to mop up what’s left. Most Americans won’t really believe anyone would do what the GOP is about to do until it’s too late.

And hey, maybe they’ll even lose a couple of Congressional races over it, but the Dems won’t be in a strong enough position to reverse the cuts for years and years, and starting a program like this is much harder than ending it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Medicaid is one example among many. On issue after issue—Medicare, financial deregulation, upper-class tax cuts, environmental deregulation, the destruction of public education—the GOP is committed to pursuing a profoundly radical and often deeply unpopular agenda. Remember all those “symbolic” votes repealing Obamacare and so forth? They weren’t symbolic, they were dress rehearsals, opportunities to build party consensus around reforms and enforce discipline around them. This is why analogies between the Republicans today and the Democratic Party in 2008 are so misguided: the Democrats were divided among themselves and committed to building bipartisan consensus, and the laws they passed in 2009—Obamacare, the stimulus bill—were compromised (some would say crippled) accordingly. The GOP is prepared to ram through its agenda with iron party discipline and understands very clearly that bipartisanship is neither possible nor necessary.

This asymmetry is what’s so impressive about the modern Republican Party. It’s not just that they’ve won, but that winning has put them in a position to enact an extraordinarily ambitious and radical agenda, one which will in the course of a few months destroy pillars of American government that have stood for fifty years or more. If Democrats are ever to be in a position to pass their own agenda (or merely to undo the damage that’s about to be done), they need to play close attention not only to how the Republicans won in 2016—a question over which much ink has been spilled—but to how the Republicans transformed themselves over a much longer timeline into a party that could transform the country when it won.

The lesson is this: in modern American politics, having an ideologically coherent and disciplined party is an advantage, not a liability. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom: during the 2016 primary, many Democrats, especially those who supported Clinton, worried about the “purism” of the party’s younger and more progressive wing: would it force the party to confront a choice between nominating ideologically progressive candidates who would be unelectable and facing mass defections to its left? After all, it was widely understood that candidates needed to “pivot to the center” to win general elections. Clinton’s claim to be a “progressive who gets things done” was founded on this assumption: the notion was that Sanders’ policies, even if you found them desirable, were unlikely to get done because it was too extreme, while Clinton’s was closer to the center and therefore more achievable. Yet in 2017 the most extreme political party in decades seems poised to get more things done than any party since the Johnson administration. What’s wrong with the conventional view?

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The notion that it’s easier to pass moderate policies than extreme ones takes its plausibility from the notion of the average or centrist voter. You can read about this voter in polling on policy issues. If your policy is fairly close to the views of the centrist voter, he’s likely to vote for you and you’re likely to win elections; the farther you get from this average view, the more difficulty you’ll have. An extreme candidate will turn off centrist voters for the simple reason that they disagree with him. (It is through this logic that Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum mistakenly concluded that Bernie Sanders would have lost against Donald Trump.)

The trouble with this theory is that in modern US politics it is by definition impossible for a major party to embrace policies which are “extreme” in the sense of “far from the consensus views of the average voter.” The average voter’s policy views, to the extent that these exist at all outside this context other than as artifacts of polling, are largely determined not by any particular factual information about the issues or ideological commitments concerning the role of government but by the policy positions of the major parties. If one of these parties embraces a particular position on any given issue, the 40% of American voters who consistently support that party will come to adopt that position wholesale, while most of the rest will come to believe (and be encouraged by the media’s carefully even-handed reporting to believe) that this position is at least reasonable and defensible if not correct. There are very few views so extreme and so indefensible that they can’t garner mass support if repeated frequently enough by a major US party—just think of “global warming is a hoax.”

Republicans understand this in a way Democrats don’t. Just compare Republicans’ rock-solid unity on doing nothing about climate change to the Clinton campaign’s decision to abandon a carbon tax on the basis of internal polling. Republicans don’t look at polls and think “we need to moderate our platform because Americans don’t support starving the poor to death, and we’ll get negative media coverage”; they work hard over the course of many years to shape public opinion until it says what they say. They know that if a major US political party puts out a consistent and coherent message for long enough, the polls will change and the media coverage will change. Significantly, Republicans are also much better positioned to exploit this dynamic because of their internal unity; while there is considerable debate within the Democratic congressional caucus about whether to undertake serious action on global warming, Republicans are absolutely unified on the issue. A united front allows them to deliver an extraordinarily coherent and consistent message over the course of decades in a way Democrats can’t match.

If ideological discipline is no great obstacle to getting elected, it’s also an enormous advantage once you’re in office. The Democrats’ need to corral DINOs like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman into the caucus in order to pass Obamacare and the stimulus bill didn’t just make those laws worse on the merits—they did enormous damage politically. A too-modest stimulus meant a slow economic recovery and contributed to the electoral carnage of 2010, while the changes to Obamacare made to please centrists made it a less popular and ultimately a less politically sustainable law.

The right wing of the Republican Party has spent an enormous amount of time and energy over the past decade running primary challenges against moderate Republicans and replacing them with fire-breathing extremists. Many said this would render the party increasingly unacceptable and unelectable outside deep red states. That hasn’t happened. Instead, far-right Republicans have moved not only their party but the country as a whole to the right; they’ve shifted the terms of the debate and are poised to pass the most radical and comprehensive legislative package this country has seen since 1968.

This is what an ideologically disciplined and unified party with a coherent vision for America, a genuine messaging strategy and the ability to play the long game can do. It’s not a recipe that guarantees winning, by any means; elections are unpredictable beasts. But in a two-party system you’re bound to win eventually. And ideological discipline means that when you win you’re ready to shove your agenda down America’s throat wholesale and change the country for generations. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment. Democrats wondering how to make radical change in this country could do a lot worse than to pay close attention to what the Republicans have done for the past 20 years—and what they’re about to do next.

Trump Gives Tax Cut To Company For Sending 1000 Jobs To Mexico

The president-elect’s PR move was very well-played. Bernie Sanders showed how to respond to such stunts.

Donald Trump’s deal to save 800 jobs at the Carrier air-conditioner plant in Indiana that were scheduled to be outsourced to Mexico should confirm Democrats’ worst fears about the Donald: that he is an exceptionally talented politician, one with enough of a talent for messaging and enough willingness to break with bipartisan orthodoxy to keep his economic-populist message convincing throughout what will no doubt be a profoundly anti-worker administration. If Trump can continue to dominate news cycles with things like this, it won’t matter when he shreds labor protections, deregulates industries, packs the NLRB and guts OSHA; the long-term consequences of those things are diffuse and complex, while saving 800 (or, per the Donald, 1000) jobs fits nicely into a 30-second TV spot. If Trump manages to sustain this kind of messaging, he will certainly win in 2020, and all the corruption scandals and Twitter faux-pas in the world won’t save the Democrats. It’s the economy, dumbass.

In a sense, of course, this is only the Democrats’ chickens coming home to roost: in hindsight they really shouldn’t have bought into the deep bipartisan consensus that Rust Belt manufacturing should be left to die slowly for the greater good. They accepted that since international trade permits every American to buy slightly cheaper at Walmart, it was acceptable to let entire regional economies wither on the vine with no real plan to replace the jobs. This argument was wrong on the merits, and wrong politically. The Democrats were always vulnerable to attacks on this front, since they had sold out one of their major regional constituencies in a big way; it’s just that up till now the Republicans have been both too feckless and too committed to free trade themselves to know how to exploit it. But the Republicans were saved from their fecklessness by an outsider candidate who turned out to be vastly better at winning elections than any national-level Republican in the modern era, and it’s very hard to see what the Democrats have to offer that win back the upper Midwest from a savvy economic populist like Trump—and without the upper Midwest there’s no Democratic coalition capable of winning national power. They should be very afraid.

Unfortunately liberal commentators don’t quite seem to see the scale of the problem. (That they are not terrifically good at politics should be pretty clear by this point.) From Paul Krugman at the New York Times sniffing that 1000 jobs isn’t that many jobs, you know, to Matt Yglesias at Vox complaining that the media shouldn’t have reported on this so much, liberals seem to be competing with each other for who can miss the point most. 1000 jobs is not that many jobs unless one of them’s your job. And it’s not the job of the media to counter Trump’s messaging strategy; that’s the Democrats’ job. A job they have thus far miserably failed at.

With one exception. Bernie Sanders published a piece in the Washington Post yesterday titled “Carrier Just Showed Corporations how to Beat Donald Trump.” Sanders reframes the debate entirely: even after Trump’s deal, Carrier is still outsourcing more than 1,000 jobs to Mexico, and it’s getting millions of dollars in tax breaks to keep a handful of jobs in Indiana—tax breaks that will come out of ordinary Indianians’ pockets. Trump, in Sanders’ telling, didn’t go to the negotiating table and beat a corporation; he pled with it and bribed it with taxpayer money and still lost half of the jobs. And now that corporations know they can get millions for threatening to outsource jobs, they’ll be coming for your job soon.

This is how it’s done, folks. Sanders is right on the merits, of course—corporations leveraging the threat of outsourcing to ring concessions out of localities isn’t the opposite of globalization but one of its vectors. But more importantly, he’s right on the politics. Democrats based their campaign strategy on the notion that Trump’s key vulnerability that he was no ordinary politician; this was ass-backwards. Trump’s unorthodoxy is his strength; it’s what makes people trust him. No, Trump’s vulnerability is precisely that he is a normal Republican—that beneath the messaging he’s ultimately committed to deregulation, de-unionization and tax cuts. His economic populism is ersatz.

Sanders understands this; his message on the Carrier episode (like his description of Trump’s infrastructure bill as a corporate welfare scam) exemplifies the economic populist message Democrats desperately need to adopt. Let’s hope other Democrats notice, because their current messaging strategy—railing against Trump’s racism, his conflicts of interest, the weird things he says on Twitter, while Trump keeps talking about jobs—is disastrously out of touch. If Trump manages to convince voters that he’s the one looking out for their economic well-being while his opponents tut-tut about Twitter storms, it’s going to be a long eight years…