Jeffrey Sachs unloads a truck full of righteous indignation on Barack Obama and the leaders of the Democratic Party. Some my find it cathartic. I find that while Sachs is a brilliant economist, his model of American politics seems flawed. In particular, the concluding thought that “America needs a third-party movement to break the hammerlock of the financial elites” is badly under-explained.
My counter-proposal, which is boring, goes like this. If you want to move US public policy to the left, what you have to do is to identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them on Election Day with alternative candidates who are more left-wing. I think this works pretty reliable. To my mind, the evidence is pretty clear that even the election of fairly conservative pushes policy outcomes to the left as long as the guy they’re replacing was more conservative. And if your specific concern is that the Democratic Party isn’t as left-wing as you’d like it to be, then what you need to do is identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them in primaries with alternative candidates who are more left-wing. It’s noteworthy that even failed efforts to do this, such as Ned Lamont’s 2006 run against Joe Lieberman and Bill Halter’s 2010 run against Blanche Lincoln led to meaningful policy shifts simply by being credible. But left-wing critics of the Democrats often seem to me to be somewhat in denial about their poor record of success with these endeavors. “If we can’t beat a Senator in Connecticut, let’s take on an incumbent president who’s substantially more liberal than Lieberman” isn’t a logical program of action. The right lesson to learn from these Senate bids is that they’re worth trying again if circumstances are right, but that even they may be too ambitious. You walk before you run. Maybe you win state legislative and House races before you win Senate elections. Research indicates that previous experience in elective office is one of the main predictors of candidate success, so perhaps it’s only through a concentrated effort to increase progressive representation in state government that a pool of talented primary challenges can be generated. Or maybe there’s a great Senate challenger right around the corner, and if so that would be well worth writing a column about.
This prescription is, I’m afraid, boring. And the solution proposed is, I’m afraid, hard work. But politics is hard work! The Republican Party has become very ideologically rigorous because the conservative movement now has a decades-long record of defeating incumbent officeholders at all levels in primaries, and then of having those winning primary candidates win a general election. This was and is an impressive achievement that required a lot of hard work over a long period of time.