Beyond Left and Right--An Intriguing Way To Think About Policy

I have been working in mainstream journalism my entire adult life, a field that prioritizes neutrality, seeing things from both sides, being unbiased, etc. But in reality, the institutions that I have been a part of (Yale, the Washington Post, Time Magazine) probably do have some embedded values/ideals/inclinations/tendencies: neoliberalism; ideological centrism; a belief that America is fairly meritocratic; and broadly a kind of cultural liberalism (prominent gay and lesbian and black employees), combined with more center or even center-right economic views (international trade agreements are generally good.) Those values are not necessarily wrong, or bad, but they are a kind of ideology, even though many people who have those views think they are not particularly ideological. 

So 2015 was a very strange year for me. In my world, the range of acceptable opinion was really between the views of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, with say Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz as kind of the outer ranges of views that would be considered not too crazy. Then, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump started saying things on the campaign trail that were nowhere near the DC consensus. And their polling numbers kept going up and up. 

So the last five years, I’ve really tried to rethink my own assumptions. As part of that, I also broadened among my information sources. The Sanders and Trump surges came out of nowhere (to me) because the information sources that I mostly consumed then were (and to some extent still are) dominated by the perspectives of Clinton-style Democrats and Bush-style Republicans. Now, I know that I am much better off looking at the Fox News Twitter feed to understand GOP politics than reading a 2000-word article in the New Yorker about the state of the GOP, even if that piece includes a lot of interviews with Republican politicians and strategists. How the Republican Party operates in real life is captured on Fox, how more establishment Republicans want the GOP to operate is often what is captured in mainstream news media coverage. 

On the left, mainstream news organizations are great places to learn the perspectives of the dominant wing of the Democratic Party (largely people over age 45 who like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi). But those outlets tend to cover activist groups like Black Lives Matter and the Sunrise Movement and politicians like AOC and Sanders as gadflies and radicals, as opposed to people and organizations with real policy ideas and political savvy, just in service of different goals than more centrist Democrats. In some ways, those outlets are dominated by what even one of the New York Times’ own columnists admitted is a kind of “centrist bias.” You would not get this from most mainstream news coverage but increasingly the Democratic Party is divided into two camps: those who favor the ideas of Warren/AOC/Sanders now, versus those who will favor these same Warren/AOC/Sanders’s ideas in 3-4 years, when those ideas are more in the political consensus. (A $15 minimum wage took this exact path, from Sanders idea to Biden-Pelosi idea.) This is why I think having a Twitter account is super-important if you want to understand politics today--the left-wing of the Democratic Party speaks in its own voice there. 

One of the people I read a lot now but probably would not have stumbled into ten years ago is Ben Spielberg. Ben is unabashedly left--he voted for Jill Stein in 2016. (He was living in DC then, not Wisconsin, so no need to egg his house.) I met him when he was working on economic and fiscal policy for the D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (He worked closely with Jared Bernstein, who was just named one of President-elect Biden’s senior economic advisers in the White House.) Spielberg is now the public engagement officer for the San Jose school system. He also spends a lot of time tweeting and in my view offering some of the smartest critiques of the Biden-Pelosi-Obama approach to politics. He has some really interesting thoughts on the Democratic Party and modern liberalism, but also education policy, racial issues and journalism. Here is a transcript of our recent conversation: 

So I tend to agree with you that “electability” is sometimes used in malicious ways by the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. They use it to block more liberal candidates who they oppose for ideological reasons from winning in primaries, but their centrist candidates so often lose winnable races or get blown out, so it is not clear how much worse a more left-wing candidate could have done. (See Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, Amy McGrath in Kentucky). That said, in 2019, I was open to the idea that Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders could win a general election in part because polls showed Trump’s approval closer to 40 percent than 50 percent and he was losing in head-to-head polls against Biden but also Buttigieg, Harris, Warren and Sanders. It seemed like any Democrat could beat him--so why should electability matter that much? 

But Biden won the general election fairly narrowly. Those polls were probably understating Trump’s support. I am skeptical Sanders could have won. And that’s in part because of the dynamics that you often bemoan. The 2020 presidential campaign was often covered by the media as a normal American politician (Biden) vs. a crazy one (Trump.) And the left wing of the Democratic Party mobilized hard for Biden. If Sanders is the nominee, I think you have a lot of centrist Dems like Michael Bloomberg trashing him and refusing to really support him, creating a party divide. The media probably covers the campaigns as a radical on policy (Sanders) vs. a radical on norms (Trump), as if proposing Medicare for All and proposing to pardon all your friends who have committed crimes are kind of equally problematic. In that environment, I think Sanders is worse off than Biden, and the race was so close that Sanders might lose. What do you think about that? Was Sanders really electable, particularly considering our political and cultural institutions? 

My view is that electability is ultimately unknowable – it could depend on a wide variety of factors including a candidate’s personality, the issues they support, how good they are at debating, how much they fundraise, what their field operation looks like, certain characteristics of the electorate, who they’re running against and, as you note, the media environment. Views on electability are also a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways; candidates are more electable if people think they are electable and people commenting on electability can influence it--and do all the time. 

So the short answer is that I don't think anyone can say with certainty what would have happened if Bernie had been the nominee instead of Biden, and my recommendation to people with social justice politics is always to choose the best candidate who believes in the things you do and then work on making them as electable as you possibly can. As you note, establishment Democrats often perform terribly in elections and there's lots of evidence that social justice candidates *can* do better. Doesn't mean they always will. But they definitely can.

The reason I do think "Bernie would have won" is a useful comment to make regarding 2016 is that, to the extent that any individual wants to reject my advice and try to discern electability anyway, I think they should look at the evidence. And all of the evidence for a very long time in 2016 pointed to Bernie being a more electable candidate than Hillary Clinton was, as I wrote about in February of that year. The Democratic Party establishment sold Clinton as the more electable candidate in spite of that evidence, and despite the fact that Bernie's policies were more popular, and they were proven drastically wrong. I think that speaks to their credibility in advancing electability arguments in subsequent years.

The Biden situation is definitely different than the situation in 2016. The electability evidence we had in 2020 supported him as being one of the more popular candidates during the primary; Bernie was close, but Biden was and is pretty popular. So I didn't think arguments that Bernie would be way more electable than Biden were necessarily correct. I think there were reasons to believe he might be--he's a much more compelling speaker, much better at staying on message, has much more integrity, and his policies are more popular. But there are also reasons, as you note, to believe it would be harder for him - largely, the entire media establishment would be against him and he wouldn't necessarily get support from the party establishment, either.

That said, arguments that Biden *would* necessarily be more electable than Bernie - and would make it easier for candidates downballot to win - still didn't hold water in 2020, and given that they were advanced by the same people who got 2016 drastically wrong, should have been heavily discounted. That's even more apparent now that we've seen the election results, where Democrats did very much underperform against a historically unpopular incumbent president and party. Can I say for certain that Bernie would have done at least as well or better? No. But I can say for certain that all progressives should have supported Bernie over Biden in the primary because there's objectively at least as much reason to believe that Bernie (and a party led by Bernie) could have done better as there is to believe it could have done worse. And a Bernie win would be able to deliver the policies we need, whereas a Biden win likely won't and will possibly continue to make voters feel, fairly, like the Democratic Party doesn't really represent them, either.

One of the ideas that you first introduced to me but that I think about often now is your thinking about the ideal policy. Let me see if I can describe it. We as a culture often think of policy as left v. right, Republican v. and Democrat, liberal v. conservative and imply that the ideal policy is in between those two. Your argument is that we should think of the ideal policy along two axis. First, is the policy evidence-based, as opposed to it contradicting the evidence of what works? Secondly, is the policy “privilege-defending” or “power-balancing,” which basically means does it help those who already have more power or those with less power? 

You suggest the ideal policy is power-balancing and evidence-based. That makes sense. Let me give some examples and make sure I understand this idea. You would say that mask-wearing requirements are an evidence-based policy to fight COVID-19 that doesn’t necessarily have any power context, right? You would say that there is not a strong case that charter schools improve students outcomes but, because they don’t have unions, they generally grant power to school administrators/leaders over teachers, so they are privilege-defending, right? You would say the Republican tax bill of 2017 was both not evidence-based (it is not clear that tax cuts are the best way to boost the economy) and was clearly privilege-defending, in that it gave money disproportionately to rich people and corporations. So it was a clearly bad policy. Are those examples correct usages of your framing? And what is the importance of this framing? 

I love this question! The one revision I'd make to your statement of my philosophy is that I actually believe the evaluation of a policy along the ethical axis should come first. So we first decide if it's more "power-balancing" or "privilege-defending" and we then decide if the position you arrive at based in your ethical framework is evidence-based or unsupported by the evidence.

The reason I think this framing matters is that it orients us to things that actually matter in policymaking. Theoretical ideas about government size don't actually matter much and aren't consistently held by most people whereas politics are really about values, and how we ensure that we are pursuing policy consistent with our values is based on evidence. The Left-Right spectrum implies no approach to policy issues is objectively better than any other approach and suggests that the "middle" of two extremes may be most reasonable, while using the ethics and evidence axis acknowledges that we have objective ways of determining whether one approach is better than another.

So on masks, I'd actually say we start with the ethical question, which is based in John Rawls's veil of ignorance: if I didn't know who I was going to be in society and had to negotiate the policy before being assigned randomly to be somebody in the world, would I want people to very mildly inconvenience themselves to protect themselves and others? I think that's generally a reasonable expectation. So I think asking people to adopt basic public health precautions is fairly power-balancing, and then when we look at the evidence on masks, we conclude that having people wear masks in public is a pretty ethical and evidence-based policy.

The charter issue is an interesting one because charter proponents usually say the same thing as charter skeptics in terms of what they want: a society that elevates opportunities for our lowest-income students. But as you note, when you look at the evidence, you see that on a very narrow metric of school success the outcomes between the students who go to charters and the students who don't are comparable, while charters generally have a whole bunch of negative externalities in terms of labor rights and public goods. So a pro-charter position can sometimes be power-balancing in a narrow sense on education policy alone but lack evidence, or it may be privilege-defending in focusing very narrowly on education and discounting or opposing policy that makes a much bigger difference for kids.

On the Republican tax bill, it was definitely privilege-defending, and yes, practically all of the arguments for it were also unsupported by evidence.

I was kind of bugged by all the attacks on the “Defund the Police” movement post-election and I couldn’t figure out why. Then, it came to me. It was a perfect way for the Pelosi-Schumer-Clyburn wing of the Democratic Party to pin the blame for the worse-than-expected performance on activists and the Squad. Why admit blame yourself (even as you picked the candidates, chose the strategy and had hundreds of millions of dollars to execute it) when you can blame unnamed activists and four congresswomen you have been criticizing for two years? I’m not sure that powerful politicians should be FIRST blaming activists. Like in my view, it is odd that Obama is attacking the “Defund’ movement but rarely says a negative word about Pelosi’s electoral strategies. What have you made of this discourse? 

On the "defund the police" question, I completely agree with you. I think the attacks on that slogan serve two purposes for establishment Democrats. First, as you suggest, the attacks deflect blame from the establishment wing of the party for running establishment candidates and losing. They said running Bernie at the top of the ticket and social justice advocates downballot would be electorally disastrous, worked hard to beat those candidates in primaries while largely running away from what social justice advocates believed during their campaigns, and then lost the general election with their preferred strategy - in what world is that social justice advocates' fault and not their own?

Second, I think the attacks serve as a means of trying to shift the Overton Window on policy and pare back what Democrats expect them to deliver on. They don't want to reimagine public safety and dramatically change the way we think about how to support over-policed communities. So blaming "defund the police" for electoral losses is a way of saying, "let's be reasonable and work on this problem at the margins."

This is the same tactic, by the way, that Democratic politicians always use to try to beat back pushes for social justice. They did it on gay marriage just a little over a decade ago. Thankfully, due to the activists pushing gay marriage who wouldn't compromise on civil unions, public opinion and policy have dramatically shifted in relatively recent history. The institutional Democratic Party opposed this issue until activists forced them to get on board. Let's hope the same sort of thing happens with the police abolition movement.

So the pandemic has resulted in in-person schooling being reduced and in some places eliminated. That is bad and seems to be causing really negative education outcomes. 

But what I see in sort of center-left pundit circles about this issue seems off to me. Center-left pundit says, “school closing is bad, schools should be open and bars closed and it’s all because of those annoying teacher’s unions.” The pundit, often a white person, emphasizes how schools being closed is particularly bad for kids of color, who are going to fall way behind. The center-left person leaves out the fact that school being closed is bad for them--having their kids at home and teaching them online is stressful. Attacking teacher unions is a way to show you are not a down-the-line liberal but a thinking one and is also a way to attack teachers without doing so directly. Many of these pundits know that they will never have to be in a building indoors with 2,000 people anytime soon for their jobs. These people must know that bars would be closed if more federal aid was passed--it is not like some mayor or governor is like, “schools not important, bars, important.” Teachers get paid teaching online, bar employees don’t get paid if bars are closed and the government is no longer essentially paying them if the bar is closed with enhanced unemployment benefits. Most importantly, this framing, that students of color will fall behind in ways that they can never catch up from, I think has embedded in the idea that education is a silver bullet. It kind of implies that racial inequality in the country is best addressed through education. We have been trying to educate our way out of inequality for decades. You have argued, and I have read you on this, that we should not think of education policy as our central tool to address racial inequality. Explain your ideas on this front. 

I think the pandemic has highlighted two general truths about education. First, communities do really rely on schools, and not just for education: for meals, for socio-emotional support, and to be community hubs. It is definitely very challenging for families, particularly low-income families, to have schools closed, as schools do perform a very valuable social service. Second, and more importantly, the pandemic highlights that schools are not the primary cause of or solution to societal inequities. That's more apparent right now than normally, but it's important to note that it's the clearest conclusion from education research: if you want to help low-income students, you are talking much more about policies that reduce inequality and poverty than any policy related to schools

I think there's some validity to the point that distance learning is particularly disastrous for low-income students, who are disproportionately Black and Brown. People have talked a lot about the "digital divide" during distance learning, and it's true that the internet not being a public utility has been a big barrier to equitable educational opportunities, but that only scratches the surface of why learning is inequitable during this time. You just aren't going to be able to create the same distance learning environment for a student from an affluent family who can comfortably sit in front of a screen in a room by themselves with meals being brought to them during the day and a student from a low-income family who might be sharing a one-bedroom apartment with five other students. Distance learning will inevitably widen opportunity gaps; that's just a fact.

The real problem, though, as you note, is that a lot of people want to blame unions for advocating for a safe return to school when that's actually a reasonable thing for them to do--for students and the broader community in addition to their members. The real blame lies with policymakers' guidance. The fact that schools have been asked to provide the same service as they normally would in a distance learning environment - with essentially the same rules for attendance and grades - is absurd, and the fact that they've simultaneously been asked to solve the internet service problem is so indicative of the unrealistic expectations we place upon schools as a society. Why are we having schools fork over millions upon millions of dollars to cellular companies for hotspots instead of nationalizing internet service and providing it to every family as a public good? Because we as a society refuse to make the investments we need to make if we actually believe in educational equity and because a lot of people only care about equity as long as it doesn't result in a rebalancing of power between corporations and regular people.

An added challenge is that the public health guidance has also been incredibly inconsistent. In California, for example, schools were initially encouraged to open and given few requirements but told not to open if the local community didn't deem it safe. Now there are rules preventing schools from opening while schools are simultaneously encouraged to apply for a waiver from those rules. It does often seem like the rules are based more on political pressure than on public health and essential services.

How would you change education policy, if you could, both in San Jose and across the country? 

There are three areas in which I’d focus on changing school policy: funding, integration and evaluation. On funding, education policy is both highly inadequate and inequitable, in part because it's funded based on property taxes in many places. We should implement an equity-based funding model, not tied to local taxes, where schools get more money in general and schools serving low-income students get more money than schools serving higher-income students.

On integration, I do think school boundaries need to be redrawn in a lot of places to ensure that schools generally serve a mix of students from low-income and high-income areas.

On evaluation, we’ve had an obsessive focus on test scores and student-outcome-based metrics for evaluating schools in this country. This approach doesn’t make sense because schools do not largely control student outcomes; they reflect societal inequities more than school performance, even the growth metrics that try to control for societal inequalities. We should instead be evaluating schools on how well they implement best practices in areas ranging from instruction to family engagement. We have a teacher evaluation system in San José Unified that evaluates teachers that way and I think we should do something analogous for schools.

The Biden team is trying to hire a diverse team. But they have a particular frame of diversity. How do you view their diversity efforts? What would be an alternative way to approach this issue? 

I think what is commonly referred to as "identity politics" does matter: sexism, racism, religious discrimination, discrimination based on sexual orientation, and other forms of bigotry do serve as real barriers to success for people and it's no accident that the ruling class in America has historically been White, male, Christian, and straight. But it’s important to remember that people’s identities are multi-faceted, that class is an identity characteristic too, and that, when people occupy positions of power, how they would use that power to impact marginalized people with policy is the most important criterion by which to judge them. Establishment Democrats understand this point on some level: it’s why they don’t rejoice when Ben Carson is appointed at HUD or Betsy DeVos gets a position as Secretary of Education.

Establishment Democrats often weaponize identity within the Democratic Party to lift up people who share their ideologies while simultaneously attacking social justice advocates with the same identity characteristics whose ideologies they don't like. It's important to recognize these tactics for what they are. We do want people with diverse backgrounds and experiences in positions of power, but that's in part so we will have confidence that they will fight for people with diverse backgrounds and experiences across America and the rest of the world. If potential appointees won't do that - or, worse, will likely actively work against the interests of low-income people, Black and Brown people, LGBTQ people, people of non-Christian faiths, etc. - they aren't people we want in positions of power.

Thanks for reading. This is an occasional newsletter about policy and elections in Kentucky. You can sign up here