1/20/20: An Endorsement By Any Other Name

(Photo illustration via New York Times.)

Last night, The New York Times, perhaps the most prestigious and august journalistic institution in the world, endorsed two candidates for president. The Times’s editorial board told its readers that Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren were both worthy to be the leader (singular) of the nation.

This, of course, is preposterous. Unless you live in Maine, which I suspect the majority of Times readers do not, you can only vote once per election — and even residents of the Pine Tree State have to rank their choices. Many saw the endorsement as a sign of the Times’s irrelevance. Dual endorsement aside, Warren and Klobuchar have consistently lagged behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in polls. And the decision to endorse the lone two women candidates still in the race — despite their policy platforms being wildly different — gave the spectacle a patronizing, rather than instructive, effect.  

Actually reading the endorsement, however, gives one a glimpse into the editorial process of the Times — and given its position at the apex of the media ivory tower, into contemporary American journalism as a whole. Let’s begin.

American voters must choose between three sharply divergent visions of the future.

The incumbent president, Donald Trump, is clear about where he is guiding the Republican Party — white nativism at home and America First unilateralism abroad, brazen corruption, escalating culture wars, a judiciary stacked with ideologues and the veneration of a mythological past where the hierarchy in American society was defined and unchallenged.

On the Democratic side, an essential debate is underway between two visions that may define the future of the party and perhaps the nation. Some in the party view President Trump as an aberration and believe that a return to a more sensible America is possible. Then there are those who believe that President Trump was the product of political and economic systems so rotten that they must be replaced.

Right away, the Times admits that it will not be wading into the Republican primary, and that the President is a racist demagogue. Fair enough; he is, and it would be foolish to engage in good faith with a man who relishes any chance he can get to undermine their credibility. Moreover, given the President’s vast popularity within his own party — upwards of 70 percent at its nadir — the results of that particular election seem to be a foregone conclusion. 

Given that, it’s bizarre that the Times lays credence to the sect of the Democratic party, that, apparently, “view[s] President Trump as an aberration and believe that a return to a more sensible America is possible.” Just a little under a year ago, the Times reported the Republican Party “is, in every institutional sense, Mr. Trump’s party,” citing his loyalists’ control over virtually every state organization. By the Times’s own (at least, in name) impartial reporting, Trump can no longer be considered an aberration, but rather the standard-bearer of a political movement. This would invalidate the worldview of the aforementioned wing of the Democratic Party, which the Times chooses to give equal credence.

The Democratic primary contest is often portrayed as a tussle between moderates and progressives. To some extent that’s true. But when we spent significant time with the leading candidates, the similarity of their platforms on fundamental issues became striking.

Nearly any of them would be the most progressive president in decades on issues like health care, the economy and government’s allocations of resources. Where they differ most significantly is not the what but the how, in whether they believe the country’s institutions and norms are up to the challenge of the moment.

So why endorse two candidates if there is that little daylight? Also, is progressivism supposed to be an unquestionable good? Certainly you or I are entitled to that belief, but an institution like the Times’s editorial board would do well to explain what their meaning of “progressive” is, and what benefit that would lead to the country as a whole.

Many Democratic voters are concerned first and foremost about who can beat Mr. Trump. But with a crowded field and with traditional polling in tatters, that calculation calls for a hefty dose of humility about anyone’s ability to foretell what voters want.

Choosing who should face off against Mr. Trump also means acknowledging that Americans are being confronted with three models for how to govern this country, not two. Democrats must decide which of their two models would be most compelling for the American people and best suited for repairing the Republic.

Biden and Sanders are very clearly the top two candidates, and polls consistently show them outperforming Warren (and fellow frontrunner Pete Buttigieg) in head-to-head hypothetical matchups against Trump. This is not even to mention Klobuchar, who lags behind Michael Bloomberg and Andrew Yang in support. Democratic primary voters have been clear about what they want, and nothing indicates that it is Warren or Klobuchar. 

The history of the editorial board would suggest that we would side squarely with the candidate with a more traditional approach to pushing the nation forward, within the realities of a constitutional framework and a multiparty country. But the events of the past few years have shaken the confidence of even the most committed institutionalists. We are not veering away from the values we espouse, but we are rattled by the weakness of the institutions that we trusted to undergird those values.

There are legitimate questions about whether our democratic system is fundamentally broken. Our elections are getting less free and fair, Congress and the courts are increasingly partisan, foreign nations are flooding society with misinformation, a deluge of money flows through our politics. And the economic mobility that made the American dream possible is vanishing.

Both the radical and the realist models warrant serious consideration. If there were ever a time to be open to new ideas, it is now. If there were ever a time to seek stability, now is it.

It’s incredible just how the Times stresses the point that this is an abnormal election, one that calls for extreme measures — and then goes to espouse the wonders of a supposed realistic candidate, as a contrast to a radical one. If the challenge is as great as the one the Times illustrates in these grafs, then any return to stability would require structural upheaval. 

So, then, we get to the most radical candidate in the Democratic primary: Bernie Sanders.

Mr. Sanders would be 79 when he assumed office, and after an October heart attack, his health is a serious concern. Then, there’s how Mr. Sanders approaches politics. He boasts that compromise is anathema to him. Only his prescriptions can be the right ones, even though most are overly rigid, untested and divisive. He promises that once in office, a groundswell of support will emerge to push through his agenda. Three years into the Trump administration, we see little advantage to exchanging one over-promising, divisive figure in Washington for another.

Notice the board’s tacit confession of its problems with Trump and Sanders: it is not so much their policies that they’re opposed to, but their messaging. When they choose to attack Sanders on policy grounds, it is because his proposals are “rigid, untested and divisive.” 

So, let’s take healthcare as a case study. More or less every Democratic debate this cycle has begun with about half an hour discussing it, after all, and Sanders’s position on healthcare is perhaps one of his sharpest contrasts with the rest of the primary field. Sanders wants a universal healthcare system, which exists in more or less every developed country in the world except the United States. Polls show such a plan has overwhelming support among Democrats and moderates, whereas a more technocratic solution such as the Affordable Care Act is far less popular. 

Indeed, Sanders offers a more easily digestible approach to healthcare — your taxes might go up, but everyone has insurance now — rather than the hodgepodge of deductibles and means-testing that comes with a liberal policy such as the Affordable Care Act. For the Democratic electorate, it is entirely possible — if not probable — that Sanders’s prescription is, indeed, the only right one.

Now, on to Warren:

At the same time, a conservative federal judiciary will be almost as significant a roadblock for progressive change. For Ms. Warren, that leaves open questions — ones she was unwilling to wrestle with in our interview. Ms. Warren has proposed to pay for an expanded social safety net by imposing a new tax on wealth. But even if she could push such a bill through the Senate, the idea is constitutionally suspect and would inevitably be bogged down for years in the courts. A conservative judiciary also could constrain a President Warren’s regulatory powers, and roll back access to health care.

Carrying out a progressive agenda through new laws will also be very hard for any Democratic president. In that light, voters could consider what a Democratic president might accomplish without new legislation and, in particular, they could focus on the presidency’s wide-ranging powers to shape American society through the creation and enforcement of regulations.

The Times is correct — the Republican party and its apparatuses have devoted much of the past several decades into fortifying a judicial bulwark to strike down any progressive legislation. Since Trump has taken office, he has reshaped the judiciary to that end. Over a quarter of the federal bench are now his appointees. The only avenue for a Democratic president to pass any signature legislation would thus be to either to pack the courts. Compromise with Republicans is not a viable option; eight years of the Obama presidency proved as much. Let’s keep that in mind as we read on.

She sometimes sounds like a candidate who sees a universe of us-versus-thems, who, in the general election, would be going up against a president who has already divided America into his own version of them and us.

This has been most obvious in her case for “Medicare for all,” where she has already had to soften her message, as voters have expressed their lack of support for her plan. There are good, sound reasons for a public health care option — countries all over the world have demonstrated that. But Ms. Warren’s version would require winning over a skeptical public, legislative trench warfare to pass bills in Congress, the dismantling of a private health care system. That system, through existing public-private programs like Medicare Advantage, has shown it is not nearly as flawed as she insists, and it is even lauded by health economists who now advocate a single-payer system.

American capitalism is responsible for its share of sins. But Ms. Warren often casts the net far too wide, placing the blame for a host of maladies from climate change to gun violence at the feet of the business community when the onus is on society as a whole. The country needs a more unifying path. The senator talks more about bringing together Democrats, Republicans and independents behind her proposals, often leaning on anecdotes about her conservative brothers to do so. Ms. Warren has the power and conviction and credibility to make the case — especially given her past as a Republican — but she needs to draw on practicality and patience as much as her down-and-dirty critique of the system.

Contrary to the Times’s insinuation, populism did not begin with Donald Trump. Former Senator John Edwards centered his first presidential campaign on the notion of “two Americas” — one of the haves, and one of have-nots — in 2004. Since that time, one of the most devastating recessions in American history happened, and income inequality has grown even more stratified. It is tone-deaf at worst, and malicious at best, to equate Trump’s oft divorced-from-reality rhetoric from Sanders and Warren’s very real appraisal of the American economy.

Moreover, capitalism is the underpinning of American society, and attempting to divorce the two is absurd. ExxonMobil famously knew about climate change in the 1970s, swallowing their concerns out of a fear of harming their bottom line. The NRA, often portrayed as a villain of American’s gun crisis, would not exist without the backing of multi-millionaire gun manufacturers.

Saying we have a “societal problem” is all well and good, and it might be true. But these are things that did not happen because we as a society woke up one day and decided to melt the Arctic en masse, or to start gunning down schoolchildren. One of the key lessons I’ve learned in journalism school, regardless of professor, is to “follow the money.” It appears the Times could use a refresher there. 

There is also no mention of what exactly Warren would do to convert a Republican electorate, besides the fact she was a Republican once. That certainly could help, but a practical and patient approach to the right absent structural critique is what Obama governed upon. 

No Republican candidate would be told they need to moderate their message in order to win power. As this endorsement shows, political media establishment is far more afraid to engage with left-wing ideals than those of the right. To boot, Trump’s presidency has served as a testimonial into just how easy it is to hijack an American political party by never equivocating on what its base wants. Bernie Sanders realizes that, and to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Warren does too. Yet for the Times’s editorial board, bold change is both necessary and a source of moral panic.

Tomorrow I’ll delve into the Times’s appraisal of other candidates. 

This is the first edition of Politics and Prozac, a newsletter about U.S. elections and their consequences. At some point I’ll have a consistent schedule, but today is not that day. My name is Arya Hodjat, and you can hit me up at aryahodjat11@gmail.com or on Twitter at @arya_kidding_me. Until next time, take care.