יום שלישי, 11 ביולי 2017

How to Lose a Fight with Progressives

If the party’s “pro-business” wing wants to survive the Democratic civil war, it must learn fast that its money and stature are burdens, not assets.

As progressive populists have been flexing more muscle within the Democratic Party, some Democratic CEOs have decided to fight back. Unfortunately for the CEOs, their checkbooks haven’t bought them the ability to land a punch.

Last week, Silicon Valley billionaires Mark Pincus and Reid Hoffman launched “Win the Future,” an effort to advance the agenda of “an ethos that is pro-social, pro-planet, and,” most grating to the left’s ears, “pro-business.” Their political ambition for “WTF” is to “act like its own virtual party” within the Democratic Party, shaping the platform and launching candidates—similar to what Senator Bernie Sanders is doing in his quest to gain control of the party, through his Our Revolution political action committee and Sanders Institute think tank.

Pincus makes no bones about his desire to sideline the Berniecrats. “I’m fearful the Democratic Party is already moving too far to the left,” he told the tech industry news site Recode. “I want to push the Democratic Party to be more in touch with mainstream America.”

Those words were greeted with incredulity and widespread mockery throughout the increasingly cocksure left. “The rich people’s social milieu is to think that the swing voter is kind of like them, which is to say progressive on social issues and regressive on corporate power, and that’s not actually where the bulk of median swing voters in America are,” said Jeff Hauser of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Social Security Works’ Alex Lawson went in for the kill: “The weakness of the Democratic Party is not due to an underrepresentation of venture capitalists and tech company board members.” WTF, indeed.

The left’s reactions to Pincus and Hoffman, however, were tame compared with the near-universal derision and personal invective that has in recent days been aimed at Mark Penn. On Friday, Penn—the founder of a private equity firm who is best known as the chief strategist and pollster for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2008 Democratic presidential primary bid—published a New York Times op-ed (co-authored by a Democratic Trump supporter) counseling Democrats to “move to the center and reject the siren calls of the left.”

In progressive circles, Penn is the personification of the “third way,” ’90s-era “neoliberal” policies that they argue drove working-class voters to Donald Trump two decades later. Moreover, some progressives argue, he’s a political incompetent who drove Clinton’s 2008 campaign into a ditch by fundamentally misunderstanding what voters want—and hasn’t learned much since.

“Penn is used to being wrong,” wrote New Republic’s Sarah Jones, “Barack Obama … ran to [Clinton’s] left at the time and is mostly absent from Penn’s version of history, despite uniting the party’s factions and winning the general election twice.” Esquire’s Charles Pierce was unsparing: “If this guy gets within 10 city blocks of your campaign headquarters, call the local hazardous waste unit immediately.”

If the Penns, Pincuses and Hoffmans of the world are to survive the Democratic civil war between the populists and the pragmatists, they must learn fast that their money and stature are not assets, but burdens to overcome. And more substantially, they must develop ideas that serve the public good, not just their own bottom lines.


The progressives’ swipes at the Democratic corporate class might be dismissed as the usual griping from the online peanut gallery if our CEO saviors came equipped with compelling ideas that compare favorably with what’s being peddled by the populist left. But the CEOs showed up with little more than cocktail-napkin policies that excite almost no one.

Penn’s policy advice to win back “working class” voters is full of dissonant left-right pairings, which may work in a focus group, but lack coherence. You’d expect the left to cheer Penn when he writes, “the new tech-driven economy has been given a pass to flout labor laws with unregulated, low-paying gig jobs, to concentrate vast profits and to decimate retailing.” But he confusingly juxtaposes this with a hysterical claim that “the old brick-and-mortar economy is being regulated to death”—as if government regulation, not the inherent convenience of e-commerce, was the source of the retail industry’s woes. Likewise, Penn actually accepts the populists’ political diagnosis on trade: “Democrats should recognize that they can no longer simultaneously try to be the free-trade party and speak for the working class. They need to support fair trade and oppose manufacturing plants’ moving jobs overseas.” But then he ties it to a big tax cut for multinational corporations, arguing Democrats should link “new taxes” on offshoring with “repatriation of foreign profits”—that’s wonkspeak for letting corporate profits that had been parked abroad to escape taxation come back to America at a discounted tax rate.

Over on the West Coast, the WTF brigade began its centrist advance by encouraging Twitter users to post and retweet ideas with a #WTFagenda hashtag, with the best ideas to be slapped on Beltway billboards. (One week in, the group’s Twitter feed has about 650 followers—a paltry number that has to sting the Silicon Valley whizzes.) But the WTF leaders are putting their thumb on the scale with their own suggestions.

Most of what the founding team members posted is inoffensive to the left, but isn’t particularly original or innovative: such as “Healthcare is a right, not a privilege” and “Congress: Fire Trump ... or You’re Fired.” But Pincus raised eyebrows with an out-of-the-box proposal to “Offer every [A]merican an engineering degree” for free. On Twitter, Jamison Foser, of NextGen Climate, noted that the idea is narrowly tailored to serve the interests of Pincus and his fellow Silicon Valley CEOs: “Limiting this to engineering makes it seem like tech billionaires don’t care about education or inequality: just want to pay engineers less.”

The self-serving proposal validated Matt Stoller’s BuzzFeed takedown of WTF, and the Democratic Party generally. The New America fellow and former policy adviser to Sanders places WTF in the “long history of wealthy, highly connected, and powerful people trying to fix Democratic politics” going back to the “Atari Democrats” of the 1980s.

Stoller’s essay summed up the progressive populist view of establishment Democrats, who “have repeatedly positioned themselves to curry favor with big business, to push away questions of regional inequality, labor rights, small business rights, family farms, and genuinely open markets for goods and services.” He argues Democrats need to go in the exact opposite direction, since, “Changing politics is about refocusing democratic deliberation on the places where power exists. And right now, power exists exactly where Hoffman and Pincus made their fortunes: Silicon Valley.”

Of course, the economic power that has accumulated in Silicon Valley has not always been easily leveraged into political power. When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg rallied his fellow tech executives behind the pro-immigration effort FWD.us, the $50 million project ran into a brick wall of Republican partisanship and anti-immigrant, right-wing populist sentiment. Tech leaders found out that while most Americans eagerly consume their apps and devices, that doesn’t mean they are perceived to be the political good guys. Their agenda was not presumed by critics to be an altruistic attempt to give immigrants a crack at the American Dream, but a selfish ploy to hire coders at lower wages. Now Silicon Valley is learning its motives are considered suspect by elements of the left as well.

This is what the centrist CEOs, from Silicon Valley and elsewhere, need to grasp: they are facing a force that wants their kind banished from the Democratic Party. That’s not hyperbole; Hauser told HuffPost that Pincus and Hoffman should become “forces within the Republican Party … rather than water down the message of the Democratic Party.”

Pincus, in an interview with Fast Company, responded to the criticism with a dismissive shrug: “We just want to help, and I’m sorry if we’re not the best messenger. I can’t help it.”

But if the disrupters want to successfully disrupt, that’s the wrong answer. The answer is to become better, more credible messengers. That will require CEOs to do two hard things:

One, become policy wonks. Work with public policy experts to develop fresh, substantive ideas that tackle the pressing issues of the future and outshine Sanders’ heavily ambitious, light-on-details democratic socialism.

Two, become class traitors. Shine a light on bad corporate practices. Offer proposals to rein in irresponsible behavior and to ensure everyone pays their fair share in taxes.

Pincus and his partners could take a cue from Penn: the lightly regulated gig economy is causing great uncertainty about the future of work. The populist’s left main response—stronger unions—makes sense on paper but has gotten little traction from the workers themselves. Unionization in America is at an all-time low, accounting for only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers. That won’t turn around on a dime, no matter what new laws, if any, are enacted. If our Silicon Valley gurus have some better ideas—sophisticated ones that benefit from their intricate knowledge of the tech industry, but are not ruses to fatten corporate profits at the expense of labor—now’s the time to share.

Democrats don’t need business leaders demanding a pro-business agenda. Democrats need business leaders who can show how smart regulations can help workers, consumers and executives simultaneously. Democrats need business leaders who can make the case that taxes on wealth and carbon pollution won’t stifle entrepreneurship. Democrats need business leaders who can offer their expertise in shaping policy relevant to their field, while having the humility to understand—as our current CEO president does not—that business expertise in a single industry is not equivalent to public policy omniscience. For the nation’s CEOs to save America from the zero-sum populism of both the right and the left, it’s going to take far more than a few sanctimonious swipes, bullet point proposals and hashtag campaigns. These corporate honchos need to internalize that for many Americans, they are the problem, and they will have to work double time to prove they can be part of the solution.

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