Guide to the 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates
Electoral politics may not be a great way to effect political change, but it does act as an entertaining and often informative indicator of the political climate. To check in on that climate I recently watched the December “debate” slash question-and-answer session among some of the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Most memorable for me was the opportunistic hyperfocus on climate change throughout. All wildfires, floods, and weather itself are signs of an impending existential threat. But it’s okay, the Democrats have plans: it turns out we can be saved from near-certain climate death if we vote for a politician from this powerful (yet surprisingly ineffectual) capitalist political party. Andrew Yang may be the only one taking the alarmist rhetoric at face value. At least I think he was the only one talking about seawalls and mass migration to higher ground. Everyone else is pushing some version of a Green New Deal whereby climate change, like your boss, is re-imagined as a job creator (“20 million” new jobs says Bernie). And who doesn’t want a[nother] job?
Anyway, as you can tell from all of the links to Wikipedia below, I’ve extensively researched these people and their policy positions. Here is a brief voting guide roughly in order of my preference:
- Bernie Sanders
The other Burlington socialist. A popular and consistent social democrat, the Democratic Party would be foolish not to try to get him elected as president. So they probably won’t. If he develops a margin as the front-runner, it will be interesting to see how the right-wing Democrats collaborate with the Republicans to try to smear him as an anti-Semite (à la Corbyn) or, more likely though less impressively, as a misogynist.
See also A Look At Bernie Sanders' Electoral Socialism which I will update for 2020 real soon.
- Julian Castro
I took one of those online political quizzes and it told me I agree most with Castro. I don’t know about that, but he does bring the most comprehensive police reform plan, and if I were a single-issue voter that would be my issue. He’s given the most intelligent take on the issue of gun buybacks/confiscation I’ve ever heard from a presidential candidate:
I am not going to give these police officers another reason to go door to door in certain communities, because police violence is also gun violence, and we need to address that.
- Marianne Williamson
Apparently she is some self-help guru, a Mary Baker Eddie figure for the 21st century. She brings to the table a challenging ontological framework (“Only love is real. Nothing else exists.”), a heterodox take on the old economic debates (“Value does not derive from labor; it derives from self-actualization”), and a corresponding bogus class analysis (“What do you call the police department if not socialist?”).
I don’t know if she has talked about it at all, but her website calls for a $1,000/month universal basic income, and that is groovy.
- Andrew Yang
I’m excited that Yang is trying to advocate the idea of a universal basic income to a national audience, and a little nervous that he is going to make it look bad. The focus of his campaign is his proposed Freedom Dividend, “a set of guaranteed payments of $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year, to all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 […] no questions asked.” His plan is much more fleshed out than Williamson’s, but it is presented by a tech entrepreneur and with less emphasis on an embedding welfare state, which I’m afraid may [further] sour many leftists on the concept of UBI itself. I’d argue his Freedom Dividend is potentially more radically liberating than Bernie’s job program or whatever he thinks socialism is.
Speaking of which, Yang’s website provides a very narrow definition of socialism (“With Socialism, the core principle is the nationalization of the means of production”) in order to reassure voters that the Freedom Dividend is consistent with capitalism and even that “the universal basic income is necessary for the continuation of capitalism.” That’s a very uninspiring vision; if UBI is only going to help capitalism continue limping along then what is the point?
Yang dropped out of the race in March and, to his discredit, endorsed Biden as the Democratic nominee. But the economic downturn due to the Covid-19 pandemic has brought a new urgency to some kind of basic income.
- Elizabeth Warren
Her campaign slogan is “capitalism without rules is theft” which almost sounds like an intentional rejection of Marx by standing Proudhon on his head. But, alas, I know it’s really just an expression of naive liberalism. She is a bit of Bernie’s social democracy but with more market fundamentalism, and a bit of Marianne Williamson’s self-help authority but with a financial rather than a spiritual focus. Other than vicariously sharing her identity as a woman (and Cherokee?), I don’t know why anyone would prefer Elizabeth “I’m a capitalist to my bones” Warren over Bernie Sanders.
- Pete Buttigieg
His Twitter profile helpfully notes that it is pronounced “Boot-Edge-Edge,” but the kids just call him “Wall Street Pete”. In fact, the most remarkable thing about his campaign is how much the left hates him. They’re not quite holding rallies and chanting “lock him up!” but the vitriol coming from the extremely online left is almost palpable. It’s not only Twitter, there’s a mini-genre of leftists writing long articles reminding each other of all of his shortcomings (“All About Pete”; “Your Complete, One Stop Guide to Why Buttigieg is the Wrong Choice”; “Think you’re supporting the LGBTQ community by supporting Mayor Pete? You’re not.”)
On the face of it the leftist fury surrounding Pete is surprising. A cursory glance at his policy positions makes him seem like a decent candidate, and so many of the points raised in the leftist criticism leveled at him don’t come across as particularly damning: his plan to allow people to buy private health insurance if they want to, the charge that he is no better than other Democrat mayors on homelessness, his statement that poor black kids lack role models, or the fact that he wants rich people to pay for their own childrens' college education.
My theory is that it is exactly that appearance of decency, the young gay progressive Christian mask covering a vapid neoliberalism, that triggers such visceral responses to Buttigieg’s candidacy. There is a real fear among young leftists that older, moderate liberals will fall for it. And that leftist backlash in trun feeds into a positive feedback loop as moderate liberals try to understand the disdain only to discover that he actually looks fine on paper, further exacerbating his leftist detractors. A recent Politico analysis by Derek Robertson (“Why Pete Buttigieg Enrages the Young Left”) gives a similar accounting of the phenomenon: “In the eyes of radicalized young leftists, Buttigieg isn’t just an ideological foe, he’s worse than that: He’s a square.” (See also Ryan Cooper’s “Pete Buttigieg and the audacity of nope”)
Buttigieg seems poised to play a role very similar to that of Emmanuel Macron (who should just resign already) in France’s 2017 presidential election: the neoliberal status quo’s last hope in the face of resurgent nationalist and socialist movements. But Macron won as the safe option during a runoff election against actual far-left and far-right opponents — America’s two party system will not provide Buttigieg with a similar opportunity.
- Tulsi Gabbard
I don’t know much about her, but from what I’ve seen Gabbard is the most impressive candidate to me. She strikes me as someone who is political savvy, but whose ambition is contained by her genuinely held beliefs. And those beliefs are somewhat terrifying. Unlike Trump, whose nationalism is a convenient but insincere cover for his nihilistic and narcissistic indulgences, Gabbard actually believes in America. She is an officer in the Hawaii National Guard, friendly toward nationalist leaders like Assad and Modi, and I get the feeling she would do anything if she thought it would make America more prosperous, unified, and powerful.
- Joe Biden
The conservative, safe alternative to Bernie. Biden currently has a narrow lead in most polls. He appeals effectively to the Democrats' large base of cowards.
- Amy Klobuchar