A Moral and Political Critique of the Democratic Primary Debates of 2015, Part 1

This is the second installment of my examination of the arguments presented by presidential primary candidates of both major parties. I began the series with selections from the second Republican debate (I decided to skip the first mostly because there are so many debates to consider, I thought I’d wait until the polls had settled in, so to speak, indicating the field of candidates more likely to succeed), and I continue here with the first Democratic one.

As with the first, the debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by ellipses.

From the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate, October 14th 2015

The source of the debate transcript which follows is the New York Times, at nytimes.com
Participants: former Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Senator Jim Webb
Moderators: Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Juan Carlos Lopez, and Don Lemon

COOPER: Welcome. I’m Anderson Cooper. Thanks for joining us….

WEBB: …You know, people are disgusted with the way that money has corrupted our political process, intimidating incumbents and empowering Wall Street every day, the turnstile government that we see, and also the power of the financial sector in both parties. They’re looking for a leader who understands how the system works, who has not been co-opted by it, and also has a proven record of accomplishing different things....

As you many remember from Huckabee’s comments in the first Republican debate examined here, mainstream Republican politicians are joining Democrats in denunciation of the corrupting influence of vast amounts of money flooding into the political system from a relatively few special interests and extremely wealthy individuals, and of the revolving-door relationships between our political institutions, lobbyist groups, and the finance industry. Many say that just because individuals and businesses freely decide to donate money, and that ex-politicians are routinely offered lucrative jobs by the same firms that lobbied them and donated to their campaigns, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily corrupted, guided by the will of their donors and potential employers instead of their constituents and their own best judgment.

But even if it’s true that most politicians are not purposefully corrupt, it’s already a well researched, well documented fact that gifts and donations have much more influence over one’s decisions than one might realize, even if one’s honestly trying not to let it happen. A few years ago, I read up on various studies of the ways that funding, gifts, and personal visits from sales representatives of pharmaceutical companies influence what physicians are more likely to prescribe and even worse, influence the outcome of clinical drug trials. And while the studies generally failed to find direct evidence that most researchers or physicians purposefully tailored their decisions or research to the financial interests of the funders, donors, or sales reps, the influence was clearly indicated, likely based on the unconscious desire to reciprocate real or perceive goodwill, and / or the bias in favor of perceived expertise. If you have a large amount of money to invest, or a team of sales reps with a convincing story to tell on your payroll, you have to know what you’re doing, right?

Human psychology being remarkably consistent, it’s nearly certain that politicians are subject to the same psychological phenomena. Lobbyists can be considered the political analogues of the sales reps, and donors the analogues of the research funders and pharmaceutical company gift-givers. And while the sales reps, lobbyists, funders, and donors may have good arguments, may be in the possession of good information, or may be driven by entirely noble motives, it’s still the case that their influence can crowd out other arguments, other evidence, and other interests which should have equal consideration.

COOPER: …Secretary Clinton …plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency. You were against same-sex marriage. Now you’re for it. You defended President Obama’s immigration policies. Now you say they’re too harsh. You supported his trade deal dozen of times. You even called it the “gold standard”. Now, suddenly, last week, you’re against it. Will you say anything to get elected?

CLINTON: Well, actually, I have been very consistent. Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings — including those of us who run for office — I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world….

Clinton is right to point out that politicians, like all human beings, should remain ready and willing to learn, be open to new evidence, consider new and better arguments as they are presented, and be able to change their minds as warranted. Charges of ‘flip-flopping’ are often hurled at political candidates to portray their changes of mind as signs of dishonest maneuvering and weakness of will. But this isn’t always the case. A famous examples of a politician changing their mind on an important issue is Abraham Lincoln, who originally thought that preserving the political Union between the states took priority over the abolition of slavery. Another is Barack Obama, who originally thought that legal marriage should exclusively remain heterosexual, with civil union being an acceptable separate but equal institution for gay couples.

This being as it may, when a politician changes their mind, just like anyone else, it should be for very good reasons. And because they represent the people, they need to explain these changes of mind, to be open and honest to their constituents, especially when the change of mind might affect the voters’ choice of representative.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, though, with all due respect, the question is really about political expediency. Just in July, New Hampshire, you told the crowd you’d, quote, “take a back seat to no one when it comes to progressive values.” Last month in Ohio, you said you plead guilty to, quote, “being kind of moderate and center.” Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to? 

CLINTON: No. I think that, like most people that I know, I have a range of views, but they are rooted in my values and my experience…

COOPER: Just for the record, are you a progressive, or are you a moderate?

CLINTON: I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.

Clinton is not only representing herself as a practical politician, she’s making a larger point: while it’s important to be idealistic and to remain committed to one’s values, it’s also important to remember that if you can’t compromise when necessary, those ideals and those values will do no practical good because they’ll never be realized in public policy.

While I’m more than halfway with her on this, I still think we need a president, a Congress, and a Supreme Court who demonstrate a stronger commitment to a nobler political vision. With the notable exception of legalizing gay marriage, it’s been too long since our elected leaders exuded the moral strength necessary to lead us in accomplishing spectacular things like ending slavery, giving women the vote, establishing worker’s rights, instituting a New Deal, building a comprehensive and cutting-edge infrastructure, taking us to the moon. We’ve become cynical, expecting our politicians to squabble and block one another’s efforts at every turn while our infrastructure crumbles, healthcare costs soar, our middle-class dwindles, gun violence runs rampant, the earth warms as we continue to generate energy with old polluting technology, our education system becomes ever less effective, special interests take over our political system with enticements of massive amounts of money and cushy job offers, costly American military interventions take out bad leaders only to have worse ones rush in to fill the power gap, the war on drugs continues to fail while encouraging the rampant growth of violent cartels here and abroad, and more Americans are incarcerated than in any other nation.

As a result of this cynicism, too many of us have become hopeless and apathetic, staying away from the polls, content with venting our discontent and disillusion on social media. I’m not totally with those who hold a bleak view of the loss of civic engagement in our country: young people volunteer and donate at encouragingly high rates, and are vocal about their opposition to social ills such as racism, sexism, greed, violence, rampant incarceration, and so on. Still, if we care about doing the most good systematically and in the long run, I think it more important to begin with taking our political system back. A lot of the volunteering and donating is needed precisely because our political system is failing so many people.

COOPER: …Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?

SANDERS: Well, we’re gonna win because first, we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost …as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent…

COOPER: …You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?


SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires….

For all Sander’s optimism on this point, socialism remains a hated word in the United States, and not for bad reasons. The largest socialist states of the 20th century did not act in the interests of their people as much as they acted in the interest of their leaders and their political ideology, with some exceptions. Yes, the Cuban health care system did and does better by their people, as a whole, than that of the United States: more people have access to good affordable health care, more people live healthier lives, and less people are financially ruined by a diagnosis of a serious disease. Yet the political rights of those in most socialist states are severely restricted if existent at all, and the average citizen remains relatively poor as their economies stagnate and the wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few. We can say the same historically of most modern socialist states, past and present: Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, East Germany, and so on.

However, here’s the key point about democratic socialism as Sanders describes it: all of those oppressive socialist states lack the ‘democracy’ element, even though it’s often part of the government’s official name. In those states, most people have no political voice or representation whatsoever, and their nations’ social, political, and economic systems are organized strictly along ‘top-down’ lines. A few political elites impose their will on the people unopposed, and any opposition is quashed with the justification that it was motivated by disloyalty ‘to the people’ or to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Those that wield the power may describe lofty goals and proclaim that everything they do is according to the abstracted will of the people, but the actual people themselves are not allowed to participate in their own governance.

Democratic socialism is very different in principle and practice than socialism as commonly understood, if carried out as Sanders describes. Its public institutions are required to remain accountable to the people and its elected leaders subject to voter recall. It’s not a top-down system in the way authoritarian socialist regimes are for two reasons: there’s many points of view and sources of information that are brought to bear, not just the ideology of a single person or small political elite, and its policies and projects are implemented, constrained, and carried out by elected representatives and/or more directly by voters. Ostensibly, the democratic republican system we already have is this sort of government, but democratic socialists disagree because of the outsize influence of a few wealthy, powerful private interests. The reason why Sander’s party emphasizes ‘socialism’ in their name is because, they say, political systems dedicated more to individual liberty than to the well-being of its people inevitably fail in both.

In a market system, according to this view, the individual pursuit of profit will inevitably often work to the public’s detriment, whether or not individual capitalists have good or bad motives, because of the inherent incentives. Keeping an eye always on the bottom line keeps them off the plight of others, including that of the underpaid worker, or of the community’s lands being polluted, or those who can’t afford a necessary good or service (such as healthcare) because of price fixing, or the citizen who’s not being represented because of the money and influence that rigged the political system in the capitalist’s favor. Throughout history, both before and after regulations were put in place to protect the rights, health, and safety of citizens and the environment, there have always been a large percentage of capitalists who are greedy, who don’t care how the way they do business affects others, and they will always ruin it for everyone else, overrunning the system in their ruthlessness and making bad practice par for the course: exploiting those who need jobs but can’t find good ones, setting up grossly polluting factories wherever they’re not prevented from doing so, colluding with other businesses to fix prices and wages, forming monopolies, co-opting government to make laws in their favor, gambling in financial markets until they crash, and so on. And because these bad actors take over the system, other businesses must adopt these same bad practices in order to remain competitive and survive. That’s why, democratic socialists say, we need certain key goods and services to be controlled by public institutions that are accountable to the people, not just to the balance sheet, to investors, or the conscience (or lack thereof) of one individual.

Whether or not a well-run, truly democratic socialist state as would be more successful than a market-driven one remains to be seen. There are encouraging results in nations with mixed economies, such as the Scandinavian countries that Sanders hold up as his models, but the United States presents two important challenges these countries don’t face: it’s way more ideologically and ethnically diverse, and it’s way, way bigger. There are other much larger and more diverse countries who’ve nationalized a few but very important goods and services such as healthcare, like Canada and most modern European states, with very good results. Of course, they have their problems too, but that’s true of every system that has ever been devised. So the question’s not whether which system is perfect, it’s which one is better, and which one comes with a set of problems we find more tolerable to live with.

COOPER: We’re going to have a lot more on these issues. But I do want to just quickly get everybody in on the question of electability. Governor Chafee, you’ve been everything but a socialist. When you were senator from Rhode Island, you were a Republican. When you were elected governor, you were an independent. You’ve only been a Democrat for little more than two years. Why should Democratic voters trust you won’t change again?

CHAFEE: …I have not changed on the issues. I was a liberal Republican, then I was an independent, and now I’m a proud Democrat. But I have not changed on the issues…

COOPER: ….Senator Webb, in 2006, you called affirmative action “state-sponsored racism.” In 2010, you wrote an op/ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is non-white, aren’t you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?

WEBB: No, actually I believe that I am where the Democratic Party traditionally has been. The Democratic Party, and the reason I’ve decided to run as a Democrat, has been the party that gives people who otherwise have no voice in the corridors of power a voice….

I’ve been hearing the argument a lot: the Republican party is moving ever farther right, so the Democratic party feels compelled to keep moving more to the center in order to appear the moderate, reasonable choice. Clinton’s platform is the model of this, and it looks like Chafee and Webb agree. Sanders appears to be the one candidate who’s an unapologetic, leftist liberal.

COOPER: Senator Webb, thank you very much. Let’s move on to some of the most pressing issues facing our country right now…. We’re going to start with guns. The shooting in Oregon earlier this month, once again it brought the issue of guns into the national conversation. …Senator Sanders, you voted against the Brady bill that mandated background checks and a waiting period. You also supported allowing riders to bring guns in checked bags on Amtrak trains. For a decade, you said that holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for mass shootings is a bad idea. Now, you say you’re reconsidering that. Which is it: shield the gun companies from lawsuits or not?

SANDERS: …Let’s also understand that back in 1988 when I first ran for the United States Congress …I told the gun owners of the state of Vermont…, a state which has virtually no gun control, that I supported a ban on assault weapons. And over the years, I have strongly avoided [supported?] instant background checks, doing away with this terrible gun show loophole. And I think we’ve got to move aggressively at the federal level in dealing with the straw man purchasers. Also I believe, and I’ve fought for, to understand that there are thousands of people in this country today who are suicidal, who are homicidal, but can’t get the healthcare that they need, the mental healthcare, because they don’t have insurance or they’re too poor. I believe that everybody in this country who has a mental crisis has got to get mental health counseling immediately. 

Sanders is making the same argument here as most Republican candidates are now making, that when it comes to dealing with certain categories of gun violence, we should turn our focus to mental health and economic issues and away from gun control. While it’s true that there’s a lot of gun violence associated with mental illness and poverty, I think it’s a distraction. In fact, I don’t believe that Sanders and the Republicans would make this argument if they didn’t feel politically compelled to concoct some ad hoc justification for gun-friendly policies they ascribe to for other reasons. Even for people who believe in expansive rights to gun ownership, the fact that there’s far more gun violence in the United States than in all other first-world countries demands a more comprehensive explanation to be convincing.

So why don’t I buy the argument blaming lack of mental health care? For one thing, many or even most of the people known to have some kind of mental issue before the shootings were receiving treatment, or had access to it they were not availing themselves of, so far as I could tell from the news reports. In other cases, others only discover that people are violently mentally ill after they’ve shot up a theater or killed themselves. I agree wholeheartedly that everyone should have access to mental healthcare and to decent-paying jobs, and that it’s likely that gun violence would be somewhat mitigated if that were the case: some people’s mental illnesses would be discovered and hopefully successfully treated before resorting to violence, and others would be able to live in safer neighborhoods and stay out of the illicit drug trade, for example.

But all the free mental healthcare and jobs in the world will not solve the one problem that we all face when in comes to gun violence: when people have easy access to guns when they’re under the sway of some emotion, be it insanity, greed, anger, fear, excitement, zealotry, vengefulness, territorialism, or just carried away by the fun they’re having at the time, they are easily able to wreak death and destruction with the simple squeeze of a trigger, especially in a culture where guns are regarded as the best and only solution to so many problems. And other times, these deaths arise out of nothing more than sheer carelessness, ignorance, or bad luck while a gun was in hand. The trick is to mitigate the harm we can do each other out of the excesses of our variable human nature by limiting access to guns, and by changing our cultural attitudes to them. The former may very well lead to the latter.

COOPER: Do you want to shield gun companies from lawsuits?

SANDERS: Of course not. This was a large and complicated bill. There were provisions in it that I think made sense. For example, do I think that a gun shop in the state of Vermont that sells legally a gun to somebody, and that somebody goes out and does something crazy, that that gun shop owner should be held responsible? I don’t. On the other hand, where you have manufacturers and where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?

CLINTON: No, not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA. The majority of our country supports background checks, and even the majority of gun owners do. Senator Sanders did vote … for this immunity provision. I voted against it. …It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers….

O’MALLEY: … here tonight in our audience are two people that make this issue very, very real. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips’… daughter, Jessie, was one of those who lost their lives in that awful mass shooting in Aurora. …A man had sold 4,000 rounds of military ammunition to this — this person that killed their daughter, riddled her body with five bullets, and he didn’t even ask where it was going. And not only did their case get thrown out of court, they were slapped with $200,000 in court fees because of the way that the NRA gets its way in our Congress…

While I laud the principle of personal responsibility of individual gun purchasers that seemingly informs the argument against increased liability for gun companies, it also has a serious practical downside: it removes one extra layer of protection for the public when gun manufacturers and sellers are not sufficiently motivated to ensure they operate reliably and have enough safety features, and to choose not to sell guns to people they have reason to believe won’t be a responsible sellers or owners. And, of course, it fails to apply the principle of personal responsibility to the gun manufacturers and sellers. Perhaps if everyone, not just the gun owners, but everyone involved was faced with the prospect of having to take responsibility for their part in contributing to gun violence, it would be substantially reduced.

I’ve offered a suggestion before that may sound oddly anachronistic, based as it is on the actual wording of and history behind the Second Amendment, but hear me out. The text of the Second Amendment reads: ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ When we read this, we tend to mentally cast aside the militia part, since originally the Second Amendment was informed by the infant United States’ aversion to the institution of a standing army, relying on state militias instead, which is no longer the American system of defense. However, if the right to gun ownership was contingent on belonging to a militia, or to modern equivalents such as the military, its reserves, and police forces, than all lawful gun owners would be, if the institution was well-regulated as it should be, publicly accountable and suitably trained. Maybe, then, a literal reading of the actual wording of the Constitution can offer a solution to our dilemma. As written, the phrase ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms’ is a subordinate clause to ‘A well regulated Militia’. So maybe we should likewise subordinate the right to keep and bear arms to whether one does belong to a modern equivalent of a militia.

SANDERS: …We can raise our voices, but I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states…

O’MALLEY: …Senator, it is not about rural — Senator, it was not about rural and urban …We were able to pass this [in Maryland] and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas….

WEBB: …We need to keep the people who should not have guns away from them. But we have to respect the tradition in this country of people who want to defend themselves and their family from violence…

The right to self-protection is emphasized the most, on both sides, in arguments about gun rights, with the possible exception of deterrence, emphasized by many conservatives. I have serious doubts about both of these, mostly based on lack of evidence in its favor. We have higher gun ownership rates than most countries in the world, yet we have higher levels of gun violence. Even controlling for cultural attitudes (such as in Canada, which also has a high level of gun ownership rates but much lower levels of gun violence), we should see a general, consistent correlation over time and place between high levels of gun ownership and low levels of violence. Yet when we compare the United States with other countries, and we compare states with each other, we find that higher levels of gun ownership almost always correlate with higher levels of gun violence. There are a few exceptions, such as Germany and South Dakota, but when these are the exception rather than the rule, the explanation is almost certainly to be found elsewhere.

So, if protection of the life of citizens is the goal, it is not accomplished by instituting policies which usually lead to more deaths. I think, again, the real reasons so many Americans cling to the right to own guns have entirely to do with cultural and historically based norms.

I’ll go ahead and end this first critique of the Democratic debates here. In the next installment, I’ll skip the foreign policy part of this debate since it’s covered more thoroughly in a later one, and pick back up where the discussion turns to civil rights issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.

To be continued….

* Listen to the podcast reading of this piece here or on iTunes

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