Deathmatch 2020

Alright, look, I really don’t want to do this, but this is the situation we’re in. The sky has cracked open and the fires of judgment rain down upon us. False prophets rise to glory, brain-eating parasites infest our homes and cities, beasts of the deep rouse from ageless slumber. Tiny sparks of hope gather and flash in the darkness, prevailing upon us exactly one course of action. For the sake of everything that lives, Bernie Sanders must be elected president in 2020.

For as much ink as has been spilled on this topic, the case for Sanders is radically simpler than anyone’s really making it out to be. There is exactly one thing that has to happen right now as a precondition for anything else – most importantly, for addressing global warming with any level of seriousness – which is that we need to form a political party capable of acquiring and wielding state power that is responsive to the needs of ordinary people, which necessarily means being actively opposed to the interests of rich fucks. Sanders is the only person who is even trying to do this, which is why it doesn’t matter how “good” he is or whatever. He’s literally the only horse available to bet on.

The One Rule of American politics is that you aren’t allowed to do anything that inconveniences rich fucks. In addition to this just obviously being the case, studies have demonstrated that, regardless of what politicians say they care about, the actions that in practice end up being taken by the government are those that accord with the desires of rich fucks and not the desires of anyone else. If, for example, you want to spend more money on education, you can do that, as long as you spend it on privately-owned charter schools where corporate consultants have their fingers in the till. You are not allowed to take the same amount of money and just give it to existing public schools, because that doesn’t give anyone the opportunity to extract profits.

It is sometimes possible to pass good policy in this situation. Passing Obamacare, for example, was probably better than doing nothing, in that it allowed more people to get health coverage. However, the policy was designed to maintain the economic power of insurance companies, which is why part of the result of implementing it was that premiums and deductibles went way up. Insurance companies had to cover more and sicker people, so they raised costs in order to maintain their profits.

Thus, on net, the effect of this type of policy is always going to be mixed: while the final sum might come out to be positive, it’s going to improve things for some people and worsen things for others. But we’re not in a situation where these sorts of tradeoffs are actually necessary. They aren’t happening because of scarcity or a lack of intelligent policy ideas; they’re happening because rich fucks have captured the political process and are using it to hoard resources. This is what it really means to say that 1% of people hold half the wealth: it means that we can make things much better for everyone else by only mildly inconveniencing the people at the top.

Now, it is coherent, in theory, to maintain that the best we can do with this situation is to acquiesce to it and continue to extract whatever tiny advantages we can, although I wouldn’t say that recent history provides any particular amount of supporting evidence for the proposition. However, there’s one case in which this is not even a plausible argument and we are absolutely required to come up with a substantive alternative, and it also happens to be the one that will kill everyone if we get it wrong: global warming. As you know, the amount of oil reserves currently owned by all of the oil-extracting companies and countries is several times more than the amount we can afford to burn if we wish to avoid total catastrophe. Because of this, even if we were to completely cease accruing new sources of carbon-emitting fuels tomorrow (which we won’t – emissions have been going up recently), no amount of green development would suffice to address the problem. The only way to preserve the existence of civilization is to keep it in the ground, which, because this stuff is already on the balance sheets, unavoidably means destroying a huge portion of the wealth of all the richest people in the world.

This dynamic is why the Democratic Party has taken no significant action on global warming, despite constantly crowing about how they accept “the science” and the need for “structural change” and slobbering all over Greta Thunberg. It’s because it is structurally impossible for them to do what is necessary. A party structurally dependent on its rich donors is never going to be able to advance policy which directly attacks those people’s wealth. The only tools available are hammers, but the problem has nothing to do with nails. We had plenty of advance warning about global warming, but we squandered decades of opportunity by allowing rich fucks to set the agenda, and now we’re out of time. We have about ten years left to get serious, which basically means one more president. If the next president is another do-nothing liberal who talks big and allows the oil to keep flowing, we’re all dead.

Also, the scale of the problem means that it can only be addressed by seizing and utilizing state power. That’s why we have to have a political party that does not maintain its existence by giving handies to rich fucks and is committed to doing what is necessary. We could, in theory, start a new party for this or use the Greens or whatever, but the entrenchment of the two major parties presents huge obstacles against doing so. There’s no inherent property of the Democratic Party that causes it to operate in the way that it does; the parties have modified their alignments in response to changing conditions before and they can be made to do so again. We’re also out of fucking time, and taking over existing infrastructure is a hell of a lot faster than building it up from scratch. Thus, the best available solution is to hollow out the existing leadership of the Democratic Party and replace it with people who don’t care about rich fucks and are only accountable to its base of voters.

The obstacle to doing this is not some kind of shadowy conspiracy or whatever. It’s the structure within which politicians operate. Rich donors provide basically all of the resources politicians require in order to run viable campaigns. (Again, rich fucks have so much unnecessary wealth that they can just straight up piss millions of dollars away on fucking political ads for the sake of slightly lowering tax rates that they were probably just going to evade anyway.) If you want to run for office as a Democrat, the DCCC will literally go through the contracts on your phone to see if you know enough rich fucks to be considered a real candidate, after which you will be expected to spend most of your time calling them up and schmoozing them for money. This dynamic has two equally important effects. First, because your existence as a politician is materially dependent on the largesse of your donors, you will be systemically disinclined to do anything they won’t like. If you were to try anyway, you would most likely be cut off and replaced with someone more pliable. Second, because you’re spending all of your time talking to rich fucks and hearing about their problems and their perspectives on things, you’re naturally going to come to understand issues in the way that they do and conceive of the same sorts of solutions that they would. Not only would you not be able to support nationalizing the energy companies, the idea would never occur to you in the first place.

This, then, is the true significance of Sanders’ small-donor fundraising operation. It is not that taking money from poorer people is more virtuous – in fact, it’s less, since you’re taking money from people who actually need it. Rather, it matters because it means that the Sanders campaign, and any campaign that follows the same model, does not talk to rich fucks, is not materially dependent on them, and does not take their interests into account when formulating policy. It is dependent on the approval of large numbers of ordinary people, which means it is only viable to the extent that it advances policies that people actually want.

Of course, the correct solution to this problem is for all elections to be publicly funded, so that this isn’t an issue in the first place. But that can’t happen right now precisely because rich fucks have already captured the process and they obviously won’t permit that sort of change. Thus, the only way to change things is from outside of the existing system: mass public pressure must be brought to bear on all politicians, such that those who remain on the side of rich fucks are either run out of town on a rail or have the fear of god put into them so that they vote correctly anyway. Doing this is explicitly the entire purpose of the Sanders campaign. It’s not just something he’s coincidentally adjacent towards; it’s specifically what he’s referring to when he talks about starting a “political revolution” and being the “organizer-in-chief.”

This is also the meaningful distinction between Sanders and Warren. Again, this is a lot simpler than people are making it out to be. Warren, as a smart person who was not always a politician, does have a decent understanding of what needs to be done to fix things. But she explicitly intends to work within the existing system to convince the current party elites to adopt better policies. She has in fact had some success with this, such as when she convinced the Obama administration, against its usual inclinations, to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But we’ve already seen how this strategy can easily be undone by adverse events and fails to penetrate to the underlying causes of the political dysfunction that makes it necessary. Warren could potentially be extremely effective as like Secretary of the Treasury or something, but her “plan for that” approach to politics simply will not work under current conditions.

Sanders, by contrast, is trying to change how things work such that it becomes possible for good plans to happen. You can see this distinction when, for example, Warren talks about abolishing the filibuster, while Sanders talks about enfranchising prisoners. Warren wants to change the rules so that the existing political establishment can more easily achieve its desired goals, while Sanders wants to fundamentally redistribute political power so as to change what those goals are. The reason Sanders is sometimes criticized for not having enough of a “plan” is because he realizes exact details of that sort are presently beside the point. As long as the Democratic Party itself is not willing to pass the sorts of policies that are necessary to address the problems we’re facing, the rules by which they would counterfactually do so are irrelevant. Sanders’ political revolution is a prerequisite to any of Warren’s plans actually being implemented.

The standard counterargument here is that this line of reasoning is self-defeating: if this is true, then it doesn’t matter who gets elected president, because there has to be a mass movement anyway. This argument is basically correct and also completely stupid. The fact that electing Sanders would constitute only one step in the process and not by itself achieve anything is the entire point. If there were already a mass movement there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. The fact that there isn’t is why we need some sort of dramatic intervention – something along the lines of electing someone with an absolute commitment to doing this exact thing to the most powerful and visible political office in the country. And because we have to start addressing global warming yesterday in order to retain some non-trivial percentage of a habitable environment, we need someone who is here right now, and Socialist Jesus isn’t here right now. Sanders is.

I’d like to be clear about how little I want to be making this argument. I don’t “like” Sanders. I don’t even understand what that’s supposed to mean. He’s a politician. Liking or disliking a politician is a category error. They either support policies that will improve people’s material conditions or they don’t. I really thought people understood this back when “George W. Bush seems like the kind of guy I could have a beer with” was a running joke, but it’s only gotten worse since then. It does not fucking matter whether Sanders reminds you of a guy you knew once or someone calls you a name. I can assure you that my hatred for bros, people who spend any amount of time on Twitter, and people who treat politics like sports fandom is uncompromised, but dorks on the internet are just not relevant data, even without taking into account the gravity of the actual situation we’re facing. As long as Sanders is not proposing to appoint Joe Rogan as Secretary of Political Incorrectness, this is just not stuff that matters, at all.

I don’t even think badgering people about how they’re going to vote is all that effective. People aren’t actually responsive to arguments and data; they form their opinions based on underlying ideological assumptions (which is in fact the correct way to do things, as otherwise it is much too difficult to avoid being bamboozled by selective data presentation. You actually would be susceptible to fake news, in that case). In order to change people’s behavior you have to either change their material conditions or change how they understand the world. But again, we absolutely do not have time for that shit. It would be great if we could hang around for 20 years building the ideal political movement with perfectly calibrated messaging that appeals to everyone equally, but if we’re actually trying to make something happen the arc of history is going to have to be a fuck of a lot shorter than that. We either take this chance now or we’re fucked.

So that’s it. I really am constitutionally opposed to telling people what to do, but in this case it actually is required of you as an individual that you go to the place and vote for the thing. Unless, of course, you’re some sort of purity-obsessed idealist who won’t vote for an imperfect solution to a real pressing problem, but I can’t imagine that’s the case.

So many cowards, so little time


The fact that Joe Biden is running for president at all, let alone leading the pack, is properly horrifying. It’s honestly kind of worse than Trump winning in the first place. Like, freakish things happen, but it’s always possible to respond to even the most grotesque of adverse events with intelligence and dignity. This has not been happening.

I’ll skip the rehashing of his record, especially since it’s completely irrelevant. Literally the only argument for Biden advanced by anyone at all, including his own wife, is that he’s “electable.” It’s firstly important to note how pathetic this obsession is given the actual situation. While Trump is certainly capable of winning again – both because he really does appeal to a lot of people and because simply being the Republican nominee automatically gets him almost all of the votes he needs – he’s a notably weak candidate. He has no accomplishments, no ideas, he doesn’t understand anything and he’s completely incompetent. Everything that’s happened under his administration has directly undermined the heterodox promises he made that gained him most of his non-base support: he’s transferred more money from the poor to the rich, he’s harmed working people with incompetent trade policies, he’s further stagnified the swamp, he’s preserved the endless war machine in its entirety and only made it more chaotic and dangerous, and now he’s even going after Social Security. If this is the person who has you running so scared that you’re willing to sacrifice everything you believe in just to not have to think about him anymore, you really need to step your game up. Literally anyone is perfectly capable of beating him through mere competence, so we might as well make it someone good. Furthermore, since creating media spectacles is literally the only thing Trump does, counter-programming him with a more boring spectacle is extremely poor strategy. If there was ever a time to cast vanity to the wind and stand up for real values, this is it.

More than that, though, the idea that the “most important thing” right now is to “defeat Trump” is the sort of thing that sounds like a rational strategic calculation, but is actually quite the opposite. Trump’s grotesqueness is itself proof that nothing about him is sui generis – someone like him could only have gained power through extremely strong support from underlying conditions. As long as all that stuff stays the same, the next president is all but guaranteed to be succeeded by another Trump. We’re actually pretty lucky that the person doing this stuff right now is a total loser, because if someone serious ever figures it out, we are absolutely going full fascist.

Given all of this, supporting Biden at such a crucial juncture indicates exactly one thing: cowardice. It is choosing the safest, numbest option – the thing you’ve heard of before, the comforting shibboleth, the promise that nothing will fundamentally change – over anything that might have unexpected results or create new possibilities, no matter how vitally necessary those things are. It isn’t wisdom to counsel caution in times of crisis, and it sure as hell isn’t pragmatism to pit against Trump someone who replicates all of Hillary Clinton’s disadvantages. It’s just fear, and it’s fear of the dumbest possible thing at the most important time.

But much more than Trump himself, what so many people are actually afraid of is real politics: genuine clashes of value where ordinary people matter. Despite his best efforts, Trump represents a real value system and occasionally even brings up relevant, substantive arguments against his opponents. Having, to the extent that his feeble abilities and decaying mind have allowed him to, shredded the veil of Reasonable Discourse and presented his policies in their rawest form, he has forced everyone not completely choked out on West Wing fantasies to take genuine stands for or against those policies’ true implications. Thanks to Trump, you can no longer blithely ignore immigration policy and rest easily on the assumption that everything is being managed competently like you could under Obama; you now have to decide whether you support immigrants or not. The people in power want to keep you as far away as possible from those sorts of dangerous thoughts.

Because of course the political establishment’s support for Biden is genuine. They most definitely do not support him because they think he’s going to be the most practical advocate for progressive values; they support him because they’re actively in favor of all the horrible stuff he’s done throughout his career. This is why it’s all the more important for the rest of us to refuse to play their game. As long as we allow ourselves to be terrorized by their condescending lectures and know-it-all bullying, Biden’s incoherent anecdotes and shit-eating grin will represent the limits of our political horizon.

This would all be the case even if cowardice worked, but it also doesn’t. Like, being maximally charitable, the theory of electability is that you have Goal A, and you have Candidate X who supports Goal A and Candidate Y who doesn’t, but you’re supposed to vote for Candidate Y in order to stop the evil Candidate Z who is actively opposed to Goal A. Therefore Candidate Y supposedly represents “incremental progress” towards the point where Goal A might potentially be able to be started on. But this logic is going to keep applying in every election, against every successive Candidate Z, which means you’re never going to elect the person who would actually try to do Goal A. Furthermore, you are, in actual circumstance, not always going to win, which means there are going to be times when someone gets elected and makes substantive progress opposing your goals, and you’re going to respond to this by becoming even more committed to electing the “safe” candidate who, at best, does nothing and allows all the horrible stuff you’re supposedly opposed to to keep happening. Sound familiar at all?

Furthermore, if the more electable candidate is not also the one with the best ideas, all that means is that you aren’t doing your job. The only reason the best candidate would not also be the most electable is that people misunderstand them, and if that’s the case, don’t you want to have the best possible argument available to convince them? Don’t you need to convince people to vote for your candidate anyway, and shouldn’t you therefore insist on being able to make a positive argument that you actually believe in? Aren’t you tired of having to qualify everything you say with, “sure, the people I support are all terrible, but…”? Do you have values or don’t you?

If there were ever a decent religion, cowardice would be its cardinal sin. Cowardice is the thing the prevents anything else from happening; it is the first trial that must be overcome in order to accomplish anything at all. As long as you’re playing it safe, you are, no matter how fervently you believe or how passionately you feel, betraying your beliefs and selling out everyone’s future. This is why cowards die a thousand deaths: each of their seeming victories is, in actuality, a substantive defeat.