Last night I watched the one-on-one debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, just as I have watched the other debates which preceded them in the search for a nominee for the Democratic Party in the 2020 elections. I must confess I was disappointed by both of the participants in the debate. I had already been disappointed by the views of the other candidates as well in the prior debates. Their policy ideas were sound, their goals admirable, and their focus on the current problems of the nation were exemplary. That is the source of my disappointment. I had no trouble with their goals; I just had no idea how they would reach them; what practical steps they would take to achieve these goals. They spoke to their audiences, as all politicians speak to theirs, in vague generalities, slogans and broad promises without saying how these goals would be achieved or in which order would they attempt to resolve them or who were their allies and enemies in these resolutions.
I am not a politician, but I have had intimate contact with politicians all my working life. I have been an adviser and consultant to many governments, domestic and foreign. I was a lobbyist in Washington for six years and, at one time, Chairman of the Foreign Policy Commission of the American for Democratic Action in the 1968 run-up up the Presidential primaries. I was a speechwriter for two Democratic presidential candidates and several House and Senate contenders. I sat on three Presidential commissions on international trade and foreign policy. I have had a small familiarity with how politicians work.
Over the years I have found that I have a different perspective on the way politicians run their lives or view the world. I am not a liberal, a progressive, a socialist, a conservative or any of the labels one associates with political movements. I am a trade unionist. I believe in creating a fairer system for working people which will raise the levels of social justice for the society as a whole by the force of their successes. I have been involved in trade unionism and collective bargaining in thirty-five countries through my position as Research Director of the International Affairs Department of the United Auto Workers, and in posts in the International Metalworkers and the International Chemical Workers Unions. I am a licensed arbitrator and a conciliator and mediator in the FMCS. These were positions which required me to focus on the practicalities of politics and commerce.
What particularly annoyed me last night was Bernie Sanders’ use of the pronoun “we”. He made several demands for a change in policy on a number of items using the pronoun “we” without any reference to whom that “we” referred. For example, he demanded that “we” put an immediate end to fracking to assist climate change; that “we” institute a policy of changing the current system of health care to a single-payer national health service; that “we” impose draconian tax policies on banks and businesses who are making outrageous profits which allow them to buy elections, inter alia. While all of these goals are worthwhile and deserve the attention of politicians they skip out some important steps. They may represent revolutionary change, but politicians are not revolutionaries.
America is not a country with massive state-control of industries or banks. These corporations, like the oil, gas and fracking companies are private companies with both shareholders and workers. In fact, many of the workers’ pension pots are invested in these companies. When Sanders and his revolutionary allies demand that the oil, gas and fracking industries be shut down, which “we” is he speaking about? It isn’t the thousands of workers in the oil and gas industries, the builders of pipelines, the truck drivers and the downstream process workers in the chemical and fertiliser industries. The cavalier disregard for their prosperity, job security and their towns and villages is not appropriate or reasonable.
In my experience, a worker wants job security, fair wages, good and healthy working conditions and greater democratic rights in the management of the corporations in which they work. Getting rid of the non-renewable energy industry is not a plan; it frightens many. There are many schemes to introduce and expand the use of renewable energy sources in the national energy market which will allow each to work together to reduce emissions detrimental to the climate without the threat of dis-employing millions of workers. Moreover, complaining and assailing the mammoths of the energy industry for their excesses is delusionary as whenever the renewable energy industry grows to make its contribution it is more than likely this renewable energy will be supplied by the same companies. It is politicians who have enabled companies to expand, globalise, pay less and less tax, restrict union rights and become a burden to the nation. If they are to be curtailed it cannot reasonably be achieved by punishing the working people to pay for the politicians’ error and greed. What the voting public want is a plan to do this, not slogans which are mellifluous but without any real meaning.
This is equally true for the introduction, de novo, of a single-payer health plan. It is something that almost everyone can agree on, in whole or in part, but it cannot reasonably be imposed across the nation without recognising that there are millions of workers who are covered by heath insurance plans hard won from their employers and in which they have a stake. I have been in several negotiations of a new contract in which the costs of health insurance have been factored into the bargain. In costing the contract, the price of the health plan is included. In order to achieve a plan or improve it the union often has to give up or reduce its demands for something else in the collective bargain to get an agreement. It is irrational for politicians to ask working people to give up what they have paid for and relied upon for years to move to a single-payer plan which will reduce their coverage. There is room for allowing these private health plans to co-exist with a national health plan. I live in the UK and have benefitted from having the National Health Service to cover my medical costs and prescriptions, but I still pay for a private health insurance for me and my family which is a supplement to the national health insurance plan. I can get faster service if required and access to specialists operating outside the NHS system and if I need health protection travelling internationally. There is no reason that the two cannot exist under the same system in the U.S.
Listening last night to the debate I was reminded of the Russian story of the revolutionary address of an organiser in 1917. He addressed the crowds to tell them of the advantages of Bolshevism, saying “Comes the revolution comrades we’ll all be eating strawberries with cream!” A voice shouts back “But I don’t like strawberries with cream”. The speaker retorts “Comes the revolution, comrade you will like strawberries with cream”. Both Biden and Sanders spoke as if their “we” was the common “we” when they explained their policies; our strawberries with cream. What we need is some idea of, not just a list of wishes, but a plan in which each wish is described as to its content and the order in which the wishes should be achieved. The arid review of prior political interventions add nothing much to the debate. What the nation is waiting for is not more slogans, sound bites and petty exposures of prior inadequacies. There must be clarity, both as to content and their effects on jobs, opportunities and prospects.
It is more than clear that Trump and his Republican fan club have no intention of improving almost anything . They have shown themselves to be the party of rapacious businessmen draping their greed behind the curtain of Citizens United. However, if the Democrats intend to win in 2020 they must take a different approach to their policies and concentrate on how they will affect the employed and unemployed working people. Workers don’t need lectures on the history of failed or abandoned legislative efforts, nor do they need ‘revolution’. They need a clear and peaceful progress to achievable goals without the chaos and disruption of the Trump years.