Proposed Platform: Fix All the Broken Sh*t

Or as we like to say around here, people have to like this crap. One theme I’ve tried to hit over the (many) years is that governance matters: the stated function of an institution actually has to function. I’m not talking about something like our unemployment system, which is usually designed to prevent people from obtaining the institution’s stated purpose, but where the institution simply doesn’t do the job it’s supposed to do, such as mass transit systems governed by people who don’t use mass transit. Which brings us to this interesting proposed slogan for Democrats ‘make things work again‘ (boldface mine):

The left has a diagnosis of the larger problem—that the pandemic clarified the brokenness of the existing order—and a program to fundamentally reorder society into a vastly fairer and more just one. The center-left, or the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, has a narrower view of the problems ailing the country and a more circumscribed plan for the future, articulated well by the Covid-19-inspired slogan of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign: “Build Back Better.”

I tend to think the left, broadly defined, has a clearer sense of the problem and better ideas for solving it. But the center managed to persuade enough Democratic voters that moderation was a safer path to defeating President Trump. In the interest of equanimity and coalition-building, I would like to suggest something to Democrats who reject calls for revolution and total reordering of the system: Why not try promising to simply fix shit and govern well?

Many (perhaps most) nonrevolutionary Democrats may think they already do this, with their appeals to competence, invocations of “believing science,” and constant claims that they are realistic and “get things done.” But it’s actually a rarity to hear a politician explicitly promise to govern effectively and make things work as they are supposed to work. Nearly everyone in politics (on both sides) makes electoral arguments based on values (or simple negative partisanship), with surprisingly few promising just to run things well.

Perhaps the argument’s rarity comes from an unwillingness to acknowledge that almost nothing in American life is working as intended. Or perhaps, more charitably, it’s ignorance: Many in the political class don’t know how bad it’s gotten. (New York’s political leadership is notorious for never setting foot on the public transit system that most of New York City relies on daily.) Whatever the reason, politicians rarely appeal to the untapped need for things to function better…

Most Americans, like most people, simply want things to work. They want, when they lose their job, to call the unemployment office, apply for unemployment, and then receive unemployment. They want their mail delivered on time and voting to be easy. They don’t want “choice” in their health care; they want it to be easy to get health care. People might like to take the bus to work, if it ran frequently, along well-designed routes, without getting stuck in slow-moving traffic.

The sort of think tank–bred technocrats who craft Democratic policy may think they’re doing this, too, but applying behavioral economics to the tax code to nudge citizens into preferred outcomes is not at all the same thing as promising to effectively administer services Americans rely on the government for. At its most basic, this means saying the parks will be clean, renewing your drivers’ license will be painless, the library should be open at convenient hours for working people, and the schools should be clean and safe.

Even when pursuing old-fashioned, Good Government–style aims, Democrats tend to frame their positions in terms of values. When they won the House, they sold their voting rights bill as being about transparency and anti-corruption. That is righteous and probably even politically effective. But protecting the right to vote, like protecting the post office, could also be sold as “we will allocate enough money to make the post office work right and will administer elections competently.”

This kind of language has the benefit of not sounding revolutionary at all. The most timid Democrats in the world could adopt it without fear of sounding radical. It can fully fit within the frame of the moderate Democratic tendency toward anti-partisanship and suburbs-focused “kitchen sink” issues.

Fixing the broken shit would go a long way in making people’s lives better. So much of our governance, and that includes privatized governance, just doesn’t work well, and isn’t easy to use. And we might even want to enforce the existing laws, and arrest some white collar criminals too.

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