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The One (Or Two) True Issue Fallacy

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Larry Lessig may have taken his vanity campaign and headed back to Cambridge, but Hamilton Nolan wishes for its fundamental spirit to live on:

Over the course of the next 11 months, here is what you will hear presidential candidates arguing about at length: ISIS; Islam; Mexican immigration; Obamacare; the Iran nuclear deal; gay rights; crime; Black Lives Matter; flat tax proposals; oil prices; charter schools; medical marijuana; Wall Street; abortion; Russia; Israel; guns; and Guantanamo Bay. You will also hear many in the press discussing what the candidates wear; their hairstyles; their accents; the internal management of their campaign staffs; their likability; their poll numbers; their debate performance; and other superficial and subjective measures of winning and losing that keep the political pundit class employed.

Some of these issues are distractions. Many of them are important. All of them are secondary. There are two real issues of primary importance facing America and the world today—two issues that lie at the foundation of many others. Two issues which must be addressed in a meaningful way if we hope to live in a just and thriving nation in the long term. They are economic inequality, and climate change.

Lumping civil rights and civil liberties and foreign policy and access to health care in with superficial horse race coverage is not a great idea, and allowing that some of these issues you’re about to counsel presidential candidates to ignore are “important” doesn’t really save you. But that aside, as with Lessig like attempt to define the One or True Two Issues of the campaign — a cousin of the “dealbreaker” fallacy — doesn’t make any sense. Economic inequality and climate change are indeed immensely important, and are indeed connected to various other injustices.

But the problem is, the “issue x is connected to issue y” cuts all ways. There’s Lessig’s variant, arguing that electoral and campaign finance reform are the Two True Issues because we can’t do anything about the other issues. But we can all play this game. Let me propose that the One True Issue in the upcoming election is the Supreme Court of the United States. Democratic candidates have been paying little attention to the issue. But if President Cruz/Rubio/Trump serves two terms or perhaps even one, we will have a median vote on the Supreme Court that has to turn to his or her left to see Nino Scalia. If this happens, we can forget about addressing climate change or many aspects of economic inequality for a long time, because not only will statutes that attempt to extend the reach of the federal government likely be ruled unconstitutional, the existing regulatory and welfare state will be substantially hobbled as well. Oh, and by the way, many women will be faced with the pain and insecurity and indignity of being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term and bear a child they may not have the financial and/or personal resources to care for. Mass incarceration and police brutality and other aspects of racial inequality will get worse. Access to the ballot will be restricted. Money will be ever more dominant in the political process. It will be even harder for labor to organize. And I could go on. Conveniently, this happens to be my field of expertise, so you should pay me to write about it for your outlet. And also conveniently, since there wouldn’t be a dime’s worth of difference between the federal judicial appointments of a hypothetical President Clinton or Sanders but there would be billions of dollars worth of difference between those of President Clinton/Sanders and President Cruz/Rubio/Trump, this One True Issue fits my analysis of the Democratic primary (ultimately pretty small stakes, especially compared to the massive stakes of the general) rather than Nolan’s more apocalyptic view of its importance.

I trust you can see that my declaration would be silly. The Supreme Court is an important issue, but it’s important in part because it’s connected to a lot of other important things, and arbitrarily declaring that one matters and the others don’t won’t fly. The next time there’s unified Democratic control of the government we can have a discussion about priorities, but in the meantime we need to be trying to advance the ball forward on a lot of issues that can’t be neatly separated, and we can’t dictate to others what they should consider most important.  And while you might agree with me or Nolan about the stakes of the Democratic primary, I can’t win the debate by declaring a particular hobbyhorse The Only Issue That Matters.

Speaking of which:

There are two real issues. Vote for someone who will do something about them.

Well, the thing is that Republicans will almost certainly control the House for the first term of the next presidency and very likely the second as well. So what Congress will do about economic inequality and climate change is, at best, nothing. What a president can do about them is to address them at the margins through appointments to the executive and judicial branch and through the regulatory state while preventing Congress pillaging the best he or she can. And while I wouldn’t say there’s no difference between what a President Clinton and a President Sanders would do with the available tools, 1)it wouldn’t be very different, and 2)it would be something and not enough. Not inspiring until you remember that if Clinton or Sanders doesn’t become president we will get one who will do what he can to restore McKinleynomics, and unlike his Democratic counterpart he’ll be able to get statues to this effect passed while also letting neoconfederates loose to wreak havoc on the executive and judicial branches. It’s nice to think that declaring Two True Issues will somehow change this calculus, but it can’t.

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