defense spending

Eventually, Progressive Democrats Will Need to Get ‘Soft’ on Defense

You can’t have your robust welfare state and military-industrial complex, too. Photo: Dina Rudick/Boston Globe via Getty Images

In 2018, the United States spent $623 billion on national defense — more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan spent on their militaries, combined. Last week, every Senate Democrat (with the arguable exception of Bernie Sanders) ostensibly decided that the Pentagon’s current budget wasn’t quite large enough.

On one level, this was perfectly understandable. In Mitch McConnell’s Senate, a heaping helping of Pentagon pork is the price Democrats must pay to keep basic public services funded; by voting for a $17 billion increase in defense spending, Democrats secured new appropriations for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services.

But it’s still noteworthy that not a single one of the Democratic senators vying for ownership of the “progressive lane” in 2020 availed themselves of the opportunity for a protest vote.

For much of the past year, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren have been fighting for poll position in a race to the left edge of the possible, aligning themselves with a laundry list of ambitious expansions of the welfare state in the process. Today, the Democratic Party’s leading lights are nearly unanimous in their (at least, rhetorical) support for Medicare for All, universal child care, free public college, a massive increase in federal housing subsidies, and a giant expansion in public employment (if not a jobs guarantee). Which is to say: There is now a consensus within the left wing of Chuck Schumer’s caucus that America should have something akin to a Western European–style welfare state.

And yet, no one (who is not a registered independent from Vermont) appears prepared to argue that America should so much as move in the direction of Western European levels of military spending.

Even those few left-leaning senators who have put significant thought into foreign policy — and have formulated a progressive critique of the Beltway common-sense on that subject — still don’t dare to propose removing any coins from the Pentagon’s piggy bank. Connecticut senator Chris Murphy has called for shifting America’s geopolitical strategy away from reflexive interventionism and toward an expansion in “soft power,” while also voicing skepticism about the current U.S.-Saudi alliance. But asked last year whether a progressive, 21st-century U.S. foreign policy would involve cuts to overall defense spending, Murphy insisted that it would not.

“I argue that a modern progressive foreign policy celebrates the strength of the U.S. military,” the senator told New York, adding “the American public supports a very strong military, so I think Democrats would be swimming pretty hard upstream if we were arguing for massive transfers of funding from the Department of Defense to other accounts.”

Murphy is likely right about that. But then, Democrats would also be swimming upstream were they to argue for raising taxes on the middle class. Which is to say: If progressives are serious about all the (vitally necessary) new domestic spending they’ve been proposing, they’re eventually going to have to do a crawl stroke through choppy waters.

To be sure, Democrats can comfortably finance a portion of their agenda by soaking the rich and growing the deficit. Contrary to D.C.’s conventional wisdom, there’s little reason to believe that America’s present debt load is a serious problem — and even less cause for thinking that it’s a bigger problem than, say, an accelerating ecological crisis that’s on pace to shave trillions of dollars off of global growth, and, potentially, billions of people off planet Earth. (Making deficit-financed investments in renewable energy and climate preparedness would not be “irresponsible”; declining to make such investments in the name of fiscal probity would be.)

But just because centrists and conservatives grossly underestimate the state’s fiscal capacity, doesn’t erase the fact that the U.S. has real resource constraints. And if progressives wish to build something-akin to an American social democracy — one replete with universal health care, childcare, top-notch social housing, a generous negative income tax, and similar amenities — they’re eventually going to need to look for new revenues in places other than the one percent’s pockets.

Ultimately, building a Western European-style welfare state will require progressives to raise middle-class taxes. But the more Democrats can cut subsidies for the international arms trade, the less of a bite they’ll need to take out of ordinary Americans’ paychecks. As the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein recently noted, if the U.S. pared back its military spending from 3.5 percent of GDP to the European standard of 2 percent, it would have an extra $3 trillion of revenue over the next decade — enough spare change to (to take just one example) establish universal preschool, debt-free college, and forgive every penny of outstanding student in the U.S.

Considering that an internal Pentagon study recently found that our military spends roughly $125 billion on “administrative waste” every five years – and that much of the military funding that isn’t “wasted” goes toward endeavors like “helping a totalitarian Islamist monarchy bomb school-buses full of Yemeni children” — cutting the military-industrial complex’s allowance seems preferable to raising taxes on ordinary Americans, as a matter of progressive principle.

And cutting defense is also more politically palatable than soaking the non-rich. It is true that public opinion polls do not typically show strong support for cutting defense spending; that a lot of voters earn their livings off America’s bloated defense sector; and that Democrats have historically struggled to combat a reputation for being “soft” on defense.

But it’s also true that the last 17 years of unwinnable wars have soured the American public’s appetite for military adventures — while the declining fortunes of America’s working class, and decline in funding for basic public services in many U.S. states) have fostered widespread resentment over the amount of money the American state spends on its imperial ambitions. Earlier this year, Gallup found more than two-thirds of Americans saying that the U.S. spends either enough, or too much, on its military.

Early in the 2016 race, Donald Trump illustrated how the electorate’s infamous outrage over “foreign aid” could be redirected toward the Pentagon. While making his case against the Iraq War at a GOP primary debate, Trump proved that a “butter not guns” argument could be rendered appealing to a Republican audience, so long as it was framed in sufficiently nationalistic terms:

We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that, frankly, if they were there and if we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems — our airports and all the other problems we have — we would have been a lot better off, I can tell you that right now…The Middle East is totally destabilized, a total and complete mess. I wish we had the 4 trillion dollars or 5 trillion dollars. I wish it were spent right here in the United States on schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart!”

Ultimately, it might be politically wise for Democrats to avoid making this case in 2020. Soaking the rich might not actually be sufficient for sustainably funding the progressive agenda — but cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse” (and rousting implicitly nonwhite layabouts from their welfare hammocks) isn’t sufficient for sustainably funding the GOP’s preferred rates of taxation either, and that doesn’t stop Republicans from suggesting otherwise on the campaign trail. So long as the GOP is committed to pretending that implementing its priorities do not require painful pay-fors, Democrats would probably be well-advised to do the same.

But someday, when and if the progressive movement is in a position to implement its full domestic agenda, pay-fors will have to be found. And the “softer” Democrats are willing to get on defense, the less painful that search will be.

Eventually, Progressives Will Need to Get ‘Soft’ on Defense