On Marijuana, The American People Agree with the “Radical” Left, not the So-Called Centrists

The most frustrating thing about being a liberal activist isn’t fighting against conservatives and Republicans: a genuine tug-of-war between dramatically competing philosophies can lead to mutual respect and a genuine confrontation or even Hegelian synthesis of ideas.

No, the most frustrating thing is the battle with supposed centrists within the fold. When centrists oppose a given policy, it’s not usually from an authentic opposition to the policy being espoused, but rather from convenience. For instance, it’s difficult to believe that Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton actually opposed marriage equality a decade ago and then “evolved” on the issue. It’s far, far more likely that they already supported it privately, but lacked the political courage to embrace it unless the polling had shifted. Similarly, it’s very hard to swallow the notion that Clinton or Obama genuinely believe that the United States needs a distinctly American system of healthcare separate from Canadian-style single-payer; rather, it’s fairly obvious that they would enact it in a heartbeat if they could do so by fiat, but their failure to advocate for it is a matter of political convenience.

Beyond that, of course, is simple corruption. When Congressmembers have to spend four hours a day or more raising money for their re-election campaigns, it’s much easier to give moneyed special interests perks, tax breaks and concessions when the public isn’t paying too much attention than to face the threat of money being spent against them–even when at heart those legislators don’t believe in the favors they’re providing.

But in nearly every case, centrists pretend both publicly and privately that their stated positions are held from genuine conviction. Activists who promote commonsense policies by pushing the Overton Window from the left are stiff-armed as unserious radicals not just because they’re supposedly out of touch with public opinion, but because their policy positions are considered dangerous and damaging.

Nowhere has this dynamic been more infuriating than in the fight over the drug war. It has been obvious for at least a decade or two that the drug war as we are currently waging it is a counterproductive, costly, prejudiced and impractical use of resources that needlessly hurts millions of people while warping our law enforcement and prison systems.

But no matter how clear this becomes, “moderate” and “centrist” politicians on the left have continued to promote their “tough on crime” bona fides even on drugs as clearly innocuous as marijuana. Only very recently have mainstream Democrats begun to formally adopt a stance of decriminalization of marijuana, though most won’t go so far as to push for full legalization, or to move beyond marijuana to other types of drugs. Instead, rolling that policy ball uphill has been the thankless job of the “unserious” activists on the periphery.

Eventually, as with so much else, the commonsense position does gain mainstream public acceptance over time–largely because reality is hard to ignore for long. Today public support for marijuana legalization in the United States is at over 60%–meaning that once again the public is actually to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party on the issue. Not because those Democrats genuinely believe that marijuana is a public safety threat, but because they’re afraid of “soft on crime” counterattacks, so they continue to mouth platitudes about gateway drugs and the like.

This is part of what is so frustrating as well for Sanders supporters in the current primary. Both Clinton and Sanders know very well that means testing free college tuition will lead to the same sort of salami slicing and doughnut holes that welfare and Obamacare are subject to; means testing the college grants isn’t a matter of policy conviction, but political convenience. The same goes for enacting single-payer healthcare versus shoring up Obamacare, or re-enacting Glass Steagall provisions. Eventually it will also become abundantly clear that we need a universal basic income and most of the provisions of FDR’s proposed Second Bill of Rights.

The centrists will know at every step that these are the right things to do, but will argue passionately against them not from real conviction but as a matter of career convenience.

Which would be somewhat acceptable if that level of caution were actually required to win elections. But it isn’t. There is no reason that a Democrat can’t win re-election in almost every blue state or district running on a platform of marijuana legalization, universal healthcare, free college tuition, etc. They simply choose not to as a matter of career and convenience. There is no honor or respect in that stance. Political heroism lies in advocating for the right policies even when they’re unpopular, not in shifting with the polling winds to advance a career interest once the people who did the thankless real work have already paved the way to a better future.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.