Why I’m no longer undecided after the Democratic debate in Iowa

David Blass
Jan 16 · 8 min read
Candidates take the stage for the first Democratic debate of 2020

I consider myself a pragmatist. Come election day, I try to evaluate each candidate, C, based on:

(Probability my vote gets C into office) × (How much good I expect C to do)

This product helps me approximate how much good my vote could do through each candidate, which as a simple, reductionist EA, is the only metric I need to make my decision. And what could be simpler than trying to figure out the probability of my vote putting a candidate over the top or determining the expected relative impact each candidate would have if elected through the rest of humanity’s existence?

Realistically, voting is hard. While I do try to vote using that metric, it’s more of a mental model than something you’d use to spit out a number. In general, I believe rampant inequality of one form or another is at the root of many of this country’s worst problems. For example, income inequality is the highest it’s been since we started tracking it in 1967. That wealth gap feeds representational disparity between average Americans struggling to make their voices heard and corporations with billions of dollars and lobbyists to do that for them, which in turn perpetuates systems and institutions that further marginalize immigrants and minority groups. So the candidates I expect to do the most good if elected are those with the most aggressive plans to combat inequality: Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang.

I love Cory Booker. He’s the only candidate I know of who considers animal welfare a core issue, he’s an inspirational and unifying speaker, and the name of his imaginary Polynesian folk group with Orrin Hatch is amazing. Sadly, he recently dropped out of the race, and even if he hadn’t, he was polling too low for (Probability my vote gets C(ory) into office) not to ruin his chances. You might have already guessed I’m a fan of Andrew Yang and his future-focused, data-driven policies, but unfortunately, our voting system (despite the existence of better alternatives) gives us no way to support a low-polling candidate without essentially negating the chance our vote actually impacts the outcome of the election.

So I’m left with two options: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. For a long time, given how similar their platforms were, I was happy to just wait until March 3 when Massachusetts votes, then pick the one with the best chance of beating Biden and eventually Trump. Of the two, Sanders polls better against Trump than Warren, but that sort of metric is too volatile to place much stake in. Sanders is also significantly ahead of Warren in most Democratic primary polls, which I do think is worth taking into account. As of today, the likelihood he gets the nomination is about twice that of Warren according to fivethirtyeight.com:

Source: https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2020-primary-forecast

On the other hand, frankly it’s bullshit that Hillary isn’t president after receiving almost 3 million more votes than Trump (I know everyone already knows this but I like to bring it up since it clearly confuses and upsets him). I genuinely believe electing the first female POTUS would help repair some of the damage done by the (equally historic) first misogynistic spray-tan POTUS.

However, after Tuesday’s debate, I’m convinced that one of the two progressive frontrunners has a meaningfully higher (How much good I expect C to do) than the other. When CNN asked about healthcare, Sanders predictably described how despite an apparently hefty price tag, Medicare for All would save the average American money by eliminating waste and profiteering and how healthcare as a right is an international par, i.e. the same stuff we’ve been hearing since his 2016 campaign.

Bernie Sanders begins describing his Medicare for All plan at 0:28 and again at 7:48. Elizabeth Warren weighs in at 4:55.

When given the chance to describe her plan, Elizabeth Warren started by talking about Americans suffering and prescription drug costs, a concern all the candidates share and that even Donald Trump wants to address. However, after going on to describe other incremental changes and her commitment to “defend the Affordable Care Act,” she wrapped up her response with a call to rally against Trump without even hinting at a plan to transition to a single-payer system.

This was a little confusing for me; a few months ago, Medicare for All was one of Elizabeth Warren’s signature issues. She’d bring it up consistently on the campaign trail and during debates, explicitly saying she was “with Bernie on Medicare for All” at the debate in Miami.

Elizabeth Warren is “With Bernie on Medicare for All” at the Miami debate in 2019.

Since then, she’s apparently phased it out of her stump speeches and relegated it to an afterthought on her website. As of today, you have to search at the bottom of her “Plans” page under the heading “Looking for something specific?” to find anything about healthcare:

The plans page of Elizabeth Warren’s website on January 16, 2020. Source: https://elizabethwarren.com/plans
The plans page of Elizabeth Warren’s website on January 16, 2020. Source: https://elizabethwarren.com/plans
Source: https://elizabethwarren.com/plans

There’s even a New York Times article published earlier this year called “Elizabeth Warren Isn’t Talking Much About ‘Medicare for All’ Anymore.”

Our politicians should be encouraged to refine their policies as they learn new information, but doing so by trying to brush a signature issue that affects every American under the rug is inexcusable. I firmly believe in healthcare as a human right. Even more, I believe in candidates whose stances on critical issues are clear, consistent, and reflect what they think will be best for the country as opposed to what strategists tell them is politically advantageous.

The policy prestidigitation we’re watching the Warren campaign try to pull off has implications that extend beyond healthcare. It comes down to the trade-offs candidates are willing to make to satisfy their short-term political needs. Consider another exchange from the Iowa debate:

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren justify their opposing positions on the USMCA trade deal.

PFANNENSTIEL: Sen. Sanders, you have said that new deal, the USMCA, quote, “makes some modest improvements,” yet you are going to vote against it. Aren’t modest improvements better than no improvements for the farmers and manufacturers who have been devastated here in Iowa?

SANDERS: […] Every major environmental organization has said no to this new trade agreement because it does not even have the phrase “climate change” in it. I will not vote for a trade agreement that does not […] significantly lower fossil fuel emissions.

PFANNENSTIEL: Sen. Warren, you support the USMCA. Why is Sen. Sanders wrong?

WARREN: I do. […] We have farmers here in Iowa who are hurting. […] We need a policy that actually helps our workers, our farmers. We need them at the table, not just a trade policy written for big, international companies. I’m ready to have that fight, but let’s help the people who need help right now.


SANDERS: It is not so easy to put together new trade legislation. If this is passed, I think it will set us back a number of years.

In addition to the moderator’s blatant bias (which pervaded the debate), this highlights a second clear divide between Sanders and Warren. While almost every other candidate, including Warren, takes the opportunity to express their support for the deal and pander to farmers in Iowa, Bernie defends a stance that might be politically inconvenient but that reflects what he believes to be best for the country in the long term, even if it won’t pay off in Iowa. For me, hearing Warren use “let’s help the people who need help right now” to justify her stance was really disappointing. It may sound innocuous (it’s designed to), but it’s the same justification that politicians and the fossil fuel industry have been using for years to secure votes and profits, respectively, at the expense of our planet. Unless we call them out and accept that we might have to invest some money to help the Iowan farmers find a more sustainable path to success, politicians will continue to mortgage our future until we don’t have one left. If we look back at that clip in 50 years and our cities are underwater or uninhabitable, is there any doubt how we’ll see it?

With a government as corrupt as ours, and a system that ruthlessly crushes even the most ardent idealists, we need a president we can trust to fight for the greater good. Now you might be thinking, “But David, you told us you were pragmatic. How can you vote for a candidate who’s too far left to get anything done?”. Well first of all, I’d like to cite the answer Elizabeth Warren gave when asked about incrementalism at one of her campaign events:

“This is big structural change, but it’s the kind of change that’s right and it’s the kind of change that’s worth getting out there and fighting for. Understand this: there are going to be Republicans, there are going to be rich people who are going to fight us no matter what we do. They’re going to fight us when we ask for a little tiny increment. […] So my view is let’s get in the fight and make it worthwhile. Let’s fight for the kind of structural change that will make this country work for all our families.”

I think she’s right about all of that. I just think if that’s the fight we’re having, Bernie Sanders is the one who should be leading it.

Now look, I know politics can be messy and Elizabeth Warren might feel the things she’s done were a means to an end, and hey, as a die-hard consequentialist I’m all for that. In fact, not only would I happily support her in the general, as any Democrat obviously should when (How much good I expect Trump to do) is on the other side of the equation, I’d still strongly prefer her to Biden or Buttigieg as our nominee because her policies could do much more good. That being said, Bernie Sanders has been on right side of history since 1963 when he was arrested protesting racial injustice, he’ll be on the right side of history with what he’s advocated for in this election, and in my eyes, there’s no stalemate anymore.

If our current president can use the power of his office and the movement that supports him to enact some of the most vile, racist, dehumanizing policies in recent history with sycophantic support from congressmen who once called him a “race-bating, xenophobic, religious bigot,” maybe it’s time we see what we can accomplish with a president we can trust to wield that influence for good. We might be hearing a very different story about the viability of some of Bernie’s plans come November 3rd.

David Blass

Written by

Effective altruist, software engineer, startup founder (https://redo.qa), bow tie enthusiast.

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