This is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton. While there is much I could say about her candidacy, her qualifications, or how I loathe seeing ostensibly-progressive Democrats joyously and uncritically repeating a quarter-century’s worth of slimy right wing attacks, this post is neither a defense of her record nor an attempt to compare the candidates’ platforms. In fact, I was genuinely interested and excited by the challenge Bernie Sanders presented to her ‘inevitability,’ but now I find myself sinking back into despond at the state of the Democratic Party and its constituencies. There is too much that can go wrong.
This post is about the nature of progressive politics, not the results from New Hampshire. This is about the inevitable disappointments that arise when the political leaders who capture the hopes and dreams of voters invariably end up performing short of their expectations. Remember when President Obama represented the ‘hope and change’ of closing Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay? Remember when his ardent, enthusiastic supporters of 2008 turned against the Affordable Care Act and shouted “kill the bill!” because it didn’t have a public option? Remember when the Tea Party annihilated the Democratic House majority in the 2010 midterm, which also put an overwhelming number of state legislatures in Republican hands so they could gerrymander themselves a permanent power base and take America to the edge of budget disaster over and over again?
That’s what this post is about.
This is about how ‘the left’ (one of the silliest generalizations in our political discourse) always reacts to adversity by further dividing against itself. This is about why Bernie Sanders is only increasing my alarm at the highly-polarized state of our union, raising the hackles on my neck as I look to history for clues about the outcome of tectonic movements underway in America. What follows are ten points where my pessimism deepens most with the audacious hopes of a rising generation.
1. His rhetorical range is narrow — and so is his appeal
Remember when we used to make fun of Rudy Giuliani for speaking in sentences that consisted of a noun, a verb, and 9/11? I feel that way again sometimes when I’m watching Bernie speak. No matter the topic of a given question, he always returns to economic inequality in his answer, and while I don’t disagree with him at all about the essential need to close that yawning gap between richest and poorest, I also understand that you can’t reduce all of politics to a Marxian dialectic. There has been a lot of discussion about this problem, most notably after Sanders was interrupted at Netroots Nation by Black Lives Matter protesters, and his supporters really need to admit that he does have a serious blind spot as a candidate. Simply put, race matters; gender matters; progressives who disdain ‘identity politics’ are telling you how little they understand America. In my experience, such people are overwhelmingly white and usually male, but tend to not understand why most white males prefer conservative answers for their economic distress. Sanders wins millennials by a wide margin, but they are the least-coherent demographic in terms of political identity, and whereas they love the word ‘socialism,’ it is still anathema to most Americans. That’s because ‘capitalism’ is more than an economic system, it is also a cultural identification with decades of built-up resistance to the alternative. Barack Obama is hardly a socialist, but the label has been pasted on him for eight years because it’s a convenient shorthand term for everything, large or small, that confuses and angers conservatives. Sanders is playing right into Republicans’ greatest strength as a voting bloc. Can he overcome that inertia? Can he turn this linguistic feature on its head? Maybe, but I have doubts that America will be ready for him in this cycle.
2. Rhetoric aside, Bernie Sanders is just another politician
I keep encountering a certain tranche of idealistic Sanders supporters who tell me that he’s not a traditional politician, that he’s simply not swayed by the usual political considerations, that he doesn’t need big money to win. Frankly, it’s just empty political branding.
Sanders is a career politician — indeed, he has never had any other profession — and he can pass the buck just as well as any other political animal. Take the way he maneuvered and voted to dump nuclear waste on a Hispanic community, or the clever way he allows surrogates to attack Clinton while he stands above the fray of petty personal destruction, or his ‘complicated‘ voting record on guns or immigration, or his exaggerated claim of credit for helping write the Affordable Care Act, or the way his campaign keeps claiming endorsements they haven’t actually received, or the sneaky tactics they have employed to lobby union workers, or the too-clever use of online apps and user-generated content to create fake news, or the infamous data intrusion that has allowed his campaign to surge with stolen information, or the way anonymous sources in Sanders’s campaign have turned accusations over that data breach against the Democratic National Committee by accusing them of a nefarious plot to frame him. None of this is necessarily disqualifying; in fact, I am somewhat encouraged by his demonstrated ability to campaign with ruthless, shrewd determination. Politics is a blood sport, and anyone who says otherwise has never spent five minutes inside a candidate’s headquarters. But the gloss of his revolutionary image will not last forever against the eroding winds of political reality. Sooner or later, Sanders will need to compete for big donations from deep pockets. In the sense that he receives major donor dollars indirectly through the DSCC and large contributions from unions, Sanders is already competing on this terrain. When he says that he will not accept super PAC money, rest assured that he does not intend to fight with one hand tied behind his back while right wing billionaires post an endless stream of negative ads. At least, I hope we can rest assured. From the point of view of his happiest warriors, however, this will be an unwelcome development to meet with anger, denial, bargaining, and finally, disappointed acceptance.
Oh, you say that he’ll win with millions of small donations? That’s adorable, but the 1% can double his biggest-ever quarterly small-donor cash infusion in a single conference call. No one ever said life would be fair.
3. His potential path to the nomination also remains very narrow
As I write this, Sanders has just won New Hampshire, a state right next door to Vermont. The situation is somewhat analogous to 1992, when Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts beat Bill Clinton in the same primary, but went on to lose to Hillary’s husband in the south, where Clinton’s ‘Bubba’ act played better. Because he may be trending nationally, but Sanders isn’t running a national race. Instead, he’s competing in a series of state-level races — and his two best ‘tracks’ are already behind him now. It only gets worse from here: Sanders faces tough, uphill battles in South Carolina, on Super Tuesday, in Nevada, and in Michigan. Meanwhile, Clinton enjoys an overwhelming lead in committed superdelegates and endorsements from fellow Democrats. And before we dismiss such concerns as evidence that ‘party elites’ are conspiring to lock Sanders out, let’s remember that Clinton is doing so well in these regards in 2016 because she learned such an expensive lesson at the hands of Barack Obama in 2008. He was able to win an inside game that she had forgotten to play; Sanders, on the other hand, actively refuses to play the inside game. In order to win the nomination, he must beat Hillary in states where he currently lags behind her. Without overwhelming evidence of his ‘people power,’ Sanders will not swing the superdelegates away from Clinton, nor will he convince the Democratic Party to unify behind him at a brokered convention.
And therein lies the danger. I have seen the results of a split party, and they are not pretty. An extended primary season can leave feelings hurt and sour important parts of the Democratic coalition against the eventual winner. Clinton might win by a nose only to lose the enthusiasm of millennials; Sanders might overcome her lead only to lose the enthusiasm of African American and Hispanic voters. Either outcome surely makes Karl Rove happy. And don’t assume that demography is destiny, either — Democratic voter turnout is already in decline compared to Republican enthusiasm.
4. Sanders needs the Democratic Party more than it needs him
As much as I see Sanders’s supporters blaming Democrats for everything they dislike about politics, and as often as I’ve seen them rant about a potential third party campaign if he can’t win the Democratic nomination, none of them are switching to Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Which is odd, considering that every electability argument they make for Sanders works even better for Stein. ‘If you would just vote for Sanders,’ they say, ‘he would be electable!’ It’s so simple that it ought to work for her, too, so why doesn’t it?
So why not, then? Is it because Stein is too far to the left? That’s silly, as her platform is almost a carbon-copy of Sanders’s, except perhaps with more emphasis on non-economic issues of equality. Why else would professional gadfly Cornell West be promoting both Stein and Sanders?
Let’s be honest: the reason Stein is considered unelectable, whereas Sanders is not, is that he’s running on a major party ticket. As many times as I’ve roasted dissolute leftist movements such as Occupy over the coals for always muttering about starting a third party without ever doing the hard work of actually building one, Stein is to be praised for having the guts and can-do spirit necessary to run outside the two-party duopoly that so many Sanders supporters openly despise.
Sanders can’t win without the Democrats. He needs them to stand behind him on stage, to have his back in the heat of a general election, to energize and fund his campaign, and ultimately to empower his presidency, yet he must balance this necessity with his ‘outsider’ image. That will prove increasingly difficult to do. Sanders says that he wants to change the Party, but if he does succeed in toppling Clinton and becoming its leader, watch how the party changes him.
5. The right wing Wurlitzer has yet to put Sanders on blast
We live in a post-factual era where conspiracy theories and magical thinking are the most potent political tools, while empirical data and rational debate are quaint antique notions. If there is one lesson I could impose on ‘the left,’ this would be it. I am sick unto nausea from well-meaning progressive souls who insist that ‘we have the facts on our side.’ How many seats in the House of Representatives or the Senate do ‘the facts’ control? How many state legislatures and governors are responsive to ‘the facts’? How many nominations to the federal bench and the Supreme Court do ‘the facts’ get to make? Most importantly, how do ‘the facts’ vote?
It is taboo to admit that the politician who tells the best lies usually wins, but it’s true. Look at Ronald Reagan’s invisible bridge, and all it has brought us as a nation, because Jimmy Carter was too honest about the country’s sense of ‘malaise.’ Or regard the fuzzy math of Sanders’s single payer proposal, which so excites progressives determined to re-litigate the disappointments of Obamacare that they may still elevate him over Clinton’s lowered expectations.
So just because he’s white, and lacks a funny name, doesn’t mean that Sanders can’t become a gay-married madrasa-tutored Kenyan coke fiend in a matter of minutes. As David Roberts said last week, Sanders has “glaring vulnerabilities” that will certainly be exploited should he defeat Clinton. The Fox News/talk radio war machine will immediately pounce on his avowed socialism, his age, his biographical baggage, and whatever else they can dig up (or dream up) to attack him. Conservatives will ridicule his ideas, denounce him as a communist, and raise a hue and cry over his vow to increase taxes in order to pay for all the ‘free ponies’ (single payer, free college tuition, etc.) that he wants to give away. Again, millennials and progressives might be just fine with all of this, but it will be a much harder sell for everyone else. Remember what happened to the last Democratic presidential nominee who actually promised to raise taxes? His name was Walter Mondale, and he lost badly. That doesn’t mean Sanders can’t win, but I am quite sure it will be a much more difficult struggle than his supporters seem to believe.
And don’t think he’s made of Teflon. Years of smears and falsehoods and contrived investigations have affected Clinton regardless of the truth; they can do the same for Sanders.
6. President Sanders will not deliver peace in our time
Sanders only pretends to disagree with the bulk of current American foreign policy, and he’s clearly disinterested in the topic. Aside from marginal disagreement over the outcome of the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, and a generalized-but-incorrect image of Clinton as personally responsible for the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq, there really isn’t a lot of daylight between them. And in at least one contentious foreign policy regard — Israel — Sanders is arguably standing to the right of Clinton. As pacifist writer Chris Hedges has observed,
On a personal level, having spent seven years in the Middle East, I’m just not willing to forgive him for abandoning the Palestinians and giving carte blanche to Israel. He was one of 100 Senators who stood up like AIPAC wind up dolls and approved Israel’s 51-day slaughter last summer of Palestinians in Gaza — the Palestinians who have no army, no navy, artillery, mechanized units, command and control.
In recent years, Sanders has largely gotten a pass on this topic by staying quiet about it, but his past talking points have been almost as consistent as a Marco Rubio stump speech: it’s terrible, it’s tragic, but what can I do (he asks with a shrug)? Ask him about his vote on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), that horribly-abused Congressional resolution which begat the ‘Global War On Terror,’ and you will get a similar reaction. He voted against the invasion of Iraq, but then he voted to fund the occupation. Sanders says that he would not ‘act unilaterally‘, but he supported Bill Clinton’s actions in the Balkans, and when antiwar protesters showed up at his office afterwards, he had them arrested. (It’s all well and good to say that you would be ‘less interventionist’ until you have a Rwandan genocide in progress.) A China hawk, Sanders might send slightly-fewer advisers to fight the Islamic State than Clinton, but his statements on the subject are woefully naive, sometimes totally wrong, and deliberately unresponsive.
Rather than answer his critics by shoring up his policy platform or bringing on advisers, Sanders merely complains about “being lectured.” His heart is in the right place, so why can’t we just trust him? Here’s a good barometer for you: if mendacious libertarian Conor Freidersdorf thinks that Sanders would be “less hawkish,” be afraid, very afraid that the truth is otherwise.
7. President Sanders will not deconstruct the military-industrial complex
Sanders gets enthusiastic applause when he talks about defense spending, but here again he’s rarely specific about exactly what he would cut. And that’s also deliberate, because Sanders operates on two opposite tracks when it comes to military spending.
On the one hand, he has opposed every National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) since 2011, citing exorbitant costs for weapons programs. These were safe votes, since the Senate was hardly going to interrupt soldiers’ paychecks. But Sanders also supports the most dangerously-wasteful weapons procurement program in American history — because it will create jobs in Vermont. Acknowledging the F-35 is “incredibly wasteful,” he nevertheless maintains it is becoming the “plane of record…and it is not going to be discarded.” That’s very bad news for both the military and taxpayers alike, because the F-35 is slower than its potential adversaries, carries less ammunition, has unreliable engines, remains plagued by software glitches, can’t fire its onboard gun until at least 2019, and will almost certainly not be ready to fly in combat by its project deadline. The plane has so many problems that allied air forces which had been sold on the design are quietly extending the life of their older jets — many of which can easily outfly it despite being decades older.
Contrary to his happy rhetoric, Sanders is no better than any other Democrat when it comes to supporting Department of Defense boondoggles so long as they benefit his district. And remember, if he becomes president, he won’t actually get to decide what programs get cut. He can veto the NDAA, but Congress can just override his veto, and like as not they’ll have all the people in uniform lined up behind them when they do.
8. Bernie Sanders isn’t wearing coattails
It ought to go without saying that Sanders needs a different Congress than this one if he is to have any hope of passing any portion of his ‘revolution’ into law. But I keep finding myself forced to explain this feature of the American political system to amazed Sanders supporters, particularly millennials, many of whom react by blithely dismissing such concerns because they assume Sanders will single-handedly sweep the Republican Party from power with a wave election that lifts Democrats in downballot races, or else succeed in negotiations with the ‘Freedom Caucus’ where President Obama has failed. Of course, this is magical thinking; the GOP House majority isn’t going anywhere, and Democrats are actually suffering at every level except the presidency. In order to flip this House, Democrats need to win every competitive race — and then win some more races in bright-red districts.
Democrats would need to hold all six of their seats and pick up all 27 from Republicans — 12 of which the Cook team says “lean Republican.” And even then it wouldn’t be enough.
It’s the latest evidence that a combination of Americans’ polarization, the concentration of Democratic voters in fewer districts, and the GOP’s overwhelming control over redistricting after the 2010 Census have made it a very tall task for Democrats to take back the House at any point this decade.
There’s a sharp contrast on this point which must be acknowledged. Whereas Clinton has raised $18 million to help Democrats in the states, so far Sanders has not raised one thin dime for any candidate besides himself. Instead of organizing a real slate of Democrats who can transform his platform into legislation, Sanders partisans make excuses and pretend that this is not a problem. At TNR, David Dayen recently posted a fine example of the genre when he insisted that four — four! — congressional candidates who endorse Sanders constitute an “army” for change. And first among them is Zephyr Teachout, who got creamed when she challenged Andrew Cuomo for the New York Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2014 because she won all the rich, white neighborhoods but none of the minority districts.
Even if Sanders triumphs by a wide margin in November, there is no guarantee that his victory will translate to a Democratic Congress. He simply isn’t wearing the kind of coattails he needs to make that happen. Those Democrats who do win in November will not owe him anything, either, because he’s done nothing to help them.
9. ‘Changing the conversation’ does not actually change the laws
I don’t want to paint Sanders’s supporters with an overly-broad brush. Not all of them are young people. I run into plenty who understand the process and the numbers and the challenges of governance, yet still support their candidate anyway, and that’s fine. But I’m not the first person to note a profound ignorance about the elections process among his youngest and most ardent admirers. I don’t blame them for their ignorance, either, because this is exactly what conservatives meant to happen when they throttled American public education to produce pliable workers instead of citizens. My generation (I’m in my 40s) received an average of three years’ public school instruction on civics and government, whereas most people half my age have been educated on these topics for just one semester by the time they graduate. We don’t even have Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday mornings anymore. Gerrymandering, House and Senate rules, the Electoral College, and the Iowa caucuses are difficult enough to understand even when you do know a lot about American politics; they are impossible for a person deprived of political and civic knowledge to comprehend in a meaningful way.
And I get why millennials are angry. Burdened with student debt like no prior generation, oppressed by legacy culture warriors imposing bigoted moral codes, alarmed by the endless wars they are asked to fight, the age cohort that drives the Sanders campaign has every right to resent the yoke that has been placed on their shoulders.
Nevertheless, the Sanders campaign has developed a reputation for angry, aggressive partisans who repel potential allies with their rude behavior and purity tests. While it’s tempting to dismiss these incidents as the result of well-meaning youthful exuberance, we have seen such behavior before in progressive politics. Remember how Occupy ‘changed the conversation’ by giving us a handy phrase for discussing income inequality, but then passed away into irrelevance without making any substantive changes to the system which creates inequality?
There will be no revolution until the radicals who demand it recognize the absolute necessity of winning and holding hard political power. One of the reasons why some people embrace fringe candidates is to relieve themselves of this responsibility for actual governing; in some ways, it’s easier to be in the outgroup, preening in your moral superiority, than to make hard choices that affect real people. This kind of radicalism chafes against the politics of the possible. It is never satisfied with compromise. You can see a mirror image of it in the new breed of Tea Party Republicans, but there have never been ‘Occupy Democrats’ because the movement chose to eschew politics altogether.
Unless you have the seats in Congress, you don’t get to write the laws. Until you actually run the Iowa caucus, you don’t get to do away with the coin tosses. You may opine all day long on how you think things ought to work, but the American constitutional system is always stacked against sweeping change, and our politics are purposefully designed to allow only incremental progress. In order to enact a more revolutionary change, or any change at all, you must set aside your hipster image and become the system. But first, you have to at least understand how that system works, and ours is a zero sum game where a victory for Team A is always a loss for Team B. The right totally gets this; the left…not so much.
10. If this ‘revolution’ fails, we are totally screwed
This will be the last election cycle before the millennial cohort takes charge, and I see no convincing evidence that the rising generation is ready to take power away from the wretched old men (they are mostly men) who have made the world that they live in. Instead, I see the ‘Green Lantern’ theory of unitary change personified in Bernie Sanders, whose election (they seem to believe) will be enough change all by itself. But revolutions are carried out by mass movements, not singular personalities.
It is a simple, undeniable fact that presidents always disappoint us. At the close of Reagan’s term, I vividly remember letters to my local newspaper from John Birchers and religious fanatics expressing disappointment that he had failed to reassert control over the Panama Canal, shut down all the abortion clinics, build an impenetrable missile shield, and outlaw communism from the planet. His successor disappointed quickly by breaking his pledge not to raise taxes. That man’s son, George W. Bush, tried to pass modest immigration reforms that gave reactionary elements apoplexy. And these were Republicans, a party that marches in lockstep; Democrats rarely ever stick to the same talking points, much less the same platform.
The problem is therefore much worse for Democratic presidents. Hillary Clinton is still suffering from disappointment with her husband’s ‘Third Way’ administration and its compromises on welfare reform, ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ and so forth. As I already said, much of the Sanders phenomenon seems to be a re-litigation of the disappointments of the Obama administration: the wars have not ended, the ACA is imperfect and incomplete, Camp X-Ray is still open, etc. In his turn, disappointment with Bernie Sanders is also as inevitable as the sunrise. The only questions are at what point it will happen, how much it will hurt him, and whether the damage to the Democratic Party — and America, and the world — will be catastrophic.
If the disappointment happens before November, it could lead to defeat, and an ascendant Republican Party would tighten its grip on every level of government to assure themselves permanent majorities, enacting an agenda precisely opposite to everything that Sanders supporters stand for, further diminishing democracy by disenfranchising voters and spreading bad ideas like Michigan’s emergency manager law around the country.
If the disappointment happens in November, it could leave President Sanders ineffective, with Republicans putting the kibosh on his platform and extending the current gridlock into the next decade.
And the disappointment will only continue after November. Democrats’ midterm election blues could get even worse in 2018 as disillusioned Sanders partisans sour on politics, choosing the more radical, but irrelevant, course when their man fails to impose his revolution on a system he has failed to change.
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of a brilliant new moment in American history that will shove aside the entrenched systems of power and privilege, return to the art of compromise, bring Canadian-style single payer health care to the streets, and restore some measure of faith in the power of the people to overcome the resistance of big money in politics. Maybe President Sanders will retire in January 2025 more popular than he’s ever been.
But I have my doubts, and they are not being soothed. I simply see too many ways that this revolution can go wrong — as so many would-be revolutions have before it.