Dear Progressives: Bernie Sanders is the Problem, Not the Solution

America is in the midst of an identity crisis.

For the past two presidential elections, the Democratic Party has swept the nation with their politically golden candidate Barack Obama, winning respectable margins in the popular vote and near-landslides in the electoral college. These victories have been so decisive that they have served to cement the idea of the Blue Wall and to elicit musings of a possible Democratic “lock” on the presidency. This sense is perhaps most strongly felt by the opposition — the Republicans — whose incessant cry to “take our country back” is indicative of their sense of defeat. The Pew Research Center found in the fall of 2015 that 79% of Republicans feel their side loses more than it wins in politics.

Going simply by the numbers, they couldn’t be more wrong.

Since the the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009, the country has undergone a transformation largely unnoticed the American populace. Namely, the Republicans have run the table in nearly every single non-presidential election, and the Democrats have witnessed, in slow-motion horror, the extinction of an entire generation of new talent.

The past seven years alone have seen a transfer of 13 US Senate seats, 69 US House seats, 12 governorships, 30 state legislatures, and over 900 state legislative seats from Democratic to Republican control. In historical terms, our country has not seen losses this severe since the Nixon/Ford, Eisenhower, and Wilson administrations.

While this new reality has clearly not caught up with the average voter, political observers have been sounding the alarm. Vox’s Matt Yglesias perhaps put it most succinctly:

The Democratic Party is in much greater peril than its leaders or supporters recognize, and it has no plan to save itself.

The problem is essentially this: While the degree of Democratic loss is high, history does point to a rather reliable pattern — the party that controls the White House tends to suffer losses in congress and in states. Conversely, the most reliable way to gain control in congress and states is to lose the presidency. This puts Democrats in a double bind: If they wait until they lose the presidency to regain broader party control, they abandon a huge portion of Obama’s progressive legacy, built heavily on the shaky foundation of executive action. If they continue to win the White House, they resign the foreseeable future to more inaction and gridlock. In other words, which is better: taking one step back with the hope of eventually taking two steps forward, or standing still and protecting the ground you’ve already earned?

Unsurprisingly, no progressive is completely satisfied with either of these scenarios. That leaves the Democrats with only one way out: Defy political gravity and find a way to rebuild party control from the ground up while maintaining control of the White House. For every citizen who wants to see progress in America, this is unmistakably the central defining challenge of their cause.

So how are the Democrats doing? As Yglesias adroitly explains, not well.

Enter Bernie Sanders:

There’s no way to actually enact [a progressive agenda] without first achieving a considerably higher level of down-ballot electoral success than Democrats currently enjoy.
But instead of a dialogue about how to obtain that success, Democrats are currently engaged in a slightly bizarre bidding war between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to see whether Congress in 2017 will reject a legislative agenda that is somewhat to the left of Obama’s or drastically to its left.

Far from addressing the problem at hand, the Democratic Party has thrust itself headlong into the most counterproductive fight imaginable.

It’s not difficult to see how Bernie Sanders drew an initial following in his campaign for the Democratic nomination. The Democratic Party is home to more than a few progressive activists — from environmentalist marchers to civil rights protesters to anti-war hecklers. These activists — many of whom supported Barack Obama in 2008 — have grown disaffected with politics over the past several years, disappointed in Obama’s moderate consensus-building approach and his policies of drone strikes, domestic surveillance, and free trade. Many now see greater opportunity in taking to the streets than taking to the polls. While the resurgence of Republican power (driven largely by Democratic voter complacency) has given them legitimate cause for consternation, a perception has taken hold that Democrats themselves are corrupt and equally to blame. But they’re currently experiencing a political reawakening. A new kind of politician is on the block. Not only does Bernie Sanders validate their activist outlook, he also speaks their language. He is, essentially, the activist candidate. He’s one of them.

To be sure, Sanders vigorously channels the id of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

“Let us be clear that the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street, where fraud is a business model, helped to destroy this economy and the lives of millions of people.”

One can nearly imagine him sitting cross-legged in a Zuccotti Park tent, transforming his signature gesticulations into up twinkles.

His rhetoric appeals directly to the activist mindset — one that seeks progressive change not only for sake of progressive change, but also for the psychic income that the activism itself provides. It’s not hard to understand why an entirely new wave of Americans would be anxious for the sort of Vietnam War protest stories their parents tell. The feeling of being engaged in an improbable struggle against a powerful establishment is a passion shared by generations long gone by. With his constant talk of “political revolution,” Sanders is generously offering his supporters that coveted experience.

The unfortunate reality is that this worldview fundamentally misunderstands the American political process and, in turn, acts counter to it. To be absolutely clear, the reason that congress enacts policies that are favorable to Wall Street is not because of a sinister conspiracy between politicians and financial tycoons. No, the actual reason is far less exciting: The American public itself has a favorable view of Wall Street and an unfavorable view of government regulation. In other words, democracy is working exactly as it is supposed to. An inconvenient truth for an aspiring political revolutionary.

So if a constituency — progressives, in this case — lacks a democratic majority required to enact their agenda, what can they do? This is not an unusual question to ask in a democracy — in fact, it is the norm. Every individual has their niche issue that is important to them, but rarely do enough people share the same passion for that issue to form a majority. The solution? Coalition building. Bringing together disparate interests and differing viewpoints in order to achieve a winning majority.

The activist approach embraced by Bernie Sanders is often counterproductive to this end. It spurns coalition building in favor of ideological purity. When, for example, Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who shared her conservative state’s views on oil and energy, lost her reelection bid in 2014, environmental activists cheered — a move bizarre enough to leave any political observer gobsmacked. Landrieu’s loss to Bill Cassidy aided in giving Republicans a majority in the Senate. As a result, the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Barbara Boxer (with a 90% rating from the League of Conservation Voters) was replaced by Jim Inhofe (with a 5% rating from LCV and a knack for throwing snowballs on the Senate floor to disprove climate change). Landrieu herself (51% rating from the LCV), who was briefly chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee before her reelection defeat, was replaced by Lisa Murkowski (20% rating). Because Landrieu failed to meet their purity tests, activists cheered a result that drastically harmed their cause.

Likewise for Bernie Sanders, litmus tests are his raison d’être. He would like you to believe that the measure of a good presidential candidate is not their ability to formulate a strategy that yields progressive success but their adherence to his particular brand of liberal orthodoxy. What makes a candidate good is not whether they can raise incomes for all Americans but whether they support a $15 minimum wage instead of a $12 one (presumably a candidate who supports a $20 minimum wage would be even better?). What makes a candidate good is not their ability to eliminate systemic risk in the financial sector but whether they believe imposing a maximum asset limit on banks will accomplish that.

There’s another problem with political litmus tests, beyond being strategically counterproductive — litmus tests are often formulated by ideologues and incubated in echo chambers. In other words, they are very often detached from reality. To no surprise, this is true for Sanders as well. Let’s take a look at just a few:

  1. Too Big To Fail. Progressives agree that systemic risk in the financial sector is a problem that needs to be addressed. Sanders’ litmus test, however, says that breaking up the big banks and reinstating Glass-Steagall is the only way to achieve it. He’s wrong. On both counts.
  2. Trade. Progressives agree that Americans need more jobs and better wages. Sanders’ litmus test, however, says that opposing free trade is the way to get that. Economists unanimously say he’s wrong.
  3. Corporate Taxes. Progressives agree that tax policy should be used to reduce wealth and income inequality. Sanders’ litmus test says that increasing taxes on corporations will accomplish this. To the contrary, economists broadly agree that eliminating corporate taxes entirely would increase wages for workers and yield other benefits.
  4. Minimum Wage. Progressives agree that all American workers should have a living wage. Sanders’ litmus test says a $15 minimum wage is the way to achieve that. Economists are very skeptical of such a sharp increase in the minimum wage and point to strong evidence that the Earned Income Tax Credit can more effectively reduce poverty.
  5. Immigrant Labor. Again, progressives agree that everyone should have higher wages and standards of living. Sanders’ litmus test says that we should oppose immigrant labor because it comes at the expense of American wages and jobs. His view is both cruel and wrong.

These examples are limited to the ones that are factually wrongheaded. There are plenty of others — a single-payer health care system, for example — that are politically absurd. The Senate couldn’t even muster 60 votes for a public option in the Affordable Care Act. Sanders’ home state of Vermont planned for years to create a state-based single-payer system and eventually abandoned the idea because of its infeasibility. Sanders’ single-payer bill in the Senate garnered a grand total of zero cosponsors. And if you think the backlash to the Affordable Care Act was bad, there can hardly be any doubt that more drastic action would be political suicide. But it’s still a litmus test.

Of course, Sanders has a response to the political question of how to get his ideas through congress. He says that his “political revolution” will increase voter turnout across the board and usher in a wave of new Sanders-agenda-friendly legislators. But this claim doesn’t even make sense. If he believes both Democrats and Republicans are corrupted by money and special interests, is he suggesting his supporters will replace nearly all of congress? Where are these Bernie-friendly congressional candidates going to come from? What is his backup plan if this “revolution” doesn’t pan out? This plan seems more like an afterthought than a coherent strategy. Perhaps because it is an afterthought. Ideology is most important.

Sanders has it completely backwards. He’s trying to quibble over how to spend political capital that he has not yet earned and has no realistic plan of earning. This is the fundamental flaw with his candidacy. Bernie Sanders is a bad solution to the wrong problem. It’s not that Democrats are spending their political capital unwisely — it’s that they don’t have any. By peddling his ideological purity tests, Sanders is instead contributing to the problem by harming the effort to build a bigger Democratic coalition, which is the actual way to increase voter turnout, earn political capital, and advance progressive causes.

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