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Bernie Skepticism



If you had told me a year ago that I was going to be cited in Vox as a Bernie skeptic, I would have said there’s no way such a weird event could happen. But something unexpected things happen. Look, I support basically every single Sanders platform position, except for his bad positions, like on guns and Israel. And I will probably vote for him if it is still a race when the Rhode Island primary comes around, which it won’t because RI is a late voting state. But maybe I just can’t put aside thinking about politics structurally for rhetoric anymore. Because I just see a lot of problems. I still completely believe that Sanders’ core supporters (and I am probably overstating the power of internet leftists as some suggested in the original comment on this) will turn on him with a fury as the next sellout once he takes power and has to compromise. But on top of this, I don’t believe that Sanders can create a political revolution. In fact, I think there is essentially no chance of it. It seems that Sanders supporters think there is going to be a wave of left-populist candidates swept into office with him. But where are those candidates in current House races? Where are the open Bernie acolytes either challenging moderate Democrats in primaries or running in conservative House districts that are heavily gerrymandered? Because while there are probably a few, I sure don’t see some broader platform of leftist candidates here, nor has anyone told me how they are going to win a 60-40 Romney seat.

I also flat out don’t believe that there is a “silent majority” (and good god, can this term die in a fire when it comes to describing contemporary politics–I’ve heard Sanders, Trump, and David freaking Brooks talk about it to describe their own positions in the last week alone) ready to embrace Sanders’ economic populism–unless it is a racialized populism. And those voters are Trump voters. This goes back to my earlier post on the AFL-CIO and the South. Race matters more than anything else in American life. Now, perhaps there is an argument to be made that an economically populist message could inspire huge voter turnout in black and Latino communities. I don’t know. I’d like to see some evidence for it. And perhaps such an agenda would inspire white union members to not vote for Trump, as they might over Hillary. This is all possible. Sanders is doing well among white working-class Democrats after all. But in the end, I am just skeptical that this is a movement that is going to sweep corporations out of power like Sanders says. There are too many structural limitations in the way. It would take a long time. It would require Sanders to win in 2016 and then again in 2020. It would then require the usual midterm defeats of the ruling party to not happen and quite left candidates to run and win in those gerrymandered seats. And then it would take new laws and court decisions to overturn Citizens United and other terrible recent rulings, not to mention the impending Friedrichs ruling. This is a years-long process. It’s like the Progressive Era, where it will probably take 20-25 years of consistent wins just to beat back the last 20-25 years. Krugman is right that there’s a lot of delusion right now among primary voters in both parties about how change works.

And to be frank, my own study of American history suggests basically nothing that would allow me to believe in what I just described. It really would have to take a whole new politics. Given that the possible presidential candidates are a self-described socialist and Donald Trump, a whole new politics may in fact be happening. So who knows. But 238 years of American history is a lot of precedent to believe in over a good rhetorical message.

I get the appeal of rhetoric, even if I am immune to it personally. And this doesn’t mean I think Hillary is a better candidate than Sanders. Nor does it mean I think she would be a better president. But I think there’s a lot of delusion going on right now about what happens if Bernie wins. I just have very limited expectations of what a Bernie presidency would be able to accomplish. I disagree with Chait’s assertion that Sanders’ rhetoric shows the left’s frustration with shared power because I think what it actually shows is a reaction to right-wing extremism threatening the country’s future. Sanders supporters are reacting to real problems afflicting the United States. Given the human psychological need for charismatic leadership, it’s hardly surprising that people would put their hopes in Sanders here. The Sanders campaign, whatever happens, is a solid first step along a long road to retaking the country for everyday Americans. But it is only a first step–even if he wins. Understanding more about what that road looks like and understanding the limitations of what Sanders or any other president can do given the structures of American governance I think is really important to stave off disillusionment.

And healthy but friendly skepticism now is better than disillusionment later.

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