Home / General / If Bernie Sanders hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him

If Bernie Sanders hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him


My theory of Bernie Sanders is that he became a big deal in American politics three and a half years ago for roughly the same reason Bill Haley had a huge international hit with “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955.

Haley was a modestly talented musician, and “Rock Around the Clock” was just a catchy song in an emerging genre, but he delivered something that lots of people had been waiting for at the exact moment when the market for that something exploded.

Shortly thereafter Elvis Presley showed up, and people weren’t too interested in Bill Haley any more (he did have a successful career as a nostalgia act in the 1960s and 1970s).

The point here is that Sanders is actually a sub-mediocre presidential candidate is all sorts of ways, but he showed up at the exact moment when lots of people were looking for something that seemed new and anti-establishment. But if you look at his lifetime batting average it ain’t good, and it seems to be getting worse:

To imagine that Bernie Sanders could be elected president and enact something resembling his agenda requires a number of extremely generous assumptions. Perhaps the most realistic of these is that Senate Democrats eliminate the legislative filibuster, bringing the number of senators needed to vote for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and other ambitious programs from a completely unimaginable 60 to a still wildly unlikely 50.

Sanders himself, however, opposes such a maneuver. In 2013, Sanders appeared to favor majoritarian reforms, but he has veered sharply and inexplicably to the right. Two months ago, he said he “not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster.” In an interview with Amanda Terkel, Sanders reiterates his view, because “you have to protect minority rights.”

This is an odd argument to make. The federal government, by design, makes it unusually difficult to pass new laws, which require concurrent majorities in three separately elected bodies. On top of that, one of those bodies, the Senate, is designed to give disproportionate voting power to citizens who live in sparsely populated states. And on top of that, the Senate has yet another feature that evolved entirely by accident: a supermajority requirement. The filibuster evolved out of a weird historical glitch, and the number of senators required to end it has changed over time, currently standing at 60.

Sanders normally treats unique features of American government with some suspicion. (“The U.S. is the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people” is something he has pointed out some 80 gazillion times.) Most democratic legislative bodies in the world allow the side that has more votes to win. Why does Sanders believe political minorities, who can block laws merely by winning either the House or the Senate or the presidency, need extra rights?

Sanders is correct, of course, that sometimes Republicans have control of the House, Senate, and presidency, and during those moments, a supermajority voting requirement helps Democrats. But the notion that the filibuster helps Democrats as much as it helps Republicans seems fanciful. Progressives generally tend to support more change than conservatives, and the changes they do enact are more likely to stick. On the whole, repealing all the laws ever passed would benefit conservatives more than liberals. This is why Orrin Hatch correctly declared the filibuster is “what’s prevented our country for decades from sliding toward liberalism.”

Senators like the filibuster because it gives each individual senator more power, which is of course a terrible justification for it. Right wingers like the filibuster, because it gives rural overwhelmingly white states even more wildly disproportionate power than they already have in our increasingly ridiculous and dysfunctional legislative system. This is, from a left perspective, an even worse justification.

This isn’t a minor or marginal issue: it’s at the absolute center of any movement for voting reform that tries to bring a measure of actual democracy to American politics. And it’s not something that just came up recently: it’s been obvious for decades that getting rid of the filibuster was essential to even the most modest progressive legislative agenda.

I mean I sort of expect somebody like Biden to waffle on this issue, because Biden doesn’t even pretend to be on the left in any sense. But what about Mr. Social Democrat? He hasn’t presented any justification for his position other than facially ridiculous arguments about “protecting minority rights.”

And again, he’s had three years to think about this in the context of running in 2020.

I’m frankly embarrassed I ever took this guy seriously. With Elizabeth Warren in the field, I’m still waiting to hear a single good argument for why somebody would vote for Sanders rather than for her (besides the all too obvious one).

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