Bernie Sanders and the Grassfire that Wouldn’t Spark

Insurgent candidates like to cultivate a sense of crisis and urgency for two reasons. First, it’s designed to motivate party activists – precisely the sort of people who are the most passionate and committed when they find a candidate whom they like. Second, the greater the sense of danger, the grander the solutions one is allowed to propose. Bernie Sanders’ campaign is built around exactly that formula: convince the voters that the country is on fire and then offer to put the fire out out in a deluge of public spending.

Feel the Bern, indeed.

There is no denying that Bernie Sanders’ platform is radical. To date, most of the conversation has centered around the practicality of his ideas. Much ink has been spilled trying to figure out how Mr. Sanders might break up the banks, how he would pay for dramatically expanded social expenditures, how he might run his foreign policy, and whether or not his proposed tax increases would generate the revenue he promises.

Original Photo (c) Greg Skidmore via Flickr.

Original Photo (c) Greg Skidmore via Flickr.

This emphasis on the substantive merit of the Sanders platform has obscured another dimension of his campaign: not that his ideas are substantively radical, but that he wants to do so much so quickly. It isn’t difficult to imagine someone concluding that much of what Mr. Sanders is pushing for sounds good and reasonable, but that perhaps it would be wiser to move incrementally and deliberately, rather than all at once. Mr. Sanders’ plan for comprehensive social engineering is a turn-off to voters who worry that sometimes even the best-laid plans can go awry. Bernie Sanders comes across as a man unconcerned with unintended consequences; instead, he insists that our social ills are the result of malevolent forces – the millionaires and billionaires who pepper his speeches. Bernie’s the guy offering you the cure they don’t want you to know about.

Even less attention, however, has been paid to Mr. Sanders’ procedural radicalism. Or to put it differently, voters might be wondering how far outside regular order Bernie wants to take the country. Judging from his public remarks, it would seem that Mr. Sanders is prepared to go quite far.

To start, voters might consider the Senator’s constant call for ‘a political revolution’ – an incantation that Mr. Sanders seems to use to dispel the rumor that his ideas are politically unachievable. One source of difficulty comes from the fact that no Democrat is likely to win a majority of the House of Representatives until after the 2020 Census, an uncomfortable reality that means that a President Sanders would achieve precious little without Republican support. To say nothing of the more moderate elements of the Democratic caucus who would hesitate to add their voice to his.

Luckily, Mr. Sanders has a ready retort: he’ll simply flood the capital with protesters.

And you know what I say…Hey Mitch, take a look out the window. There are a million people out there who don’t want to be in debt for half of their life for the crime of going to college. And if you want to antagonize those people and lose your job, Mitch. If you don’t want to lose your job you better start listening to what we have to say.

In other words, what Bernie can’t achieve at the ballot box, he’ll achieve through direct action. I’ll leave readers to judge how realistic it is to expect voters to materialize in the numbers necessary to impress legislators who hail from safely conservative districts. Instead, I’ll highlight how much of a departure from normal democratic principles it would be for a President to push through unpopular legislation on the force of angry crowds. If Donald Trump or Ted Cruz made similar calls, the uproar from the left would be deafening.

This is where Bernie supporters refer to the Civil Rights era and try to establish the political propriety of street movements in American political discourse – as long as they seek progressive goals, that is. But it’s worth highlighting that the direct action campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement resulted precisely from the fact that black Americans were systematically denied the right to vote. They could not appeal to the franchise and so took  to the streets. Similarly, during the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of young men were drafted by a government they could not vote against. Sanders supporters have no similar excuse: their political influence reflects the fact that their ideas, taken as a whole, don’t convince a majority of Americans.

To many of them, that judgement might appear too harsh – or even naive. I’m sure that many Sanders supporters are familiar with the work of Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, showing that the preferences of poor voters are systematically ignored by Congress. They would argue, credibly, that there is a problem when elected officials won’t do what the voters want.

But that complaint misses the point: the Sanders campaign doesn’t represent the will of the voters. It has been amazing to watch Mr. Sanders continue to pursue a campaign rhetorically built around the notion that he is at the head of a political movement that will take over the country, reshape politics, and wash away Republican opposition when he can’t even garner the support of a majority of his party. All the talk about Superdelegates and the misplaced emphasis on the number of states each candidate has won have served to obscure the fact that Hillary Clinton has received over 2.5 million more votes than Bernie Sanders.

The standard Sanders response to that uncomfortable fact – that Hillary Clinton’s massive lead in total votes cast doesn’t really matter because it largely came from her outsized support among Southern blacks – has been deeply offensive. And he’s mostly gotten a pass on his massive flip-flop on the role of Superdelegates: the Sanders campaign began the electoral cycle by arguing that it would be improper for the party to grant the nomination to Hillary Clinton if he won a majority of the votes, but now he’s arguing that he should get the nomination if he loses a majority of the delegates as well as a majority of the vote. Heads I win; tails you lose. (It seems that political expediency comes for us all.)

There is an outside chance that Bernie wins a narrow victory in the Democratic primary, but there is zero evidence that he’s leading a transformative movement that will lead to an electoral landslide in 2016. If he does in fact lead a political revolution, it will be one with little democratic legitimacy because his electoral defeats have already proven that he cannot win an electoral mandate.

That doesn’t mean, however, that his campaign will have been for naught. There is an argument to be made that Mr. Sanders is performing the traditional role of a ‘radical flank’ – shifting the scope of discourse, even as his argument doesn’t win the day. Already, it seems obvious that the Bernie campaign has moved the Democratic frontrunner further to the left than she would have preferred to go. In the end, she might even prove a more effective messenger for his ideas than he is.

Lastly, the progressive movement that Bernie Sanders is trying to lead will succeed or fail precisely on the terms he has laid out: real change happens when it comes into town in the wake of a movement. But Presidential elections are where movements culminate, not where they begin.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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