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The practical progressive

Possibly the dankest meme of all the memes in the Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash.

Imagine for a moment that Bernie becomes President. It almost certainly won’t happen. But if it did, here’s the scenario: he starts racking up big primary wins, pulls ahead of Hillary in the delegate count, and clinches the nomination. Then he goes on to crush Trump in the general, as most polls suggest he would. Come January 2017, Bernie begins his term. Then what?

What could Bernie possibly hope to accomplish as President? Congressional Republicans have spent eight years obstructing a very centrist Obama. Why would they go any easier on a left-wing Bernie? If Republicans raised hell over Obamacare—a plan cooked up by their very own Heritage Foundation—what kind of hell might they raise over single-payer healthcare, free college, the expansion of Social Security, and so on? And how much support could Bernie muster from Congressional Democrats, many of whom are openly hostile to his agenda?

Answering these questions is important, because they’re the ones I hear most often from Bernie skeptics. In my experience, Hillary supporters are pretty sympathetic to Bernie’s proposals. Liberal voters, unlike liberal pundits, are enthusiastic about ideas like single-payer healthcare. Where Hillary supporters differ is usually not on the desirability of big social programs, but their political feasibility. They like many of Bernie’s ideas. They simply doubt his ability to implement them.

According to this logic, Hillary is the practical candidate. First, her proposals are more moderate than Bernie’s. Second, she has published more than two dozen heavily footnoted policy papers describing exactly how they will work. These two features of her candidacy may not always energize primary voters, the logic goes, but they will be an asset when she gets to the White House. There, her centrism and obsession with policy detail will enable her to overcome Republican opposition and enact at least a portion of her platform. It won’t be nearly as much as what the average Democratic primary voter wants, but it’ll be something. “I’m a progressive,” as Hillary memorably said at one debate, “but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”

This narrative rests on the assumption that a wonkish, centrist President is more likely to push progressive legislation through a Republican Congress than a combative, leftist one. It’s the kind of argument that might make intuitive sense, but which entirely fails on the evidence. We’ve just had eight years of a wonkish, centrist President, and he’s faced intense Republican resistance at every turn. Hillary may turn out to a better negotiator than Obama (nearly anyone would be), but I don’t expect Republicans to treat her any differently. If anything, they may treat her worse, given their party’s particularly vicious history with her.

So how many of the progressive items on her agenda could Hillary get through a Republican Congress? About as many as Bernie could of his: close to zero. That Hillary’s proposals are more moderate and more complicated than Bernie’s will mean absolutely nothing to a Republican Party whose “mainstream” is light-years to the right of Reagan, and whose emerging Trumpist wing is essentially fascist.

On certain issues, of course, Hillary and mainstream Republicans will likely find common ground: the TPP comes to mind. But on other issues, especially the ones she’s staked her primary campaign on—criminal justice reform, gun control, and financial regulation, to name a few—she has very little hope of moving forward.

Of course, the President doesn’t need Congress for everything. A President can issue executive orders, set enforcement priorities, and conduct foreign policy. But the promises that Hillary is making in the debates and on her website—and the ones that seem to matter most to her supporters—would almost certainly require new legislation to fulfill. And that legislation will not pass a Republican Congress.

If you concede the point that Congressional Republicans are as likely to obstruct Hillary as they are Bernie, then the only path forward is to change the political math that’s filling Congress with Republicans in the first place. In other words, the question of whether Hillary or Bernie is the more “practical progressive” has nothing to do with which of them could “get things done” on day one of their presidency. Under current conditions, neither of them could. The more practical candidate, then, is the one with the better chance of changing those conditions, by transforming the political composition of Congress. This means leading Democrats to Congressional victories in 2016, 2018, 2020, and beyond.

It won’t be easy. Liberals often like to pretend that the Republican Party is doomed, based on the clownishness of the Republican debates. But it’s not. The Republican Party is in excellent health. Yes, they likely won’t win the White House if and when they nominate Trump, and more broadly, Trump’s popularity has opened a potentially damaging fissure between the party’s corporate and populist wings. But these are relatively small weaknesses compared to the party’s overall strength. The last midterm election in 2014 gave Republicans their biggest majority in Congress in eighty-five years. At the state level, Republicans are just as dominant. They control seventy percent of state legislatures and more than sixty percent of governorships. They enjoy unified control of twenty-five state governments, meaning they have both houses of the state legislature plus the governorship. By comparison, Democrats enjoy unified control of only seven states.

How do the Democrats begin to drill holes in this Republican wall? The Democrat sitting in the White House is the one responsible for coming up with the answer. As party leader, he or she has to put forward an agenda that will get more Democrats elected. Obama’s record on this front is not inspiring. He has been, at best, an indifferent party leader, and has suffered bruising midterm defeats that have produced the largest decline in Congressional Democratic membership in modern history.

Which candidate would be better able to reverse these losses and rebuild Democratic power at the state and national level? I’d choose Bernie, for two reasons. First, he’s better at competing on Republican territory. One of Bernie’s core constituencies is the much-maligned white working-class voter. Bernie’s rhetoric and platform resonates strongly with those white workers whose livelihoods have been decimated over the past few decades. When they vote, these workers have often voted Republican—not because they’re too stupid to act in their self-interest, as liberals are fond of saying, but because Republican candidates have been much better at capitalizing on these workers’ anger towards elites. By acknowledging that anger and offering a social-democratic interpretation of its origins—putting the blame for working-class immiseration where it belongs, on policies like NAFTA—Bernie has managed to do very well with a demographic that has strayed from the Democratic Party in recent decades. This could prove to be a valuable asset when it comes to building coalitions capable of ousting Republicans in places where they usually do well.

Now, white workers don’t have a monopoly on economic hardship—far from it. They may feel a greater sense of grievance because they have a golden age to mourn—the era of the Fordist family wage. But even in their current state, they’re typically better off than non-white workers.

One thing working-class Americans of all races share, however, is that they vote in far fewer numbers than wealthier Americans. The 2014 midterm elections that gave Republicans their commanding majorities in Congress saw very low turnout overall (the lowest since 1942, in fact), but especially among lower-income Americans. Only twenty-five percent of Americans earning less than $10,000 a year voted in that election. For those earning around $30,000, the number was closer to thirty-five percent. By contrast, for those earning $150,000 and above, turnout was more than fifty percent. If you add age, the contrasts become even starker. Younger, poorer Americans were significantly less likely to vote than older, richer Americans. To quote the Demos study where these numbers come from:

Among 18-24 year olds earning less than $30,000 turnout was 12 percent in 2014, but among those earning more than $150,000 and older than 65, the turnout rate was nearly four times higher, at 65 percent.

This leads us to the second reason that Bernie would be a more formidable party leader. He’d not only compete on Republican territory—he’d grow the map.

Non-voters are on the whole far more progressive than voters: non-voters broadly support expanding social services, increasing aid to the poor, reducing inequality, and enacting redistributive policies. In other words, they form a natural constituency for Bernie’s social-democratic platform. As a result, they are far more likely to be mobilized by Bernie than by Hillary.

Of course, it’s not merely a matter of motivation. Lower-income Americans face many structural impediments to voting—perhaps most obviously the fact that they can’t afford to take off work to go to the polls, given that Election Day isn’t a national holiday. But if the primaries are any indication, Bernie is good at turning out typically dormant sections of the electorate. The vast majority of young people don’t vote—in 2014, only about twenty percent of Americans 18 to 29 cast a ballot—but they’re coming out in droves for Bernie. The Democratic primaries have seen historically high turnout partly as a result. Bernie has much further to go, especially among black voters, but if he continues this trend, he could draw large numbers of people to the polls for the first time. These new voters might provide the building blocks of a social-democratic majority that could change the balance of power at all levels of government.

When Bernie calls for a “political revolution,” this is what he’s talking about. Throughout his campaign, he has argued that real change can only happen by pulling millions of people into the political process and keeping them there. You may doubt that such a mobilization will materialize. But Bernie is standing on solid ground when he says that such mobilizations are the only way progressive change ever happens. Every major progressive achievement in American history, from abolition to Social Security, had its basis in sustained bottom-up struggle.

Bernie is the only candidate who grasps this fact and who has built a campaign around it. Which is why it’s been strange to see liberals like Paul Krugman blasting Bernie for his “idealism.” Yes, Bernie’s ideas are to the left of the mainstream. But his strategy for how to fulfill them is quite practical—it may not succeed, but it rests on a realistic understanding of how politics actually works. The notion that Hillary, by continuing in the Obama tradition, will produce anything other than years of tepid incrementalism and continued Republican dominance seems to me far more fantastical.

But Krugman’s disdain signals a deeper threat to Bernie’s political revolution: the Democratic Party itself. As his skirmishes with the Democratic National Committee and near-total lack of Democratic endorsements make clear, the party establishment greatly distrusts Bernie. His politics, while squarely in the mold of Great Society liberalism, are still too far to the left for a party that has long since reconciled itself to the rightward turn in American politics over the past three decades. That Obamacare represented the outer limit of political possibility at a time when Democrats commanded both houses of Congress is revealing. Democratic complaints about Republican obstructionism, while correct, have often been used to obscure the fact that liberal elites simply aren’t very liberal anymore. As Krugman and other Bernie bashers like Ezra Klein and Paul Starr demonstrate, today’s liberal intelligentsia has little appetite for ambitious progressive policymaking. Their timidity dovetails nicely with the class interests of the Democratic financial base, composed of corporations and wealthy individuals who have much to lose from the redistributive bite of Bernie-style social democracy.

Ultimately, the most impractical part of Bernie’s campaign might be his choice to run as a Democrat. As he recently admitted, competing as a Democrat comes with big advantages: for one, it offers him a media platform that he wouldn’t have enjoyed as an independent. But in the long run, the Democratic Party establishment may be permanently inhospitable to both Bernie’s political vision and to his strategy for achieving it. In that case, the people energized by Bernie’s campaign will have to find a new vehicle for continuing the coalition-building he’s begun, and forge a practical progressive alternative to both parties.