The Jaundiced Eyeball

Pounding Sanders

Chris Lehmann   January 21, 2016
Crowds in Iowa listening to Bernie Sanders. /

Crowds in Iowa listen to Bernie Sanders. / Phil Roeder

There’s something undeniably stirring in the mobilization of America’s Responsible Pundit Consensus. This week finds the liberal lectors of said consensus singing, not surprisingly, from a single hymnal entry, the one called “Bernie Sanders Is Not a Serious Presidential Candidate.” The refrain has a few minor variations, but it’s strikingly uniform in broad outline: as a candidate, Sanders is little more than a glorified sloganeer, touting a single issue in the most monotonous way imaginable. His policy portfolio is woefully thin on specifics. He’s ill-informed on foreign policy, and seemingly uninterested in becoming less so. And even if he were somehow to accede to the nation’s highest office, well, the state of real-world politics in Washington is such that none of his sketchy proposals would have the remotest chance of becoming law.

It’s tempting, when faced with the many iterations of this litany, to respond with a simple counter-question: If Sanders’s candidacy represents such a nugatory threat in terms of its policy impact, why bother warning the public against it? After all, an office that claims luminaries such as George W. Bush and Richard Nixon as recent two-term titans could certainly withstand the antics of an aging Vermont hippie who’s (all together now) a self-avowed socialist, railing against the corporate-governance complex from the whitewashed sanctum on Pennsylvania Avenue while two miles away Congress placidly continues upon its appointed course of graft, warmongering, and ritual, empty rejections of Obamacare. If Sanders is a laughable caricature of New England granola worship—Ben and Jerry’s acid-casualty uncle—who isn’t going to get anything done anyway, what’s the harm of electing him president? Did we legitimately expect anything more from statesmen such as Grover Cleveland or Warren Harding?

But of course the whole point of talking down the real-world plausibility of Sanders’s candidacy is that Sanders is looking more like a plausible real-world candidate than ever before. By many accounts, he carried the day in Sunday’s NBC Democratic presidential debate; he’s polling ahead of establishment standard-bearer Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, has nearly caught her in Iowa, and has significantly narrowed the gap between the two campaigns in the latest national poll.

The lament that no Congress will stand for a Sanders agenda takes as its central premise that a right-wing Congress is now a simple fact of American life.

So—to your Word programs, liberal pundits! There’s been a boomlet in Sanders-bashing opinion-making since Sunday’s debate. The inarguable nadir entry is called, of course, “Bernie Sanders doesn’t get how politics works,” a column by Boston Globe writer Michael Cohen that castigates Sanders for—wait for it—his disinterest in policy details, pegged to release of the Sanders single-payer health care plan. Cohen moans that Sanders’s plan was a scant eight pages long (and worse, the Sanders proposal to re-regulate the financial sector was but four). The only problem here is that campaign policy documents are usually kept short, so as to highlight the bullet points of any given proposal for the members of our ADD-afflicted media. Need evidence? Barack Obama’s plan to overhaul American health care—you know, the heroic legislation that it’s now unthinkable to “start over” from, according to Hillary Clinton and her media enthusiasts—was released to the American voting public in 2008, and weighed in, yes, at a mere eight pages of text. You could look it up.

But the most robust Bernie-basher thus far has been New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who back in November penned an indulgent explainer column leisurely walking readers though Sanders’s “brazen” embrace of socialism as something akin to a freakish turn in the weather. Now Chait is back with a prosecutorial brief called “The Case Against Bernie Sanders.” It hits every standard note in the genre: Sanders doesn’t spell out just how he’ll pay for ambitious new initiatives such as single-payer coverage; Sanders manifests little practical interest in the inner workings of diplomatic realpolitik; Sanders resorts to a “political fantasy” that the people can be rallied to transform American politics. 

Chait’s clincher, though, bears closer examination: it’s the lament that no Congress will stand for a Sanders agenda—and it’s noteworthy because it takes as its central premise the notion that a right-wing Congress is now a simple fact of American life. And to make matters worse, Sanders has made exactly the wrong strategic adaptation to this unforgiving truth: “Those areas in which a Democratic Executive branch has no power are those in which Sanders demands aggressive action, and the areas in which the Executive branch still has power now are precisely those in which Sanders has the least to say.”

This, it seems likely, is the core grievance at the heart of the present Bandaging-the-Bern liberal pundit offensive. Sanders won’t fess up to the courtly facts of life as mandated by life under a permanent Democratic congressional minority:

The president retains full command of foreign affairs; can use executive authority to drive social policy change in areas like criminal justice and gender; and can, at least in theory, staff the judiciary. What the next president won’t accomplish is to increase taxes, expand social programs, or do anything to reduce inequality, given the House Republicans’ fanatically pro-inequality positions across the board. The next Democratic presidential term will be mostly defensive, a bulwark against the enactment of the radical Ryan plan. What little progress liberals can expect will be concentrated in the non-Sanders realm.

Translation: our wised-up punditocracy demands a caretaker presidency to manage those affairs of state least prone to democratic oversight, while the Democratic establishment . . . plans its next offensive to capture the largely ceremonial office of the presidency.

Hillary in 2020: Your best choice to manage ongoing decline!

Now, Sanders’s rhetoric may indeed be repetitive, and his policy playbook might be thin, but he at least has the perspicacity to insist that any revived semblance of democratic governance in this country will involve a revolution—which is to say, a mass refusal to look upon liberal prospects in the pinched, arch, and jaded compass extolled by Jonathan Chait (and Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and well, your sober liberal pundit name here). There are, Lord knows, forbidding obstacles to Democrats retaking majorities in both houses of Congress—not least among them the stunning lack of initiative and political imagination of the Democratic Party elite. But it seems perverse, as a matter of simple political persuasion, to mount a de facto case to elect a consensus candidate on the basis of her alacrity in instituting her own relative powerlessness. This is not the kind of strategic thinking out of which long-term majoritarian coalitions are made. Hell, it’s not even much of a case to argue for a Clinton re-election—Hillary in 2020: Your best choice to manage ongoing decline!

There’s a more consequential argument about major-party politics lurking behind the gnat-straining efforts of Chait and others to disqualify a Sanders candidacy ahead of the actual casting of any caucus or primary ballots. To revert to the oversimplified and old-fashioned models of political conflict favored by unreconstructed New Dealers like Bernie Sanders, the Republican party will always be the party of business and corporate power; it is, if anything, admirably candid in avowing its own makeup as one overgrown PAC, tirelessly on the make for the largest donors and their policy preferences.

In contrast, Democrats—at least in the sentimental, Sandersian-Jeffersonian view of things—are the party of ordinary Americans, seeking a measure of equity in their working lives. (This despite Chait’s disingenuous insistence that “the Democrats have never been a labor party.”) In this political schematic, the only plausible way to combat the power of money is with votes—i.e., to assemble a long-term political majority to sustain a liberal legislative agenda. And this means, in turn, that the congressional majority that Chait airily dismisses as an unworkable fantasia for the foreseeable political future in fact represents the single most indispensable basis for majoritarian Democrats seeking to legitimately represent working-class interests. 

There are countless, dismaying examples of the disastrous DLC-New Democratic flight from this reasoning, encompassing recent Democratic orthodoxy on everything from trade to Wall Street regulation. And by any reasonable policy measure, Hillary Clinton is the poster candidate for all these tendencies.

This is what Bernie Sanders is talking about when he harps so monotonously on the need for a revolution in our politics. It may well be that such talk is overconfident, misguided, or otherwise naive in its small-d democratic faith. But it should be at least equally evident that when a Jon Chait or Michael Cohen sidles up at your elbow to deride Sanders’s grown-up Serious Policy Credentials, you’re lending an ear to a propagandist for fatalism at best, and reaction at worst.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.