Bernie Sanders’s theory of change has a chicken and egg problem

Bernie Sanders went back and forth with the Washington Post’s editorial board today over his theory of change.

The Post accused Sanders of peddling fantasies with his platform, promising progressives that through sheer force of will, they can steamroll conservatives and enact their entire agenda. As they wrote:

Mr. Sanders tops off his narrative with a deus ex machina: He assures Democrats concerned about the political obstacles in the way of his agenda that he will lead a “political revolution” that will help him clear the capital of corruption and influence-peddling. This self-regarding analysis implies a national consensus favoring his agenda when there is none and ignores the many legitimate checks and balances in the political system that he cannot wish away.

As the Post’s Chris Cilizza added, reacting to that paragraph, “Oomph.” The Post seems to have taken the Sanders balloon and popped it. Loudly.

Sanders, however, was not amused, firing back when the Post reached out for comment:

People are telling us, whether it’s the Washington Post editorial board or anybody else, our ideas are too ambitious — can’t happen. Too bold — really? Well, here’s something which is really bold. In the last 30 years, there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class and working families of this country. The middle class has become poorer and trillions of dollars have been transferred to the top one-tenth of 1 percent… Where was The Washington Post to express concern that the middle class was shrinking?

As Sanders suggested, the Post isn’t the first outlet to go after Sanders’s theory of change, and it won’t be the last. Democrats have spent the last seven years marveling at how difficult it is to translate large political mandates into actual progressive laws — especially given Republican control of Congress. So when Sanders proposes unapologetically liberal legislation like debt-free college and single payer health care, it really does sound too good to be true. I mean, come on, the Republicans are practically guaranteed to control the House until at least 2022. Single payer’s a nice thought, but without a fundamental and radical shift in the national political landscape, that’s all it is.

Sanders and his supporters respond to this appeal to come back down to political earth by arguing that fundamental and radical shifts in the national political landscape are both possible and necessary. Neither party in Washington adequately represents Americans’ core political and economic interests, and the electorate wants to vote for someone who will. If only they were able to identify that candidate and be given a chance to vote for them:

 

The problem with theory of change is that, given the time constraints Sanders would be under (eight years, max), it runs up against a massive chicken and egg problem.

Here’s the chicken:

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

It’s no secret that the non-voting population holds much more liberal economic views than the voting population, and it’s no secret that the prospect of material gains is one of the single biggest factors in spurring engagement in the political process. It’s also true that our electorate drastically underestimates the degree of economic inequality in the United States, and would still support a wide array of reforms that would provide for a more equal economic distribution (among other progressive goals). Contra the Washington Post, there really is a national consensus on proposals like universal health care, investments in infrastructure, paid family leave and universal Pre-K. Members of the governing class in, ahem, Washington are, in these cases, standing athwart the American people. Sanders is betting that, if he wins the Democratic nomination, the American people will send him to the White House with a mandate to do what they want, and “what they want” just so happens to be a progressive agenda.

This theory of change seems rather straightforward: If the Democratic Party nominates a true economic progressive, the voters will come. Currently disaffected non-voters will turn out to vote, some of the Republican base will defect, and the 99% will elect a wave of progressives from the top of the ticket on down demanding major changes to our political and economic systems. And when Republicans inevitably oppose such changes, as Sanders spokesman Tad Devine told the Huffington Post on Tuesday, “we will turn the midterm elections in 2018 into the largest referendum in the history of midterms.” Sanders genuinely believes that his platform more accurately reflects the interests of a greater share of Americans than those of both mainstream Democrats and, obviously, all Republicans. In his view, the only reason they don’t vote their interest is because they haven’t had the opportunity to do so, and he’s going to give them that chance.

It sounds simple, and it sounds great. But! Here’s the egg:

Even if the Democrats took back the House and Senate in 2016 or 2018, they’re still Democrats; as in, not Sanders-style democratic socialists. It was hard enough rounding up 218 Democrats in the House for compromise legislation like the Affordable Care Act; Nancy Pelosi has already ruled out pushing for single payer if Sanders wins the White House. If elected, Sanders won’t just be facing opposition from the opposition party, he’ll be facing headwinds from decades of ingrained economic centrism from his own party — to say nothing of the federal bureaucracy (how much can a President Sanders do, by himself, to fundamentally change the Fed?). The only way to get around that problem is to systematically move the Democratic Party to the left on core economic issues over a long period of time — a political generation — which is what Sanders’s original bid as a protest candidate seemed designed to do. However, now that he’s within striking distance in Iowa and is the frontrunner in New Hampshire, Sanders has gone from a candidate who simply wanted to move the Overton window to a candidate who feels compelled to present a credible case that he can move his agenda through that window. It strains the imagination to see how that window moves as far as it needs to move in two or four years in order to accommodate Sanders’s platform.

What’s more, simply raising political consciousness, to use Sanders’s term, may mobilize some non-voters, or even a lot of them. However, it won’t be nearly enough to dramatically change the political system to the point at which, say, the Democrats overcome geographic and political gerrymanders to win back the House in 2016 or 2018. In order to transform the political landscape to the point at which 75 percent of eligible voters are regularly casting ballots, a lot of major electoral reforms have to happen first — automatic voter registration at the very least, perhaps coupled with a voting rights amendment and maybe even some form of compulsory voting. These reforms would, by raising voter turnout, shift our political landscape to the left independent from any consciousness raising (again, current non-voters are disproportionately non-white and economically liberal).

But that’s just it: America doesn’t suffer from low voter turnout simply because its electorate is disaffected; America suffers from low turnout in large part due to material barriers we have erected that make it harder to vote. The political will required to take these barriers down overnight, as opposed to the state-by-state momentum that is currently building against them, requires the very massive electoral victories that can only be achieved if the barriers have already been lowered.

So Sanders’s theory of change is, to a large degree, stuck in a paradox: In order to achieve his goals in the timeframe in which he hopes to achieve them, many of his goals have to already be achieved. It doesn’t mean his goals aren’t worth pursuing, but it does mean that he can’t say with much confidence that he can make them happen.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Robert Jensen

    The chicken in the BernieBots pot is there is no consensus that approves raising taxes. Walter Mondale campaigned on raising middle class tax cuts. He lost 49 states.

  • My general thoughts on Clinton vs. Sanders can be found here: http://americablog.com/2015/11/better-worse-and-worst.html

  • nicho

    but it does mean that he can’t say with much confidence that he can make them happen.

    Contrary to popular misconception, the president can’t really “make” anything happen. If he/she belongs to the party that controls the Congress, the chances are better.

    When Bill Clinton tried to push gays in the military, he was sabotaged by members of his own party.

    But the president can change the public mood and if the public mood changes, then politicians and even the courts will follow.

    The idea of incremental change or halfway measures is as dangerous as overreaching. It’s like saying it’s too expensive to build a bridge across the river. So we’ll build one that goes half way. After all, half a loaf is better than none.

    A good example, way before your time, is the Medicare prescription plan — known as Part D. It was shoved down our throats in 2003 over the objection of a lot of people. It was a giveaway to the insurance companies and the drug companies. At the time we heard the same old bullshit sales pitch.

    1. Ooooh, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
    2. It’s better than nothing. Half a loaf is better than none.
    3. It’s a start. We can fix it later on.

    So now, 12 years later, nothing has changed. Insurance companies and drug companies are pocketing our money and laughing at us. No one has even made an effort to “fix it later on.”

  • nicho

    Well, since she has failed in almost everything she’s done, she knows a lot about failure.

  • noGOP

    I could be wrong. if so, I apologize. I read a few posts that gave me that impression.

  • If you have detected that I am basically a Hillary supporter, you must not have read anything I’ve written about her.

  • 2karmanot

    Exactly so!

  • noGOP

    I assume that you agree that we are in great need of a political revolution, much as sanders describes. at least I hope you do.

    if so, how would you propose that it come about? I would think that your position would be to do all you could to promote it and “fire it up” when the opportunity presents itself.

    I have detected that you are basically a hillary supporter, for what ever reason. but I think you will acknowledge that hillary (who is a clinton AND a woman, and who the repubs despise) will do little to make any significant changes, especially with regards to wall street, banking and campaign finance.

    it all has to start somewhere and everyone has to do the heavy lifting. bernie is off to an amazing start. much better than anyone predicted.

  • I guess I should have asked SL to read the conclusion paragraph, as opposed to the conclusion sentence: “In order to achieve his goals IN THE TIMEFRAME IN WHICH HE HOPES TO ACHIEVE THEM, many of his goals have to already be achieved.”

  • My argument is more about timeframes than it is about endgames. Sanders isn’t just claiming that he can lead a political revolution, he’s claiming that he can do it in four years or less. That’s where the wheels come off.

  • chicano2nd

    Thank you for your reply. I will take your suggestion into consideration as I re-read your post.

  • noGOP

    ” It doesn’t mean his goals aren’t worth pursuing, but it does mean that
    he can’t say with much confidence that he can make them happen.”

    I fail to see much encouragement to pursue his goals.

    your same arguments could have been made about LGBT rights (facing obstruction by republicans, headwinds from establishment democrats, etc).

    persistence and determination play a larger role than you give credit.

  • noGOP

    that sums it up exactly.
    it can’t be done, so why try?
    vote for the candidate that is sure to keep things just as they are.

  • There are roughly 1300 words in this post. One of them was written by Chris Cilizza. Allow me to suggest that you’re overthinking this.

  • chicano2nd

    You are using Chris Cilizza as a reputable new source for your hit piece? Wow, just wow! Shows us that you think we don’t know how to think!

  • DGT

    To be fair, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is also based on a paradox (or is it a tautology?): “These changes are good ideas, but they are not realistic. Thus, if you support Sanders’ ideas, vote for me. I won’t fail, because I won’t try.”

  • goulo

    That the media (owned by billionaires) would take Sanders to task for wanting to reduce the power of billionaires reminded me this old Onion newsclip which I happened to see today: :)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGxdgNJ_lZM

  • Max_1

    How some people even crawl out of bed in the morning… They Can?

  • hiker_sf

    The stridency of those who support any presidential candidate is a real problem for me. None of the candidates are perfect and yet it sometimes seems like hero worship.

    But saying that something that exists in several other countries can’t be done here should be the very definition of ridiculous self-limitation. Sanders is right but not very eloquent. If he can convince the large businesses to also push for single payer (because it would benefit most employers to not have healthcare tied to employment), he would have a fighting chance to get this done.

  • Read the conclusion sentence of this post.

  • dave3137

    And there’s also a Robert Reich column of the same date as WaPo’s editorial. http://robertreich.org/post/138166804500. An interesting comment in that Reich piece: “One pundit recently warned Democrats that change happens incrementally, by accepting half loaves as being better than none. That may be true, but the full loaf has to be large and bold enough in the first place to make the half loaf meaningful. And not even a half loaf is possible unless or until America wrests back power from the executives of large corporations, Wall Street bankers and billionaires who now control the
    bakery.” Seems to me that many, if not most, commentators and politicians, if they support any change at all, want to start out with an itty-bitty “pragmatic” loaf and then compromise it away. If we don’t have genuine leadership, and MAJOR proposals, we’re going to be stuck with 4 more years of a “Compromiser in Chief.” (Oh, and what happened from 2009-2011 when Congress was solidly D?)

  • Don Chandler

    A president can only set the tone. To achieve real change, you need the people to get fired up. Don’t see them getting fired up over Hillary. Some are already fired up over Trump. If Bernie gets elected, that will send a message. Beating corruption is going to be hard. We do have a corrupt system. You have to start someplace.

  • dave3137

    You might be interested in what FAIR had to say: http://fair.org/home/washington-posts-wild-swings-at-sanders/

  • SL Abrin

    You know what, Jon? You’re right. Let’s all just give up and let the corporations have their way with us. Why try at all? Why not lower the minimum wage then? Let’s only do and say exactly what we think the establishment will approve. Can’t get it done? Never mind. Not trying at all is so much better!

    I never thought that becoming politically and morally inert could be so orgasmic. Thank you, Jon, for opening my eyes and heart to the wonders of political surrender. My life is so much easier now. I will faithfully support the establishment’s positions on war, bank bailouts, minimum sentencing, and tax break for the rich. I will shut my mouth and be an obedient slave to the party machine.

    NOT.

  • Doug105

    I’ve said about the same thing to people who talk about Voting for the green party, though of course less elegantly. To vote for them at this time amounts to not voting, they need to build on the local, state and than national levels before it’s more than a pipe dream.

    The Democrats have been playing checkers while the republicans(and those backing their agenda) have worked to turn pawns into queens, for the last 50-60 years.
    The only bright spot is many of their supporters are old enough to be dying off.

  • Htowndude

    Too many people forgot 2008, and “Hope & Change” and then 2012, “Yes We Can!”..
    Now, in 2016? It’s “Meh. Vote for Hillary! Change is too hard! No we CAN’T!”

  • Why even try?

  • And yet the sheer impossibility right now of a PPACA (aka ‘Obamacare’) repeal surviving a veto or any Democratic social legislation such as the LGBT Equality Act even getting a vote doesn’t stop either party from making the proposals and filing bills.

    It’s hypocrisy to say Sanders should somehow be punished or sanctioned for pushing for single payer health insurance — when it is precisely what a solid majority of Americans want, at least as an option — when his fellow Democrats are constantly falling all over themselves to hold big press conferences to propose bills that have zero chance of passing.

    Look, the point isn’t what can be done. It’s what someone says SHOULD be done. And unfortunately, Sanders’ alternative is telling everyone there literally is no other solution at all for Americans than for-profit private insurance company gouging. Even though we have the parts of an existing single payer system already in place! They’re called Medicare and Medicaid, and more than a few politicos have pointed out it would take just one very small change to the Medicare laws to make it Medicare-for-All: Remove the age requirement. And to pay for it, remove the FICA cap.

    It’s only not possible because too many Democrats are owned by BigMed now.

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