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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