If you read more than a little bit of what I’ve written over the past year, you could probably have taken a fairly educated guess as to who I just voted for in the Virginia Democratic primary. If the pretense of objectivity is silly for reporters, which it is, then it’s even more silly for bloggers like me who trade in opinions about all things political.
So I guess I might as well say it: I just voted for Bernie Sanders. I don’t think that compromises my ability to blog effectively. To the contrary, I think I owe it to my readers to state that up front.
However, now that I’ve actually cast my ballot, I think it’d be somewhat useful to flesh out why, exactly, I voted the way I did. The Internet is a pretty wild place to talk politics, but stick around the liberal punditocracy long enough and you’ll hear some good cases for both Democratic candidates. With that in mind, here’s hoping I’ve got one.
This is a bit of a long and winding argument, and there’s something in it for people who support Sanders and Clinton to hang their hats on. As a reward for those who make it all the way through — Don’t cheat and scroll down! — I’ve included that John Oliver clip everyone’s raving about at the bottom.
It is important that Bernie Sanders do well
One of the most frustrating things about American politics over the last 25 years has been the radical centrism of moderate Democrats on core economic issues. The slightly-to-the-left American political party’s decades-long race to the political center has contributed to the formation of an economic consensus in Washington that has killed politics as we once knew it.
The history is more or less common knowledge. Following a string of Republican victories the 1980s, Bill Clinton pitched himself to the Democratic Party as a moderate who could finally take back the White House and restore Democratic power nationally. Appealing to “common sense” and the desire for consensus, he declared the era of big government to be over and proceeded to adopt a string of decidedly conservative policies — from slashing capital gains taxes to introducing work requirements for government assistance to championing rabidly pro-business free trade agreements.
With one side of the national debate over core economic issues having effectively given up, an economic consensus (pitched as mere compromise) was formed. Reasonable people in Washington now all agreed that government should err on the side of not helping the poor. Reasonable people in Washington now all agreed that the government should err on the side of not regulating business. Reasonable people in Washington now all agreed that taxes on anyone making below a politically satisfying level of household income were bad — even if those taxes could pay for good things. Bill Clinton’s embrace of Third Way politics may have helped Democrats win elections by allowing them to own the middle and cast themselves as reasonable, compromising problem-solvers, but as a consequence it marginalized the left. Not only did economic progressives now lack serious representation within the Democratic Party, they were by and large dismissed as loons — despite the fact that their ideas remain wildly popular with the American public.
This led to many negative outcomes, but two in particular stick out. First, the marginalization of the left within the Democratic Party on core economic issues allowed the Republican Party to accelerate its own rightward shift with minimal electoral consequences, resulting in a wholesale shift of the American ideological spectrum. In other words, by tacking to the right and taking the “reasonable,” compromising, centrist position in the 1990s, the Democratic Party allowed the Republicans to redefine what “centrist” meant in the first place. We’re now at a point where raising taxes on any household making less than $250,000 per year is considered a radically leftist idea — a view that forecloses on any possibility of meaningful expansions of the social safety net. We’re also at a point where, in a Democratic primary, the frontrunner’s first case against single payer health care and tuition-free public college wasn’t that they were politically unfeasible, but rather that they were bad ideas on the merits. I disagree.
Second, the formation of an economic consensus didn’t just change how we argued; it changed what we argued about. Since an economic consensus, by definition, largely dismisses serious economic disagreement as unreasonable, all it leaves on which to disagree are non-economic, social issues. Those produce a much different kind of discourse, as economic debates are founded on facts, while social debates are founded on values. And values, almost by definition, are incredibly difficult to compromise. We tend to blame the Internet, talk radio and cable news for the acrimony in our political discourse, and they certainly don’t help, but there’s an argument to be made that the very topics on the table for debate contribute to our tone. Put another way, when we’re arguing over the costs and benefits of a $15 minimum wage, “You’re going to hell if you disagree with me” isn’t a valid claim on either side. “This set of data says I’m right,” on the other hand, is.
All this is to say that I feel it is incredibly important that Bernie Sanders do well in the Democratic primary precisely because he is questioning the Third Way-driven economic consensus. The very fact that he is dismissed as unreasonable in Washington — nothing in his incredibly popular agenda will ever pass because even Nancy Pelosi will laugh it off in Congress — is an indication of how desperately we need to rebuild the left flank of the Democratic Party. In the long run, rebuilding that left flank isn’t just good policy — it’s also good politics.
It is important that Bernie Sanders lose
You’ll notice that nothing in my case for Sanders mentioned anything about his ability to actually carry out his duties as President of the United States, nor did I make the shaky-at-best claim that he is a more electable general election candidate than Hillary Clinton. I don’t think I could safely make either of those arguments, which is why I’m only voting for Bernie Sanders on the condition that does not actually become the Democratic nominee. While Bernie Sanders more accurately reflects my politics, I want Hillary Clinton to be on my ballot in November, which is why I’m glad that I could cast my vote for Bernie today without being under any illusions regarding his chances of winning.
I’m comfortable admitting that I’m being scared into the same calculation that Democrats make every year. As Alex Parenee phrased it earlier this year, “The deal mainstream Democrats make with liberals (and to a lesser extent, properly left-wing voters) is you hold your nose and vote for the less-bad one, because the Republicans are terrifying, and in exchange Democrats will do their best to at least not make liberal outcomes less likely.” Clinton’s case for the presidency is no exception. Throughout this campaign, she has presented herself as an effective bureaucrat who can manage the status quo; a not-socialist not-Republican who will make the right judicial appointments, take the right executive actions and make the right vetoes of the legislation sent to her by a Congress that will still have at least one Republican-controlled chamber in 2017.
That may not be inspiring, but to me it’s fairly compelling. My vote for Bernie Sanders is based in a long-term desire for a progressive economic agenda to be taken seriously in Washington — something that a competitive Sanders candidacy can advance — but I also want to win. And I really want to win this specific election because the presidency means a whole lot more to Democrats than it does to Republicans. As I wrote last year:
If the eventual Republican nominee wins the presidency, they will almost certainly hold both chambers of Congress and will be able to make at least two Supreme Court appointments. In other words, they will have total control of the federal government, save for Senate Democrats’ ability to filibuster. The social safety net? Somewhere between decimated and eliminated. Wall Street? Deregulated. Roe v. Wade and other Supreme Court victories? Overturned. Conservative fever dreams like the REINS Act and the Fair Tax? Legitimate possibilities. More war(s) in the Middle East? Absolute certainties.
The reverse does not hold true for the eventual Democratic nominee should they win the White House: Republicans are going to control at least one chamber in Congress no matter who wins the Electoral College.
I know, I know. Polls currently show Bernie Sanders performing better in general election match-ups than Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders is also largely unknown to the general electorate. He is only just now gaining a national profile, and has never been subjected to a sustained attack from his right. There is every reason to believe that, in an actual general election, Hillary Clinton will wind up with more votes and more states than Bernie Sanders would. What’s more, Sanders’s primary argument for his electability hinges on a massive voter registration and turnout operation among previously inactive voters — with the goal of raising turnout among the voting-age population by roughly 50 percent — that I seriously doubt he will be able to realize in just a few months. Political revolutions don’t happen overnight. All this is to say that while it’s fairly well-established that America is ready for a female president, it remains a relatively murky question as to whether America is ready for a democratic socialist president (or a secular president, for that matter). As noted above, Bernie Sanders’s agenda may be a necessary addition to our political discourse, but for the time being it is still considered unserious and unreasonable, in mainstream politics. Even compared to Donald Trump, who has already undermined democratic norms even before securing his party’s nomination.
That may be nuts, but it’s also the hand we’re dealt. As Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi lamented last week, “If it comes down to a Sanders-Trump general election, the matter will probably be decided by which candidate the national press turns on first: the flatulent narcissist with cattle-car fantasies or the Democrat who gently admires Scandinavia. Would you bet your children on that process playing out sensibly?”
By dint of her radical centrism a la her husband, Hillary Clinton is in a better position than Bernie Sanders to win the general election and in doing so save the country from complete and utter collapse. It isn’t an inspiring message, but this year in particular it’s going to have to be enough. I want Bernie Sanders to do well enough in this election that I get to vote for more candidates like him in the future up and down the ballot. That’s why I was excited to vote for him this morning, and why I think you should vote for him, too. But only on the condition that he doesn’t actually win. Political revolutions take years — perhaps decades — to build, and our country hasn’t caught up to him yet.
Now, as promised, here’s that John Oliver clip: