Feel the Bern's Political Reality
If the past two Republican presidential debates felt like episodes of a hypothetical hit game show that we might call Who Wants to Beat a Billionaire, the first Democratic one proved to be a tamer affair -- yet one rife with the kind of policy quarrels that once must have seemed exhilarating enough to warrant the creation of C-SPAN.
In other words, the CNN Democratic debate’s conversations were far more substantive than the Trump-centered exchanges among the Republican contenders aired in previous months. The first question of the night posed by moderator Anderson Cooper to Hillary Clinton, in fact, was one of many tough ones, for it captured the essence of widespread public reluctance to support the heir apparent’s candidacy. Referencing her flip-flopping on gay marriage, immigration, and the Obama administration’s recent trade deal, Cooper asked, “Will you say anything to get elected?” He similarly got straight to the point in asking Bernie Sanders how a self-declared democratic socialist could possibly win an election in a largely moderate country.
Despite facing difficult questions and high stakes, the Democratic candidates appeared hesitant to make personal attacks on one another. Most viewers will remember Sanders’s ridiculing of the media’s focus on the Clinton email scandal as the quintessential example of this. As phrased by Martin O’Malley during his closing remarks, the debate could generally be characterized as “an honest search for the answers that will move our country forward.”
To be fair, the candidates’ ideas often converged on Tuesday night’s stage, as commonalities were found in near-uniform talking points on the inextricably linked topics of economic and racial inequality. In contrast, the five presidential contenders clashed on foreign policy, and on specific plans to regulate the financial industry. Perhaps the most contentious subject of the evening, though, turned out to be gun control, and the disagreements surrounding its merits highlight some broader electoral dynamics worth observing.
To Rationalize or to Idealize?
Most criticisms—and many commendations—of Sanders lie in his unapologetic leftist leanings, given the moderate electorate he seeks to court. As a result, we might have expected the senator to get attacked by his opponents during the CNN debate for having an unrealistic grasp on the reforms that are possible to achieve in our political system (which at times was the case). Thus, heads turned when Clinton and O’Malley moved to the left of Sanders on the issue of gun control on Tuesday night.
In defense of one of the few blemishes on his otherwise wholly progressive governing record, the Vermont senator explained, “I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not.” Indeed, a recent Pew poll shows a 60-40 percent urban-rural divide on support for gun rights in the country. Vermont’s gun culture, and corresponding “F” ranking on the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s 2014 gun law scorecard, makes Sanders’s past congressional votes against extensive federal gun control measures unsurprising.
Can we truly fault a US senator for following the overwhelming interests of his constituents? In some ways, of course we can, given the inexcusably routinized instances of mass shootings in the country and the corresponding need for tightened gun policies. But we can also keep in mind that Vermont’s status as number fourteen on the list of states with the lowest gun deaths per capita in 2013 might allow Sanders to rationalize an acquiescence to his constituents in the realm of gun rights.
A Stark Reality Check from… Bernie Sanders?
More importantly, we must recognize the reality of Sanders’s political situation on the issue of gun control, because it is far from unique and hardly limited to one policy area. This became clear when the senator sighed on stage, “What I can tell Secretary Clinton is that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want” – in regards to eradicating senseless gun violence.
Given the nature of our politically polarized system, drastic reforms are simply unlikely to pass. Consider that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, despite being a landmark achievement, only became law after significant bargaining with the pharmaceutical industry – deals “deemed necessary to forestall industry opposition that had thwarted efforts to cover the uninsured for generations.”
Compromise remains a prerequisite for even the most incremental change, but campaigns do not value concession making. As Jim Webb put it on Tuesday night, “You’ve heard a lot of promises up here… They all seem to happen during campaigns, and then once the election’s over, people start from scratch again and try to get things done.”
Just as the 2016 Republican presidential candidates have been racing to the right, so too have their Democratic counterparts been lurching leftward to appeal to the increasingly salient interests of progressive activists. Of course, this shift can in part be attributed to the rising popularity of Sanders, whose ideas have been celebrated in liberal enclaves.
However, despite his calls for policies that would turn privileges such as higher education into rights, it was Sanders himself who admitted during the CNN debate that even the most well-meaning principles have no chance of becoming concrete policy without the support of an overwhelming majority of the American public – or, more specifically, a majority of constituents in a state or congressional district to allow politicians to support reforms.
For such a stark reality check to have been delivered by Sanders is ironic, given his calls for a kind of egalitarianism hardly found outside of Scandinavian states. Even more ironic, though, is the fact that this same reality of change being stubbornly incremental will undoubtedly prevent the Vermont senator from ever being the Democratic presidential nominee, let alone president of the United States.