Countering Common Criticisms of Bernie's Candidacy
As someone who reads too many Facebook comments debating whether it will be Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to finally deliver us the Progressive Promise Land we have been waiting for since 2008, I lament the fact that many underlying issues are rarely debated in-depth. I personally believe Bernie is the best candidate for president in 2016 at this point, but I often feel that Bernie and his supporters poorly address common concerns over his candidacy. I decided to write a hypothetical dialogue between two well-meaning, liberal college students in which Brian, a Bernie supporter, tries to convince Harry, who is leaning towards Hillary, why he should feel the Bern to demonstrate the ways in which progressives might more productively engage with one another during this primary season.
Brian: Did you see the Democratic debate the other night? Hillary really fumbled her response about those Wall Street donations. Are you still on the Hillary train?
Harry: I am, but you know I appreciate Bernie. He is a fiercely progressive senator, and we need that sort of energy in the national conversation. But Bernie is simply too radical; Congress will never pass any of his outlandish ideas. Hillary will be able to get things done.
Brian: I disagree, but I am unsure if either candidate will be able to get important bills through the legislature. We have seen what the Republicans in Congress did even to the more moderate proposals from Obama.
Harry: Exactly. But Bernie’s proposals are so far out there that they will never even be debated. On the other hand, I think Hillary will have some success in achieving her goals, like Obama has.
Brian: I agree that it is unlikely that Speaker Paul Ryan would realistically consider passing a policy like single-payer healthcare. But it is a common misconception that Bernie is unwilling to compromise. Although his proposals are more progressive than those of colleagues, he still votes with Democrats 95-99% of the time. While he is a genuine and bold progressive, he is also a pragmatic voter in Congress.
Additionally, Hillary’s proposals are so mild that any realistic compromises would essentially result in centrist or right-leaning bills, especially if the GOP still controls Congress. As Christopher D. Cook writes in The Atlantic, “In politics, if you demand a mile, you get a foot; demand a moderate inch, and at best, you get a centimeter.”
Harry: I still think Bernie’s proposals are just too radical to appeal to most Americans.
Brian: Unfortunately, I think that view is a symptom of a rightward shift among the public and the media. In the 2008 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney was seen as the conservative alternative to the maverick John McCain, yet in 2012, Romney was framed as the moderate choice, and was regularly criticized as a Republican-in-Name-Only from conservative opponents like Rick Santorum. The mainstream media rarely puts the election cycles in this context, instead portraying conservative candidates like Marco Rubio as “moderate” simply because he is not quite as crazy as Ted “Carpet Bomb” Cruz in this particular field of 2016 contenders.
There is a double standard in the media when it comes to what Democratic and Republican candidates can propose. While Cruz gets criticized for his right-wing approaches to immigrants and ISIS, I have not read many mainstream articles that call out his tax plan as “unrealistic” or “outlandish,” as so many do to criticize Bernie’s proposals. Cruz wants to lower the top tax rate for the richest Americans from close to 40% to a mere 10% of annual income. Doesn’t this seem a little bit crazier than Bernie’s goal of universal health care—a policy accepted by every other advanced Western nation?
Harry: I agree with some of your points, but from a pessimistic standpoint. While perhaps both Bernie and Hillary would make pragmatic leaders, I worry that neither of them will have the opportunity to lead at all. The Republicans are going to continue to misapply Nancy Reagan’s mantra; they will “Just Say No” to any proposals that come their way, no matter which Democrat is in the White House.
All of that withstanding, we can both agree that electing a Democratic president, whether Hillary or Bernie, is important given the Supreme Court vacancy, as a Democratic appointment could tip the ideological scale of the Court in favor of liberals.
Brian: I completely agree. If for no reason other than that, I will of course vote for Hillary in November if she is the Democratic nominee.
Harry: And I would vote for Bernie. But isn’t Hillary simply more electable in the general election? I do not see Americans electing a socialist as president.
Brian: Popular sentiment seems to agree with you. If Bernie was running against another moderate candidate with greater name recognition, I might concur that he is the less viable pick. However, we have to be realistic about the extent of “Hillary hatred” among Republicans and Independents. Hillary is not your typical establishment candidate in that she comes with an unbelievable amount of political baggage.
Harry: Yes—thanks to a lifetime of unfair attacks from Republicans.
Brian: I agree that some of it is unwarranted antagonism, but that does not change the depressing reality of Hillary’s popularity outside of mainstream Democratic voters. In swing states like Colorado, two-thirds of the electorate say she is dishonest, while 57% believe she does not care about their problems. That split is similar in Virginia. In Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—more important swing states—those who do not favor Clinton outnumber those who do by an 18% margin. Despite the misguided nature of some of the attacks against her, voters simply do not seem to trust her.
Harry: But Brian, Bernie is a socialist. He wants to radically change this country. I am much more comfortable with Hillary’s vision of a more sustainable capitalism.
Brian: That is a misleading characterization of Bernie’s views, but the senator does not always do the best job of describing his brand of democratic socialism. All economically advanced Western countries fall somewhere on a spectrum between laissez faire, free-market capitalism, and an imagined Marxist socialism. The US is closer to the free-market side of the spectrum, but still has widely accepted redistributive social programs like Social Security and Medicare. Denmark is a good example of a country falling towards the other end of the spectrum, sporting a tax-revenue-to-GDP ratio of about 50%—double that of the US. Despite that, the fundamental differences between the two systems are not as pronounced as conservatives would like you to think. Both countries have mixed economies, and it is an exaggeration to say our economy is simply capitalist now but would transform into a fully blown socialist system under a Sanders presidency.
Harry: But I do not want the US to be more like Denmark. The Danish government has too much control over the economy. While I want greater benefits, I still love the economic freedom here. Plus, Denmark has a population of fewer than six million, so it is ridiculous to think its policies could work in the US.
Brian: Actually, that is another misconception. The Nordic countries still have very free markets; they simply choose to tax their citizens at higher rates to ensure a decent standard of living (with free health care and free higher education being two significant perks). In fact, the conservative Heritage Foundation ranks the US, the UK, and Denmark as about equally “economically free,” placing Canada even higher up on the economic freedom scale. Progressive social programs do not necessarily hinder the free markets that Americans love.
The population critique is unfounded as well. Scholars such as Lane Kenworthy make the case that the US can feasibly adopt social democratic policies to ensure better outcomes for more Americans, even if it does not embrace social democracy as much as Denmark. Germany, with a population of 80 million, ensures universal health care to all its citizens, spends significantly less of its GDP on health care, and boasts comparable wait times for treatment.
Harry: Maybe you are right, and Bernie isn’t quite as radical as Hillary paints him to be. But he still has a long way to go to win the nomination.
Brian: I agree. As much as it pains me to say this, Hillary is still clearly the Democratic frontrunner, with an overall financial lead, unparalleled name recognition, and overwhelming support from members of the Democratic establishment—factors that have served as meaningful indicators of success in past presidential primaries, as candidates with the greatest number of endorsements from party leaders and elected officials have typically triumphed in the presidential nomination process with access to greater campaign resources.
But let’s imagine Bernie wins the primary; a life-long progressive has just toppled the mainstream colossus candidate. This would mean Bernie succeeded in bringing millions of young, would-be non-voters into the electorate, which could give the Democratic Party an important advantage in 2016 congressional elections as well. Hillary will simply not inspire young people to vote in 2016.
Harry: Bernie winning the primary is a big “if,” of course, but I agree that it would signal an increased enthusiasm among young voters that Democrats need if they want to make significant gains in Congress.
Brian: And while Bernie does not have support from the Democratic establishment now, he would come November. Some see Bernie as electorally impossible in the general election, but that would change with figures like President Obama, Al Gore, and Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail.
Harry: I don’t know if I am quite ready to join the Bernie Dank Meme party, but all these points will be considered. I’ll see you on April 19 to vote in New York’s Primary.
Brian: See you there.
Photo source: http://www.alternet.org/files/story_images/clinton_sanders.jpg