The Trouble with Bernie Sanders's Revolution

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Bailey Baker, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, center, cheers as Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at the University of Iowa, on Saturday, January 30, 2016, in Iowa City, Iowa. 

We'll know Monday night whether Bernie Sanders has taken the first step toward the revolution he has promised, but we can already say that his campaign has achieved stunning success, more than almost anyone thought was possible. Now that the voting is beginning and Democratic voters have to make their choice, we should take a good hard look at what Sanders wants to do and how he wants to do it. Whatever the results of the Iowa Caucuses, he's a serious candidate, and his candidacy should be engaged on serious terms.

If there's one word that Sanders uses more than any other when describing what he wants to do (other than "billionaires"), it would have to be "revolution." He uses it in two different ways, both to describe the movement for change he wants to lead in the campaign, and the substantive change that movement will produce. So his revolution will both overthrow the old order and replace it with something new.

Even if Sanders began this race by trying to make a point, he's now trying to win. So it's worth taking the goals of his revolution, like single-payer health insurance, free college tuition, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and asking what the process will be between him being elected and those goals being achieved.

By now, Sanders has been asked the logical question—This is pretty ambitious stuff, how are you going to pass it through Congress?—many times. The answer he gives is always some version of Because this is going to be a revolution. In other words, his candidacy will so mobilize the American people that Congress will be forced to acquiesce to the public's desire to see his agenda enacted.

But let's get more specific than Sanders does. If his revolution is to succeed, it must do so through one of two paths:

1. It elects so many Democrats that the party regains control of both the House and the Senate, and those Democrats support Sanders's policy agenda with enough unanimity to overcome any opposition; or

2. It so demonstrates the public demand for Sanders's agenda that even congressional Republicans go along with it.

Start with Number 1. Let's imagine Sanders is the Democratic nominee. What would it take for his coattails to deliver both houses back to Democratic control? Taking the Senate first. At the moment, a Democratic takeover looks difficult, but possible. The Republicans have a 54-46 advantage, and they are defending 24 seats this year, while Democrats are defending only ten (the imbalance is because the senators elected in the Republican sweep of 2010 are up for re-election). That looks great for Democrats, were it not for the fact that most of those seats are not competitive at all. No matter how revolutionary the Democratic candidate is, Republicans are still going to hold on in places like Idaho and Oklahoma. Most of the experts who follow these races obsessively (see here or here) rate only nine or ten of these races as even remotely competitive.

But it's certainly possible that Democrats could sweep most of them and take back the Senate. What is not possible is for Democrats to win so many that they'd have the 60-seat margin necessary to overcome Republican filibusters. And there would be filibusters on of all the items on President Sanders's agenda. So on the Senate side, the revolution would seem to require both a Democratic sweep and a willingness of the Democrats to destroy the filibuster. Might they do that? Sure. Will they? Probably not.

But that's not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the House, where redistricting and a more efficient geographic allocation of voters (there's an explanation of that here) have left Republicans with a structural advantage that will make it particularly hard in the near future for Democrats to take back control. The overwhelming majority of seats in the House are not at all competitive, with one party or the other all but guaranteed to win the seat no matter whom the party nominates for president. As election analysts Charlie Cook and David Wasserman recently noted, "Today, the Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port counts just 33 seats out of 435 as com­pet­it­ive, in­clud­ing 27 held by Re­pub­lic­ans and six held by Demo­crats. That means that even if Demo­crats swept every single com­pet­it­ive seat, they would still fall three seats short of a ma­jor­ity."

That doesn't mean it's completely impossible for Bernie Sanders to win such a dramatic victory that he pulls in a Democratic House behind him, just that it's very, very unlikely. And if it did happen, many of those newly elected Democrats would be from conservative districts. He'd have to not only hold their votes, but hold them on intensely controversial reforms. It might be worth remembering how hard it was for Barack Obama to keep Democrats together on things like the Affordable Care Act, which Sanders argues was a change that didn't go nearly far enough.

That brings us to the second possibility for Sanders's revolution, which he hints at without going into detail: that public support for his agenda will be so overwhelming that congressional Republicans, fearing for their political careers and helpless in the face of political reality, will have no choice but to get behind it.

There's a reason Sanders doesn't get too specific about the idea that Republicans will vote for things like single-payer health care: It's absurd. No one who is even vaguely familiar with today's Republican Party—a party that has grown more conservative with each passing year, and which has come to view any compromise with Democrats as a betrayal, no matter the substance of the issue in question—could think there are any circumstances short of an alien invasion that would make them support a Democratic president (and maybe not even then).

I'm sure some of Sanders's more enthusiastic fans will say that in looking at his idea of a revolution this way, I'm either shilling for Hillary Clinton or I'm some kind of apologist for the the prevailing corporate-dominated order. I doubt I could convince them otherwise, though I will say that I've been extremely critical of Clinton on any number of issues for years, and I've been a strong supporter of single-payer health care for just as long. But whatever you think about Clinton or about the substance of Sanders's ideas, the challenge of passing Sanders's agenda remains the same.

One can also say, "Well, Hillary Clinton doesn't have much of a plan for how she'll get anything passed through Congress either." And that would be true—she faces the same congressional problem, and Republicans will fight her more modest program with just as much energy and venom as they would Sanders's. I have little doubt that if Clinton becomes president, much of what she's now advocating will fall by the wayside, not because she isn't sincere about it but because she won't find a way to pass it. That's a problem that she needs to address for Democratic voters, but it doesn't change Sanders's responsibility to address the practical difficulty his program presents.

Eight years ago, Barack Obama was elected on a campaign notable for its lofty rhetoric about hope and change. But his actual policy agenda was, if not modest, then certainly firmly in the mainstream. Among other things, he wanted to end the war in Iraq, use government spending to alleviate the misery of the Great Recession, and pass market-based health-care reform. None of these were radical ideas. But he had to fight like hell to pass them, in the face of a Republican Party that sincerely believed he was trying to destroy America with his socialist schemes.

Unlike Obama, Bernie Sanders is advocating radical change. Which means his revolution would face obstacles even greater than Obama did. It's a long way from here to there.

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