The recipe, by now, is clear: Open with some grand statements about the need for sweeping change. Complain about a "coronation" or the "domination" of "The Clinton Machine." Sprinkle in some statistics about income inequality - stagnating minimum wage, the massive gains of the top 1%, maybe a lament about no banker ever being arrested for the financial crash of 2007... Stir in some angry rhetoric, add some promises to achieve miraculous changes, maybe even a revolution... and Presto!
It's an article about Bernie Sanders!
I have read at least 4 complete versions of this exact piece, most recently Thomas Piketty for The Guardian. Piketty, a French economist, made waves with his recent book Capital in the 21st Century, suggesting that only by stopping wealth accumulation among the small number of wealthiest people can an economy thrive, with statistics to prove it. His argument has much the same attractiveness as Sanders' polemics, and in much the same way has invited considerable scrutiny of the statistics. And the polemics.
Bernie Sanders has been in Congress since the seventies, a longer span in elected office than virtually anyone running for President, and yet he is billed as an exciting outsider bent on breaking the Washington machine. As a Senate Committee Chair, Sanders oversaw Veterans Affairs - the largest, most complex, and most poorly run bureaucracy in the whole of government - and yet he remains seen as capable of sweeping change that dwarfs the VA exponentially. Sanders was, until late last year, a "Democratic Socialist" who ran as an Independent to win his elections in Vermont, yet now he wants the Democratic Party's nomination for President, as if he'd been involved in the party's politics all along. Sanders, at 74, would be as old as Ronald Reagan was when he left office (Reagan, we now know, had early symptoms of Alzheimer's by that time, but Sanders seems quite healthy), and would be the oldest President ever. The caveat to that is that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (who is older than her by some months), would also be older (at 70, each) than Reagan when he took office.
Trump - let's put in a pin in that for later, shall we? - and Sanders have been enjoying dual status as loud, angry outsiders battling their way to their respective nominations, mostly as vocal spokesman for those left behind, not just by the limping post 2007 recovery, but for years before. Trump enjoys considerable success attracting working class, less educated whites, while Sanders attracts some of the same crowd, as well as a large swath of young people, mostly college students and recent grads. The Sanders folks bristle at equations where the two are joined, even tangentially, but both do offer similarly flavored lines about getting stuck by the man, the wealthy business owning class that has profited from lowering wages, increasing worker productivity and swallowing nearly all the profits.
"Feel the Bern!" is the rallying cry of Sanders supporters, yet it's not enough, in their estimation to simply agree with the generalized sense that yes, there's massive income inequality, a disturbing concentration of wealth, and a host of economic issues to address. In Sanders view - as he has made abundantly clear in speeches, interviews, and debates - economics is the frame for all of America's (and the world's) problems, a Marxist, Socialist view that's been, until recently, largely set aside in favor of other, more complex approaches. His proposals, in turn, reflect that singleness of thought: plans to increase taxes, mainly on the wealthy and big corporations, to pay for a "Medicare for all" type single payer health plan, a plan to enable free tuition at state run colleges and universities, and some additional strengthening of the social safety net.
To say that this doesn't exactly add up, or seem entirely achievable... is to rain on exceedingly popular parade.
Though he deserves credit for saying it passionately and with conviction, much of what Sanders offers isn't especially new. The Medicare-for-all proposal showed up during the debate over the Affordable Care Act and then, as now, it bogs down both over the cost and complexity of implementing a state run insurance program for every person... but also over just how such a plan would actually control the cost of care, when Medicare's fee for service model has served as the incentive for much of the problem we've had in healthcare since it was created. Fee for service creates an incentive, fairly obviously, to add services which aren't always medically necessary. And setting the fees is mainly of interest to those whose livelihoods - like medical professionals, hospital executives and pharmaceutical concerns - revolve around receiving them.
The college tuition plan is even more curious, since the tuitions and fees of state schools are determined by, well, the states that operate them; even Sanders, in the most concrete legislative proposal he's made, acknowledges that the federal government can't subsidize the entire bill. And of course, any discussion of how these proposals, and the underlying tax increases, could ever pass Congresses heavily, if not over-represented by Republicans would even come close to passing any of this, is where fantasy simply takes over. Sanders has suggested, when pressed, that there simply would have to be a "revolution," presumably electing very left leaning majority legislatures in both houses, to achieve anything like what he's proposed.
Indeed, the song of Bernie Sanders has been a romantic theme of the dreams of liberals for generations, at least back to the era of Roosevelt, if not back to the Gilded and Industrial Age. It's a utopia of healthcare, education, easily accessed social services, world peace and shared resources. It's hard not to love (if you love, you know, world peace and all of that)... it's also, just, extremely unlikely to ever, ever happen.
All of these developments, the rise of Sanders, the enthusiasm of kids and those left behind, a campaign of who can promise more liberal things to the liberal left... strike me as unsurprising, if a bit sudden and a little extreme. Hillary Clinton's strength, rarely valued, is both understanding how big systems work (i.e. process) and seeing, in practical terms, how to manage achievable goals in a realistic setting. None of that, really, captures people's dreams (unless, like me, you dream about process), and it can seem, to some, like a dismissal of passion, anger, and certainly rage.
But the song of Sanders is a dream that cannot happen. There's few ways to spell this out more clearly to the crowds of supporters feeling the Bern, but there it is. It's pie in the sky proposals that can't deal with the systems we already have developed over time (whether political, economic or social), and won't happen due to resistance at the most basic levels from forces well beyond the supporters' control (not just wealth and power, but the sincere disagreements of intelligent opponents... of whom I am not one). At every turn, when asked what compromise, or reality, or failure might look like, Sanders returns, firmly, to the Dream of the Revolution. It must happen, just this way. We cannot compromise, we cannot fail. Until, of course, we do.
It's hard to fight a dream. It's hard - and I've said this, repeatedly, over these blogging years - to walk the American psyche back from anger and fear. Sanders is, in many ways, as much of a political triumph as the Occupy Wall Street crowd has ever known, and likely will ever see - a full throated endorsement of their incoherent anger, lack of specific goals, and vague plans for an oversized, unrealistic future that most people can't see or favor. It's losing sight of the practical, everyday issues, working poor people actually face, in favor of the intellectual exercises of an educated class with the luxury of time and space to engage in them. It's a pretty song, as a siren's song often is. And just as the song remains the same, the rocks will still dash the boat. Hopefully, lefties can shake off the dreams and get down to the practical matters at hand... but that song... it's just so pretty...