Many of my friends, both online and in “real life,” are enthusiastically supporting Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency. His straight-talking critique of economic inequality and his unapologetically left-wing proposals for addressing it have undeniably tapped into frustrations with the political and economic status quo. He presents a sharp contrast with the cautious centrism of Hillary Clinton, and his candidacy provides, perhaps, a shot at redemption for liberals who have been disappointed with President Obama.
I can see, and to some extent I feel, the appeal of the Bern. His critique of economic inequality is important, and I’d support many of his proposed solutions. And when politics is swimming in big money, his grass-roots approach to fundraising is inspiring.
So why aren’t I, as my title suggests, feeling the Bern?
First, I’m less left-wing than Sanders. That is, I’m not as pessimistic about our political and economic system, and I’m a bit more skeptical about the kind of sweeping programs he’s proposing. I’m still firmly on the left, or at least the center-left, but probably closer to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. (Though I’m persuadable here, and often find value in the critique of those on the further-left.)
Second, I’m not convinced Sanders has the temperament or experience to be president. He often comes across as dogmatic and impatient, and he evinces little interest in the things that actually form the core of the president’s job: running the executive branch and conducting foreign policy. Sanders’ passion is clearly domestic, specifically economic, policy, but in our system of government the president has a very limited ability to enact the kinds of sweeping changes he’s calling for.
Third, and probably most important to my mind, Sanders can’t win. Or at least I’m highly skeptical that he could. Much has been made of his recent surge in the polls: depending on which one you look at, he’s either neck-and-neck with or actually beating Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Iowa. But his inroads in other states, ones that are more representative of the electorate, remain stubbornly limited. He seems to have trouble appealing beyond his core base of white, relatively affluent progressives, and these folks don’t constitute a majority of Democratic primary voters, not to mention the electorate as a whole.
Hard-core Sandersnistas will insist that he can win, and that his surge in Iowa and New Hampshire can be replicated in other states. And I’ve had friends tell me that, if presented in an unbiased way to the American public, Sanders’ proposals will handily win a majority in the general election.
Color me skeptical. Barack Obama, despite being a pragmatic, center-left liberal, has been routinely pilloried as a “socialist” for his entire presidency. What do people think will happen if someone who actually identifies as a democratic socialist wins the nomination? The red-baiting will be something to behold.
Essentially, I regard a Sanders nomination as a high-risk/low-reward proposition. The risk is losing the election—probably not in a 1972- or 1984-style blow-out, but decisively—and ushering a Republican into the White House, along with Republican control of Congress. (And have you seen the Republican Party lately?) And the potential upside isn’t as big as some people seem to think. Even if President Sanders is sworn into office in January 2017, he will still in all likelihood be dealing with a Congress, or at least a House, that’s overwhelmingly Republican. This would drastically limit his ability to enact his ambitious proposals, if not put the kibosh on them entirely. The constraints on a President Sanders would be essentially the same (barring some major upsets in congressional races) as they would on a President Clinton, or President Biden, or whoever. And so I’m not convinced the results would be that different.
This doesn’t mean that I think the Sanders candidacy has been a bad idea. I think a robust left wing helps keep liberalism honest and prevents it from drifting too far to the right. Sanders has expanded the range of acceptable policy options and is keeping the issue of economic fairness front-and-center in the campaign. I think this leftward pressure will be good for the Democratic Party in the long run, even if I’m not on board with Sanders as president.
This is my current thinking, at least. I could probably be persuaded otherwise. Heck, by the time the Maryland primary rolls around next April my vote may not matter that much anyway. And if Sanders does actually win the nomination, I’ll vote for him and hope for the best.