The math and data that show why the “political revolution” can’t and won’t happen anytime soon.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse February 5, 2016; over 35,700 unique views
Updated February 8th to include data on political ideology of Americans, February 11th to include commentary by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, February 12th to include data on turnout in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries vs. 2016 numbers, and February 19th to point out that Gerald Friedman, one of the economists most often cited by Sanders people in support of their program is actually voting for Hillary Clinton; my February 17th update has since been turned into a new post, see the end for details.
AP/John Locher for photo without text
AMMAN — For those who have studied or crafted public policy and those who support Hillary Clinton based on her record of accomplishment and her sound, workable policy proposals, the rise of Bernie Sanders, the passion of his supporters, and the vitriol some (but thankfully, not all) of those supporters directed against Hillary Clinton—Hillary Clinton, for decades painted and attacked by the right as a dangerous leftist!—is at the very least frustrating and for many downright infuriating and depressing. More than anything else, this map I will get into later will help you understand why the political and policy classes are not feelin’ the Bern.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Bernie Sanders. I like what he stands for. I’ve been a fan for years (my personal favorite Bernie moment was when he destroyed Michele Bachmann on live TV). But as someone who has studied politics and public/foreign policy for over fifteen years—and if that makes me a “Washington Insider,” I’m guilty as charged!—I am one of those is more vexed than pleased with his sudden, meteoric rise.
To lead with just one example, let’s talk about healthcare.
Hillary tried hard to get a reformed healthcare system that would provide universal coverage passed (dubbed “Hillarycare”) when she was First Lady, during Bill Clinton’s first term; she was attacked and demonized by the Republican Party in a bruising battle for her efforts, and though defeated, but she did not give up on health reform and she was a key force in later seeing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) eventually enacted, a program that has provided millions of children with access to healthcare. This exercise taught Hillary and anyone paying attention then (or who bothers to look into the history now) that enacting sweeping legislation is easier said than done.
But now we have a candidate in Sanders who is promising an incredibly ambitious single-payer healthcare system if elected, and promises a “political revolution” as the means to this end. His supporters seem to forget the healthcare battles of the last seven years and fail to understand that a “political revolution” is not a means to anything but an end in and of itself, one so daunting and impossible in current or even near-term circumstances that any plans dependent on them will only remain on paper and in people’s heads for the foreseeable future.
Exit polls in Iowa tell us a lot: it is very instructive that older voters—those who have seen more than a few elections and political battles, who have some life experience and wisdom—favor Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly (those ages 65 or older favored her 69% to only 26% for Sanders), whereas the youngest voters, who have seen the fewest elections and political battles and are the most inexperienced and naïve, favor Sanders overwhelmingly (84% to 14% for Clinton among 17-29-year-olds).
On foreign policy, Sanders’ entire campaign seems to consist of two things: 1.) his contrast in voting in the negative during the misleadingly-labeled “Iraq War vote” with Hillary, who voted for the relevant bill, and 2.) pretty much nodding in agreement with what Hillary says about foreign policy, never going into the detail she does because he simply does not have the ability to do that. With issues closer to home, the Bernie Sanders campaign seems to address just about every domestic issue through one or more of three prisms: 1.) inequality/the wealthiest 1%, 2.) Wall St/the big banks, and 3.) corruption/money in politics. He has a good short pitch on each, and those tend to be his answers to just about everything domestic. His big policy proposals are also a triumvirate: 1.) single-payer healthcare, 2.) free college for all, and 3.) massive tax increases on the rich and corporations and a modest tax increase on the middle class to pay for the first two. Even the most generous credible assessments of these “plans” (and most are not generous) suggest his numbers and mechanisms are off as he presents them or would need luck for them to work (in fact, Gerald Friedman, one of the economists most often cited by Sanders people to lend credibility to Bernie’s plans, has just declared publicly that he will be voting for Hillary Clinton: “I support Clinton…I donate $10 a month to Clinton. I remember the woman who said, women’s rights are human rights. I think she did a great job as secretary of state. I agree with Bernie on economic issues, but there are other issues.” He is also adjusting his analysis in a way that is less favorable to Sanders’ plans).
Hold on here folks, time for an adult to say ”Gee, sounds great, but how the @#$* are you going to make any of this happen?” Someone who has not fallen for the Sirens’ song of Bernie Sanders, who can still exercise critical thinking and due diligence, because, as of yet, I have not found a single Bernie Sanders supporter who has done this and has come up with a plausible answer. How do I know this?
Every time I ask how, the answer comes back to “political revolution” (cue eye roll/face palm). Their chosen candidate is no better with his answers.
We’ve seen this sitcom before, in the campaign of Barack Obama and his presidency. The famous line of his that became a mantra—that America could not be reduced to “a collection of red states and blue states,” liberal or conservative parts, that, rather, “We are…the United States of America,” and much of the accompanying rhetoric, told us we had a candidate who disdained and would remain aloof from partisan politics, who would reach out to Republicans and try hard to work with them, ushering in a new era of bi-partisan cooperation and bi-partisan achievement. That era never happened: Obama’s two signature domestic legislative achievements—the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act (dubbed Obamacare)— combined garnered a grand total of three Republican votes: three votes in the Senate for the stimulus only and that was it (of those three senators, one has since retired and one switched parties before first losing his senate seat and then dying of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma). And on both packages, not even all Democrats voted affirmatively.
Obama’s selling of so much “hope and change” and bi-partisanship made people feel good and believe in the America that they wanted to exist, but was incredibly naïve, since it was clear long before he was elected that Republicans had no interest in cooperation and lurched to the right and to obstructionism even more than before with the rise of the so-called Tea Party, which came to some surprising power in the 2010 mid-term elections; since the Republicans took back the House in those elections, a dysfunctional House has voted to repeal Obamacare over sixty times.
So yes, Obama the candidate sold a naïve approach to governance, but he never aggressively sold massive legislation programs that were wildly unachievable. And while this approach was his greatest weakness as president, he still managed to be a pretty good president despite this.
Now, candidate Bernie Sanders is doubling down on the impractical, taking the stupendously naïve to ethereal new heights: Bernie is selling three wildly unachievable massive legislation packages, and is selling a wildly unserious approach to achieve them…
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” vs. Math, Geography, and Reality
Which brings us back to the “political revolution” slogans, talking points, rhetoric, take you pick of words/phrases which correctly signify the emptiness behind them. “You’re being too cynical!” I am told. “How do you know if we don’t try?” And I always have the same answer: “Look at this map!”:
As the map shows, Republicans hold 247 seats, Democrats 188, with 218 seats being the magic number to give one side a majority. Well, for the Republican side, a full 219 seats are virtually certain to remain in Republican hands come Election Day. This is a majority. The Democrats are virtually certain to hold onto 183 seats. There are only 31 seats that are competitive: 18 of these favor Republicans (12 heavily, 7 moderately, 3 slightly), 7 of these favor Democrats (2 heavily, 1 moderately, 4 slightly), and 11 seats are “tossups.” Even if, by some miracle, the Democrats won all 31 of these competitive seats, they would still not have a majority, and even the chances winning all those seats are, truly, of a supernatural nature. I have heard nothing of a realistic strategy for how to prevent any losses whatsoever for Democrats and win all those 31 seats, let alone how to chip into the 219 seats virtually certain to remain Republican. On top of that, a President Sanders who is not even a Democrat and has often run against Democrats would hardly have an easier time getting Democrats on board with his agenda than longtime-Democrat Obama, who was unable to prevent some Democrats from voting against both his stimulus package and Obamacare. And Sanders would need every Democrat and a virtually impossible combination of miracle victories in races in both the House and Senate for his controversial legislation to pass both the chambers of Congress.
There are a lot of problems with how these districts are designed, as well: they favor Republicans because Republicans control a lot of state legislatures, which are the bodies that control the long and complex process of creating congressional districts; as I wrote a few years ago, “1.4 million more votes were cast for Democrats in the 2012 House elections, and yet Republicans ended up with a 234-201 advantage in House seats.”
Though the Senate is more competitive, the situation still favors Republicans, the the House could still block any legislation it wants, and, constitutionally, only the House can propose official budgets.
In addition, this is also crucial to consider: in 2008, when Obama won election, only 5 states leaned or were solidly Republican, while the Democrats had 35 states that leaned or were solidly their side. In 2015, that balance reversed dramatically: now, Democrats have only 14 states solidly in or leaning towards their camp while there are 20 states that lean or are solidly Republican. Thus, Republicans nationally currently have a commanding majority of positions in state-level governments, the very positions that control the redistricting process.
Another insurmountable realty for Sanders is that out of all 50 states, only 3(Massachusetts, Vermont, and Hawaii) have more people who identify as liberal than conservative, and all by a margin of 4.6% or less, while 47 states have more people who identify as conservative than liberal, with the margin as high as 36% and with 19 states having at least 20% more self-identified conservatives than self-identified liberals. The people are not with Bernie and would not be with his program.
The math is daunting and stubborn, and Bernie’s talk of “political revolution” has not credibly addressed this math; it is obviously not capable of doing so.
So when, during the debate last night and in response to a question about prioritizing his political agenda that implied and begged a discussion of “the how” behind it, Sanders said “No, you just can’t negotiate with Mitch McConnell. Mitch is gonna have to look out the window and see a whole lot of people saying, ‘Mitch, stop representing the billionaire class. Start listening to working families,’” the clear implication was that mobilizing millions of Americans to take to the streets and march on Washington will have some sort of effect on Mitch McConnell and other Republicans. That’s part of what Sanders is getting at with his nebulous “political revolution” talk.
Frankly, this idea is as absurd as it is empty: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has held his Senate seat for Kentucky for over thirty years, and won his sixth term in 2014 by over 15 percentage points (56.2% to 40.7% for his main rival) and by a margin of over 220,000 votes. Mitch McConnell will not care about the millions in the streets; he will care about the over 800,000 Kentuckians who voted him into office, and any other Kentuckians he can add to that total.
There is also the issue of high Republican turnout. In response to Bernie’s idea of political revolution, Charles Blow, a passionate New York Times columnist and an African-American, noted in his column titled “Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters” that Bernie fans aggressively courting the black vote should respect—and themselves consider—the sound reasons why back voters are cynical and not easily moved by lofty promises from politicians. While Blow noted one of these reasons was the long, arduous journey of being black in America, Blow also in particular asked those with visions of “political revolution” dancing in their heads to consider that Republican turnout has been higher than Democratic turnout in this 2016 nominating contest thus far, in both Iowa and New Hampshire, with each contest setting respective records for turnout among Republicans. For Blow, “That’s a stubborn fact emerging — a reality — and it is one that all voters, including black ones, shouldn’t be simply told to discount.”
But the bad news for Sanders’ would-be revolutionaries continues: in 2008, Democratic turnout in the Iowa caucuses was about 240,000 caucus-goers and in the New Hampshire primary it was about 288,000 voters. This year, only about 172,000 people participated in the Iowa caucuses, while only about 250,000 people voted in New Hampshire, declines of roughly 28% and 13%, respectively.
With Republican turnout higher than Democrats’ and increasing, and Democratic turnout lower than Republicans’ and decreasing, it would seem that Sanders’ key independent variables on which the the success of his “political revolution” depends are not only insufficient, but moving in reverse.
Along with all the other data presented in this article, this turnout data would suggest that the Sanders-advertised “political revolution”— one based on high Democratic turnout from all the supposed Berners who have been lurking in the shadows but who will now supposedly swell the ranks of Democratic voters enough to empower a Sandersesque agenda—is a “political revolution” that cannot be discussed in the present tense, certainly not in the this election cycle, and thus can only be mentioned in a hypothetical conditional future tense.
We may not be able to teach Sanders’ supporters public policy and politics, but they should be able to learn basic math.
Bernie Supporters Need a “Revolution” in How They See Reality
When the hypothetical farce of a fantasy of Sanders’ agenda is stripped down by these cold hard numbers to what is actually realistically possible—leaving out the political damage and pushback that would be suffered by pushing such drastic, unworkable legislation on a majority of Americans who currently don’t reflect the left-wing of the American population and who would be strongly opposed to such legislation, we are generally left with policies very similar to Hillary Clinton’s. Because once we realize there is no real-world answer in the America of 2016 (and 2017, 2018…) to the question of “How?” in regards to Senator Sanders’ agenda, we must then ask “Why do people support him?” The disturbing answer is that these voters care very little for process, for records, for details, for implementation, for statistics; they hear lullabies of what they like to hear and are happy to drift to sleep in dreamland rather than mentally exert themselves with the details of trying to turn their dreams into reality, because if they did, their dream would shatter and they would be stuck in the less cool, less fun, less Bernie-friendly real world, where Republicans and non-liberals actually exist. Berners are eager to support whomever will say what they want to hear, who say it the loudest and most often, without any serious regard as to how to turn words into action, and they scoff at, even vilify, someone who is, in the words of The New York Times, “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.” Then, combined with what is going on in the calamitous circus of the Republican nomination contest, we see signs of an unhealthy electorate that is incapable of passing sound judgement on presidential candidates, among many other elected officials.
Over the seven+ years of Obama’s presidency, Democrats have built a brand of being reasonable, rational, and realistic in contrast to the Republicans’ well-earned brand of being ideological, irrational, and inane. It was Republicans who were selling things like programs on extremely unfavorable terms to Iran and absent major leverage with Iran, deporting eleven million people, and getting Mexico to pay for a wall on the U.S. southern border. When talking to centrist undecided and unaffiliated voters, Democrats could laugh and point to Hillary Clinton as their party’s standard bearer. If Bernie is to be our new standard-bearer and our new brand is to be militantly progressive, willfully blind to political reality, and tone deaf to non-liberals, the Democrats will be abandoning brand traits that are the most important in a general election in favor of becoming more like Republicans in style and approach. And for what? To feel good about a candidate that makes you “excited?” That excitement will only lead to disappointment. In the words of longtime-liberal Paul Krugman from his column “How Change Happens”:
“The point is that while idealism is fine and essential — you have to dream of a better world — it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. That’s true even when, like F.D.R., you ride a political tidal wave into office. It’s even more true for a modern Democrat, who will be lucky if his or her party controls even one house of Congress at any point this decade.
Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.”
The February 17th update has since been turned into a new piece: I Declare War on Bernie Sanders and His Fans: Why They May Become the Liberal Tea Party and Why They Must Be Stopped
Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters
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