In New York magazine this week, Jonathan Chait attempts to make “The Case Against Bernie Sanders.” Allow us to un-make it.
Let’s take Chait’s main points one by one:
- Sanders doesn’t give the Affordable Care Act enough credit. Bernie Sanders advocates universal, single-payer government health care. To be clear, everyone who believes in health care as a human right knows that universal government health care is the system that we need. Even Hillary Clinton! The Affordable Care Act was one step down the road towards universal health care. Sanders advocates at least aiming to travel the whole road; Hillary Clinton’s position is not only that universal health care is impossible, but that a candidate in the Democratic primary should be attacked for supporting universal health care. This is the state of our Democratic Party in 2016.
- We don’t need to break up Wall Street Banks. Bernie Sanders argues for breaking up “too big to fail” financial institutions to reduce systemic risk and prevent the need for another taxpayer bailout down the road. Chait argues that the existing provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act “may not have broken up the big banks, but they have, at the very least, deeply reduced systemic risk,” due in large part to new capital requirements that are causing some large institutions to, in effect, break themselves up to avoid certain regulations. In other words, Chait is trumpeting the incidental breakup of large, dangerous institutions due to a weaker set of regulations while arguing against the purposeful breakup of large, dangerous institutions as a result of stronger regulations. This is nonsense.
- Economic inequality is not as bad as Sanders says. Chait argues that Bernie’s proposals to help the middle and lower classes and attack inequality are more or less unnecessary, because the post-recession economic recovery is doing the job well enough already. Unemployment is down and we are no longer mired in the worse economic crisis of a half-century, it’s true. But when Chait writes “the conclusion that Obama’s policies have failed to raise living standards for average people is premature. And the progress under Obama refutes Sanders’s corollary point, that meaningful change is impossible without a revolutionary transformation that eliminates corporate power,” what is he talking about? Has anyone outside of the Republican party actually argued that “Obama’s policies have failed to raise living standards for average people?” To the extent that you give any credit to Obama’s policies (rather than, say, the Fed) for the economic recovery, it is a simple and measurable matter to say that, yes, average people are doing better than they were in 2008, when we had just been hit with a global catastrophe. Big deal. Chait’s second sentence is also bizarre—are we to believe that the fact that quantitative easing and Keynesian economic assistance to the broad economy has, predictably, helped unemployment should somehow lead us to the conclusion that, uh, unstated progressive Obama policies were responsible for it and also disprove the assertion that corporations have too much political power? It is a non-sequitur based on a false premise. I have not heard any American politician argue that we need to “eliminate” corporate power, which would be impossible in a system of American capitalism (again, what does that even mean? Assassinate all CEOs?). Bernie Sanders quite reasonably wants to fix our campaign finance system to rein in the influence of corporations on politics, because that corporate influence naturally prevents political reforms that might benefit workers at the expense of corporations, because corporations are machines built for the sole purpose of making profits. If Chait would stop mischaracterizing Sanders’ positions, he might be forced to admit they make sense.
- Sanders’ support for a $15 an hour minimum wage would cost jobs. The truth is that nobody really knows what a $15 an hour minimum wage would do to employment, and it is also a moot point, because the federal minimum wage, which currently stands at $7.25 per hour, will not be more than doubled by this Congress. More likely, state and local minimum wages will begin to rise up to the $15 per hour point, as they already have in several areas, and those areas will be viewed as test cases by economists. The significance of a president supporting a $15 minimum wage, as Bernie does, rather than a lower one, as Hillary Clinton does, is that by supporting a lower wage you concede ground to opponents before the negotiations even begin, and in all likelihood end up with a lower final number. Supporting a $15 an hour minimum wage sets that as the bar from which opponents need to pull you down. (The theme of conceding ground to opponents before they ask for it instead of espousing beliefs that you actually believe is a key one in Chait’s support of Hillary Clinton.)
- Sanders is a socialist, and socialists can’t get elected. A self-fulfilling prophecy that has the effect of barring any progressive honest enough to accurately describe their political beliefs from running for president. Here we have a journalist arguing in favor of focus group-inspired dishonest political rhetoric, rather than honesty. Bernie Sanders polls better than Hillary Clinton in head to head matchups with the Republican candidates, which one would hope would end this line of attack once and for all. As in the case of universal health care “socialism” as advocated by Bernie Sanders consists mostly of ideals that Democrats believe in, but which Democrats like Jonathan Chait assume are impossible to achieve.
- Sanders’ policy proposals will be impossible to enact with a Republican Congress. Here we get to the heart of why Chait and the many Democrats who view themselves as prudent support Hillary Clinton. They portray Bernie Sanders and his supporters as unrealistic—sure, we’d all like to vote for the candidate who advocates the ideals that we believe in, but of course he could never get elected, and even if he did, he could never pass anything, so we might as well support the more centrist candidate. This presupposes that our Republican Congress is more likely to support the proposals of Hillary Clinton—which is false! Republicans hate Hillary Clinton more than they hate almost anyone in this world. Our “prudent Democrats” are willing to tone down their own ideals to support a candidate that is less liberal on the insane supposition that this will somehow win comity from a Republican Party that despises the centrist candidate even more than they despise the socialist candidate. The Republican Congress did not work with President Obama, a centrist Democrat; they will not work with the next Democrat in the White House either, regardless of who it is. As for what the next president will be able to accomplish without Congressional support, Chait says “The president retains full command of foreign affairs; can use executive authority to drive social policy change in areas like criminal justice and gender; and can, at least in theory, staff the judiciary.” And so even if you buy the defeatist-masquerading-as-realist attitude that Democrats must give up on progressive ideals in order to maintain power, you simply narrow the question to: Do you like Hillary Clinton’s or Bernie Sanders’ positions on foreign policy and social justice and the judiciary better? Reasonable Democrats can certainly disagree on these issues, but that is a far different discussion than the one that Chait was trying to advance in his piece.
Which is a long way of saying: vote for the candidate whose positions you actually agree with. That’s what primary elections are fucking for.