Bernie Sanders’s Alternate Reality

Former senator and two-time presidential aspirant John Edwards used to lament what he called the “two Americas” (later it turned out that there were two John Edwardses, as well). Edwards was talking about the divergent experiences between rich and poor in George W. Bush’s stagnant and then collapsing economy. While the gulf separating the wealthy and everyone else has only grown since the last Edwards campaign in 2008, his slogan fits perhaps even more snuggly to the growing rhetorical division between left and right. Or more accurately, to the widening chasm between conservative conspiracy-laden, myth-based false certainty and, you know, reality. It’s a phenomenon political scientist Norm Ornstein has formally identified as “asymmetrical polarization.” Even ignoring the Trump campaign as a bizarre piece of performance art, it’s hard not to feel the consequences of the two, disparate Americas just by flipping through news channels at night or browsing political blogs and online magazines.

These other two Americas have caused real harm to the likelihood of solving the chronic problems ailing our country. It’s what prevented real fixes and better scrutiny to President Obama’s health care proposals, and what required congressional Democrats to use inelastic legislative vehicles to ultimately pass the Affordable Care Act. It’s what subsequently misled millions of Americans into believing that the new healthcare law would create death panels for their parents and grandparents, deny them coverage, explode their premiums, and lose their jobs. It’s what led to the pervasive yet contradictory beliefs, espoused by a former Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, sitting Senators, and aspirants to the People’s House, that President Obama is both an incompetent, teleprompter-addicted product of affirmative action and a scheming, dangerous radical deliberately plotting to remake America into a post-colonial, socialist sinkhole. And it’s what has given rise to the unprincipled and unruly Tea Party, whose only real lasting legacy has been to prevent Republicans from governing responsibly (or often at all).

All of which is why Bernie Sanders’s more-than-mere-dalliances with fact-free notions are so troubling. His vision promises not to heal the two Americas, but to create a third.

Sanders’s indifference to fact-based arguments has manifested itself in four different ways throughout the 2016 campaign: substantively, procedurally, emotionally, and philosophically. First, at the outset of the campaign, Sanders dismissed substantive critiques of his economic proposals from leading liberal economists. The numbers didn’t add up, and the campaign’s talking points on taxes and healthcare were more like headlines than detailed plans. More troubling, the campaign openly embraced make-believe economic projections by an economist named Gerald Friedman which supported those unrealistic policies. As four leading liberal economists wrote in an open letter regarding the fanciful Sanders projections: “These claims undermine the credibility of the progressive economic agenda and make it that much more difficult to challenge the unrealistic claims made by Republican candidates.”

Second, Sanders has embraced a theory of the campaign utterly at odds with mathematical or political reality. With just under 300 fewer delegates than Hillary Clinton, Sanders has a deficit nearly twice the effectively insurmountable one Barack Obama held over Clinton in 2008. Under the Democrats’ proportional voting system, Sanders would have had to win super majorities of the states voting in April, May, and June to wrest the nomination for himself. This was an impossible task. Undeterred, the candidate alternated between denying the delegate math and railing against the system as rigged. He criticized the few states that held “closed” primaries—open only to registered Democrats, not independents—and suggested his huge margins in many caucus states reflected greater support. Never mind that the evidence suggests Sanders was disproportionately helped by the caucus system (Clinton won non-binding primaries in Nebraska and Washington even as Sanders won by landslide margins in earlier caucuses) and that Clinton did far better than Sanders even in primaries open to independents. Sanders has made the suggestion that he is nearly even in the national polls with Clinton a standard part of his stump speech, even though those claims require Trump-worthy cherry-picking (she now leads by more than ten points nationally) and despite the fact that he’s won less than 43% of the popular vote thus far. Now, in what is perhaps his greatest delusion, Sanders is publicly calling on Superdelegates to switch their allegiance from Clinton to him. Of course, Sanders is the candidate who railed against the idea that Superdelegates would override the voters’ will, the exact strategy he is now advocating. But regardless, such a plan ignores an obvious truth of the Democratic campaign. In what world would elected Democrats overturn the will of their voters to embrace a less-electable candidate who just spent a year attacking them as corrupt? Not this one.

Third, Sanders spawned an emotional falsehood that distorted the true differences between his candidacy and Clinton’s. Riding the wave of decades of negative attacks against the former Secretary of State, Sanders has pushed full-throated attacks on her ethics and trustworthiness, directly calling her corrupt. This has led to real antipathy towards the inevitable Democratic nominee by large swaths of the liberal electorate. Yet Sanders has been stuck between two emotional inconsistencies: President Obama, a direct practitioner of the very fundraising and compromised half-measures which supposedly demonstrate Clinton’s poor character, is wildly popular among Democrats. Rather than carry the critique to its logical conclusion, Sanders has repeatedly dissembled. He embraces Obama while criticizing the very practice of Obama-style politics by Clinton.

Which brings us to the fourth and most serious manner in which Sanders inhabits a fact-free environment on the left—his philosophical illiberalism of thought.

Sanders’s delusions might be more easily dismissed if he were not so explicitly in favor of turning the liberal movement in this country—and with it the Democratic Party—towards the kind of frighteningly reality-free world that many of today’s conservatives inhabit. On May 6th, Sanders gave an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow wherein he responded to the question, “[w]hat’s the solution to corporate media,” by chillingly stating: “I think we have got to think about ways that the Democratic Party, for a start, starts funding the equivalent of Fox television.” This statement is deeply distressing. It would beyond hypocritical for liberals rightly contemptuous of Fox News’s blatant distortions and bias to then back a leftist version of the same media scourge. But then to suggest that the Democratic Party should actually fund such an endeavor comes breathtakingly close to the kind of state-sponsored propaganda typical of totalitarian regimes.

More troubling than this comment is the Sanders campaign’s growing resemblance to the Tea Party. Sanders supporters have recently taken to drafting a Superdelegate “hit list,” promising to primary from the left any Superdelegate who votes for Clinton at the convention. It is the kind of operation borne out of zealotry and not principle. By all means, push the Democratic Party closer to the positions Sanders espouses or in a more progressive direction. But creating litmus tests on process for committed liberals is counterproductive. Condemning the Barbara Boxers and Harry Reids of the country will lead to fewer progressive victories and greater Democratic electoral defeats.

It’s not clear, however, that Sanders or his followers truly understand the destructive power that the Tea Party has had. Of course they are in ideological opposition to the Tea Party’s aims and believe its substantive positions are harmful to the country. Yet, the Tea Party’s full legacy is one of deep and lasting harm to the very Republican Party it sought to capture and reform, as well. Writing over at Salon, however, Sanders supporter Sean Illing praised the new initiative created by laid-off Sanders staffers called Brand New Congress: “Real change in this country will require a sustained national mobilization, what I’ve called a counter-Tea Party movement. While their agenda was nihilistic and obstructionist, the Tea Party was a massive success by any measure. And they succeeded because they systematically altered the Congressional landscape.”

It is precisely this line of thinking that should concern progressives. The Tea Party movement has not been a “massive success by any measure.” In fact, it has been an abject failure in achieving conservative or limited government policy goals despite its initial electoral successes in the 2010 midterm. The primary aspect of the political landscape the Tea Party has succeeded in changing are the incentives of Republican candidates and lawmakers to engage in both self and nationally destructive behaviors. It was the Tea Party that led John Boehner to walk away from versions of the “Grand Bargain” that included massively consequential conservative policy goals in exchange for moderate concessions. It was the Tea Party that insisted on nominating Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock for Senate seats instead of saner, solidly conservative candidates with actual chances of winning. And it has led to a world in which literally no deal to fund the government could be viewed as sufficiently conservative for broad swaths of the House GOP caucus. These outcomes may have “purified” the Republican Party, but they have hurt, not helped, achieve smaller government and the imposition of socially conservative values.

Even if anger and misinformation already exist within the populace, responsible leaders need to work within basic norms of decency, democracy, and patriotism to channel their followers toward more rational, reasonable viewpoints.  As Richard Goodstein wrote in The Hill about Sanders months ago: “The anger on the right will be matched by the anger on the left if both parties are led by cheerleaders for the blatantly unachievable.” Disregard for the facts in favor of ideology or rhetorical certainty will never achieve more desirably policy outcomes or sounder logic than honest appraisals of the world. The Sanders campaign has proven that point quite clearly.

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