Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sanders Supporters' Magical Unicorn Problem

Having been in the political trenches for well over two decades, one of the issues that must always be kept in sight is that of what is realistically possible versus some idealized vision of what would be nice if we could have whatever we wanted.  While I like many of Bernie Sanders' proposals in concept, the problem is that many are not realistically possible even if Sanders were to win the Democrat primary and then go on to win in November.  The further concern is that Sanders' fantasy vision make render him un-electable in November.  And if a Republican wins the White House, the consequences will be horrific, including potentially three conservative appointees to the U. S. Supreme Court.  Paul Krugman lays out the dilemma in a New York Times column.  Here are excerpts:

It has been an interesting few months on the progressive side of the political debate, and I mean that in the worst way. A significant number of progressives are very, very excited by the unexpected support for Bernie Sanders, and are shocked and horrified to find many — I think most — liberal policy wonks rather skeptical. For me this is somewhat familiar territory: I was skeptical about Barack Obama’s promises of transcendence back in 2008, too. And then as now a fair number of enthusiasts took no time at all to declare that I was a corrupt villain, a tool of the oligarchs, desperate for a job with Hillary etc.. OK, this too shall pass. But I thought it might be worth saying a bit more about where people like me find ourselves.

First of all, to say what should be but sometimes apparently isn’t obvious, what you would ideally want and what you think can be achieved — and even what you think should be an election platform — aren’t the same thing. What I and most of my wonk friends would like to see is . . . . a strong social safety net that protects everyone against avoidable misery, workers with substantial bargaining power, strong environmental policy; not an equalized society, not a Utopia, but someplace where basic decency is a fundamental principle. But nothing like that is going to happen in America any time soon. 

[E]ven the incremental changes Hillary Clinton is proposing are very unlikely to get through Congress; the radical changes Bernie Sanders is proposing wouldn’t happen even if Democrats retook the House. O’Brien says that the Democratic primary is “like arguing what’s more real: a magical unicorn or a regular unicorn. In either case, you’re still running on a unicorn platform.”

[W]hy not go for the magical unicorn? A couple of reasons.

One is that there are degrees of realism: a program that could be implemented in part if Democrats retake the House might turn out to be a useful guide relatively soon, while a program that requires a political revolution won’t. 

Another is that, perhaps inevitably, the Sanders insistence on the need for magical unicorns has led to invocations of economic as well as political magic. I warned a while back that even Sanders wasn’t willing to level with voters about what his ideals would require — that, in particular, he was assuming unrealistic savings in order to gloss over the reality that quite a few middle-class Americans would be net losers from a transition to single payer.
And this could matter a lot in a general election. For sure the Republican, whoever he is, will be offering plans that are obvious nonsense; but if the Democrat is also offering a plan that doesn’t add up, you know that the media will portray the situation as symmetric, even if it isn’t. . . . This is why it’s important to bring up the criticisms of Sanders now, not wait until later — and it’s also why the campaign’s knee-jerk response of attacking the messengers is such a bad one. It might work in the primary, but it definitely won’t work later on.

OK, so I’m not happy with magical unicorns as a campaign strategy. But I understand the problem, which is also the problem Clinton faces: among young people in particular, being a wet blanket is no way to be hugely popular. . . . . She’s not going to be able to promise magic without being obviously false. Sanders, on the other hand, probably believes what he’s saying; the rude awakening still lies ahead.

Now, Clinton will probably get the nomination — in part because African-American voters, much more than young whites, know all too well how hard it is to achieve change. . . . . And, as I said, she’s actually pretty well-positioned for the general.

But you see the problem. It’s a rough time for progressives who don’t believe in magic.

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