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Bernie Sanders the Realist

Pundits love to narrate progressive politics as a story of “dreamers” like Bernie Sanders versus “realists” who understand the political constraints they face. They may be right about those roles — but they’ve got the casting backward. Sanders is the realist in this election.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd during King Day at the Dome March and Rally on January 20, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. Sean Rayford / Getty

As some would have it, the central question facing American liberalism is one of means rather than ends.

While there is broad agreement (or so the story goes) around the legislative program Democrats should aspire to, there is a mostly friendly debate taking place about how best it might ultimately be achieved given inevitable Republican obstruction and the wider constraints imposed by the American political system. On one side of this fraternal parley sit realists who emphasize the value of incrementalism and the necessity of bipartisan compromise. On the other, more progressively minded liberals insist on pushing a more ambitious and ideologically grounded agenda.

This tidy, self-serving narrative of American politics comes with an obvious benefit: namely, that it allows centrist commentators and right-leaning liberal politicians alike to have their proverbial cake and eat it too, expressing nominal sympathy with goals and policy ideas they all but oppose in practice. Probe it a bit more closely and you find that even this lip service to both sides implicitly tilts towards the more conservative side of the equation: when politics is framed as a contest between reality (i.e., centrism) and progressive idealism (read: good intentions that must ultimately be considered naive) most people are bound to side with the former.

Which brings us to the New York Times editorial board’s bizarre decision earlier this week to endorse both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for the Democratic presidential nomination. Even taken on its own terms, the board’s logic is flimsy at best — oscillating awkwardly between praise for Warren and concern-trolling that her politics are too radical to be considered realistic (a line of reasoning that almost explicitly favors Klobuchar and the conservative approach she embodies, even as the Times’s editors in theory endorse both). The editorial is thus better understood as an index of elite confusion and anxiety than a coherent (let alone correct) statement on the present political moment: an aggregated collection of pathologies and irritable mental gestures cumulatively amounting to the larger belief that political change on anything but the smallest scale is basically impossible.

Bernie Sanders, the actual radical of the 2020 race, is lazily dismissed as too old and intransigent early in the piece, leaving the editors free to refrain from any serious engagement with a candidacy they deem mostly synonymous with Warren’s. Since she is then left as the sole standard-bearer for what the editors call the “radical model” of liberal politics, many of the critiques leveled at her are also clearly directed at Sanders (as when, for example, the editorial complains of “us-versus-them”-ism or whines about attacks on big business).

The irony of it all is that, with Sanders and his own theory of change removed from the equation, the basic line of criticism leveled at the so-called radical lane actually ends up making a certain degree of sense:

At the same time, a conservative federal judiciary will be almost as significant a roadblock for progressive change. For Ms. Warren, that leaves open questions — ones she was unwilling to wrestle with in our interview. Ms. Warren has proposed to pay for an expanded social safety net by imposing a new tax on wealth. But even if she could push such a bill through the Senate, the idea is constitutionally suspect and would inevitably be bogged down for years in the courts. A conservative judiciary also could constrain a President Warren’s regulatory powers, and roll back access to health care. Carrying out a progressive agenda through new laws will also be very hard for any Democratic president.

All of this is true inasmuch as there are clearly serious institutional hurdles to a progressive legislative program, and Warren has yet to really explain or lay out any serious strategy for overcoming them. Her agenda, though less radical than Sanders’s, would undoubtedly face considerable opposition from Congressional Republicans and corporate interest groups, as would (in all likelihood) the agendas of every candidate currently seeking the Democratic nomination.

Faced with this reality, the Times’s editors can see no alternative besides retreating to familiar platitudes about bipartisanship and the transparently silly idea that most Democrats (including Sanders) are basically committed to the same agenda. Taken in its entirety, the argument is an incoherent mess. Nonetheless, it serves as a good heuristic for how the centrist mainstream tends to conceive politics and the ways in which its point of view is exceedingly limited.

Thanks to its anti-majoritarian design and the overbearing influence of big money, the American political system is indeed uniquely obstructionist. Add to this the existence of a reactionary right-wing party addicted to voter suppression and gerrymandering and the barriers to actualizing a progressive policy agenda look practically insurmountable. Staring down these constraints, the standard centrist maneuver is to conclude they are simply an indelible feature of American life to be managed and negotiated against rather than transcended or overcome. The invariably conservative orientation that follows is generally what passes for “realism” in American politics.

But how realistic is it to think even a somewhat moderate liberal agenda could ever be realized in the face of such barriers? The Times’s editors may be wrong in their claim that all Democrats ultimately share the same goals, but their somewhat awkward fudging of highly caricatured “realist” and “radical” positions inadvertently underscores the futility of both strands of liberalism they put on the table.

An alternative, and altogether better way of thinking about political realism would both recognize the obstacles faced by any serious reform agenda and offer up a strategy by which they might be overcome. This is what Sanders, unique among candidates running for the Democratic nomination, ultimately does through his embrace of mass democracy.

The Vermont Senator, after all, isn’t naive about the institutional obstruction his policy agenda will face — it being something he repeatedly emphasizes in his stump speeches. “The truth is that the powers that be … they are so powerful, they have so much money, that no one person, not the best president in the world, can take them on alone,” said Sanders in Iowa last year. But rather than treating such obstruction as axiomatic and narrowing his ambitions accordingly, Sanders hopes to mobilize popular power as a counterweight. Thus, he continued: “The only way we transform America is when millions of people together stand up and fight back.”

Other presidential candidates have certainly paid lip service to ideas like movement-building and mass participation in the political process. But none has ever made these things as central to their campaign or overall political strategy. The difficulties inherent in such an effort are certainly real. But, if the goal is push serious reform of any kind, there’s simply no alternative to a mobilized electoral coalition assembled around an ambitious agenda.

Though often dismissed by pundits and rivals as a pie-in-the-sky idealist, Sanders is the true realist of the Democratic field because he is honest about what it will actually take to push American politics in a progressive direction. Bogus as its dichotomy between realism and radicalism is, the Times editorial is right to emphasize the importance of the former.

We just need a better definition of what it means.