A thought experiment on Clinton vs. Sanders

[Editor’s note: Comments have convinced me that this scenario is excessively pessimistic.]

Let’s grant from the outset that both Clinton and Sanders are “electable,” particularly against the crew of fools and mediocrities that the Republicans have to choose from. Let’s even further stipulate that either one of them would definitely win easily, to stay within my strictures against electability-based strategic voting. Finally, let’s assume that both of them maintain Obama’s modest progress on the environment, hence contributing to the literal survival of the human race. What does the situation look like the morning after?

On the one hand, you’d have the status quo. I see no evidence that Hillary Clinton would make things materially worse than they have been under Obama. She may be slightly more “hawkish,” but she’s also a craven opportunist — hence we’re not likely to get the Iraq War redux. On domestic policy, she’d probably continue to cut the same kind of discouraging deals with the Republicans, with the occasional micro-achievement to brag about.

What about the Sanders morning after? You would have a Democratic candidate who has never officially been a Democrat and has effectively run against his own party. His most significant policy proposal so far would be to undo the one major achievement of his predecessor and replace it with something totally different. Party leaders at every level have openly mocked this proposal, including the powerful House leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose political skills will be absolutely crucial to keeping the Democrats united and extracting concessions from the Republicans. Sanders’ most natural ally, Elizabeth Warren, has been unwilling to go so far as explicitly endorsing him.

It’s not unthinkable that the mainstream Democrats would support Sanders enough to avoid Trump, then hang him out to dry. They would be bad people for doing that, and in an ideal world, they would not be in a position to. Yet we have the system we have, and part of that system is that an effective president needs the support of his party. And if the Sanders revolution results in four years of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling scares, and recess appointments, will it have been worth the huge amount of money and energy it will take to grind out a victory against Clinton? For instance, that nurses’ union that gave a million dollars to Sanders — is that really the best use of their money when there’s so much organizing work to do?

And do we have any sense of how Sanders, who has been relatively sheltered as a popular small-state senator, would react to such sustained opposition, how he operates under conditions of brinkmanship? For instance, is it possible that he’d go along with a repeal of Obamacare in order to force the issue on single payer? I hope that’s a ridiculous suggestion, but jumping straight to single payer when there’s an obvious fix to Obamacare that could take us there — the apparently forgotten public option — is a strange tactic. Or could conservative Democrats join forces with the Republicans to create a veto-proof majority that would cut Sanders out of the equation altogether?

If we were voting for dictator, yes, I’d be 100% behind Sanders over Clinton. If Sanders is secretly plotting with sympathetic generals to suspend the Constitution and rule by decree, then this analysis obviously looks a lot different. But if he’s planning to operate within our baroque system of government and within the party system, I think there’s a serious risk that a desperate “Hail Mary” straight for the presidency could end up backfiring and discrediting his cause for a generation.

Could it perhaps better to spend a little more time in the wilderness, harnessing discontent at Clinton’s “not as bad as it could be but definitely not good enough” to continue building a movement that can actually exercise power?

This is all a thought experiment. It’s not an argument in favor of supporting Clinton — in fact, if I’m right, that will take care of itself. And it’s possible that the six-month-old pro-Sanders movement will turn out to be just the movement we need, though I have never seen an explanation of the mechanism that will turn mass mobilization into legislative success within the actual existing system. I certainly haven’t seen a roadmap to Democratic control of Congress, much less control by Democrats who would actually support Sanders’ agenda. I understand the appeal of the Sanders gesture, but it would take a huge amount of money and person-hours to make that gesture.

18 Responses to “A thought experiment on Clinton vs. Sanders”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And though this is a minor point, the fact that some of Sanders’ most prominent supporters seem absolutely determined to fall into the obvious rhetorical trap of the “BernieBros” meme does not fill me with hope in the political acumen at work among the revolutionary cadres of the bern-etariat.

  2. Hill Says:

    I knew we’d have to gulag some people I liked, but I never thought one of them would be you, Adam.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I made the same joke myself when I posted this on Facebook.

  4. Hill Says:

    Yeah, jokes aside, I think you are suffering from a failure of imagination, which is understandable given the fatigue we are likely all experiencing.

  5. Hill Says:

    Even if the only thing he accomplished was getting his voters (a huge number of which may well be first-timers) into voting booths where they might also vote in local elections, that could be potentially earth-moving.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And then it would be shattered in two years just like when Obama did that.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If you’ve got a case to sell about how Sanders causes a wave election, I’m buying. When I brought this up on Facebook, though, people were unequivocal that it was impossible.

  8. Hill Says:

    Right… they were wrong about Obama, and they are wrong now. You’ve got to keep banging away at this sort of thing. It’s not going to turn in a single election cycle. I also think that there is a much lower chance of “the Obama phenomenon” taking place with Bernie (in terms of buyers remorse).

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    From a certain perspective, my worst-case scenario would almost certainly never happen. For him to simultaneously get the nomination and still remain alienated from the Democratic establishment, he’d have to win by a huge margin among regular delegates and completely sidestep superdelegates. But the more likely path to the nomination is by winning around 50% of the regular delegates and then convincing superdelegates that he’s a better candidate. Which means the likely outcome is that he’d be broadly similar to a “regular Democrat,” in which case there’s no revolution and all this enthusiasm seems wasted.

  10. zunguzungu Says:

    It’s interesting how little this actually resembles an argument in favor of Clinton, though. Which is to say, I don’t think you’re wrong to observe that “Sanders is the revolution!” is a pretty tall claim, but it’s hard for me to imagine that his failures would be worse than Clinton’s “modest micro-accomplishments.” I’m tempted to compare it to Chris Hughes buying the New Republic: if the worst case scenario is that you clear out a lot of gerontocratic deadwood and see if anything better happens afterwards, well, I’m not shedding any Weasel Tears.

  11. rbrown Says:

    What is the endgame in supporting the (presumed) better manager of the status quo?

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I didn’t claim this was a pro Clinton argument.

  13. zunguzungu Says:

    (No, I know! I was just interested by how weird this faceoff is; the frames one uses to judge each candidate are so irreconcilable with the other)

  14. protoplasm Says:

    As someone who is mildly pro-Sanders, but continues to waffle between Clinton and Sanders, thank you for this post.

    “Could it perhaps better to spend a little more time in the wilderness… to continue building a movement that can actually exercise power?”

    I don’t think so, and I think this is the wrong way to think about things. Being out of power, regardless of what you do while out of power, does not help and in fact actually harms one’s ability to exercise power. You have to be in power before you learn how to wield it. This fact (if it is one) rankles against my personality, because I typically like to know what I’m doing before I even start doing it. In the areas of my life that I value most, I and many of my peers prefer “learn first; do later, if at all” to “learn while doing”, but that’s because I value learning as its own end. Learning, preparing, etc. *is* the doing I most care about. I think this is exactly the opposite of how politics works, so I am unsuited to engage in it (but hopefully not to think about it).

    Social democrats in the USA will always be precisely as unprepared for power as we fear Bernie is now. Political learning requires winning politial power and wielding it; the idea that one could, by abstaining from power temporarily, become better prepared for eventually using it is a trap, perhaps even a not-so-innocent psychological self-defense, and is of a piece with Aristotle’s “permanently unactualized potentiality” (ie, it is nonsense or nothing). Sanders is, for better or worse, the Occupy candidate and the Black Lives Matter candidate; the “historians will let us know what we’ve done” rather than the “wait and see; now, go in” candidate. I’d feel much safer voting for Clinton, but the status quo is not sustainable for the working class, so that safety is merely illusory. Long shots are our only shot, even if I hate long shots. Maybe it’s more accurate to say: I’d feel much safer if I were living in a time and place where voting for Clinton could make me feel safer. I don’t think even eight more years of Obama, were it possible, would be good enough.

  15. protoplasm Says:

    From your comment to Hill: “…there’s no revolution and all this enthusiasm seems wasted.”

    Again, I don’t think enthusiasm is spent in a way that would make sense of it being wasted. Enthusiasm can build on success, it can accumulate, but it will not disappear or be diminished by the frustration of its object. (Not to say it cannot diminish or be eroded, but I don’t think the lack of revolution by itself would necessarily be diminishing.)

    ‘Investment’ is the wrong way to think about this enthusiasm. It is not conditional on its achieving what is hoped for; enthusiasm hopes for that which it hopes for, sufficiently or (pejoratively, from a critical perspective) blindly. An explicitly political faith, I guess, is what I’m thinking of here. It is unjustified, but not unjustifiable (if that distinction makes sense). Why would that be so? Because desperation is the ground of this faith, and desperation isn’t going anywhere.

    Regarding your comment: ” it would be shattered in two years just like when Obama did that.”

    I think it is incorrect to think of the lack of turnout among Obama supporters in a midterm election as saying anything about the potency or viability of the enthusiasm that launched him into office. Anything like “if Obama had truly been a transformational candidate, then his voters would have shown up in 2010/2014” is false. It is false because it assumes that a transformational candidate could transform anything. For the time being, for the people who Obama brought into politics (young and marginalized), the midterms do not exist. Can a movement that’s blind to every other election, and any election other than the presidential election, have long term success? Probably not. So we have to hope that that aspect of the movement changes (presumably by its supporters becoming older and less marginalized). What we shouldn’t do is wait for the movement to first become non-midterms-blind, and *then* go forward. That wouldn’t be to fail, that would be to not try. We’re trying to restrain the excesses of and, eventually, reform or defeat the essence of capitalism in the USA: we’re probably not going to be successful even if we play everything perfectly anyways.

    Personally, I hope for a return to boring and nondesperate times, but maybe this is also an illusion. I know I prefer reading about sensible things to thinking about politics or power in the world. Something like: Clinton in the sheets, Sanders in the streets (and that’s why I don’t go outside).

  16. Stephen Keating Says:

    This article by Elizabeth Warren argues that the regulators and agency heads that the next president appoints will make a huge difference in the direction of the country. That’s a strong argument in favor of a Sanders presidency over Clinton, the latter presumably would appoint similar types as Obama who have failed to do much. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/29/opinion/elizabeth-warren-one-way-to-rebuild-our-institutions.html

  17. JoB Says:

    I don’t know who should or will win. I’m just a citizen of this hellhole Belgium, after all. I do know that there’s a new voice being heard in American politics and that my kids like it. This is an achievement in itself. I will take any positive that puts some hope in my kids’ hearts in these otherwise utterly depressing times. I’m sure the voice will last as well – regardless of winning – unless Trump emerges as the Erdogan or Putin of the US. That’s fortunately less likely than yesterday.


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