Deflating the Magical President Myth: Take 2 on Sanders vs. Clinton

You all have convinced me that my thought experiment yesterday was excessively pessimistic. It’s unlikely that Sanders could both win the nomination and enter office with the Democratic establishment seething with resentment against him (the role of the superdelegates alone ensures such an outcome is extremely improbable). Hence let’s say that the worst-case scenario of a Sanders presidency that turns into an utter fiasco is off the table.

Everyone seems to concede, however, that barring a massive change in the dynamics of Congressional races — a massive change that I actually think is more likely than conventional wisdom would grant — Sanders’ room for maneuver would be limited. His control of a crucial veto point would at least ensure that activists wouldn’t have to waste time rallying against obviously stupid stuff, and his ability to staff the executive branch could make a big difference (credit to Stephen Keating for both links). Nonetheless, the widely shared view even among Sanders supporters is that he cannot possibly fulfill his supporters’ most optimistic expectations.

And that may be a very good thing. What has made me hesitant on Sanders is my memory of Obama’s supposedly transformational mass-movement and its consequences. Yes, yes, this time we have a real progressive instead of a centrist with great rhetorical skills. And if we can finally, against all odds, get the Right Person into the most powerful office in the land, then that will definitively prove that the presidency is not enough. It will break the myth, which everyone on the left who has any investment in electoral politics keeps falling for again and again, of the Magical President.

I said in my last post that it would perhaps be better to concentrate on consolidating power at lower levels so that a progressive president could be most effective — an aspect of my argument that virtually everyone ignored, by the way — but not only is that not an either/or, it may be only a both/and. Only the disappointments and failures of the Right Person can open up the possibility that the movement will actually focus on building a broader power base instead of focusing exclusively on the presidential moon shot. By contrast, a Sanders loss leaves open the space of fantasy that electing the Right Person as president would have fixed everything….

Among all Democratic politicians, Sanders stands the best chance of creating this kind of mobilization as well. He’s not afraid to say that politics is about conflict and that there are real enemies who need to be defeated — hence he is more likely to blame Republicans rather than “Congress” and to forcefully make use of his guaranteed media access to help promote that end. By contrast, a defeated candidate would struggle to maintain anything like the national platform Sanders now has.

The presidency isn’t omnipotent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, and as the commenter protoplasm elegantly argued, you learn to exercise power by actually exercising it. Sanders has proven effective in exercising power in the unfavorable circumstances of the Senate, so why not be optimistic that he would do his level best as president?

So there you have it: an opinion ventured, then changed through constructive dialogue. Remember this day, because it is the first and last time it will ever happen in our lifetimes.

11 Responses to “Deflating the Magical President Myth: Take 2 on Sanders vs. Clinton”

  1. Hill Says:

    I think the most concise thing you could say in favor of a Sanders presidency is that *he scares the bad guys.* When was the last time that happened (from the left)? I think we should trust that as much as we trust any of our speculation about what is possible or what might happen.

  2. rbrown Says:

    “Blame Republicans?” Perhaps the reason why so many Democrats oppose Sanders, similar to why so many Laborites oppose Corbyn, is that he blames their policies. “He’s not afraid to say that politics is about conflict and that there are real enemies who need to be defeated.” Yes, but enemies determined not by party but by policy. Instead of Republicans I’d rather Sanders blame Wall Street or the the neo-liberal consensus generally. Your previous thought experiment was misguided, I thought, because you seemed to worry that Sander’s, in breaking with the neo-liberal consensus, would be unable to get anything done. Breaking the consensus is getting something done. What’s the opposite of triangulate? Let him do that.

    As an aside, can I take this opportunity to say how much I hate the word “progressive?” Hate it, hate it, hate it and I loathe it too. I hate it for its implicit deprecation of non-western, non-liberal ways of being in the world, I hate it for its association with gradualism, with liberal teleology — surfing the way things are with caring hearts to a better tomorrow — and I loathe it because now Hillary Clinton is championing herself as a progressive who can get things done. The liberal, war-mongering feminist (“We came; we saw; he died.”) Progress.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I have no great attachment to the word “progressive” and used it more as a placeholder than anything. Calling standard New Deal liberalism “socialism” seems a bit much, but “liberal” also seems devalued in this context. So whatever. We can #purge the word “progressive.”

    My assumption is that the first step toward creating some hope of fulfilling Sanders’ legislative agenda would be to gain Democratic control of Congress. After that, the purges can begin and recalcitrant members can be disciplined with the threat of primary challenges, loss of campaign funding, etc.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I mean, Republicans aren’t the only enemy, but they are essentially always enemies. Is there a current Republican officeholder who’s thinking, “If only a return to postwar social democracy were on offer, I’d be all for it — but in default of that, I’ll sign off on more tax cuts, I guess”?

  5. protoplasm Says:

    I apologize for my long-winded, rant-y comments. When I get excited about a point it’s tough for me to avoid becoming repetitive and flowery. That said, here’s another long comment.

    I think your fourth paragraph here is right on the money, and I’d like to focus on “consolidating power in lower levels”. My guess is that we could certainly see senate and congressional seat races become more like the presidential race, but I doubt the left-wing of the Democratic party will be interested in power at even lower, more local levels. Maybe I’m too pessimistic after what happened to Acorn, but I don’t think there will ever be a left answer to ALEC. I don’t know if social democracy is achievable without first (or simultaneously) breaking American federalism, because it seems to me that the extant political structure (many veto points, state and sub-state powers) is incompatible with social democratic political content. It doesn’t matter that egalitarianism is in some sense a “bottom-up” value system, localism is completely moribund as a strategy for the left.

    As I see it, left-wing mass-membership organizations are dead, and our desire should be, not for their revitalization, but for the erosion of the influence of similar right-wing groups (NRA, traditional church, school boards, city councils, etc.). Going forward, as the boomers wane and their children become complacent, we will only know television and social media candidates. Paradoxically, the left’s best hope might not be to get over the fantasy of a Magical President, but to enact precisely that fantasy. That is—and here is where I hope I’m being far too pessimistic—something amounting to a left-wing “dictator” (my image: someone with FDR’s goals and Cheney’s contempt for traditonal process) is actually more likely than merely voting Capital out. Another world war, another great depression, the hellfire of global warming, or a Magical President so-described: these are the footholds social democracy probably needs to take root in this country.

    The causes for optimism aren’t nonexistent, though. Perhaps environmental groups will swell with members concerned about the specter haunting the planet, or maybe unions, or at least some other class-focused group, will be reborn. International social democratic cooperation would be a welcome sight. Maybe identity politics can go toe-to-toe with Capital after all. It would be nice for things to be able to get better without getting worse, but I’m not sure that has happened very often in the USA. (No Iraq war? No Obama. No 2008 GFC? No Occupy and no Sanders primary. etc.)

  6. protoplasm Says:

    Agh, I forgot: the main cause for optimism what Adam describes in the second paragraph of his first comment: that the left-wing of the Democratic party takes over Congress, and hopefully the Senate, and wields power in the familiar way. Electoral victories of this sort should obviate any leftist, politically potent mass movement (very unlikely) or a leftist FDR/Cheney “dictator” president (unlikely).

  7. Elliott Grieco Says:

    I’ve been thinking about part 1 for a while so I’m glad you followed up. And I was coming around on your initial paradox: the best thing for one who agrees with Sanders to hope for is a narrow loss, followed by a Clinton presidency (with more favorable outcomes than any Republican one). Then, a more durable political revolution continues subterraneanly while Clinton governs for 8 years. The paradox is that the only way one is to anticipate this outcome is to vote for Sanders while hoping he loses the primary. Further, to foster a Clinton-era revolution, Sanders would likely have to simultaneously communicate after a primary loss to “go out and support Clinton with all your might, but oppose her once she wins.” I can’t see Sanders undermining her presidential campaign, since I already feel that part of his “no negative” tactic is not only to seem more authentic, but also to maintain the momentum for a Democratic presidency.

    But then this wager turned this theory upside-down: “Only the disappointments and failures of the Right Person can open up the possibility that the movement will actually focus on building a broader power base instead of focusing exclusively on the presidential moon shot. By contrast, a Sanders loss leaves open the space of fantasy that electing the Right Person as president would have fixed everything….”

    Your theory is plausible only under the conditions of the right “Right person.” That is because one could argue that Obama was already a test for your proposition. However, it’s not the same as the Sanders case since 1) Obama ran on a centrist platform and 2) Obama didn’t have nearly the level of conviction from followers as Sanders does today (if measured in donor numbers, adjusting for technological effects). So an ideal Sanders presidency would look like the following: use the veto constantly, mobilize from the White House in the presence of legislative disappointment, and foil Republican efforts to undermine his governing capability (probably through said mobilization mechanism), and possibly AFTER 8 years you have a lefter-leaning Congress and another progressive candidate gets elected despite the first one not getting much done. I guess one could support this believing that Sanders and his allies are actually capable of mobilizing from the White House and spinning every disappointment into a call for even more movement building. I do wish that Sanders would communicate this theory more, although perhaps it may make for a terrible campaign. His response to Clinton nay-saying has been generically “it’s only unachievable because we’re in Wall Street’s pocket”, but the reality that things are unachievable because of Republicans in the Congress is a more pressing matter.

    I guess the course of action according to either theory is to vote for Sanders in the primary.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes, I plan to vote for Sanders in the primary, provided it’s still competitive by the time Illinois gets a say.

  9. riley Says:

    “Everyone seems to concede, however, that barring a massive change in the dynamics of Congressional races — a massive change that I actually think is more likely than conventional wisdom would grant — Sanders’ room for maneuver would be limited.”

    “It will break the myth, which everyone on the left who has any investment in electoral politics keeps falling for again and again, of the Magical President.”

    How it is that both these things are true?

    Sanders supporters are for the most part aware that presidents can’t magically change everything because Hilary supporters have been rubbing this in their faces ad nauseam. Be realistic, don’t support real change because it can’t happen. Support the person who can win and “gets things done” (whatever those things may be) not the person with the policies you believe in.

    The over-investment in electoral politics in America is true enough, but it makes sense when the public arena for politics in America is so limited. The fact that Sanders is suddenly seen as a credible candidate means that questions of inequality and class enter our media and national stage in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise and it gives an opportunity for people to organize against money running everything (the money of corporations that don’t want a carbon tax, the money of insurance companies that don’t want single pager, the money of bankers and billionaires who don’t want curbs on financial speculation…) Real change to help the poor and the planet is unrealistic not just because of a republican congress and gridlock but because lots and lots of very rich people are paying for it not to happen. That’s what supporting Sanders is about fighting against. What will happen if he loses and what will happen if he wins both remain unclear but the fight is about finding a context for a mass movement in favor of the interests of the people against corporations. And I don’t think it’s something to be cynical about.

    One last point: I think there’s a case that Occupy Wall Street was as big as it was because there were a lot of young people who had organized for Obama who had been let down. They saw him appointing the same financial elites as his advisors who helped destroy the economy in the first place. Maybe many of them believed a bit in the myth of Magical President. But being let down by electoral politics didn’t produce apathy, it helped spark another movement.

    (It should also be added that the problem with Obama wasn’t just that he wasn’t a dictator but that he was beholden to powerful interests and technocratic elites…)

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Maybe nothing I’m saying makes sense. Nor is it clear what obscure compulsion drives me to post my opinions for people to get annoyed at.

  11. riley Says:

    my apologies if it seemed like i was annoyed or writing my post because i adamantly disagreed with you. it’s true i read your two posts on sanders/clinton at the same time and suppose i was still responding in part to the last one. but i agree with a lot of what you say in this post and was responding to issues it raised for me that may of in fact been repeating points your were already making. i suppose i thought i was also pushing back a bit on what i took to be your remaining skepticism about what it means to invest time in the sanders campaign.


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