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Populism Trumps Policy: The Veering Politics of Bernie Sanders

The rise of Bernie Sanders and his #feelthebern hashtag clan caught many by surprise, and none more than the party establishments. In 2016, Sanders mounted an unexpected horse race of a campaign against the long-assumed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. What is striking though is how shocked we all pretended to be. Antiestablishmentarianism is just as American as twangy guitars on FM radio, baseball in the summertime, and “gun show loopholes.”

All in all, Bernie Sanders is just another name in a long list of those who have captured the excitement of a people at a particular time. An often unwelcome yet notable comparison is made between him and Donald Trump, for the television personality did just that—and arguably better than Sanders, given that he won the presidency. So, this essay uses Sanders and his #feelthebern phenomenon primarily as an applied case study for how a particularly flawed and muddled way of thinking has been made passable today across our body politics.

Since Clinton struggled in many key demographics, a couple of takeaways deserve mentioning. One, after nearly three decades of Republican attacks, Hillary more than any time prior to 2016 stood wounded, not just in the eyes of Republican voters but also among independents and young Democrats. Two, the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan has moved further to the right. Likewise, the Democratic Party has mirrored this move by steering harder to the left (**cough** **cough** **AOC**). In result, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are too conservative for today’s Democratic Party, as Reagan (despite all the “I am Spartacus” scenes we witness at GOP debates) and George W. Bush would be far too liberal for the current Republican primary voter.

For all this cultural and downstream political movement, Bernie Sanders has remained rather singular in his positions. Few people, however, agree with his policies once told the higher costs and taxes, increased regulations and wait times, reduction in economic choices and personal freedoms, and on and on. Just observe a recent survey from Kaiser Family Foundation on Sanders’s signature policy proposal “Medicare for All.” (As I explain elsewhere, Sanders’s “Medicare for All” plan harbors some good, some bad, and a lot of messy economics and missed opportunities.)

So, how did Bernie Sanders build his support, and in short order, restructure the Democratic Party?

[Read “Epistocracy: A Better Form of Democracy or Rule by Philosophers?“]

Policy Priorities Just Have to Resonate

The embrace of Bernie Sanders is oddly enough not about his Democratic Socialist policy prescriptions, but rather his policy priorities. Not a lot of similarities link ideological foes such as Sanders and, say, recent presidential candidates Ron Paul (2008 and 2012) or Gary Johnson (2012 and 2016), but these men garner many of the same avid fans. For whatever reason, this group of the electorate does not see the glaring policy differences as substantial.

At least, two rationales motivate this.

One, due to the mounting trust deficit in our key institutions, we turn to those politicians whose genuineness and consistency no one can doubt. We treat maintaining the same policy position for thirty-plus years as a hallmark of the principled and incorruptible. But in a world of hastening technological and social change, this steadfastness signals an intellectual and moral bankruptcy. No person should be so resolute as not to evolve in the unprecedented paradigm-shifting climate of the last half-century. If one’s worldview, let alone one’s politics, has proven unaltered since before the advent of the fax machine, then one cannot effectively craft policies for the 5G world into which we are quickly heading. A nimbleness to work with new facts and realities marks our best policymakers.

Second, when we feel forsaken by the national conversation, the fact that a politician even hints concern for our pet issues may leave us purblind to their proposed policy mechanisms. In 2016, Bernie Sanders talked about things that mattered to me. He had a laundry list of generational issues only a millennial’s mother could appreciate. For example, one need but think of student loans. According to Debt.org, “Student loan debt has soared from $260 billion in 2004 to $1.2 trillion in 2014; average debt jumped from $18,650 to $33,000; and the number of people over 60 with student loan debt tripled to 2.1 million.” Sanders addressed the cost of college education by advocating free tuition at post-secondary public institutions and reduced interest rates. Even though neither of these policies would directly impact the student loans I would continue to repay, it is the thought that counts.

Of the Republican candidates who ran in 2016 for president, only Marco Rubio devoted a portion of his campaign’s energy to this critical topic, saying, essentially, a student loan is worse than indentured servitude. Nonetheless, by speaking in a language that overlapped with our lives, Sanders—regardless of his policy remedies—made us feel heard and thus a part of the larger debate.

In sum, Bernie Sanders appeared noble and sure-footed, and spoke to pressing issues affecting an ever-growing lot of Americans. But we know other politicians (including a sitting U.S. President) with radically different backgrounds, policy options, and rhetorical stylings who have exhibited these selfsame traits—so much so one could conclude the irrelevancy of such a justification. That is, a reputation of genuineness and consistency means little-to-nothing when designing good policy. With authenticity in the eye of the beholder, Sanders is only the latest model on this political catwalk. Given the fever of this populist season, his policy solutions expectedly are civilly antagonistic, economically flawed, and fiscally unsustainable. But still we recapitulate; he is focusing on the policy topics that relate intrinsically to our lives and values.

[Read “A Tough President and an Unsettled Nation“]

Good Policies Don’t Care About Your Good Intentions

When Clinton’s Wall Street speeches leaked, many roundly criticized her. Yet, those who understand policymaking discovered something refreshing. Regardless of her attempted courtship with Sanders’s supporters, she was not a populist. She was in fact a policy pragmatist. In an October 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs, Clinton let her technocrat flag fly: “There’s nothing magic about regulations, too much is bad, too little is bad. How do you get to the golden key, how do we figure out what works? And the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.”

When someone considers the consequences of their actions and policies, the adult in us all should applaud. And when someone reconsiders their actions and policies given the projected negative consequences, we all should be thankful. Yet, like all populists and most revolutionaries, Bernie Sanders relies on espoused intentions, not outcomes. Whereas Clinton respected the balancing act behind crafting efficient and effective policies, Sanders ran on one-sided punitive policy proposals. Basically, soak the rich and damn if the creek runs dry.

Where Trump won supporters by avoiding much real policy discussion—deferring to reckless, in-the-moment, crowd-pleasing sound bites—Sanders lifted leftist policies from the pages of some book he read during his days in a college dorm. And as much as Trump was clearly the reactionary candidate in 2016, Sanders’ policy offerings proved to be just as short-sighted and ill-suited for the twenty-first century. The economic and political changes wrought by the recent waves of globalization undermine the usefulness of reverting to the stale radicalism of more than a century back.

Few Americans would approve these policies, be it because of their long-term consequences or the manner in which they must be administered (or both). For example, the nationalization of the U.S. healthcare sector stands as one of his most cherished policy proposals. Yet, the tax hikes demanded to cover “Medicare for All,” regardless of its plausible merits, would cripple economic growth, restrict employment opportunities, and suppress real wages. Additionally, the policy design itself would, as I have written elsewhere, certainly stifle pharmaceutical innovation.

According to work by the Center for Health and Economy (H&E), under Bernie Sanders’ healthcare plan, “medical productivity is projected to decrease by 20 percent for the year 2026 relative to the current baseline.” Due to “[t]he influx of the previously uninsured into the market along with the dissolution of the network structure,” this leads to a “decrease in efficiency.” The report continues, “The elimination of a health insurance marketplace—and therefore any price-conscious decisions due to cost-sharing—also contribute[s] to the decrease in productivity.”

Many who analyze his plan have noted that the costs exceed the proposed tax revenues. Even his online policy brief acknowledges a cost-revenue gap. The H&E also estimates this shortfall, finding the cost of the plan to be $2.47 trillion (in 2017 alone) and a deficit of $1.1 trillion. More than 2/5 of this single policy would not be paid for. To put these numbers in perspective, in 2015, the U.S. Federal Budget was $3.8 Trillion and the U.S. Trade Deficit in Goods was $763 Billion. When we add higher tax rates and begin marshaling the federal bureaucracy required to supply “free” public college, we witness a costly trend.

As cuddly as he may appear, Bernie Sanders unknowingly walks with the full weight of Jack London’s Iron Heel. Populist policies always centralize power to the federal level, gut civil society, and stomp on all dissenting tongues. The economic and societal consequences of Sanders policies fail to do no harm first. As Niall Ferguson writes, “[P]opulism tends to have significantly more economic costs than benefit.” So, pompously sticking it to big banks and big insurance will more than trickle its way down to us little folk. Even if one questions trickle-down prosperity, one should never disbelieve for a moment the impending deluge when these firms start racking up losses.

Basically, we as voters like the sound of a policy’s intentions so much so that we ignore the policy’s real-world consequences. Milton Friedman reminds us: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” Yet, we traffic in rhetoric, not facts. We accept good intentions, not the best research. We conflate and deflect when asked about the nuts and bolts of our pet policies. That is, if you are against my good-intentioned policy, then you must be the bad guy or outright evil. And in America, we punch Nazis and we kick evil in the arse! We cannot merely disagree; we must vanquish.

[Read “A Progressive’s Take on Ron Chernow’s ‘Grant’“]

Populism Fabricates Heroes and Villains

Like all populists including Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders must weave a false narrative of the world to get our attention. Trump, for example, ran as Nixon 2.0. Yet, in a world of rapidly decreasing violence and crime, Trump’s “Mad Max America” is only the stuff of Hollywood. Americans reside in a less violent country than they did just eight years ago, let alone since the late 1980s. Police officer fatalities peaked in 1930 and stabilized in absolute numbers in the early 1980s, mostly declining over the last decade-and-a-half.

In a political climate devolving into medieval foils battling the good fight against some monstrous evil, showdowns of David-and-Goliath-like dimensions entertain us even more. It is a simple storyline, but it is wrong. More often that which strikes the tone of epic drama is that which rings the most conspiratorial, not the most commonplace. Wherein Trump blames our national problems on “Mexicans” and Muslims, Sanders claims that bankers and billionaires are ruining the lives of non-banker and non-billionaire Americans. All four of these are fictional and standard populist villains.

In such a populist plot, bankers and billionaires are only bankers and billionaires because they are greedier than the rest of us noble folk. And because of Wall Street’s excess, the global economy wrecked upon the “Greed is Good” and the “Greed is Legal” shore, and then Wall Street washed up on America’s main street. Those who “greedily” leveraged and “knowingly” sold bad loans are capitalism’s monster, and politicians like Sanders never fail to remind the mob where to turn their pitchforks. This “greed” narrative reads like a bedtime story only a populist mother could tell. Only in childish understanding could it be compelling, let alone convincing.

As David Brooks rightly explains,

“[The] more persuasive theory revolves around ignorance and uncertainty. The primary problem is not the greed of a giant oligarchy. It’s that overconfident bankers didn’t know what they were doing. They thought they had these sophisticated tools to reduce risk. But when big events—like the rise of China—fundamentally altered the world economy, their tools were worse than useless.”

Brooks summarizes, “Banks got too big to manage. Instruments got too complex to understand. Too many people were good at math but ignorant of history.”

Telling stories and asserting narratives are, however, fundamentally human. In the 2016 presidential cycle, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton were all selling the American electorate some story, outlining widely different histories, presents, and futures. However, the tendency for people to tell themselves stories, often incomplete and thus less accurate than reality, leads one to agree with Tyler Cowen. Maybe we will all be better off by indulging less in story-telling and further in just “be[ing] more comfortable with messy, be[ing] more comfortable with agnostic.”

Besides narratives with monstrous villains, stories of nostalgia grip us on a pre-cerebral level. As Yuval Levin suggests in his latest book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (2016), both political parties have resorted to the politics of pining. Democrats long for the New Deal and Great Society of mid-twentieth-century America, whilst Republicans day-dream about revisiting the Reagan Revolution. Through this schmaltzy lens, false narratives are crafted, and policies become ill-fitted to our present concerns. To the dismay of Republicans and Democrats alike, we cannot cut taxes or spend ourselves to prosperity any longer. Such blunt policy options died with the maturing of our economy and the sharpening of global competition.

In short, “For populism to thrive,” Niall Ferguson explains, “people have to start believing that the political establishment is no longer clean.” Even though Sanders and Trump did not initiate our widespread mistrust, they both feed it. For example, Bernie Sanders and many of his devoted Berners echo Trump’s false tweets about rigged elections. Moreover, both Sanders and Trump sell a version of “make America great again.” Each resorts to spurious storytelling since both of the Americas these two men want to return us to have never existed—nor could they. While turning American fury against a given group, be it “Mexicans” or bankers, may easily rewrite history and give the appearance of social unity, these populist narratives only divide our citizenry and diminish our future aspirations. To paraphrase George Orwell, all narratives are equal, but some narratives are more equal than others.

To recap, Bernie Sanders’ policy priorities are what have captivated my generation. Policy priorities reflect our value sets. I personally share many of the same values as him; however, just possessing the right values does not make good policy. Because Sanders and I disagree over worldviews, the same value sets will manifest in unalike policy outcomes. That is, the same values channeled through a different read of reality will produce radically different policies. And when we turn to our best social scientists and learn that our pet policies produce adverse consequences, we defensively exalt the good intentions and ignore the awaiting blood, sweat, and tears. These good intentions are buttered in bathos, buttressed by summer blockbuster storytelling.

Going forward we must clear up our thinking on politics. From the exhibits above, here is what I advocate. We must bring our expectations of our politicians back down to earth. We must advance politicians who acknowledge that technology and globalization have changed society, and champion those who seek to navigate and manage this brave new world—not curtail and abandon it. We must care about the positive and negative consequences of our pet policies and debate our best research, not just our good intentions. And we must start telling ourselves fewer gladiatorial or nostalgic stories and become more comfortable with political- and policy-agnosticism.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders, like Donald Trump, captured the hearts and minds of many Americans. As we come to understand how #feelthebern inflamed American politics through policy priorities, good intentions, and storytelling, we can prepare to build for a post-populist presidency.

Joshua R. H. Parsons

Joshua is a peregrine thinker. He has worked in technology and innovation policy at a D.C.-based think tank. Beyond studying economics, urban planning, and violence, he spends time exploring avant-garde and postmodern film and literature, as well as country, jazz, and funk guitar. Currently, he resides in West Virginia—with his fantastic pup, Wanda.

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