But has Sanders crossed over into running an outright con that risks leaving his “impressionable” supporters disillusioned and ultimately hurting the progressive movement, by articulating unflinchingly ambitious social democratic reform goals for the future? The question is worth thinking about, since the fate of the Sanders movement — to the degree that there is one — could matter a good deal to Democratic politics going forward.
I don’t see why Sanders’s candidacy represents a “con,” or why all of this is destined to play out the way Drum suggests it might. In fact, it may be more likely that the opposite proves true.
For one thing, it’s not really clear whether Sanders is the one indoctrinating his young supporters, or whether he’s speaking effectively to a set of ideals that were already taking shape among them (it could obviously be a combination of the two). A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that pluralities of young voters believe that government has a responsibility to guarantee a basic standard of living as a right — both in the form of basic health insurance and basic necessities such as food and shelter. Large majorities of them see a federal government role in regulating access to higher education and health care, and in combating inequality.
Yes, Hillary Clinton broadly agrees with these goals. But Sanders has been far more forceful in giving voice to the idea that society has an overarching moral imperative to do more, a lot more, to boost minimum standards of living and break open channels of economic mobility and opportunity — not just incrementally, but in profound and far reaching ways. Sanders’s basic case is that the rules of our economic and political systems have been hijacked and perverted over the decades to bake in deep inequities at every level of society. This, and the colossal scale of the future challenges we face, require a fundamental re-imagining of the American social contract. Sanders’s candidacy is part of a broader rethinking underway on the left about how our political economy really works (see Robert Reich’s “Saving Capitalism” for a good overview), and how badly it’s screwing over working people and putting the country’s future at profound risk.
Does Sanders overstate the case? Is Sanders basically peddling a bill of goods, in that the scale of his goals, and his proposed means for accomplishing them, are far-fetched? I’d argue his candidacy is better seen as a very ambitious effort to deliver a dramatic upward jolt to our accepted baseline on what constitutes a just society. That might be having a positive political impact on young people, creating an attractive vehicle for entry into our politics. The Harvard poll found that more of these young voters are self-identifying as Democrats now, and Harvard’s polling director thinks Sanders’s popularity and unflinching reform vision may be why.
Might the awful specter of President Trump have eventually engaged these voters anyway, even if Sanders hadn’t spent the last year wagging that hooked finger at ecstatic audiences across the country? Maybe, but his candidacy might end up having boosted that engagement process immeasurably. If Sanders does the right thing after the primaries, and works hard to swing his voters behind Clinton, making it unequivocally clear that she will move us towards the more just society he envisions, he may succeed in engaging untold numbers of young voters in Democratic politics going forward, on largely positive terms.
Many of these Sanders voters, rather than dissipate once they come crashing down from their idealistic high, might find ways to translate those newly acquired high ideals into constructive influence. Harold Meyerson recently suggested a few possibilities: they might join efforts to continue enacting progressive legislation at the state and municipal levels, or join continuing campaigns for national police, criminal justice, and environmental justice reform.
A large constituency of voters who are impatient with the structural constraints embedded in our politics — reasonably or not — may also turn to making their influence felt by prodding a President Hillary Clinton to prioritize campaign finance and voting access reform. Meanwhile, Jonathan Cohn has also suggested that, by raising his national profile, Sanders may have placed himself in a position where he — and his national constituency — can positively influence the policy debates in Congress in coming years, and perhaps keep Clinton more progressive on the minimum wage, trade, and on her fiscal and safety net priorities.
All this is to say that the question of whether the Sanders movement will show meaningful staying power is to no small degree up to Bernie Sanders — and his supporters. Perhaps the movement will dissipate; perhaps his supporters will scatter in disillusionment and despair. But it’s also easy to envision it having a largely positive influence, perhaps for years to come.