Opinion writer

(Associated Press Photo/John Minchillo)

Kevin Drum, in what he admits is an attempt to “provoke,” explains why he never warmed to Bernie Sanders. It isn’t just that he is offering “skimpy” policy proposals — worse, he’s basically running a scam on his voters that could end up harming progressivism:

If you want to make a difference in this country, you need to be prepared for a very long, very frustrating slog. You have to buy off interest groups, compromise your ideals, and settle for half loaves — all the things that Bernie disdains as part of the corrupt mainstream establishment. In place of this he promises his followers we can get everything we want via a revolution that’s never going to happen. And when that revolution inevitably fails, where do all his impressionable young followers go? Do they join up with the corrupt establishment and commit themselves to the slow boring of hard wood? Or do they give up?

I don’t know, but my fear is that some of them will do the latter. And that’s a damn shame. They’ve been conned by a guy who should know better, the same way dieters get conned by late-night miracle diets. When it doesn’t work, they throw in the towel.

Most likely Bernie will have no lasting effect, and his followers will scatter in the usual way, with some doubling down on practical politics and others leaving for different callings. But there’s a decent chance that Bernie’s failure will result in a net increase of cynicism about politics, and that’s the last thing we need. I hate the idea that we might lose even a few talented future leaders because they fell for Bernie’s spiel and then got discouraged when it didn’t pan out.

I’ll grant that my pitch — and Hillary’s and Barack Obama’s — isn’t very inspiring. Work your fingers to the bone for 30 years and you might get one or two significant pieces of legislation passed. Obviously you need inspiration too. But if you don’t want your followers to give up in disgust, your inspiration needs to be in the service of goals that are at least attainable. By offering a chimera instead, Bernie has done the progressive movement no favors.

In one narrow sense, I agree with Drum. Sanders has offered an oversimplified indictment of the Obama years, by arguing that Obama-era reform fell woefully short of the scale of our challenges precisely because Democrats remained in thrall to plutocratic money and failed to rally the grassroots to break GOP Congressional opposition. This gives short shrift to what was achieved and risks misleading people about the structural constraints built into our system — and about the obstacles the GOP’s structural and ideological entrenchment pose to progressive change.

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.

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders appeared on three Sunday morning shows on April 24. Sanders said his support for Clinton's nomination is "totally dependent" on whether she takes on a more progressive agenda. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)