Conventional wisdom has a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecy. The conventional wisdom on the establishment left is that Sen. Bernie Sanders is offering his enthusiastic supporters pipedreams in lieu of achievable policy proposals. Even if he were to become president--a supposition thought farfetched by the establishment left--Sanders could not possibly attain "Medicare for All," as the senator calls his universal healthcare plan. If President Obama could not do it with a Democratic House and Senate, surely a President Sanders can't to do it with a Republican House and a closely divided Senate. And what is true of Medicare for All is likewise true of Sanders's vision of free college tuition, expanding Social Security, and so on.
These critiques come from serious people on the left, such as economist Paul Krugman, so they cannot be dismissed as mere naysaying. Yet the critiques ignore an institution that has been a major obstacle to progressivism of the type espoused by Sanders: the United States Supreme Court. Placed in proper perspective, Bernie Sanders may be just one justice away from setting in motion what he calls a political "revolution."
First, let's take the assumption that because of their severe gerrymanders, Republicans will likely control the House of Representatives until the next decennial census and probably beyond. There's something wrong with a democracy in which the majority of Americans vote for the Democrats' congressional candidates, but the House of Representatives nevertheless winds up lopsidedly Republican. That's what happened in 2012 for only the second time in 70 years, due to Republican gerrymandering. But the Supreme Court has not had its final say on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. In Vieth v. Jubelirer, the Court's last major decision on the subject in 2004, four justices proposed judicial rules under which federal courts could review and invalidate partisan gerrymanders; a fifth, Justice Kennedy, refused to foreclose the possibility that a workable set of rules could be created.
Although the composition of the Court has changed since 2004, there's still essentially a 5-4 conservative-progressive split, meaning a President Sanders is one justice away from ending the partisan gerrymander as we know it. The assumption that an implacable Republican majority in the House would thwart Sanders's legislative agenda simply doesn't acknowledge that the partisan gerrymander is as much a consequence of the decisions of the supposedly non-political branch of our government as it is the self-dealing of the two major political parties.
Campaign finance law is another structural impediment to a progressive political agenda, and the current unscrupulous system of dollars-for-access is just one justice away from being upended. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court's five-justice conservative bloc posited several contestable claims, if not outright fictions: (1) money is speech; (2) though corporations are not people, they have the same political speech rights as the rest of us; (3) these corporations should be permitted to use the dollars of stockholders and consumers to finance political speech opposed by the same stockholders and consumers; and (4) there's no risk of corruption to the body politic because, of course, independent political expenditures by corporations and their allies cannot be coordinated with the candidates on whose behalf they are spending. (Wink.)
The vast majority of Americans do not believe the fictions spawned by the Court conservatives; 78 percent want Citizens United overturned. Doing so would facilitate universal healthcare in ways that aren't immediately apparent but are nevertheless crucial. Critics point to the inability of Obama to pass a "public option" in the Affordable Care Act as proof of Sanders's lack of realism in promoting Medicare for All. It's one thing to point out that the push for a government-run public option, which would have increased competition, failed; it's quite another to understand why. In a word, money. As the Center for Public Integrity recently reported,
A senator from Connecticut, the insurance capital of the world, became the industry's go-to guy. Insurers had spent years investing in Sen. Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat-turned-Independent. During the reform debate, the watchdog group Public Campaign Action Fund . . . called Lieberman an "insurance puppet," noting that insurers had contributed nearly half a million dollars to his campaigns over the years. The Democrats needed Lieberman's vote to get reform passed, and insurers knew it. Shortly before the Senate was set to vote on the bill, Lieberman said he would vote for the bill only if the public option was stripped out.
In short, campaign finance reform and universal healthcare are two sides of the same coin, and far from being a pipedream, progressives are a single Supreme Court vote away from achieving the former, which would make the latter considerably more attainable.
It's unclear whether Bernie Sanders's proposal for a government single-payer system of healthcare enjoys the support of most voters. What is clear, however, is that many of the voters who would likely be most inclined to support such a system are being denied access to the ballot by a third impediment to political reform: voter suppression. Here again, the Court's narrow conservative majority stands in the way of progress--at least for now. First by allowing states to enact restrictive voter photo ID laws without a shred of evidence of in-person voter fraud, and then by gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Court has been a handmaiden in Republican efforts to make it more difficult for the poor, racial minorities, and students to vote. The political revolution that Sanders aspires to is possible only if the electorate is expanded rather than suppressed. One new justice could mean the difference.
So Bernie Sanders and his supporters should dream on. Reaching their dreams won't be easy, but those dreams are more tangible than some on the left realize.