Sanders's Failed Revolution

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a rally in Baltimore, Saturday, April 23, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a rally in Baltimore, Saturday, April 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

There is little doubt that Bernie Sanders has done far better than expected when he initially declared he was running for president. But with his defeat in New York, his chances of winning the Democratic nomination and becoming the president are small at best. With these defeats, it would appear that the "revolution" he personifies has suffered a grave and insurmountable setback. While Bernie Sanders not winning the presidency will certainly be problematic for the cause, the bigger problem for the "revolution" is that it never had a chance of succeeding to begin with. This vision of millions of working class voters banding together to elect very liberal representatives and pass Sanders' vision of free college for all, single-payer healthcare, getting money out of politics, substantial tax increases on the rich, etc. was doomed to run into the institutional buzzsaw specifically designed to avoid radical change that is the U.S. Senate.

Imagine a world where Bernie Sanders somehow succeeds. He won the presidency. Millions of detached first-time voters actually show up and provide a huge down ballot wave allowing Democrats to win all of the remotely plausible Senate seats in play (New Hampshire, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Missouri, and North Carolina). This gives Democrats a 54 to 46 lead in the Senate. Let's take it a step further and say that not only do Democrats retake the Senate, but they achieve the virtually impossible and win the House as well.

Alas, even if these extremely unlikely set of circumstances were to come to pass, Bernie would still be on a path leading nowhere. Perhaps if the whole Senate was up for election in 2016, like the House is, it would be possible for Bernie's millions of new voters to truly overwhelm the status quo and elect a strongly liberal majority. Unfortunately for Bernie's Revolution, this was exactly the type of thing the Founding Fathers were trying to prevent when they created the Senate. Senate elections are staggered with only a third of the Senate up for re-election at any time. This means to get a more dominate progressive majority the Revolution would need to be sustained over several cycles.

But let's push on. Now that the easy part of winning the 2016 election is over, President Sanders would turn to implementing the agenda his legions of supporters pushed for. Here he runs into his first set of problems. With just 54 Democratic Senators, Bernie would be working with six less than President Obama had when they barely passed Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act, both of which Bernie wants to replace with even more liberal versions. Like Obama, Bernie would almost certainly not have any Republicans to go along with his policies, meaning any filibuster would simply render his agenda inert.

The only other option to get his agenda implemented is to completely do away with the filibuster. Again this is exceptionally unlikely to happen; Senators Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester to name a few of the more moderate Democratic Senators are not going to vote to eliminate the filibuster for proposals that they are unlikely to vote for anyway.

Sanders' challenge would be two-fold going forward into 2018. Moderate Democratic Senators would need to be replaced by more liberal candidates that can still win the general election, and they would have to elect liberal Senators in states currently represented by Republicans. There is little evidence that Sanders' supporters have the numbers to elect liberal options in primaries. In Illinois, Tammy Duckworth crushed her liberal challengers, Patrick Murphy has led most of the recent polling against Alan Grayson, and it remains to be seen if Loretta Sanchez or Kamala Harris will win in California.

If the new voters can't elect more liberal Senators and Representatives in this year's primaries, it would leave a President Sanders in a position where he we be unlikely to achieve much in his first two years. Given Bernie's thoughts on President Clinton's and Obama's "half-loaves" approach, it is very unlikely that he would give in to get part of what he wants. Even if he did agree to compromise to achieve some of his goals, it would likely reduce his standing in the eyes of those that view him as beyond politics as usual.

Two years into his presidency, it's hard to see how Bernie would have achieved any of his revolutionary vision. That or he has "sold out" (his words, not ours) to move forward with partial reforms. Then we'd arrive at the 2018 midterms, when the president's party historical does quite poorly and Democrats have to defend a lot of seats. Indeed, Democrats would need to defend sitting Senators, or win with more liberal candidates, in MT, ND, IN, MO (to name a few) and then win six more seats. These six would need to come from NV, UT, AZ, TX, WY, NE, TN, and MS, not exactly a list of liberal leaning states. Further complicating the math is imagine you are one of the millions of formerly disillusioned or first-time voters that Bernie drew to the polls to win in 2016, are you really going to come out to the polls again after Bernie has been unable to deliver on the promises in the first two years? We think it is far more likely that those voters will go back to sitting out. Democrats will get shellacked once again in the midterms, and none of Sanders' initiatives would ever be implemented.

Bernie Sanders' "revolution" is great short-term politics, that even had it been successful would have set him up for long-term failure when he was unable to deliver on his promises. In a lot other countries, a Bernie Sanders-type candidate could ride a wave of political support and remake the country in a single cycle. However, the design of America's political institutions simply doesn't allow short-term bursts of political activity to overwhelm the system. Instead, if Democrats want to continue to push the country in a more progressive direction, the Democratic Party will have to maintain a sustained focus on all elections; Senate, House, state and local, not just the presidency. It's not quite as catchy a slogan, but it actually has a chance to produce lasting results.