Bernie Sanders' Sisyphean Political Revolution

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Former Meet The Press moderator David Gregory recently paid a visit to Tufts University, as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series, to open up about finding solace in spiritual faith after losing his job at NBC, and to dish on the current state of politics and media in the 2016 presidential election. I mentioned to Gregory recent presidential race surveys, specifically a recent Quinnipiac poll.

It found that the general electorate backs Senator Bernie Sanders over every remaining Republican presidential candidate by margins as wide as ten percentage points in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups, while Clinton trails or statistically ties those same Republicans. (A CNN poll released March 1st found similar numbers.)

Additionally, Quinnipiac found, as others have, that Sanders beats Trump by a much wider margin than Clinton - in large part due to Sanders' popularity with independents. How do we square these numbers, I asked Gregory, early and hypothetical though they are, with the long-held presumption that the country is center-right? This was his answer:


I think [Bernie Sanders] is a movement candidate, he's idealistic, he has captured the spirit among parts of the electorate who feel left out of the political process; who feel disappointed with politics generally, maybe Obama specifically. People who are deeply distrustful of institutions and he is different enough, angry enough, and willing to call out the excesses of our economy in particular, in a way that I think is appealing to a lot of people - and not just young people.

I do not yet believe that it is a signal of a movement to the country becoming center-left. I just don't believe that's the case. ... Some of this is about Hillary and that she has yet to find the language of a movement. I think she's seen much more as a kind of part of the establishment - part of the firmament that's not really generating.

One important thing to bear in mind: Bernie Sanders has not yet faced the brunt of the criticism that he will face. He hasn't received it from her, nor from a Republican candidate. So he's in a little bit of a honeymoon period. But he's an appealing guy, he runs counter to so many different conventions of a politician and it's kind of winning.

On the heels of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's massive landslide win in South Carolina and her dominant performance on Super Tuesday, the Sanders surge has been buffeted with the type of sobering reminder insiders like Gregory have long posited: Sanders' espoused political revolution, as far as it has come, has a long way to go.

Over the last six months the Brooklyn native has turned what was long expected to be a coronation into a horse race; and his remarkable grassroots fundraising has given him the firepower necessary to stay in the race past the Ides of March. But media headlines and narratives in Super Tuesday round-ups have reasserted her status as the likely nominee and, due to Clinton's huge delegate-rich wins in the South, the mathematical window for a Sanders victory is closing.

Writers at The Daily Beast and the New York Times have made the case that black voters, whose communities stand to be most deeply impacted by Republicans' proposed cuts to the social safety net, have come out so strongly for Clinton because they are wary of wasting a vote on a man still largely seen as a protest candidate.

If the major polls showing Sanders outperforming Clinton versus Republicans become more publicized and if Sanders wins upcoming Midwest states, then he may be able to undercut Clinton's reemerging inevitability. But barring such an increase in coverage, or a new damning revelation in the FBI's investigation of Clinton, her electability argument this primary season will be the exemplary case of that old political adage: perception is reality.

While Sanders is seen much more favorably by independents than Clinton, his self-avowed political label, democratic socialist, does leave him, according to a Gallup poll, with an uphill optics battle should he somehow muscle his way to November.

Simply put by Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker: What Bernie Sanders is trying to accomplish is ludicrous. His age (seventy-four), political label (socialist), disposition (grumpy), and aesthetic (rumpled) make him the most improbable Presidential candidate of 2016 not named Trump.

The task of becoming president of the United States is herculean for anyone. To Donald Trump, who has so far steamrolled competitors and pundits by throwing out the Washington political playbook and running his own irreverent audibles, "it's tough, it's mean, it's nasty, it's vicious, it's beautiful." For Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy is near-mythic, it seems Sisyphean. So are throngs of Americans "feeling the Bern" all for naught?

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A few years ago during his Audacity of Despair lecture series, journalist turned art television showrunner, David Simon invoked Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus - a tale in which the gods punished Sisyphus, King of Ephyra, who had tried to cheat Death, by condemning him to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, "whence the stone would fall back of its own weight; they had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor."

After much ado about the nature of absurd heroism, at the story's denouement Camus concludes "the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Simon culled this moral lesson from Camus:

To commit to a righteous cause in the face of overwhelming odds is absurd. To not commit to a righteous cause in the face of overwhelming odds is equally absurd. But only one option offers the possibility of human dignity. And dignity matters...Pick something that matters, that is bigger than yourself, that isn't for your own gain, and commit to it, and see what happens. If for nothing at all, the bastards will not be able to say that they didn't know.

Without conflation, it could be said that the disillusioned youth, independents, intellectuals, and working-class people who Sanders has re-inspired are guided by the same modus operandi. His supporters are clearly a coalition that finds greater hope of the fundamental reforms for which it yearns in unequivocally taking on the power structure's apex, from the outside, even if it lengthens the odds of success.

In other words, to risk losing, but to do it with heads held high having backed a candidate who they are sure does not "represent the interests of the billionaire class, corporate interests, or Wall Street," as Sanders has put it. In an election year in which it seems proximity to the establishment is more relevant than one's place on the left-right spectrum, it's a fair case to be made.

But bearing in mind that the financial industry is the largest campaign contributor to Congress - particularly the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee, both of which are tasked with overseeing the very firms that are their sponsors - is a dramatic wave of new taxes on Wall Street to pay for programs likely? Is the fight for Medicare-for-all, though noble in its intentions, probable given both the gargantuan political power of the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries and the near-guarantee of a House that remains Republican-led?

Can fundamental campaign finance reform aimed at reducing the influence of special interests be achieved via Washington in view of the intractable disincentive Congresspeople have to do such a thing as incumbent beneficiaries of the current system? (In their heads: "Why vote to dissemble the way things are done when that way of politicking is what put you in office and will likely keep you there?")

The answer to each aforementioned question is a resounding no - the Democratic establishment's political apparatus never misses a chance to mention it (and top journalists would do well to press Bernie for a Plan B). Sanders has countered "that if you start your campaign and run on a platform calling for a full loaf, at worst you're gonna get a half loaf; if you start your campaign talking about a need for a half loaf, you're going to get crumbs."

And his supporters, ostensibly fed up with being told that's just the way it is haven't heeded the calls for continuity or measured pragmatism. Whether they are 'Bernie or Bust' remains to be seen - surely if Sanders falls short many will still show up in November to vote against the Republican nominee, if not necessarily for Clinton.

Donald Trump's very words are a desecration of silence to the ears of progressives. His flippantly outrageous stances on a litany of issues and authoritarian overtones would seemingly drive Democrats to the polls out of fear alone. His remaining challengers Senators Cruz and Rubio, who in light of Trump have become viewed by many as voices of moderation, both oppose abortion without exception, including cases of rape and incest. Rubio has called for the elimination of the capital gains tax. Cruz has spoken of carpet-bombing parts of the Middle East.

Republican candidates' debate stage brawls belie their uniform severity and leave Democrats with an interesting choice:

If there was ever a year for Democrats to risk sending a left-wing independent into a general election it would be this year - when Republicans have seemingly forsaken empathy and forgotten moderation, leaving Democrats a chance to push an undisguised populist into power. And yet, if there was ever a year in which it was more important for Democrats to play it safer, preserve gains, and not lose the White House it would be this year. Jon Favreau, former Obama speechwriter, wrote something to that effect in The Daily Beast, in favor of Clinton.

When then-Senator Obama ran to the left of Clinton in 2008 (though distinctly not as far to the left as Sanders has run) he roused the crowd at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner with a trademark rhetorical flourish that embodied his early idealism and threw shade at Clinton's reputation as a poll-tested personality:

If we are really serious about winning this election Democrats, we can't live in fear of losing it. This party... has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we summoned the entire nation to a common purpose - a higher purpose. And I run for the Presidency of the United States of America because that's the party America needs us to be right now. A party that offers not just a difference in policies, but a difference in leadership. A party that doesn't just focus on how to win but why we should. A party that doesn't just offer change as a slogan, but real, meaningful change - change we can believe in.

Those deftly asserted distinctions from/shots at Clinton, and his eventual near-monopolization of the black vote, launched Obama to victory. However, after losing the House of Representatives to Republicans in 2010, the president found himself in the unwelcome company of an overtly obstinate Congress.

Democrats, while all acknowledging that obstinace, remain in deep disaccord over how the president should have dealt with it and how much he could have done on his own. It's been the underlying source of this primary battle - the donkey in the room, if you will.

Clinton has been pounding Sanders in town halls, debates, and on the trail for what she depicts as Sanders' lack of loyalty to President Obama. Most glaringly, Sanders' call for a primary challenger to push Obama further left in 2012. The president is still highly popular with Democrats, particularly black voters, so Sanders has tried to downplay those specific instances in which he disagreed with the White House. In reality, those disagreements are the raison d'etre of Sanders' campaign.

Jon Stewart, the most visible intellectual and cultural leader of the left during the Obama years, summed up discontent with Obama in a 2015 interview with British GQ:

If you are going to have the audacity of rhetoric you have to have audacity of effort. If there is disappointment in Obama it is that he didn't go down swinging. People would like to have seen more noble failure.

To casual left-leaning observers, the Obama presidency may appear an un-nuanced blur of Republican obstructionism; however, many liberal activists deeply attuned to the inside baseball of Washington were given the political equivalent of heart palpitations by some of the Obama administration's concessions to the Republican party and to conservative framing generally.

Not least, the attempted 2011 'Grand Bargain' deal with then-House Speaker John Boehner, in which President Obama offered Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts as well as long-term reductions in discretionary spending in exchange for a tax hike of roughly $100 billion per year over 10 years, a three-to-one ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases.

The Progressive Caucus was, ironically, spared by the intransigence of newly minted Tea Party Republicans whom Boehner knew would revolt against the leadership if he agreed to the accompanied tax increases on which the White House insisted. Sanders, then a ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, balked and stood against the fiscal ratio of the proposed deal.

The grander bargain died, but in the end a smaller deal was reached, though it was dangerously negotiated over securing Republican support for raising the debt ceiling; something Obama would later refuse to do again in light of the resulting credit downgrade. Speaker Boehner when asked about the debt-ceiling deal in an interview with CBS News said, "When you look at this final agreement that we came to with the White House, I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I'm pretty happy." The memory of these fights and others, are still alive in the minds of many progressives who believe a more public, aggressive stance may have forced the Republican party's hand in similar situations throughout each term.

On the issue of money in politics, a central tenet of the Sanders platform and a favorite topic of Stewart's Daily Show monologues, Obama has also disappointed liberals. Within that same 2008 Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech was this forceful rebuke of special interests:


I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists - and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am President.

The Politico dossier 'How K Street Beat Obama' fleshes out how those campaign pledges never came to fruition.

It's true that if Sanders or Clinton were to become president that both would be met with similar, if not as severe, congressional opposition. The fight over the party's direction, then, is over things such as readiness to use unilateral executive action; over posture that would be taken and tactics that would be deployed to counteract congressional Republicans' pressure.

In an interview with Politico's Glenn Thrush early this year, President Obama indirectly referenced the kind of criticism expressed Jon Stewart. "Some of the presidency is performance," he said. "And I've been criticized, probably in some cases fairly, for not effectively, you know, promoting my ideas."

Secretary Clinton, who has been pushed by Sanders into increasingly liberal positions on taxation, trade, college affordability, regulation, and other issues has vowed to fight as hard as she can for those issues dear to liberals. 'Fighting For Us' is one of her slogans. Sanders, and his supporters, just don't trust her to do so - especially those that may hear her simultaneous pledge to continue President Obama's policies as code for a continuation of what they see as a more restrained incrementalism.

As President Obama spoke with Thrush, he often hemmed and hawed, half-leaning towards subtle endorsement of Clinton while being sure to maintain plausible neutrality. When asked "do you see any elements of what you were able to accomplish in what Sanders is doing?" Obama distanced himself from the body politic, put on his more professorial lens, and offered this classically cautious observation on the philosophy of civics.


Well, there's no doubt that Bernie has tapped into a running thread in Democratic politics that says: Why are we still constrained by the terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago? You know, why is it that we should be scared to challenge conventional wisdom and talk bluntly about inequality and, you know, be full-throated in our progressivism? And, you know, that has an appeal and I understand that. I think that what Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics.

The friction for Democrats this primary season, in essence, has been whether 'full-throated progressivism' and 'translating [progressive] values into governance' are still mutually exclusive in American politics. Continuing to 'campaign in poetry and govern in prose' or taking an unsolicited shot at populist political revolution.

When the president invokes that 'thread' it is instructive to note how though Obama was ostensibly more liberal than Hillary Clinton in 2008, he came of age professionally during the Reagan Revolution and at Harvard Law was renown for being the mediator between the liberals and the conservatives on the law review. He was schooled in the Senate by former Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Obama was an insurgent candidate - but not an outsider. Anita Dunn, who worked in Obama's communications department, told Bloomberg that is a "huge difference" between 2008 Obama and 2016 Sanders.

If Clinton edges out Sanders she will likely be the last iteration of this democratic establishment. Although the left's leadership apparatus and cable news talking heads are still stacked with former Bill Clinton administration officials, allies, and appointees, the party's emerging base is no longer influenced by Clinton era Blue Dogs or Reagan Democrats. As evidenced by Sanders sweep of the youth vote, every generation is increasingly liberal.

According to new polling by conservative political consultant Frank Luntz, Americans 18 to 26 are so liberal that "the hostility of young Americans to the underpinnings of the American economy and the American government" should "frighten every business and political leader" and "excite activists for Sanders and, to a lesser degree, Clinton activists." Sixty-six percent of the poll's respondents said corporate America "embodies everything that is wrong about America."

Nearly one in three (31%) chose Bernie Sanders as the political figure they like and respect most, followed by President Obama (18%) and Hillary Clinton (11%), Donald Trump (9%), Ted Cruz (5%), and Marco Rubio (3%).

Clinton, who not long ago was so regularly described by news media as the 'presumptive Democratic nominee' that it was effectively her epitaph, has ended up having to wrestle for the title. She'll most likely come away with it. Yet if anything, this election cycle has taught operatives and analysts alike that there is little left in American politics that anyone can presume by the old rules.

The very things that have made Bernie Sanders an unlikely candidate - his background, his unapologetic leftist worldview, his grumpy grandpa demeanor, his lack of institutional and financial support - have also endeared him to millions of Americans yearning for authenticity, indignation, and unimpeded aspiration for a more egalitarian society.

In the least, he will have forcefully reminded a Democratic party, which before his rise was on its way to coronate a moderate insider, to embrace their bleeding hearts, and their populistic commitments in a time of increasingly historic inequality.

Some of the most clairvoyant of prognosticators couldn't see 'the Bern' coming. And though Sanders the candidate may ultimately suspend his campaign, his political revolution, partially co opted by the Clinton campaign, but fully embraced by the future electorate of the country looks like it'll be here to stay, kindling, maturing, awaiting its next chance to upend the establishment of either party. In the meantime, Senator Sanders has pushed Secretary Clinton so far left that it may be awfully hard for her to walk back some of her campaign proclamations if she makes it to the Oval - a solid silver lining for progressives.

With all of that in mind, even in defeat, Sanders' challenge may prove it's not so Sisyphean after all. No matter his fate, his campaign's struggle towards the heights will go down in history and the Bern it has generated will live on. Sanders will probably still be a bit grumpy. But one must imagine him proud.