The Paradox of Bernie Sanders

MANCHESTER, NH - SEPTEMBER 19:  Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) talks on stage during the New
MANCHESTER, NH - SEPTEMBER 19: Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) talks on stage during the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention on September 19, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Five Democratic presidential candidates are all expected to address the crowd inside the Verizon Wireless Arena. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

The surge of money and enthusiasm propelling Bernie Sanders has long since trampled conventional wisdom. The question now is where that takes us.

Through a progressive lens, the systemic inequities Sanders eviscerates are a blistering rebuke to politics as usual. The soul -- shriveling gap between the fortunate and the rest in the essentials of a decent life -- education, economic opportunity, healthcare. A system of campaign finance which is elegant bribery. Ordinary people losing their homes as Wall Street malefactors go unpunished. The Orwellian equation of "class warfare" with increased taxes on the very rich. To many who feel this social corrosion most acutely, Hillary Clinton personifies a party adrift from his liberal moorings. They long for a truth-teller free of super PACs and pollsters, primed to at last take the gloves off.

Now comes Senator Sanders -- not only with attitude, but an agenda. Single-payer healthcare. Free tuition at public colleges. Affordable day care. Billions more for Social Security. Higher taxes on the wealthy to cover an estimated $4 trillion dollar price tag. And, necessarily, the most dramatic expansion of government in three generations.

But as of now these proposals are political ships in a bottle, faced with inescapable threshold questions. Can Sanders win the presidency? If so, can he enact any part of his vision? And what is the balance between primary voting as an act of self-expression, and a cold-eyed look at a candidate's prospects in a general election? Resolving this cage match between head and heart is vexing work. For the Sanders phenomenon presents the impassioned but thoughtful progressive with a painful electoral paradox: When might the most heartfelt vote for a better society preserve the ills one seeks to banish? And here we start with Sanders himself.

For Democrats of a certain age, Sanders evokes a familiar figure from the 60s: the committed ideologue transfixed by a vision of tectonic change and driven by total fidelity to principle. Such people would rather lose an election than trim their sails to the winds of the electorate. And Sanders did lose -- six elections in a row before, with admirable persistence, becoming the first Socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Beyond achieving some concrete civic good, Sanders launched his modest burg into the arena of foreign policy, writing letters of reproof to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and imploring the UK, China and the Soviet Union to embrace military disarmament. He climaxed these efforts by visiting Daniel Ortega in Venezuela, writing Reagan on his return proposing to help resolve America's conflict with the Sandinistas. The results beg stating.

Which raises questions for the present day. While Sanders has been giving the same basic speech -- keyed to income inequality -- for decades, the turn of history's wheel has given him a megaphone of impressive power. His career in Congress is noteworthy for his votes against the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, and progressives dearly wish that more Democrats could say that. But his legislative accomplishments are slight. And none of the 250 Democrats in Congress support him, nor any governor -- including Vermont's.

This is not simply because of policy differences -- some Democrats overlap Sanders on key issues -- but because in a business where personal relations count, Sanders is viewed as a brusque and inflexible loner. The indubitably progressive Barney Frank summarized the common view of the Senator's ability to move the body politic: "He went for the ideal, but he was not part of the legislative process. He chose to be an outsider." Asked to imagine a Sanders presidency, an avowedly liberal insider expresses the worries of many who know him, ruefully concluding that "Bernie would be among the least effective presidents ever."

One hope among progressives aware of his flaws is that a President Sanders could channel his current grassroots support into a tidal wave which would overwhelm congressional opposition. But President Obama tried just that. What he learned is that campaigns are different than governance. A Senate closely divided between red states and blue states, and a House with a vast majority of members insulated from defeat by gerrymandering, is immune to a tsunami of emails.

In these fractious times, enacting any part of the Sanders agenda calls for more than principled consistency -- it requires a Ted Kennedy or, at least, someone skilled at working with Congress as they find it. Sanders' most recent bills -- promoting free college and universal healthcare -- drew zero Democratic cosponsors. These bills are the canary in the mine shaft of reality. For, given the electoral base of Congress, there is no scenario -- none -- which delivers us a legislature that embraces Bernie Sanders.

But from the progressive point of view there is one way Congress could change for the worse: a decisive presidential defeat. As Gene McCarthy and George McGovern learned -- the latter disastrously for his party -- white liberals by themselves are not nearly enough to compete. While Sanders' appeal to progressives is turbocharged by the class divide, McGovern had enraptured crowds, deep grassroots support and the galvanizing issue of our tragedy in Vietnam. He carried Massachusetts.

Fervent crowds of the committed do not of themselves augur a mass revolution in voting patterns that will transform the electoral map. Perhaps, as some insist, this year it's different -- so different as to transcend the unpleasant truths of a long campaign. But it is inconceivable that Sanders will moderate his stance to propitiate the majority of voters to his right, or that the GOP won't trumpet all that many voters will need to know: that Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist who became a Democrat solely to run for president. So progressives must decide whether to risk this election on the willingness of Americans of varying political stripes to choose him.

"Yes," one can imagine some responding, "when to our eyes Hillary Clinton and the GOP dine at the same table." But the most casual glance at issues reveal stark differences between Clinton and the Republican field on economics, education, the environment and gun control -- one area where she is markedly stronger than Sanders. Here, again, history provides us with lessons. No true progressive can look at the current Supreme Court -- which has turned back affirmative action and voting rights while gutting campaign finance reform -- and say that President Gore would have made no difference.

That election mattered. So does this one.