Most contested presidential primaries, in both parties, reprise the same argument. A candidate of ideological purity runs against one of pragmatism, and supporters of each marshal their case — arguments that are familiar enough that they can be repurposed from year to year by replacing a few key nouns — to position the party closer to or farther from the center. On the Republican side, candidates of purity have ranged from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to Steve Forbes to Ted Cruz, and the candidates of pragmatism from George Romney to George W. Bush to Mitt Romney to John Kasich. On the Democratic side, the purist tradition runs from George McGovern (its patron saint) to Jesse Jackson to Howard Dean to Bernie Sanders, pragmatists from Ed Muskie to Michael Dukakis to Bill Clinton to Hillary Clinton. This year’s Republican primaries have veered into unknown territory, shaped by the cultural-revanchist revolt led by a candidate who horrifies both purists and pragmatists. But the Democratic-primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, which arrives in New York this month, is classic purist-versus-pragmatist. Indeed, it is primarily a rehash of these debates, and only secondarily about the beliefs and qualities of the candidates involved.
The pragmatists in both parties have a roughly shared understanding of the political landscape. Republican and Democratic pragmatists alike would have agreed in 2000 that Bush would have a better chance of winning than Forbes, or in 1972 that Muskie would have fared better than McGovern, and so on. The purists in each party disagree not only with their own party’s pragmatists but also with the opposing party’s purists. Republican purists believe a right-wing majority of the general public would naturally support a staunch conservative if offered a clear choice, while Democratic purists believe the same from the left. (The purists in each party tend not to acknowledge each other, perhaps because that would undermine their belief that their party, uniquely, is in the grips of a timid or nefarious elite.)
Arguments by purists have an emotional appeal to political activists that pragmatic arguments lack — they promise freedom from the vise grip of trade-offs between one’s ideological goals and the fickle loyalties of swing voters. Purist arguments are usually wrong. But not always. In 1980, Republicans disregarded the pragmatic choice — centrist candidate George H.W. Bush — to nominate conservative darling Reagan, whose presidency yanked the terms of public debate rightward for more than a generation. So Sanders’s version of a purist argument deserves not to be dismissed in generalized terms but taken seriously in its specifics. And Democrats in New York, or at least the ones who find Sanders’s ideas attractive, are currently wrestling with exactly this question: Just how much purity can we afford?
A Sanders nomination would have certain clear benefits. His public image is more hazily defined, which could be advantageous in comparison with that of Clinton, who is well known to, and disliked by, the public as a whole. A much smaller percentage of Americans have already decided not to like him (specifically: 40 percent to her 55 percent). The cranky white-haired Vermonter has some personal qualities that recommend him even to voters who don’t subscribe to his worldview: He’s forthright about his beliefs and untainted by the routine low-grade corruption that has sucked in much of the political class (including both Clintons, who’ve wrung every cent out of the speaking circuit). Voters sometimes admire principled politicians even if they don’t share all the principles in question. And just as Reagan introduced a new, anti-government language into mainstream discourse, Sanders’s economic program, if he were elected, might reframe the terms of the domestic debate.
But a Sanders nomination comes with potentially enormous risks. As a candidate, he is laden with positions likely to alienate or even terrify a majority of the electorate. Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist,” would increase taxes on the middle class. (A recent poll found that just 7 percent of Americans share his belief that the middle class pays too little.) Sanders’s health-care plan would move 200 million people off private health insurance onto a new public plan — a frightening prospect given that disruptions on a far tinier scale have alienated the public from health-care reform in the past. Oh, and according to a 2011 poll, Americans disapprove of socialism by about two-to-one.
Clinton has largely abstained from exploiting these liabilities, since many of the voters she needs agree with Sanders. A Republican would show no such restraint, and Sanders could quickly become less popular than Clinton. There is a longer record of Americans’ seeing fit to vote for a candidate whose character they vaguely distrust — Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson — rather than for a candidate who seems to pose a danger to their pocketbook. (Reagan had to renounce his initial opposition to Medicare to get elected.)
There is also the question of whether the political risks of a Sanders nomination would bring a proportional upside, or any upside at all. The entire promise of a Sanders presidency rests on his ability to effect a “political revolution,” a concept he has expounded for years and appears to believe in with complete sincerity. Sanders is certain that money poses the primary obstacle to enacting his proposals. Does it? He speaks as if Republicans secretly agree with him about the science of climate change but refuse to admit it out of sheer greed. They are “so owned by the fossil-fuel industry and their campaign contributions that they don’t even have the courage, the decency to listen to the scientists,” he has said, not entertaining the possibility that they are genuinely in the grip of anti-government dogma. Sanders even attributes opposition to ideas like “rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure” to “big-money interests,” when in fact corporate lobbyists heavily favor new infrastructure spending.
The closer you look, the more remote Sanders’s analysis gets from the reality of American politics. He hinges his program on overturning Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that unleashed so much cash into our politics. But the pre-2010 world was not especially receptive to Sandersism. In fact, the most restrictive campaign-finance regime in modern politics began with tight limits passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal. That coincided with a sharp rightward turn in the political climate. Sanders also believes, as purist candidates do, that he will mobilize an army of voters. But he has attracted fewer votes than Clinton and many fewer than Barack Obama did at this stage of the 2008 primary. He may have enough loyalists to make Clinton sweat, but not nearly enough to trouble Republicans in Congress.
Matt Taibbi, writing recently in Rolling Stone, argued that Sanders’s youthful enthusiasts had grasped a deep truth: “They’re voting for Sanders because his idea of an entirely voter-funded electoral ‘revolution’ that bars corporate money is, no matter what its objective chances of success, the only practical road left to break what they perceive to be an inexorable pattern of corruption.” The key phrase here is “no matter what its objective chances of success,” a mystery Taibbi does not get around to addressing. A vote for Sanders is less an attempt to achieve concrete strategic goals than an expression of virtue. Susan Sarandon, a Sanders surrogate, recently mused that she might prefer to elect Donald Trump over Clinton, since he might hasten “the revolution.”
Max Weber called politics “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” Unfortunately, this process is slow, hard, and boring. The revolution Sanders invokes suggests a politics that is fast, triumphant, and thrilling. Those are qualities in perpetual demand among the faithful. For all Obama’s pragmatism in 2008 — his odes to the virtues of compromise, his praise for the value of markets, his insistent warnings that progress wouldn’t be easy — he promised a fundamental change from the status quo. Sanders is promising that, too — and attracting support from many disillusioned that Obama didn’t do more. Clinton promises a continuation. She, and Obama, can point to health care, climate, financial regulation, and on and on — a pile of hard boards through which they have bored, and more of them to work through.
*This article appears in the April 4, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.