Bernie Sanders and the ‘Win Big or Go Home’ Philosophy of Progressive Change

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Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally In Madison, Wisconsin
Will anything less than the Bern squander a potential Democratic victory in 2016?Photo: Scott Olson/2016 Getty Images

The operative theory behind the Brand New Congress initiative some former Bernie Sanders staffers are planning for the 2018 midterms is that big majorities of Americans — including Republicans as well as independents and Democrats — support a democratic socialist agenda but either don’t realize or have been denied the opportunity to vote for it. Good luck with that! 

But other Sanders supporters embrace a very different “theory of change” that’s nearly as pessimistic as Brand New Congress is optimistic: an actionable Democratic majority is only going to come around every once in a while, and progressives need to cram as much democratic socialism through the window of opportunity as possible. 

Ryan Cooper articulates this theory in the context of health reform in a column for The Week:

ObamaCare — a basically mediocre program that is still a big improvement on the status quo — reflects its political origins. It’s what milquetoast liberals had settled on as a reasonable compromise, so when George Bush handed them a great big majority on a silver platter, that’s what we got. It was Bush’s failed presidency, not 30 years of preemptively selling out to the medical industry, that got the job done

Stripped to its essentials, Sanders’ campaign is following the political tradition of FDR and Lyndon Johnson: trying to convince people of the merits of left-wing policy and demanding candidates who champion that vision. He’s trying to ensure that the next Democratic majority will aim much higher than ObamaCare.

These “milquetoast liberals,” in case the point is not clear to you, are the baby-boomer centrists typified by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, whose defense of Obamacare and criticism of Bernie Sanders as a “con man” who pretends radical change is possible was the object of Cooper’s immediate scorn. 

Drum’s riposte is that Cooper is exaggerating the options that were open to Democrats in 2009 when they put together Obamacare instead of going for the gold with single-payer:

Contra Cooper, George Bush did not hand Obama a “great big majority.” Democrats in 2009 had a big majority in the House and a zero-vote majority in the Senate. That’s the thinnest possible majority you can have, and this is the reason Obamacare is so limited. To pass, it had to satisfy the 40th most conservative senator, so that’s what it did.

I won’t speak for Ryan Cooper and other Sandernistas, but I’d place a decent wager their response would be that this is precisely why progressives need to purge the Democratic Party of corporate-whore sellouts so that they no longer have leverage over the “milquetoast liberals” who so regularly cave to them. There’s a bit of an internal progressive argument as to whether the corporate whores and the milquetoast liberals are the same people, but the basic idea is clear: Democrats must become a disciplined instrument for enacting the maximum progressive policies whenever a political opening emerges. Anything less than that squanders a precious opportunity, and keeps the entire political system leaning to the Right. You might call this the Big Bang Theory, based on the idea that the most important progressive accomplishments occur in big explosive moments rather than via slow incremental gains.

There is, of course, an identical subscription to this theory of change on the Right, where conservatives have been preparing for decades for a great gittin’-up morning that will take America all the way back to the early 1930s. The big difference is that it’s a lot easier to destroy than to create, and while two years of a supermajority in Congress may not be quite enough time to turn America into Denmark, it’s plenty of time to turn back the clock. 

Nonetheless, the attraction of Bernie Sanders to impatient progressives who embrace the Big Bang Theory should be obvious. The only way to discipline Democrats and achieve maximize progressive gains after an electoral victory is to have an indelibly clear and inflexible idea of progressive goals — in short, a series of litmus tests. Sanders has been laying down the same litmus tests, basically involving linear extensions of New Deal and Great Society programs in every direction, for decade after decade, no matter how lonely the task might have been or how many tempting and interesting ideas were percolating elsewhere. He’s “progressive” in the sense of believing America went largely off track in the 1960s and needs to go back and pick up where the march towards Scandinavia left off. And as the Cooper-Drum exchange demonstrates, the “milquetoast liberals” of the baby-boom generation can only respond with a record of accomplishment that pales next to that of FDR and LBJ (particularly when you forget the many compromises those liberal lions actually made). It all begins to sound like a silly and stereotypical dialogue between “idealistic” youth and cynical old people, when it’s really a judgment call with enormous implications for the immediate political future.

I think we’ll hear more of this argument if Donald Trump nails down the Republican nomination tonight and Democrats begin to dream of a presidential landslide and a congressional conquest to go with it. What might Democrats get done before the inevitable midterm backlash occurs? And what if that backlash leads to the Right’s Big Bang in 2020? Bazinga!