Is Bernie Sanders Fooling Himself?

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman has another column defending Hillary Clinton and criticizing Bernie Sanders. That makes three in two weeks. It’s the second of these anti-Sanders columns I’d like to focus on here, the one published a week ago, titled “How Change Happens.”

Krugman starts by lamenting the tendency—evident, he says, on both the left and the right—to believe “that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.” This, he insists, is a delusion. He then goes on to make a point about half loaves being better than none and the importance of “hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends.”

Let’s start with his first point. In fact, the majority of Americans who support policies considered radical in Washington isn’t hidden at all; it’s just irrelevant. That’s because the opinion that matters when it comes to bread-and-butter issues is not general public opinion but the opinion of the donor class, a.k.a. the One Percent. On social issues like gay marriage, donor-class opinion frequently coincides with public opinion. On issues like tax rates and the minimum wage, most of the donor class disagrees with a majority of Americans. In a well-functioning democracy, the majority would prevail; in our system, the donor class does. This was the conclusion of a recent academic study that received a lot of attention—Krugman himself mentioned it on his blog.

By making campaign-finance reform the centerpiece of his campaign—and by refusing to take big donations from billionaires and corporations—Sanders is addressing this problem head on, while Clinton, who claims to agree with Sanders on this issue, continues to take as much money as possible from whoever (or whatever) will give it to her. In other words, she has very little credibility on this issue. Her campaign is funded with money from financial institutions that are also funding Republican campaigns, and much of her personal wealth comes from speaking fees paid by the same institutions.

In short, the problem is not, as Krugman suggests, that Sanders and his supporters are fooling themselves about how much public support there is for “radical” reform. The problem is that public policy on economic issues is no longer determined by what the public supports.

On to Krugman’s second point. He writes that President Obama’s “achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.” Krugman believes that Hillary Clinton, like Obama, understands the importance of compromise. She will gladly take the half loaf; Sanders will not. His "purist stance" would lead to "destructive self-indulgence."

There are two problems with this argument. The first is that there's no evidence that Sanders is unwilling to accept half loaves. As Sanders has reminded us in the debates, he voted for the Affordable Care Act even though he supports a single-payer system. He has also supported compromise legislation on guns, a fact that, according to the Clinton campaign, proves he opposes gun control. (Apparently it is a sign of shrewdness and sophistication to compromise with Wall Street but a sign of weakness to compromise with the N.R.A.) So the contrast Krugman wants to draw between Hillary’s m.o. and Bernie’s is mostly spurious. Bernie has a long record as an effective legislator who makes compromises in order to get stuff done—a much longer record than Clinton’s. Though not a Democrat himself, he has regularly voted with the Democratic caucus for legislation that did not go nearly as far as he would have liked it to.

The second and more profound problem with Krugman’s argument is its weird misunderstanding of how democratic politics actually works. Yes, if you ask for a whole loaf, you may have to settle for half of one—in which case you should accept it, a half loaf being better than nothing. But if if you start out by asking for a half loaf, you will likely get a quarter loaf. Anyone who has ever had to bargain for something knows that it is actually more pragmatic to start with your ideal, especially when you know that the people you’re bargaining with will start with theirs. You would think an economist, of all people, would understand this. The GOP has been moving the goalposts of our national political discourse toward the right largely because the Democrats, in a bid to appear as the more moderate party, have let them. Triangulation sometimes wins elections, but it also leads to skewed parameters for negotiation once an election is over. That’s how a health-care reform law conceived at the Heritage Foundation became an example of socialism within a decade.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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