Irrational Exuberance About Bernie Sanders

Matt Yglesias is impressed with the size of the crowds Senator Bernie Sanders is attracting and thinks it could change history.

The Democratic Party stands for very different things than the Republican Party, but both parties are financed largely by very large checks from very wealthy individuals and the ability to cater to the sensibilities of some subset of America’s super-rich demographic is a crucial test of leadership for both parties.

Sanders stands outside that system. He’s managed to campaign and win in a small, cheap, and very liberal state without cultivating a following among the uber-wealthy and he’s happy to run a shoestring presidential campaign powered by small donors.

And you can see from this kind of huge turnout [in Madison, Wisconsin] that this is a message people are very excited about. To the extent that Sanders is able to move those people up the ladder of engagement from engaging with Sanders content online to showing up to Sanders rallies in Wisconsin to donating and volunteering in political campaigns, that can have a lasting impact on the world.

I don’t dispute that a surprisingly strong Sanders campaign can and will leave a lasting impact on American politics, but it’s a little premature to be getting overly excited about Bernie’s prospects. For Sanders to really reshape our politics, he’ll need to do more than pack stadiums in large, liberal college towns or attract hundreds of thousands of small donors. These are encouraging signs, to be sure, and right now there aren’t any better ways of measuring the appeal of his campaign. But Sanders understands that the key is building a grassroots army of organizers, and those organizers have to be able to deliver something.

Obama’s political team and grassroots army delivered victory and proved along the way that many things were possible that experts had previously thought impossible. Ross Perot took down a sitting president and put budget deficits on the public’s mind.

Unless Sanders somehow wins the Democratic nomination, he and his organizers will have to accomplish something more akin to what Perot accomplished than what Obama accomplished. This is definitely doable, and it could be that single-payer health care gains more credibility than anyone thought possible, or that Washington politicians finally concede that the public fucking hates the post-Citizens United world and does something about campaign finance laws, or it could be that President Clinton gets a massive transportation and youth employment bill through Congress. It could be as simple as providing a different model for financing and organizing a big presidential campaign.

I’m apprehensive about any effort to temper the enthusiasm of Bernie’s supporters, because all the goals I just mentioned are worthwhile and perhaps within reach, but a few larger-than-expected rallies and a lot of small donors shouldn’t get anyone irrationally exuberant. By the only metrics we have, Bernie is exceeding expectations and doing great. If you want to get onboard the Bernie train, do it so this can mean something and have a lasting positive effect. But don’t get thinking that Bernie is going to slay all the lions arrayed against him and win the nomination or the presidency. That’s not what his campaign is about.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.