Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has written an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “How Democrats Can Stop Losing Elections.” Given the role he is attempting to play in the Democratic Party these days, his ideas are worth evaluating.
Contrasting his proposals with what Trump is trying to do, Sanders outlines seven things Democrats should commit to fighting for:
- Guarantee health care to all as a right
- Support a progressive tax system
- Fight for public investment in infrastructure
- Accelerate our commitment to combating climate change
- Invest in public education and lower student debt
- Reform a broken criminal justice system
- Fight for comprehensive immigration reform
In a few cases I’ve left out some of the specifics Sanders included because I wanted to make a point, which is that when it comes to these goals, I suspect that any divide that exists within the Democratic Party is more about the particulars on how to achieve them.
It is also true that none of these goals are anything new for the Democratic Party. We saw progress on them during the Obama years and they were all included in the party’s platform in 2016. The question I would have for Senator Sanders is whether he is suggesting that the Democratic Party is losing elections because of the particulars, such as supporting the idea of building on Obamacare versus advocating for single payer, or because various politicians might have supported investment in infrastructure that came to less than $1 trillion. If that is his point, I’d say that he has miscalculated.
I also find it interesting to note some of the things Sanders pushed for in the Democratic primary that weren’t included on his list—like raising the minimum wage, renegotiating trade deals, getting rid of Citizens United and punishing Wall Street. I’ll not try to guess why they didn’t make the cut, but the exclusions are interesting.
Beyond specific goals, here is a place where Sanders makes an important point:
We already have among the lowest voter turnout of any major country on earth. Democrats will not win if the 2018 midterm election turnout resembles the unbelievably low 36.7 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots in 2014…
The party’s main thrust must be to make politics relevant to those who have given up on democracy and bring millions of new voters into the political process.
Reading between the lines, it appears as though Sanders is saying that the goals he has articulated are what is needed to inspire millions of news voters to participate in the political process. In other words, it is a messaging problem. There is some merit to that argument.
But this is a diverse country and there are other things that need to be considered as barriers to voting. They include the very blatant attempts by Republicans to suppress the vote as well as things that could be addressed by same-day registration, automatic voter registration and/or vote by mail. There are also the kinds of barriers Obama will attempt to address with his emphasis on citizenship engagement.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to voter turnout is the idea that politics doesn’t matter. With that, we could return to the importance of messaging. Very recent history tells us that in 2008, voter turnout reached a 40-year high. That put a Democrat in the White House and gave control of both houses of Congress to his party. The result was that in two short years we got reforms that provided health insurance to an additional 20 million people, the biggest public investment in infrastructure since FDR and the most stringent regulations on Wall Street in our country’s history. Those are the kinds of things Republicans are now busy trying to undo. Elections matter.
Overall I’d say that Sanders’s proposals are necessary, but insufficient as a prescription for Democrats to stop losing elections.