How Bernie Sanders Broke the Democratic Primary

There’s something insidious about making promises you can’t keep.

In fifth grade, I ran for mayor of my elementary school on what I thought was a bold, but feasible platform: getting candy sold in the student store and expanding the size of the school carnival. I wasn’t necessarily the coolest kid in school, but I was optimistic about my chances. But the moment my opponent unveiled his platform—getting basketball star Michael Jordan to visit our school—my campaign was effectively over.

My peers were so excited by the prospect of Jordan dunking on the blacktop—no matter how unlikely it was—that there was nothing I could say or do. Call the idea unrealistic and I’m a downer. Offer to bring a less famous but more attainable athlete to our school and I’m not ambitious enough. We didn’t have a debate in that election, but even if we had, I would have come off like a boring naysayer while my opponent looked like a visionary leader.

I doubt my classmate knew it at the time, but by refusing to be grounded in reality, he had effectively broken my school’s political process. I’m afraid Bernie Sanders has done the same thing to the 2020 Democratic primary.

By promising transformative policy changes that have virtually no chance of passing, Sanders makes his opponents’ still ambitious but much more realistic proposals appear weak by comparison. By refusing to be specific about how much his plans will cost, he avoids criticism that burdens more forthright candidates. And by sayingthat he will get his plans enacted through a political revolution that would be “unprecedented, certainly in the modern history of this country,” Sanders makes it difficultto challenge his unproven theory of change.

It’s not that Sanders doesn’t have noble motivations or the right general idea on many issues. He does. We need to significantly reduce the costs of health care and higher education. We need to raise the minimum wage and raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy. We need to lessen our adventures overseas that don’t advance American interests. ASanders deserves immense credit for shifting the Overton window on many of these  issues during the 2016 campaign. But he is not having the same impact in 2020.

Four years ago, Sanders raised issues that may not have been discussed without him. This time, however, many of his core ideas—like raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour—have already been adopted by most of the other candidates. What’s more, every leading contender has offered substantial plans on climate change, health care, and making college more affordable. Sanders made an enormous impact on the 2020 race before it even started by pushing the national conversation of key issues leftward

But by running again and proposing many of the “boldest” but least viable plans in the Democratic field, such as arbitrarily cancelling all student loan debt, or implementing national rent control—both of which have tepid support even among Democratic members of Congress–he has shifted the debate of serious issues in an unserious direction.

Much like Donald Trump in 2016, Sanders is standing out in a crowded field by making promises he can’t keep. He’s not giving voters an honest assessment of how he will improve their lives. Like an airbrushed magazine model who makes real people look bad by setting an impossible standard of beauty, Sanders is harmfully distorting our view of other candidates by refusing to stick to reality.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a political candidate offering big ideas that are unlikely to come to fruition within the next few years, as long as they are honest with voters about it. What’s unrealistic today could be possible in a decade, and the sooner an idea enters the discourse, the sooner it can actually happen. If Sanders restrained himself to saying he supported or wanted to work toward big goals like Medicare For All or free tuition at all public colleges, that would not be so dangerous. But that isn’t what Sanders is doing.

Sanders is not offering aspirational goals and saying he will try his best; he is making promises. He has directly told voters: “We will pass Medicare for All. We will eliminate co-pays, premiums and deductibles.” His website doesn’t say he will work to reduce medical debt. It says flatly: “We will eliminate all past due medical debt in this country.” He also promises to “Avert Climate Catastrophe and Create 20 Million Jobs,” provide guaranteed, universal, affordable child care, and more.

Sanders is often praised for his honesty and authenticity. But in this respect he is actively misleading voters. Most of his promises depend on Congress to keep them. There is virtually no evidence that, even if he becomes President, he will have the votes necessary to enact any, let alone all, of these ideas. Critically, that isn’t just because Republicans are standing in the way—it’s because there is not enough support among Democrats either.

Less than one third of Senate Democrats have cosponsored Sanders’ Medicare For All bill. By contrast, 47 Senate Democrats have signed onto a constitutional amendment proposal to get big money out of politics. In other words, there is vastly more support among Democrats for amending the constitution than Sanders’ signature proposal. Similarly, Sanders’s bill for free college and debt relief, which was introduced by Pramila Jayapal in the House, has just eighteen cosponsors, less than ten percent of House Democrats.

By exaggerating what he can accomplish, Sanders is also skewing the electorate’s perspective of other candidate’s policy proposals. Hispresence in the race has created a false dichotomy—perpetuated by pundits and debate moderators—that unfairly frames every other candidate who proposes less as an advocate for meager “incremental change” compared to Sanders, who has purportedly offered the more “progressive” solutions.

In any other election year, Elizabeth Warren’s plan to cancel student loan debt up to $50,000 would be the most extreme plan of its kind. But compared to Sanders’s plan of erasing all student loan debt, it sounds like a half measure, leading some pundits to claimWarren’s plan “didn’t got that far.” At the same time, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden’s plan to make community college free for all is also a transformative idea. It would save millions of students thousands of dollars annually. It only appears unambitious compared to Sanders’s far less practical plan to make all public college free regardless of tuition cost or student income.

Many of his proposals can’t withstand serious scrutiny, but they have a kind of lizard-brain appeal. By reaching voters who are hungry for change and want to support the biggest idea, whatever it is, Sanders is beating his opponents who are handicapped because they are trying to be more honest about what they can achieve.He is polling in first place in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and is ahead of Warren by nine points nationally.

Sanders’ refusal to explain how to pay for his plans has a similar effect. Candidates who are transparent and detail oriented face harsh criticism while Sanders floats above it by being vague. Perhaps the best example of this is Warren’s steady descent in the polls after releasing her plan to pay for Medicare For All. After offering detailed estimates and truthfully acknowledging that we may need to transition to the ultimate goal more slowly, Warren was pilloried from all sides. Sanders has avoided such criticism because he hasn’t given the public details to criticize.

Needless to say, it is not fair or accurate to compare Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump. They are on completely different ends of the spectrum as human beings. Their priorities and ideologies could not be more different. But their campaigns share a striking similarity: Both are propelling their political rises by making promises they can’t keep.

In 2016, Trump said he would build a border wall and get Mexico to pay for it. He bragged that he would eliminate the federal debt and quickly balance the budget. He sounded delusional, but it was still strangely difficult for his opponents or debate moderators to puncture Trump’s unreality.

When Trump was pressed on how he would do things no other politician could, he responded by touting his own brilliance, saying he was so much smarter and such a shrewd negotiator, that he would succeed where others failed. It’s not unlike Sanders’s standard answer that he will be able to enact his agenda through sparking an unprecedented revolution.

Of course, there was nothing in Trump’s track record to suggest that he was smarter or savvier than his opponents. Similarly, there is nothing in Sanders’s thirty-year record in Congress to suggest he can enact legislation that resembles the scale of his current proposals.

Even though their track records don’t match their bluster, Trump won the 2016 election. Sanders now has a good chance of winning the 2020 Democratic nomination.

In a contest between the two men, I would wholeheartedly support Sanders. At least Sanders would appoint judges who respect civil liberties and recognize the danger of too much money in politics. He could also undo many of Trump’s executive orders that were designed to attack immigrants or roll back environmental protections—as would any elected Democrat.

But the more we elect candidates who are better at selling grandiose fantasies than at passing bills or getting things done, the less chance we have of solving our very real problems, or of restoring Americans’ faith in government. Literally anyone can get up on a stage and talk about how they are going to change the world. As voters, we must demand more than that and support candidates who pair an ambitious but realistic agenda with the ability to achieve it. Otherwise, we will continue to be let down by representatives who offer a vision of change they can’t actually fulfill.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization that advocates for political reform.