The Bernie Sanders Problem, and Why Intramural Fights on the Left Matter

by Neil H. Buchanan

Many of my columns of late have walked a bit of a tricky path, defending Bernie Sanders from attacks by establishment Democrats and the press (see, e.g., here and here), and describing Sanders's policy proposals as very mainstream and reasonable (e.g, my recent two-parter, here and here), even while stipulating over and over that I am not a Bernie fan.  I have not, however, devoted much time to explaining why I am not said fan.

This requires some explanation.  After all, if Sanders is being unfairly attacked by people for whom I have disdain -- and especially if he is proposing sound and reasonable policies -- why not jump on board the Bernie train?  I will try to make sense of that seeming contradiction in this column, along the way explaining a deep divide among non-conservative economists.

The bottom line is that being against what is wrong does not always make one right, because it is still possible to be wrong in a different way.

So why have I never been a Bernie fan?  The second column linked above, "The Attacks on Sanders Are Almost All Scurrilous," provides part of the answer in the italicized "almost."

Specifically, I worry that Sanders is too deeply embittered by what the WikiLeaks dump of the hacked Democratic National Committee emails revealed about the party establishment's support of Hillary Clinton.  To be clear, this is exactly what the pro-Trump attack by the Russians on the United States was hoping to accomplish, and if it has a carryover effect on the 2020 election as well, then that is another win for Putin (and his puppet in the White House).

But in any event, Sanders seems to have concluded that the DNC's establishment is deeply corrupt.  There certainly are ways that that establishment is problematic, but Sanders and his supporters appear to believe that the party's leaders were supposed to be unbiased referees during the nominating process and thus cheated him by being willing to do things that would advance Clinton's candidacy.  That is not true.

Although I can imagine the frustration in finding out that the party's apparatus was not a neutral arbiter, I think that Sanders's reaction reflects not only naivete but a failure to understand what parties actually are.  One hopes, as a starting point, that parties are sub-democracies in which the voters of that party all show up and vote for the best person to represent them in the general election, resulting in a nominee who can say, "I was chosen because I best represent what the members of this party want."

We know, however, that this is not how primaries work in the United States, now or probably at any time in our history.  One need only look at Donald Trump's candidacy in 2016 to see how a party can be overwhelmed by a minority force that is big enough to blow apart the establishment but that does not truly represent the wishes of the party's voters.

How can I say that, when Republicans are now so clearly Trumpian?  Simply because he won (and then consolidated his support) because of several very undemocratic factors: (1) Russian influence in the general election, including continuing attacks on Clinton, (2) James Comey's decisions to influence the election -- not only in late October with his "We might have found something; oh wait, forget it, it's nothing" insanity, but also his earlier press conference announcing the FBI's decision not to prosecute Clinton but then giving Republicans exactly what they wanted by excoriating Clinton's use of a private email server, (3) people's belief that Clinton was going to win (based on polling), which meant that people who truly hated Trump nonetheless chose not to vote because the election was a done deal, and of course (4) the Electoral College's ability to elect a candidate who decisively lost the popular vote.

So Trump was hardly an example of "the people" within a party choosing the best choice over the wishes of the party's establishment.  Beyond Trump, however, consider the ways in which various U.S. Senate races were lost by Tea Party darlings in 2012 and 2014, including a not-a-witch in Delaware (handing that seat permanently to Chris Coons) along with six-year delays for Republican pickups in Missouri and Indiana.  Even deep-red Utah's election of Mike Lee over Robert Bennett was not at all evidence of an uprising of democracy by "the real people" in the state but a tactically effective takeover of the state's nominating convention by purple-faced people screaming, "TARP!  TARP!!  TARP!!!!"

The point is that there would have been very good reasons for Republican leaders in each of those situations to say that the best path for their party would be to intervene in nominating contests to prevent the party from moving in an unwanted direction.  Democratic leaders have the same motivations and can sometimes succeed in getting their way.  That might not feel like democracy, but frankly the alternatives are too manipulable to be called democracy, either.  We are choosing among imperfect options.

Sanders, however, is so used to being an outsider and insurgent that he positively revels in the idea that he is the guy whom the big boys want to keep out.  As I have written, he is right to be offended that the "socially liberal but economically conservative" types like Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz -- and, to be clear, also Bill Clinton and Barack Obama -- have enough power to protect the economic elite from serious egalitarian challenges.  That wealthy establishment is one big reason that we do not have a true "left" in this country, and it is why even Sanders's updated FDR-style New Dealism can be both sold and attacked as "too far left."

Again, however, the problem is when the person who loses the party's nominating contest convinces his supporters that that very result is proof that the whole thing was wholly illegitimate.  Sanders himself did a creditable job of supporting Clinton in 2016, with a gracious convention speech and calls for unity, but polling has shown that many of his supporters are willing to believe that Sanders's loss meant that the system was hopelessly undemocratic, even though Clinton won millions more total votes than Sanders and was the clear choice of foundational party constituencies, especially women and African-Americans.

That, then, is my biggest reason for worrying about Sanders as a purely political matter.  I cannot help but worry about people who reinforce the idea that losing is per se proof of corruption.  But I actually concluded more than three years ago that Sanders -- notwithstanding his pleasing policy agenda -- was not my choice, and that was long before we saw these troubling indications that he might not be willing to admit that he could lose a fair fight.

My initial reasons for opting against Sanders were more about policy than politics, and especially about economic policy.  Wait, did I not just say that I like his economic policies?  Yes, and I will explain the seeming contradiction in a moment.

First, however, it is important to note that Sanders has never seemed particularly deep on matters of policy.  One can defend his vagueness by saying that campaigns are not about specifics -- which, by the way, is now the defense du jour for both Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke -- but Sanders seemed to have little more to say than, "We need a revolution, and that will allow us to adopt things like Medicare-for-All."

When a candidate seems unwilling or unable to get into specifics -- not everyone is the awesome policy wonk that Elizabeth Warren continues to be (and certainly not one with her flair for explaining complicated things in admirably simple and appealing ways) -- the next reasonable thing to do is to look at the candidate's policy advisors.  And that is where things become dicey for Sanders.

Sanders, of course, draws a lot of his energy from the same sources that gave rise to the Occupy movement.  Although much of that was very positive energy, there was also the usual mishmosh of confused late adolescent populism that causes many high school and college-aged people to briefly identify with libertarianism.  This leads to odd phenomena such as hard-right Republican Senator Rand Paul's popularity as an on-campus speaker.

I was not truly surprised, therefore, when the Occupy movement started to including some "End the Fed" nonsense.  As with Sanders's belief that the Democratic establishment is corrupt and rigging the primaries against him, there has always been a somewhat-based-in-reality -- but still deeply wrong -- idea on the left that the Federal Reserve needs to be directly democratically accountable because it is captured by Wall Street.  Think "Cross of Gold" meets Ayn Rand.

As Professor Dorf and I have written, however, even stopping far short of ending the Fed and simply following Paul's pretextual plan to "audit" the Fed -- in order to intimidate it into blowing with the political winds -- would be a terrible idea.

Mike and I happen to know someone who was involved with the Occupy movement (and who confers regularly with the Sanders people), and that person assured us that there were internal efforts to tamp down the anti-Fed pitch-fork energy.  Even so, that there is that kind of truly bad idea with serious support in the Sanders-verse is troubling indeed.

More troubling is the other economic advice that Sanders seems to be open to receiving.  I had an opportunity a couple of years ago to speak on the phone with an economist who was (and still is) one of Sanders's top advisors, someone whom I knew about but had never met.  Although I found myself rather underwhelmed by the conversation, I was consoled by reminding myself that the conversation involved a discussion of the constitutionality of the debt ceiling.  Although it was disturbing that the person to whom I spoke was clearly not "getting it," he/she is an economist and thus could be forgiven for not following the Buchanan-Dorf constitutional analysis based on the separation of powers.

In my new Verdict column, however, I directly confront the main reason that most people on the non-conservative side of the economics profession are finding it difficult to take Sanders seriously.  Many of his economic advisors -- most definitely including the person with whom I spoke about the debt ceiling -- are advocates of a fringe idea called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

As I explain on Verdict, people on the left might tend to be drawn to MMT, because that theory concludes that deficit spending can be much larger than is generally thought.  I -- along with plenty of non-conservative economists -- completely agree, but it really matters how one gets there.  MMT's true believers (and there are no other kinds of MMT believers) rely on what can only be called a crackpot theory to conclude that "[c]ountries that borrow in their own currency can finance as much real government spending as they want by creating money."

The column explains why this is to some extent personal for me, because the MMT people can be aggressive jerks.  I once imagined that if MMT adopted a "no assholes rule," their meetings would be left with no more than four people.  But beyond the personal, my exposure to MMT was essentially the last straw for me in giving up on economics as an academic home.  "Geez," I thought as I was deciding to go to law school, "this isn't the only non-orthodox game in town, but if this is where a lot of the very limited energy on the heterodox left is being expended, what's the point?"

To be clear, my column does explain that even the other (non-MMT) heterodox economists also think that MMT is crazy -- one of their only points of overlap with the orthodox centrists and center-left luminaries like Paul Krugman and Larry Summers.

I completely understand why a person who rejects the Democratic Party's establishment would not want to work with Krugman or Summers (or their political designees like Tim Geithner and Jason Furman).  Indeed, if I knew that, say, Kamala Harris was working with Furman or someone like him, it would make me worry that Harris was selling out the to establishment.

Even so, the heterodox thinkers with whom a candidate is willing to associate speaks volumes about the candidate.  And the MMT crowd is deeply embedded in Sanders World.  Although there are plenty of issues on which we all agree, the areas on which we disagree are not only important as matters of direct policy but also as indicators of how we respectively approach thinking about issues.

There are many worse people on the other side of the political spectrum, of course, but I could think of few more troubling indicators of Sanders's appropriateness for office than his willingness to work with this particular group of fringe economists.  Their hearts might be in the right place in terms of being progressive, but that is most definitely not enough.