Unelectable and Unafraid

We have a rare opportunity to redefine socialism for a new generation. That's more important than who wins the 2016 election.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a rally in Los Angeles in August. Michael Holden / Flickr

The other week in Las Vegas, Democratic presidential candidates showed up for a series of soundbites, and an honest to goodness political debate broke out — for a few minutes at least.

Don’t blame Anderson Cooper. The CNN moderator was merely trying to redbait Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders when he asked if “any kind of socialist could win a general election in the United States.” But rather than shrinking at the dreaded “s” word, Sanders gave an unapologetic defense of Scandinavian health care and maternity leave policies.

“Denmark is a country that has a population of 5.6 million people,” Cooper responded — perhaps under the impression that a social safety net is made of actual mesh and that there simply wouldn’t be enough webbing to cover the mighty USA. “The question,” he firmly continued, “is really about electability here.”

But frontrunner Hillary Clinton didn’t take the hint and instead weighed in with her own theories of political economy. In what sounded more like an intervention plan for a troubled friend than a robust defense of a global system, Clinton argued that we shouldn’t “turn our backs” on capitalism even though it has “run amok” and needs to be “saved from itself.”

It was only after Cooper again reminded the candidates to get back to the “question of electability” and turned to world’s saddest elf Lincoln Chaffee with a new question that the proceedings were restored to their proper level of superficiality.

The Sanders-Clinton exchange may not have reached the heights of Lincoln-Douglas, but it was a rare and worthwhile discussion of a real political question. Equally revealing was the way Cooper repeatedly tried to end the discussion.

Cooper’s insistence that “the question is really about electability” often passes for practical wisdom in politics, yet it’s entirely untrue. The most important progressive changes in our history have been spearheaded by protest leaders — abolitionists and suffragettes, brawling strikers and ACT UP-ers — who were all wildly unelectable.

Of course, protest movements are different from presidential campaigns, where it stands to reason that electability should matter more — but not in the narrow and self-serving way that mainstream political consultants and pundits instinctively use the term.

In their view, it’s just simple math why Bernie Sanders isn’t going to be president — according to polls, only about a third of Americans like socialism. The underlying assumption is that people’s ideas are unchanging — even when the idea in question is socialism, which few people have ever heard a positive word about in polite society until the Sanders campaign.

But even if Bernie really is unelectable because of socialism’s low public opinion ratings, you might think that the Republicans’ virtually identical approval numbers would make them equally impotent. Yet here they are, running both houses of Congress and statehouses across the country, making the world a meaner and stupider place one day at a time.

The problem, as political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue, is that the US is not a democracy but an oligarchy:

Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise . . . [but] when the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.

In other words, American democracy is like American cheese — a synthetic, democracy-like product that is chemically altered to eliminate almost all traces of organic popular power.

Sanders and other liberal critics rightly point to the role played by Super PACs and corporate lobbyists in perpetuating oligarchy, but this system has been rigged long before Citizens United. The key ingredients in our non-democracy are the two major parties, which over a century and a half of gerrymandering, courting big donors, and coopting voting blocs have evolved into a pair of evenly matched behemoths whose fierce battles dramatically overshadow their policy differences.

With the Democrats monopolizing what is supposed to be the left wing of the political spectrum and the Republicans more accurately representing the Right, the competition is inevitably for a handful of voters in the middle.

Thus, during every presidential election year we’re told that the 1 percent that really controls our future is made up not of bankers and CEOs but Florida soccer moms and white Ohio factory workers. It’s these all-powerful median voters who are the real obstacle preventing our heroic politicians from leading the revolution against The Man.

These are the misleadingly conservative terms by which “electability” is defined in American politics. If Bernie Sanders has virtually the same foreign policy platform as Hillary Clinton, it’s not because a candidate can’t find support among the American people for ending the war in Afghanistan, cutting aid to Israel, and dropping charges against Edward Snowden, but because that candidate wouldn’t find any support within the Democratic (or Republican, obviously) Party.

We need to understand this point well if we want to make the most of the opportunities presented by the Sanders campaign, especially if Bernie follows through on his plans to give a “major speech” about socialism. Whether he refers to Denmark or (please no) the police, Sanders’s speech will be a great occasion for the Left to debate our own meanings of socialism — but only if we silence our inner Anderson Coopers and discuss Bernie’s ideas on their own terms without worrying about they impact his electability.

Here’s a piece of blasphemy: there are bigger political stakes this year than the winner of the next presidential election. We have a rare opportunity to redefine and revitalize socialism for a new generation (my two cents: we can do better than Denmark) and set the terms for an opposition movement that can really change the world.