As President, Bernie Sanders Should Use Executive Orders Aggressively — Just Like FDR Did

From the creation of the Civil Works Administration to the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Franklin Delano Roosevelt radically remade the American state using the power of executive orders. If Bernie Sanders wins the White House, he should do the same.

Bernie Sanders at an event hosted by the American Federation of Government Employees in Washington on February 13, 2019.

For decades, conservatives have wielded power far more effectively than liberals. And American workers have paid the price.

From the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s successful stonewalling of court nominee Merrick Garland, conservatives have used any and all means at their disposal to enact their agenda. As these examples suggest, Republicans correctly understand that in politics one has friends and one has enemies, and that the goal is to aid the former and defeat the latter.

Democrats, though, have time and again refused to wield the power necessary not only to enact their agenda but even to save their own party from collapse. It’s a reluctance that has led to an all-powerful GOP at every level of government, even as the party remains deeply unpopular. Barack Obama, for instance, declined to use the presidential bully pulpit to force McConnell to seat Garland on the Supreme Court, while Joe Biden is currently running for president on the absurd claim that, if he were elected, McConnell would spontaneously become “mildly cooperative” and work with him to achieve his plans.

What explains this Democratic fecklessness? First, Democratic Party elites, who are typically winners in the meritocratic struggle, are committed to a technocratic and institutionalist rationality that insists politics is ultimately about compromise instead of victory. If smart people get together in a room and just talk it out, they believe, the world’s problems could be solved. Perhaps nothing represents Democrats’ faith in institutional technocracy more than their groundless conviction that the Republican-controlled Senate would for some reason vote to convict Donald Trump in his impeachment trial.

Second, Democrats are scarred by old traumas, most notably the 1972 election, in which the criminal president Richard Nixon trounced the antiwar senator George McGovern. (Nixon won 520 electoral votes compared to McGovern’s 17).

Finally, many of the Democratic Party’s elite came of age in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton embraced a “triangulation” strategy that enabled him to win elections at the expense of the party’s traditional working-class base. This short-term move engendered catastrophic consequences for the party, sowing the seeds for the state-level Democratic collapse that occurred under Obama.

For these and other reasons, the Democrats have accepted — and in many instances endorsed — the neoliberal status quo, repeatedly abandoning any attempt to expand the boundaries of the politically possible. Though many of them claim to believe in some of the goals of the Bernie Sanders campaign, they’re simply too frightened to play the political hardball necessary to achieve those goals. Enacting Medicare for All or drawing down the United States’ worldwide base system would require Democrats to go to war with many of the institutions they cherish — something they’re simply unwilling to do.

A Bernie Sanders presidential administration must not make these mistakes. Instead of acquiescing to Republicans — or the Democratic Party establishment — Sanders must do everything in his power not only to counter but to destroy the atavistic ideas that have devastated the lives of so many within and without the United States.

To do so, Sanders must use the overwhelming power of the executive branch. Though conservatives (and many liberals) will undoubtedly go apoplectic over Sanders’s “Bolivarian demagoguery,” there’s a clear historical precedent at the heart of the American progressive tradition to which his administration could point — the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933–1945), who deployed executive authority to fashion the modern American state.

According to the University of California-Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, Roosevelt issued 3,721 executive orders (in comparison, George Washington issued 8; Abraham Lincoln 48; Woodrow Wilson 1,803; Richard Nixon 346; George W. Bush 291; Barack Obama 276; and Donald Trump has so far issued 138). While these orders accomplished a variety of different objectives — some quite nefarious, such as the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans — their most lasting consequences were institutional.

Roosevelt used executive orders to create the Civil Works Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Works Progress Administration, the Fair Employment Practices Committee, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the War Labor Board, the Office of War Mobilization, the Office of War Information, and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), among other agencies. It’s no exaggeration to say that through this mechanism Roosevelt totally remade the American state, for both good (the OSRD) and ill (the OSS, precursor to the CIA). This episode proves that, despite what Obama acolytes might tell you, an American president can indeed transform politics.

But if Sanders wants to accomplish his political revolution, he’ll have no choice but to deploy these overwhelming executive powers. After all, he’ll be up against an intransigent, minoritarian, and special interest–dominated Congress, while his strongest allies will be the tens of millions of citizens who, though they voted for him and his policy agenda, cannot themselves manipulate the levers of state.

Happily, Sanders appears willing to use this power. A recent Washington Post article, for instance, reports that he presently “is considering dozens of executive orders he could unilaterally enact on a wide range of domestic policy issues if elected president, including immigration, the environment and prescription drugs.” One hopes Sanders will also learn from Roosevelt and focus on creating institutions that will outlast him.

Sanders will likely be aided in this effort by the fact that he confronts two existential emergencies — climate change and global inequality. Indeed, earlier in the twentieth century, Roosevelt was able to enact his state-making agenda because he similarly faced the dual crises of the Great Depression and World War II. As this suggests, Sanders — and the movements that support him—must seize the moment to remake how Americans relate to and understand their state, as they might not have a similar opportunity again.

Yet a Sanders administration will face a profound dilemma: governance by executive order is inherently undemocratic. This, of course, is a problem for democratic socialists. Sanders and his advisers will thus be forced to thread a difficult needle: they must at one and the same time maneuver between using the power of the executive to enforce a socialist agenda while creating structures that limit this power in the future.

Although fraught with inner tensions, this task must be confronted head-on with thought, deliberation, and care.

There is simply no other option.