To me, this history reveals the frustrating paradox at the heart of Sanders’s success. The very thing that makes it so exciting—a Democrat dreaming big dreams and who’s rewarded with burgeoning political success beyond anyone’s prediction but his own—is also what makes for such a stark contrast with the rest of the Democratic Party. The fact is that Sanders is nearly alone. In our generation, the dreamers have been the conservatives in the Republican Party. As one of them, Milton Friedman, put it in a quote made famous by Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, in a crisis, “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
My point is not to complain that laws adequate to the crisis have not been passed. I know as well as anyone that the lunatics running the Republican Party have choked the life out of the legislative process. Passing ambitious laws is presently impossible.
My worry is that Democrats don’t even keep the big ideas lying around any more.
My fear is the fact that, on January 20, 2017, a President Sanders would be inaugurated politically naked and alone—commanding a party apparatus less prepared ideologically, institutionally, and legislatively to do great things than at any time in its history.
Immediately the reader thunders back at the historian: Don’t you understand what you’re asking? Don’t you understand how badly Washington is broken? Isn’t it a fantasy that if we just elect principled progressives they can break the legislative stalemate? Isn’t that “Green Lanternism”—the currently fashionable term for liberals demanding too much of their politicians, or for idealists who don’t understand, as New York Timescolumnist Paul Krugman recently put it, “How Change Happens”?
But change happens when it’s made to happen, and historians understand that sometimes history turns on a narrow pivot. (Source)
Green Lanternism is a way of mocking the idea that change comes if the president gets on his bully pulpit and fights for a particular policy. I think that Green Lanternism is a straw man. Sure, if you are in an ordinary political environment, where everyone is relatively sane in representing their competing interests, a politician needs to know how to compromise, make deals, etc., to get things done. But in moments of crisis more is possible. Obama's approach seemed to assume that we were not in crisis, that we were in a politics-as-usual situation, that compromise, making deals, etc., would work. But we were not in a politics-as-usual situation. We were in one of the worst economic crises since the 30s and the worst foreign policy debacles since Vietnam. The country was ready for a new approach; it was looking to him for leadership, and when he didn't offer any, the country went back to sleep, and the 'disaster of 2010' occurred.
Criticizing Obama for not getting more done is not Green Lanternism because the basic criticism of Obama is not that he didn't try to do anything; it's that he tried to do things using the old ideas, the ideas that created the crises in the first place. I see now that he really wasn't intellectually or temperamentally capable of doing more, but his was nevertheless a missed opportunity. He was in the middle of a crisis caused by GOP Neoliberals and Neoconservatives, and instead of trying to change the basic ideas and assumptions at a moment when the country would have been most receptive to it, he continued to govern with Neoliberal and Neoconservative assumptions.
I argue that the country, if not Beltway insiders, would have been willing to support him if he was more aggressive in first condemning those ideas as having failed spectacularly, and then appealing to the ideas that shaped policy during the Trente Glorieuses. It wouldn't even have required introducing anything new and exotic; it could have been a conservative argument to return to time when America actually worked under Democratic leadership within a social democratic policy frame, in other words with the assumptions that made the New Deal possible.
He tried hard to get healthcare reform, but the ACA is a Rube-Goldberg mess because it is a solution that makes no practical sense except within a Neoliberal frame. It doesn't begin to address the underlying problems with our dysfunctional health care system. I'd argue, following Perlstein's logic, that it would have been better for him to fight for a Medicare-for-all solution and fail than to have succeeded with the ACA. The first battle is the battle for ideas, and the success of a real solution requires the legitimation of a social democratic policy frame. It would have been better for him, in other words to make the argument for single payer because to do so he would have had to argue from social democratic assumptions rather than Neoliberal ones. Making that argument is the more important task right now than getting anything done.
And so now we have this continuing healthcare mess to deal with, and Clinton is right when she criticizes Sanders's single payer ideas because it would require the dismantlement of Obamacare. What would have been already very difficult is now even more so. It's harder now to find a real solution than it was before the ACA because the ACA has created such a convoluted mess from which me must get disentangled.
Perlstein seems to be arguing that it might be too late, and that's something that I've worried about and written about here as well. But that's also why after an initial stage of skepticism about Sanders's prospects, I became a more enthusiastic supporter. For me the question is not whether he will be able to accomplish what he says he can; the question is whether he will be able to change the ethos, the ideas environment. Even if he didn't pass one piece of legislation, I'd consider his presidency to be a success if (1) he could legitimate a basic social democratic policy ethos, and (2) create a political energy in which his efforts would galvanize the American public to support him by throwing out the obstructionists GOP--and corporate Dems--and to replace them with 'Sandersistas'. His presidency, in other words, would be a success if he could lay a foundation that Elizabeth Warren or someone like her could come in with a ruling majority in 2020 or 2024 to build on.
It's all about the long game now. Are there any influential progressives out there thinking in longer-range terms? The task now is to change the ethos in Washington and in legislatures throughout the country. Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism have been disastrous, and yet our political leaders persist in thinking in Neoliberal and Neoconservative terms because nobody in any real positions of power has robustly argued for an alternative. Clinton is not arguing for an alternative, but Sanders is, and that's why his candidacy is so important. It's not about whether he can get anything done; it's about whether he can change the ethos.