Democrats need to accept a hard truth about Bernie Sanders: He can get a lot more done as a senator than president — and here's why

He's been a huge, positive influence on the primary. But maybe Sanders would do more from outside the Oval Office

Published April 2, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Mike Blake)
Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Mike Blake)

By the standards of a jaded and cynical journalist who believes it's almost miraculous that human imperfection hasn't yet resulted in the destruction of civilization as we know it, I like Sen. Bernie Sanders as much as the next guy (or gal).

I am very happy he decided to run for president; and even if he loses, which at this point seems quite likely, he has done the American Left a great service. If Hillary Clinton ultimately becomes the next president, which at this point seems increasingly likely, I expect her to enter office with an administration that's appreciably more left-leaning than it would have been if Sanders had decided to forego the ordeal of a presidential campaign and stay in beautiful Vermont, thank you very much.

I believe that Sanders' influence on American politics has been, overall, for the good. His campaign has helped legitimize an unapologetic style of liberalism that was long thought to be electoral poison. It's hard to imagine that a generation of young Democrats swooning over a self-described socialist won't have serious, enduring consequences. And his apparent personal integrity is commendable and rare.

But — sigh — I gotta tell ya something. When he says stuff like this, I start to wonder whether, all things considered, his falling short of the Democratic Party nomination isn't for the best:

Rachel Maddow posed an interesting question to Sen. Bernie Sanders during their interview on Wednesday: Would he like to see the Republican Party just disappear? Sanders' answer was also an interesting one. He didn't take the bait; instead, he offered an alternative theory—the GOP would disappear if corporate media simply told the truth about the party's agenda.

Uh oh. The idea that no one could truly disagree with you — that ignorance or delusion is the only explanation for why a person might come to a conclusion that's opposite your own – has a long history in politics. Taken altogether, the history isn't very good.

On the Left, the concept used to be commonly referred to as "false consciousness" (even if the term actually has a more specific definition in Marxian discourse). On the Right, it tends to be described as the workings of the so-called liberal media. In both cases, though, the essential conceit is the same. It holds that there is only one legitimate way of thinking: mine.

But maybe this author's paraphrase does Sanders a disservice? The piece is by Timothy Murphy of Mother Jones — not exactly a hotbed of anti-Sanders feeling. But, hey, crazier things have happened. Maybe what Sanders actually said would look a lot better if we could read it in his own words. He doesn't actually think he knows what people really want and believe better than they do themselves, right?

Well, here's the quote in full. Murphy's paraphrase was, unfortunately, spot-on:

I think if we had a media in this country that was really prepared to look at what the Republicans actually stood for rather than quoting every absurd remark of Donald Trump, talking about Republican Party, talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the top two tenths of 1 percent, cuts to Social Security and Medicare, Medicaid, a party which with few exceptions doesn't even acknowledge the reality of climate change, let alone do anything about it, a party which is not prepared to stand with women in the fight for pay equity, a party that is not prepared to do anything about a broken criminal justice system or a corrupt campaign finance system, I think, to be honest with you—and I just don't, you know, say this rhetorically, this is a fringe party. It is a fringe party. Maybe they get 5, 10 percent of the vote.

Would that it were so simple, senator. But it really, really is not.

People are a lot more complicated than Sanders gives them credit for, here; and they're also less easily duped.  Your stump speech is good — there's a reason you so doggedly stick to it. What it isn't, however, is absolute truth. That isn't to say that Sanders is wrong to believe that the media influences voters' behavior, or that the cult of "objectivity" can lead the media to engage in false equivalence. He's right on both.

But to the degree he's imagining? To the extent that one of the two major parties — which millions of Americans believe in — will essentially disappear? That's not just a stretch. That is absurd. "Sanders," as Murphy writes, "seems to miss a far more obvious takeaway. People vote for Republicans not because they've been brainwashed, but because they actually like what Republicans like Trump are proposing."

You might fairly ask whether it's such a big deal that Sanders has an oversimplified understanding of human psychology and the influence of mass media. Isn't this just an example of someone being Wrong On The Internet, which happens countless times every day? I don't think so. I think it speaks to something bigger — and it gets to the heart of why Sanders may best serve himself, and his country, outside the Oval Office.

Simply put, the United States of America is an enormous, diverse, complicated and messy country. It's a land of around 320 million people, and one which is based on what is really an outlandish premise. Namely, that the people of rural Alaska, suburban Detroit, small-town Hawaii and the Mississippi Delta are, despite their enormous differences — cultural, geographical, economic, you name it — actually one. If you step back and look at it from afar, it's borderline ridiculous.

But in so far as it works (which is pretty well, relatively speaking!) it works because of pluralism; because we all agree that people will have their differences — which will sometimes be profound — but that they don't have to see the world the same way in order to get along. If someone is going to be the president of the vast patchwork of humanity that we call the United States, they can't just understand that; they need to embrace it, too.

Not because it's the right thing to do ("right" is one of those things we tend to disagree on) but because, if they don't, they're not going to be successful. Our sainted Constitution makes it nearly impossible for the government to function — much less do the big, "revolutionary" things Sanders is planning — without a broad base of support. In other words, compromise is a feature; it's not a bug.

And if he doesn't get that, then he should not be president. He'd fight the good fight better as the senator from Vermont.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Bernie Sanders Democrats 2016 Editor's Picks Election 2016 Hillary Clinton Pluralism Timothy Murphy