Bernie's American Dream, or Dream On?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Another skilled writer from our inbox is deeply skeptical of a Sanders presidency:

One thing I still have trouble understanding is how Bernie believes he can be an effective commander in chief. President Obama, whom I think of as a moderate/pragmatic Democrat, came into office riding a wave of popular support and a mandate for change following eight years of Bush and a financial crisis. He also had overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate.

Yet, he still struggled to get his agenda through Congress.

Bernie is admittedly further left than Obama and is sure to face at least one Republican-controlled chamber, if not two. When asked how he will manage to get his agenda through the legislature, his response is always some variation of, “The political revolution we’re trying to start will put so much outside pressure on members of Congress that they’ll be forced to work with me.”

First, this assumes that Bernie will be able to sustain any popular support he will have coming into office. I find it hard to believe that Bernie’s support is anywhere near the overwhelming levels President Obama had in 2008. Moreover, as we saw with Obama, that consistent support fell off before he had much time to start rolling out his agenda (see: 2009 town halls with an abundance of Tea Partiers and a noticeable absence of the Obama coalition).

Second, Bernie also assumes elected officials who may not share his views will be swayed by these supposed outside demands. That is either disingenuous or incredibly naive. Politics aside, Bernie himself acknowledges how much of Congress is beholden to special interests; does he think he can convince members to suddenly accede to public opinion over the interests of their donors? Did he see what happened to the background-check legislation that had 90 percent support from the public?

Lastly, Bernie and Obama share one trait that I think has made it difficult for Obama to work with Congress and is a likely harbinger of a Sanders presidency: Neither wants to do the relationship-building (i.e. schmoozing) required of a president to build trust with legislators. As LBJ, Reagan, and the first Clinton have shown, knowing how to work within the system is paramount to accomplishing one’s agenda.

Some may counter that it was impossible for Obama to work with a Republican Party that had no interest in coming to the table. But this problem wasn’t just between Obama and Republicans; it extended to Democrats, too. Obama barely managed to get his TPP proposal through, and his initial last-minute appeals to Democrats failed. I don’t see how Bernie operates any differently.

Ultimately, the realities of the presidency will have one of two consequences for Bernie: either he will remain steadfast in his principles and be incapable of accomplishing anything, or he will be forced to work within the system. Both will leave his supporters disappointed and wondering whether he is just “more of the same.”

But this Bernie supporter provides an impassioned plea:

I’ve been exposed to Sanders from his appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher for about 6 or 7 years now, and he has always been a no-bullshit debater, extremely passionate about his views. I remember an episode that aired 11/07/2014, and during the Overtime segment, they were mulling over him running for president and the audience in unison just yelled, “Run Bernie!” Since that day I have been supporting him for president, originally hoping that Warren and him would make the best ticket I could hope for.

It wasn’t until his rally that he held in LA back in August that I realized that something special was going on with him. I had given up on American politics in general. An uninformed people combined with paid-for politicians had put my mind into a state of civil war, where one side of me wanted to leave the country and move to a place that better represented my views, and the other side of me understood and respected what our founding fathers had done, and what the people who came before us had done, to make this country the greatest ever and I have great pride in America.

My views were shattered during that rally; seeing 27,000 people show up was jaw dropping. I had thought Americans were dumb and didn’t care, but that rally corrected that belief. It was also the first time I had heard a candidate say something I had been saying for years which was, “Why should people be given criminal records for marijuana possession, yet not one person responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 being charged for their crimes.”

When I was 17 years old I was arrested and charged with one felony for sales and one felony for intent to sell, because I had two grams of pot on me. After being threatened with mandatory minimums, I pleaded guilty and accepted a plea-bargain, despite the fact those chargers were bullshit.

The event ruined my life. I lost my eligibility for a scholarship program, my drivers license was suspended for years, and my relationship with my family was destroyed, which lead to severe depression. That depression turned to anger after the 2008 financial collapse, especially after watching a few of PBS Frontline investigations that covered the subject. It was absolute bullshit that I was a criminal in society’s eyes, yet these bankers were not.

Bernie was the first politician I have seen who agreed with that premise—not just agreed with it, but stated it loud and clear for everyone to hear. I remember hearing him say that and just tearing up because I could not believe that someone finally made that connection.

I am constantly ridiculed by conservatives and called naive by Clinton supporters, but to me it is worth it. I truly love this country.

Anyway, I hope that gives you some insight as to why I feel as strongly about this election as I do. I’m glad you give readers a platform from which to express their opinions, and you seem to be doing the best you can to do so without bias. Thank you!