“He’s not going to get the nomination, is he?” my wife asks anxiously as she gazes out of the kitchen window at the Bernie for President sign on our front lawn. No, I assure her, and he certainly won’t win Maryland on April 26. I’m voting for Bernie, and my wife may, too, but we’re doing so on the condition that we don’t think he will get the nomination. If he were poised to win, I don’t know whether I’d vote for him, because I fear he would be enormously vulnerable in a general election, even against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, and I’m also not sure whether he is really ready for the job of president.
Why, then, vote for him at all? For me, it’s entirely about the issues he is raising, which I believe are important for the country’s future. Hillary Clinton and her various boosters in the media have made the argument that it’s impractical and even irresponsible to raise a demand like “Medicare for all” and “free public college” that could not possibly get through the next Congress, even if Democrats eke out a majority in the Senate. They presumably want a candidate to offer programs that could be the result of protracted negotiations between a Democratic president and Speaker Paul Ryan – like a two percent increase in infrastructure spending in exchange for a two percent reduction in Medicaid block grants. I disagree with this approach to politics.
What Sanders is proposing are political guideposts – ideals, if you like – according to which we can judge whether incremental reforms make sense. He is describing, whether you like them or not, objectives toward which we Americans should be aspiring. That’s a central activity in politics. Should it be confined to issues of Democracy or National Affairs? Or is it the kind of activity that is entirely appropriate for a nominating contest? Ronald Reagan and the conservatives thought so during the 1970s. And I think Democrats should be thinking this way now. So I applaud Bernie Sanders for not limiting his proposals to what might appear on a President’s often-ignored budget requests.
Let’s now consider the proposals themselves. I have my doubts about Bernie’s banking plans, and I am not going to consider climate change because I think Clinton and he agree about that. I’ll confine myself to what I think of as his big three:
1) Free public college education: Sanders’ argument for this seems to be unobjectionable. A half century ago a high school education was required for a decent job; and every American was entitled to free public high school education. We’re coming to a time when a college degree will be essential for a decent job. Shouldn’t all Americans be able to get one, even if they come from a low-income family? And there’s another consideration. Shouldn’t today’s parents be freed from the anxiety of worrying about whether they can afford to send their children to college? I just returned from a visit to a friend in Europe who has been unemployed (from no fault of his own) for several years, and whose wife recently died. His children are of college age, and in America, he would be in no position to send them, but in the country where he lives, he can send them for free, and they are doing splendidly. Shouldn’t the United States aspire to this? (And note that it should be done as a universal New Deal-style program, as Sanders proposes, and not as another neo-liberal means-tested program that will invite all kinds of Tea Party-type resentments.)
2) Medicare for all: I wouldn’t recommend extending the current Medicare program, because it is becoming a Byzantine mess (I was recently denied Medicare coverage because of some regulation about registration that neither I nor the people I asked at AARP had ever heard of.) What Sanders is proposing is that healthcare coverage began at birth for every American and be financed through taxes rather than through a crazy quilt of premiums, deductibles, co-payments, welfare subsidies, tax credits and what have you. Yes, that suggests that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is inadequate. I am not prepared to defend that assertion against the health experts who stand ready to insist that it is the be-all and end-all, but I have had enough experience with my family and friends to know that it, too, is a mess. It’s not universal, it depends too much on the middle class insured subsidizing the uninsured (again a cause for resentment), coverage is very spotty, and the rules regulating small businesses, the self-employed – you name it – require a degree in health care accounting to comprehend. Amend it for the time being, but in the long run, America should aspire toward a system much more similar to those in Europe, where, besides guaranteeing universal access, makes medical school free to those who qualify and go on to practice, and where, as a result, doctors don’t need to make $400,000 a year to pay back loans. (See proposal #1)
3) Political revolution: I am not sure if Sanders specifies how he wants to reform our oligarchic system of financing campaigns. Americans might not want public financing. They may prefer the direction we were going in 1974 – limiting contributions and spending – that the Supreme Court short-circuited with Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. But something has to be done. And it would probably require a new liberal-dominated Supreme Court, which stands in reach if Democrats win in 2016. (And this is a reason why I hope Hillary Clinton does wrap up the nomination and wins in November.) But the point is more than that. With some interruptions, the American system since 1896 has rested on disenfranchisement of large parts of the people: some people not being allowed to vote, others simply not voting. And the possibility of major reform, as sketched out in #1 and #2, rests very much on an invigorated electoral majority that goes to the polls and on politicians that are forced to compete on their merits rather than on the money they have raised. Clinton boosters scoff at the term “political revolution,” but something like that is what is needed to turn the country around.
Does the country really need turning around? Sanders has been derided for holding up Denmark and other Scandinavian countries as examples. They are far different from the US, and they are also beginning to experience problems sustaining their own social democracies. But I think in comparing life there with life in the United States, there is one useful point to be made. What people in these countries enjoy is not assured lifetime employment or control over their workplaces, but a degree of basic security about their lives that is missing in the United States. Americans endure needless anxiety about access to education and healthcare and about being left penniless or homeless. Our social safety net doesn’t just need mending, but replacement. It’s worn out. And Sanders provides a set of guidelines in his proposals that will move exactly in that direction That’s why he gets my vote on April 26 – even if I hope Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee.