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Brian Flaxman—Bern Notice: Why Bernie Sanders is the Best Candidate to Take on Donald Trump in 2020

I am delighted to be able to host another guest post by Brian Flaxman. Don’t miss his two previous guest posts:Brian notes my intent to have a nonpartisan blog. On that, see “What is a Partisan Nonpartisan Blog?” Brian gets close to being partisan in this guest post, but I think he stays on the analytical side of the line. Below are Brian’s words:Note: Given the non-partisan nature of this blog, I will try to stick to a positive analysis of Bernie Sanders as a candidate rather than my personal feelings towards him.One of the major political phenomena over the past decade has been the rise of Bernie Sanders in American politics. In 2016,

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Brian Flaxman—Bern Notice: Why Bernie Sanders is the Best Candidate to Take on Donald Trump in 2020

I am delighted to be able to host another guest post by Brian Flaxman. Don’t miss his two previous guest posts:

Brian notes my intent to have a nonpartisan blog. On that, see “What is a Partisan Nonpartisan Blog?” Brian gets close to being partisan in this guest post, but I think he stays on the analytical side of the line. Below are Brian’s words:

Note: Given the non-partisan nature of this blog, I will try to stick to a positive analysis of Bernie Sanders as a candidate rather than my personal feelings towards him.

One of the major political phenomena over the past decade has been the rise of Bernie Sanders in American politics. In 2016, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist (although his policies are much closer to social democracy), previously a relative unknown, mounted a challenge to that was far more powerful than people thought. Since then, he has continued to move the needle of public opinion and has expanded his appeal, to the point where he is (as of 2/17/2020) an inarguable frontrunner (if not the inarguable frontrunner) for this year’s Democratic Nomination.

There are many reasons why he has become so popular and why he is a much more viable candidate in today’s day and age than in recent years. The Cold War has become increasingly a distant, less scary memory; the public has been experiencing widening income equality and increasing economic anxiety. These changes make his populist economic platform appealing. Also, Bernie has been on the right side of many social issues, even when he was in the minority in those positions. That helps in a country that is becoming more socially liberal by the day. The moderate candidate lost the electoral college to Trump in the last election, only being able to best him by 3 million popular votes overall, making people rightfully question whether the idea of moderation and triangulation is a wise electoral strategy. After all, if the way to defeat the extreme politics of Donald Trump were a moderate Democrat to attract swing voters, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now, as our 45th President, Hillary Clinton, would be running for reelection. (Side-note: I point to a highly corporate-influenced Democratic Party infrastructure’s heavy involvement in both primary and general congressional elections, as well as the obscenely Republican gerrymandered congressional districts as to why the “Moderate Democratic Wave of 2018” argument for a more moderate Democratic Presidential nominee is deeply flawed). And then there is the fact that even though he has consistently been making life difficult for Democratic, Republican, and economic establishment figures alike for the past 5 years, nobody has been able to discover him sending inappropriate twitter pictures to minors, taking part in prostitution rings, or going for nice leisurely “hikes up the Appalachian Trail.”

While these are all certainly true and have varying degrees of impact on his support and viability, there is likely something deeper that could make him the most effective candidate in the general election. I will motivate this by a quote from Sanders himself from 2015:

 [In my last Senate election in Vermont] we got about 25 percent of the Republican vote. Why is that? Because people say, okay, I disagree with Bernie on women's rights. I disagree with Bernie on gay rights. Okay. But you know what? I believe he is fighting for my kids and for my parents and for the rights of the middle class. And you see a lot of those folks saying, I disagree with him, but I'm going to vote for them.

Yes, you read that right. The self-proclaimed democratic socialist garnered one in four REPUBLICAN voters in the state. The data bears out this support from his home state even further. For a long time now, he has had the highest approval rating of any Senator in the country from his or her constituents. And while his politics are very much aligned with the very liberal state of Vermont, there is likely something more there than just political alignment. Elizabeth Warren, one of the most liberal senators in the country from one of the most liberal states in the country, Massachusetts, is not nearly as popular from her home state. And Mitch McConnell, the man who has done more for the right-wing in this country than any Senator in recent memory, has the second highest overall level of disapproval in the country and THE highest net level of disapproval from the deeply conservative state in Kentucky. There is something about this widespread appeal from all corners of his home state that I believe has carried over onto the national stage. And given his widespread appeal, could it actually be the case that Sanders is the BEST candidate to take on Trump in the 2020 election despite popular orthodoxy? I would argue yes.

This is a notion that many who regularly follow politics might scoff at. Yet most people in 2016 thought that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would not have any chance in their respective primaries. People also were convinced that there was no way that Trump could defeat the monolith that was Hillary Clinton in the general election. Yet I predicted ahead of time, as early as October 2015 or so, that both Trump and Sanders were going to be far more formidable in these contests than a lot of people believed. And, while I thought Hillary was going to win giving the polling at the time, I had a feeling in my gut on election day that Trump was going to pull it off, a feeling that the New York Times and the Huffington Post didn’t share given their respective estimates of a 84% and 98% chance that Clinton would win on election day. I’ve also looked through the many studies on the previous election and have done a fair amount of statistical analysis of my own regarding the last election. I mention this because my argument as to why Sanders is the best candidate to take on Trump in this election revolves around a decades-long decay of confidence in our political system that is as potent now as it was in 2016, if not more so.

While politicians have always had a reputation for being two-faced and calculating, the overall favorability and trust in politicians and political institutions seems to be declining every day. For example, polling shows that 72% of people disapprove of how Congress is doing its job while only 23% approve—a disappointing number given that 28% of people believe in a New World Order, 21% believe that a UFO crashed into Roswell, and 20% that believe that vaccines cause Autism. And unlike those latter 3 claims, this opinion can be widely justified, especially when looking at the disparity of outcomes over the past several decades between the average American and large monied interests. These disparities, might I add, coincide both with changes in our campaign finance system starting in the late 1970s and lobbying practices starting in about the early 1980s.

Supreme Court case law has chipped away at the ability to enact and enforce measures to limit the influence of large monied interests on campaigns, starting in the late 1970s. The 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo struck down certain limits on political expenditures, including establishing the right to self-finance a campaign (see Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic venture for television stations here). The 1978 case of Bank of Boston v. Belloti decided that corporations have First Amendment rights to make contributions on ballot initiative campaigns. And it was the Citizens United v. FEC case of 2010 that acted as an even further catalyst for the outsized role of money in elections, making it unconstitutional to place any limits on spending from political groups not directly affiliated with a candidate. In sum, it is ridiculously easy for the extremely wealthy and large corporations to exert their influence on our elections. And it can be seen in the data how campaign spending has exploded over the past few decades. All of the following numbers are in real dollars. In the 2017/2018 election cycle, $739 million was raised by all 377 House of Representatives incumbents running for reelection, $323 million raised by political action committees (PACs), bodies that through either direct or indirect expenditures allow large monied interests to influence elections. In the 1993/1994 election cycle where 383 incumbents ran for reelection, only $372 million was raised overall and $175 million from PACs after adjusting for inflation. And much of this money comes from groups that represent certain industries, rather than from groups that only focus on particular political issues. For example, in the 2017/2018 cycle, PACs representing the finance, insurance, and real estate industries directly donated $90 million dollars to all federal candidates. In the 1997/1998 cycle, this amount was only $54 million.

The outsized role of money in our elections is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, lobbying has always played a role in our government and is essentially as American as baseball, apple pie, and an emotional attachment to firearms. There were, however, two major changes to lobbying practices that greatly influenced the role that lobbying has had in Washington that took places around the early 1980s. The first was the advent of “K Street” firms dedicated to lobbying (as opposed to individual corporations conducting lobbying efforts themselves) that made lobbying a lucrative career. The second change, the one I would argue is far more problematic, is the advent of the so called “revolving door” system where career politicians work in lobbying capacities after and in between serving in official government roles. This creates incentives for politicians to act in accordance with special interests while in office so that they can eventually cash in after their tenures come to a voluntary or enforced end. (This is also why I personally believe that imposing term limits is a dreadful and counterproductive measure to fight corruption; it would incentivize government officials to start building resumes for careers they know they will need to transition into after their term limits expire rather than rewarding politicians who better serve the public with a good income as a public servant.) At around this time, the previously overwhelming stigma of this practice went away, likely due to lobbying’s increasingly lucrative nature. Much like the simultaneous increase in campaign spending, the amount of money spent on lobbying has ballooned over time. The amount spend on lobbying efforts rose from tens of millions in the 1970s to billions in the mid-2000s.

With all of these political ventures by large monied interests, it is only reasonable to assume that they got something in return. Political spending can’t be used as a tax write-off, and charitable giving to the poor, starving, politician doesn’t seem to be something that would directly be a good public relations move by firms to help their standing in the community. It is literally impossible for a multinational profit-maximizing firm to have a set of principled political beliefs. And I’m sure it is not a coincidence that those ever-principled libertarians who donate large sums to campaigns because they have a firmly held belief in small-government seem to have a blind spot in such a belief when it comes to fossil fuel subsidies or no-strings-attached financial firm bailouts. In all seriousness though, it takes a large level of naivete to believe that the increased political agency of large monied interests and the increasing economic struggles of much of the American population aren’t inherently linked. It’s a naiveite shared mostly by those in Washington and not those that have been negatively impacted by the economic trends that have helped those large monied interests. Trends in technological innovation, a more international economy, etc. have clearly played a role. But the troubles of ordinary Americans are taking place against the backdrop of ever more corporate-influenced politicians—politicians whose election chances were boosted by the campaign donations they have taken; politicians who let lobbyists craft the legislation they put forward; politicians who have to play a political tap dance of acting in accordance to those interests while making sure they can appeal to their voters as well, a lot of times only in the areas that don’t hurt the bottom lines of the donors and lobbyists. And voters can see it.

So how does this play a role in the popularity of Bernie Sanders? It’s simple really. He was one of the only politicians in this ecosystem able to maintain a 30 year political career while being able to buck all of these interests, most likely from being a Vermonter and from having a relatively low profile for all but 5 of them. Over this period, he has maintained a track record of being against nearly all of the decisions that benefited large monied interests that have been seen as hurting the average American. These are decisions, I should add, that were supported by many of his Democratic Primary opponents in both 2016 and 2020. The many tax cuts on the wealthy that that benefited the wealthy individual donors and corporations while leading to increased deficits but little economic growth. The many trade deals, massive deregulation, bankruptcy bills, and no-strings-attached bailouts, that one can argue were an overall net positive for our economy but were written with large-monied interests in mind, not the everyday Americans who have been hurt by such policies. And then there are the many decisions over the years made on issues such as foreign policy, criminal justice, environmental policy, healthcare, etc. that also have caused great damage to many in this country while just happening to benefit those at the top. Bernie was against nearly all of them, and in the great minority of nearly everyone in Washington. Essentially, over the past 30 years, he has engaged in a fight for the average American that is nearly unrivaled in Washington over this time frame.

It’s this fight that allows his support to transcend his left-wing political ideology. A recent survey found that amongst all voters, not just Democrats, 39% of voters believes that Sanders “shares their values”. The same question, asked about Trump, Warren, Buttigieg, Biden and Bloomberg gives answers between 28% and 31%. (If you are wondering about the 31% of voters felt Trump “shared their values,” it is worth noting that 52% of voters explicitly said that Trump did not share their values compared to only 36% who said Bernie did not share their values.) That gap between Sanders and the results for both Trump and other top Democratic contenders is telling. It says that for him, more than any other candidate, while some voters may disagree with him in many of their political views, they at least know he is in their corner. This, I believe, makes him the most formidable opponent to take on Trump in the general election.

For individuals not fully committed to a political ideology, the voters that can actually be swayed in this election, this ability to speak to people’s needs while transcending the political spectrum is potent, especially when trying to counter Donald Trump’s “all bark and no bite” populism. This is what makes Bernie Sanders the most viable candidate to flip the 37 electoral votes needed to defeat Donald Trump and win back the presidency. The alternative is for the Democratic Party to run a standard, uninspiring, moderate, politician again. But you know what they say about the definition of insanity.


National USA Today/Iposos poll, 2/4/20 Open Secrets

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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