01/29/2016 05:21 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

Bernie's Burden, Voter's Dilemma

Let us note from the beginning that Teddy Roosevelt would have been perfectly comfortable with the thrust of Bernie Sanders' economic policies. That is another way of saying there is nothing radical about them, that they fit comfortably within the broad sweep of American progressive traditions. Of all the aspirants to the presidency active in 2016, Sanders has the clearest understanding of the corporate challenge to the American economy and American democracy. He understands that the hegemony of concentrated wealth in the political process must be rolled back if we are ever to reach reasonable economic goals, settle upon a sustainably constructive role for the United States in world affairs, and meet the existential challenges of climate change. He is free of entanglements with the corporate world which would lead us to question where his loyalties lie or whether he has been subject to cognitive capture.

All of the above could lead progressive Democrats to the conclusion that Bernie Sanders is an ideal candidate to represent their positions. Bernie Sanders, though, has a crippling problem. He calls himself a "democratic socialist." He cannot, and has not tried to, shed the label. He has carried it throughout his political life, a self-chosen and irrevocable burden. It has not hurt him in Vermont politics, but, in all likelihood, it will provide an impassable barrier to the Presidency. America cannot afford to have that barrier bar even an ideal candidate from the Presidency if that results in the likes of a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz becoming the most powerful person on earth and using a handful of Supreme Court nominees to dam the flow of American democracy indefinitely.

It is highly frustrating to contemplate that a mere label could block an attractive candidate from the Presidency, and there is much to argue that it might not. Sanders has activated a large number of relatively youthful followers among whom the label seems to mean little, or might even be a positive. He draws large and enthusiastic crowds. He aims to reign in corporate and elite political power, especially that which holds sway in the financial sector, a move attractive to substantial numbers of activists on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum. He wants to move toward more economic equality in a manner highly favorable to threatened middle, lower-middle, and poor elements of society inhabiting both labor unions and the Tea Party. Early polling numbers even show him running better against Republican candidates than Hillary Clinton.

Consider, though, the contrary case. "Socialist" has been used as an attack cry by multiple generations of Republicans, even when there was no discernible justification for it. Opposition has come only from the furthest reaches of the Left. The word's connotations are strongly negative, even among many who have little concern with politics. "Socialist" has become a potent symbol, a veritable curse-word, across broad swaths of the American electorate. Forty-seven percent of Americans say they would not vote for a socialist. Probably few low-information voters within that forty-seven percent now even know that Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist. Bernie Sanders may explain what he means by "democratic socialist" all he wants, but the vast majority of low-information voters are unlikely to ever rely on nuanced policy statements instead of broad symbols and personalities in making their electoral selections. The term "socialism" would provide them with the symbol they need to determine their vote. The very fact that Sanders has had to explain what he means by democratic socialism, straight-forward and attractive as it might seem to a policy wonk, is a danger sign. It signals that the concept is too nuanced and contrary to calcified mindsets to overcome emotions and preconceptions in the target audience, poorly informed about political matters, that has to be drawn to the winning side in a presidential race. Hillary Clinton has not yet made a major issue of Sanders' "socialism" in the way that a Republican nominee surely will. The meaning (to Sanders!) of the modifier Sanders attaches to socialism would be entirely lost in the cacophonous screams of "socialist", "socialist", "socialist" with which any Republican candidate would attack. Hillary Clinton, of course, has also absorbed years of Republican attacks, and negative opinions of her in the electorate show the cumulative effect of those attacks. The negatives, however, are not as strong as the negatives of "socialism" among most slices of the electorate.

It would be unwise to be too certain about any outcomes in 2016 elections, including the eventual Republican nominee. There is a reasonable case to be made that the 2016 conventions and elections might yield entirely different results than conventional wisdom would assume or even anticipate. There are internal conflicts within both the Democratic and Republican parties (with the far more serious rift evident among Republicans), and third-party candidacies threaten to arise. "Establishment" candidates are seriously at risk. Commentators are baffled, because the old clichés and patterns they've learned to rely upon no longer seem to work. All of this is an indication that a major realignment is probably in progress among our political parties. In such an environment, usual expectations may not hold. Furthermore, the Republican candidates are awful. It is, therefore, not impossible that Sanders could win in a general election, but, all things considered, it still seems like a very long shot.

That can offer little comfort to liberals. Long-term demographic and cultural trends seem to favor the Democrats, but near-term political advantages, economic uncertainty, and ascendant plutocratic and corporate power, make the outcome of the 2016 election unpredictable and the consequences of a Republican victory disastrous. The recovery of the U.S. political system might take generations, if it came at all. Democrats cannot afford the luxury of a vote that expresses their emotions or even their well-considered understanding of the best policies but is backed by less than a steely pragmatism. There is no room for cathartic voting. We can afford to lose on important issues, leaving room to fight another day. But if we lose the Presidency, we lose the Supreme Court, and we lose the ball game. We probably lose any semblance of what we once knew as America.

A bittersweet comfort is available for liberals who, with the best conscience, cannot vote for Sanders in a primary unless they are sure he will not win the nomination. Whatever its future successes or failures, Sanders' campaign has revealed and encouraged the popular passion for fundamental change to which Hillary Clinton now discerns she must be responsive. She may never fully understand in her bones the basic need for systemic economic and political change that drives Sanders' campaign, but she is smart enough to be responsive to it when an active and passionate constituency demands it and will not go away. Furthermore, in an environment in which an adamantly obstructive opposition makes the slightest progress incredibly difficult, though they may not stir the blood, the incremental, pragmatic politics at which Hillary Clinton is adept have a chance to accomplish at least as much as the grander and more sweeping aspirations of Bernie Sanders.