Shortly before the January Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders released his plan for single payer health care in America.
Sure, it was wanting in both substance and details. Medicare for All, as it was called, is a self-indulgent document that depends on credulous readers who make assumptions about the policy details that the candidate left out. Rather than setting forth his ideas for how to make American health care better, cheaper and more widespread, Sanders treats those entities as self-evident from the words “single payer.”
From a consumer perspective, this health care plan is a train wreck, because it’s not a plan. It’s merely an ideology.
Sanders 2016 is a coalition built of angry voters who sincerely agree that most of America’s problems can be blamed on inequality and wealth. Sanders has given them an outlet that rings far truer than Hillary Clinton’s plans, Power Points and numerous dalliances with the enemy. Unlike his opponent who’s taken plenty of Wall Street’s money, Sanders claims to harbor no such illusions. He looks his constituents in the eyes and assures them, “I know who the enemy is.”
But here's the counter-intuitive shocker: it’s basically Donald Trump’s shtick with a different cast of characters.
Which is why Sanders has begun to sound an awful lot like The Donald, right down to increasingly thin skin in the face of criticism. In the language of the Sanders camp, Right Wing critics are morally bankrupt and Left Wing critics are establishment mouthpieces.
And he’s not wrong, not entirely. On both the Left and the Right, the party elders have been unhappy about the upstarts in their midsts. The Republican Waterloo may have been months ago, during the failed assault on Trump during August's Fox News debate. To the Left, there’s little serious question anymore that DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has worked hard to try this primary season to handicap anyone not named “Clinton.”
Like Trump, though, in dismissing his critics, Sanders also misses a lot of good points. Sanders is virtually unelectable, a self-proclaimed socialist chasing the more than 50% of voters who say they would never consider voting for one. His tax plans hinge on overt redistribution without the guise of further sophistication, and his only plan for working with Congress is a political “revolution.” To boot, Sanders repeats his attacks on inequality like a verbal tic.
When a candidate can’t stay focused on foreign policy even in the wake of the Paris attacks, he raises very real questions about suitability for the office.
Sanders’s supporters dismiss these arguments as plotted attacks from Clinton lackeys. It’s a combination of victimhood, personal loyalty and policy vacuity that sounds a lot like Trump when he rails against fair treatment by Republican party leaders.
Part of it is how much the two candidates rely on their poll numbers for campaign rhetoric. As Jim Newell recently wrote for Slate, the more Sanders catches up with Clinton, the more airtime he gives to those increasingly rosy forecasts.
“I am happy to report to you the results of a poll taken by WMUR and CNN,” Newell quoted from some of Sanders’s recent remarks. “Here are the results here in New Hampshire. In terms of Marco Rubio, Secretary Clinton loses to him by one point; I beat him here in New Hampshire by 18 points. In terms of Mr. Kasich, it’s a tie between Secretary Clinton and Gov. Kasich; I beat Kasich by 21 points… And my favorite, the man who I would love, love, love to run against: Hillary Clinton defeats Trump by nine points. We defeat him by 23 points.”
The rhetoric is Trumpian in its language and emphasis on popular support, but also pretty common for insurgent candidates. Sanders and Trump are the underdogs in a race no one ever saw them running. Most commenters wrote Sanders off as a little old Vermonter who might pull Clinton a smidge to the Left, while outlets like the Huffington Post didn’t even report on Trump’s candidacy in the political section until recent months.
Historically a dark horse always trumpets his unexpected success, not just to rally the troops but as a way of capturing voters scared off by questions of electability.
Trump and Sanders share much more than the underdog’s love of unexpected success. When Sanders released his health care proposal, it was a document that in tone, substance and style could easily have come from the Trump camp, defiant and specific in its enemies.
If their campaign rallies, their speeches, their policy documents all sound much the same, it’s because these two men are running the same campaign targeted at different demographics. Sanders trumpets enthusiasm, Trump truth. Sanders wants to stage a revolution; Trump wants to stop one. But neither of these candidates is making a policy-oriented case for his presidency. They’re both running on emotion and personality. Their pitch is simple: I know what’s wrong with America, I know who’s to blame and I will destroy those in the way of our goals.
Sanders shares more with Occupy Wall Street than just anger against the one percent. He’s also full of big grievances and bold ideas, without much use for the down and dirty of making those ideas work in the real world. More specifically, he’s more than happy to dismiss political opponents as wrong, villainous or (just as bad) “establishment.”
Sanders’s plan for getting his policies through Congress is just to crush the Republicans, a “political revolution.” Trump’s going to make Washington work by “tak[ing] back our country.”
They both speak the language of the aggrieved. They both promise a war in lieu of a presidency.
The Occupiers disappeared into disillusioned coffee shop crowds, because their movement was little more than a primal scream. They considered compromise a concession to evil and “the system” as too hopelessly corrupt to bother engaging. Add some Middle America, a lot of American flags and age it up by a few decades, and you’ve got a Trump rally.
Like Trump, Sanders calls out to a voting bloc that’s sick of making deals with the other guys and considers half measures full defeat. As a result his policies are little more than aspirational statements, devoid of the actual give and take of real legislation that has to take into account issues like practicability, unintended consequences and limited resources.
It’s where style ties back into substance.
A campaign built on grievance can’t correct its mistakes or flesh out meaningful policy. When a candidate like Sanders or Trump spends all of his time telling voters that giving an inch is as good as a mile, effective policymaking goes out the window, because drafting real laws is all about compromise and concessions.
Look at the easy fiction of repeal and replace. The country actually could use a real Conservative health care alternative against which to test and reform Democratic ideas (notwithstanding the reality that Obamacare was originally written by the Heritage Foundation).
It doesn’t exist, because as long as “repeal” is enough to fire up the troops, why muddy the waters with a “replace” that no one is really clamoring for? Putting policy to paper just invites trouble. Sanders and Trump have taken this logic campaign-wide. Why mess with single payer details, payment plans for tax cuts or the reality of deporting 11 million people when voters are happy with the headline?
As Trump recently said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” He may even be right. What would make a Sanders fan support Clinton, short of candid photos of him at a Goldman Sachs bacchanal?
These aren’t "competence candidates" who run on what they will do and how well it will work (which, whether or not they have good ideas, is the mold of everyone else in this campaign). They’re something else. These are the revolution candidates, running on spit and vinegar and not a whole lot else.
Running on id means voters won’t get a chance to really test the mettle of these candidates’ ideas. They won’t evolve and shape their policy into something real and actionable, or respond to pointed criticism raised during the debates. If elected, they’d barrel into Washington with a slate of proposals that won’t help the average American or average consumer one bit -- a set of white papers primed for failure either due to political impossibility, practical flaws or both.
Sanders differs from Trump in many key ways, most notably the lack of overt racism, authoritarianism and fascist rhetoric. His style and campaign, though, look a lot like his counterpart’s, because they’re two sides of the same coin.
When the world feels unsettled enough, people like a show of strength. Today in an age when plenty of Americans agree that there’s “someone” out there screwing them over, it’s not surprising to see them rally behind a straight-talking strong man willing to call that someone out. Whether that candidate is a vulgar New York billionaire or a New England socialist, the message is the same: I know who the bad guys are and I’ll go get them.
It makes for great politics. It just doesn’t necessarily lead to good public policy.