SOMETIMES PEOPLE wake from a bad dream only to discover that they are still asleep and that the nightmare goes on. This is the prospect facing America if, as seems increasingly likely, the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders as the person to rouse America from President Donald Trump’s first term. Mr Sanders won the primary in New Hampshire, almost won in Iowa, trounced his rivals in Nevada and is polling well in South Carolina. Come Super Tuesday next week, in which 14 states including California and Texas allot delegates, he could amass a large enough lead to make himself almost impossible to catch.
Moderate Democrats worry that nominating Mr Sanders would cost them the election. This newspaper worries that forcing Americans to decide between him and Mr Trump would result in an appalling choice with no good outcome. It will surprise nobody that we disagree with a self-described democratic socialist over economics, but that is just the start. Because Mr Sanders is so convinced that he is morally right, he has a dangerous tendency to put ends before means. And, in a country where Mr Trump has whipped up politics into a frenzy of loathing, Mr Sanders’s election would feed the hatred.
On economics Mr Sanders is misunderstood. He is not a cuddly Scandinavian social democrat who would let companies do their thing and then tax them to build a better world. Instead, he believes American capitalism is rapacious and needs to be radically weakened. He puts Jeremy Corbyn to shame, proposing to take 20% of the equity of companies and hand it over to workers, to introduce a federal jobs-guarantee and to require companies to qualify for a federal charter obliging them to act for all stakeholders in ways that he could define. On trade, Mr Sanders is at least as hostile to open markets as Mr Trump is. He seeks to double government spending, without being able to show how he would pay for it. When unemployment is at a record low and nominal wages in the bottom quarter of the jobs market are growing by 4.6%, his call for a revolution in the economy is an epically poor prescription for what ails America.
In putting ends before means, Mr Sanders displays the intolerance of a Righteous Man. He embraces perfectly reasonable causes like reducing poverty, universal health care and decarbonising the economy, and then insists on the most unreasonable extremes in the policies he sets out to achieve them. He would ban private health insurance (not even Britain, devoted to its National Health Service, goes that far). He wants to cut billionaires’ wealth in half over 15 years. A sensible ecologist would tax fracking for the greenhouse gases it produces. To Mr Sanders that smacks of a dirty compromise: he would ban it outright.
Sometimes even the ends are sacrificed to Mr Sanders’s need to be righteous. Making university cost-free for students is a self-defeating way to alleviate poverty, because most of the subsidy would go to people who are, or will be, relatively wealthy. Decriminalising border-crossing and breaking up Immigration and Customs Enforcement would abdicate one of the state’s first duties. Banning nuclear energy would stand in the way of his goal to create a zero-carbon economy.
So keenly does Mr Sanders fight his wicked rivals at home, that he often sympathises with their enemies abroad. He has shown a habit of indulging autocrats in Cuba and Nicaragua, so long as the regime in question claims to be pursuing socialism. He is sceptical about America wielding power overseas, partly from an honourable conviction that military adventures do more harm than good. But it also reflects his contempt for the power-wielders in the Washington establishment.
Last is the effect of a President Sanders on America’s political culture. The country’s political divisions helped make Mr Trump’s candidacy possible. They are now enabling Mr Sanders’s rise. The party’s leftist activists find his revolution thrilling. They have always believed that their man would triumph if only the neoliberal Democratic Party elite would stop keeping him down. His supporters seem to reserve almost as much hatred for his Democratic opponents as they do for Republicans.
This speaks to Mr Sanders’s political style. When faced with someone who disagrees with him, his instinct is to spot an establishment conspiracy, or to declare that his opponent is confused and will be put straight by one of his political sermons. When asked how he would persuade Congress to eliminate private health insurance (something which 60% of Americans oppose), Mr Sanders replies that he would hold rallies in the states of recalcitrant senators until they relented.
A presidency in which Mr Sanders travelled around the country holding rallies for a far-left programme that he could not get through Congress would widen America’s divisions. It would frustrate his supporters, because the president’s policies would be stymied by Congress or the courts. On the right, which has long been fed a diet of socialist bogeymen, the spectacle of an actual socialist in the White House would generate even greater fury. Mr Sanders would test the proposition that partisanship cannot get any more bitter.
The mainstream three-quarters of Democrats have begun to tell themselves that Mr Sanders would not be so bad. Some point out that he would not be able to do many of the things he promises. This excuse-making, with its implication that Mr Sanders should be taken seriously but not literally, sounds worryingly familiar. Mr Trump has shown that control of the regulatory state, plus presidential powers over trade and over foreign policy, give a president plenty of room for manoeuvre. His first term suggests that it is unwise to dismiss what a man seeking power says he wants to do with it.
If Mr Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee, America will have to choose in November between a corrupt, divisive, right-wing populist, who scorns the rule of law and the constitution, and a sanctimonious, divisive, left-wing populist, who blames a cabal of billionaires and businesses for everything that is wrong with the world. All this when the country is as peaceful and prosperous as at any time in its history. It is hard to think of a worse choice. Wake up, America! ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “America’s nightmare”
This content was originally published here.