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Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders visits Birmingham for a rally at Boutwell Auditorium Sunday January 18, 2016. So many supporters showed up that an overflow area was set up in Linn Park. Sanders took time to visit Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Institute. (Photo: Joe Songer/

What the Mainstream Doesn’t Get About Bernie Sanders

It just might be that the nation's electoral dropouts have found a candidate they can believe in. If so, that changes everything.

John Atcheson

The normally perspicacious Paul Krugman wrote a column on Friday entitled “How Change Happens.”

The last paragraph sums up his argument nicely:

         Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.

Krugman seems to think that Sanders’ idealistic stands are “happy dreams” because change happens from the hard work of compromise and settling for half-loafs.  As a result, he suggests that Hillary Clinton and her pragmatism are the “adult” approach and the strategy most likely to lead to change.

He urges Sanders’ supporters to ask themselves, “When has their theory of change ever worked?”  Interestingly, he leaps immediately to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s transformative presidency and characterizes it as strictly on the side of the pragmatists and compromisers.

In a response published on the Huffington Post, Professor Jedediah Purdy points out the Dr. Krugman’s take on FDR’s presidency misinterprets how FDR accomplished change.  As Purdy points out, compromise was a secondary tactic, usually conducted on FDR’s terms.  The two primary factors that made FDR such an effective change agent were how he wielded power, and the fact that he created a movement, the source of his power.  He didn’t rely on old alliances forged in history, he created new ones.  Purdy’s rebuttal is spot on, but there’s a larger point to be made about change.

Real change, consequential change, is usually the result of Black Swans, “a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.”

The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:

  1. The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.
  2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities).
  3. The psychological biases that blind people, both individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event's massive role in historical affairs.

Krugman’s criticism echoes much of what you hear from pundits, the main stream media (MSM), and the political cognoscenti, and it is no surprise that they are missing the prospect of a Black Swan where the Sanders campaign is concerned.  Let’s break down assumptions embraced by conventional wisdom.

Sanders can’t win...

Well, this is pretty easy.  He’s winning.  He’s ahead in Iowa, way ahead in New Hampshire, and rocketing up in the rest of the country.  But because he’s not embracing the traditional PAC and money dominated strategy that is the mainstay of modern American politics, he’s dismissed as not “serious,” not “adult.”

Sanders isn’t electable...

This is one you hear frequently from the Hillary camp and the MSM.  The idea here is that against Republicans, Sanders is doomed. Problem is, he beats leading Republicans by a wider margin than Hillary and she actually loses in some head-to-head races that Sanders wins. 

Krugman suggests that will change in the heat of the campaign.

But the reality...Hillary is a sitting duck 

The majority of voters don’t trust her.  Worse, a review of the history of her favorability numbers shows they go down when she campaigns.  At the moment it’s in negative territory and that would make her extremely vulnerable in a general election – certainly more so than Sanders, who gets stronger the longer he runs. Finally, Hillary’s lukewarm support all but guarantees a low voter turnout, something that proved fatal to Democrats in 2014, and likely would again. So, once again, conventional wisdom has it all wrong.

Congress will prevent him from delivering on his promises

There are two things the MSM and the punditocracy don’t understand.

"Conventional wisdom has it all wrong."

First, Sanders isn’t simply trying to get himself elected; he’s trying to ignite a revolution that will snatch control of this country from corporations and the uber rich and hand it back to citizens. 

Second, the fact of the matter is that “none-of-the-above” has won every election since 1960, with some 40 to 50 percent of those eligible to vote not voting.  That is, the number of potentially eligible voters who stayed home was larger than the number voting for the winning candidate.  And the dirty little secret is that America is a left of center, progressive electorate on an issue-be-issue basis, and many of these are the ones who stay home in disgust at their lack of choice.

If Sanders is to win, he must get a sizable number of the disaffected and cynical voters to reengage in the political process.  If he does, he wins.  But the composition of Congress will also change if these people vote, so he will have an easier time with his agenda. So he may well accomplish much more than the conventional wisdom would predict.

The opposite is also true – if he doesn’t get the disaffected to reenter the political process he loses.  And so do we.

So how does change occur? 

When I was a visiting Fellow at RAND I had frequent  and fruitful discussions with Nassim Taleb, when he was writing the "The Black Swan."

I concluded that change could often be tied to how small changes can trigger chaotic responses which ultimately cause a system – be it political, economic or scientific -- to arrive at a new and different equilibrium point that is completely unexpected.

I would suggest that the extreme income inequality we're experiencing now could be that kind of trigger.  It may well be that Sanders is the heir to echoes of the awareness  and outrage that the Occupy Movement created, and the people will, indeed, take the country back from the Plutocrats. 

Given the forces that confront Sanders now that he seriously threatens the Oligarchy, it may well be that his election is against the odds, and the closer he gets, the more desperately the establishment will work to discredit him.

But it's less of a long shot than it was even 2 months ago.  It just might be that in Bernie, the dropouts have found a candidate they believe in – and they're ready to quit cursing the darkness and light a few candles.

You can bet if they do, Bernie will win, Congress will be vastly different, and the same pundits who poo-pooed the whole idea of a Sanders candidacy will be on the Sunday television shows explaining how and why it happened.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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