When pundits on CNN or CBS call for the bipartisanship of a bygone are, as they are wont to do, what they are calling for is what can be understood as elite consensus. They want Congress to go back to agreeing on the things Congress already agrees on. A highly praised example of this is Obama’s bailout of the financial sector. This was hailed as a great bipartisan achievement as if two sides who deeply disagree on fundamental issues came together to hash out their differences and create a bill that combined their self-interests. That’s not what happened. Both parties believe in corporate welfare, are funded by the financial sector, and believe that if the banks were left to fail that the country’s economy would tank even further. This wasn’t compromise, it was simply a coherent packaging of the things parties 2a priori agree on.
The same goes for budget deals. Pundits hate when the parties can’t come together to agree on a budget, and treat government shut downs as if they substantially impact people’s lives. When the shutdown ends and Congress agrees to boost military spending by X percent for the fourth consecutive year, pundits on both sides of the aisle cheer on the bipartisanship. Finally, these people put their differences aside and came together. In reality, of course, both had no problem increasing military spending because both sides believe in military spending.
There is nothing that will get you ostracized in Congress faster than bucking elite consensus. If you don’t believe in its tenants – centrally financed market capitalism, subsidizing the oil and gas industry, surveillance, spending more on the military than the next 10 countries combined – it’s a sign of your own ignorance, not that of the ruling class. They support these things not because of campaign donors but because this is what it takes to run a government. After all, what would America become if the military budget was cut by 15 percent to pay for infrastructure or subsidize education? I shudder at the mere thought.
There are two consistent opponents of elite consensus in the United States Senate from opposite ends of the political spectrum: Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders. This is why a bunch of bills that are discussed as if they are unanimous often end up with a vote of 98-2. Sanders and Paul voted against a bill supported by 98 Senators just this year, in fact, imposing sanctions on Russia. They have done the same recently on bills extending surveillance and funding military expansion. They have not made many friends in the Senate. Among the public, on the other hand, they are much more popular. Paul has a dedicated group of supporters, many of whom followed his father before him. Bernie Sanders, who was considered an insignificant backbencher for this very reason, has become the most popular Senator in the United States following his run for President.
The reason behind this is not complicated; elite consensus is called elite for a reason. If the population believed in these things than it would just be called consensus. Most of these beliefs are in fact outside of the mainstream and only make sense when you consider campaign contributions as well as the warping of interests that come with serving in Congress. The first is obvious. Surveillance is a great example of the latter. The American people hate the idea of being surveilled by and large, and want Congress to roll back the PATRIOT Act and protect 4th amendment rights. There is two issues. One, people do not tend to vote on the issue because if you do not do anything wrong then surveillance is not front of mind compared to other issues like healthcare. Second, for Congress the incentives line up in the other direction. If a terrorist attack occurs on a congressional members watch, they are going to blamed for it. Thus, if no one is going to explicitly show up to vote them out for surveillance issues, they might as well vote yes on surveillance expansion so that they don’t face a San Bernardino or Pulse Night Club incident and have people turn against them for not doing enough.
The most insidious form of elite consensus is undoubtedly the military. It is the area where unanimity is the strongest. In rare moments, you can get Congress to regulate banks, for example, but they never cut military spending. It has become a political third rail. And if we’re going to spend all that money, we’re going to use it. While issues of finance and surveillance are of course serious, military interventionism means life and death for both American troops and troops/civilians of the countries we are involved in. As I write, US jets are currently dropping US bombs to kill Yemeni civilians. This behavior has never received congressional authorization.
Both Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul have made statements about the war in Yemen, but they significantly underscore its significance. They make passing gestures to Mike Wallace or Jake Tapper on the Sunday shows, but they are not calling for Congressional hearings or demanding reports on our conduct be made public. Their opposition has been tepid at best. Sanders’ words on healthcare must outpace his words on Yemen 100 to 1.
Herein lies the problem. There is no anti-war left in the United States. Certainly not one that takes the proposition seriously enough to 1) shout from the rooftops about it and demand attention and/or 2) provide a roadmap for how we practically withdraw our military presence from every corner of the earth.
Bernie Sanders wants to be President of the United States; that much is clear. If not, he obviously wants someone of his ilk to be. He has an expansive progressive domestic agenda that would radically reshape our economy, but he does not tie it to scaling back military interventionism. That may or may not be a sound political strategy for trying to garner popular support, but it is certainly a bad strategy for actually getting his agenda passed if he achieves his goal and occupies the White House.
Here is the crux; Sanders has the political capital to do so. He is broadly popular with the Democratic base and has set the tone for the party. If he were to start railing against war today and did not stop until the 2020 election, whether he is the one running or not, the Democratic Party would certainly incorporate anti-interventionism into its platform. The public has hated every single war since 1945, so it should not be particularly difficult to mobilize support. It is tough to see how being an anti-war candidate loses you any Democratic votes, and it would certainly motivate a base of both libertarians and single issue, anti-war voters. Lest we forget, Barack Obama campaigned as a solidly anti-war candidate who wanted to roll back military spending in 2008, and if memory serves correct it served him well.
What Barack Obama did was tie an anti-war agenda to a progressive domestic policy itinerary. This is right up Sanders’ ally, an obvious home run. If you poll people simply on the question of war versus isolationism, the poll numbers are not great. If you add that we are going to pull back military intervention in order to pay for education and healthcare, suddenly you become much more popular. It is not particularly complicated.
At the end of the day, Sanders or any other leftist who runs in 2020 isn’t going to have a choice if they win. The United States is a wealthy country, but it is not wealthy enough to spend 50 cents out of every dollar on the military AND pay for a generous welfare state. You can raise taxes on the wealthy, which they of course will, but that only amounts to so much. Military spending will unquestionably need to be sharply reduced if you wish to expand healthcare plus education loans plus child tax credits.
There is no time like the present. The Democratic Party is unmistakably shifting to the left for the first time in decades and accepting a domestic agenda that is seriously progressive. It is also trying to find ways to steal away Trump voters without abandoning its diverse base. This is the issue on which to do it. Trump’s appeal to many voters, especially young people whose disposition is liberal but who were disillusioned with Clinton, was to be the more dovish candidate. If you strip the nationalism out of America First, its message is that we should bring back all the resources we spend abroad and instead spend those dollars at home on our own people. That message can be co-opted by the left in response to Trump advancing it and then going on to extend the war in Afghanistan and launch airstrikes in Syria. Just as Obama’s failure to keep his promises partially enabled Trump to fill the vacuum, the left can shave off a chunk of voters led astray by President Trump.
This would also help a party searching for as many ways to oppose Trump that stick with voters as possible. There are a bunch of Democrats who are clearly anti-war in their own sentiments but have caved to elite opinion so as not to be pushed aside like Bernie Sanders before his Presidential run. Patrick Leahy, Chris Murphy, Barbara Boxer, Dick Durbin, Jeff Merkley, and Ron Wyden are all examples of Senators who have spoken out against war in a serious fashion many times. If an anti-war coalition began building in the United States, energized by the popularity of a Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren, these Senators would be quick to jump on board. As we have seen in the post-2016 environment, progressivism is about momentum. Once a group of progressive Senators started beating the drums against war, the issue would spread to the mainstream of the party. If poll numbers show that it could be used to mobilize against Trump, and past polling suggests just that, it is not hard to imagine the entire party jumping on board.
The left can build an anti-war coalition that is both electorally powerful and morally righteous. The roadmap is as clear as it is on any policy in the world, if not clearer. We just need someone to take the first leap.