In February, Jenna Stanwood argued in her piece, “Social media normalizes misinformation in US presidential primaries,” that users of social media have become swept away with catchy slogans and misleading information, to the detriment of good decision-making, and that this trend is a worrying sign for democracy. All of these points I absolutely agree with—but the piece seems to establish a sort of equivalence in culpability between the Clinton and Sanders campaigns that I don’t think is necessary true. Throughout the Democratic primary, one candidate consistently relies on absurdly simplistic soundbites more than the other. That candidate is Bernie Sanders.
For example, take his plans to spend approximately $20 trillion over the next 10 years. There would be “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college at public institutions, and infrastructure to “Rebuild America.” Everyone would reap all the benefits but bear few of the costs, as Sanders would finally make the wealthy “pay their fair share.” All excellent ideas that would help create the world that progressives (and probably others) want to see. But, according to the Sanders campaign’s logic, if we haven’t done this before—even in times Democrats held majorities in Congress or state legislatures—clearly there must have been rampant corruption and ties to Wall Street.
Well, perhaps. Corruption might be part of the reason for why these policies do not exist, but another aspect is that the policies themselves would be difficult to implement, even with bipartisan support. In Denmark, a country that Sanders has on numerous occasions held up as a model, everyone pays at least a 25 per cent sales tax (VAT, to be precise) on everything. Vermont, Sanders’ home state, tried to adopt a health care system along the lines of “Medicare-for-All” but scrapped it because the necessary taxes were higher than anticipated. That Sanders promises a panacea that nowhere else has managed to achieve should feel instinctively off—and indeed, a study has already come out showing that Sanders’ healthcare plan (which accounts for a majority of costs) would blow a $1 trillion hole into the budget annually. For context, the annual budget is around $4 trillion a year.
His own team seems to have a somewhat cavalier attitude about numerical accuracy, considering it forecasted greater savings on prescription medications than we actually spend on them (which is impossible) and $160 billion annually in savings just from plastic surgery. It’s since revised the first figure to an actually possible number, though how they’d gotten it so wrong they never explained; instead, to skeptics of his math, his campaign director responded with another soundbite: “They’ve picked sides with Hillary Clinton.” Regardless of whether you think these radically more progressive values are worth fighting for—I think they are—the slogan-heavy, detail-light manner in which he’s promising to fight for them should be concerning.
A similar narrative of “feel-good” proposals that are arithmetically unworkable emerges from his promises on criminal justice. Sanders repeatedly promises that “at the end of [his] first term, we will not have more people in jail than any other country.” This would be impossible, for the simple reason that there are more prisoners in state prisons and county jails, which no President has any control over, than there are prisoners in China (the country with the second-most prisoners). He has framed his proposal for a national $15 minimum wage as necessary to keep workers out of poverty. While such a policy would benefit cities with higher prevailing wages and costs of living, its possible effects on lower-cost areas are far less certain. In both these areas, Sanders refuses to engage with the details and nuances of policy making, instead contenting himself with simple, emotive narratives that seem hard to oppose.
With substantial momentum in the primaries in, Sanders should clearly be treated not as a protest movement. Instead, he should be viewed as a candidate with serious aspirations of defeating Hillary Clinton and winning the general election; however, the myriad gaping arithmetic holes in his policies mean that they’d have to be watered down, or, like Vermont’s healthcare, abandoned altogether. The end result would be an electorate disillusioned by the progressive project.
Stanwood is absolutely right that we can’t let ourselves be “swayed by catchy information on the internet.” By this measure, Sanders, whose campaign revolves around catchy information, requires the most scrutiny.