The misleading $18 trillion—and precisely how it is important

It’s not surprising when partisans spin facts in a misleading way: These days I’m seeing it in claims made by both right and left, but Paul Waldman at the Washington Post does the yeoman’s work of unpacking[1] the Wall Street Journal‘s claim that Bernie Sanders’ proposals would cost $18 trillion.[2] Waldman’s article is worth reading in full but the short version is first, that $15 trillion of that number is for single-payer health care; and second, this is all money we spend or need to spend in one way or another anyway. Sanders, Waldman explains, has not released a specific single-payer health plan so, in truth, we don’t know how much it will cost. But there is no single-payer health plan in the world that is even as expensive as what we pay for health care in the U.S. now, so again, this is money we’re spending anyway. Further, the $1 trillion Sanders allocates for infrastructure, including fixing highways and bridges, falls considerably short of what’s actually needed.[3]

So the real argument against Sanders’ plan is that the government would do some things that it is not now doing, even those things—like fixing highways and bridges—it should be doing or things it already does for some people—like health care for the old, the disabled, the poor, the military, and veterans. This means that government would have to grow. And that would be anathema to “small government” conservatives, specifically traditionalist conservatives, capitalist libertarians, and, almost certainly, paleoconservatives. Authoritarian populists will also object, as I mentioned previously,[4] because their trust of the federal government is nearly nonexistent.[5] And while I wouldn’t call neoconservatives “small government” conservatives, they endorse a version of capitalist libertarian ideology, neoliberalism, as a morality system, so they won’t be endorsing the nationalization of health care either. Between all that and the fact that Sanders bombs with social conservatives,[6] the only tendency of conservatism we have left is functionalist, which has adopted neoliberalism as supposedly (politically) necessary. Which is to say that Sanders can now expect zero support from conservatives and his hope to appeal to some of them on class grounds[7] has, as I said yesterday, gone up in smoke.[8]

If Sanders is to prove me wrong, he’s going to have to be a lot more canny about the divisions among conservatives than he has so far been. First, as I said yesterday, he needs to target authoritarian populists, presently known as the “Tea Party.”[9] There is some evidence that such an aim could work if—and this is now a pretty big if—Donald Trump leaves the race. The neoliberal Club For Growth and Donald Trump are at war over issues that Sanders is running on and could use to his advantage. As Andrew Prokop explains it,

In reality, though, the feud gets to the heart of why the billionaire’s candidacy is so dangerous to the conservative electoral coalition. The club’s mission has long been to push the GOP far to the right on economic issues — slashing taxes and spending as much as possible. But Trump has pledged to protect Social Security and Medicare spending, and says the wealthy should be taxed more.

That makes his candidacy incredibly dangerous to both the club and the current orthodoxy on tax and spending issues that exists across the GOP — an orthodoxy that the club helped bring about, and tries to enforce.[10]

Basically, Sanders would have to make the argument that Trump’s ideas are no less worthy because Sanders is also running on them. It wouldn’t be easy and it won’t work at all before Trump leaves the race, but he can try.

Trump is running at the intersection of authoritarian populism, social conservatism, and paleoconservatism.[11] Of these, Sanders will never get the social conservative or paleoconservative vote. Social conservatives will oppose him because he thinks women should control their own bodies[12] and paleoconservatives will oppose him because he has a long record of supporting civil rights.[13] And we can also add that he will never get the capitalist libertarian vote or the traditionalist conservative vote for the reasons stated above. While it may be laudable to meet with one’s adversaries as Sanders did on Monday (September 14),[14] in the present atmosphere of polarization, he’s wasting his breath.

If Sanders can understand these differences, he can target his audiences precisely. I still don’t think he can succeed, but if he is indeed to draw support from the right,[15] it is what he’ll have to do.

  1. [1]Paul Waldman, “No, Bernie Sanders is not going to bankrupt America to the tune of $18 trillion,” Washington Post, September 15, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2015/09/15/no-bernie-sanders-is-not-going-to-bankrupt-america-to-the-tune-of-18-trillion/
  2. [2]Laura Meckler, “Price Tag of Bernie Sanders’s Proposals: $18 Trillion,” Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/price-tag-of-bernie-sanders-proposals-18-trillion-1442271511
  3. [3]Paul Waldman, “No, Bernie Sanders is not going to bankrupt America to the tune of $18 trillion,” Washington Post, September 15, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2015/09/15/no-bernie-sanders-is-not-going-to-bankrupt-america-to-the-tune-of-18-trillion/
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Bernie Sanders is doomed,” Not Housebroken, September 15, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=8108
  5. [5]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (New York: Metropolitan, 2012).
  6. [6]Daniel Strauss, “Sanders makes populist plea to Liberty University students,” Politico, September 14, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/bernie-sanders-liberty-university-2016-213599
  7. [7]Andrew Prokop, “Bernie Sanders’s speech at Liberty University wasn’t a stunt. It’s core to his campaign,” Vox, September 14, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/9/14/9323041/bernie-sanders-liberty-university
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Bernie Sanders is doomed,” Not Housebroken, September 15, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=8108
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Bernie Sanders is doomed,” Not Housebroken, September 15, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=8108
  10. [10]Andrew Prokop, “Donald Trump vs. the Club for Growth, explained,” Vox, September 15, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/9/15/9331225/donald-trump-club-for-growth
  11. [11]Michael Barbaro, Nate Cohn, and Jeremy W. Peters, “Why Donald Trump Won’t Fold: Polls and People Speak,” New York Times, August 22, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/us/politics/why-donald-trump-wont-fold-polls-and-people-speak.html; Ross Douthat, “Donald Trump, Traitor to His Class,” New York Times, August 29, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-donald-trump-traitor-to-his-class.html; Jeet Heer, “Donald Trump Is Not a Populist. He’s the Voice of Aggrieved Privilege,” New Republic, August 24, 2015, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/122590/if-you-think-donald-trump-populist-you-dont-know-your-history; Kathleen Hennessey, “GOP strategist talks to Trump supporters and comes away believing he could win the nomination,” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/la-na-trump-supporters-20150825-story.html; Mark Hensch, “Trump: I’m winning because Americans are ‘tired of being the patsies’,” Hill, August 29, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/gop-primaries/252250-trump-im-winning-because-americans-are-tired-of-being-the; Ray Nothstine, “Who Are the Evangelicals Supporting Donald Trump?” Christian Post, August 30, 2015, http://www.christianpost.com/news/who-are-the-evangelicals-supporting-donald-trump-143997/; Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated,” New Yorker, August 31, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated; Alex Pappas, “‘Nothing Disqualifies Trump’ — What A Focus Group Tells Us About His Supporters,” Daily Caller, August 24, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/24/nothing-disqualifies-trump-what-a-focus-group-tells-us-about-his-supporters/; Joan Walsh, “Donald Trump’s Southern strategy: What his Alabama pep rally revealed about the right’s new racial politics,” Salon, August 24, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/24/donald_trumps_southern_strategy_what_his_alabama_pep_rally_revealed_about_the_rights_new_racial_politics/
  12. [12]Daniel Strauss, “Sanders makes populist plea to Liberty University students,” Politico, September 14, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/bernie-sanders-liberty-university-2016-213599
  13. [13]Mark Hensch, “Booker: Sanders has ‘long record of civil rights’,” Hill, August 9, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/250686-booker-sanders-has-long-record-of-civil-rights; Cornel West, quoted in David Ferguson, “Cornel West endorses ‘Brother’ Bernie Sanders for president,” Raw Story, August 25, 2015, http://www.rawstory.com/2015/08/cornel-west-endorses-brother-bernie-sanders-for-president/
  14. [14]Andrew Prokop, “Bernie Sanders’s speech at Liberty University wasn’t a stunt. It’s core to his campaign,” Vox, September 14, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/9/14/9323041/bernie-sanders-liberty-university; Daniel Strauss, “Sanders makes populist plea to Liberty University students,” Politico, September 14, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/bernie-sanders-liberty-university-2016-213599; James Taranto, “Jerry Falwell’s Liberal Example,” Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/jerry-falwells-liberal-example-1442342727
  15. [15]Andrew Prokop, “Bernie Sanders’s speech at Liberty University wasn’t a stunt. It’s core to his campaign,” Vox, September 14, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/9/14/9323041/bernie-sanders-liberty-university

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