Senator Elizabeth Warren has lots of big ideas to re-design the United States. She dreams of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, forgiving student loans, waging war on corporate America and more.
On the debate stage in Detroit, Warren pushed back when others raised doubts about her ambitious agenda: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
At one level, Warren’s perspective makes a certain kind of sense. After all, unless you believed you could change the world, what’s the incentive for putting up with all the grief that goes with living in the White House? However, the logic of Warren’s comment highlights a key reason why America’s political system has become so dysfunctional.
The problem is that making such big promises is Warren’s only plausible path to winning the nomination. She needs to fire up an army of activists by convincing them she can really bring about such a sweeping agenda and remake America into a progressive utopia.
But there is virtually no chance of that happening.
At the most basic level, the promises that Warren must make to win the nomination will make it more difficult for her to defeat Donald Trump. The more appealing her plans are in places like California, the less appealing they will be in critical midwestern states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.
But, even a candidate with extremely progressive views could win the White House if there’s a recession next year. That doesn’t mean that a progressive agenda will become reality. The core problem is that the views themselves are unpopular:
· Only 18% of voters share Warren’s enthusiasm for banning private health insurance companies.
· Only 26% think illegal immigrants should receive health care subsidies from the federal government.
· Fewer than one-in-five believe the threat of climate change makes it necessary to give the federal government sweeping new powers to control the economy.
The list could go on and on.
For the true believers, it will be difficult whenever the reality begins to sink in. Not surprisingly, the most committed supporters will become even more embittered about our political system.
We’ve seen this happen before during a very difficult time in our nation’s history. “A simple recipe for violence: promise a lot, deliver a little. Lead people to believe they will be much better off, but let there be no dramatic improvement.” The brilliant political scientist Aaron Wildavsky wrote these words in 1968 while America was engulfed in race riots and anti-war protests.
Sadly, Wildavsky’s words from half-a-century ago eerily describe the politics of 21st-century America. If Donald Trump wins re-election in 2020, 61% of voters nationwide think it is likely that progressive activists will respond with violence. On the other hand, 45% expect violence from right-wing activists if the president loses his bid for re-election.
While I am optimistic about America’s future, I fear that things will get worse before they get better. And a big part of the problem is candidates making extravagant promises whose only end result is the embitterment of those who believed them.