Fast-Forward … To 1800


I like Bernie Sanders. A lot.

I will even go one step farther: contra much rhetoric you hear these days, the good news is that Bernie Sanders is electable. Unfortunately, the bad news is also that Bernie Sanders is electable. That is, bad for him as well as bad for the Nation. (More on the former consequence later; let’s deal with the latter for now.) If the more enthusiastic Sanders supporters could only look past the good-news aspect of the Sanders candidacy – that is, that he is electable – and see that deliriously audacious possibility in full context, they would realize that the bad-news aspect of his electability is also true. Unfortunately, Sanders supporters are – I know of no exceptions to the following – so intoxicated with the good news of his sheer electability that they stop there and fail to consider the bad. A President is not just elected to just be something. A President is also elected to do something. That “something” is governing. And, under prevailing conditions, a President Sanders could be elected, but a President Sanders almost certainly could not govern. Why? Because of a perfect-storm combination of two factors: (1) the Congress of the United States, and (2) the Republican Party. If you think the legislative constipation of the Obama years was bad, you would in retrospect wax positively rhapsodic about it when -- through no fault whatsoever of President Sanders -- you saw a mere case of constipation degenerate into a severely impacted bowel. With no prospective Ex-Lax on the horizon.


Why the pessimistic prognosis for a Sanders Presidency? Consider the election of 1800. In terms of the Presidency, only three candidates mattered: the incumbent President John Adams, Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr. At the end of the voting, there was an electoral-vote tie between Messrs. Jefferson and Burr. (For reasons too complex to even summarize, Mr. Adams was eliminated immediately.) Breaking the tie between Jefferson and Burr required 36 – that’s not a typo: thirty-six -- ballots in the House of Representatives, per the Constitution under Article II, section 1, clause 3. (The 12th Amendment would have been highly relevant, but would not be ratified until 1804.) Even then, Jefferson was elected President on the 36th ballot only because Rep. James Bayard -- an unsung American hero -- Delaware’s sole representative in the House, and a staunch Federalist, abstained, thereby breaking the tie and enabling the arch-anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson to be chosen as President. (If you want to read an in-depth account of the harrowing election of 1800, nothing better has been written than Bruce Ackerman's The Failure of the Founding Fathers.) But even more important, a virtual tsunami of Jeffersonian sentiment swept the Nation, repudiated Federalism, and purged both Houses of Congress, virtually root and branch, of many vestiges of Federalist influence. (Federalists did not disappear immediately: their influence would be significant even into the War of 1812, but 1800 was the beginning of the end.) The entire character and guiding philosophy of government radically changed with breathtaking rapidity, as such changes go. The most persistent residue of Federalist ideology remained in the Federal courts, specifically the Supreme Court – which was considerably chastened by the election, by the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, and by the subsequent near-impeachment of Justice Samuel Chase in 1805. (Chief Justice John Marshall was a rock-ribbed Federalist who had a relationship of mutual revulsion with President Jefferson, but Marshall also had an unerring sense of which battles to fight and which to leave alone.) Because of the universal scope and dramatic nature of the change, the election of 1800 has accurately been described as the Second American Revolution.


So much for history ... my point? Simply this: in order for a President Sanders to have the capacity to govern, a change as radical, rapid, and thoroughgoing as the fabled election of 1800 would have to sweep the Nation at the Federal level – and reach as deeply as possible into the lower echelons of the Federalist system. (NOTE:  "Federalism" in this context refers to the three-tiered structure of the American government -- national, state, and local -- not the political ideology of Federalism. Critical distinction!) Nothing less would suffice to prevent hyper-gridlock. In order for a Sanders Presidency to avoid being an exercise in frustration, the election of 2016 would have to amount to a Third American Revolution. (A fair case can be made that the War of 1812 was the Third American Revolution ... but ... you say "to-may-to", I say "to-mah-to".) Congress would have to change hands as thoroughly in 2016 as it changed in 1800. How possible is such a comprehensive change? Well, judge for yourself by looking at the following red-State / blue-State map (or better still, look at the map at the head of this column):


In order for the Third American Revolution to be possible -- and therefore in order for President Sanders to be able to govern -- the proportions of red and blue would essentially have to be reversed. I exaggerate, of course, but only mildly. Federalist and Jeffersonian did not literally reverse in 1800 -- even post-1800, there was still a non-negligible representation of Federalists in both Houses of Congress -- nor should we expect such 216 years later. Furthermore, any left-of-center Democrat would have a problem with conservative Republicans, but Sanders would have an especially difficult time of it, because conservative Republicans would react to Sanders' self-described ideology of "democratic socialist" in much the same way someone would react to waking up  naked in an Ebola Zaire ward. Republicans would be at least as hostile to the (perceived) ideological "reddening" of the Presidency as they are to the physical "browning" of the Nation. (Think  "Pat Buchanan" here.) Rather than get bogged down trying to quantify the change in terms of, e.g., numbers of House seats, in qualitative terms, most of the red would have to become blue, and a good part of the remaining red would have to become purple.  If you nevertheless insist on quantifying the degree of requisite change, suffice to say that blue would have to predominate to an extent sufficient to impose cloture on any conservative Republican filibuster attempting to block, say, a restoration of Glass-Steagall or a version of Dodd-Frank on steroids or a break-up of mega-banks. Or a return to Eisenhower-era levels of taxation on the upper few percent.  Or the taxation of income from assets presently salted away in various overseas tax havens. Or revising rules so that FISA-court proceedings, which presently rubber-stamp approval for drone strikes on American citizens, would be adversarial.  I think you get the picture ...

"And how likely is that?" you ask. Another version of that question should render the answer almost obvious:  "How difficult is it at present to unseat an incumbent member of the House or Senate?" -- especially a member who has been elected for two or three terms, and who has at least middling seniority on at least a few influential committees and subcommittees. This would have been a significant difficulty in 1800 -- the early 19th century had its own equivalents of K Street and back-scratching -- but it was easier then, if only because the Union was expanding with new States, and consequently new congressional districts, far faster than now.  So the "churning coefficient" was much greater. The moral climate of the Nation was also different, if only because the Second Great Awakening of the 1790s and very early 1800s had made the culture less tolerant of moral turpitude, when such was discovered. (Also less tolerant generally, but remember:  we are talking well over 200  years ago.) Such considerations put an even sharper edge, if that is possible, on the whole issue of renouncing gerrymandering and rationalizing / de-politicizing the drawing of the boundaries of congressional districts -- so much so that I would make bold to assert that no Third American Revolution will be possible until such has occurred. And no President Sanders will be able to govern until then.  Elected, yes. Govern, no.

Oscar Wilde

And frankly, if I were Mr. Sanders, I would recognize this and not even want the damn job until that day had come.  Why? Because of another, more personal, reason. Progressives and people on the left, especially  those who are motivated by religious principles and impulses, have a nasty habit of acting like a pack of feral pit bulls whenever their hero du jour disappoints them. I even wrote a column about this 'way back in early November of 2014, using the critique of President Obama by Cornel West -- who recently described himself on Real Time as a "revolutionary Christian" -- as being, not by any means unique, but on the contrary as typical to the point of by now being iconic. (To be sure, I did balance off West's view with its more reality-centric counterpart by Paul Krugman.) I broach this subject because I confidently predict that, should Bernie Sanders be elected President, he will, under present conditions, not be able to govern and so will suffer the same fate at the hands of his erstwhile supporters as Barack Obama:  those whose enthusiasm is so seemingly boundless now will, upon the occasion of President Sanders' first failure, invoke the scorched-earth moral paradigm of James 2:10 (KJV): For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all -- and deem a Sanders Administration a failed experiment tout court. God forgives failure. Good leftist / progressive Christians ... not so much. This is why I said at the beginning of this column that a Sanders Presidency would be a personal misfortune for him, as well.

So call me a cynic, if you will.  I will not argue the point, other than to say that, in the long run, I am optimistic enough to believe that someday ... someday ... the US will have grown up enough, matured enough for a future President Sanders to be elected, to enter into what should be the normal give-and-take and compromise of politics, and so to govern.  But for now, I think Oscar Wilde was right:  In life there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what you want, the other is getting it.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton:  Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA

Oscar Wilde:  Public domain

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