Jason Horowitz’s has an article in today’s NYTs about Senator Bernie Sanders, entitled ‘Over Decades, Sanders Has Stayed on Message’. Staying on message is generally perceived to be a virtue in political campaigns, but somehow, in this election; Senator Sanders is frequently criticized for sticking to his message for too long, and across too many issues. Consistency has become a liability, to his critics, as if conservatives would be criticized for being too consistent about the risks of big government.
From my perspective, the virtue of the Sander’s message is that it emanates from, clarifies, and extends one big idea. He has a really big idea about the unfair and highly skewed distribution of wealth in the top one percent and this problem infects politics and issues across the board, most notably around campaign financing and influence. Our progressive tax system has failed to deal with the very top rung. Yes, he has spoken about this idea for decades, but it has been only in recent years, in the aftermath of economic problems, particularly the housing crisis, international trade issues, and failures of American foreign policy that his message has begun to reach, and resonate with, a growing number of American voters.
A colleague once complimented me (yes, this doesn’t happen often), who said a book of mine was anchored in one idea. He went on to explain that he thought a book either had one idea, or none. Maybe this was faint praise, but I have thought about this often and I think it not only applies to books, but also to our presidential primary campaigns.
In my opinion, Bernie Sanders does have one big idea – one that enables him to address many different issue areas in a coherent and consistent way. Most other candidates have strategies, such as following the party’s mainstream, or keeping a finger in the wind of their primary constituencies, to ensure that they have the right position on each issue, nuanced for the moment. However articulate, and however informed, on the legislative and administrative histories of these issues, most candidates reflect a proverbial ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy on an issue-by-issue basis. They have focus groups, polls, and advisors on many issues, leading to many positions across the issues, not all that consistent. This is because they don’t have a big idea. For example, adhering to one of the major parties or administrations, whether President Obama’s or President Reagan’s, is not a big idea, since these histories are so packed with examples and counter-examples across the issues.
Horowitz was convincing in saying that this consistency is one explanation for the greater authenticity and trust attributed to Sanders, quoting Tad Devine, a Sander’s strategist, who defended sticking to the same message (I would say ‘idea’), by noting that this enhanced his credibility, “precisely because his speeches never seemed cooked up for the occasion”. Yes indeed, but I would add that it also reflects the fact that his messages are anchored in a big idea, and that is truly revolutionary at this time in American politics.