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Bernie Sanders Will Never Get the Revolution He Wants
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Bernie Sanders Will Never Get the Revolution He Wants

Also, is California a stronghold of traditional family values?

I think three things at the same time. First, no one should discount Bernie’s chance to win the Democratic nomination, or the presidency. Second, even if Bernie wins, he won’t get his revolution. And third, we should still be concerned about Bernie’s potential effect on the country. In other news,, a new study highlights an interesting fact about progressive California. Is it the family values state? Today’s French Press:

  1. The real Bernie Sanders problem.

  1. Blue California: radical politics, traditional values.

The polarizing rage of a frustrated revolutionary.

When I speak to concerned voters about 2020, I tend to get one of two responses from Bernie’s opponents. Republicans say, “He’ll make America socialist.” Democrats say, “He can’t beat Trump.” I think they’re both wrong. 

Let’s take the Democratic objection first. Look, I know we’re not supposed to believe polls anymore, but to the extent polls matter, Bernie performs consistently pretty well against Trump. He did in 2016, and he does now. The RCP average has him up three points on Trump as of today. Moreover, he does better than anyone except Joe Biden in the all-important battleground polls. And after Trump, shouldn’t we be done with “he can never win” punditry? Sanders draws some of the same working-class voters that gave Trump the presidency in 2016.

As for the Republican objection, be not afraid. A President Sanders will not bring us Medicare for All, free college, or any of his bank-breaking, nation-changing socialist reforms. He’ll try, to be sure, but he simply can’t do it unless the Democrats win a truly historic victory, top-to-bottom, in 2020. He doesn’t just need to prevail in a presidential election, he needs for Republicans to be truly routed in the Senate. Otherwise, he simply has no plan for Mitch McConnell. Pay close attention to his response to the New York Times editorial board when they asked for his plan to deal with Cocaine Mitch:

That’s a really ambitious agenda. What of that legislation do you think could pass a Mitch McConnell Senate? 

I think, and thank you for asking that, I need a minute on this one, O.K.? Because I want to just convey to you that I look at the world maybe a little differently than you do, and I say that in due respect. When I talk about a political revolution, it means being an administration unprecedented, certainly in the modern history of this country, maybe going back to F.D.R Maybe even beyond F.D.R. So to me, what my administration is about is not sitting with Mitch in the Oval Office or wherever it is, negotiating something. It is rallying the American people around an agenda that they already support. All right? This is, I think, what makes me a little bit different than other candidates, and that is not only will I be commander in chief, I will be organizer in chief. 

And I think the agenda that we have brought out in almost every respect is supported by the American people. So one of my first stops, by the way, will be in Kentucky, a state that is struggling very hard. One of the poorest. I love the people in Kentucky. I’ve been there and we, you know, and I will be back …

First, I love the use of “with all due respect.” Second, let me translate that wall of text. Sanders is saying, “I got nothing.” He cannot “organize” his way through senators who were elected in large part to block the Democratic agenda. 

A visit to Kentucky won’t change the election results for Mitch McConnell or Rand Paul. Absent an Obama-scale victory, he can’t even promise the relatively modest Obama-scale results. Even if the Democrats win a slight Senate majority, don’t think for a minute that vulnerable Democrats from purple states would either discard the legislative filibuster or ram through the largest and most consequential government expansion in the nations’ history on a bare majority vote. 

That’s not to say that a Sanders win would be inconsequential from a policy perspective. There’s a lot of room between “ineffective” and “socialist.” He’d expand the regulatory state. He’d nominate progressive judges. He’d likely cut the defense budget. He’d probably have a less interventionist and more isolationist foreign policy than Trump. All of those things matter. None of those things represent socialism.

But here’s my real concern—modern American elections are more likely to present a polarization problem than a policy problem. We’re too deeply divided—and our system contains too many checks and balances—for any given president to enact fundamentally transformative legislation absent overwhelming majority support. Barack Obama swept into office in the biggest landslide in a generation, and eight years later key provisions of his single signal legislative achievement have been repealed or gutted.

As we approach the end of Trump’s first term, what’s his prime legislative accomplishment? A conventional (and temporary) Republican tax cut. 

And so we continue the familiar pattern of overpromising and underdelivering. Why does this matter? For the simple reason that we are teaching a generation of polarized, angry activists that politics does not work. They’re being raised to believe that the system is fundamentally broken. They cannot vote their way into the policies they prefer. 

In fact, in key ways it’s working exactly as intended—to prevent an immense, diverse nation from being lurched from divisive extreme to divisive extreme. But if you’re electing a revolutionary, and revolution under the current system is impossible, frustration builds. Republicans experienced this with the Tea Party “revolution” of the Obama years. Candidates across the nation stoked angry ferment with extravagant promises, and then—when they failed to deliver the impossible—a decisive number of Republican primary voters turned to the most disruptive candidate of all to finally “drain the swamp.”

The swamp remains undrained.

If Sanders wins the presidency, it will be hard to overstate the exuberance of the Very Online Left. And make no mistake, they’d have reason to celebrate. Elevating a once-obscure socialist from Vermont to the most powerful office in the world would be a signal achievement. The revolution, however, will quickly run into a brick wall. Bernie’s promises won’t be kept. But will they blame Bernie for promising what he can’t deliver? 

No, it will be the evil Republicans’ fault. They’ll be thwarting the “will of the people.” They’ll be cast not as individuals who won their own elections and who represent the interests of their own constituents, but rather as enemies of justice. And while policy will remain relatively stable, polarization will continue to build. An extremely divided America cannot enact its competing, increasingly divergent policy goals. A Bernie win would exacerbate those divisions. I truly hope the Democrats do not choose that path. 

Wait. Is California the traditional values state? 

Ever since Charles Murray’s indispensable book Coming Apart, we’ve known about an interesting phenomenon—America’s progressive, college-educated communities as a rule live quite conservative, traditional lives. In spite of a high degree of public tolerance for the changing values of the sexual revolution, in their own families they tend to complete their educations, get married, have children, and stay married. Their daily reality is far less “drag queen story hour” and far more Leave It to Beaver.

How entrenched is this reality? Very. Earlier today my friends at the Institute for Family Studies released a fascinating study showing that California is in some key ways more traditional than the average American state:

It is striking, then, that this Institute for Family Studies (IFS) report finds that California—despite being a global force for cultural liberalism—actually has a higher share of stable, married families than the nation as a whole. About 67% of California parents are in intact marriages, compared to 63% of American parents, according to an IFS analysis of the Census data. Likewise, 65% of children ages 0-17 in California reside with their married, biological parents, compared to 62% of children in the United States. In other words, family life in the Golden State is more stable than in the country as a whole.

This remains true even in the culturally progressive strongholds of San Francisco and Hollywood. I found this section of the report fascinating:

In Southern California, three neighborhoods with single parenthood rates of essentially 0% can be found in the heart of Hollywood. Take a trip through Whitley Heights Historic District, below the Hollywood Sign, and nestled among the lavish former residences of Francis X. Bushman and Judy Garland, you will find residents who voted for Clinton by a rate of about 86% in 2016. You will also find virtually no single parents in this Hollywood Hills neighborhood.

What’s going on? California’s college-educated families are just as traditional as college-educated families nationwide, but California has far more immigrants than the average American state, and California’s immigrant population—led by its Asian immigrants—embraces more “familistic” values than its native-born citizens. Education plus immigration means that “California values” are family values at a scale that its cultural products would not suggest. 

It’s fair to ask why these culturally traditionalist political progressives do not more loudly preach what they practice. One can certainly be tolerant of dissenting lifestyles while advocating for the enduring value of one’s own choices. As an engine of childhood development, economic advancement, and personal happiness (or, more importantly, virtuous purpose), marriage simply works. It is not judgmental or intolerant to evangelize a lifestyle that is so obviously rich with personal, cultural, and spiritual rewards. 

Conservatives, on their part, often look at places like Hollywood as strange and alien. And indeed, the ideas espoused by its inhabitants are often diametrically opposed to the thoughts and ideas expressed in, say, churchgoing Franklin, Tennessee. The daily rhythms of life, by contrast, are often nearly identical. 

Not long ago, I was invited to a progressive gathering on the West Coast. I was the sole conservative on a panel speaking about masculinity. In the middle of the event, a progressive friend of mine made an interesting observation. “Really,” he said, “this whole conference is quite conservative.” Given that he said this while noon yoga was in progress in the courtyard, I was a bit surprised. “Think about it,” he continued, “Every single person here is married. They’re totally obsessed with their kids. No one is hooking up. Nothing wild is happening. By 10 o’clock the bar is empty. These are the most traditional people you’ll ever meet.”

He was right. As the conference ended, you saw the attendees playing with their kids in the pool. The lobby bar emptied out by 9. A month later I was speaking in a Baptist conference in Dallas, and we stayed out later than my secular progressive friends. (Though give a Baptist pastor a Diet Coke and a theological conversation about Calvinism, and he can go to 10:30, or possibly even 11 p.m., easily.) 

What are the takeaways? American ideas are far from homogenous. The American educated class’s lifestyles are remarkably similar. May we unite in becoming evangelists for the keys to our familial success. And to the extent that we wish to maintain the traditional American family, it turns out that immigrants may well play a key role. 

One last thing … 

You knew it had to be LSU football. Last night the SEC reasserted its natural dominance, LSU made its case that it’s the greatest college football team of this generation. And Joe Burrow? He had arguably the greatest college football season of all time. Geaux Tigers!

Photograph of Bernie Sanders in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in December by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.