Trump and Sanders

Political journalists have something in common with second-rate social scientists: they find symmetry even where it doesn’t exist.  For example, “left” and “right” are in some ways mirror images, but only in some ways: they also have important structural differences.

The most annoying current version of this tic is the tendency to lump together Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as two symmetrically extreme candidates. It’s hard to count all the different ways this is wrong.


I’m a big fan of Hillary Clinton (a big change for me from eight years ago), and not especially a fan of Sanders. In addition to thinking that his nomination would be a disaster for the Democratic Party – and perhaps even for the Republic if a Bloomberg third-party bid put Trump or Cruz into the White House as a result of an Electoral College deadlock and a one-vote-per-state election in the House of Representatives – I’m underwhelmed by his legislative accomplishments (slim), his managerial experience (even slimmer), his apparent inability to work with colleagues in the Senate, his demonstrated indifference to electing other progressives, his lack of party loyalty, and some rather slipshod policy proposals, for example on health care.

But he’s simply not the sort of narcissistic lunatic that Donald Trump is. As President, he’d have strengths and weaknesses, but he’d be sane and respectful of Constitutional norms. There’s simply no equivalent in the Sanders camp to Jerry Falwell Jr. or Sheriff Joe Arpaio. His political positions are more liberal than those of the average Democrat in Congress, but Congressional Democrats – unlike Congressional Republicans – aren’t an especially extreme group. His rhetoric about “political revolution” and “socialism” applies New Left labels to what is, after all, recognizably a New Deal platform. He wants to crack down on what FDR TR called “malefactors of great wealth,” including criminal prosecutions for corporate misdeeds, especially in the financial-services sector but also, for example, in the pharmaceutical industry.  He wants to reduce the economic importance of financial services. He wants to reduce the influence of money in politics. He wants single-payer health care, paid for out of progressive taxation rather than individual or employer premiums. He wants more expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. He wants to foster a revival of private-sector trade unionism.  And above all, he’d like to see aggressive moves to stem and reverse the growth of income inequality.

All of that might or might not be good politics, but it’s hardly extreme or unprecedented:  Harry Truman would have applauded every syllable.  I’m with him on unionism and money-in-politics (though I doubt his proposed solutions are radical enough to implement his announced goals, and strongly with him on the need to goose the economy.  My heart is with him on corporate misconduct, but I’m not confident either about how many convictions could be obtained or how much that would do to improve behavior. I doubt his single-payer health care plan could be made to work given the current institutional starting point and the power of health-care providers. On inequality I think he’s absolutely right, though I’m not clear on what he actually proposes to do about it.

The correct comparison to Sanders isn’t Trump, but Cruz: another fairly conventional if somewhat lone-wolfish politician drawn from his party’s more extreme flank, and willing to denounce all his his colleagues – of both parties – as corrupt sell-outs. But again, you don’t want to carry symmetry too far:  even “centrist” Republicans now hold lunatic-fringe views, being an on the right flank of the Republicans means being far more radical than beingon the left flank of the Democrats. Just take a look at Cruz’s astoundingly regressive tax plan, or what passes for his foreign policy, or of course his utterly insane views on climate change, which he hasn’t altered a bit even as the 2014 and 2015 temperature data shredded his favorite talking point.

There are important differences between Sanders and Clinton, but those differences are minor compared to their similarities. In the heat of a contested nomination campaign, both camps will be tempted to exaggerate those differences, and the press corps will happily help them do so. But that exaggeration is a temptation to be resisted.



Just to be clear, since (e.g.) Greg Djerejian thought this post “ungenerous” to Sanders by comparing him to Cruz: “comparable” is not the same as “alike.” Cruz is by some measures the most conservative member of either House of Congress, as Sanders is by some measures the most liberal. Both profess to despise the Congress and their colleagues in it as corrupt tools. But both are career electoral politicians rather than performance artists. That makes them alike, and makes Cruz, rather than Trump,  the correct comparison with Sanders. Having done that comparison, you can see the differences: the fringe Democrat is reasonably sane, while the fringe Republican holds positions (on, for example, global warming and the Middle East) that ought to make him certifiable.




Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Trump and Sanders”

  1. " As President, he’d have strengths and weaknesses, but he’d be sane and respectful of Constitutional norms."

    I'm not really sure what that signifies, coming from somebody who's a 'living' constitutionalist. He'll assert that the Constitution means whatever he finds convenient, but he'll respect that convenient meaning until he finds a different meaning convenient?

    As I noted in a post below, living constitutionalism is one of those sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander things. Once you decide it's legitimate to 'change' the Constitution without formal amendment, everybody gets to play the game, even Trump.

    I will agree that Sanders and Cruz are probably better mirror images, and better than you admit, because of course, those on my side think even centrist Democrats are lunatics. The situation, including our mutual opinions, is completely symmetric. It's not a matter of both sides agreeing that your side is sane, and my side nuts.

    1. Yes, Brett, our positions are entirely symmetric, if truth and falsehood are interchangeable.

      1. Mark, I think you're snark is misplaced. Brett didn't say your positions are symmetric; he said the situation, including opinions, is symmetric.

        There is, of course, that lingering problem of when opinions are admissible as a substitute for facts.

  2. Yeah, heh heh, I like your Truman comparison. Sanders is soooooo NOT a socialist. He's about midway between Eisenhower and Nixon. In the 1970s he would have been a run-of-the-mill Dem, like Birch Bayh or Mo Udall or Sargent Shriver, higher minimum wage, court the union vote, try not to kill too many poor foreigners with our bombs and guns, stop companies from polluting, curb the excesses of the military-industrial complex, and let's give our schools some textbooks and microscopes…..and all of this will require a sensible regulatory environment and taxing the people who can afford to pay more than those who can't. There's no revolution or socialism involved here. He's not talking about nationalizing Exxon and American Airlines and Verizon (which a genuine socialist would do in a heartbeat). He's a conventional 1970s Democrat, which just shows how far the mainstream punditry and the Koch Brothers have moved the Overton Window.

    But where I find your comparison to run up on the reef a bit is that Cruz and Trump invariably punch down, while Sanders generally punches up. He doesn't vilify women or the poor or immigrants or blacks or gays or Latinos, but rather billionaires. I'm not so sure about him either, but any mean-spiritedness he harbors doesn't seem to be directed toward our least fortunate brethren.

  3. After watching the town hall last week, I realized I am okay with any of the 3 Dems. O'Malley's mannerisms annoy me a bit, he's a bit too "likable"… but it sounds like he's learned from his alleged errors of judgment in Baltimore law enforcement policy, and in any case, there was no whiff of sulfur. Frankly, we are lucky. I am not sure we voters deserve 3 good candidates. But I'll for sure take any one of them. (I like Sanders best of course. And, none of them will get *anything* done anyway, so I'm not too worried which one it is.)

    Bloomberg is too smart and careful to pull a Nader. Again… luck we may not deserve.

    1. "Bloomberg is too smart and careful to pull a Nader. Again… luck we may not deserve."

      That assumes tht his goal is not to help his party – the GOP – win the Presidency.

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