Bernie Sanders: The Pro-Science Candidate with Anti-Science Supporters

The weeks that I’ve had in between returning from Israel and heading to Malaysia have presented me with too much time on my hands, which has taken me down the rabbit hole of watching too much news. If I were in D.C., watching too much news would mean delving deeply into actually important agreements like the TPP, the budget deal, and the Paris climate talks. But I’m not in D.C., and so all anyone wants to talk about is the 2016 elections and debate whether Trump will win the nomination (he won’t), who “won” the Republican debate (idiocy), and how seriously we should take the latest NBC/WSJ poll (we shouldn’t). I know that learning valuable information about the election more than 10 months out is a Sisyphean task, but I’m an elections junkie at heart, with the excessive knowledge about the British, Scottish, Canadian, Israeli, and Malaysian political systems to prove it.

This time last year, I was thinking about getting involved on the campaign trail. My favorite Senator, Bernie Sanders, was dropping hints that he’d run for President, and I was going around my office half-joking that if Sanders ran as a Democrat, I’d move to Vermont and work on his campaign. We all know what happened since then: Bernie announced he’d run as a Democrat, cornered the market on white, college-educated liberals, and caused all of our uncles to smirk that “a socialist can’t be elected President of the United States.”

I had expected Bernie to do well, but I was surprised at just how well he’s doing. The half of me that wasn’t joking when talking about going to work on the campaign had this romantic vision of tromping around Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York, talking to people, and trying to eek out 20% of the vote. Ultimately, I chose not to work on the campaign, as I had started to like D.C. and I didn’t want to work those long campaign hours. And my Fulbright came through.

Even though I didn’t work on the campaign, I tried to help out where I could. On the day of his announcement, I lent my Facebook cover photo in support, I spent considerable time trying to convince my more establishment-minded friends that a vote for Bernie wouldn’t implode the Democratic Party, and I just went to a Bernie Sanders debate watch party. When I watch the debates, I’m reminded of why I first liked Bernie’s Facebook page, and why our country so desperately needs a Bernie Sanders. His policies are crafted not to appeal to voters and make cosmetic changes to our corrupt system, but instead to actually make our country better in the long term. Sometimes, he presents simple solutions to problems that have been made needlessly complex: single-payer health insurance to drastically cut costs and constrain the health care beast, and free public college to make a path to the middle class more affordable to millions more Americans. Other times, he avoids simple solutions to really complex issues: urging caution before the U.S. gets dragged down in the “quagmire inside a quagmire” of Syria. Still other times, Sanders is delightfully dismissive of people who dismiss facts: I think fondly of his comments after the Senate voted that “climate change is real and not a hoax.”

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The Sanders campaign announcement that both made me declare my support for the campaign, and start looking into how I could visit the beautiful state of Vermont.

 

Bernie’s trust in science and social science experts seems to be an essential quality to how he forms policy. It’s extremely telling (and refreshing, I might add) that he’s a rare legislator that keeps up-to-date with scholarly economic literature and is willing to engage in debates about which wealth and income statistics to use in measures of inequality. Sanders is the closest thing we’ve come to a professor’s candidate in a long time (besides, perhaps, the short-lived candidacy of Professor Larry Lessig this year), and I like that.

And yet, for as much as Bernie’s policies have been appealing, I’ve felt alienated by so many of his supporters. For me, the alienation stems partly from worries about privilege: for example, we’ve known about #FeeltheBern activists’ disdain for Black Lives Matter for quite some time. That’s been talked about a lot as of late. Yet a big part of my alienation stems from his supporters playing fast and loose with the truth. My Facebook feed now feels inundated with posts about how “the mainstream media is out to get Bernie.” There’s an obligatory “Why Bernie Sanders actually won the debate” post after every debate, myriad unwarranted comparisons to the 2008 Obama campaign, and assertions that the polls are all wrong. The leader of this horde appears to be H.A. Goodman, whose frequent pieces about the primaries on the Huffington Post make me wonder how someone who so thoroughly misunderstands politics could get published in so many halfway-credible news sources. In just one piece, Goodman manages to:

  1. Cherry-pick a small segment of one poll’s question about “trustworthiness,” which supposedly ensures that Clinton won’t win the nomination.
  2. Make a comparison to Obama’s 2008 campaign while ignoring the fact that Clinton’s 2016 campaign is doing much better than her 2008 campaign.
  3. Assert, without any evidence, that non-white voters will flock to the Bernie camp.
  4. Call attention to the fact that Bernie always wins the voluntary online polls on news websites. You know, the same voluntary online polls that have no value whatsoever.
  5. Peddle the wildly false claim that pollsters are undercounting young people because they don’t call cell phones.
  6. Cherry-pick the most favorable poll ever given to Sanders to imply that Sanders was only trailing Hillary by 7% in September (he averaged trailing Hillary by 15-20% that month).
  7. Assert that the popularity of one of his articles ensures that Sanders will win the presidency. According to Goodman, it got 700,000 likes, which is still less than 1% of the voters in this country.

All of these claims belong somewhere on Jon Stewart’s proverbial “Bullshit Mountain,” and they’re bullshit because they treat the fields of statistics and political science with contempt. Had Goodman paid attention in his statistics class, he would know that taking the aggregate of polls (or any judgments, for that matter) is WAY more accurate than cherry-picking one poll (Nate Silver didn’t correctly predict 99 of 100 states in the past two elections by only looking at NBC polls). And had he been paying attention to the polling community, they would see that just about all major pollsters include cell phones in their surveys, and that all polls are weighted to make sure that the under-35 demographic isn’t underrepresented. Granted, there are problems with cell phones and low response rates that the polling community has to deal with, but the notion that voluntary online polls or Facebook likes, are more accurate than empirically-derived, scientifically-verified polls is an insult to political science.

My question to H.A. Goodman and my fellow Bernie supporters is this: If we can stand together with climate scientists and ridicule the right-wingers who use snow to deny climate change, and we can stand together with economists to say again, and again, and again that the economy is not like a household—and I hope we can do all that—why can’t we stand together with political scientists to say that Bernie’s campaign has a long way to go? I believe in Bernie, but I don’t believe that political campaigns are romantic comedies that always work out in the end. Bernie himself seems to acknowledge these setbacks in his fascinating interviews with Killer Mike—his blunt reflections on why he lost so spectacularly in his first few elections are one of the reasons that make him such a special candidate. He gets political science, and he knows that he’s behind.

There’s no denying it: just as surely as inequality is rising and the climate is changing, Bernie is losing right now. The Republican, anti-science thing to do would be to stick our fingers in our ears, ignore the experts, and keep doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result. That seems to be the H.A. Goodman approach, but I don’t think that’s what Bernie really wants. The Sanders revolution and the vaunted uptick in voter turnout, which needs to happen if he has a shot at the presidency, isn’t going to come from wishful thinking and Facebook echo chambers. So let’s get back to talking about the issues, get back to making people mad about the Koch Brothers instead of the head of Quinnipiac polling, and actually do some outreach to communities that haven’t heard of Bernie yet. There’s a lot to talk about, and a lot to listen to.

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