Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Speaks with reporters on the United States Capitol on September 30 about the short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s a very basic fact: people tend to be in favor of getting things for free. Ask most people, “Do you want a stylish new Mercedes?” And they will probably answer “Yes”. But ask them to pay a premium price and demand will drop dramatically.

Senator Bernie Sanders is very upset that the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” package is blocked. “Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for $ 3.5 trillion legislation for better reconstruction,” Sanders said Friday, “and the need to cut prescription drug costs, expand insurance -sickness to cover dental, hearing and vision care… “and so on.

But as Charlie Cooke wrote in National Review, the statement refutes. In the next paragraph, says Sanders, “the polls also show that despite President Biden bringing this proposal forward five months ago, a majority of Americans have very little knowledge of the contents of this bill.” . Sanders adds, “It’s hard to ask people to trust their government when they have little understanding of what their government is trying to do. “

As Cooke rightly notes, it is strange to simultaneously claim that a bill is extremely popular. and that a majority of Americans have no idea what it contains.

For this problem, Sanders blames the mainstream media for failing to educate the public. “The foundations of American democracy are threatened not only by extremism, but by ignorance and lack of knowledge,” he exclaims.

I’m all for dispelling ignorance, but Sanders perpetuates a myth that also undermines democracy – in particular, that massive social welfare states are very popular with American voters.

In 2016, Vox polled Bernie Sanders’ proposals for nationalized healthcare and free tuition. They didn’t poll the public; they surveyed Bernie Sanders own supporters. As expected, respondents were in favor of single-payer health care. But when asked if they would be willing to personally pay more for it, support plummeted. Two-thirds said the maximum they would be willing to pay in additional taxes for “free” health care was $ 1,000 per year, or about $ 83 per month. This number includes the 8% of Sanders supporters who said they would not be willing to pay. anything for universal health care.

The cheap socialists are not the story here. Americans in general don’t want to pay much for what progressives constantly say America demands.

A Washington Post poll in 2019 found that 68% of Americans were in favor of taxing “rich families” to pay for the fight against climate change. But when asked if they would agree to pay an additional $ 2 per month on their electric bills, support fell to less than 47%. That same year, an AP-NORC poll asked people if they would be willing to spend an extra $ 10 a month on their energy bills to fight climate change. Some 68% of respondents said no.

This is where the truly dangerous ignorance begins. For years, voters have been told that greedy, rich societies are an untapped renewable resource that can pay for anything and everything. It’s wrong. you could confiscate all of the wealth of the richest 1% and that would not cover the bill, for example, for the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may turn heads as she scribbles “tax the rich” on her prom dresses, but the truth is, we’re doing it already – at a remarkably progressive rate.

I do not believe Biden’s promise that his $ 3.5 trillion package won’t cost everyone, earning less than $ 400,000 a year for a single dime. But let’s pretend it’s true. In the market, popularity is determined by what people are willing to pay out of pocket. However, in progressive politics – and in most mainstream media – popularity is determined by what people are willing to have. others pay for.

Even if the rich could pay for everything, democracy does not get richer when voters believe that a very small class of people are avid obstacles to economic salvation.

When populist politicians say it would be easy to bring that salvation but they don’t, voters feel betrayed and politicians are blaming sinister and corrupt forces (the “1%”, individuals, evil corporations) or supposedly outdated obstacles to progress such as systematic obstruction or even the Constitution itself.

This feeling of betrayal is not conducive to sound politics. This leads to “extreme” demagogues promising to deliver what they claim the corrupt establishment could not.


This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.