How Bernie Sanders is like Ronald Reagan: The hedgehog, the fox, and the 2016 election


Here’s how Bernie Sanders is the only truly contemporary politician in the Democratic field: He’s a hedgehog, and the current political climate – not just in America, but globally – favors hedgehogs.

The terms “hedgehog” and “fox” were popularized in 1953 by the scholar Isaiah Berlin, although the credit for the coinage goes to Archilochus, the ancient Greek poet: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.”

The most successful hedgehog in recent American political history was undoubtedly Ronald Reagan. Reagan cared little for the details of policy implementation: instead, he embodied large, resonant ideas about reducing the size of the government while fighting the Evil Empire.

Barack Obama, by contrast, is the ultimate fox. He came into office with great ambition but precious little ideology: He wanted to get things done, and brought in highly regarded experts who would not only get things done but get the best things done, in the best possible way. Like all leaders, he met with mixed success. But pragmatism was baked into the Obama White House from Day 1, which made it much easier for “no drama Obama” to deal with the ebbs and flows of political reality. He just kept on urging his government to achieve the most that it could tomorrow, given the realities on the ground today.

This matter-of-fact approach to government was a welcome breath of fresh air in the immediate wake of eight years of Bush-Cheney. The Bush administration didn’t want to react to realities on the ground; it wanted to create them. Which it did—with disastrous effect, especially in Iraq. If Barack Obama is a fox, then George W. Bush was a hedgehog.

That’s why the 2008 election was such a big deal: It represented both of the main ways in which the electorate changes the presidency. There was not only a switch of parties, but a switch between hedgehog and fox. The last time that happened was in 1980, when the Democratic fox Jimmy Carter was replaced by the Republican hedgehog Ronald Reagan. (It also happened in 2000, when George W. Bush replaced Bill Clinton, but the electorate didn’t realize that it was voting for a hedgehog: Most people, in both parties, assumed that Bush would take after his father, and be more of a fox.)

And right now, the mood has swung unambiguously toward hedgehogs. It happened in the Republican Party a while back, with the rise of the Tea Party. It is happening in Europe, with the increasing popularity of ideological parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party in Britain. It is even visible in the broad popular support enjoyed by Vladimir Putin, in Russia. The one place it hasn’t happened is in the Democratic Party, where even populist leftists like Elizabeth Warren have deeply pragmatic and technocratic tendencies.

One way of looking at the millions of people who have come out in support of Sanders, then, is simply to say that Democrats, just like Republicans, like hedgehogs. And while there’s no shortage of hedgehogs for Republicans to choose from—Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and many more—there’s really only one hedgehog for Democrats to rally behind, and that’s Sanders.

When I interviewed Sanders last week, the idea was for us to put politics to one side and wonk out a bit on the subject of economic policy. But policy wonkery is what foxes do, not hedgehogs, which explains why the interview got, well, a bit prickly at times. The hedgehog knows one important thing, which is that billionaires and large corporations have too much money and too much power, and that the people, at the ballot box, need to reclaim that power. The hedgehog doesn’t want to go into detail about implementation logistics.

As a result, Sanders evinced no interest in talking about policy at a granular level. Does he believe in taking from the rich and giving to the poor? Does he support a wealth tax? Does he support reparations? Who might he want as his treasury secretary? Does he support giving Walmart a banking license? Why did he vote for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000? What is the “currency manipulation fee” that he wants to impose on China? Is the dollar too strong? All were met with some variation on his well-rehearsed talking points.

That’s partly because presidential candidates these days, Trump excepted, tend to operate in permanent Gaffe Avoidance Mode when talking to the press. But there were a couple of flashes of Genuine Bernie in there: his defense of postal banking, for instance, was heartfelt and eloquent. So I suspect that Sanders’ refusal to get dragged down into policy details is not just a question of being On Message; it’s also part of who he is, and what he stands for. You wouldn’t expect a complex answer on currency manipulation from Ronald Reagan, and neither should you expect one from Bernie Sanders.

Personally, I tend to prefer foxes to hedgehogs: it makes me very happy, for instance, when I see Barack Obama effortlessly pulling off sophisticated and nuanced econo-wonkery on the subject of, say, bank nationalization.

I do understand that hedgehogs have their uses, especially when it comes to rallying national support around far-reaching policy choices. But when I look at Sanders complaining about the degree of bank consolidation in the United States, for instance, I think that he’s doubly wrong. Not only is the banking industry here much less consolidated than in most other countries, but his proposed solution to the problem, which is forcing the banks to spin off their investment-banking arms, wouldn’t actually address the issue. He’s worried that most credit cards are issued by half a dozen different institutions? That wouldn’t change!

In the eyes of a hedgehog like Sanders, however, it’s not about credit cards, it’s about power and money. So long as big banks have lots of both, Sanders is going to attack them. And similarly, even if banking the poor makes sense when the post office does it, Sanders is unlikely to support the same thing if doing so will help entrench Walmart and the Walton family. He knows one big thing, which is that the 0.1% have amassed far too much of the power and money in America, and that it’s time for the 99% to wrest it back. Everything else—every facet of his economic policy, pretty much—is essentially a way of trying to restate that premise.

Sanders is not going to win the Democratic nomination: That will go, instead, to Hillary Clinton, a fox with no discernible ideology at all. It’s even possible that the Republicans, too, will end up nominating a fox: They did that last time, with Mitt Romney, and they have foxes to choose from this year as well, like Jeb Bush. But the current American mood is inclined to put the White House back in the hands of a hedgehog. And if that hedgehog isn’t Bernie Sanders, it’s going to be a Republican.

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