Bernie the hedgehog

Let me be clear.  I like Bernie Sanders.  I think he’s doing a great job bringing important issues to the fore of national and Democratic politics.  I think he is a thoughtful and passionate advocate for these issues.  I’m therefore glad he is campaigning for president.  That said, I truly do not believe he would make a very good president (nonetheless, I still think he would be far better than of the Republicans who currently seem capable of capturing the nomination).

Among other reasons, I think that he really does have an overly-simplistic view of politics.  He is, in short, a hedgehog.  Political Psychologist Phil Tetlock has done a lot of great work looking at expert prediction as a matter of being a hedgehog or a fox– here’s a nice summary:

It’s a matter of judgement style, first expressed by the ancient Greek warrior poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” The idea was later expanded by essayist Isaiah Berlin. In Tetlock’s interpretation, Hedgehogs have one grand theory (Marxist, Libertarian, whatever) which they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, and expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand are skeptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events.

The aggregate success rate of Foxes is significantly greater, Tetlock found, especially in short-term forecasts. And Hedgehogs routinely fare worse than Foxes, especially in long-term forecasts. They even fare worse than normal attention-paying dilletantes — apparently blinded by their extensive expertise and beautiful theory. Furthermore, Foxes win not only in the accuracy of their predictions but also the accuracy of the likelihood they assign to their predictions— in this they are closer to the admirable discipline of weather forecasters.

The Atlantic’s David Graham clearly sees Sanders in the Hedgehog vein and Hillary as the fox.  Graham:

Sanders knows that what the country needs—the only thing it needs—is a political and economic revolution. Clinton knows the country needs progressive policies on a range of matters and a pragmatic, realistic strategy to implement them…

That divide was clear from their opening statements, with Sanders immediately jumping to his familiar mantra about a rigged economy and a corrupt campaign-finance scheme. Clinton’s answer was not so laser focused, discussing a general need for the nation to “live up to our values in the 21st century,” and checking off not just the economy, but racism, sexism, and more. This split is not new, of course, but with Martin O’Malley off the stage and out of the race, and the Democratic contest tighter than ever, the division has never been so clear. It led to an unusually interesting debate, with the two candidates frequently addressing each other directly and delving into detail.

At times, it was clear why Sanders’s hedgehog approach has been so popular with many Democrats—the ones who nearly delivered him an upset win in the Iowa caucuses, and the ones in New Hampshire who favor him by some 20 points in polls. That was especially true as they squabbled over who is a true progressive and as Clinton tried to defend her highly remunerative speeches to Goldman Sachs. But at other times, it seemed more like a limitation. Quizzed on foreign policy, Sanders seemed at sea about events overseas.

Yes, there’s some advantages to being a hedgehog– and Graham points them out.  But it’s pretty clear you want a president that’s a fox.  And say what you will, there’s no way that Sanders is a fox.   (And for what it’s worth, James Fallows, as astute a political observer as there is, endorses Graham’s characterization).

And while we’re at it, there’s honestly few people in my experience who get how government really works as well as Norm Ornstein (Ornstein is a Political Science PhD who has somehow kept affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute while being a centrist and remarkably straight-shooter on the problems with the modern GOP).  Anyway, Ornstein is quite skeptical of Sanders’ potential to be an effective president:

Let’s say Sanders is accurate enough that his nomination would lead to his election via a bump in turnout from young voters and other populists disgusted by inequality, the billionaire class privilege and the distorted campaign-money system. Let’s say that he survives the billion dollars that might be spent by the Koch brothers’ alliance, the business community, the Republican candidate, and the Republican Party to destroy him as an unreconstructed socialist who will raise everybody’s taxes…

The odds that a Sanders victory would lead to a Democratic House or a majority of more than one in the Senate are very slim…

Republicans, no doubt, would have the same approach they had when Obama first got elected in a sweeping party victory, voting as a united parliamentary minority against every presidential initiative…

So all of Sanders’s initiatives would start as non-starters. [all emphases mine] Here, his theory of election and governance comes into play. He would go to the public, a public disgusted with Washington and its corrupt ties to the billionaire class and to business, and force members of Congress to their knees, shifting the debate and the agenda his way…

One of the enduring themes of our democracy is that inscribed in the Capitol, a quote from Alexander Hamilton: “Here, sir, the people govern.” But the notion that public opinion governs the agenda or the actions of Congress is, at best, a stretch. Going over the heads of Congress has long been a staple of frustrated presidents, and it has almost never worked; see Bill Clinton on health care and George W. Bush on Social Security among other recent examples. And these days, with most congressional districts resembling homogeneous echo chambers, created by a combination of people sorting themselves geographically and the distortions of redistricting, national public opinion has limited bearing on congressional leaders…

Sanders as president would be left with two main options: reduce his goals to aim for more incremental progress, or adopt a defensive approach to keep Obama’s policies from being rolled back—exactly what he has condemned in Hillary Clinton’s approach to governance. And while Sanders has been a more effective lawmaker than Cruz (or Rubio, for that matter, as demonstrated by Rick Santorum’s embarrassing failure on Morning Joe to find one accomplishment for his endorsee) there is little evidence that he has or could build the kinds of relationships with other members of Congress, or find ways to move the now humongous boulder up the hill (or Hill) of a thoroughly dysfunctional governing process. And, of course, he would face the deep disappointment of the activists he has inspired…

Could Clinton do better? Yes. First, she has an entirely realistic understanding of where American politics are, something she would carry into the White House on the first day. Progress can be made, on health delivery, financial regulation, the tax system, energy and infrastructure, but it will be a series of incremental steps, a tenth or a quarter of a loaf at a time. Second, in her time in the Senate she showed an impressive ability to build relationships with her Republican colleagues; many of them privately praise her even as they will do their duty and condemn her through the campaign. And she knows enough about the executive branch to use its tools effectively early on to protect the Obama legacy and extend it a bit further…

No candidate now running will transform the system in 2016. But some candidates would have an easier time governing through the dysfunction. Ron Brownstein and others have noted that facing that reality could seriously hamper Hillary Clinton in her outreach to voters demanding inspiration, not perspiration. That could well be true. But it also reflects her realistic understanding of the limits of American politics in this unfortunate day and age.

Is Hillary, a great leader, inspiring, lacking personal baggage, etc.?  God no.  Does she represent a politician who is 1) more likely to win a general election than Bernie? and 2) a Democrat who is actually more likely to accomplish policy goals liberals would prefer?  I would say the balance of the evidence very strongly points to yes on both.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

8 Responses to Bernie the hedgehog

  1. ohwilleke says:

    Not sure that I agree. You want the President’s advisors to be foxes, for foxes are more accurate in their predictions. But, accuracy in predicting the future is not the primary job qualification of a President. There is a reason that people selecting leaders and assigning popularity favor hedgehogs. It may be more effective in providing vision and leadership.

    • Steve Greene says:

      I would say that accuracy in correctly anticipating what happens in the future would be enormously important to being a good president. Almost any decision a president makes he is doing it based on his predictions of what he thinks the future will be like.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    The fox vs the hedgehog – that is exactly the reason why George Washington was elected the first President of the United States. He wan’t one of the visionaries who conceived of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution but he was the proven practical leader who other leaders thought could tackle the task of forming the first government and dealing with the threats to that government, some expected and some not.

  3. itchy says:

    I call false dichotomy, even though both candidates are pushing the same line of thinking in order to differentiate themselves.

    I’m not convinced that (a) Bernie wouldn’t do what is necessary to push through reasonably significant changes or (b) Hillary wouldn’t push for progressiveness where she could achieve it.

  4. Mika says:


    something that might interest you. Do statistical models beat intuition of experts when predicting about English Premier League? If I say that Tetlock is mentioned in the article it might give some clue about the right answer 🙂

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