Is Bernie Sanders a Leftist or a Moderate?

It depends on the spectrum that voters use to assess his candidacy.

Bernie Sanders
Darren Ornitz / Reuters

When The New York Times’ popular podcast The Daily broadcast an episode about the field of Democratic presidential candidates, the political reporter Alex Burns described a “full spectrum” of contenders “running from sort of quasi-Marxist to avowedly moderate,” with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont situated on its left flank.

In his telling, the debate about whether Democrats need to move to the left or to the center is “almost entirely about the economy,” while “when it comes to matters of identity and different social-justice issues,” there’s little disagreement. For example, there’s near-consensus on gay marriage, abortion rights, and gun control. “When it comes to stuff like health care and taxation and financial regulation, that’s when you start to see the differences really open up,” Burns said. “That right now is where the Democratic debate is going to focus.”

That’s an entirely defensible analysis. And voters long accustomed to a political spectrum oriented around economic ideology might agree that Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist,” is the left-most candidate in the race.

There are, however, other possibilities. One could analyze U.S. politics in a way that positions Sanders as a relative moderate. As Damon Linker put it:

Sanders is that rarest of things in contemporary progressive politics: a candidate for the presidency who doesn’t think in terms of multicultural identity politics. Of course he strongly supports civil rights for women, people of color, the LGBT community, and every other group in the Democratic electoral coalition. But he aims for the left to be more than a conglomeration of intersectional grievance groups clamoring for recognition.

Roughly 54 percent of Democrats told Gallup that they want their party to be more moderate. How many of them would prefer the more inclusive, universalist approach to culture-war issues that Sanders tends to offer, even though he’s further left on marginal tax rates and government-run health care?

Now consider a third framework for analyzing U.S. politics: a spectrum that runs from “most establishment” on one end to “most anti-establishment” on the other. For some Democrats, it will seem obvious that Sanders inhabits the latter pole, back on the left flank of the Democratic field, where he is seeking to rein in billionaires, corporations, and a hawkish military-industrial complex, via a mass movement funded by small donations from a big donor pool. Some of his supporters perceive him as the only credible reformist outsider.

But other Democrats more prone to judging individuals based on their immutable traits see Sanders as yet another old, straight, cisgender white man seeking an office held by similarly privileged sorts for most of U.S. history.

That renders him more “establishment” in their view than a black woman like Kamala Harris, who represents progress in terms of diversity and representation, even if she substantively exacerbated the injustices that the carceral state inflicts on the wrongly accused, arguably harming people at the bottom of socioeconomic and racial hierarchies more than any other candidate.

In sum, one cannot draw any easy conclusions about how Democrats will understand Sanders’s candidacy—or assess his chances of beating President Donald Trump—merely by knowing whether they want a more centrist or leftist party.

While I’m an independent, not a Democrat, I don’t know where I personally stand on Sanders. Perhaps my uncertainty can further illuminate relevant complications.

I value Sanders’s opposition to corporate rent-seeking, his anti-war credentials, and his universalist approach to our wonderfully diverse democracy, while I dislike the ideological socialism that caused a younger, hopefully more naive Sanders to praise murderous regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua and to spin Sandinista bread lines as a sign of economic health, as Michael Moynihan documents. (“Vermont could set an example to the rest of the nation similar to the type of example Nicaragua is setting for the rest of Latin America,” Sanders once declared.)

The most indefensible of his bygone comments didn’t stop me from preferring an older, hopefully wiser Sanders to Hillary Clinton in 2016—the least defensible parts of her record included support for catastrophic wars in Iraq and Libya. While the next president will be unnervingly free to start wars of choice abroad without securing the lawfully required permission from Congress, he or she has no chance of imposing anything close to “democratic socialism.”

Still, I want to see Sanders grapple with the occasions when he has prioritized his commitment to socialism above his commitment to civil liberties. And I want him pressed on what Kmele Foster smartly flagged as the most interesting line in the speech when he announced his 2020 candidacy: “We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world,” Sanders declared in order to highlight the unacceptability of U.S. failures to provide for the least well-off.

I, too, find some of the failures that Sanders mentioned to be unacceptable and favor remedying them, but I wonder what Sanders would say if pressed to explain how it is that the United States, the most capitalist nation in the history of the world, wound up becoming “the wealthiest nation in the history of the world” over the course of decades when socialism was a much-maligned taboo here.

How would Sanders conserve the generation of the wealth he is eager to spend? What would he choose, as a sitting president of the United States, if confronted with a tradeoff that would make the country significantly less wealthy, whether for our generation or his great-grandchildren, but much more equal?

Will Wilkinson writes:

The empirical record is quite clear about the general form of national political economy that produces the happiest, healthiest, wealthiest, freest and longest lives. There’s no pithy name for it, so we’ll have to settle for “liberal-democratic welfare-state capitalism.” There’s a “social democratic” version, which is what you get in countries like Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. And there’s a “neoliberal” (usually English-speaking) version, which is what you get in countries like Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

You may prefer one version over the other, but they’re not all that different. And in comparative terms, they’re all insanely great. The typical citizen of these countries is as well-off as human beings have ever been. These places are the historical pinnacle of policy success.

Does Sanders agree?

Of course, my questions for Sanders differ significantly from what many Democratic primary voters and progressive journalists will most want to ask him. It will be intriguing to see how Sanders winds up being seen by different Democrats and whether their perspectives lead to a primary-season victory or defeat.