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?