The media falsely paints Warren and Sanders as the 'radical Left' — and skews U.S. politics to favor the right wing
With Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) showing up in the #2 spot in countless polls on the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, one often hears that the Democratic Party has taken a “far-left” turn. But in Europe, Sanders and Warren — or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — are often described in very different terms: they are typically described as “liberals” or “progressives” but not “leftists” or “the far left.” It’s an important distinction: to Swedish, Norwegian or Danish politicians or journalists, Sanders and AOC simply sound like the average liberals who serve in their parliaments.
And the more the 2018 and 2020 elections are discussed in the U.S., the more obvious it becomes that America’s overall political discourse still skews to the right.
Liberalism, arguably, dominated the political conservation in the U.S. after World War II. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, considered himself pro-New Deal — and even President Richard Nixon, considered an arch-conservative in his day, applauded universal health care and programs like Social Security and Medicare. But a turning point came in 1980, when President Ronald Reagan defeated Democratic President Jimmy Carter by a landslide. Conservative talking points achieved much greater prominence in the Reagan era, and when President Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, he went out of his way to avoid sounding too liberal and promoted himself as GOP-light. Having lost every presidential election in the 1980s, many Democrats assumed that liberalism had grown unpopular in the U.S. and that being centrist was the way to go.
The U.S. hasn’t had a genuinely liberal Democratic president since Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s; author Noam Chomsky, with some irony, has described Nixon as the United States’ last liberal president. But if either Sanders or Warren were to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and defeat President Donald Trump in the general election, it would signal a widespread appetite for liberal/progressive policies — although not “far-left” policies by European standards. In Europe, parties that are considered “leftist” rather than “liberal” include Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain; Sanders and Warren aren’t “leftists” by those standards.
Yet in the U.S. media, Sanders and Warren are often painted as severe leftists. It isn’t surprising that right-wing media outlets like Fox News, Townhall and Breitbart would view them that way, but even in the mainstream media, they are sometimes described as “far left.”
Axios’ Jim VandeHei, for example, reports in an article published on Wednesday that “Democrats are increasingly taking far-left positions most would not have dreamed of — or dared — taking three short years ago.” And he cites “erasing student debt” and “Medicare for all” as some of those positions. VandeHei is an excellent and well-respected reporter, and he is correct that liberalism is enjoying a resurgence in parts of the Democratic Party. But his use of the term “far-left” illustrates how much right-wing ideas have been influencing the overall political conservation in the U.S. for so long. The language of Fox News, RedState, the National Review and Townhall finds its way to mainstream journalism as well as Democratic debates.
During the latest round of Democratic presidential debates in Miami in late July, former Colorado John Hickenlooper and former Rep. John Delaney were among the centrists who jumped through hoops to demonstrate that they weren’t socialists. Centrist Democrats, since the Reagan era, have been debating on Republican terms — and when Hickenlooper and Delaney felt the need to prove that they weren’t socialists, they were, in essence, following conservative guidelines for the debate.
In May, far-right talk radio host Ben Shapiro made himself look ridiculous when, during a heated interview with Andrew Neil for the BBC, he angrily described Neil as a “leftist” — despite the fact that Neil is quite conservative and can be a blistering critic of Labour Party politicians. Shapiro was brutally mocked for it in the U.K., and the fact that Shapiro considers the conservative BBC host a “leftist” shows how ridiculous political conversations can become when a right-wing American media figure is involved.
Far-right talk radio Michael Savage, similarly, described President Barack Obama as a “bald-faced Marxist” despite the presence of Goldman Sachs alumni and Wall Street Insiders in Obama’s administration.
But wingnuts like Shapiro and Savage aren’t the only ones to take a broad view of what is and isn’t a “leftist.” Even a well-respected mainstream journalist like VandeHei will use the phrase “far-left” to describe the positions of Sanders and Warren, showing just how prominent conservative ideas continue to be in the United States’ political conservations in 2019.