Throughout the 2016 presidential primary season, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, battled for the Democratic nomination. His strategy was to create a rhetorical wedge between himself and frontrunner Hillary Clinton by positioning himself as a left-wing standard bearer to her perceived corporate centrism.
The plan worked, but it did so through painting an inaccurate picture.
This self-described democratic socialist was borrowing language from a political theory he wasn't actually espousing to discredit his opponents. Democratic socialism is, in the broadest possible sense, a political theory that embraces state-ownership of the means of production alongside a democratic political structure. This is not Sanders' stated position at all, nor has it ever appeared to be.
Sanders barked about an alleged “revolution” of democratic socialism for PR purposes but actually offered a lip-service-left version of what the Democratic Party was already supporting. He's never been interested in actual democratic socialism so much as claiming it for himself to foment an unearned sense of moral superiority over Democrats.
This would seem a minor offense were it not for the fact that Sanders used this positioning as a polemic device to batter the party whose name and ideas he was actually embracing while all of America watched a dangerous demagogue eat the Republican Party and march into the White House. That Sanders won't take responsibility for how his team handled Russia's support of his own candidacy to destroy Clinton further illustrates the problem of his self-interest.
“Medicare-for-all,” stronger banking regulation, free college and higher taxation on the wealthy aren’t radical democratic socialist ideas that challenge the structures of capitalism. They’re boilerplate offerings familiar to any social Democrat. Sanders’ attempts at painting the Democratic Party as an entity to the right of his ideological purism fall apart upon inspection. Lobbyists know it too.
Let’s use guns as an example. Sanders voted against the Brady Bill in 1993 to expand federal background checks. Even when the 2016 primaries rolled around, Sanders hadn’t managed to get an actual failing grade from the NRA. Clinton, along with numerous of Sanders’ colleagues, got real “F” ratings. The senator is too concerned with courting constituents who consider shooting animals a sport to offer a full-throated progressive position on guns.
Sanders may shout about “millionaires and billionaires,” but he starts stumbling over the answers when challenged on his gun record. That's because he refused to take the strongest possible stance on guns when it wasn’t politically expedient, just like the politicians he was blasting. It doesn't make him an awful person, just a hypocrite based on his attacks against other pragmatic politicians.
We could say the same on Sanders' war record. He attacked Democrats for supporting Bush’s war, despite having a record of repeated pro-war votes.
Sanders is a shrewd rhetorician who used on-paper outsider status from the Democratic Party to convince voters he was offering something new and honest. But it was the same old game with a new coat of paint and even less rhetorical honesty than the existing establishment was offering. Americans who want populist fire without the leadership skills to back it up needn't look any further than the current occupant of the White House.
The Democratic Party is filled with strong candidates, including early 2020 frontrunners, like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who take meaningful stands for progressive values and are to the left of Sanders. Politicians like Sanders who believe the best way to garner support is through dishonest attacks on their own team can't expect to earn the trust needed to successfully head a party.
Progressives would do well to turn their attention to the rising voices of genuine change in the Democratic Party, especially the voices of women and people of color. Sanders may have started a conversation, but his baggage makes him the wrong person to lead it into the future.