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Bernie Sanders 2016: a primer

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Bernie Sanders is challenging the Democratic Party to move to the left on economics, and hopes to start a "political revolution" that will rein in the power of the wealthy.

Bernie Sanders wants a "political revolution" challenging the power of the wealthy

Bernie Sanders believes the power of billionaires and corporations is the defining issue of our politics today — and he wants to stop what he sees as America's drift toward oligarchy by mobilizing a "political revolution" among the public. That's the driving force behind his presidential campaign and, indeed, the Vermont senator's four-decade political career.

A longtime independent and "democratic socialist" who's now running to be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, Sanders wants the party to move to the left on economic and domestic policy issues. He's argued that because recent Democratic leaders have been too centrist and too reliant on fundraising from business interests, the American public has lost faith that the party will fight for them. "Corporate influence makes the party more conservative, which raises doubts among people," he told me in September 2014.

In addition to supporting a complete overhaul of our current campaign finance system — which Sanders says has been completely broken by Citizens United v. FEC and other court rulings — his proposed agenda includes a single-payer health-care system, a carbon tax, and an increase in government spending on infrastructure, Social Security benefits, and college tuition. Meanwhile, he's highly skeptical of new trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and has called "unfettered free trade" a "disaster for the American people."

It's mostly on economic issues that Sanders really wants to push the Democratic Party. On foreign policy and social issues, he's a mainstream liberal — which has sometimes disappointed some further-left activists. And he's long preferred to focus on issues of economics rather than race, seeing the former as a better way to unite a broad coalition around his views. "The roots of many of these problems," he once said, are in "an economic system in which the rich controls, to a large degree, the political and economic life of the country."

Sanders himself admits that passing his sweeping reform agenda is vanishingly unlikely — unless he mobilizes the public to his side in a truly historic way. "If somebody like me, or me, became president, there is no chance in the world that anything significant could be accomplished without the active, unprecedented support of millions of people," he said last September.

So he wants to reach out to white voters, rural voters, and seniors, rather than focusing mainly on the usual Democratic constituencies. "I do not know how you can concede the white working class to the Republican Party, which is working overtime to destroy the working class in America," Sanders told me. "The idea that Democrats are losing among seniors when you have a major Republican effort to destroy Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is literally beyond my comprehension."

Elites believe that Sanders has practically no chance of winning, and he's far behind frontrunner Hillary Clinton in polling, fundraising, and endorsements. But already he has emerged as the main alternative to Clinton in the small Democratic field, regularly drawing impressive crowds, improving his poll position in New Hampshire and Iowa, and energizing activists on the left. Now he hopes he can defy the odds and pull off a historic upset.

Bernie Sanders is the best-known independent and "democratic socialist" in US politics

Bernie Sanders's career and candidacy are quite unusual because he didn't come up through the Democratic or Republican Party. Instead, he's long been an independent who calls himself a "democratic socialist."

Since the term "socialist" is generally considered an epithet in US politics, and since the two-party system is so powerful, no other prominent politician in recent decades has a similar background. But Sanders first made his name in local politics, and kept rising because he won the trust and loyalty of residents of the small state of Vermont.

His career seemed like it would go nowhere when he waged several unsuccessful bids for statewide office for the local Liberty Union Party in the 1970s. He eventually ditched the party and became an independent, and in 1981 he shockingly defeated the incumbent mayor of Vermont's largest city, Burlington. Headlines across the country proclaimed that a "socialist" was taking over.

Sanders faced initial resistance from the Burlington Democrats, but eventually proved himself a competent and pragmatic mayor, and won reelection three times. He became Vermont's sole US House of Representatives member in 1990, and has represented the state in Congress ever since (moving up to become a senator in 2007). Though remaining an independent, he's caucused with the Democratic Party all that time, and he told Vox that the party is "surely" far "better on all of the issues than the Republicans."

While he's long admired labor organizer and five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs for fighting on behalf of the working class, Sanders grounds his ideology today in the experience of Scandinavian nations. "Go to countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden," Sanders told Vox in July 2015. "When I talk about being a democratic socialist, those are the countries that I am looking at and those are the ideas that I think we can learn a lot from." He said that in those countries:

  • "Health care is a right of all people and their systems are far more cost-effective than ours."
  • "College education is virtually free."
  • "People retire with better benefits."
  • "Wages that people receive are often higher."
  • "Distribution of wealth and income is much fairer. "
  • "Their public education systems are generally stronger than ours."
  • "By and large, their governments tend to represent the needs of their middle class and working families rather than billionaires and campaign contributors."

"When I talk about being a democratic socialist," Sanders said, "those are the countries that I am looking at. And those are the ideas that I think we can learn a lot from."

Bernie Sanders wants the Democratic Party to be far more liberal on economic and domestic issues

Bernie Sanders has proposed a wide-ranging progressive agenda on economic and domestic policy, which he hopes will fight inequality and better help working-class and middle-class Americans.

The major issue on which Sanders embraces "full socialism" is health care, where he maintains his longtime support of moving to a single-payer health-care system. At an Iowa event last year, Sanders called Obamacare a "modest step forward." But he said much more work needed to be done on expanding coverage and reducing the costs of care: "We are the only major nation on Earth that does not guarantee health care to all people." The problem, he said, is that in the current system, "the goal is for the insurance companies and the drug companies to make as much money as possible."

Sanders also breaks from other Democrats in his willingness to support dramatic new spending programs. He says that instead of cutting Social Security, we should expand benefits. He's suggested that there should be no tuition for the first two years for any public college or university, saying, "We need a revolution in the way higher education is funded." And he's proposed spending $1 trillion on modernizing infrastructure, saying it would both put people to work and generate more economic activity. To pay for all this, Sanders has proposed hiking taxes on the wealthy and cutting defense spending by large amounts.

Other liberal proposals Sanders has backed include:

  • A hike in the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 to at least $10.10, and then higher
  • A carbon tax aimed at decreasing Americans' fossil fuel emissions
  • Public funding of election campaigns and a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision

The problem for many of these proposals, of course, is that Congress tends not to look kindly on big new liberal spending or regulatory programs — either because the taxes required to fund them are too high, because they don't want to increase the deficit too much, or because they prefer to increase the deficit in other ways. And this is especially true now that both chambers are under Republican leadership. So it's highly likely that the vast majority of Sanders's proposed agenda would go nowhere without a dramatically different Congress.

On trade and immigration, Bernie Sanders emphasizes protecting American jobs

Bernie Sanders differs somewhat from Democratic Party leaders on both trade and immigration, for similar reasons. On both topics, Sanders places a high priority on protecting jobs for Americans, and is suspicious of policies that he thinks will allow corporations to exploit cheap labor.

Trade is an issue on which the personal preferences of the president make a huge difference, regardless of who controls Congress. Since trade agreements are negotiated by the executive branch, a president can either choose to pursue new ones or put them on hold entirely.

It's also one of the issues on which Sanders differs most from his party's most recent presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who have pushed hard for trade agreements. "Unfettered free trade has been a disaster for the American people," Sanders told me last year. Sanders views the Democrats' support of trade deals like NAFTA as one of the key reasons they've lost support among the white working class: "It was pushed by corporate America with many Democrats including Bill Clinton and the Republicans working to support him." By contrast, he said, "I voted against all the trade agreements." He's also been harshly critical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and is making his opposition to it a key feature of his campaign.

Meanwhile, on immigration, Sanders has similarly emphasized the importance of protecting American jobs. He supports a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants here now, and voted for the Senate's 2013 immigration reform bill. However, he criticized the bill's expansion of guest worker programs, particularly those involving unskilled workers. "I'm very dubious about the need to bring foreign unskilled labor into this country," he said in 2013. "What I do not support is, under the guise of immigrant reform, a process pushed by large corporations which results in more unemployment and lower wages for American workers."

In a July 2015 interview with Vox, Sanders expressed scorn for "open border" proposals. "What right-wing people in this country would love is an open border policy," he said. "Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don't believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country." He argued that youth unemployment remains quite high, and asked, "You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?"

On foreign policy and social issues, Bernie Sanders is a mainstream Democrat

Bernie Sanders is a "democratic socialist" who wants a "political revolution" — but not on foreign affairs or social issues. On the latter two topics, he looks quite a lot like an ordinary liberal Democrat.

"Bernie is in many ways a 1930s radical as opposed to a 1960s radical," professor Garrison Nelson of the University of Vermont told me in 2014. "The 1930s radicals were all about unions, corporations — basically economic issues rather than cultural ones." Richard Sugarman, an old friend of Sanders's who worked closely with him during his early political career, concurred. "We spent much less time on social issues and much more time on economic issues," he told me. "Bernard always began with the question of, 'What is the economic fairness of the situation?'"

Sanders is a critic of most large-scale military interventions abroad, saying they are frequently expensive and counterproductive. He opposed the Iraq War, says Republicans are now "itching" for a war with Iran, and said he had "reservations" about Obama's intervention in Libya. However, he's not against military action in all cases, having backed Bill Clinton's airstrikes in Kosovo and the Afghanistan War in 2001. "He's generally skeptical of the use of force, but willing to endorse it in very narrow and limited cases where he thinks it could save lives or advance American interests," Vox's Zack Beauchamp wrote.

In contrast to some on the far left, Sanders has also tended to be sympathetic toward Israel's security concerns, though also critical of some of its policies and of Benjamin Netanyahu's government. "The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to end terrorism against Israel and recognize Israel's right to exist," Sanders said in a 2013 interview. "In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and infrastructure."

Meanwhile, he supports both abortion rights and gay rights, like most Democrats today — though he's been ahead of the party in the past. For instance, he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed by bipartisan majorities and signed by President Clinton, because he viewed it as discriminatory.

One blemish on Sanders's record, to some liberals, is on the topic of gun control, which is unpopular in his rural state. Sanders first won his seat in the House partly because the National Rifle Association had attacked his opponent, a mainstream Republican, for supporting an assault weapons ban. Once in office in 1991, he voted against a bill requiring a waiting period for a handgun purchase in 1991, calling it "symbolism." However, in 2013, Sanders voted for the Democrats' post-Newtown gun control bill, which expanded background checks and restored the assault weapons ban, saying there was "a growing consensus" that "we have got to do as much as we can to end the cold-blooded mass murders of innocent people."

Bernie Sanders has generally focused much more on economics than on racial issues

Bernie Sanders has long placed more emphasis on economic problems than racial problems. That makes sense for a politician who represents Vermont, the second-whitest and second-most-rural state in the nation. But this background has left him inexperienced in appealing to the black and Hispanic voters who make up crucial parts of the demographic coalition today.

As Vox's Dara Lind has written, Sanders didn't mention issues like police violence, mass incarceration, and unauthorized immigration in his announcement speech, and they're not on his campaign website's issues page. And there's already been some awkwardness and tension between Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists.

It's not that Sanders doesn't care about these issues — he did march for civil rights in the 1960s. But he's long believed that problems here had their roots in economics. Even back in college, as a student activist at the University of Chicago, Sanders became frustrated with fellow activists who were more interested in race or imperialism than in the class struggle. They couldn't see that everything they protested, he later said, was rooted in "an economic system in which the rich controls, to a large degree, the political and economic life of the country."

Now Sanders's strategy is focused on winning back the loyalty of white, elderly, and rural voters — traditionally Republican constituencies — for the Democratic Party. That's how he hopes to achieve his political revolution, and to pass progressive policies that have historically lacked support in Congress. And it's a strategy that seems to fit heavily white and rural Iowa and New Hampshire, the first caucus and primary states.

But to win the nomination, Sanders will have to extend his appeal beyond white male progressives. He'll have to make big gains among African-American, Latino, and women voters — demographics Clinton is currently leading overwhelmingly. To do so, he'll have to convince them that he cares about issues important to these groups (as well as that he's a more reliable ally than Clinton).

Team Sanders acknowledges this challenge. "We don't know yet who the Bernie Sanders voter is going to be," Sanders adviser Tad Devine told Vox's Jonathan Allen in June 2015. "I think Bernie has the potential to expand beyond white, working-class voters and liberal voters as he tells his story."

Bernie Sanders is considered unlikely to win the nomination

Bernie Sanders has emerged as the main alternative to Clinton in the small Democratic field, far outshining other contenders like Martin O'Malley and Jim Webb. He regularly draws impressive crowds, has energized activists on the left, and by September he was leading polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Still, it's extremely difficult to find anyone who isn't explicitly supporting him who thinks he can actually win the nomination. Hillary Clinton has raised far more money than him, and has won practically every endorsement from prominent Democratic politicians, which signals strong support for her in the party. Though she's looked weaker lately, she still appears to be the choice of the party as a whole.

Sanders's recent leads in Iowa and New Hampshire are certainly encouraging for his campaign, but those states have long looked promising for him. Predominantly white and rural, they resemble his home state of Vermont demographically — Sanders is used to appealing to voters like those.

But to duplicate Obama's upset, Sanders will need to appeal to the party as a whole, not just its white voters. "If black voters had voted like demographically similar nonblack voters in the 2008 primary, Mr. Obama would have been crushed," the Upshot's Nate Cohn wrote. "He would have probably lost by at least 20 points in the overall popular vote, winning primaries in only six states." So far, Sanders has been polling poorly among black voters. His team hopes to change that, and his candidacy may hinge on whether he can do so.

And Sanders will face another hurdle — questions about his appeal in a general election. If his poll performance remains strong, Clinton will surely make the case that he is too far left, and that swing voters will be turned off by the "socialist" label. Democrats whose hearts are with Sanders may come to fear that massive ad spending will tarnish Sanders as an extremist and lead to a landslide defeat for their party. Unless he can set those fears to rest, the full force of the Democratic Party will likely come down to try to stop his momentum.

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