With the Iowa caucus fast approaching, it’s a great time to review some of the standard arguments against Bernie Sanders that we’ll hear repeated ad nauseam from here on out. First, the worst: “Bernie isn’t a real Democrat.” It’s something that’s technically true in a a sense—he has always self-identified as an independent—but it’s also entirely irrelevant and not at all substantive.
Questioning Sanders Democratic bonafides is a form of lazy gatekeeping that completely sidesteps a real conversation about policy or the meaningful differences between the left and the center. It’s a convenient way to avoid having to define terms or stake out a firm position as to where you stand on the political spectrum.
Why get into the weeds about the relative merits of the public option versus Medicare for All? All you have to do is point out that Bernie doesn’t truly represent some nebulous “values of the Democratic Party.”
Often this line has zero to do with Sanders’ faithfulness to the party’s core positions. It’s just a way of smearing him as some kind of parasite mooching off the party but giving nothing back in return.
However, if a “real Democrat” is one who who helps maintain the party infrastructure, then Sanders is about as real as it gets. Hardly a free rider, Sanders has raised millions for progressive Democrats over the the past few decades.
In 2016, he used his massive donor list to help centrist Senate candidates get elected. Even though he personally disagreed with them politically, he knew that securing a majority in Congress would be crucial to passing any progressive agenda. Imagine that: A politician who puts differences aside to get things done.
Aside from an institutional connection to the party and a “D” by one’s name, what else does being a “real Democrat” mean? Another definition would be a consistent advocate of the ideas that the party represents. Since historically the party’s identity has been a moving target, it’s hard to say whether Sanders is a “real Democrat” in that regard. Are we talking about the party of Roosevelt, Johnson or Obama?
According to Politifact, Sanders has historically voted with the party 95 percent of the time, whereas the average for “real Democrats” is 80 percent. A wedge issue in the culture war, abortion rights is a decent litmus test for “real Democrats.” Joe Biden, whose party credentials no one disputes, spent most of his political career breaking ranks and voting with Republicans on matters related to choice. Sanders, on the other hand, has a perfect NARAL score.
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There was, of course, one notable time that Sanders voted against the party: when it authorized Bush’s illegal Iraq War. History ultimately proved him correct and the “real Democrats” wrong.
Sanders may not represent the Democratic Party as it is, but he offers a vision for what it could and should be. When unions were at their peak, the Democrats had an institutional incentive to advance the agenda of the working class. But with the post-Reagan decline of organized labor, the party has abandoned workers in favor of a donor elite that’s willing to back progressive causes insofar as they do not conflict with their fundamental class interests.
To be a “real Democrat” is to be beholden to the donor class. In that regard, Bernie is not one. If by Democrat, you mean a politician who constantly capitulates to the right in the name of “bipartisanship,” Bernie is not a “real Democrat.”
A “real Democrat” makes the “hard choice” to “balance the budget” even if that means destroying the social safety net or “reforming” welfare by turning it into a system of indentured servitude, as “real Democrat” Bill Clinton did in the 1990s.
Bernie Sanders advocates a robust welfare state and a strong labor movement, which are both strongly associated with the Democratic Party despite the fact that it has fallen woefully short in these areas in the 21st century. Mainstream Democrats view Sanders as an existential threat because he exposes these failures.
In the past, they could tolerate Sanders-like figures who were “real Democrats” such as Dennis Kucinich or Howard Dean, who would rally the progressive base, take a few points in the primaries, then corral their supporters to vote for the nominee in the general, but the party can’t abide an independent force with a genuine ability to change the status quo.
At the end of the day, nitpicking about Sanders’ party affiliation or lack thereof is a useless exercise that hardly matters in terms of whether he is a good candidate for president. In all likelihood, being unaligned is a boon for him since independent voters outnumber registered Democrats 42 percent to 30 percent, according to the latest survey by Gallup.
What people like most about Sanders is his authenticity. No one cares about whether he’s a “real Democrat.” They just want someone who is real.