Why it matters that Bernie Sanders is not actually a Democrat

Obviously, Bernie Sanders is running for the nomination of the Democratic Party and he has been working and voting closely with Democrats in Congress for years.  But that doesn’t make him a Democrat.  And that matters.  Paul Starr in the Atlantic:

Sanders and his supporters see the party support for Clinton as evidence that “the establishment” is against him. But there are two other interpretations. What party leaders necessarily care about is winning the next election. They look at the electability of the presidential candidate as it affects the electoral prospects of candidates at all levels, including their own. The endorsement primary is a symptom of deep anxiety about what Sanders would do to the entire party’s fortunes in November…

Sanders has left a long trail of denunciations of the Democratic Party. He began on the revolutionary left; in 1980, he served as an elector for the Socialist Workers’ Party, founded by Leon Trotsky and committed to nationalizing major industries. In 1989 he said the Democrats and Republicans were “in reality, one party—the party of the ruling class.” That year he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times describing the two parties as “tweedle-dee” and “tweedle-dum” since both subscribed to what he called an “ideology of greed and vulgarity.” As the Republican Party has moved to the right, Sanders has said the Democrats are better, but he has refused to run as a Democrat and continued to insist—as late as the 2012 election—that he is not a Democrat because the party fails to support the interests of workers…

Though he refers to “Wall Street” and “big corporations” in his current campaign rather than to “the ruling class,” his attacks on Democrats are basically the same as before. They’re just focused on Clinton now. But what he says about her he could just as easily say about most Democrats running for Congress or in the states—and they surely know it…

To people on the left who have long attacked both parties, Sanders’s disdain for Democrats may not be a problem. But it would be a remarkable and difficult situation for any party to go into an election with a presidential nominee so at odds with its other candidates.  [emphases mine]

And Michael Tomasky:

A party’s nominee, to these people, needs to lead the party—he or she needs to be the country’s No. 1 Democrat. Sanders has never been a Democrat, which is fine, it’s served him well. But even as he made the decision to seek the presidency as a Democrat, he doesn’t seem to have made any effort to act like he cares about the party he wants to lead…

Now, my argument is not that endorsements matter that much. Rather, the important part is the likely consequence of this lack of support. Say it’s late spring, and somehow or another, Sanders is charging toward the nomination. He’ll pick up some more Democratic endorsers, in safe liberal districts in states that he won. But here’s what’s going to happen. Every one of those roughly 3,200 elected officials is going to conduct a poll of his or her district to ascertain whether association with Sanders helps or hurts. It’s my guess that for a lot of them—and I would say the substantial majority of them—the answer is going to be “hurts.”

And even if that’s not the case, these legislators will sound out, as they inevitably do, their top donors, and their districts’ major employers. How many Sanders enthusiasts are going to be found among those two groups? These legislators will keep their distance from Sanders. They won’t do the things that party people normally do for their nominee—go out and make speeches, share voter information, give tips about the district that only they know, and so on…

Having never been a Democrat, and having even not given them any of his money in this past year, Sanders just isn’t going to get much help from Democrats…

And now, here’s where my first and second reasons relate to each other. If a nominee has strong backing from his party, when those attacks come, the other folks will have his back. If he doesn’t, they won’t. Mind you it is not my intent here to scold Sanders, even though many readers will take it that way. My intent is just to describe what I think would be the reality. When the right started savaging Sanders over foreign policy (and over socialism too, of course), the bulk of the support systems that are usually there for a candidate under attack won’t be…

As I’ve written before, current general election head-to-head polling is meaningless, since conservatives haven’t yet spent a dollar attacking him. If he’s the nominee, they’re going to spend at least five hundred million of them doing that. And some Democrats, more likely a lot of Democrats, are going to run away from him. I can’t see how that ends well.

Yeah, all that.  Everything else aside, it really would be preposterous for a major political party to choose as it’s nominee somebody who has spent a lifetime in politics assiduously refusing to openly identify with that party.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

8 Responses to Why it matters that Bernie Sanders is not actually a Democrat

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Gorbachov was famously quoted as saying that American elections only pretended to be adversarial but the choice was really between Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. There’s still some truth in that but at this point in time, there are a lot of differences in views on social issues and on what direction in governing we should take both between and within the two parties.

    I believe that primaries are distorted by open primaries. When Republicans and independents can vote in a Democratic primary, how can the results be considered the will of the Democrats in that district? It was when primaries were opened in many states that the number of independents grew. These are people with no money in the game. They feel above the fray and that they bear no responsibility in reforming a party when necessary.
    Open primaries are a slap in the face to those who have the courage to declare themselves and to take some responsibility for party ideas and actions and getting out the vote.
    It used to be that the political parties themselves brokered their fringes and brought them toward a party’s middle. Now it seems we leave that job to the independents, a hugely growing group.
    Not good for the parties and not good for the voters who deserve a clear choice of ideas and policies.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Actually, I’ve been doing some research on this, and it’s actually not nearly so clear cut. Don’t forget, most “independents” actually have strong partisan inclinations.

      • Jon K says:

        Yep I really found it interesting how many ‘independents’ vote straight party line tickets. Some people are independent because (like my Mother who is a pastor) your political party affiliation is public information and is published and accessible on the internet.

        My mom actually had a church member look her up and let her know that they thought she was a good pastor even if she was a Republican. She became an independent very quickly after that.

      • Mika says:

        Also my “research” (a master’s thesis 🙂 ) supports this view, I find this


        blog entry by John Sides very useful.

        Once upon a time I did little something with 2008 and 2012 presidential elections exit polls. The idea was to find out what would have happened if the independents had stayed at home. Would the results change in states and nationally? If I recall correctly in a two or three states the result would have changed but definitely not nationally.

      • John F. says:

        That’s definitely true and it’s also true that it many states the unaffiliateds often outnumber the registered party voters so I suspect party primary rules will be changing in states to allow more voters into closed primaries.

        I think the change towards more unaffiliateds says a lot about the state of the parties and their ability to connect with voters. They’re going to need to adapt or they’ll lose their relevance some of which we’re already seeing with the creation of OFA, the Tea Party, the rise of Trump and the Sanders campaign. They’re already far less relevant than they once were.

      • Jon K says:

        Yes and it’s stupid campaign finance reform that we have to thank for that.

  2. John F. says:

    So what? He’s evolved, and evolution hasn’t seemed to be an issue when it concerns Hillary. Not that he’ll need them when he wins the nomination but Democrats will have no other choice but to support him because doing so will tap into the energy their going to need up and down the ticket to recover from the recent past’s arguably historical loss in seats when there was a solid Democrat at the top of the ticket. And they should support him as they’ll all be much better off for it.

    Agree or disagree, it makes no difference. Democrats largely bailed on Obama despite him being a solid Democrat and they got their butts handed to them. I chalk it up to what Haidt’s work has found with many on the left, their in-group loyalty is generally lacking relative to those on the right. (That, and money, are the reasons why, Jon K, a corporate robot like Romney even had a chance against Obama.)

    Hopefully, when Sanders is nominated the Democrats faculties for reason and self preservation interests overcome their lacking in the loyalty department. Something about hanging together or hanging separately…

    • Jon K says:

      Just keep drinking your magic kool-aid. I am positive that you will continue to see things as you would prefer them rather than they are.

      It’s easy to write off those you don’t like with calling them corporate robots. It isn’t accurate, or how close to half the country feels, but you apparently think everyone who has any intelligence is a progressive. Of course anyone who is skeptical of the progressive agenda has to be retarded right? They can’t actually disagree with you.

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