Bernie Sanders isn’t extreme

I’ve touched on this point a couple of times, but in light of this positively bonkers editorial from the Washington Post I think it deserves a full hearing: Bernie Sanders isn’t extreme.

In the editorial, the Post argues that Sanders is so extreme that he comes full circle to the point at which he is actually kinda conservative. Calling his easily-verifiable claim that economic inequality is at historic levels “hyperbolic,” it then argues that Sanders’s broad-based social programs — debt-free college, paid family leave, etc. — aren’t actually progressive because they don’t exclude people who are reasonably well-off. How can Sanders be a progressive, they ask, if a single dollar of additional government spending is used to benefit someone who isn’t already destitute?

In their frame, Sanders cares so much about spending $18 TRILLION dollars (yes, they cited the Wall Street Journal’s widely-discredited accounting of the policies he’s endorsed) that he doesn’t care where the money goes. To them, Sanders is the worst kind of extreme — extreme for the sake of extremity.

This, along with the rest of the claims made both by journalists and politicians across the political spectrum that Sanders resides two standard deviations away from our ideological norm, is bunk. Sanders’s positions may place him in the left wing of the Democratic Party, but that left wing of the Democratic Party is less extreme than nearly the entire field of Republican presidential candidates while being squarely in line with public opinion. There are three big reasons why:

Voting record

Measuring ideology using someone’s voting record is difficult to pin down in one number, as a representative can be more liberal on domestic issues than they are on foreign policy issues than they are on social issues, and so forth. However, that doesn’t mean that ideology can’t be approximated. Using the DW-Nominate scoring system, political scientists approximate representatives’ ideologies by comparing members’ voting records to each other, rank-ordering them by their propensity to vote for liberal or conservative bills. A representative with a DW-Nominate score of 1.0 is then considered to be perfectly conservative; -1.0 would be perfectly liberal.

As measured by DW-Nominate, Bernie Sanders’s -.523 rating didn’t even make him the most liberal Senator during the last session. He was the third-most liberal, with Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin registering as more reliably to the left.

But Warren, Baldwin and Sanders pale in comparison to the level of extremism seen on the right. Six Republican Senators were farther to the right than Warren was to the left, and fourteen were more ideologically extreme than Sanders. Mike Lee, the most conservative Senator, had a nearly-perfect conservative DW-Nominate score of .986. Sanders’s closest analogs on the right were John Cornyn (.517) and David Vitter (.505).

As I’ve written before, no one feels obligated to describe David Vitter as “extreme” unless they finish the thought with “-ly into women who are not his wife.” He doesn’t make an especially big name for himself by being especially conservative because he has so many colleagues who are far, far to his right.

But DW-Nominate is, admittedly, an approximation. So if for election watchers who don’t like political science metrics and would instead favor something more familiar, one could take a look at the two years in which Sanders and Hillary Clinton overlapped in the Senate to see how often they voted the same way.

By that metric, there isn’t a lot of space between Sander and Hillary “I Plead Guilty to Being a Moderate” Clinton. They voted the same way 93 percent of the time — about the same rate at which Clinton voted with mainstream Democrats Ron Wyden and Barbara Mikulski. And in the 31 instances in which they disagreed, many were on repeat votes — six of the 31 divergent votes were on cloture for the same immigration bill. Among the other disagreements:

  • Sanders voted against the bank bailout; Clinton voted for it
  • Sanders voted against the 2008 Defense Budget bill; Clinton voted for it
  • Sanders voted to allow Guantanamo detainees to be moved to American prisons; Clinton voted against
  • Sanders voted against estate tax exemptions, Clinton voted for them

All this is to say that Sanders was to the left of Clinton during their two years together in the Senate, but not by much. Going off of voting record alone, it simply isn’t fair to say that Sanders is too far removed from the core positions of the Democratic Party.


Of course, the biggest problem with looking at voting records is that they only measure policies that come up for a vote, a factor over which Sanders has no control. This being the case, it’s also useful to look at what Sanders would do if Congress didn’t exist — what America looks like at his greatest aspiration — and see how they square with public opinion.

And wouldn’t you know it? America’s buying what Sanders is selling. As I wrote last week:

When you ask voters how they feel about socialism, they bristle, but when you ask them about the policies that social democrats like Sanders advocate, they love them. From polling conducted by the Progressive Change Institute:

  • 77% of likely 2016 voters support universal Pre-K
  • 71% support letting people buy into Medicare, and 51% support “Medicare-for-all” single payer health insurance
  • 71% support a large-scale ($400 billion/year) infrastructure program
  • 70% support a “Green New Deal,” entailing a massive investment in green energy jobs
  • 59% support the establishment of a basic income
  • 59% support raising the top marginal tax rate to 50% (the rate during Reagan’s presidency), and 54% support the creation of a new tax bracket for millionaires and billionaires.
  • 55% support a financial transactions tax

You can check out PCI’s full results and methodology here.

Those numbers aren’t from Democratic primary voters; they’re from likely voters in the 2016 election. Since we already know that likely voters are less economically liberal than unlikely voters and non-voting citizens, it’s safe to say that the public at large would register similar or higher levels of approval for these policies.

Even in the context of this right-shifted sample, planks on Sanders’s platform are supported by majorities of the likely electorate. Other ideas Sanders has endorsed, such as making Election Day a national holiday and banning for-profit prisons, have plurality support.

inequality-page25_actualdistribwithlegend-thumb-454x189-35192Specific policies aside, Americans also agree with Sanders’s core economic message that the distribution of American income is too unequal. Way too unequal. If the American people had their way, our income distribution would likely be flatter than even Sanders hopes to achieve (see the graphic on the right).

At the end of the day, it only makes sense to call Bernie Sanders “extreme” if your frame of reference is the consensus that formed in the ’80s and ’90s in Washington — a consensus that accepted low taxation, high inequality and privatized public services. But if your frame of reference is the American public more generally — which, in a democracy, is supposed to be the frame of reference of choice — Bernie Sanders is pretty mainstream.

Let’s start treating him that way, shall we?


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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13 Responses to “Bernie Sanders isn’t extreme”

  1. Liquid_Grit says:

    Just left off reading a bunch of right wing comments on another site. Their raving mad, warped view of reality is both humorous and upsetting. They literally just shout the same things to each other, over and over and over, like dogs barking.

  2. RHfactor says:

    Bernie needs a fast response war room for when the plutocrats and their gazillions start making up numbers, and they need to underline the names of those doing it. I’m referring to right-wing-dingers at the Journal of course.They should have a person for each newspaper, outlet keep tabs and do investigative journalism on those who make the hit piece $hit up. That way the american people can equally weigh who’s right or wrong. Until then – lop sided protectorate of the wealthy will overwhelm. we can do this though.

  3. cricketcuff says:

    Jeez, if his votes are mainstream, then he is just like all the other politicians. That does it, I’m crossing him off.

  4. Selcuk Olzker says:

    Bernie is supporting the right type of capitalism. By placing a large tax on derivatives speculation, he kills two birds with one stone. Derivative markets are supposed to be insurance for stocks, but what they are actually used for is highly corrupt get rich quick schemes by stock holder and company men who know inside information. This tax which he will use to fund education will make capitalism stronger by getting rid of wasteful speculation while creating an educated workforce. It has been estimated that there is a ten-fold return on investment for every dollar spent in providing a college education…that is an incredible return on investment and free college education (for those capable and willing) should be an economic no-brainer. Bernie is not going after taxes on productive people and small businesses, but corporate monopolies which make capitalism unstable once wealth disparities get too large. In addition, Bernie is emphasizing inheritance taxes, which is the fairest tax, and allows capitalism to succeed as it promotes a meritocracy. His progressive moves are not simply leftist redistribution of wealth but actually would encourage a free market economy to fluourish as well. Bernie’s reforms are very pro-business and pro-economy, but they just will allow more people to participate in that.

  5. Bill_Perdue says:

    Sanders is a tamed liberal who poses no threat to the rich, to their wars of aggression or to zionist racism. In terms of what he’ll do to implement change he’s worthless. The only thing that leftists will watch is how much his campaign will divide and split Democrats, who already face significant centrifugal forces and massive desertions as people move left.

  6. BeccaM says:

    I have to tell ya, Indigo, I’m really liking your deep thinking on this stuff of late.

  7. Seb Williams says:

    It’s the mainstream press’s job to limit the scope of political debate in this country. What they haven’t realized yet is that they’ve lost their stranglehold on that power in the age of the internet. The truth is that voters don’t really care if some editorial board says Bernie Sanders is extreme. They care about the issues that he is talking about — tirelessly, relentlessly — which affect their lives and have gone unaddressed.

    This is just the beginning of the media onslaught. Bernie Sanders has proven a real threat to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Just look at what’s happened in the week since he passed her in Iowa. The WSJ broadsided him with that $18 trillion nonsense. Hillary’s Super PAC Super-Toady went full Swift Boat on him. WaPo has been doing Olympic-level logical gymnastics trying to paint him both as an extremist and “not progressive”. Professional smear agent Froma Harrop came out calling him a racist for moving to Vermont and then campaigning with Cornel West. Meanwhile, the articles about Hillary e-mails seem to have mostly dried up.

    Bernie’s made it big time now. Big business interests and their media bullhorns are going to be ruthless.

  8. Indigo says:

    Consider the source. It’s painfully clear that ideological superstitions are in play, the facts are irrelevant when that happens. Looking past the factual errors in the WaPo editorial, who benefits from that set of comments? What stereotypes are enforced by those comments? And what assumptions are made in the editorial that justify mislabeling Senator Sanders so completely? I think that kind of analysis will uncover an agenda addressed to more serious issues such as support for the Oligarchy, contempt for due process, and even, possibly, intent to topple the remnant of the middle class into abject poverty. Discovering that much opens the door to other, darker aspects that the WaPo has in its quiver.

  9. BeccaM says:

    I’ve got no problem describing David Vitter as an extremist, although my first recollection about him is always “Prostitute-frequenting diaper fetishist.”

    Just because there are GOPers even more radical and loony than Vitter doesn’t make him any less extreme or out-of-the-mainstream.

  10. BeccaM says:

    Most people don’t say things that are simply not true. Present company excepted, obviously.

  11. pogden297 says:

    Except you left out that part about his not believing in capitalism. Minor detail.

  12. Hue-Man says:

    It doesn’t matter what voters think, it only matters what the big money thinks – $1 = 1 vote.

    Social benefits for the rich is core to Canada’s single-payer system. The fear is that a separate private health system for the wealthy would drain all the top resources and healthy patients from the public system and would create a loud and well-financed opposition to the public system – “Why should my taxes support public health care when I won’t benefit from it?”

    Sanders would probably be considered a centrist in Canada – Liberal Party.

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