Should Bernie Sanders Join the Democratic Party?
A MATTER OF OPINION: Two Democrats argue whether Bernie Sanders should join the Democratic Party. Bobby Zitzmann says yes, he would stand a better chance of actually accomplishing his goals. Avery James says no, if Bernie has gotten this far on his own, he doesn't need the Democrats.
SURELY TO THE CHAGRIN of Hillary Clinton, the largest beneficiary of the 2016 Democratic primary seems to be Bernie Sanders. With Clinton vanquished to her home in New York, Sanders returned to the Senate as ranking member of the powerful Senate Budget Committee, the most popular national politician in recent polls, and the undisputed leader of one of the largest political factions in the country.
This post-campaign glow has afforded Bernie a substantial amount of institutional power within the Democratic Party as well. If he is not already the front runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he's definitely in the top two. He has been given an official position in the Senate Democratic leadership, as chair of the Outreach Committee. And the Democrats' new "Better Deal" platform incorporates a number of Bernie's policies, including a $15 federal minimum wage and a $1 trillion infrastructure program.
All of this is very conspicuous given the fact that Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. (I even called his Senate office to make sure.) Even when he was on the Democratic Party Unity Tour with DNC Chair Tom Perez, Bernie Sanders was not a member of the party he was trying to unite. Sanders' apparent reluctance to join the Democratic Party is considerably selfish on his part and hurts everyone involved.
From Bernie's own perspective, what more could he want from the Party? Congressional leadership supported his hand-picked candidate for DNC Chair. As shown above, the Party has decided to adopt his economic populist brand as its over-arching theme. Democrats are even slowly endorsing single-payer healthcare, Bernie's number one plank. While Hillary won the battle, it looks like Bernie will win the war.
And even before the 2016 election, Democrats have been pretty generous to Sanders. The Party has given him a number of committee positions they would normally reserve for Democrats, including the chairmanship of the Veterans'
Affairs Committee. He has not been challenged by a Democrat in his Vermont elections since 2004. At this point, there is very little more that the Democrats could give him.
And yet, Sanders persists in benefiting from the Party's organization and influence without granting it the legitimacy of his membership. Bernie's coalition of young progressives and white liberals is a very fickle group. The Democrat's have a pretty poor chance of winning any electoral victories if Bernie's people don't vote in large numbers. In short, Democrats need the Bernie wing, and the symbolic distance that Bernie puts between himself and the Party only increases his coalition's reluctance to support even the most progressive Democrats if they are perceived to be too friendly to "the establishment."
This ferocious purge of anyone to0 closely associated with the Democratic Party leaves the Sanders coalition with a dramatically narrowed slate of prospective candidates. Aspiring politicians know the benefits of party membership, so only a few will sacrifice that relationship to appease Bernie's progressives. This has resultted in a string of electoral losses by candidates given the Sanders seal of approval. Heath Mello lost the Omaha mayor's race. Kimberly Ellis lost her bid for California Democratic Party Chair. Other losses include Zephyr Teachout in New York and Lucy Flores in Nevada.
This approach, centered on unrealistic candidates, is best exemplified by "Brand New Congress," a political action committee founded by former Sanders agents. This group plans to run a slate of candidates without government experience to unseat every Republican and almost all Democrats. In its pursuit to utterly destroy the Congressional Democratic caucus, Brand New Congress seems to forget that Bernie has voted with the Democrats more than 95 percent of the time.
Progressives shouldn't get me wrong; this is not an anti-Bernie argument. I share a number of Bernie's goals. Although I disagree with him on trade and foreign policy, and I would like to see his proposals get some more serious, detail-oriented fine tuning, he has provided Democrats a valuable service in forwarding a social democratic message. There should be single-payer healthcare or something similar. There should be a carbon tax and increased government effort against the effects of climate change. Citizens United must be reversed.
And it's for these reasons that the Sanders coalition needs to integrate into the Democratic Party. The self-enforced infidelity of progressives doesn't just hurt the Democratic Party proper. It also hampers progressive efforts to enact social democratic policies. Putting sweeping new laws into place is anything but easy. Just look at the Republicans' current healthcare mess. The Republicans have won a lot of elections (something Bernie's wing has proven unable to do on its own). They control the House, Senate, White House, Supreme Court, and almost all state governments. And even then, they have proven themselves unable to pass a bill that has been the central tenet of their party's platform for the better part of a decade.
Putting aside the question of whether Bernie candidates could win enough seats to be really influential, there is no way that they could muster the organizational prowess to pass a major reform without national party infrastructure. Until the US changes its voting system, that party must be the Democrats. Frankly, the American social democratic movement cannot survive in the near future if the Sanders wing does not integrate itself better with the Democratic Party.
It would only be a small step, but we cannot expect a large part of his coalition to make Party inroads if Bernie Sanders himself refuses to be a Democrat. Bernie Sanders has launched a very impressive tide of political energy. And to their credit, they've made it to the big leagues. It's time for them to recognize that, starting at the top.
Bernie, come join the party.
(August 1, 2017)
MY GOOD FRIEND and fellow Agora co-founder Bobby Zitzmann wrote an essay on Bernie Sanders recently and it’s pretty good. I also think it’s dead wrong. Not because I wouldn’t like Bernie to join the Democratic party and make his wing of the party official. No, the reason Bobby is wrong is because there’s just no reason for Sanders to join the Democratic party and everything we know points against that advice.
I’ll start by putting forward the basic idea that politicians, like all people, are motivated by self-interest. They do what is good for them. Bernie Sanders might be a nice, friendly man, but he is not some otherworldly being immune to his own desires. He is a Senator from Vermont and he wants to push the Democratic party leftward, especially on economics. That is what his interests are, and that is what he aims to do.
Bobby starts by pointing out all the nice gifts the Democratic party has given Bernie Sanders. Here I will concede; the Democrats really have been courting him. The Dems gave Senator Sanders a fancy leadership role offer. They have shifted their platform leftward on minimum wage and infrastructure spending. Tom Perez went on a unity tour with Sanders. Throw in how parts of the party are looking to Single-Payer and you couldn’t be more correct about this trend. The party is changing, and it’s because Democrats know that part of their party likes Bernie Sanders.
But all of this leads us to one pesky little question. If Bernie Sanders accomplished all of this without ever putting a “D” next to his name, why do that now? For what reason and to what end? If correlation equals causation (and that’s a big “if”, I’ll admit), that is, Bernie's independent status helps make him popular, why should Bernie change anything now?
Bobby lays out a few reasons, but they’re unpersuasive. Bernie's coalition is apparently very fickle. Except for the fact that it has been becoming only bigger since he lost all the way back in May of 2016. Usually losing makes you unpopular. But a year has passed, and the exact opposite is true for Bernie. Sanders is not a registered Democrat and yet has seen growing support, not abandonment. Now, this support might not translate to the Democratic party. But for Sanders, that's just not his problem since many of those supporters like him because he is not in the Democratic party.
The next concern Bobby offers is that the Democrats will suffer without Sanders formally joining the ranks. But what will they suffer exactly? Bobby lists former Sanders associates who went off to form some hopeless quasi-third party initiative. Given this initiative is, as Bobby stated, unrealistic, this actually backfires on Bobby's thesis because what he's arguing is that Sanders' progressive independence is hurting the Democratic party. A quick glance at this organization's website reveals Sanders isn't even endorsing this spinoff election group, and it's unclear that this election group is doing anything to any effect. Add this to the fact that the Sanders endorsed Democrats who lost recently were registered, well, Democrats, and it's unclear to me what Sanders is doing to actively harm the Democratic party on this front. Clearly no thunder is being stolen if he's deliberately trying to provide it to these candidates running on behalf of the Democratic party.
Let me be clear, I’m not exactly a huge Bernie fan. I voted for the diabolical neoliberal named Hillary Clinton during the end of the primary and I'm a registered Democrat. But it’s not hard for me to see the pattern here. Everything big and bold that Bernie Sanders has declared often leads to the Democratic party desperately catching up in the dust, eager to get some of those excited young voters. Bernie Sanders has done fantastically well without the Democratic party. What incentive does he have to join now?
Consider the polling. Bernie Sanders is supposed to join the party of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi? Why? He’s the coolest politician in modern day, surfing on the wave of the “fed up with Washington” crowd among others. Pelosi and Schumer have been underwater in the polls for years. Sanders even attracts some Republicans! By contrast, House Speaker Pelosi attracts Republican attack ads. Why join the “Swamp” when Sanders can signal that he wants to drain the Democratic party of its "neoliberal" tendencies and still vote with it 95% of the time? Sanders resembles an effective Trump-esque outsider populist, a Donald without the devil and demagogue. It makes no personal or political sense for him to give up what Americans love about him given how well it has worked so far. Two years ago, he was a nobody. Now he's discussed as leading the far-off 2020 primary and a wing of the party despite his lack of an official leadership position or even membership.
Broad swaths of the American people love Sanders, and that’s in part because they hate "the establishment". I think trust in our institutions is important, but the truth is that American politics often resoundingly says otherwise. This is not new, we've known about this “Paranoid Style” since Goldwater ran and lost back in 1964. Sanders is the latest benefactor of this phenomenon. It was precisely paranoia of the system instead of policy differences that made many Sanders supporters different from Clinton ones. This precedent is clear, and we should recognize it. But does this mean Sanders won't join the Democrats forever? I'll admit, it’s hard to know what Sanders will do next especially since I’m not the best at calling shots (fortunately for me, neither is my friend Bobby). But I can tell you this, it’s probably going to take a hell of a lot more than a fancy chairman position to make Sanders quit his independent streak and give up surfing the anti-politics.
(August 6, 2017)
IN HIS ANALYSIS, Avery takes a more precisely focused approach than I do. Whereas I talk about Bernie Sanders more as a placeholder for the progressive movement — referring to the “Sanders coalition,” etc. — Avery makes it clear that we should remember that Bernie is a person too. We should analyze the prospect of him joining the Democratic Party through the lens of personal self-interest, and, Avery concludes, Bernie’s self-interest compels him to remain an Independent.
Alright, let’s talk about Bernie as a person. As it happens, I’ve been following Bernie the man for quite some time, from before he even publicly discussed running for president. If nothing else, Bernie is consistent to a fault, holding the same message for decades on end. It’s safe to say that anyone who has kept a close eye on Bernie-world for more than a few years develops a firm grasp on what Sanders himself views as his interests, what he wants to do.
So when Avery framed the question of what is most in Bernie’s own interest, something immediately came to mind. Bernie wants a lot of things. He wants to pull politics leftward, as Avery said. He wants universal college and healthcare. He wants publicly financed elections. But more than anything else, Bernie Sanders wants to expand and improve political participation in this country.
Here it is important to note that a politician’s interests can be more than immediate personal wants. As Avery detailed, Bernie has pretty much maxed out personal gain and career enhancement. Nearing the end of a four-decade career, Bernie is now surely thinking about his legacy. And to Bernie, the most important part of that legacy is more and better political participation.
Bernie has said as much personally. In a 2014 speech at St. Anselm College, he told the story of what he calls his “proudest accomplishment.” It’s not being a son of poor immigrants elected to the US Senate. It’s not being the longest serving Independent in Congressional history. No, “at the very top of that list,” Sanders explains, is forging a coalition of disparate local constituencies to double normal voter turnout in the 1981 Burlington mayoral election. This is a story Bernie has told multiple times.
Now, I can’t fault Avery for not incorporating this obscure speech into his assessment of Bernie’s interests. Even today, after his presidential campaign, that video has fewer than 6,000 views. Perhaps Avery, with his ferocious news appetite, would have considered the aim of participation and coalitions if Bernie had expressed it in a more high-profile medium, like this New York Times op-ed from June. In the paper of record, Sanders stated that “the [Democratic] party’s main thrust must be to make politics relevant to those who have given up on democracy and bring millions of new voters into the political process.”
Just to pile on one more example, Bernie concludes his 2017 memoir/manifesto Our Revolution by urging his supporters to stayed involved in politics. “Run for school board, city council, state legislature. Run for mayor. Run for Congress. Run for the Senate. Run for president … We will not be able to accomplish [our] goals if we look at democracy as a spectator sport.” (pp.445, 447)
So what was that about Bernie and his “anti-politics,” Avery?
For people who view Bernie as Avery does, I think their problem is a failure to separate Bernie from his supporters. While Bernie clearly wants people to place more faith in political institutions, not less, many of his supporters are jaded cynics. Too many believe that the 2016 primary was literally rigged in Clinton’s favor. As I discussed in the first installment here, many want to unseat almost all of Congress. Avery pointed out that this lack of trust in political institutions is the largest difference between Clinton and Sanders supporters.
Bernie has not done enough to condemn this skepticism of democracy. So how does joining the Democratic Party help? The Democratic Party is at once one of Bernie supporters’ most distrusted institutions and the one most necessary for them to attain their policy goals. If Bernie is to really bring people into the political process in a meaningful way, he should start with his own base’s loathing for the Democrats.
When it comes to that goal, I think one line from Bernie’s St. Anselm speech is particularly instructive. Recalling his first mayoral campaign Bernie said: “We put together this strange coalition. It was so strange that I often worried what would happen if we got them all in the same room at the same time, because they were very different people. But they had the belief that we should open the doors of government, that we should allow everybody in.”
Now the doors are open. It’s time to let everybody in.
So, in short, Bernie Sanders prides himself most on being a coalition builder. Bernie is, at his heart, a big-tent figure. Today, the most relevant coalition for his policy goals is that between his supporters and the rest of the Democratic Party. Bernie should join the Democrats to prove that it is OK to be in the same room with somebody, even if you’re very different people.
(August 7, 2017)
IN HIS RESPONSE, Bobby lays out the numerous ways in which Bernie Sanders believes in participating in democracy. He correctly points out that Bernie has often believed in coalitions, whether he makes the case in an obscure 2014 speech or in a recent NYT op-ed. This is true, but it misses the crucial question of "which coalition?".
Sanders is not skeptical of democracy; he's skeptical of the party structure and specifically the Democratic party. It makes no sense to say Sanders distrusts democratic action, since he is democratic socialist (ideologically, that is — his platform is more akin to social democracy) and therefore probably one of the most if not the most pro-direct democracy voices in the Senate. The distrust of a clunky republic and critique of a slow moving federalism is common in socialist and progressive thought. But it is not necessarily at odds with democracy, just the slower variety of it that is procedural republicanism which I (a bourgeois private college student) personally favor. But I digress. My point is that Sanders is both a man of the small voter and yet skeptical of the Democratic party as an institution. This is still what anti-politics is to a degree, a sense that "they're all bought out", and Sanders caters to this with his endless criticism of the "one pawcent!".
But don't take my word for it, look to the way Sanders discusses the Democratic party in the very articles Bobby cites. In his 2014 interview with the Nation, Sanders hadn't yet decided whether he'd run as a Democratic party nominee. He explains that "running outside the two-party system can be a positive politically". Even after weighing the benefits, he begins with a plain "Yes." when asked the next question about if he has great discomfort with the Democratic party's operation in recent decades. This 2014 interview is revealing, because it reminds us that Senator Sanders was choosing between running as a pure independent or as a Democratic nominee constantly criticizing the Democratic party. He chose the latter, and his criticism definitely was awkward at times on the DNC-sponsored debate stage.
Now you might be tempted to waive this off given how old it is; 2014 almost seems like ancient history. So let's look to Senator Sanders' op-ed in the New York Times from this past June. I think it's useful to compare his writing to that of another major Senator, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Notice that Sanders lays out his critique but barely associates with the party itself. He only says "our party" one time, as the rest of the "our" and "we" usage is in reference to the country. By contrast, Schumer embraces his clear position as leader of the Democratic party in the Senate, using the term "we" countless times in reference to the party.
One might be tempted to call Sanders' use of "our party" as a fatal concession. Isn't he identifying with the Democrats? Well, no. He's writing the New York Times, a paper known for a specific readership. And even then, Sanders still strays away from the Democratic party, lambasting it for rich donors and asking it garner support from"the grass-roots America in every state".
The last retort I'll make is that I think it's borderline ahistorical to imply Sanders should seek Democratic party membership as some sort of capstone on his career. Yes, Senator Sanders has technically had a long career. But his time in the national spotlight is very short and recent, yet he has accomplished a lot in pushing the party leftward while refusing to be a member. So per my earlier writing, why should he stop now? One might say he got everything he wanted. Do you see single payer healthcare and complete campaign finance reform on the Democratic party platform? Neither do I, and more importantly, neither does Senator Sanders.
Bobby offers an answer to this, but it doesn't quite satisfy the question. He says that Sanders should join to at least show the Democratic party is a space for his supporters. But in reality the opposite has to occur; Sanders will look to see if his supporters want him with the Democrats. Given the intense distrust of both the parties, I think the answer is rather clear. If Sanders wants to remain a popular politician and man of the people, it makes sense for him to keep just the right distance from the Democratic party and using his supporters to tempt the party leftward towards his goals. Donald Trump held the Republican party hostage with a third of its primary voters, Sanders has every incentive to do the same to the Democratic party albeit in service of a different agenda.
In retrospect, my use of the term anti-politics may have been confusing, since it typically refers to disgust with politics entirely. A more precise term for Sanders would be anti-party. He clearly has a base that supported him and many of them do not equate that with support for the Democratic party. Given the accomplishments Sanders has gained and the desire of his supporters, I stand by my original claim. There's just no immediate reason from Senator Sanders' perspective to officially join the Democratic party.
(August 22, 2017)
FOR THIS RESPONSE, I’ll condense Avery’s previous post into its two central points. First, Avery argues that Bernie is too “skeptical” of the Democratic Party to join it, and second, that joining the Party would be a bad move for Sanders’ political career.
Avery began his last post by stating that Bernie is “skeptical of the party structure and specifically the Democratic party,” which he substantiates by noting that Bernie personally waffled in 2014 and 2015 about whether to run for president as a Democrat or as an Independent. This is true, but it only tells part of the story. Avery notes Bernie’s considerations leading up to the primary, but he glosses over Bernie’s actual decision.
As a matter of fact, Bernie did not run for president as an Independent. He registered as a Democrat and ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination. This point comes into even sharper relief when you realize that Bernie was actively courted by the Green Party and Socialist Alternative, America’s only electorally successful socialist party, in the run up to his presidential campaign. Bernie declined. He was given a second chance to run outside of the traditional system when Green Party nominee Jill Stein offered to give him the Green Party’s nomination after he lost the Democratic primary. He declined once again. Instead, he campaigned for the “diabolical neoliberal” Hillary Clinton, to borrow Avery’s phrase.
Why did Bernie do all of this? If he is in fact irredeemably skeptical of the Democrats and inherently anti-party, as Avery contends, why did he repeatedly relinquish what would have surely been the most successful third-party run since Ross Perot?
The answer is simple. Third party runs can realistically only hope to be like Ross Perot’s, which garnered zero electoral votes. We have a two-party system, and Bernie knows this. He is not anti-party or anti-politics; he recognizes that any political movement that hopes to actually do anything needs to work through the system. If Bernie and his supporters actually want to enact all the reforms they have proposed, they can’t do it as outsiders.
This leads us to Avery’s second point, that joining the Democrats would hurt Bernie’s career by slowing his legislative agenda and dampening his popularity. These are both mistakes on Avery’s part, the first a mistake of fact and the second a mistake of principle.
Avery performs a rhetorical interview in this section of his post. “Do you see single payer healthcare and complete campaign finance reform on the Democratic party platform? Neither do I, and more importantly, neither does Senator Sanders.” I’d like to add myself to that list of no’s. Bernie Sanders has not actually enacted his prefered programs, and that’s precisely the point. Avery correctly notes that Bernie has been successful in pushing the Democrats’ public position leftward on key issues, but that alone misses two key points. First, Bernie did not accomplish this rhetorical shift in spite of his run in the Democratic Primary, but rather because of it. Bringing his voters into the Democratic Party fold, many of whom were previously Independent or disinterested in politics, made them a constituency that the Democrats could no longer ignore. Pandering was made necessary. But if Bernie’s progressives want to follow through and see their agenda manifest, they can’t just dip their toe in the water. They need to organize, lobby, and most importantly, have the votes.
That’s where the Democratic Party comes in. As I have stated previously, the United States is locked into a two-party system. Avery framed the question of “which coalition?” As long as we have our voting system, the Democratic Party’s coalition is the only choice progressives have to accomplish anything. And after a certain point, they can’t move the Democratic Party while existing externally to it. If they want to get laws passed, Bernie’s coalition needs to make sure Democrats get elected and make sure that they don’t feel that their reelection is risked by taking progressives stances. Bernie Sanders should join the Democratic Party to signal his followers to do the same.
At this point, Avery would say “Sanders will look to see if his supporters want him with the Democrats … If Sanders wants to remain a popular politician and man of the people, it makes sense for him to keep just the right distance from the Democratic party.” This may very well be the case, but I think that would be unfortunate. At the very beginning of this series, I called Bernie “the undisputed leader of one of the largest political factions in the country.” And I gave him that description — a leader — because I think it would be best for him to lead his coalition, not bend like a reed any way the slightest political winds blow. There are probably some of his supporters who would never trust the Democratic Party no matter what concessions they actually make. These people just want to be angry. But I think the overwhelming majority of Bernie’s wing just wants to see a laundry lists of government action — healthcare, campaign finance reform, financial regulation, etc. — put into place. Criticizing the Democrats from the outside will only get them so far. Integrating into the Party and giving cover for lawmakers to pursue these reforms can seal the deal.
It all comes back to coalition building. That's Bernie's main philosophical driver, and that's what he needs to do to get his agenda passed. The Democrats seem to have invited Bernie's wing into their coalition. He should accept and have his people do the same.
(August 23, 2017)
FOR REASONS OF EASE AND SIMPLICITY, I'll give a quick response to Bobby's two points of criticism. He essentially debates me on two contentions; that Bernie is not a Democratic party "skeptic" and that Bernie will get more results from joining the party as soon as possible. I think these are both wrong.
On the first point, Bobby lays out and then answers his own question. If Bernie is so skeptical of the Democratic party, why did he turn down such generous offers from the Green Party and Socialist Alternative Party? If he's so uncertain about the Democrats, why choose them instead of running as Ross Perot? I don't really need to give a response because Bobby does this on his own. As he points out, offers from the Green Party and Socialist Party are useless in a two party system. Ross Perot lost, any other third party candidate can expect a similar result. So naturally, to run in the Democratic party primary is a matter of pragmatism, not enthusiasm.
To be fair, Bobby does turn this narrative around for a second to say that Bernie is not actually anti-party because he chose to join the 2016 Democratic primary. Allow me to return to my pragmatism point. Senator Sanders joined the primary to get a platform to voice his ideas on and it worked out pretty well. Not that there was much of an option, since it's that or debating Jill Stein on who enjoys organic food more. Guess which one gets millions of viewers?
Speaking of pragmatism, Bobby counters the strategy point by saying Bernie succeeded in pulling the Democrats leftward only because of using the debate stage. So he's really a fan of the Democratic party after all! But this too falls under my pragmatism strategy. Thankfully, we do have a way to know if Sanders is really enthusiastic about the party. Did he join the party after using the debates to voice his ideas in front of voters? Nope. Case closed.
Which brings me to Bobby's final longstanding point. He explains that Sanders wants a lot to happen, and while strategically bringing the Democrats to his issues via voter leverage might have worked in the past, it just can't keep working. Sanders needs to seal the deal, otherwise the Democratic party will grow tired and nobody will want to work with him on his exciting progressive policy.
We now have a test case. Sanders is pushing a single-payer healthcare bill to the Senate. If Bobby is correct, Democrats would have grumbled at him and not wanted to work, sick of his stubborn refusal to join the ranks. Instead, Senator Kamala Harris (and possible 2020 Democratic primary juggernaut) has decided to cosponsor the bill with Senator Sanders. So much for no coalition building.
(September 4, 2017)
Photo credit Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons