Why Bernie Sanders’ History of Progressivism Matters

Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is something of an anomaly in the presidential race of 2016. An Independent senator from Vermont, and self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, Sanders has a unique political career defined by progressiveness on nearly every issue. Widely seen as being against the general political establishment, Sanders has been an outspoken critic of Wall Street, campaign finance, and income inequality. If elected president, Sanders would drastically change the political process in the United States, from public opinion, to actual policies.

Whether you’re Feeling the Bern, or want it to rain and completely disagree with every single one of his policy proposals, Sanders’ political persona is admirable. Obama and Joe Biden both have praised Sanders for the direction he is taking politics in, and even his opponent Hilary Clinton admitted in the most recent debate that she admires how he energizes voters. Sanders’ passion and charisma coincide with his strongly egalitarian personality and views. Opposing DOMA in the 1990’s and supporting LGBT rights, refusing to accept Super-PAC donations, and referring to himself as a socialist of some sort are all very risky political moves. But this is what makes Bernie Sanders appealing. Every politician claims they are different from the rest, but Sanders is arguably the most distinguished politician in Congress ever. When regular establishment Democrats such as Clinton reflect on their voting records they can’t truly say they were progressive in ideology when they went with the majority in being against gay marriage, or supporting the Iraq War. Although it is common knowledge that representatives in a democracy need to represent their constituents to a degree, Sanders has held unpopular ideas in the face of major opposition because of his commitment to equality.

Trust and consistency are obvious characteristics needed to be president. While Clinton still leads Sanders in the polls, Clinton has about a 50% average unfavorable rating, most likely due to her email controversy which caused a sharp decline in trust by the public. Interestingly, Sanders’ favorability rating is higher than his unfavorable rating, as opposed to Clinton’s. In terms of where this lays with progressives, those who prefer Sanders over Clinton do so because of quite a few policy differences but mainly because of Clinton’s ties with corporate America. We see this in the second Democratic Debate on Friday night where Sanders and Clinton sparred over Wall Street donations and financial regulation. This is an area of major concern in the Clinton campaign, and potentially for the public at large. As Ezra Klein notes:
“Clinton’s problem is that many financial reformers don’t trust Clinton to implement that plan — they look at the donations she’s taken from the financial industry, and the number of Wall Street veterans she’s appointed to key roles, and they worry that her plan, for all its strengths, is a campaign document that will be ignored or watered-down if she wins the presidency.”

While Sanders’ plan for reforming Wall Street may need some improvements, consistency in views appears to play a pivotal role in determining the right course of action during crises. Some may argue the ability to adapt is of importance, which is certainly right but in what is expected to be a Republican dominated Congress for 2016, there needs to be no doubt in terms of tough financial regulation. When Citigroup, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley are some of Clinton’s top donors, it’s hard to believe that Clinton will be as tough as Sanders. We have seen the conservative influence on a Clinton in the past; during the 90’s high tide of deregulation, tough on crime policies, and Welfare Reform. One can assume that the next Clinton in Office will also succumb to conservative pressure, as Bill Clinton said in an interview regarding deregulation:
“What happened? The American people gave the Congress to a group of very conservative Republicans. When they passed bills with the veto proof majority with a lot of Democrats voting for it, that I couldn’t stop, all of a sudden we turn out to be maniacal deregulators…”

As Sanders’ populist rhetoric resonates with many, Clinton is now currently under fire for defending her Wall Street donations by saying she helped Wall Street after 9/11. What many experts have seen as Sanders’ weakness now appears to be finally working in his favor; refusing large donations from corporations and Wall Street. Despite what some believe, being progressive in ideology and not just in name does actually matter. President Lyndon B. Johnson passed civil rights legislation which effectively turned his party against him, but like Sanders he put principle over politics. Sanders’ record is demonstrative of principle over politics, and that’s what’s needed during the next economic downturn.


15 thoughts on “Why Bernie Sanders’ History of Progressivism Matters

  1. Several points:
    1) Where’s the evidence that Sanders will change public opinion? Despite Obama’s considerable use of the Bully Pulpit, there’s no evidence that he made public opinion shift towards him on his main initiatives. I’d point towards this piece by Ezra Klein http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/03/19/the-unpersuaded-2 (whom you quote approvingly) and this book by political scientist Francis Lee that argues “Presidential leadership, for example, inherently polarizes legislators who can influence public opinion of the president and his party by how they handle his agenda.”
    2) You argue that Hilary’s plan on Wall street is good but she won’t enforce it if President but you seem to tacitly admit that Bernie’s plan is bad “needs some improvements” in your words. Even if we take it as a given that Hilary won’t enforce her plan the fact that Bernie’s plan does’t account for systemic risk in the financial system and breaks up banks needlessly doesn’t make him a better candidate.
    3) Johnson did not betray his party by passing Civil Rights Legislation, just southern democrats. There were plenty of Northern democrats that supported him. That stands in sharp contrast to Sanders, who, while he wasn’t a Democrat, refused to support Obama in 2011 (http://www.politico.com/story/2011/11/some-dems-refuse-to-back-obama-068266?o=1)
    I’ll respond to Clinton’s popularity and donation problems in separate posts. Sleep with your eyes open (towards your computer screen)


  2. Also, can we stop propagating the myth that Sanders was “progressive” on gay rights? From my previous post:
    “But Sanders is not quite the gay rights visionary his defenders would like us to believe. Sanders did oppose DOMA—but purely on states’ rights grounds. And as recently as 2006, Sanders opposed marriage equality for his adopted home state of Vermont. The senator may have evolved earlier than his primary opponents. But the fact remains that, in the critical early days of the modern marriage equality movement, Sanders was neutral at best and hostile at worst.”


    “In the twenty years since DOMA, Hillary Clinton has not only evolved on the issue, she has become a global leader in the fight for LGBT equality. As senator from New York, she pushed to repeal the ban on gays in the military and secure employment protections for LGBT Americans. As secretary of state she extended her view of human and women’s rights with a groundbreaking speech at the United Nations in 2011 declaring that “gay rights are human rights” and made the protection of gays, lesbians and transgender people a priority in her dealings with repressive regimes around the world. Perhaps most importantly, she engaged with the community – closely – for the last 25 years. Listening, learning, sometimes disagreeing but always striving and evolving and always caring.

    Bernie Sanders has done none of the above. Despite being from Vermont, a state with a progressive record on LGBT rights, Sanders was a follower.”

    Scroll down to Guns. vs Gays for links


  3. And on LBJ, being a southern Democrat himself he definitely made an extremely difficult decision that was in fact partisan amid high racial tensions


  4. I’m amazed Politifact is so wrong. “Ten years later, Sanders took a similarly cautious approach to same-sex marriage. In 2006, he took a stand against same-sex marriage in Vermont, stating that he instead endorsed civil unions. Sanders told reporters that he was “comfortable” with civil unions, not full marriage equality. (To justify his stance, Sanders complained that a battle for same-sex marriage would be too “divisive.”) At the time, he also opposed a federal anti-gay-marriage amendment—but so did his Republican opponent for the Senate seat, Richard Tarrant, who also supported civil unions. With a wide lead in the polls and little at stake, Sanders declined to differentiate himself from his opponent by taking the lead on gay rights.

    Earlier in his political career, Sanders was even more indifferent toward gay rights: As mayor of Burlington in 1990, Sanders told an interviewer that LGBT rights were not a “major priority” for him. Asked if he would support a bill to protect gays from job discrimination, Sanders responded, “probably not.” http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/10/05/bernie_sanders_on_marriage_equality_he_s_no_longtime_champion.html
    Hilary wasn’t the only one to evolve…


  5. Also I get what you’re saying with Johnson, but I don’t see the SPECIFIC relevance to 2016. What issue is Sanders significantly more liberal to the rest of the Democratic Party that he’s going to stand up and pass because of all his idealistic courage?


  6. 1. Opposing DOMA in the 90’s was a very big deal, even if he did claim it was because of states’ rights he clearly was advanced and taking a risk by being an LGBT advocate. He is obviously a stronger and earlier supporter of LGBT rights http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/bernie-sanders-was-full-gay-equality-40-years-ago
    2. He also opposed “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy which politicians such as Clinton who were strong supporters took over a decade to oppose https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TNsWjHVRc0


  7. He was from Vermont. If it was a brave stance, he would of suffered politically. DOMA was passed in 1996. Since then, he’s never won a race by less than 20%. Furthermore, close to a majority of Vermont citizens supported same sex marriage back in 2004, (http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Ideology-Politics-Principles-Partisanship/dp/0226470768/ref=la_B001HQ5JYI_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1446214036&sr=1-2) but Sanders continued to oppose it in 2006.


    1. Well I think we need to distinguish here between LGBT rights vs marriage equality, because there is a difference. On both of these issues Sanders has been more progressive earlier than Clinton


  8. And regarding Sanders there are several issues where he isn’t just “more liberal” but a completely different kind of candidate. I think we can all agree that as the only candidate not accepting ANY Super-PAC money he is very serious about overturning Citizens United, again progressive in ideology and practice


  9. I think that Alternet article stating that Sanders supported full gay quality 40 years ago actually goes to my point that Bernie is just a regular politician. If he really supported gay equality 40 years ago, he changed his position back to being against same sex marriage until 2009. There’s no proof that this wasn’t an authentic change, but it seems to me that he changed his position to get elected and then changed it again when most of his constituents agreed with him.


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