Answers to Five Questions About Bernie Sanders

By Adrian Flynn

Bernie Sanders in Iowa City, IA, February 2, 2020 (Picture taken by the author)

During my time working with the Sanders campaign, both in Iowa and elsewhere, I have consistently been asked some version of the same five questions. In this article I offer answers to these questions, with citations hyperlinked. I welcome any questions or opinions regarding my answers and encourage dialogue.

  1. Is Bernie a socialist?
  2. What has he actually accomplished during his time in Congress?
  3. Who are the “Bernie Bros” and what is their significance?
  4. Is Bernie Sanders too old to be President? 
  5. Can Bernie Sanders actually beat Donald Trump? (Is he electable?)

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  1. Is Bernie a socialist?

People tend to blur the distinction that Bernie Sanders makes between “socialism” and “democratic socialism”. The term “democratic” is used to signify that it is an ideology that is faithful to the people and the electorate, not to autocratic goals. However, this still does not mean that Sanders wants to see all of the historic goals of classic socialism realized via democratic means. He has never spoken in favor of nationalizing major industries (existing government-provided healthcare is already nationalized) or centralized planning for markets, although he is strongly in favor of regulation and taxes which would weaken the immense power currently enjoyed by corporations in the United States. As Atlantic writer Marian Tupy argues, Sanders’ worldview aligns more with “social democracy,” in which “individuals and corporations continue to own the capital and the means of production [and] much of the wealth, in other words, is produced privately.” The Economist also concurs, concluding in a 2016 editorial that Sanders actually fits the mold of a “social democrat” for his embrace of “private companies that thrive and grow in America.” As Sanders himself said in a speech at Georgetown University in 2015, “I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.” 

In fact, many of the leading voices aligned with socialism in the United States have argued that Sanders is not a socialist. These include Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder of Jacobin, and Noam Chomsky, the renowned public intellectual, as well as numerous representatives of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party USA. Many academics and policy experts have also argued that Sanders is not a socialist, including Samuel Goldman of George Washington University, Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, Paul Krugman of the City University of New York, and Lane Kentworthy of UC San Diego, who even asserted that Sanders should rather be branded as a “democratic socialist capitalist.” If we consider the manifestation of Sanders’ views abroad, many of the countries which Sanders looks to as models for the United States, such as Denmark (which is a social democracy, not a socialist state) are by some measures even more free-enterprise capitalist societies than the United States. As Mads Lundby Hansen, chief economist of Denmark’s CEPOS think tank, attests: “This high degree of economic freedom is among the reasons for Denmark’s relatively high affluence.”

The answer to the question, then, is no, Bernie Sanders is not a socialist nor is he a communist. These allegations are, as he observed in a recent debate, a “cheap shot,” intended to mislead and frighten. Bernie Sanders is a “social democrat” in the tradition of much of the current European mainstream, a “New Deal democrat in the current political system” or a “democratic socialist,” as he has self-identified. He strongly supports the American market economy, but wants to see it bring more benefits to the working class, and fewer to the very wealthy.

  1. What has he actually accomplished during his time in Congress?

Many are quick to say that Bernie Sanders has not gotten as much done in Congress as he could have. Whether he should have gotten “more” done is a matter for individual voters to determine. However, some of the ideas espoused, such as that he has “only gotten post offices named,” show a lack of understanding of how the United States Congress works and also fail to recognize that there are multiple means by which Congress enacts change. Members of Congress should be judged by their “legislative records” which encompass the total impact they have on legislation, not just how many bills they personally drafted and got passed. 

It is true that Bernie Sanders has had only three of his own unilaterally-written bills enacted into law, the same number to Hillary Clinton’s name. However, this does not fairly reflect upon either of their complete legislative records, because it is rare for a bill with a single author to pass both chambers of Congress and be signed by the President. Statistics on Congress.gov show that Bernie Sanders has either sponsored or co-sponsored 221 bills which have become law. For reference, Elizabeth Warren has 51, Amy Klobuchar has 133, and Hillary Clinton had 77

Much of the media has asserted that Sanders is the “amendment king” of Congress, which he accomplishes “on the one hand by being relentlessly active, and on the other by using his status as an Independent to form left-right coalitions.” Yet some still dismiss this as inconsequential and evidence of lack of accomplishment. On the contrary, there are many examples of highly important amendments to bills that resulted from Sanders’ work, many of which were passed under roll-call in a Republican-controlled Congress. These include but are not limited to:

Sanders has also successfully worked across the aisle. According to a New York Times article: “Counter to his reputation as a far-left gadfly, Mr. Sanders has done much of his work with Republican partners, generally people with whom he has little, but sometimes just enough, in common.” Also, he showed “his policy fluency and his ability to work with Republicans when he was chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs,” work for which unlikely admirer Ross Perot gifted him an “Excalibur” sword. Amendments and bills that have become law on which he has worked with Republicans include:

Perhaps his most important contribution via amendment was when he convinced then-Senate majority leader Harry Reid to add $11 billion in funding for community health centers, to provide care regardless of a person’s ability to pay, to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which has likely resulted in health care for an additional 10 million mostly low-income Americans. In exchange, Sanders agreed to rally liberal Democrats to support the ACA, after they had leaned toward voting against the bill when conservative Democrats killed the public option. Reid later said that “Bernie was terrific… he in my opinion was instrumental in our finishing the job, no better example of that than what we talked about with the Affordable Care Act. That would not have been accomplished without Bernie Sanders… He didn’t get everything he wanted but he sure got something good for community health centers.” Additionally, President Obama signed a memorandum dedicating $600 million to the construction of new community health centers in December 2009, at the urging of Sanders. “I also want to thank the many members of Congress who are with us today both in the audience and up on the stage, particularly Bernie Sanders and Representative Jim Clyburn. We are grateful for all that you’ve done,” Obama remarked.

Yet some of Sanders’ most memorable and courageous moments in Congress occurred when he acted as a member of a small minority when he saw that the situation demanded it. Some of these moments include:

Of course, in terms of broader impact, his leadership as a co-founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has made him an inspiration to rising politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal, Rashida Tlaib, Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar, among many others.

Sanders is acutely aware of his legislative accomplishments’ relatively low profile in Congress, acknowledging “This is the problem. I work in areas that nobody knows what I’m doing.” He told The New York Times in 2015 that “Passing legislation is ‘real,’ but so is influencing opinion over the long term by speaking out early and often,” adding: “I am a voice. Everybody talks about income inequality [now]. Well, check it out. Find out who was talking about it 20 years ago.”

  1. Who are the “Bernie Bros” and what is their significance?

It is true that Bernie Sanders has some supporters who have made a niche community online built around harassment and trolling. 

Some equally relevant questions are, however, (because just about every political campaign has its own vocal but comparatively miniscule sources of toxicity and “stan culture”even the 2016 Clinton campaign): a) how much does their vitriol result directly from the actions of the Bernie Sanders campaign? And b) how representative of Sanders supporters are the reportedly young, white and male “Bernie Bros”? 

Firstly, there has been no acquiescence by Bernie Sanders or his campaign to the harassment of his political opponents or their supporters. On the contrary, in a letter to supporters just after announcing his 2020 bid, Sanders stated: “Let us do our very best to engage respectfully with our Democratic opponents, talking about the issues we are fighting for, not about personalities or past grievances… I want to be clear that I condemn bullying and harassment of any kind and in any space… Remember that our struggle is bigger than a Tweet or a Facebook comment.” After being asked about this in a February 2020 interview, Sanders made clear, “Anybody who knows me and what our campaign is about, don’t tell me that you’re supporting Bernie Sanders if you’re making ugly personal attacks on other people. We don’t want your support.” With regard to Sanders’ volunteer base, the campaign has worked to rein in supporters who cross the line, stating: “Online, aides are pushing their digital community to police itself and keep the Bros quiet. And some volunteer members of Sanders’s digital army are scrambling into action, reporting offenders and moderating bro-y posts.” Campaign volunteers active in the arts have also pushed back on this problem, including comedy director Amber Schaefer, who made a viral ad spoofing perfume ads entitled “Bérnié – The People’s Perfume. She explained her work, “The idea behind the ‘campaign’ is to complicate the white male Bernie Bro (false!) narrative and show women and people of color feeling the Bern.” She also said, “We can see statistics [disproving this narrative], but visually seeing it, I think, is really powerful. I wanted to create something that felt like the opposite of maybe what people think of as a Bernie Bro.” Sanders supporters on Reddit also posted reminders to their fellow supporters that the “goal is not to deliver the sickest burn or capture the perfect tweet… Rather, [we] want to convince people to vote for Bernie Sanders, and the movement’s online tactics need to be suited to that end.” 

The creator of the term itself, Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer, has regretted how the term has come to be used as an unsubstantiated attack on the Sanders campaign, stating that it has suffered from a “semantic drift.” In response to a slew of opinions in the media, based off the “Bernie Bro” narrative, that Sanders was garnering support only amongst white people in 2016, people of color began the trend #BernieMadeMeWhite. This is, of course, one of many online trends circulated both within and outside of the Bernie Sanders campaign sphere. According to Deen Freelon, a University of North Carolina professor who studies political expression through digital media, “Sanders’s online audience is much, much larger than Elizabeth Warren’s or Joe Biden’s by an order of several million.” Since early 2019, Facebook pages supporting Sanders, for example, have generated more than 290 million interactions, while pages for Warren and Biden have generated 20 million and 9 million, respectively, according to one analysis. “You get a larger group, there’s going to be more douchebags in it than the smaller group,” Freelon added. As Glenn Greenwald argued in 2016, “The reason pro-Clinton journalists are targeted with vile abuse online has nothing specifically to do with the Sanders campaign or its supporters. It has everything to do with the internet. There are literally no polarizing views one can advocate online… that will not subject one to a torrent of intense anger and vile abuse. It’s not remotely unique to supporting Hillary Clinton: Ask Megyn Kelly about that, or the Sanders-supporting Susan Sarandon and Cornel West, or anyone with a Twitter account or blog.” In Greenwald’s piece for The Intercept, he also showed that a few “Bernie Bros” on Twitter turned out to be fake accounts created for the purpose of sowing division.

Furthermore, reporting on the demographics of support for Bernie Sanders suggests that it does not skew white or male. Women under 45 make up more of Sanders’ support base than men in the same age group. Also, of all the 2020 candidates, Bernie Sanders has brought in the most campaign contributions from women. Lastly, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll conducted from December 9 to 11, 2019, Sanders enjoyed more support from the non-white electorate than from the white electorate.

The negative impact of the “Bernie Bro” fixation is that it undermines supporters of Sanders’ campaign who are not white and male. As writer Caitlin PenzeyMoog opined on Twitter, “The ‘Bernie Bro’ narrative is endlessly galling because it erases the women who make up his base. To paint this picture of sexism is to paint over the millions of women who support Sanders.” Megan Magray, a reproductive health advocate, said to Vice: “It’s really frustrating to see that the idea of the ‘Bernie Bro’ is still so pervasive, [and] insulting to see women, women of color, and people of color being erased from his campaign because they’re really integral to it.” Mari Toro, a Puerto Rican community advocate and data entry specialist in Boston, feels less resentment than just indifference, saying “I felt the same way I feel about most internet rumors or stories that I have no connection or affinity for… I didn’t even come to resent it—I didn’t feel the epithet characterized me or my fellow supporters at all.”

  1. Is Bernie too old to be President?

Bernie Sanders is 78 years old and if elected, would be the oldest President ever inaugurated. He does not shy away from this, and has an image and demeanor which unapologetically reflects his age.

In October of 2019, Sanders had a heart attack in Las Vegas while campaigning, and he received two stents. He had no prior history of heart disease and after two and a half days in the hospital, he was released. After promising medical reports after the episode, the Sanders campaign released several letters from doctors including one from his attending physician at the US Capitol dated December 30, 2019, attesting to his being in “good health currently.” Due to his progress, Monahan also noted that Sanders had stopped taking several medications that were initially required after the heart attack. In a separate letter, Dr. Martin LeWinter, Sanders’ personal cardiologist and the attending cardiologist at the University of Vermont, noted that the Vermont Senator’s “heart function is stable and well preserved” and his “blood pressure and heart rate are in optimal ranges.” “At this point, I see no reason why he cannot continue campaigning without limitation and, should he be elected, I am confident he has the mental and physical stamina to fully undertake the rigors of the Presidency,” wrote Dr. LeWinter.

Sanders has been asked to release his recent medical records and so far has declined to do so. Paul Waldman of The Washington Post pointed out the ambiguity of the term “medical records” by saying: “When we say a candidate should release his “medical records,” are we referring to documentation of every doctor visit and every procedure he or she has ever had? There are plenty of medical records that have no bearing on one’s performance in office, and which one ought to be able to keep private… But if we were to make such a standard, it would probably say at a minimum that we want the results of a recent physical, a history of any serious conditions the candidate has had in the past, details on any chronic conditions the candidate still has, and information on any medications the candidate is taking. Sanders can reasonably argue that he has provided much or all of that.” Nonetheless, it is a fair point that the American people deserve to know Sanders’ full health history, considering his advanced age. 

As to whether his age has had an impact on his support amongst young people, the numbers so far do not bear this out at all. Although it was four years ago, the most complete record of this comes from the 2016 primaries, in which he notably garnered more total votes from people under age 30 than both Trump and Clinton combined. This trend seems to be continuing thus far in the 2020 primaries, despite the fact that there are more candidates to split the youth vote.

  1. Can Bernie Sanders actually beat Donald Trump? (Is he electable?)

Essentially, the other four questions above lead to this question at the bottom line. The question of electability is key and includes both whether a candidate can command a majority of the electoral college as well as the popular vote.

First, with regard to polls, Bernie Sanders has beaten Donald Trump in both national polls and swing state polls dating back to his first run at the Presidency in 2016 through to the present. 

The most recent national polls conducted by pollsters rated “A+” by FiveThirtyEight, indicating nonpartisanship and a miniscule margin of error, show Sanders consistently beating Trump. These include a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted January 20-23, 2020 showing Sanders ahead +8 percentage points, a Marist College poll conducted February 13-16, 2020, showing Sanders ahead +3 percentage points, and the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted February 14-17, 2020 showing Sanders ahead +11 percentage points (which leads the Democratic field in head-to-head match-ups against the President). Of course, these general election numbers may indicate the magnitude of popular support for Sanders but do not necessarily indicate who is in the best position to win the Electoral College. 

In the most recent swing state polls, Sanders remains strong as well. In Wisconsin, the only “A+” rated poll on FiveThirtyEight, taken from October 13-26, 2019, showed Sanders beating Trump by 1-2 percentage points. Sanders won the 2016 Wisconsin primary against Hillary Clinton by a 13.5% margin, also winning a whopping 71 of 72 counties in the state. In that primary, Sanders had more female voters than Clinton (as well as male voters), and also swept all income brackets and education levels. In Michigan, the only “A+” rated poll on FiveThirtyEight, taken from October 13-25, 2019, showed Sanders beating Trump by 2-3 percentage points. Additionally, Sanders won the 2016 Michigan primary against Hillary Clinton, albeit by a thin margin of 1.5%, but the result was still considered to be one of the “biggest upsets in modern American political history,” due to underestimates of both the youth and independent voter turnouts which strongly swayed for Sanders. Pennsylvania, the third and final state of the group which many believe decided the 2016 Presidential election, did not go for Sanders against Hillary Clinton (Clinton also beat Obama by a similar margin in the state in 2008), although according to the most recent FiveThirtyEight “A+” rated poll, conducted by Muhlenberg College from November 4-9, 2019, Sanders led Trump by 5 percentage points.

If, in addition to winning all of the states won by Clinton in 2016, Sanders also wins Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, he would have sufficient electoral votes to win the Presidency. Notably, he defeated Clinton in the primaries in 2016 by a total of 152,337 votes in Michigan and Wisconsin, while Clinton lost both to Trump in the general election by a total of 33,452 votes, so it is not outlandish to assume that had Sanders been the nominee, he might have had a better chance of winning both states. Additionally, a recent poll conducted by Florida Atlantic University from January 9-12, 2020 found that “Sanders fared best among Florida voters [as compared to other Democrats] in head-to-head matchups against U.S President Donald Trump, with a 53-to-47 percent advantage on the president.” Also, a poll rated “A” by FiveThirtyEight conducted from February 13-16, 2020 shows Sanders beating Trump by 5 percentage points in North Carolina. Lastly, a poll rated “A+” by FiveThirtyEight conducted from October 13-23, 2019 shows Sanders trailing Trump by just 1-4 percentage points in Arizona, whereas Clinton lost the state by 4 percentage points. If Sanders were able to capture any of these three states as well, he could either afford to lose another purple state (which according to the polls, is unlikely) or build on his Electoral College lead. 

Of course, electoral polls can be recycled and picked apart endlessly. There are also favorability polls which do not directly measure support in terms of numbers needed to win the presidency, but that speak to the strength and resonance of Sanders’ overall message. A USA Today/Ipsos poll of voters released on February 15, 2020 showed that “those polled consistently gave Sanders the highest marks for his values and empathy” out of both the Democratic field and compared to Trump. In the same manner, Sanders has frequently been called the most “popular active politician” in America, according to favorability polls conducted by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies, Fox News, NBC News/Wall Street Journal and CNN, all of which show Sanders having high favorability from Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike due to “honesty” and “authenticity.” Additionally, his status as an Independent has allowed him to rein in votes (as was seen in the 2016 primary) from what Gallup has found to be “the most popular party affiliation in America by far” and avoid the low current favorability of both the Democratic and Republican parties. To test the waters of throwing the term “socialist” into the mix (which is not what Sanders is, but what he has been and will continue to be called by political opponents), the progressive organization “Data for Progress” conducted a poll of random voters from January 9 to January 19, 2020 pitting Sanders against Trump in which it found that, even when the term “socialist” was used when anticipating how Trump would refer to Sanders, there was little impact on the outcome. The cue that did not mention “socialist” garnered 47% Sanders to 41% Trump, while the cue mentioning “socialist” garnered 47% to 42% in Sanders’ favor. This may be an early indicator of the limits to which Donald Trump would be able to benefit from using the term “socialist” as a scare tactic to sway voters away from Sanders. The most recent electoral test, however, for both Sanders and the rest of the Democratic field came just a few days ago in Nevada. In the 2020 Nevada caucuses, entrance polls conducted by The Washington Post show that Sanders notably won 51% of the Hispanic vote, led both among voters who said they prioritize agreeing on the issues and voters who prioritize beating President Trump, and led in all age demographics up to 65. But most importantly, he won 50% of the independent vote and tied with Joe Biden for the lead among voters who identify as “moderate or conservative,” as well as winning the “very liberal,” “somewhat liberal,” and “Democrat” groups.

In terms of ground-game, cyber-game and finances, which political strategists agree are now among the main factors for winning elections, the Sanders campaign has an extremely strong record. It says that it has had over one million campaign volunteers since six days after the 2020 campaign launch, and in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, the Sanders campaign offices and canvassing operations have been key to their victories. Sanders is also well known for “once again asking for your financial support.” This is because popular support is the only source of funding that he has ever counted upon, and it has come through impressively. The Sanders campaign raised $6 million in the first 24 hours of the campaign, and by January 1st 2020 it had attained over 5 million individual contributions, making it the campaign with the most individual contributions ever. In January of 2020, the Sanders campaign announced it raised $25 million in that month alone — more than any other candidate had raised during any quarter of 2019. Both the magnitude and sources (individual donations averaging from $18-$27) of these sums make the Sanders campaign by far the most effective major grassroots political campaign in history.

Finally, supporters of the Trump campaign and Republican organizers alike have made it clear that they believe Sanders has a very real chance of beating them. Tony Fabrizio, the 2016 Trump campaign’s chief pollster, in response to a question about what would happen during a Sanders-Trump match-up, said that “Sanders beats Trump… I think Sanders would have had the ability to reach a lot of the less than college-educated, low-income white voters.” North Carolina congressman and strong Trump ally in the House of Representatives, Mark Meadows, stated that “Bernie Sanders poses the greatest risk because we are still in an anti-establishment era for presidential elections.” Matt Schlapp, head of the American Conservative Union, has said, “It’s a big mistake for Trump supporters to assume that if Bernie Sanders gets the nomination there’s no chance somehow he can win.” One of the most prolific voices on Fox News, Tucker Carlson, warned during a January 2020 segment that “If Sanders pledges to forgive student loans, he’ll still win many thousands of voters who went for Donald Trump last time. Debt is crushing an entire generation of Americans. Republicans need a plan to make it better, or they’ll be left behind.” He also highlighted a Pew Research poll that shows “just 31 percent of Americans say the economy is helping them and their families, and just 32 percent say they believe the current economy helps the middle class,” which shows a potential flaw in Trump’s economic argument for re-election. After Sanders received a warm reception from a Fox News town hall audience, famed Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, “When only 37% of Americans in the RealClearPolitics average think the country is going in the right direction while 56.4% think it’s on the wrong track, Mr. Sanders could be perceived as an agent of change… If he is the Democratic nominee, Mr. Trump’s task will be to convince Americans that a socialist turn would be a ruinous change. Based on Monday’s town hall, that won’t be as easy as Republicans may think. Mr. Sanders is a real contender.” Finally, even the President himself has shown that he is wary of facing Sanders in a general election. Unprompted, Trump said in the Oval Office to reporters on February 11, 2020, “Frankly, I’d rather run against Bloomberg than Bernie Sanders. Because Sanders has real followers, whether you like him or not, whether you agree with him or not. I happen to think it’s terrible what he says. But he has followers.” Lastly, the attorney of Lev Parnas, a Rudy Giuliani associate, released audio of Trump that had been secretly taped, in which he said, “I think if she’d [Clinton] picked Bernie Sanders as her Vice President it would’ve been tougher… Because of trade. Because he’s a big trade guy… Had she picked Bernie Sanders, it would have been tougher. He’s the only one I didn’t want her to pick.”

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