No, really: Bernie Sanders isn’t extreme

As the Iowa Caucuses draw closer, the Democratic primary has gotten more competitive and, inevitably, sharper. Bernie Sanders has taken to reminding supporters of Hillary Clinton’s ginormous honoraria from an investment firm that rhymes with old man slacks. Clinton’s allies have started shopping around opposition research to newspapers alleging that Sanders is a communist sympathizer.

That claim is a stretch, to say the least. From the Guardian:

The dossier, prepared by opponents of Sanders and passed on to the Guardian by a source who would only agree to be identified as “a Democrat”, alleges that Sanders “sympathized with the USSR during the Cold War” because he went on a trip there to visit a twinned city while he was mayor of Burlington.

Similar “associations with communism” in Cuba are catalogued alongside a list of quotes about countries ranging from China to Nicaragua in a way that supporters regard as bordering on the McCarthyite rather than fairly reflecting his views.

To be clear, politics ain’t beanbag. If pressed on whether they think it’s fair to argue that Sanders is a communist because he went to the USSR once and said nice things about Cuba, Clinton’s team (or at least her supporters) would probably argue that even if it isn’t, these are the kinds of attacks Sanders could expect to face in the general election should he win the nomination. So while they may not be “fair,” per se, they’re still fair game. Sanders, who has never faced sustained attacks from a serious conservative opponent, needs to prove that he can hack it against, say, Ted Cruz.

This would concede the point that Clinton’s red-baiting is right-wing, but it would serve to buttress her campaign’s broader point that Sanders is too extreme to win the general election. America is ready for a female president, but it isn’t ready for a democratic socialist president, in part because it can’t tell the difference between a democratic socialist and a communist. So if you want to make sure that the Democrats keep control of the White House, you’d better hold your nose and vote for Clinton.

But here’s the thing: As measured by the votes he’s cast in the Senate, Bernie Sanders’s record really isn’t extreme. As I wrote in September:

Bernie Sanders at Liberty University, screenshot via CSPAN

Bernie Sanders at Liberty University, screenshot via CSPAN

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.

To get a sense of what I mean, consider this: In the 112th and 113th Congresses (from 2011 through 2014) the average Republican was farther to the right than Bernie Sanders was to the left. In the 113th Congress, for example, Bernie Sanders clocked in roughly evenly between perfectly centrist and perfectly liberal with a DW-Nominate score of -.523. The average Republican senator’s DW-Nominate was .569. The average Republican House member was even farther to the right, with an average score of .727.

That’s right: The candidate being held up as a radical leftist is quantitatively more moderate than the average Republican. There are plenty of current members of Congress whose voting records can be fairly described as “extreme” in relative and historical terms, but every single one of them is on the right.

This may be lost on American political observers because the relative extremity of the Republican Party is something we’ve all gotten used to. The last time the House Republicans were remotely close to having an average ideology as moderate as Bernie Sanders was in the 105th Congress, from 1997 to 1999. Ever since then, they have been reliably more conservative — on average, not on their fringe — than Sanders has been liberal.

This all lines up with a point that I and others have made before: The Republican Party has moved so far to the right in the last thirty years that they have created their own ideological spectrum as measured by DW-Nominate. Here’s how Republican members of the House have voted over the last 100 years:

A hypothetical member of the House who was exactly as conservative as Bernie Sanders was liberal during the last congressional session would be hovering around the 10th percentile of conservatism in their caucus. They’d be considered a “moderate” Republican, a centrist, a RINO. No one would think to call them extreme; in fact, they’d almost certainly be vulnerable to a primary challenge for not being extreme enough.

To be clear, DW-Nominate is a limited metric. Most importantly, it only considers votes cast, which means it doesn’t take into account policies candidates support but that don’t ever come up for a vote. So big ticket items in Sanders’s platform like single payer health care and debt-free college aren’t included in his DW-Nominate score because they haven’t come up for a vote. However, that limitation also applies to big-ticket conservative ideals — especially in the Senate, which the Democrats controlled for the 112th and 113th Congresses. So while Sanders didn’t get to vote on a “Medicare for all” health care system between 2011 and 2014, Republican senators like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (both of whom were already more conservative than Sanders was liberal over that time period) didn’t get the chance to vote on conservative wet dreams like the REINS Act and the Fair Tax. Both of those policies are at least as radical as single payer, and both have been either included or emulated in multiple Republican presidential platforms. Sanders’s agenda may be more extreme than his voting record, but so are those of the Senate Republicans running for president — to at least the same degree.

At the end of the day, while it may be a statement of political reality to say that Bernie Sanders is too extreme, that political reality isn’t supported by the legislative reality of Sanders’s voting record in Congress — especially when compared to his Republican counterparts. There are plenty of candidates in this race for president that are distressingly extreme; Bernie Sanders just doesn’t happen to be one of them.

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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  • Well, let’s see. He’s not religious. That will freak out at least half the country right there. And while some of the policy ideas are popular, some others will not be with the kind of suburban voter that tends to swing back and forth from one election to the next.

    I will say this, though. After his reception at Liberty University, I thought some Republican might be smart enough to address student loan interest rates or something to do with the high cost these days of college tuition. Not a peep. How stupid. That would have been a real winner and gotten the attention of younger voters. Oh well.

  • Skye Winspur

    The right has no idea how to attack him, other than calling him a Communist, which works for some older voters (not most of the older voters I know, thankfully). His major plank proposals are just too popular to shoot down.

  • Skye Winspur

    I agree. The New York Times finally called Sanders a “New Deal-style liberal” in a front-page article the other day, which is totally accurate.

    It’s especially infuriating to me that “centrist” columnists continue to make a good living denouncing single-payer health care. Britain has had it (in the form of the National Health Service) SINCE 1948. Good enough for PMs Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, but still “unworkable” and “un-American” for those who “know how Washington works.” Disgusting.

  • Duxburian

    This is all wonderful analysis – but it doesn’t matter. The vast majority of Americans don’t read through policy briefs and decide whether the person who wrote them supports their ideas. Hell – the red states have been voting against their best interests on the basis of a few big lies the right has been telling them for decades.

    Sanders will be smeared as a communist because that’s the bogey man that the right have waiting for him. Clinton will and is smeared as a liar because that’s the narrative the right has built up over years of smearing her.

    The question is really – which of the two is better poised at responding and capitalizing on those attacks. And I’m a bit concerned that Bernie doesn’t have the practice.

    I like Bernie – he’s a good man. So was Carter.

  • Dave n DC

    I agree Bernie isn’t really that extreme although I’m not so sure about this metric. It seems like the number would be highly influenced by who controls the legislature. Right now, liberal bills never come to a vote because Republicans are in control. I would think that the 50+ votes to repeal Obamacare would influence the metric as showing the Republicans as more conservative.

  • DGT

    Even Sanders’ proposals can only be considered extreme if you define extreme as “supported by large majorities of voters.” Universal single-payer healthcare, raising taxes on billionaires, free public university, breaking up the big banks — they all poll in excess of 75% support.

  • The_Fixer

    This coincides with the attack on the term “Liberal” by the extreme right wingers. That’s when the Democrats started trying to be conservatives.

    Problem is, that created more problems that it could ever solve. Instead of saying “Yes, we’re liberals, what the hell is wrong with that?”, they started to try and please the followers of Rush Limbaugh and their ilk.

    I honestly think that if they would have stood up to these disingenuous turds, we would not have the lurch to the extreme right that we have had over the last 30 years. If they would have pointed out the progressive legacy of unions (and why we got them), the anti-war movement and the positive results of the changes made by FDR and LBJ, maybe they wouldn’t have boxed themselves into a corner, and “Liberal” would not the be dirty word it has become.

  • Although admittedly the DW-Nominate metric is somewhat limited, but it still is a rather accurate benchmark.

    It’s interesting to see that trend. In the 1970s, there really were centrist Republicans — although it’s worth noting none were actually liberal/progressive. By time we get to today, the GOPers furthest to the left are now more conservative than the most conservative Republicans were 40 years ago.

    In fact, if one draws a horizontal line from the lowest (least conservative) point today back through history, today’s Republicans are all more conservative than even the most right-wing Republicans up through the early to mid 1980s. You’d have to go all the way back to around 1935 before that line intersects the top of the GOP range again.

    TLDR: Republicans today are now more radically conservative than they have ever been in their entire party’s history.

    But yeah: Sanders isn’t radical or extreme at all, and this red-baiting talk originating from the HRC campaign is deplorable. Sanders is basically center-left, but the neo-liberal / pro-corporatists are determined to keep dragging the party back to center-right. Hell, Dems have been running “see we’re actually conservatives!” campaigns for decades now, but especially in the early 1990s when the party seems to have internalized the idea they could only win the presidency by running as center-right Republicans with a few bones tossed to the progressive base…but only if it didn’t upset the cons too much. (Witness what happened with DADT and DOMA…

  • emjayay

    Reality’s got nothing to do with it.

  • I got back to the early 80s with the Clintons. Nothing surprising here. I’ll vote for her too but it’s sad that neither party doesn’t have far better candidates to offer. But considering the nonsense we put candidates through these days it’s no wonder so many choose not to run. I certainly wouldn’t want my private business dragged out in public, taken out of context and used to smear me.

  • If you actually read Sanders proposals, he’s not even close to as far left as even the so-called moderate Republicans are to the right. But the far left tag will stick and while he’s polling well currently in match-ups with Republicans, I think that’s only because the right hasn’t bothered attacking him yet.

  • hiker_sf

    This is a new low for the Clinton campaign, but it isn’t surprising – neither Hillary, nor Bill, and now it seems Chelsea, have any ethics. These people are better suited with running a trailer park in Arkansas and ruining the lives of their captive tenants, But I will hold my nose and vote for Hillary in the November election if she is the Democratic candidate.

    But I already hate her and the campaign is just beginning. And while I support Sanders, I’m not an enthusiastic supporter. Frankly, looking at all of the candidates combined, it is sad that this is supposedly the best that America has to offer.

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