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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