Bernie’s Not a “True Democrat.” So What?

Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. But he’s done as much to advance the Democratic Party’s true ideals than anyone in recent history and is among the least likely in the Senate to vote with President Donald Trump’s agenda. Shouldn’t that count for something? (Photo Credit: American Federation of Government Employees/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Since Bernie Sanders made official what has long been suspected in that he would run again for president in the 2020 election, for his detractors, the reasons abound why they don’t “feel the Bern.” He’s too old. He’s too socialist. He’s another white male. His policy goals are untenable. He’s too full of himself. He cost Hillary Clinton the last election. He has done irreparable harm to the Democratic Party. He hasn’t done enough to rein in the sexism of his campaign or his supporters. He’s out of touch. His time has passed. He needs to step aside.

As a confessed Sanders supporter from 2016—and thus someone making no claims to objectivity—I bristle at a number of these concerns. Especially the ones about Bernie costing Hillary the election or doing major damage to the Democrats. Some people seem conveniently to forget that Bernie campaigned for “Hill-dawg” after ending his own bid. As for the party’s integrity, if one person is capable of causing such profound destruction to the Dems’ infrastructure, to me, that says worse about the party itself than the one supposedly wreaking havoc. Just saying.

The objection heretofore unnamed which particularly galls me, however, is the notion Sanders isn’t a “true Democrat.” True, Bernie isn’t a Democrat; he’s an independent. He caucuses with the Democrats, but he identifies primarily as an independent.

Admittedly, as fact-checker Linda Qiu, working then for PolitiFact and now for the New York Times, explored back in 2016, Bernie has had a problematic association with calling himself an independent vs. identifying as a Democrat, particularly as it pertains to his candidacy for president. On his Senate website, he listed himself as an independent. On his campaign website, he identified as a “Democratic candidate.” He has frequently criticized the Democratic Party and has rejected the label of Democrat in the past, but he has campaigned for Democrats.

As I saw one Internet commentator put it, Bernie’s like the guy who goes to bed with you and doesn’t call you back the day after. As he caucuses with the Democrats, serves on Senate committees with them, and frequently co-sponsors bills with them, I think this criticism is a bit overblown. At the very least, Sanders’s ambiguity is confusing to the prospective voter. From the party’s perspective, too, they might not feel too jazzed up about a candidate receiving the apparent benefits of associating herself or himself with the Democrats without willing to link herself or himself definitively with the party. Fix your heart or die! Wave that blue banner! What’s so bad about the Democratic Party that you don’t want to join?! (Wait, that was rhetorical—don’t actually tell us!)

For the individual voter, however, despite the confusion and whatever self-serving advantages an uneasy alliance with one of the two major parties might hold, the litmus test of whether someone is a “true Democrat” makes less sense to me. Of course, if you’re a diehard Democratic Party supporter, I get it: you probably feel a sense of umbrage about Sanders’s awkward dance with the Dems. What, Bernie, you’re good to be a member? If you don’t want to call yourself a Democrat, we don’t want you! And take your “Bernie Bros” with you!

Such a response to Sanders’s candidacy is understandable, if impractical. Much in the way we might insist on ideological purity tests for political candidates or even people/organizations that we admire and materially support, some of us who have long backed the Democratic Party regard upholding the party’s ideals as important. It’s not just a matter of intellectual attachment. It’s a matter of the heart or even the soul. As imperfect as her actions have been and her reasoning may yet be, Donna Brazile’s complaint about reducing the influence of superdelegates because of the blood, sweat, and tears she shed for the Democrats speaks to the seriousness with which she treats these affairs. Simply put, it’s personal.

With all this acknowledged, there are two big reasons why Bernie running as a Democrat in 2020 seems desirable: one more general in relation to our political system, the other specific to present circumstances. The first reason is that independent candidates face an uphill electoral battle and their very candidacy risks swaying the election. At heart, I tend to dismiss the third-party/independent-candidate-as-spoiler diatribes that periodically manifest after close races. Given the current dominance of the two major parties, a Democrat’s or Republican’s loss in a contested race should be seen mainly through the lens of that candidate’s and that party’s failure to seal the deal. Besides, it’s your right to vote however you want.

Independent as he may be, though, and as disagreeable as you may find some of his positions on issues, Bernie’s no dope. He doesn’t want to split the electorate any more than you would plead with him not to. Along the same lines, he has rejected overtures from third parties—both existing and theoretical—because of the time, effort, and organization it would take to bolster and sustain the ranks of such a progressive faction.

Then again, he could always not run. In fact, some of his 2016 supporters might share these sentiments. For all the criticism and mudslinging a presidential campaign brings with it, not to mention the strain of going from city to city doing debates, interviews, speeches, and the like, there’s a lot for one person to endure and the risk of damage to one’s political career for all the scrutiny. See also “Howard Dean Scream.”

The other major reason why Democratic Party supporters should encourage the strongest possible pool of candidates is the man who currently resides in the White House—you know, when he’s not at one of his resorts. The Dems and their supporters are deservedly riding high after their party took back control of the House subsequent to the midterms. Still, nothing is guaranteed for 2020, and especially after Donald Trump’s upset win in 2016, the Democrats would be loath to take anything for granted. Trump, for all his malapropisms and missteps, maintains a base of fanatical backers. And this is before we even get to disinformation campaigns about individual candidates that surely are underway—foreign or domestic.

To reiterate, I voted for Bernie in the Democratic primaries in 2016 and still admire him, so I’m not unbiased in expressing my opinions. Just the same, I’d like to think that if he were 100 and purple, I’d support him nonetheless. For me, it’s a matter of his stated ideals. This is not to say that other candidates don’t share similar views or possess their own strengths. It’s a crowded field and a deeper one this time around, at that. For the pragmatists among us, however, his bid for the presidency as a Democrat shouldn’t be an issue, assuming the proverbial cream will rise to the top and that the primary process is a fair one. Bernie diehards, you don’t have to say it; I can already see you wagging your finger at the DNC.


What is truly problematic about the argument Bernie Sanders isn’t a “true Democrat” is that this distinction, much like Sanders’s identification with the Democratic Party, appears to be nebulous. How does someone get classified as a true Democrat? Is it based on time served in office under the party banner? Dues paid or donations raised? Commitment to the party ideals? Some combination of the above? Does the definition change over time? And who decides such things?

Briahna Joy Gray, senior politics editor for The Intercept, for one, celebrated in 2017 that Bernie is not a Democrat because that apparently leaves him free to advance the party’s ideals while the actual Democrats lament political “realities” and revert to the same faulty electoral strategies. Gray closes her piece with these thoughts about the charge levied by Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, and their establishment ilk that Sanders is “not even a Democrat”:

The implication that non-Democrats would fail to live up to Democratic values, when those values are precisely the ones the Sanders movement aims to push forward, is partially why the “not even a Democrat” smear is so grating to progressives. That the party is moving leftward should provoke warm-hearted optimism and encouragement from Democrats; after all, those are ostensibly their values, too. Instead, the petty and territorial response from some Democrats reminds one of the line from Mean Girls: Bernie Sanders “doesn’t even go here!”

Political parties aren’t sports teams. Politics are about principles and results, not tribalism.  As Marc Munroe Dion, quoted in Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal, put it when describing the despair that had settled on a dying manufacturing town, those still invested in party affiliation itself are performing “political rituals that haven’t made sense since the 1980s, feathered tribesmen dancing around a god carved out of a tree trunk.” Affiliation is not a birthright or an immutable characteristic, but an expression of personal ideals. If Bernie Sanders, the most popular politician in America, is not a Democrat, it is the Democrats, not Bernie, who need to consider redefining themselves.

From where Gray is standing, Sanders’s candidacy and lingering popularity should only be threatening for Democrats if his core values and theirs fail to align. That their ideals aren’t that dissimilar and yet a tension between the two sides exists suggests it’s the Democrats who have trouble articulating or defining their ideals, notably because they’re, in part, compromised by their fidelity to “banking interests and the technocracy” as opposed to the interests of labor that at least once formed the backbone of the party’s support. It’s hard for us to be “with her” or “stronger together” when it’s difficult to know whose designs are being considered alongside our own expressions of what we need.

As of February 23 and as calculated by FiveThirtyEight, in the U.S. Senate during the era of President Donald Trump, only Kirsten Gillibrand (12.2%), Jeff Merkley (13.3%), and Elizabeth Warren (13.3%) have voted in line with Trump less often than Bernie Sanders (14.6%). That puts Sanders in line with other contenders like Cory Booker (15.6%) and Kamala Harris (17.8%), significantly better than declared or rumored candidates like Sherrod Brown (29.2%) or Amy Klobuchar (31.3%), and miles ahead of someone like Joe Manchin, who has voted in line with Trump’s position 60% of the time. West Virginia’s identity as a “red” state notwithstanding, and noting that a party is only as good as its weakest link, how silly does it look to cast aspersions on Bernie when he fares better on the ideological purity test than the majority of his Democratic colleagues and when someone like Manchin seems like the living embodiment of a DINO (Democrat in Name Only)? This is not a good look for the Dems.

True, Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. But so what? He’s done as much as anyone in recent memory to help save the Democratic Party from itself, and while it can’t be assumed that he would’ve won the 2016 election had he won the nomination, he may just be the Democrats’ best option in 2020.

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