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What Bernie’s Moment Means

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What Bernie’s Moment Means


WASHINGTON — The exhaustive and exhausting analysis of the Fox News debate promises to produce days more of Trump-mania. It’s thus an excellent time to ponder the other big surprise of the 2016 campaign: the Democrats’ extended Weekend at Bernie’s.

No one is more amazed about the buoyancy of his presidential candidacy than Bernie Sanders himself, which only adds to its charm. The Vermont independent and proud democratic socialist got into the race mainly to remind the country what a progressive agenda actually looks like. You can’t keep calling President Obama a socialist once you’re confronted with the real thing.

Then magic struck: Sanders started surging in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that are demographically well set up for him and that also happen to hold next year’s first two contests. A poll this week from WMUR-TV in New Hampshire showed Sanders within 6 points of Hillary Clinton. The survey had a relatively small sample size and a rather large margin of error, but the trend it measured is consistent with other polls.

To paraphrase the late Robert Bork, the Sanders’ candidacy is a political analyst’s feast because it allows everyone to peddle his or her favorite preconceptions.

Conservatives point to his strength as proof positive of how left wing the Democrats have become. Clinton’s critics cite his rise as a product of her weaknesses. Progressives argue that Bernie taps into a deep frustration with inequality and the power of big money in politics while also reflecting the public’s interest in bold proposals to correct both. And those who go for big sociological theories link Sanders and Trump as avatars of a populist rebellion rooted in widespread impatience with the system and traditional politicians.

Let’s begin with a caveat: Bernie is for real, and his authentic authenticity is enchanting. But it’s not clear how big his candidacy will get. He is drawing large and boisterous crowds, but he is still not close to threatening Clinton in the national polls, partly because he hasn’t broken through among African-Americans and Latinos. They matter in the states that vote after Iowa and New Hampshire. This week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Clinton with a 59 percent to 25 percent lead over Sanders nationally. Clinton’s share was down 16 points from June while Sanders was up 10 points. But a 34-point lead is still a 34-point lead.

Is Sanders’ ascent about Clinton’s problems? The evidence is mixed. In the WMUR Poll, 73 percent of New Hampshire Democrats had a favorable view of Clinton; Sanders’ favorability was at 69 percent. A fair share of Bernie’s people like Hillary, too.

But when asked about specific personal qualities, the poll’s respondents presented Clinton with a to-do list. Clinton was far ahead of Sanders as a strong leader, as having the best chance of winning in November, and as having the right experience to be president. But Sanders led as the most likable and most progressive. And when asked who was the “least honest,” 31 percent picked Clinton; only 3 percent picked Sanders. Washington punditry exaggerates Clinton’s problems, but her campaign should not underestimate them.

The ideological claims are more complicated. It’s true that Democrats — and not only Democrats — are far more aggressive in their opposition to economic inequality than they were, say, in the 1990s. But that’s because the problems of inequality, blocked mobility, and wage stagnation are now more severe. And anybody who doubts that the superrich have gained even more power in the political system isn’t following the SuperPAC news. Sanders is marshalling these discontents.

On the other hand, Democrats haven’t changed nearly as much ideologically as conservatives claim. In 2008, according to numbers the Pew Research Center ran at my request, 34 percent of Democrats called themselves liberal, 37 percent called themselves moderate, and 24 percent called themselves conservative. In 2015, 41 percent were liberal, 35 percent were moderate, and 21 percent were conservative. Is there an uptick in Democratic liberalism? Yes. Has the party shifted sharply leftward? No.

As for alienation from the system, Trump and Sanders do speak to a disaffection that currently roils most of the world’s democracies. But their way of doing it is so radically different — Sanders resolutely programmatic, Trump all about feelings, affect, and showmanship — that they cannot easily be subsumed as part of the same phenomenon. Sanders’ candidacy will leave behind policy markers and arguments about the future. Trump’s legacy will be almost entirely about himself, which is probably fine with him.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Illustration: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

E. J. Dionne

Besides contributing to The National Memo, E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, and a university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2013).

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  1. charleo1 August 6, 2015

    How, much more “liberal,” are Democrats nowadays anyway? More Liberal than say, FDR, or LBJ? I always cringe when some talking head tries to make the case of just how Liberal, and, or Leftist those of us in the Democratic Party have become. And that’s why Conservatives, who haven’t changed a bit, just seem so extremist. Or are maligned as such, in an obviously biased press. Which as the meme goes, has came to be totally dominated by a corp of Liberal Journalists, and intellectual Elitists from NY. or Hollywood, CA. Sure. And my Great Uncle is the King of Dubai. It’s hogwash. That said, one of the major reasons I believe Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton, was because Obama was then, as Sanders is now, perceived as being the more Liberal of the two. He, [Obama] promised if elected, he would make healthcare reform a top priority. And would advocate for the creation of a Medicare for all, Public Option. The Right, called him a Kenyan Socialist Revolutionary, determined to takeover of the entire American Economy, starting with healthcare. And the so called Left leaning Media, all but agreed. Well, they informed us, healthcare after all is 20% of the economy! The Country, on the other hand, continued, and still continues to support in large numbers, the idea of a single payer, gov. run public option, in conjunction to the private insurance market. The major disappointments in Obama from a very large segment of the Democratic Party, hasn’t been his tendency to be too Liberal. But in his willingness to compromise with the most extreme elements of a Republican Party that has frankly forgotten what responsible government looks like. Burnie Sanders, which again, that Liberal Press seldom fails to remind us, is a, “self confessed Socialist.” “Probably not electable.” they add. But Burnie is not talking about nationalizing the oil, and electric companies, collective farming, or redistributing land. But he is making the case of how we must get special interests money out of our politics. And making the connection between that money’s influence, and the growing disparity between this small very powerful minority of rich Americans that has been created. That’s now working to rig the system, and creating the lack of opportunities to get ahead we’re seeing stamped across the lives of everyday Americans, all across the Country. To speak in such a way in today’s America is considered wild eyed Socialism? If so, we’re in deeper trouble than I thought.

    1. RED August 6, 2015

      No doubt. It’s kinda sad that simply not wanting politicians to be bribed and wholly own by the wealthy is called “socialism”. And they think it’s a bad thing!

      1. White Rose August 9, 2015

        Well is it not what they teach in our freedom schools while we drink freedom coke and eat freedom fries???

        Don’t knock it. Formating is good for us.
        And since we are over our head with it and gulping big chunks we are a pretty healthy nation.

        Free see. The rich and the poors altogether now…
        Beatles’ Communist Propaganda Song. Beurk…

    2. White Rose August 9, 2015

      That seems much too simple Charleao.
      American Intelligence (the people’s not the oxymoron) fully awake, and working for betterment of its future. Utopia?

      Because right now you are in the middle age limbos… Politically of course….

      1. charleo1 August 9, 2015

        Why do I hear bongos, and smell incense when I read your comment?
        Far out, man!

        1. White Rose August 11, 2015

          I prefer gun powder myself. And napalm is nifty too….

  2. John Irby August 6, 2015

    Bernie’s election would be about the equivalent of a somewhat violent revolution, but I think a revolution would be more likely to happen due in part to America’s humongous moron voter base, AKA Murdoch’s Morons.

  3. Bosda August 6, 2015

    I will always remember what my Great-Grandpa said to me.

    “Never forget this: your Boss is not your friend, the Cop is a corrupt thug, your Landlord is a bastard, and the Banker is a complete sunnavabitch.”

    Great-Grandpa lived through the Depression, and knew the score.


  4. browninghipower August 6, 2015

    Damned I get so pissed off when a DC Insider writes about Sanders…there are about 4 lines of caveats as to why he’ll never win, be taken seriously, he’s got no appeal outside of a small demographic, America will never go for a ‘socialist’, blah blah blah. But then these very same ash holes spend more time, ink and BS writing about Trump!!!! It sickens me. And then here’s Sanders graciously accepting an invitation to speak at Liberty University. America is still a whiney, narcissistic freaking adolescent who just happens to have a dominant military machine. Whooppee

  5. White Rose August 9, 2015

    Do you have a social life? Yup !
    Are you a socialist then? NEVER. I was formated to hate that word.

    Carry on America, you’re doing just crazy, but fine… Guffaw….

  6. White Rose August 9, 2015

    Normally with not much difference, America readies itself to continue 18’s big Combat to lead the Wooooorld exemplarily…

    Those big soft bellied bullies puppeteers are ready to shoot in the crowd big time.

    They’ll hire puppets who will pay morons with full gear and war toys to do the dirty work.
    On just about any invented pretext.

    Maybe they won’t cook one up this time Just Nuke and Sugar Ray, Robinson…
    Explain later. Write History…

  7. Dominick Vila August 9, 2015

    Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent, is like a breath of fresh air at a time when Hillary is Missing in Action, and Republican candidates spend more time clarifying clarifications, and acting irrationally, than proposing solutions to our domestic and foreign policy challenges.
    The challenge for Bernie is going to be explaining how to pay for all the wonderful things he is proposing, and why he thinks he is going to defeat the special interests that control American politics.

  8. yabbed August 9, 2015

    Bernie Sanders is a one trick pony. Everything for him comes down to punishing billionaires and taking their money away from them and redistributing it to other people. His problem is that Americans like success. We are raised on the American Dream. We don’t hate the rich. Bill Gates made his money by his particular skills and hard work. Stephen Speilberg made his billions through his talent and hard work. Mark Zuckerburg made his billions through his own innovation. Warren Buffet made his billions through his intelligence and application of specific knowledge. They are America’s Rockefellers, Morgans, Vanderbilts, Carnegies of our time. Starting a class war is a dangerous game. Elizabeth Warren had some very intelligent things to say about income inequality and how to best help the working people get some economic relief. But all Bernie does is stride rudely toward his Socialist Utopia of the 30s. He’s lost in some stupid fantasy of rising up as his hero, Eugene Debs. You know he once tried to make a documentary of Eugene Debs (who also ran as a Socialist candidate for the presidency) and it is godawful. You gotta know the Republicans have a copy of that all ready to go.

  9. Whatmeworry August 9, 2015

    With the ongoing investigations of Hilary if she runs it will be from a jail cell

    1. Whatmeworry August 9, 2015

      With the ongoing investigations of Carly if she runs it will be from a jail cell

    2. Daniel Max Ketter August 9, 2015

      Why Ms Clinton is the most qualified than any of the yoyo’s that the GOP is offering. America will win as long as the Democrats stay in office, and Ms Ketter also agrees with me. God bless our labor unions for their service to our country.

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