Looking at the Democratic primary as a movie, a film critic might say that Sen. Bernie Sanders is a little “on-the-nose” as an antagonist to Hillary Clinton. He is her reverse. Where Hillary is well-known (and to many women, an icon), he is obscure. Where she embodies the establishment, he is on its outskirts, a self-identified “socialist” from the liberal enclave of Burlington, Vermont. Where she gives six-figure speeches, he is among the “poorest” members of the Senate with a net worth of roughly $460,000. She plans to run a $2 billion campaign; he hopes to raise $50 million.
And where Clinton is in the middle of the mainstream, Sanders has been an iconoclast for decades. As a House member, he co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus, opposed both wars in Iraq, and voted against the Patriot Act. As a senator for Vermont since 2007, he’s criticized the bank bailouts, voted against Tim Geithner’s nomination for Treasury Secretary, and gave a nearly nine-hour speech against a partial extension of the Bush tax cuts.
Now, as a candidate in the Democratic nomination race, he’s an advocate for the left wing of the party. “I am not running against Hillary Clinton,” he said in a recent interview with the Washington Post. Instead, he’s launching a crusade—against inequality, against Wall Street, and against the “billionaire class” that he claims dominates American politics. “Billionaire families are now able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the candidates of their choice,” he says on his campaign website. “These people own most of the economy. Now they want to own our government as well.”
This is more than rhetoric. To Sanders, the economy isn’t just unequal, it’s rigged, with the richest Americans using their resources to tilt the board in their direction. “Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent,” he said in a recent interview with CNBC’s John Harwood. “Top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much as wealth as the bottom 90 percent.” To reverse this “massive transfer of wealth” from the middle class to the very top, Sanders wants high tax rates (“If my memory is correct, when radical socialist Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the highest marginal tax rate was something like 90 percent”) and substantial redistribution.
This agenda, and Sanders’ diagnosis, has real appeal in the Democratic Party. Seventy-one percent of Democrats want high taxes to fund programs for the poor, and 37 percent blame tax and economic policies for the gap between the rich and everyone else. As for the senator himself? Of the non-Clinton candidates in the Democratic primary, he’s the most popular, holding more support than Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee combined. Then again, this is a bit like being the best featherweight boxer in a ring with Mike Tyson. You are going to lose, and it will be painful.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how Sanders and his left-wing advocacy can pull Clinton to the left when, outside of debates, she can safely ignore his campaign.
The answer is twofold. First, Sanders is so distant from the Democratic establishment that he’s uninterested in traditional fundraising. This makes winning impossible, but it’s also an opportunity. Describing Clinton and others, Sanders told Harwood that “when you hustle money like that … you sit in restaurants where you’re spending … hundreds of dollars for dinner and so forth. That’s the world that you’re accustomed to, and that’s the worldview that you adopt. … I think that can isolate you—that type of wealth has the potential to isolate you from the reality of the world.”
Sanders isn’t isolated and he hasn’t adopted that world. He’s not beholden to it. He doesn’t have to flatter the opinions of wealthy lawyers, profligate bankers, or powerful businesspeople. In turn, he’s free to raise the kinds of issues—on the economy, on campaign finance—that Clinton wouldn’t get from a more traditional candidate. Debates are often overrated, but don’t underestimate the power of an uncomfortable question.
And second, Sanders isn’t the only left-wing Democrat with a pull on the presidential race. Far from running alone, he’s working in tandem with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who already influenced the race by denying—but until this year, never fully disavowing—a presidential run. If Sanders is pushing at Clinton from inside the primary, than Warren—a de facto party leader for the Democratic left with her own base of money and support—is doing the same from the outside. In particular, Warren is making the case against the present economy, in terms that echo Sanders (and vice versa). “When the top 10 percent gets 100 percent of the income growth over the course of a generation, then the America of opportunity is vanishing,” said Warren in a recent speech at a small celebration in honor of the 25th anniversary of the American Prospect, a left-leaning magazine. (Disclosure: I worked there for three years).
Warren’s argument—shared by progressive leaders like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and articulated in new work from groups like the Roosevelt Institute—is that the rules of our economy favor the wealthiest Americans and the most powerful corporations. In that environment, growth isn’t enough. To fix inequality, you need to rethink those rules and recalibrate them for broad distribution of economic prosperity. And in the meantime, you also need to stop any new rules that rig the game even further.
For liberals, the test of the 2016 Democratic race is whether the left needs a strong candidate to pull the establishment to its side. Sanders and Warren are promising, but there’s no guarantee they can do the job. But then, that’s not the only gauge for success. So far, Clinton has been silent on the economy, focusing on issues like immigration and criminal justice reform where there’s broad consensus in the Democratic Party. For the likely nominee of the party, this is unacceptable.
If they do anything, Sanders and Warren will challenge Clinton to give her full views on inequality and articulate a vision for the shape of the American economy. It will open up the conversation. And compared with a world where Clinton is tight-lipped on her commitments, that’s a win.