Phantom Progressivism: Analyzing Bernie Sanders' Lackluster Legislative Record
"From Joe Manchin to Bernie Sanders..."
This past week, I heard this phrase from a prominent local radio host in his effort to describe the challenges faced by the modern Democratic Party. The point, of course, was that the party has a wide range of ideologies from the centrist Democratic senator from West Virginia to the socialist Democratic senator from Vermont. However, being ever mindful of gross generalizations like this one, I couldn't help but shake my head at the statement and the accompanying nodding of heads from the audience. Because as true as it is that the Democratic Party does have a wide spectrum of political ideologies, Bernie Sanders is in no way the most liberal member of the Democratic Party.
The myth of Sanders being a progressive north star largely took hold during his presidential run beginning in 2015. The senator, who openly acknowledged that he never considered himself to be a Democrat and that he was using the party for free media exposure, was glad to use his newfound platform to advocate for his own personal progressive wishlist of free universal healthcare, free college, and a dismantling of the nation's big banks. Despite having no concrete plan as to how to accomplish any of this, Sanders was able to parlay his grandiose progressive ideals into what ended up becoming the most progressive Democratic Party platform in history. Since that was the end result of Sanders' candidacy, people continued to see him as a progressive champion as well as him being the extreme left end of the Democratic spectrum.
But that perception does not match the reality. According to Progressive Punch, Sanders is actually the 11th most liberal senator trailing not only Elizabeth Warren but also Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Sherrod Brown among others. In addition, this modest ranking does not take into account Sanders' checkered history when it comes to some of the most progressive policies of the Democratic Party. Like Hillary Clinton said on the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders is not the gatekeeper of progressivism. In fact, Sanders' voting record, when taken as a whole, shows him to be more of a moderate than a rabble-rousing radical. There is no such thing as a perfect progressive, and for Sanders to still be regarded as the most progressive member of the United States Senate is a dangerous myth that does not meet his record.
To start with, Sanders' record on gun control is abysmal. He is consistently rated among the highest-rated Democratic senators by the NRA. This makes sense, seeing as Sanders was supported by the NRA for his first congressional run in 1990 and had his rating boosted by supporting a gun liability bill in 2005 before his first Senate run. In 2009, he voted for a bill that would allow guns on Amtrak passenger trains and a second bill that would allow firearms into national parks. He voted against the Brady Bill on five separate occasions and voted in support of the Charleston loophole that allowed the purchase of the weapon used to kill nine innocent church members in South Carolina in June of 2015. In fact, Sanders felt so shamed by his gun control record that he ended up amending his 1996 vote against gun control research to call for a new study in December of 2015.
But beyond gun control, Sanders' record on civil rights also is severely lacking. Despite marching on Washington, Sanders then proceeded to not have a single legislative achievement in 40 years to specifically benefit people of color. African-American activists in Vermont saw themselves as "invisible" to Bernie Sanders, despite the fact that the state has the third-highest rate of incarceration of African-Americans in the country. On the campaign trail, Sanders struggled to connect with African-American voters, starting with his disastrous performance at the Netroots Nation meeting in July of 2015. This was only the beginning of Sanders' struggles as he failed to connect with people of color throughout his presidential campaign. Eventually, after repeatedly losing states with large African-American populations, Sanders went so far as to say that southern primaries "distort" reality, a statement that many saw as a not-so-subtle dog whistle as to the demographic makeup of those states.
In addition, Sanders also has a hodgepodge of actions and votes that no true progressive would ever support. He wrote a grotesque fantasy rape essay as a thirty-year-old man. He tried to pass off environmental waste from Vermont to a poor Texas Latino community in 1998. He voted for the Commodities Future Modernization Act in 2000, a bill largely seen as one of the key contributors to the 2008 financial crash. He voted against the implementation of the Amber Alert system in 2003. In July of this year, he voted against a new round of Russian sanctions, despite the overwhelming evidence that they interfered in our elections. And, despite constantly stressing his vote against the Iraq War, Sanders has been an open supporter of the F-35 project, a failed project widely regarded as the most ineffective military program in our nation's history at a cost of $1.5 trillion and counting.
The point with all this is that there is no such thing as a perfect progressive. Sanders may be one of the more progressive members of the Senate according to his voting record, but his checked history leaves a lot to be desired. In addition, Sanders has been unable to parlay his reputation into any meaningful legislation. During his time with the 115th Congress (Jan 2015 - Jan 2017), Sanders cosponsored 236 bills. He introduced 30 bills himself but was the third worst senator at getting co-sponsors. But he did not get a single bill out of committee, did not get a single bill enacted, and was the only senator who was unable to get both a Republican and Democratic senator to cosponsor a bill. Part of this lack of success is due to Sanders' temperament as he has consistently alienated his peers in the Senate. However, Sanders also has continuously refused to compromise on legislation as evidenced by having only passed three authored bills in his entire time in the United States Senate.
For Democrats to have serious conversations about 2017 and beyond, they need to recognize that Bernie Sanders' brand of progressivism is both inefficient and ineffective. Despite being seen as a progressive paradigm, Sanders has a spotty track record at best. His inability to pass any meaningful legislation in 30 years should be a huge red flag to Democrats nationwide. This, combined with the fact that Sanders was unable to connect with the Obama coalition, specifically the base consisting of people of color, should reinforce the idea that Sanders' ideas are not only not feasible but that they're not popular as well. While unnamed Democratic insiders may insist that Bernie Sanders has a shot at the 2020 nomination, the rest of us know that Sanders' rhetoric never has and never will match his record.
The sooner we admit this, the sooner we can look beyond Bernie Sanders for someone who truly represents progressive values.
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