How Hillary Clinton's Party Produced Bernie Sanders

How Hillary Clinton's Party Produced Bernie Sanders
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Why Bernie Sanders? Why in 2016 (and beyond)?

For the past two years, virtually everyone who’s interested in Democratic politics has asked some variation of those two questions. Sanders is atypical -- he’s consistently to the left of almost all of his Senate colleagues, his rhetoric is populist and he’s not actually a Democrat -- yet he was able to win about 43 percent of the vote in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. And since Donald Trump won the White House, the Vermont senator has remained active in progressive politics, giving his stamp of approval to candidates he thinks are sufficiently liberal.

So why did Democratic voters respond so well to someone who is, in some ways, outside their party’s norm? And why didn’t someone like him gain traction in 2008 -- and why at this point in time instead of 2020 or 2024? Obviously there’s more than one way to answer these questions, and I’m far from the first to take a stab at them. But I want to add one more high-level explanation to the mix: that Bernie Sanders is, in some fundamental ways, a throwback.

Specifically, he embodies the fusion of an older populist style of liberalism and a more modern universalism. This fusion is possible because some of the economic and social factors that previously pushed against Democratic populism have receded since the end of the Cold War and the 2008 financial crash. In other words, some of the forces that caused Democrats to lean away from Harry Truman-esque candidates and toward standard-bearers like Adlai Stevenson may now be gone, allowing populism to reassert itself on the left.

One important note before getting into the arguments: I’ve relied heavily on John Gerring’s “Party Ideologies in America 1828-1996.” Terms like populist, universalist, liberal, etc., get used in a variety of contexts in modern political discourse, and Gerring’s definitions as well as his ideas about ideological change anchor this analysis.

Many Modern Democrats -- Including Hillary Clinton -- Are Universalists

To fully understand why Sanders seems out of place in the modern Democratic Party, we need to describe universalism, the currently dominant ideology within the party. Gerring writes that universalism started to take hold in the Democratic Party in the postwar era as national Democrats shifted away from an anti-elitist, populist message and toward rhetoric centered on unity, peace and prosperity. Universalists tend to see abstract concepts rather than specific people or institutions as problems -- think of the efforts to stop poverty, end racism or reduce income inequality. Universalist Democrats cast themselves as managers of the welfare state rather than crusaders against a powerful elite, and they often championed the rights and causes of a wide array of individual groups. Democrats’ focus on LGBT rights, civil rights protections for African-Americans, comprehensive immigration reform, women’s rights and more can all be thought of as part of as a universalist commitment to the particular needs of groups. Rhetorically, universalist Democrats often end up appealing for a party that offers a space for everyone to voice their concerns.

Hillary Clinton is a great example of this. In her speeches, she would sometimes move through a long list of policy ideas, each designed to meet the needs of some part of her coalition. She frequently appealed to the idea of unity: Her campaign slogans included “Stronger Together” as well as “Love Trumps Hate.” Clinton wasn’t a pure universalist, however. She targeted Wall Street bankers and other specific groups in some of her public appearances. But she often would frame problems in the abstract (poverty, student debt, climate change, etc.) without explicitly blaming invidious, powerful people. Clinton’s ideology and rhetoric were complex (like that of any politician) but the overall thrust can be seen as universalist.

Bernie Sanders Doesn’t Fit That Mold  

Sanders, however, doesn’t ultimately trace his policy positions to a fight with poverty or for better health care, but to a fight against Wall Street bankers or pharmaceutical companies. His economic narratives have clear and present antagonists. Sanders also comes off as less technocratic than some universalists. He often frames his appeals for campaign finance reform, single-payer health care and other progressive policies as part of a political revolution rather than careful management and expansion of the existing welfare state.

In these ways, Sanders is more of a populist than many modern Democrats. Populists, according to Gerring’s categories, were the dominant force in national Democratic politics from 1896 to 1948. Their organizing political principle was a moral fight between the common man and a few moneyed elites who exploited the masses for personal gain. Populists often targeted trusts. They used moral language, explicitly calling policies “right” or “wrong” and believed that the government was the only force strong enough to restrain big business, ensure that the basic needs of citizens were met and bring people into a state of true equality. Gerring draws a line from William Jennings Bryan through Woodrow Wilson and FDR, claiming that all three were, at their core, populists.

Sanders takes a populist attitude on the issues he emphasizes most. He often traces the ills in society back to a powerful few: Oil companies, Wall Street bankers and health insurance companies are frequent targets. He doesn’t shy away from criticizing businesses, and he often argues in explicit moral terms.

But his ideology isn’t a complete throwback -- he also emphasizes some universalist concerns. He’s pro-choice, pro-LGBT and generally progressive on social and racial issues (not something that can be said of older populist Democrats who were often allied with Southern segregationists). And Sanders does seem to care about the various issue groups within the Democratic Party, though he often attempts to put their concerns within the “people vs. power” framework that Gerring describes.

In that way, Sanders is a hybrid: an economic throwback with modern liberal social and cultural positions.

So How Did a Universalist Party Give Over 40 Percent of Its Vote to a Modern Populist?

Again, Gerring helps us answer these questions. According to his account, a number of factors underlie the shift from Democratic populism to universalism. But after the end of the Cold War and the financial crisis of 2008, only some of them now remain.

Democrats moved toward universalism after World War II in part because of the Cold War. The U.S.S.R., America’s chief geopolitical enemy, was a socialist state, so using rhetoric that appeared to be anti-business or anti-capitalist could easily backfire. That led many Democrats to ease up on their criticism of big business and talk more about the systemic nature of problems like poverty.

But the Cold War ended over two decades ago, and most millennial voters weren’t politically conscious (if they were alive) before the Berlin Wall fell. Polling has shown that voters 18-to-29 years old are more skeptical of capitalism than any other age group. I didn’t find much polling on confidence in capitalism from past decades, so it’s impossible to state conclusively that millennials are more wary of markets than young people in previous eras. But the idea makes sense. Millennials, who made up a disproportionate share of the Sanders coalition, never experienced a protracted global conflict with socialist states, so they are likely more open to a progressive candidate who directly criticizes various industries.

There’s also an economic element to this shift. The period from the 1950s to the mid-2000s was, despite some speed bumps, a time of relative prosperity and economic growth, so (as Gerring noted) politicians didn’t always gain much from criticizing economic institutions. The financial crash of 2008 may have changed that.

It’s hard to overstate how much money was lost in the recession, and the recovery from it has been halting and unevenly distributed. Again, I don’t have much good polling data on opinions about capitalism before and after the crash, but public opinion, especially among Democrats, turned sharply against banks after the meltdown.

That provided new rhetorical possibilities to Democrats. They no longer had to be the careful guardians of the welfare state. They could fit their new antagonist -- banks -- into a populist economic story of “the people” fighting the privileged. And since the rediscovery of populism, Democrats like Sanders have started to deploy that type of narrative on other issues, casting pharmaceutical companies as the enemy of health-care reform and the oil industry as stopping progress on climate change.

It’s also important to note that some of the factors that led Democrats from populism to universalism still persist -- and that helps explain Sanders’s mixed ideology.

The wide array of interest groups that gained power in the Democratic coalition in the postwar era (advocates for LGBT rights, civil rights, environmental protection, immigration reform and more) are still part of the party. Sanders, like most modern Democrats, appeals to these groups by taking positions that are agreeable to them, but at times puts his economic vision ahead of these issues (note the controversy over Sanders’ support for Heath Mello, an Omaha mayoral candidate whose record on abortion didn’t fully please the left). Sanders is also progressive on racial issues, unlike many of the progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In those ways, Sanders is part-universalist, part-populist, fusing an older economic style with a newer narrative on social and cultural issues. And it shouldn’t be surprising that this fusion appeared in 2016 – which was both the first open Democratic nomination contest since the crash and a time when a large number of millennials flowed into the electorate.

It’s Unclear What This Change Means for Democrats Going Forward

Sanders may have shown that a new policy space is open within the Democratic Party. But there’s no guarantee that his style will win in the long term. There’s definitely room for a talented candidate to add some other groups to Sanders’s base and make a serious play for the Democratic presidential nomination. But with more than three years until the next presidential primary is over, it’s impossible to say if any candidate will succeed in that effort.

More importantly, it’s impossible to know exactly how long these changes will stick. Events could intervene to strengthen or weaken Democratic populism in unforeseen ways. But for now, it’s a potent force worth watching.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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