Bernie Sanders Helps the Left, Donald Trump Hurts the Right

As Bernie Sanders gains momentum among the Democratic primary electorate, there have been a number of commentators claiming his candidacy constitutes a tea party of left, weakening Hillary Clinton’s appeal to progressives and damaging her general election prospects.

It’s an easy conventional wisdom argument to make, especially for the Third Way centrist types who make a living concern trolling against progressives to promote a socially liberal yet corporate-friendly agenda. There’s also nothing more pleasing to most Beltway journalists than a “both sides do it” narrative in which both the leadership of both political parties is painted as nobly resisting their “extreme” base voters in order to “get things done”–as if passing legislation were the primary goal rather than passing good legislation, and as if laws that can somehow pass muster with the most centrist Democrats and Republicans were automatically the most commonsense, well-reasoned and level-headed solutions. (Hint: they’re not.)

Since the Republican Party is most assuredly being pulled to the right by antiquated stances promoting bigoted social doctrines and discredited supply-side economics that are wildly unpopular, especially with younger voters, it’s comforting to claim that the same is happening with the left. If Donald Trump is dangerous for Republicans, then assuredly Bernie Sanders must be dangerous for Democrats.

But he’s not. For starters, most prognosticators don’t consider either Trump or Sanders to be serious threats for the nomination. While Sanders is indeed rising in the polls, he still trails Clinton in most polls by very wide margins. So absent unforeseen circumstances, their effect is likely to be in shifting the tone and topics of the conversation.

As far as that goes, Sanders can only help Democrats. To start with, nearly every single policy position in Bernie Sanders’ quiver is publicly popular. There’s no sense in which the Democratic Party being branded with the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders is going to hurt its prospects with general election voters. It might hurt with corporate and Wall Street donors, but then that’s what the whole battle for the soul of the Party is all about. And frankly, if Democrats lose the general election in 2016 it won’t have been for lack of funding, but rather weakness of message.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s greatest weaknesses among Democratic primary voters are her close ties to Wall Street and other corporate interests, her promotion of fracking abroad, and her hawkishness on foreign policy. These are weaknesses that don’t just hurt her with a Democratic primary electorate, but with independent voters as well. Forcing her to confront those weaknesses and explain or reject her prior positions is helpful to her as a candidate. If she stands her ground and defends poorly considered or corrupted opinions on those issues then she deserves to feel the heat for that. And if the Clinton campaign were to somehow implode in the face of a challenge from Bernie Sanders of all people, then she clearly wouldn’t have been able to stand up a Republican general election challenge, either.

The same cannot be said of Donald Trump and the far right. Donald Trump’s public statements are outrageous and his public policy positions are unpopular. His entry into the race isn’t damaging because he might take votes from more potentially appealing frontrunners, but rather because he gives the Republican Party a black eye every time he opens his mouth.

There’s no comparison between the two, no matter how much the centrist pundits might wish it so.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.