Political journalists have something in common with second-rate social scientists: they find symmetry even where it doesn’t exist.  For example, “left” and “right” are in some ways mirror images, but only in some ways: they also have important structural differences.

The most annoying current version of this tic is the tendency to lump together Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as two symmetrically extreme candidates. It’s hard to count all the different ways this is wrong.

I’m a big fan of Hillary Clinton (a big change for me from eight years ago), and not especially a fan of Sanders. In addition to thinking that his nomination would be a disaster for the Democratic Party – and perhaps even for the Republic if a Bloomberg third-party bid put Trump or Cruz into the White House as a result of an Electoral College deadlock and a one-vote-per-state election in the House of Representatives – I’m underwhelmed by his legislative accomplishments (slim), his managerial experience (even slimmer), his apparent inability to work with colleagues in the Senate, his demonstrated indifference to electing other progressives, his lack of party loyalty, and some rather slipshod policy proposals, for example on health care.

But he’s simply not the sort of narcissistic lunatic that Donald Trump is. As President, he’d have strengths and weaknesses, but he’d be sane and respectful of Constitutional norms. There’s simply no equivalent in the Sanders camp to Jerry Falwell Jr. or Sheriff Joe Arpaio. His political positions are more liberal than those of the average Democrat in Congress, but Congressional Democrats – unlike Congressional Republicans – aren’t an especially extreme group. His rhetoric about “political revolution” and “socialism” applies New Left labels to what is, after all, recognizably a New Deal platform. He wants to crack down on what FDR TR called “malefactors of great wealth,” including criminal prosecutions for corporate misdeeds, especially in the financial-services sector but also, for example, in the pharmaceutical industry.  He wants to reduce the economic importance of financial services. He wants to reduce the influence of money in politics. He wants single-payer health care, paid for out of progressive taxation rather than individual or employer premiums. He wants more expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. He wants to foster a revival of private-sector trade unionism.  And above all, he’d like to see aggressive moves to stem and reverse the growth of income inequality.

All of that might or might not be good politics, but it’s hardly extreme or unprecedented:  Harry Truman would have applauded every syllable.  I’m with him on unionism and money-in-politics (though I doubt his proposed solutions are radical enough to implement his announced goals, and strongly with him on the need to goose the economy.  My heart is with him on corporate misconduct, but I’m not confident either about how many convictions could be obtained or how much that would do to improve behavior. I doubt his single-payer health care plan could be made to work given the current institutional starting point and the power of health-care providers. On inequality I think he’s absolutely right, though I’m not clear on what he actually proposes to do about it.

The correct comparison to Sanders isn’t Trump, but Cruz: another fairly conventional if somewhat lone-wolfish politician drawn from his party’s more extreme flank, and willing to denounce all his his colleagues – of both parties – as corrupt sell-outs. But again, you don’t want to carry symmetry too far:  even “centrist” Republicans now hold lunatic-fringe views, being an on the right flank of the Republicans means being far more radical than beingon the left flank of the Democrats. Just take a look at Cruz’s astoundingly regressive tax plan, or what passes for his foreign policy, or of course his utterly insane views on climate change, which he hasn’t altered a bit even as the 2014 and 2015 temperature data shredded his favorite talking point.

There are important differences between Sanders and Clinton, but those differences are minor compared to their similarities. In the heat of a contested nomination campaign, both camps will be tempted to exaggerate those differences, and the press corps will happily help them do so. But that exaggeration is a temptation to be resisted.


Just to be clear, since (e.g.) Greg Djerejian thought this post “ungenerous” to Sanders by comparing him to Cruz: “comparable” is not the same as “alike.” Cruz is by some measures the most conservative member of either House of Congress, as Sanders is by some measures the most liberal. Both profess to despise the Congress and their colleagues in it as corrupt tools. But both are career electoral politicians rather than performance artists. That makes them alike, and makes Cruz, rather than Trump,  the correct comparison with Sanders. Having done that comparison, you can see the differences: the fringe Democrat is reasonably sane, while the fringe Republican holds positions (on, for example, global warming and the Middle East) that ought to make him certifiable.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.