The Fallacy of Evaluating Which Candidate Is More Progressive

A recent poll by Emerson included some data about Sanders supporters that came as a bit of a surprise.

26% of current Bernie Sanders supporters said that they would rather vote for President Donald Trump over Senator Elizabeth Warren, if that were the eventual 2020 matchup.

It is important to note that a clear majority of Sanders supporters didn’t agree. But given that Warren and the senator from Vermont are often labelled as the two most progressive candidates in the 2020 field, a lot of questions were raised by the fact that about a quarter of his supporters would vote for Trump over Warren. There was some discussion about whether that is a reflection of sexism, which might be a factor. But Bhaskar Sunkara, one of Sanders’ most vocal supporters, had a different explanation.

Sunkara went on to point to an article in which he analyzed the differences between Sanders and Warren. He wrote that for Sanders, who was trained in the dying remnants of the Socialist party, “the rich were not morally confused but rather have a vested interest in the exploitation of others. Power would have to be taken from them by force.” On the other hand:

Warren has established herself as a credible, progressive Democrat. But her background hints at the difference between her more wonkish approach – seeking to construct better policy but not an alternative politics – and the class-struggle, worker-centric approach of Sanders. Not surprisingly, Warren has been keen to assure business interests that she believes that “strong, healthy markets are the key to a strong healthy America” and that she “is a capitalist”.

The candidates themselves would have to speak to whether those descriptions are accurate, but it seems to be a fair assessment based on what we’ve heard from the two of them. That is why conventional wisdom has almost always placed Sanders a bit farther left on the political continuum than Warren.

Personally, I have never placed much stock in that particular strain of conventional wisdom. The reasons for that were made abundantly clear when several candidates participated in town hall discussions on CNN Monday evening, including Warren and Sanders. The candidates were asked whether they supported impeachment proceedings following the release of the Mueller report. Warren gave an impassioned response in the affirmative.

Sanders denounced the actions of the president and suggested that the House should investigate whether Trump obstructed justice, but aligned himself more with moderate Steny Hoyer rather than Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom have called for impeachment.

While it may not factor into Sanders’ position, it is interesting to note that some of his most vocal supporters—like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi—tend to side more with Trump and his enablers in suggesting that the Mueller report totally exonerates the president. Taibbi went so far as to claim that voters will hold the media accountable for spreading conspiracy theories about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. So in circles that people often describe as the most progressive, there is no uproar in favor of impeachment, but quite the opposite.

The inadequacy of conventional wisdom about the left-right continuum is further demonstrated by the fact that the Vermont senator, who has always identified as an Democratic Socialist, had to move to the left on issues like gun control and immigration reform in order to run in the 2016 Democratic primary. On the other hand, Warren was a Republican until the 1990s and has consistently become more progressive upon entering the world of electoral politics in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

There are those who suggest that at this point, with the numerous detailed proposals put forward by Warren, she is now more progressive than Sanders. And yet, on what has become Sanders’ signature issue—Medicare for All—Warren continues to talk about the multiple paths to universal healthcare at affordable costs.

All of this is to use Sanders and Warren as examples to demonstrate that a simple embrace of the left to right continuum fails to capture the complexity of differences between candidates. It takes a lot more work to thoroughly understand the position of candidates on a variety of issues—not to mention all of the other areas to be evaluated, like their worldview, mettle, and ability to learn. But that is what is required of citizens in a democratic republic.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.