vision 2020

Bernie Sanders Is the Howard Schultz of the Left

Democratic centrist. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

He is an independent who insists that the American people are far less divided than the American Congress. He claims to speak for a silent, bipartisan majority that longs for common-sense solutions to our nation’s problems — and is sick and tired of the media’s divisiveness and triviality. Despite his longtime ties to the Democrats, he holds both parties responsible for the public’s declining faith in government.

He was born into a working-class Jewish family in Brooklyn. But from such humble origins, he rose to become a man of great wealth, whose exact net worth is the subject of widespread speculation. He does not apologize for his hard-earned fortune. But he is grateful for the opportunities this country provided him, and wants to ensure that all Americans have the same chance to fulfill their full potential. He thinks there’s a “serious problem” at our southern border, but the answer isn’t to “demonize immigrants” — it’s to build new facilities for detaining asylum seekers. He thinks that “every American should be concerned” about the national debt because “that’s not something we should be leaving to our children and grandchildren”; that the left has taken political correctness too far; and that he should be the next president of the United States — because none of the more conventional candidates can transcend our nation’s partisan divides, and unite the American people behind pragmatic, evidence-based policies that a bipartisan majority of the public supports.

But he doesn’t know much about the coffee business. And so, while the Washington Post describes Howard Schultz as a centrist, it deems Bernie Sanders an “aggressive partisan” who is campaigning as a “Democratic version of Trump.”

Likening Bernie Sanders to Howard Schultz might seem like a cheeky provocation. And it is. But it is also genuinely the case that Sanders, like Schultz, is campaigning as an aspiring unifier of a disaffected, bipartisan majority that (supposedly) shares his policy preferences. And unlike Schultz, Sanders actually has some evidence to support his case. The former Starbucks CEO has spoken out in favor of cutting Social Security spending (a policy supported by 10 percent of Republicans, and 3 percent of Democrats), and decried Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax (a proposal supported by 61 percent of all voters, and 50 percent of Republicans). By contrast, Bernie Sanders’s signature policies — Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage, a giant tax hike on the wealthy, and a $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus — all boast majority support in most surveys, and overwhelming bipartisan support in a few. And while support for Medicare for All declines when respondents are told that it would require the abolition of private insurance, even the most unfavorable polls of single-payer show the policy boasting many times more support than Schultz’s desired entitlement cuts.

Meanwhile, as suggested above, on some of the most divisive issues in American politics — such as immigration and gun control — Sanders is a relative moderate who decries “open borders,” and insists that Democrats must respect rural America’s firearms culture. Which isn’t to say that the senator is unwilling to take boldly progressive stances on issues of racial or social justice. There are few congressional Democrats (if any) to his left on reproductive choice or criminal justice. And most recently, Sanders defended the rights of the most reviled and disempowered minority in the U.S. — arguing that incarcerated felons should be allowed to vote in all elections. Nevertheless, despite his socialist branding, Sanders actually holds firmly center-left positions on many issues, and puts relatively little rhetorical emphasis on the most polarizing parts of his platform (qualities that have won him some detractors within Team Blue’s tent).

Sanders’s peculiar brand of centrism was on full display Monday night, during his town hall on Fox News. In the course of fielding questions from anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum — and a crowd of citizens in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania — Sanders triangulated on topics peripheral to his core themes. In defiance of the ascendent Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) movement, the senator expressed concern about the national debt, and promised to pay for all of his programs dollar for dollar. In defiance of “Abolish ICE” activists, Sanders suggested that everyone agrees America needs more border security, and called for an expansion of facilities for housing (which is to say, ostensibly, imprisoning) asylum seekers while they await their days in court.

Meanwhile, the avowed socialist took pains to frame his economic agenda in familiar, unthreatening terms. He reminded the crowd that conservatives once decried Medicare as a socialist takeover of medicine. And yet, today, conservative voters adamantly oppose cutting the program. He noted that veterans already enjoy socialized insurance, and invited the audience to ask the American Legion how it would feel about having its members’ health care privatized. He explained that Americans pay much more for health care than citizens of other developed countries, and receive worse (and less universal) coverage in return. And he observed that Medicare for All is the only policy that could truly provide Americans with stable access to their preferred doctors — because if you get your insurance through your employer, your boss can always switch your plan.

Sanders didn’t argue that all Americans were entitled to a basic income —merely that no one who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty. He didn’t talk about a job guarantee, merely about creating 15 million jobs through infrastructure spending. At evening’s end, the senator said, “I think sometimes the divisions in this country get a little bit too hot. At the end of the day we are all Americans who love this country … We have a lot more in common than most people think we do.”

Sanders then asked his audience whether they thought the minimum wage should be a living wage, whether veterans should have health care, and whether our “crumbling infrastructure” should be rebuilt — and was met with resounding “yes” after resounding “yes.”

All of which invites the question: Why does the mainstream media portray Sanders as the antithesis of a consensus builder? Given that his policy positions are considerably more popular than Howard Schultz’s — and would mark him as a right-wing social democrat in just about any Western European country — why is the coffee mogul widely understood to be centrist, while Sanders is considered a radical ideologue?

The Washington Post article cited above illuminates the dissonance between Sanders’s big-tent strategy, and the media’s insistence on branding him as an ultrapartisan. On the one hand, the paper describes Sanders’s frequent appeals to disaffected Trump voters as “a sharp contrast with other Democratic candidates who are focused on mobilizing Trump opponents.” And yet, just paragraphs after suggesting Sanders is exceptionally interested in building a bipartisan coalition, the Post describes him as the opposite of a consensus builder:

The divide over Sanders reflects a dilemma at the heart of the Democratic primary: Should the party nominate a Democratic version of Trump who can match his combativeness, energizing liberals and taking the fight to the president? Or should it embrace a consensus builder, one who can rise above the country’s partisan anger and bring people together?

That question could take on even greater significance in coming weeks with the expected candidacy of former vice president Joe Biden. Biden’s bipartisan approach would sharpen the contrast between the field’s “unifiers” — Biden, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former congressman Beto O’Rourke — and its more aggressive partisans such as Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Sanders bears much of the responsibility for his perceived radicalism; no one forced the senator to describe his brand of class-conscious, New Deal liberalism as “democratic socialism.” But the fact that he is regularly portrayed as “the Donald Trump of the left” — and never as a progressive version of Howard Schultz (i.e., an independent who actually knows something about American politics and public opinion) — reflects the biases of mainstream discourse. On economic policy, the consensus views on Capitol Hill are radically different from those espoused by the American public in opinion polls. And yet, this basic distinction is almost always elided in neutral political reporting. Bernie Sanders is on the left of the Democratic caucus, and evinces little interest in adjusting his platform to fit Susan Collins’s specifications. Therefore, he is a partisan who does not wish to “bring people together.”

The possibility that — in a nation with exceptionally high levels of economic inequality and corporate investment in campaigns and lobbyists — the national legislature might be systematically biased toward the interests of the wealthy, and thus, a poor proxy for the economic views of “the people,” is rarely entertained.

And so, the aging Brooklyn Jew who believes that the wealthiest nation in human history should provide health care to all its people and a living wage to all workers is a divisive radical. The one who wants to cut your future retirement benefits, in defiance of nearly unanimous public opposition, is a unifier.

Bernie Sanders Is the Howard Schultz of the Left