Bernie Sanders, Closet Conservative

According to his rivals, he’s a radical and a reactionary.

Bernie Sanders holding a mic.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally on Thursday in Richmond, Virginia. Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is a crazy left-wing extremist. That’s the standard line of attack from his rivals in the Democratic presidential race. The Vermont senator is an unrepentant Marxist, they say. He loves Soviet subways and Latin American despots. He’ll raise your taxes, outlaw your livelihood, destroy your health insurance, and tank the economy.

But according to Sanders’ opponents, he’s not just a rabid socialist. He’s also a Second Amendment freak. He’s in the pocket of the National Rifle Association. He’s a bitter clinger to outdated rules, refusing to abolish the filibuster or pack the Supreme Court. He’s a crypto-Republican squish.

Is Sanders a wild-eyed zealot or a closet reactionary? His opponents can’t make up their minds. And that’s a sign that the conventional portrait of Sanders is misleading. Yes, he’s a leftist. But he also respects liberty, traditions, institutions, and resistance to change. In many ways, he’s conservative.

Three weeks ago, at a debate in New Hampshire, former Vice President Joe Biden threw down the gauntlet. “Bernie’s labeled himself … a democratic socialist,” said Biden. “That’s the label that the president’s going to lay on everyone running with Bernie if he’s the nominee.” Last week, at a debate in Nevada, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg went further. “We’re not going to throw out capitalism,” said Bloomberg. “Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.”

But then, on Monday, Bloomberg called Sanders a gun-industry shill. In a series of tweets and videos, Bloomberg said the senator was “beholden to the gun lobby.” He noted that Sanders had opposed legislation to require background checks. He also pointed out that Sanders had voted to shield firearms manufacturers from lawsuits for misuse of their products. On Tuesday, at a debate in South Carolina, Biden joined the attack. “Bernie voted five times against the Brady Bill,” said Biden. “Bernie voted to exempt the gun manufacturers from liability.”

Biden and Bloomberg aren’t wrong on the facts. Sanders, when he’s not being excoriated as an admirer of Fidel Castro, has a libertarian streak. In the name of states’ rights and individual freedom, he opposed federally mandated waiting periods for firearms purchases. “In our state, guns are used for hunting,” Sanders told CNN in 2015. “We have millions of people who are gun owners in this country. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of those people obey the law.” As to shielding gun makers from liability, he argued: “If somebody has a gun, and it falls into the hands of a murderer, and that murderer kills somebody with the gun, do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible? Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer.”

Sanders now follows the Democratic Party line against guns. But at the debate in New Hampshire, he acknowledged having represented Vermont’s laid-back firearms culture. And he noted with pride that he had worked with “conservative Republicans” on “civil liberties.”

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is also sniping at Sanders from both directions. In Tuesday’s debate, he accused the Vermont senator of reviving “the revolutionary politics of the 1960s” and “telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime.” Buttigieg said “eliminating all private insurance,” under Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal, was too “radical” for America and would violate the principles of “a free society.” At last week’s debate in Nevada, Buttigieg claimed that Sanders “wants to burn the house down.”

But when the conversation on Tuesday turned to the filibuster rule, which allows 41 senators to block legislation, Buttigieg chided Sanders for refusing to light a match. He joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren in complaining that Sanders, out of some perverse attachment to custom, opposed abolition of the filibuster. Warren demanded that the rule be obliterated so that Democrats, with 51 votes, could “do what needs to be done.” Buttigieg mockingly asked Sanders, “How are we going to deliver a revolution if you won’t even support a rule change?”

It turns out that Sanders, when he’s not being caricatured as a Leninist, has a soft spot for old institutions that safeguard conservative dissent. “You have to protect minority rights,” he argued last year in defense of the filibuster. “I don’t think you can just simply shove everything through.” Lately, Sanders has retreated from that position, offering to pass some bills with 51 votes through the Senate’s “reconciliation” process. But in an interview after Tuesday’s debate, he cautioned that “the founding fathers of this country were not stupid” when they designed the Senate to slow down legislation. If senators “want to filibuster, they want to get up and talk for eight or nine hours, they have a right to do that,” he said.

Sanders is also old-fashioned about the Supreme Court. Four months ago, at a debate in Ohio, Buttigieg proposed to term-limit justices or add six more of them to the court. “I’m not talking about packing the court just with people who agree with me,” said Buttigieg, though the obvious underlying motive was liberal exasperation at the court’s conservative tilt. Warren expressed interest in these ideas, but Sanders said nothing. Without naming names, Buttigieg noted that “some folks” regarded such ideas as “too bold to even contemplate.”

One of those people was Sanders. Last April, he warned that if Democrats were to put more justices on the court, “the next time the Republicans are in power, they will do the same thing.” At a debate in June, Sanders stipulated, “I do not believe in packing the court.” Two weeks ago, he predicted that such a move could destroy the judiciary: Eventually, we’d “have 87 members of the Supreme Court. And I think that delegitimizes the court.”

Sanders also seems more skeptical of totalitarianism than Bloomberg, the capitalist, does. “The Communist Party wants to stay in power in China, and they listen to the public,” Bloomberg asserted in an interview last fall. “Xi Jinping is not a dictator. … No government survives without the will of the majority of its people.” In Tuesday’s debate, Bloomberg insisted that Xi serves “at the behest of the politburo.” That prompted a rebuke from Sanders: “Who the hell is the politburo responsive to? Who elects the politburo? You have got a real dictatorship there.”

Sanders does have a socialism problem. He’s proposing to nationalize health insurance, ban fracking, forgive all student debt, and substantially raise taxes. He has also gift-wrapped this platform as “democratic socialism,” inviting Republicans to exploit voters’ discomfort with that ideology. But the fact that he’s being attacked from the left, often by the same people who caricature him as a Jacobin, tells you he’s a lot more complicated than the caricature.