What’s the Deal With Bernie Sanders? 7 Things You Want to Know

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Unless you’re actually from Vermont or highly attuned to senatorial politics, it’s entirely possible you’d knew little about – or had never heard of – Senator Bernie Sanders before last week, when he declared the start of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Sanders has been Vermont’s junior senator since 2007, after serving as Vermont’s single congressperson for sixteen years.

If you’ve read anything about him since he declared his candidacy, it’s likely you’ve been reading articles about what Sanders’ campaign means for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Valid analysis, but before diving into all that, I want to know: no, really – what’s his deal? I hear he’s a socialist. That’s cool. But also he’s an old straight white man, like the vast majority of American politicians, so what would his alleged socialism mean for people who aren’t old straight white men?

I tried to find out, and here are seven things I learned:

1. Sanders has a strong record on LGBT issues

via Mic

via Mic

From a legislative standpoint, Sanders has a strong record for gay rights. He’s voted against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and against bans on same-sex adoption. He also has voted in favor of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in all its many iterations through the Senate. The Senator hasn’t gone out of his way to address trans issues — the most I could find was a press release from his Senate office specifically noting ENDA’s inclusion of transgender Americans.

2. Sanders agrees: women are people

One of Sanders’ central points in his 12-Step Strategy to Restore America’s Middle Class is to ensure equal pay for women. Sanders also has a consistent pro-choice voting record and is rated highly by NARAL.

via MoveOn

via MoveOn

3. Sanders has a plan to address economic inequality across the board

Sanders’ 12-Step Strategy to Restore America’s Middle Class calls for raising the minimum wage, expanding welfare programs, making affordable education and healthcare accessible for all, and a reconfiguration of the American financial system so that financial companies have less control and less wealth. He is also an outspoken opponent of trade agreements like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, all of which have or would have a huge impact on low-income women of color around the world, whose working conditions are dictated by these massive trade policies.

Thank you, Other98 for this visual representation of Sanders' 12-steps.

Thank you, Other98 for this visual representation of Sanders’ 12-steps.

4. …but he’s not so vocal on law enforcement and the prison system

Sanders has spoken out about the impact of economic and social injustice on black men and youth (he doesn’t mention women) and how that connected to the events in Ferguson last summer. However, his 12-step platform lacks any mention of policing and mass incarceration that impact economic inequality, especially in American communities of color. Looking at his legislative record, he shows a general trend in favor of policies that keep money away from prisons when alternative sentencing measures are available. He’s also consistently voted to fund the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. This is an interesting analysis of the COPS program in Baltimore, if you want to know more about that.

5. He’s a democratic socialist…

Sanders has never pretended not to be a democratic socialist, which many argue will be a liability for him as the race picks up. Very basically, democratic socialism emphasizes breaking down corporate and government bureaucracy, in favor of a socialist system with democratic and cooperative control and over industry and infrastructure. The spirit of democratic socialism is apparent in Sanders’ plans to support unions, worker cooperatives and welfare programs, and to break down economic policies that allow corporations to reap huge profits on the backs of low-wage workers, which we know has a huge impact on the lives of queer and trans women, especially queer and trans women of color.

“Hopefully we frighten the billionaires… and the insurance companies,” he said on the Colbert Report while describing his politics, “healthcare should be a right.”

6. …and he’s running for the Democratic nomination

Sanders has no party affiliation as a senator, but he’s running for the Democratic party nomination. Why? Well, while he described the Democratic party as a “party that doesn’t stand for very much,” in an interview with Mother Jones before he declared his candidacy, he also demonstrated a solid amount of self-awareness about the fact that party affiliation in the race offers him the chance to participate in debates – and also to avoid dividing the Democratic vote in the general election.

7. But does Sanders even have a chance?

You can read takes on this from the Atlantic, Washington Post, Salon, and pretty much every other media outlet ever. The one thing everyone agrees on is that he’s not running a typical campaign, and he’s going to force dialogue on progressive issues that establishment Democrats could come down on either side of. He’s already doing that with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he vehemently opposes, but which President Obama is trying to fast-track through the Senate, and which Clinton has tried to avoid taking a stance on. Sanders isn’t connected to huge corporate money and he’s not building a Super PAC, yet he’s already raised a significant amount in small donations from individual supporters. He insists he can win.

My general sense is that Sanders’ candidacy is a long shot, but weirder things have happened, and there’s a lot of time for said weird things to happen between now and the Democratic National Convention next summer in Philadelphia. I don’t really know. The necessary rise from obscurity that a successful Sanders campaign would require has been compared to that of Howard Dean and Pat Buchanan. A profile from Rolling Stone makes him sound anecdotally, if not politically, like the fictional Democrat Jed Bartlet of the West Wing: a small-time politician on the national stage, but wildly popular in his small New England state, he pulls out of nowhere to overtake the party establishment candidates in the primaries, ultimately taking the White House into democratic control for eight years. But I’ve been told I probably shouldn’t compare the political reality of 2015 to fictional politics of the late 90’s.

Ultimately, though, it’s not up to the media — it’s up to the voters, so if you like Bernie Sanders best, turn out and vote for him. That’s the deal.

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Autostraddle staff writer. Copy editor. Fledgling English muffin maker. Temporary turtle parent. Zine creator. Swings enthusiast. Political human who cares a lot about healthcare and queer anti-carceral feminisms. I asked my friend to help me write this bio and they said, "Good-natured. Friend. Earth tones." Another friend said, "Flannel babe. Vacuum lover. Kind." So. Find me on Twitter or my website.

Maddie has written 100 articles for us.


  1. Sanders is the only candidate out there who is against the oligarchy of extremely wealthy people who are in control of this country and all aspects of its government. He is the only candidate who is strongly for fair income redistribution… one of the biggest issues this country faces and against the military-industrial complex. Yes, I would love to see Elizabeth Warren run but she’s already nixed that. I would hold my nose and vote for Hilary Clinton in a general election if it came down to, say, Clinton vs. Bush, but Bernie is the only person worth standing behind at this point in time.

  2. If you’re a progressive or radical leftist like me, and I’m sure countless others on this site, PLEASE don’t ignore Bernie Sanders. If you look at the poll numbers on all of his positions vs all of Hillary’s positions, he wins every time. I wouldn’t even say he’s an independent running in the Democratic Primary, he is THE ONLY ACTUAL PROGRESSIVE running in the democratic primary. He’s the only Democrat with a backbone, which we desperately need in some position of power.

    Don’t let the media and Hillary’s donors (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/05/top-campaign-contributors-hillary-clinton-vs-bernie-sanders-infographic/) decide this election for us.

  3. LOVE Bernie Sanders! I am putting the full weight of my support behind him, and if you’re a registered democrat (there’s still tons of time to register before primary season!) it’s great to have such a good candidate to challenge Hillary. (I like her a lot, but have some reservations.)

    If you’re a fan of Bernie, or have any candidate from any party you feel strongly about, volunteer volunteer volunteer! The only way that long-shot candidates like this have a chance is if people hit the streets and the phone lines to talk to voters. It really works, I promise. I’ve already signed up.

    Volunteering for a campaign is also an excellent way to meet like-minded folks in your area. When I worked for the Obama re-election campaign in 2012 I met some awesome people who I never would have crossed paths with otherwise. I managed to forge some lasting friendships, as well as a brief but intense fling with a cute girl from the Chicago office. It’s fun and rewarding and the best way for us to help.

  4. Let’s hope that if he is the real life President Bartlet, he actually hires women, people of color and queer people to work in his administration.

    • Ugh. THIS. Bartlet is the best President America has ever had (and words cannot properly express how much I fucking love TWW)but THIS, right here.

    • The Bartlet administration is also not so crazy about gay marriage, but I believe that Bartlet would have “evolved” on the issue (and am happy that Sanders is better).
      Real life Jed Bartlet for president!
      This could be his campaign slogan. The only possible thing I could think of that would be as awesome is Santos for president.

      • YES. …and witches.

        Let it be known though, that I have eight million qualms with the Bartlet administration (they aren’t actually that progressive!), but I have many residual fuzzy feelings for them remaining from the days when the Bartlet White House was my refuge from the Bush years.

        • I’ve been rewatching The West Wing lately for the first time since high school and…while I still very much enjoy the show, some parts are a bit jarring and make me go “…that’s supposed to be a progressive administration? Really?” Especially the way the talk about women :(

  5. Thank you for this Maddie. I am excited about this possibility, because socialism but also his position on campaign financing. I guess I wonder what are the chances of him winning against the republican nominee if he even manages to make it past the democratic primary.

  6. Ever since Sanders announced his candidacy and I started researching him, all I’ve been able to think is “Holy crap. Jed Bartlet is real! He’s never going to get elected. But he’s real!!”

    (No, you’re overly attached to fictional characters from the 1990s.)

  7. I’m sorry, I just don’t think this country is ever going to elect someone who calls themselves a socialist, regardless of how great his policies are.

    • yeah he really ought to call himself a social democrat instead, unless he plans to take down capitalism ?

  8. Bernie Sanders has been my political love ever since I started reading about American politics. He’s just so great. I know people say he has no chance of getting the nomination, but Hillary Clinton was supposed to be a sure thing in 2008 as well. Still holding out for a Sanders/Warren ticket. Anyway, regardless of whether or not he gets the nomination, he’s already begun pushing Hillary to the left, which is never a bad thing (see: her recent comments on immigration, positioning herself to the left of Obama on amnesty)

    • I honestly think that forcing Hillary to move leftward before the primary is the goal of his campaign. In and of itself, this is a very, very good thing!

      • I really don’t think that’s his goal. Just because a candidate campaigns a certain way does not mean they will stick to those stances once on office. Shoo this whole argument about pushing Hillary’s campaign to the left seems shortsighted and, frankly, condescending. Bernie has a proven track record of working for poor and glbt folk that Hillary does not.

  9. I know he is a log shot for President, but what are his chance for being VP?

    Also, he is a non-Christian so that doesn’t bode well for some.

    • I might be alone in this, but for me having a non-Christian president is more exciting/important than having a woman president. Not that I believe its going to happen any time soon.
      But I don’t think he’d be VP- I doubt the left is going to fail to show up to vote for Clinton, and he’s far enough to the left that if he can’t convince the democrats to like him, he is not going to convince swing voters.
      Also, why do people want to be VP? What does the VP do when the president is alive- other than the rare occasions when they cast tiebreaker votes. Does anyone know what the VP does all day?

      • Well if it’s anything I know about our current VP Joe Biden, then it’s eating ice-cream, kissing babies and talking about one’s humble beginnings from Delaware.

        Also fictional feminist/protagonist from a now ended popular show “Parks & Recreations,” Leslie Knope has a massive crush on him.

        I have no clue either.

        • He’s the reason why Obama had to publicly support gay marriage, so I have a crush on him too.

  10. As a die hard liberal with a history of voting for the one who lost…..Eugene McCarthy, George Mc Govern, Hubert Humphrey, and the guy on the tank in Mass., Hillary is the only one who has the power to win.
    Dream, if you must, but she is the one who can win.
    I hope Riese is ok with my comment!

  11. “I’ve been told I probably shouldn’t compare the political reality of 2015 to fictional politics of the late 90’s.”

    Wait, why? Everything I know about politics I learned from Jed Bartlett*. He’s led me aright thus far.

    *with a little help from Toby Ziegler, C.J. Cregg, Sam Seabourne, Josh Lyman, Leo McGarry and Donna Moss.

  12. Yessss. I’m planning to switch my voter registration from no party to democrat just so I can vote for him in the primary.

    • this is a really good point! it’s important to know if your state’s primary is closed to people who aren’t registered with a specific party.

  13. I think I’ll vote for him in the primary, because his politics are top-notch, but I’m afraid of how much money the billionaires will spend trying to defeat him in the general election. It’ll be ugly.

  14. This is all very interesting, but the US election is a year or so away. The UK literally just had a general election and I haven’t heard anything from autostraddle about it. I wish this site wasn’t quite so America-centric.

    • YES, voted seconded! (from another international reader)

      I will say that Autostraddle does a better job than many other American sites I look at. But coming from a country where queer media exists, but is exceedingly blaaah, I yearn for more international perspectives.

      (Sorry for the digression, back to Bernie Sanders)

    • I’ve been asking for writers from the UK for two months now in the Business of Art fixes, and it’s on our submissions page that we’re looking for more writers from the UK! We want more international coverage too, we just need some solid writers to take it on.

  15. It’s refreshing to see a politician trying to revitalize the Democratic party and have it stand for something besides, “Meh, we’re not as bad as Republicans.”

  16. I will vote for Bernie so hard, it’s unreal.

    The whole idea that a socialist could never win has to die.

  17. Bernie Sanders at least is not late on the bus, like Hillary Clinton is every time (Equal Marriage, driver license for immigrants, etc).

    And don’t make me talk about the money for campaigning.

    In my country we have a saying about politicians, “nadie sobrevive un archivo” (nobody survives a file). It means that if you take a look at old statements or news archives you will always find contradictions or downright lies. Strangely enough, it seems that Bernie can survive a file.

  18. If you’re talking about his legislative record, it’s also important to note that he voted AGAINST the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which Hillary’s husband signed into law on midnight the weekend before the fourth of July so it would get minimum press attention.

  19. there’s an 8th thing I’d like to know… where is sanders on the environment?

    i find it frustrating that this is rarely a leading issue in elections. isn’t this the very most important thing, how we’re treating this big blue marble we live on?

  20. I just listened to a podcast about his stance on gun-legislation, and it’s something to look into. Although the NRA gives him a D- (lol), he actually actively voted against background checks and voted for legislation that would bar the U.S. from donating money to over-seas non-profits that advocate for stricter gun laws. It sucks because I want to vote for him but I’m NOT about that, especially considering how much of a part the guns and arms industry plays into the over-militarization of the police!!

    • HMMMM good to know, good to know. i have to say, the least impressive part of his record for me was about police and prison. can you link to that podcast?

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