Last time he ran for president, Bernie Sanders found himself odd man out in a race against Hillary Clinton, whose establishment bona fides and years of White House experience propelled her, in the end, to the nomination. But this cycle's primary map is unfolding along more nuanced lines, with two very progressive candidates, among 21 others, on offer. And it is becoming one of the key questions in the race: What is the difference between Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)?
In a sense, Sanders's speech Wednesday in defense of democratic socialism seemed to answer that question at a moment when it feels most urgent. Warren has been gaining in polls lately, sealing her spot as a top-tier candidate in the crowded field and even running ahead of Sanders in a pair of new national polls. Though her campaign stumbled through a rocky start, she has steadily earned a reputation as a dogged performer and a candidate with a plan—or with several plans, routinely offering up detailed policy proposals for solving problems from student debt to unaffordable child care. She also supports Medicare-for-all and has forsworn big campaign donors.
With all of those policy positions, there's little for a progressive stalwart to object to in Warren. But there's still a distinction to be drawn between her approach and Sanders's, and much of it comes down to the matter of regulation vs. revolution.
For Warren, the solution to our economic ills already exists in well-regulated capitalism. "I believe in markets," she said in a recent podcast interview. "I believe in the benefits that come from markets, that two people coming together, or two companies, or a company and a person coming together to exchange goods and services, yay." Warren believes today's socioeconomic ills are the result of high concentrations of power and wealth that can be resolved with certain regulatory tools and interventions. If corporate chief executives and financiers behave badly, she says, we should jail them—no special rules for the rich. If companies grow so large that they exert undue control over our markets and our lives, the government should break them up. If companies ignore consumers and employees to benefit shareholders, eliminate their incentives with regulatory curbs.
But for Sanders, those solutions come up short. For a number of reasons—alienation and disengagement among the electorate, and the extraordinary power of big business and finance over government—he doesn't believe that even the cleverest, most uniformly applied regulations will solve what he views as a political and economic crisis. Instead, he aims to transfer power over several key segments of life to the people—by creating a set of universal economic rights that not only entitle citizens to particular benefits (such as medical care, education and child care) but also give those citizens a say in how those sectors are governed: in short, democratic socialism. And that means building a movement, not just a presidential campaign.
When I spoke to Sanders earlier this week, I asked him why he's making democratic socialism a mainstay of his campaign when the term seems to scare away so many of his like-minded progressives. "A lot of people in this country have given up on the political process because they hear a lot of politicians saying good things," Sanders told me, "but somehow or another that change never happens. You know, in my sleep I could write a speech which says got to do this, got to do that—but how do you really do that? You need a political revolution where millions of people are prepared to stand up to the power structure of America."
For Sanders, the programs he's advancing—Medicare-for-all, free public college tuition, universal child care and pre-K—aren't just meant to help struggling Americans; they're designed to bring millions of disaffected citizens back to politics and mobilize them to protect what Sanders calls their "economic rights."
Sanders continued: "The powers of the corporate elite are such that we cannot . . . bring about the real profound changes I want to see—unless there is the involvement of millions and millions of people in the political process." And that means building a distinct, mobilized political movement with its own identity and independent energy.
None of that will be easy, especially when Sanders is no longer in a two-person race and others are borrowing his policy ideas, if not his overall goals. But for those who see our political moment as a crisis greater in breadth and content than a few unenforced or misbegotten laws, Sanders's wide-ranging, historical approach may have greater appeal on its second try than its first.