Has Bernie already won?

Bernie's success is very much the product of a political shift and the rise of the liberal left around issues of economic inequality.

Paul Sancya/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, speaks at a rally in Warren, Michigan, in April.

Bernie Sanders is very much a politician of these times.

In her cover story this week on the senator’s Vermont roots, staff writer Christa Case Bryant chronicles Mr. Sanders’ journey from iconoclastic Yankee outsider to darling of the Democratic left. His moment is very much the product of a political shift. The rise of the liberal left around issues of economic inequality has made someone who proclaims himself a democratic socialist a viable presidential candidate. Indeed, at this stage, he is a Democratic front-runner.

Yet Christa’s story also marks this as Mr. Sanders’ moment in another way – one that bespeaks perhaps an even deeper and more consequential shift in American politics. In nearly three decades in Congress, Mr. Sanders has sponsored 408 bills. Of those, seven have become law, and two of those were for naming post offices in his home state. Says one Vermont political scientist: “He’s much better at articulating the righteous indignation for the country’s failure to achieve what he believes in than making the compromises necessary to seeing [that] those principles are achieved.”

That makes him an ideal politician for this moment. His success shows how much politics has changed.

Back when I was the Northern California correspondent for the Monitor in 2004, I met a politician every bit as liberal as Mr. Sanders. State Sen. John Burton was an institution in California politics, and he was the last of a generation there – someone who had come of political age during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Once, in exasperation at the actions of a Republican governor, he mockingly sponsored bills to make poverty illegal and force orphanages to serve gruel. His wit was as sharp as his political acumen.

I had expected to meet a raving partisan. What I found was a man obsessed with numbers. His message to me, over and over, was that what he personally wanted was irrelevant. What mattered was what he could muster the votes to pass. He was, down to his bones, a legislator – his job was passing laws.

That vision of the legislator is on the verge of extinction for all practical purposes in American politics. Again and again, voters have thrown out that old guard – both Democrats and Republicans – and voted in ideologues whose first priority in Washington is advocating not legislating. Those legislators who remain have fewer colleagues with whom to work and a shorter leash from voters back home.

Take California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. When the Democrat told a group of citizens that whether she backed the Green New Deal was irrelevant because she couldn’t pass it, she was pilloried on liberal social media as a heartless cop-out. In short, she was criticized for insisting on legislating. Today, American voters are rewarding politicians like Mr. Sanders, not Mr. Burton. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The people get to choose how they wish to be represented. But then they should also be pleased by a Washington that places advocacy over action.

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