You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Bernie Sanders Is Not a One-Issue Candidate

Whether he knows it or not, the Vermont senator has laid the groundwork for a vital reimagining of American foreign policy.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders only has one issue. The pundits have been telling us so all along, and the Vermont senator even admitted it himself during the last Democratic debate. “[Former] Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton says I’m a one-issue person—well, I guess so,” said Sanders, after months of dancing around the accusation. “My one issue is trying to rebuild a disappearing middle class. That’s my one issue.”

It appears his confession didn’t hurt him in Michigan, where he pulled off a remarkable come-from-behind upset against Clinton on Tuesday. And looking ahead to other industrial Midwestern states in the March 15 contest, there are definitely worse things to be than an obsessive class crusader. Some campaigns spend an entire election searching for the strong, consistent message that Sanders, for better or worse, has deployed since the start of this race. Why not own a perception you’re going to get tagged with anyway?

But from a policy standpoint, this is all complete nonsense. Set aside the fact that Sanders has indeed put forward detailed plans on everything from immigration to climate change. It takes a certain kind of myopia to relegate an economic platform as ambitious and multi-faceted as Sanders’s to the status of “single issue.” Rebuilding the middle class, under Sanders, would entail nothing less than correcting half a century of macroeconomic policy. Would that it were so simple.

A more accurate version of the “one issue” criticism would be that Sanders has fixated on the domestic, largely to the exclusion of global affairs. Given Clinton’s diplomatic resume, this is probably closer to the contrast her camp originally intended to draw. Here, Sanders has indeed been a disappointment. He changes the subject whenever possible and stumbles through vague, sometimes painfully bad answers when he can’t. His most compelling moments have come when he has tied Clinton’s interventionist streak to a broader critique of U.S. transgressions past. Still, the very framing of his preferred attack—extolling the virtues of “judgment” over “experience”—concedes that Clinton’s time in office is meritorious; her errors reflect flawed personal decision-making, not a fundamentally objectionable worldview.

Sanders, in that sense, has not only missed an opportunity to score points with a Democratic electorate well to Clinton’s left on matters of statecraft, but also deprived the country of a more profound debate as to the nature and purpose of U.S. military might.

Only occasionally do the categories used to organize presidential debates and talk-show roundtables reflect the world as it actually works. Case in point: foreign policy, defined, for the purposes of a campaign year, as a narrow set of invariably perilous scenarios, the solution to which always seems to involve blowing something up. Sanders himself is guilty of playing into this facile paradigm. A year into his improbable experiment in populist revolution, he’s laid out the basis for a robust, even radical foreign policy vision and doesn’t appear to realize it.

In his recent book-length study, Democratic Militarism, Northwestern University political scientist Jonathan Caverley attempts to determine “when voters in a democracy will support belligerence in pursuit of international political gains.” Especially “in wealthy democracies,” he writes, “the preparation for and conduct of military conflict has largely become an exercise in fiscal, rather than social, mobilization.” And after a thorough comparative analysis of various historic examples, his conclusion is that “economically unequal and heavily capitalized democracies are more likely to threaten, initiate, and join small wars; and will often fight them in ways that make winning less likely.” (In this case, ”small” is a technical term meaning voluntary and asymmetric, not a characterization of the costs, human and otherwise.)

The stated aspiration of Sanders’s foreign policy is to extricate the United States from its “perpetual warfare” footing. And the best approach to accomplishing that goal may be the one Sanders has already embraced: reining in the power of the financial sector and reversing the immense redistribution of wealth that its global expansion enabled.

Sanders’s economic policies can be viewed as a direct refutation of Ronald Reagan’s. Unlike the Sanders Revolution, however, the Reagan Revolution had a hugely important foreign policy component. As Mike Lofgren, a former Republican and longtime congressional budget staffer, explains in The Deep State:

The genius of the architects of Reagan’s policies was to recognize that the superficially disparate interests of Wall Street and the Pentagon could in fact be harmonized. For public relations purposes, the Reagan team claimed that the expensive military buildup and tax-cutting deregulation were both natural, patriotic impulses desired by the real America. The evident contradiction between a budget-busting military policy and the small-government, balanced-budget sloganeering of business conservatism could be smoothed over by constantly pounding on the theme that both were expressions of old-fashioned American freedom.

Today, this fusion of financial profligacy and military industrial largesse often manifests itself overtly. For instance, the Carlyle Group, a private equity giant, is the current majority shareholder of Booz Allen, Edward Snowden’s former employer and one of the world’s largest defense contractors. Mike McConnell went from being the head of the National Security Agency, to Booz Allen, to director of national intelligence, and back to Booz—and his career is hardly the only prominent example of the fluid career options available to members of our bloated, increasingly privatized national security apparatus. (Another, David Petraeus, retired from the directorship of the CIA and took a cushy posting at a major private equity firm.) With its cookie-cutter McMansions, Northern Virginia stands as a sort of garish monument to the growing class of nouveau riche defense contractors, lawyers, and lobbyists who emerged in large part thanks to this wedding of big business and the military. (Incidentally, both Clinton and Marco Rubio, the current darling of the Reagan foreign policy elite, did very well in Northern Virginia on Super Tuesday.)

Then there are the deeper, more systemic levels at which money and warmaking are linked. The “corrupt campaign finance system,” to use Sanders’s language, that allows both Wall Street and the major defense and intelligence contractors to dictate the parameters of political discourse in Washington. Or dark, intelligence-backed foreign policy cornerstones like the “petrodollar,” the arrangement that sees Saudi Arabia recycle its massive oil revenues back into the U.S. economy, in the form of banking investments, lobbyist spending, and weapons purchases. Any explanation for why the war on terror was conceived so as to align the United States with the world’s most prolific state sponsor of Sunni terrorism has to address a nexus of political influence—steeped in financial interest in covert operations intrigue—that too often goes unspoken.

Restraining the power of the American military will require more and more penetrating policies than Sanders is currently presenting. (An easy place for Sanders to start would be to expand his proposed “revolving door” ban to include the national security state.) But the Sanders agenda, as is, still goes much further than any other toward returning U.S. foreign policy to a place of moral and strategic sanity. Strange though it may seem, the best way for Sanders to fill the most gaping hole in his campaign is to get better ranting about Wall Street. If you’re going to be a one-issue candidate, you might as well milk it for everything it’s worth.