When he discusses his personal finances—specifically the fact that he became a millionaire three years ago—you could almost mistake Bernie Sanders for a pitchman for capitalism. “I wrote a best-selling book. If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too,” Sanders told The New York Times last month.
Of course, Sanders is more embarrassed than proud. His wealth, much of it newfound, has been the source of an increasing level of scrutiny as his democratic socialist brand has gained popularity. The long delayed release of his tax returns earlier this year led some to conclude that Sanders was worried that his money and his houses (there are three) would damage his brand as the number-one enemy of the one percent. “In a strict, bottom-line sense, Sanders has become one of those rich people against which he has so unrelentingly railed,” Politico’s Michael Kruse wrote in an article about Sanders’s finances published on Friday. “The champion of the underclass and castigator of ‘the 1 percent’ has found himself in the socio-economic penthouse of his rhetorical bogeymen.”
Kruse’s article contains some snarky quotes from anti-Sanders Democrats. “He became the very thing he criticized others for becoming and at the same time didn’t fix any of the problems he’s been railing about that got him to this point,” Mary Anne Marsh told Kruse. Her fellow Democratic strategist Bob Shrum added that Sanders “almost at times sounds like he thinks it’s inherently evil to be well-off.” But far from being a hypocrite—or damaging his chances—Sanders’s recent success not only doesn’t hurt the “political revolution” he’s championed, it might even help it. Sanders, after all, isn’t advocating (no matter what Fox Business commentators tell you) to impoverish everyone in the country, but to lift them up.
Kruse’s story is the latest in a wave of investigations into the Vermont senator’s past. There have, over the past few months, been looks into Sanders’s 1988 trip to the Soviet Union, his time as mayor of Burlington, and his (justifiably) dim view of American foreign policy during the Reagan era. These stories are, to a great extent, a recognition of the fact that Sanders is a leading Democratic candidate, someone who has held a firm grip on second place in nearly all of the early presidential polls. They are also, to some extent, corrective.
During the 2016 election, almost no one in the media or politics took Sanders seriously. As a result, much of the coverage of his candidacy was positive, and barely any resources were spent on expensive deep dives into his past. While these stories sometimes have the feel of opposition research, they more accurately reflect the profound change in Sanders’s political evolution. Four years ago, the political independent was perceived as a busy but relatively inconsequential backbencher. Today, he’s one of the most important politicians in the country. With the possible exception of Donald Trump, no one has had more influence over public policy discussions than Sanders.
Kruse’s piece isn’t opposition research. It, instead, lays out the very—or at least fairly—predictable rise in Sanders’s net worth, from his time in Burlington to the present. Sanders, unsurprisingly, is described by many people as being cheap. His net worth in 2009 was $105,000, paltry for a United States senator. Six years later, that number had risen to $700,000, thanks to a real estate upgrade, though he carried $80,000 in credit card debt. Book advances and royalties, elevated because of his high-profile insurgent 2016 campaign, eventually made him a millionaire.
The question about all this is: Does it matter? Politically speaking, the consensus seems to be not much. Sanders has bigger problems in 2020. The left (or, at least, leftish) lane is crowded. To his right, Joe Biden appears ascendent. And there are some in the Democratic Party who still nurse bad feelings from his last run. But while Sanders has noted in the past that wealth can “isolate” people, his politics have not changed as his net worth has increased.
Sanders’s message has largely been targeted, it’s worth noting, at the super-rich. He told The New York Times, for instance, that he was different than the president, another rich person, by “not being a billionaire, not having investments in Saudi Arabia, wherever he has investments, all over the world.” That is a key difference and it slots in with Sanders’s larger message. His book royalties aren’t perpetuating global instability or inequality. The point of his political life has been to fight against both of those things; over the last few years, he’s managed to get rich doing so—though not that rich, at least compared to his fellow senators.
His policy platform, moreover, has emphasized, repeatedly, tax increases for people in what is now his income bracket. It’s not entirely clear what the charges of hypocrisy would even represent. You are, after all, allowed to advocate for the powerless from positions of power—more people in the United States Senate should try it.
Instead, the fixation on Sanders’s wealth seems to have more to do with a general discomfort in talking about his policy positions, and perhaps especially, his democratic socialism. The Beltway media, in particular, have struggled to understand his earnestness, and some of that cynicism often bleeds into coverage of his finances.
It also, of course, speaks to the desire to undercut Sanders’s message. “Bernie is a known quantity in any socialist paradise,” establishment-class Republican consultant Rick Wilson told Kruse, “the party apparatchik with the dacha…” Kruse helpfully notes that everyone who knows Sanders thinks the comparison is absurd. But Wilson’s corny line points to the dig that many have hoped would stick: That Sanders is really just another politician, in it for the money.
Still, the real lesson of Sanders’s millions isn’t that he’s sold out his political revolution. It’s that his political revolution is winning, turning him into one of the most improbable celebrities in recent American history. Far from hurting Sanders’s political success, his new wealth points to just how popular his ideas about inequality and fairness have become.