I know that several independents in the US Senate (ie. Bernie Sanders) caucus with the Democrats. Officially, what does that mean? How do independents choose whom to caucus with (both ideologically and technically)? How is that different from them joining the party in question?

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    +1 for the last bit. I never could figure out what the difference is between any of the "Independents" in the Senate vs "D"s
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 17:19
  • Bernie Sanders is not an Independent he is a Socialist. Not much different than joining the party other than there on claim to be different. If you vote with them and caucus with them you are with them. But to get on committees they caucus so they can avoid being excluded from committees. When the party does something wrong they can raise their hands and say I am not a blank party member. If they did not caucus I could respect them to be of their party.
    – Ken
    Commented Mar 10, 2018 at 10:08
  • @Ken - No, Sander's philosophy is DEMOCRATIC Socialist, and he is, officially, listed as Independent, in terms of his Vermont party affiliation. If you accurately stated the facts, "I could respect" the position you staked out in your comment. Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 20:15
  • @PoloHoleSet how one is officially listed on the books is one thing, how one conducts themselves is another. Bernie does not use the word socialist to describe himself b/c he wants to separate himself from the negatives of it ;he stated this he did not want people to automatically think of socialism to mean slave labor camps - this is why he does not refer to himself that way. Claiming to be a democratic socialist, I used little d because that is how Bernie stated his Democracy is with a little d. There is no such thing as a Democratic Socialism socialism by its nature is not democratic.
    – Ken
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 1:37
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    @Ken The British Labour Party constitution disagrees with you. “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.”
    – owjburnham
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 6:58

3 Answers 3


To understand what the Congressional Caucus is it helps to understand the history behind this word that has its roots in early American history. John Adams was the first to use the term to describe a meeting of politicians in his diary:

This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment. He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in his Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room. There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town


The word in Latin literally means "drinking vessel", and the Caucas Club was a popular pub in Boston at the time. In other words, he was more or less describing them as a bunch of political figures who all happen to also be drinking buddies.

Fast forward to today in United States politics and the term has a very similar meaning, a group of politicians that are generally friendly and agree with each other on most issues. Your caucus is the group where you are most likely to find political allies with when garnering support for a pet project, pork barrel spending or a bill that you feel very strongly for.

While the two dominant parties are currently Republicans and Democrats in US politics, the caucus typically expands to include other independents or members of third parties that would most likely share the most values with your party.

The caucus lines are typically demarcated between Conservative Right and Liberal Left with independents and members of third parties making the declaration of which side they choose either way. This declaration is important on Capitol Hill as it helps other members of congress to more accurately predict the outcome of any one bill before it goes to vote. This allows the Congress to save a great deal of time and be more efficient by not wasting time voting on bills that likely have no chance of ever being passed.

Without independents declaring a caucus, they become a toss up and this reduces the efficiency of the US legislative process.


To answer what makes them different from the party themselves, it becomes evident once we get an understanding of Congressional rules. As per typical parliamentary style politics, the Congressional rules are formed with the assumption that there will always be two diametrically opposing sides, the Majority, and the Minority. Being in the Majority party grants the privilege of certain congressional appointments as well as other things. In a multi party system the many parties generally caucus together to make appointments as a majority. It is similar to the US caucus just on a much smaller scale as third parties and independents are an exception.

This is why they will form a Democratic Caucus and Republican Caucus by name, however these are not necessarily affiliated with any one political party. An independent Bernie Sanders has left leaning political ideals and thus has more in common with the Democratic party than the Republican party so he chooses to caucus with the Democrats. Another independent Joe Lieberman has been known to switch caucuses or at least entertain the notion from time to time, starting out caucusing with the Democrats then later in his political career caucusing with the Republicans.

Sanders however doesn't get nominated by the Democratic party nor do Democrats have an opportunity to vote for his nomination. Likewise the same could be said for Lieberman, he could caucus with the Republicans though Republicans in his district had no vote to nominate him.

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    This is a great answer history-wise, but it doesn't seem to address the last part of the question: "How is that different from them joining the party in question?". I will ask that separately I guess
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 17:20
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    @DVK I added an edit that expanded upon why they are inherently different. Also it is not true that all Independents caucus with Democrats, Joe Lieberman is a notable example of an independent that had caucused with Republicans at one point.
    – user117
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 17:38
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    did he officially caucus with Republicans? I was under (random) impression he voted Dem on ~90% of votes?
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 17:43
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    you said "had caucused". That is different from "had discussions about" :)
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 17:50
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    Sanders in fact does get nominated by the Democratic party. He just declines it and runs as an independent. More specifically, Sanders specifically runs as a Democratic candidate in the primary, essentially to hedge out competition because the party won't have a viable replacement nominee when he inevitably rejects the nomination to run as an independent. The Democratic Party in his state has said they are fine with this state of affairs, and that it is consistent with the relevant rules and laws. So you can see him as an Independent or Democrat-in-Independent-clothing, doesn't matter. Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 10:58

For what it's worth, members of third parties (and independents) did not start (formally) caucusing with one of the two major parties until 1971. James Buckley was elected as a member of the Conservative Party of New York State and joined the Republican caucus for the 92nd Congress. Harry Byrd was also elected in that cycle despite breaking away from the Democratic party and running as an Independent. He subsequently rejoined the Democratic caucus, though.

Source: https://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/history/one_item_and_teasers/partydiv.htm.


Bernie Sanders is a socialist. He is to the left of most Democrats, which is why he isn't a Democrat.

He caucases with the Democrats because they are still closer to his views than the Republicans.

  • Not sure why there was a downvote. This certainly answers the 'why' part of the question.
    – user1530
    Commented May 21, 2013 at 4:49
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    @DA:Some people want an answer that is "complete," not one that is merely "helpful." So they will downvote an answer (or question) that doesn't meet their requirements, thereby "throwing out the baby with the bathwater."
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 21, 2013 at 12:32
  • @blip - Downvote is probably for the inaccurate conflating of socialist with Democratic Socialist, which can be very far apart on a number of issues. Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 20:16

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