I have heard repeatedly that, despite being considered one of the most progressive/leftist mainstream politican in the United States, Bernie Sanders could actually be considered relatively moderate by European standards.

For example, in this May 22 2020 article, NYU Stern Prof. Nouriel Roubini (BA Bocconi University 1982, PhD Harvard 1988) proclaimed:

Intelligencer: Clearly, you’re bearish on the potential of existing governments intervening in that conflict on Main Street’s behalf. But if we made you dictator of the United States tomorrow, what policies would you enact to strengthen labor, and avert (or at least mitigate) the Greater Depression?

Roubini: The market, as currently ordered, is going to make capital stronger and labor weaker. So, to change this, you need to invest in your workers. Give them education, a social safety net — so if they lose their jobs to an economic or technological shock, they get job training, unemployment benefits, social welfare, health care for free. Otherwise, the trends of the market are going to imply more income and wealth inequality. There’s a lot we can do to rebalance it. But I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. If Bernie Sanders had become president, maybe we could’ve had policies of that sort. [1.] Of course, Bernie Sanders is to the right of the CDU party in Germany. [2.] I mean, Angela Merkel is to the left of Bernie Sanders. [3.] Boris Johnson is to the left of Bernie Sanders, in terms of social democratic politics. Only by U.S. standards does Bernie Sanders look like a Bolshevik.

Similarly, "Bernie Sanders Is No Socialist: A Perspective from 2016 - The Globalist" avouches that Sanders is merely "a lower-case-d “democrat” – with some social improvement interests", and Would Bernie Sanders be electable in Germany? - The Local asserts:

According to Professor Thomas Greven of the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin, Sanders is a good fit for the left of German mainstream politics.

"Bernie Sanders is right," Greven told The Local. "In Germany, he'd fit in well with the workers' side of the SPD [Social Democratic Party]."

I'm addled by the mixed messages: Merkel and Johnson are generally considered to be moderates, or even to the right. How can they be more progressive than Sanders?

  • 1
    Related: politics.stackexchange.com/q/16297/28994 – CDJB May 26 '20 at 7:36
  • 8
    You are asking 3 different questions here, and all of them are very subjective. What you are reading here is the personal opinion of one person. People tend to disagree a lot about what "left", "liberal" and "socialist" actually mean. Especially across continents. We could only guess what specific positions Prof. Roubini refers to when he claims that Sanders is "more left" in these regards than Merkel or Johnson. – Philipp May 26 '20 at 8:55
  • As an aside, I doubt that Sanders with his idea of Medicare for All would fit in the SPD. Germany does not have Universal Healthcare as Sanders seems to envision it (health insurance is regulated, but not provided by the government), and the idea to replace the German system with a more fare reaching Medicare system would put him on the left fringe and in all likelihood sink him politically (not because people love their "Krankenkasse" so much, but because they would have to trade a tried and tested system that works so-and-so against something they don't know). – Eike Pierstorff May 26 '20 at 9:37
  • 7
    One should really avoid the term "liberal" in any comparison of US and European politics - it means very different things. – Arno May 26 '20 at 9:59
  • 1
    I'd question whether Boris Johnson is actually left of Sanders, or whether he is existing and surviving in a political and social system where many of the things Sanders is fighting for already exists are entrenched, and the people are satisfied with. – PoloHoleSet May 29 '20 at 7:59

A very simple explanation for the difference lies in considering style/political brand/values separate from the specific political program. I'll go for the German comparison, as that one is clearer.

Going by the speeches Sanders gives, the values he exposes, and how he is justifying his position, he seems rather compatible with the Greens, the Left and the Social Democrats (SPD). He is clearly left-wing in this regard, but not overly radical though. I could easily imagine a German Bernie Sanders become Chancellor with a Green/Left/SPD coalition after having gained some voters from the conservative party (CDU), with only the liberal party (FDP) throwing a racket about socialism.

On the other hand, we can compare the proposal Sanders has made for the US to the status quo in Germany. It seems very reasonable to assume that Merkel is overall very much in favour of the latter. Lets look at a few key areas:

  1. Higher Education in Germany is essentially free. Students from poor backgrounds can get a combination of grants and government-loans to pay for their cost of living.

  2. While Germany does not have single-payer health insurance, workers are automatically enrolled in public health insurance. Unemployed are covered, too. Fees are a fraction of their salary. Stories of people drowning in medical debt, or being denied treatment because of insurance issues, or putting off going to the doctor for financial reasons, or of needing to navigate bureaucracy to figure out whether or not you can go to a particular doctor are complete alien to the German public. [And while the German health system is one of the more expensive ones, it's still less expensive than the US one... and coped well with Corona].

  3. From a certain size on, companies can only fire employees in specific circumstances and following procedures. Barring cases of shocking misconduct, there is a notice period of several months, and afterwards there is unemployment insurance. Large companies also need a workers council that needs to agree to many employee-related issues, and for very large companies, also provides members of the board.

  4. The German government has committed to climate protection (although they seem to be very slow in actually doing much).

  5. The "Deutsche Bahn" is a state-owned railway system, that for all its faults, is providing decent rail connection inside Germany and to its neighbors.

I haven't studied Sanders' program in detail, but I am not aware of aspects where he would propose a move significant to the left of the German status quo. Hence, there is some truth to the claim that Merkel is further to the left than Sanders.

If we look at some societal issues, then Merkel and the CDU are still rather progressive compared to US standards (even more so for being a conservative party), but are clearly on the right of Sanders.

  1. Merkel was opposed to same-sex marriage, although in favour of civil unions providing some, but not all benefits of marriage (with joint adoption being a central difference). Still, Germany introduced same-sex marriage during her tenure, and she did not fight against it.

  2. Abortion is not legal in Germany, but (under some conditions) there is no punishment for it. De facto, abortion is available, and if medically required, there seems to be no backlash. This makes for an uneasy compromise between social conseratives and progressives. Recently a doctor was sued for stating on her website that she provided abortion, as that was considered advertising abortion, which is illegal. The law was adjusted in a reaction, but the CDU refused to just get rid of it.

  • 2
    Looking at the status quo seems key here; it's not so much that the CDU is liberal in any meaningful way, but that they can't oppose existing, beneficial programs without fear of loosing voters. It's also worth pointing out that all these areas are related to economic policy, not social policy - eg equal rights of LGBT people - (where the CDU & Merkel would be to the right of Sanders). – tim May 26 '20 at 10:04
  • @tim I don't think its just that the CDU can't oppose the existing programs, I reckon that most of the CDU doesnt want to [Merz and followers are a diffrent story]. I agree on the other parts, and shall add a little bit there. – Arno May 26 '20 at 10:08
  • 2
    Since the phrase "Fees are a fraction" might be misunderstood to mean that it's a small amount, it might be worth pointing out that the fraction is substantial (14,6 percent of the gross income, plus up to two percent of your income in copay. The thing about German health insurance is not that it's cheap, it's that it's worth it.). Also while the German government owns Deutsche Bahn it is still a private company (which IMO combines the worst of two worlds). – Eike Pierstorff May 26 '20 at 10:22
  • 1
    Two differences in the Sanders plan to the German system, not necessarily to the left, seem to be (according to his website) that it includes long term care (which in Germany is covered by the "Pflegeversicherung", with notoriously insufficient coverage) and that it's a single, completely state run entity (German "Krankenkassen" are Körperschaften Öffentlichen Rechts ("corporate bodies under public law"), compete with each other for members and offers some democratic participation via "Sozialwahlen". With similar values, Sanders' actual politics are shaped by quite different circumstances. – Eike Pierstorff May 26 '20 at 10:32
  • @EikePierstorff 50% of that is payed by the employer though. – tim May 26 '20 at 11:06

It has been my impression that when Americans talk about Left vs Right, they often are heavily focused on the economic side of the political spectrum, which seems to be case here as well.

In an economic context, Germany, and Europe in general, are hard to the left on the american political spectrum:
Germany's economic model in particular is called Social Market Economy, which can be shortly summarized as "capitalism + worker protection + welfare". It encompasses for example things as universal healthcare, mandatory paid sick leave, unemployment insurance & benefits, mandatory minimum amount of paid leave days, minimum wage laws, strong union support and mandatory works councils.
In the german overton window, all these things are completely normal, in the american overton window however, this seems to be considered borderline communism.
In fact there is a funny related story about how Wallmart failed to establish itself in Germany.

What this amounts to is, that yes, from an economic perspective, Bernie Sanders in terms of his program is indeed to the right of european conservative parties, simply because the economic overton window is so deeply different in Europe.
Overall from a german point of view he is of course a Social Democrat politically, it's just that even the most basic social policies like public healthcare are considered to be extreme/socialist in the U.S., which means that many of the policies that he actually might want to employ if he had the chance are completely outside of the overton window that he has to deal with.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .