October 25, 2023 - 10:00am

Once a Left-wing firebrand, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been pushed back towards the centre of his party by forces largely out of his control — the toll of two failed primary campaigns, the institutional conservatism of the Senate, and the mainstream Democratic Party’s almost unwavering support for Israel. This shift was exemplified when nearly 300 alumni of Sanders’s presidential campaigns urged him to join calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, a demand that parallels a resolution in the House led by progressive members such as Reps. Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib.

The staffers sent Sanders a letter that read, in part:

President Biden clearly values your counsel, as is shown by the ways you’ve managed to shape the outcomes of his presidency. We urge you to make it clear what is at stake in this crisis politically, morally, and strategically.
- Former staffers to Bernie Sanders

While Sanders has previously taken firm stances — like advocating for humanitarian aid in Gaza — his conspicuous silence on formally endorsing a ceasefire has left many puzzled. Is this a sign of the further pacification of the aged warhorse who burst onto the national scene in 2016? 

Sanders’s complicated relationship with Israel came to the fore during his 2016 presidential campaign. His description of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza as “disproportionate” was met with applause by advocates of Palestinian human rights. However, this moment did not signify a radical departure for Sanders. As far back as 2014, during a Vermont town hall, he faced heckling for not condemning Israel strongly enough. “If you’re asking me, do I have the magical solution, I don’t. That is my answer,” he responded defensively.

The fissures within the progressive movement are further apparent when one examines “the Squad,” a group of House representatives including Bush, Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. They have been far more vociferous in their criticism of Israel, often to the chagrin of establishment Democrats, but much more in line with traditional Democratic Socialists of America positions on the issue. Omar and Tlaib, who have strong but small racialised constituencies and do not have to campaign statewide as Sanders does, have called for an end to “unconditional” military aid to Israel.

This contrasts sharply with Sanders, who now stands at the edge of what is surely considered acceptable dissent within the Democratic Party — the “socialist” and “contrarian” who nonetheless won’t bring the fight for Palestinian independence to Joe Biden. 

His reluctance to align himself completely with the progressive wing on the Israel issue reflects the broader struggle between the radical Left and the establishment. This divide is notable in part because Sanders is the last seemingly genuine grassroots progressive candidate to offer even a glimmer of cross-racial and cross-class coalition building. 

Interestingly, the question of Israel seems to serve as a catalyst that brings errant Democrats back into the fold. Consider how many high-profile Sanders supporters, like Leftist comedian Sarah Silverman, were quickly mobilised in support of the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Sanders, once seen as the standard-bearer of progressive values, now highlights the limitations of dissent within the party.

For many Democrats, including President Biden — and nearly every Jewish member of the House of Representatives or Senate regardless of party — support for Israel is unwavering. The President’s recent speech called for additional military aid for Israel, emphasising a unity of purpose that leaves little room for divergent views. This apparent consensus has had an impact even on the more radical voices within the Democratic Party who might have been recruited by Sanders, which has the effect of pulling them into mainstream party orthodoxy.

Sanders’s shift towards the centre reveals a fundamental truth: the landscape of progressive politics is evolving, with less room for radical departures from party norms on certain key issues, especially those related to economics and foreign policy. As the Vermont senator takes a more subdued tone on Israel, it becomes evident that even figures who were once viewed as transformative can be absorbed into the establishment. 

This leaves the progressive movement at a crossroads. Fractious and diverse, this coalition of Left-wingers is also fraught with internal contradictions, ones that seem likely to inhibit whatever transformative potential it possesses. 

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work