The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders is now a millionaire. Can he still speak for working-class Americans?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) claims big banks got a trillion-dollar bailout after the 2008 financial crisis. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.) is running for president as an advocate for working-class Americans. But in a recent New York Times interview, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist revealed that he’s now one of the “haves.”

Sanders, who often rails against “millionaires and billionaires” in his speeches, told the Times that he’s a millionaire, thanks to a book deal inked after his 2016 run. “I wrote a best-selling book,” he said. “If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.” The candidate has also come under pressure to release his tax returns. “Be patient,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. His campaign says he’ll release 10 years of returns today.

These stories have sparked a flurry of think pieces, along with some Internet outrage that say the people’s candidate isn’t really one of the people. Think Progress, a liberal website, called Sanders’s wealth “very off-brand and embarrassing.” Sanders “obscures his wealth to relate to the 99 percent,” the outlet wrote. Bloomberg News’s editorial page congratulated Sanders “on being rich” and asked whether he would now modulate his proposals.

Right-leaning outlets have used the news to mock the senator. Fox News wrote a piece called “lifestyles of the rich and socialist,” detailing Sanders’s real estate holdings. (The senator and his wife own two houses in Vermont and a rowhouse on Capitol Hill.)

It’s unlikely, though, that Sanders’s relatively new wealth will reshape his message or impact his supporters’ perception. Even before his most recent book, Sanders was comfortably in the upper middle class. He and his wife reported an annual income of more than $200,000 on a jointly filed 2015 tax return, which puts them in the top 5 percent of U.S. income earners. It’s worth noting, too, that those with the ability to launch a competitive presidential campaign usually come from a place of wealth.

Additionally, Sanders’s base of supporters is not exclusively working class. As Vox pointed out during the 2016 primary, Sanders wasn’t winning all working-class voters: “Sanders’s victories aren’t being powered by a groundswell of white working-class support, but instead stem from his most reliable base since the start of the primary: young voters.” Vox analyzed Sanders’s 2016 results and found that Hillary Clinton did better with older white working-class voters and also with nonwhite working-class voters. It’s unlikely that his fans will turn away from him.

And so far, it doesn’t seem like Sanders is modulating his message. He’s still calling for a tax on billionaires and major social programs like Medicare-for-all. Even so, it’s worth keeping an eye on whether Sanders’s message evolves, now that he’s been able to benefit from the system that he claims to want to dismantle.