Why I’m Supporting Bernie Sanders
LIZA MACKEEN // MARCH 8, 2019
Relitigating the 2016 Democratic primary now officially counts as litigating the 2020 one — that’s right, Bernie Sanders is running for President again. While we’ve luckily lost the Hillary Clinton component of the equation (knock on wood), Sanders’ critics are largely singing the same old song as before. These detractors (who, it is easy to forget, are just an extremely vocal minority; as Reuters reported, Sanders is currently the most popular senator in the country and has a fifty seven percent nationwide favorability rating as of February thirteenth) would have you believe he is a race-blind, class reductionist, chauvinist brocialist in command of a vast army of Bernie Bros ready to harass women and minorities on his behalf. Coming from someone who fell for it in 2016, this line of attack is one hundred percent bad faith, disingenuous bullshit. To quote the inimitable Amber A’Lee Frost, “It’s Bernie, bitch” — not only is he the only true progressive in the race, but he is also the only Democratic candidate who stands a chance of beating Donald Trump.
Around the internet, there has been much whining and moaning about how Bernie is just another “old white man” (ironically, most of the people I’ve observed saying this are my fellow upper middle class white women, who have an unparalleled ability to distance ourselves from our whiteness), and that he should make way for someone who is equally progressive, but ticks more of the identity checkboxes. That’s a nice sentiment — a politician’s identity certainly informs their political priorities, which (if they have the right values to back it up!) can result in them introducing legislation designed to bring justice to marginalized communities that might have otherwise never been considered.
However, it remains to be seen who exactly that elusive identitarian unicorn of a candidate is. Sure, there are plenty of women in the race, but none of them even come close to matching Bernie’s progressive track record. There’s Amy Klobuchar, who is not only opposed to the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and universal college education, but is also a notoriously difficult #girlboss who once threw a binder at one of her staffers. Kamala Harris, a mostly milquetoast liberal who wouldn’t be worth supporting even without her prosecutorial career, managed to bring at least twenty-five San Franciscan parents to court for their children’s truancy while letting modern day robber baron and Secretary of the Treasury for the Trump administration Steve Mnuchin run free despite his foreclosure violations (purely coincidentally, he donated $2,000 to her Senate campaign!). Even Elizabeth Warren, who is often regarded as Bernie’s main competition from the left, is a self professed “capitalist to [her] bones,” who identified as a Republican until 1995. Don’t worry, though; it was only because she thought the GOP “were the people who best supported markets.” This is, of course, not to even mention the minor DNA test slipup where she accidentally practiced race science in order to justify exploiting her insignificant amount of Native American heritage for professional gain, a brilliant strategic move which united left and right alike in opportunities to deride her. I have no doubt that 99.9% of so-called Bernie Bros would immediately switch their allegiance to a younger woman of color if she offered a more progressive platform than him (it would be really great to have a candidate who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and can more forcefully condemn examples of U.S. imperialism like the ongoing situation in Venezuela, for one), but that hypothetical candidate is just that for now — hypothetical.
This leads into one of the most common radlib critiques of Sanders: that he — gasp! — eschews identity politics. After all, he has basically said as much himself, telling supporters at a rally in Boston, “It is not good enough for somebody to say, 'I'm a woman, vote for me.' No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry. In other words, one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American CEO of some major corporation. But you know what, if that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country, and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot whether he’s black or white or Latino.” This focus on attacking economic inequality has led many to characterize Bernie as a class reductionist, and argue that the Democrats need a candidate who is also dedicated to fighting racism and sexism.
What these critics fail to understand is that tackling these issues goes hand in hand. Many people have argued that Sanders needs to be better at addressing racism and sexism because poverty disproportionately affects women of color. They are right about the last part, and are extremely right to be concerned about it: women of color are most likely to lack healthcare, occupy low wage jobs, and generally live in poverty. However, it is baffling to me how anyone can acknowledge this upsetting truth, yet not recognize how it makes policies that attack economic inequality inherently dedicated to ameliorating racial inequality. Sanders has been one of the most consistent and vocal advocates for Medicare For All (which, importantly, he defines as a single payer plan), a fifteen dollar minimum wage, and other important policies such as free college tuition. These policies are called universal for a reason — they are designed to help every member of the working class, which more than includes the marginalized people most affected by the ills Sanders seeks to cure.
This is not to say that Sanders has never been hamfisted when speaking on race and gender in the past, but considering that he has a track record of fighting for civil rights dating back to 1962 (it’s worth looking into his college activism protesting against segregation in UChicago dorms and beyond!), it is hard to doubt his commitment to the material rights of marginalized Americans. Besides, I would always prefer a candidate who has a few minor rhetorical slip-ups but actually champions the programs that would attack inequalities affecting marginalized groups to a polished D.C. bureaucrat who hides their utter lack of desire to challenge the status quo behind glossy rhetoric — and considering that Bernie has a fifty-seven percent approval rating among women, eighty percent among black people, and seventy-one percent among Hispanics, it seems that a diverse base of supporters agree.
I don’t think anyone on the Left sincerely thinks that enacting even a pivot to full communism, let alone Bernie’s social democratic reforms, would completely eradicate racism and sexism. Like many of his critics love to emphasize, these two forces are systemic — both are intrinsically built into America’s identity as a nation and both enable the disproportionate success of a privileged few. However, it seems foolish to dismiss redistributive economic policies just because they can’t accomplish this extremely lofty goal. No one lobbying this critique at Sanders really seems to be able to offer any alternative suggestions for ending racism or sexism, which is honestly reasonable, because no one should claim to know how to eliminate such a pervasive force. Right now, economic policies (coupled with the forceful condemnations of other forms of oppression that, despite what certain pundits might want you to believe, Bernie has already offered!) that give marginalized Americans access to the same standard of living that the privileged take for granted seem like our best shot for materially combating racism and sexism — and Sanders is the only candidate who genuinely wants to make this happen.
So, to the people who say “Bernie’s an old white man,” I say: who gives a shit? You can have your concerns about it — in fact, you don’t even have to like him! — but if you are a genuine progressive, you should be able to recognize. 2016 proved why Democrats cannot win elections on a platform of bland centrism supported by identity politics and anti-Trump messaging alone. We cannot afford to cede economic populism to the right, because, as anyone who has ever watched Tucker Carlson can tell you, it is all too easy for conservatives to co-opt this message for their own malicious purposes.