The rest of the world loves to laugh at America’s never ending election process. Heck, Americans laugh at it. Jon Stewart for one. But those vaguely playing attention, especially those reading The Guardian, will have had their ears prick up at the campaign of one Bernie Sanders.
Senator Sanders is that rarest of things in the good ol’USA, an actual socialist. His rallies for the Democratic party’s nomination have been massive so of course a Guardian writer, Mary O’Hara, is waving to get Brits attention yelling that “it’s invigorating to witness what’s happening in the US.” My friends at Shiraz Socialist are no less dizzy saying that the Sanders’ campaign is “probably the most exciting development in US politics since the 1930s.”
Oh my. Thing is the Sanders campaign just got knocked sideways by black activists. So much so that one of the largest grassroots progressive groups, Democracy for America, has now changed its nominating process. They “will ask how candidates will support the Movement for Black Lives and confront racism and our “culture of white supremacy”.” Other groups are certain to follow. That is, that all the assumptions about why a self-proclaimed socialist would automatically win progressive endorsement have been changed. For ever. Sanders has consistently polled low numbers with minority voters but things came to a head when he did not react well to a stage invasion by #blacklivesmatters activists at the Netroots Nation conference, a big leftwing shindig. Those theatrics drew the attention but the warning signs were already there, as Tommy Christopher points out in this analysis of an earlier interview with George Stephanopoulos.
Sanders decided to tell Stephanopoulos that black voters would love him if they just understood things better, an idea that is uncomfortably similar to the conclusion reached by the Republican Party’s infamous 2012 “autopsy report,” and an echo of the GOP’s point man on minority outreach, Rand Paul.
Sanders’ argument, that the policies he advocates for everyone should also be particularly attractive to black and Hispanic voters, is an approach that is favored by politicians who take minority votes for granted, as well as those who take for granted that they won’t get those votes. Sanders’ problem is that Hillary Clinton supports all of the policies he cites, but he has not taken up any of the issues that Hillary Clinton has used to solidify her support with the Obama coalition.This is no accident; Sanders has long emphasized winning white voters by deliberately avoiding what he considers “demographic stuff” in favor of economic issues.
Sanders problems are not just presentational, they’re political. As one of the biggest black websites bluntly puts it “a job isn’t going to stop a bullet”. Christopher:
Substantively, Sanders’ philosophy misses the point that many of those “demographic” issues are economic issues. For black Americans, the criminal justice and policing reforms that Hillary Clinton has advocated are directly tied to their economic well-being, or that of their close friends and relatives. And while Sanders decries the role of money in politics, the Obama coalition is much more urgently concerned with whether they’ll even be allowed to vote in the next election.
The political problem for Sanders is underlined in another area in this article by Jesse Berney on abortion access, which is a enormous issue in America where access remains under constant attack.
In an interview with Rolling Stone a few weeks ago, Bernie Sanders spoke about the economic populism driving his campaign. “Once you get off of the social issues — abortion, gay rights, guns — and into the economic issues,” he told writer Mark Binelli, “there is a lot more agreement than the pundits understand.”
This formulation isn’t uncommon, even among progressives like Sanders. It’s easy to ascribe the fierce debates on issues like abortion and LGBT rights to cultural differences, and to wish we could just push them aside and finally convince rural white voters to vote for their “economic interests.”
But putting abortion rights in a box separate from economic issues ignores the reality of the women who find it increasingly difficult to obtain an abortion in this country. Abortion is an economic issue: wealthy women will always have access to abortion, while restrictions and obstacles affect low- and middle-income women disproportionately.
Berney explains how Clinton is getting it right.
Sanders puts economic inequality and corporate power at the top of his agenda, and deliberately excludes reproductive rights from that list.
In a recent event in Iowa where she shared the stage with Sanders and the other Democratic White House candidates, Hillary Clinton made a point to say traditional “women’s issues” are actually “economic issues.” Clinton has mostly stuck to issues safer than abortion – like family leave and child care – when talking about the economic impact of issues that have traditionally been “women’s issues.”
But she’s doing the work to erase that distinction, while Sanders draws that line ever more clearly. These priorities matter, and the candidates’ words matter.
Berney warns that Sanders risks losing a whole other part of the Democrats base, the majority, women:
Abortion rights are under severe threat in this country, and exiling them to an imaginary “social issues”category necessarily relegates them to second-class status.
Immediately after the Netroots Nation fiasco the Sanders campaign made some tweaks, as Imani Gandy notes in her fabulous, excoriating piece ‘You’re White and Marched With Dr. King: So What?’ – But Sanders’ supporters are giving a very good impression of learning nothing at all from the exercise.
Progressives are complaining that the protesters were disrespectful and rude. They’re whining that interrupting a speech isn’t an “invitation for solidarity.”
I’ve seen some white folks complaining that they no longer feel safe at Netroots because—you know—unruly Black women. The horror! Still others don’t think the protest “looks good.” (Because as we all know, change comes when you politely ask for it, not when you disrupt and demand it, which, by the way, is what Dr. King did. White people tend to forget that Dr. King was a disruptor when they are using him as a Pokémon to shut Black people up.)
Rather than support these brave Black women activists in what is quite literally a fight for the lives of Black people, there you are in all your pearl-clutching glory talking about how disrespectful the activists were, and how it’s such a shame that the uppity Black people were being so rude to an obvious ally, and how the #BlackLivesMatter movement is so disorganized and is protesting the wrong things at the wrong time in front of the wrong people.
“Why are you alienating allies?”
“Don’t you know how much Bernie cares for you?”
“What’s wrong with you people?”
“Hillary would be worse!”
“What are you going to do, vote for Donald Trump?”
“Why won’t you ever be satisfied?”
“You’re doing it all wrong!”
“You’re going to make us quit caring about Black lives if you don’t shape up and act the way we want you to.”
Most Black voters want the answer to one question: What is Sanders’ plan to address the police brutality crisis in the Black community?
And the answer to that question is never: “Bernie marched with Dr. King.”
I can vouch for this reality because even I got whiny tweets after retweeting Gandy, who tweets at @AngryBlackLady.
And it is not like there aren’t black people trying to patiently explain what Sanders’ may be doing wrong. Here’s Roderick Morrow, who got so fed up with reaction from so-called ‘progressives’ that he started the joke hashtag. #BernieSoBlack.
It’s like they’re almost trying to outblack us. “Oh, you’re a black person, what could you possibly understand about our candidate? He was marching before you were even born!” Okay, that’s cool, but you gotta stay on top of it. So I made a joke that’s like, “Bernie’s blacker than us! Bernie’s SO BLACK!” That’s how it feels when they come into our mentions and tell us that we don’t know what we’re talking about, and even though [Sanders] doesn’t talk about #BlackLivesMatter right now, we should just kind of shut up. So I was just like:
Honestly, the joke is not even on Bernie Sanders. That’s what’s so funny — the joke is on the defense of him, which is, if you extrapolate to the furthest extent, he can do no wrong on race. Like, we should not even expect anything of him, he put in his time already, we need to just shut up.
I’m sure it does happen, but I can’t imagine people doing this to other constituencies, because you do rely on those votes. At Netroots Nation, you’re going to be addressing a very diverse but very black-centric audience, and to not really be prepared to talk about race there is a little bit of a slap in the face. So for us — and when I say “us,” I just mean black people, I’m not any level of an activist or anything — for us to just say, Hey, you kind of did a bad job, hope you do better in the future, and then get bombarded with “He marched in 1968!” it’s like, All right, man, I don’t know what to tell you.
That. That right there.
Edited to add: @BobFromBrockley has pointed out this socialist response, not to this but to the entire movement (I think)! A progressive I have followed for years, Martin Bowman, has also written despairingly here, comparing the movement to a marriage and fearing that we’re heading for divorce.
I won’t Fisk either but I would point out one thing. I’m a white gay man and I’m from the generation that lived through HIV/Aids. So there is a connection I have to a ‘crisis’ of people dying and there is also a connection to having to yell and scream to get attention – from everybody. So we had Act-Up and Peter Tatchell invading pulpits, but then we also had lobbyists and McKellan having tea with John Major. Movements always piss people off. From what I can tell the people supporting Sanders are pissed off and from my perspective, as another minority, then I don’t know why that’s a bad thing.
Edited to add: It’s also worthwhile noting these comments (via Nancy LeTourneau) from Dara Lind:
There is a legitimate disconnect between the way Sanders (and many of the economic progressives who support him) see the world, and the way many racial-justice progressives see the world. To Bernie Sanders, as I’ve written, racial inequality is a symptom — but economic inequality is the disease. That’s why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem.
Many racial-justice advocates don’t see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms. They feel that it’s important to acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on people of color, but that racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality. And most importantly, they feel that “pivoting” to economic issues can be a way for white progressives to present their agenda as the progressive agenda and shove black progressives, and the issues that matter most to them, to the sidelines.
So Sanders’ performance at Netroots confirmed the frustrations that his critics felt. And Sanders’ supporters’ reaction to the criticism was just as predictable.