Bernie Sanders Nailed It On Identity Politics and Inequality, and the Media Completely Missed the Point

Politics Features Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders Nailed It On Identity Politics and Inequality, and the Media Completely Missed the Point

For over a year, critics within and around the established wing of the Democratic Party have painted Bernie Sanders as a misogynistic, racist, heteronormative, cis, male, pseudo-anti-establishment, actually-totally establishment politician motivated by a humongous ego and a desire to thwart progress and the election of the first female president in US history. And then there were the less moderate critics.

I kid, but only slightly.

And as we saw in a recent episode of anti-Sanders outrage, this narrative is still extant. On Sunday November 20, during a talk at Berklee College in Boston, Sanders said something nuanced about race, ethnicity, gender and class, and the same media that supported Clinton during the campaign distorted his remarks to fit this narrative.

Though the election is over, the battle over the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, which was personified and defined by Clinton v. Sanders, is in full swing. While Clinton and her supporters represent a centrist neoliberal wing of the party, Sanders and his supporters represent the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as the late Senator Paul Wellstone put it. In fact, the fight for the DNC chair is part of this same struggle. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), who had endorsed Sanders and whom Sanders appointed to the Democratic Platform committee, is seeking to be DNC chair. The ADL’s vicious and embarrassing smear campaign against him as being an anti-semite—which he’s not—demonstrates how much is at stake.

So, it makes sense that the official Clinton campaign, as well as the David Brock run smear PR empire, continues to push the narrative which they worked so hard to develop and embed during the campaign to delegitimize Sanders and his critiques.

According to this narrative, Clinton and her supporters understand the unique but overlapping challenges faced by women, LGBT, people of color and immigrants. This tendency, to see the intersections of issues of class and race and gender and etc. is called “intersectionality,” a term and concept developed by Kimberle Crenshaw. Sanders, they argue, is a single issue candidate, a vulgar class reductionist, only interested in fighting for the interests of the white working class.

The problem is, for many of the so called intersectionalists who support Clinton and reject Sanders, intersectionality and identity politics include everything except for class. They are so tone deaf about class that they hear the “working class” as a white monolith, as if working class people of color or LGBT people or immigrants don’t exist. Yes, Sanders has spoken about the unique challenges of reaching the white working class, something that would make sense to any intersectionalist who thinks that white supremacy is a real thing. But his use of the word white in this specific context is just more proof that his use of working class without “white,” includes people of all backgrounds. Sanders; critique of inequality, and his attack on the one percent, is one that champions the rights of people from all backgrounds. At the same time, Sanders acknowledges the singular struggles and double (or triple, or quadruple) burdens faced by different people, and how the economic inequality is compounded by racism and sexism. For example, the NAACP gives him a rating of 97% on his positions on affirmative action. They give Clinton a rating of 96%.

What Sanders Actually Said

Let’s look at what Sanders said that got him in so much trouble. After his Nov. 20 talk, the moderator opened the Q&A by reading one of the audience questions. Rebecca, who considers Sanders and Elizabeth Warren her heros, had written, “I want to be the second Latina senator in U.S. history. Any tips?”

Sanders responded:

“It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans — all of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.”

What Sanders was clearly saying, and actually did say, is that discrimination is real and a problem, that diversity and representation of underrepresented people is “enormously important,” and something he “wants to see…happen.”

He went even further than that, though, saying:

“Right now, we’ve made some progress in getting women into politics — I think we got 20 women in the Senate now. We need 50 women in the Senate. We need more African Americans.”

Not only is diversity critical but there is still more work to be done. There has been some improvement but not enough.

But then he uses the “but” word:

“But it’s not good enough to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on big money interests.”

Okay, so what does his “but” do? Here, it does not contradict but complicates. It builds on his other statements about diversity in government. Diversity is absolutely necessary but it’s not sufficient. We have to know where those candidates stand in terms representing the people’s interests, not merely their demography (which again, IS important, but not enough!)

He expands:

“One of the struggles that we’re going to have right now, we lay on the table of the Democratic Party, is it’s not good enough to me to say, “Okay, well we’ve got X number of African Americans over here, we’ve got Y number of Latinos, we have Z number of women. We are a diverse party, a diverse nation….”

And then come more “buts” as he delves deeper into the conflicts of between policies for the people and policies for the financial elites.

“But, but here is my point, and this is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for someone 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.”

And here’s where Sanders brings up identity politics. Ready? Brace yourselves!

“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.”

Identity politics is a term used for the addressing of the issues and injustices of particular groups in the political process. This is the only time Sanders ever mentions identity politics. “Go beyond identity politics. ” For the mainstream media, that was the gotcha moment, and the focus of attention. Yes, “go beyond” can mean different things. It can mean to go “farther” or “go further” as when directions tell us to “go beyond” a certain intersection, or a counselor advises us to “go beyond” our comfort zone. At worst, “to go beyond” can have a dismissive and discounting connotation—though “get beyond” or “get over” would be a better choice if the idea was to dismiss.

At any rate, the fact that Sanders emphasized how important identity politics are shows he was clearly not eschewing them. In addition to what was already quoted, Sanders followed his sentence on identity politics by saying, “I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American head or CEO of some major corporation.” And in case you missed the message, he finished his speech with, “We need candidates — black and white and Latino and gay and male — we need all of those candidates and public officials to have the guts to stand up to the oligarchy.”

He couldn’t have been clearer in presenting economic policies and representational diversity as being complementary, and not mutually exclusive.

How the Media Responded

It looks like the first major publication to pick up the story was Talking Points Memo, (TPM) which had written the following headline by Monday Morning: “Sanders Urges Supporters: Ditch Identity Politics And Embrace The Working Class.”

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The headline and opening sentence, which use the words “ditch” and “move away from” clearly distort what Sanders was saying. They also miss that he was talking to people running for office and the Democrats, not his supporters, though what did I expect after the headline? The headline also reads like a translation from 1930s Pravda. You can almost hear the Internationale crescendo in the background as a caricature of an old and archaic Sanders spouts dated disproven ideas about the working class, forsaking the progress of women and people of color.

Either emboldened by TPM’s lax (mis)reporting or too lazy to review the comments on their own, several other outlets incorporated “ditch” or its synonyms into their articles’ headlines or paragraphs.

At Vox, not surprisingly, Matt Yglesias, chided that Democrats neither can nor should ditch “identity politics”:

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Not everyone put the headline in its headline. Some put it into the body of their articles.

Rebecca Traister linked and quoted the TPM headline in a piece she wrote for The Cut, lamenting that Sanders was “recommending that Democrats embrace the working class and “Ditch Identity Politics,” according to one headline.” In the very next sentence, She clarified that:

In fact, the headline was overblown: Sanders did not say we should dump identity politics, and affirmatively noted that “we should bring more and more women into the political process” and that “we need 50 women in the Senate!”

Bustle did a cute move in copy and pasting the TPM headline into its opening paragraph.

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On Wednesday night, the TPM talking point, if you will, made it’s TV debut. Speaking on All in with Chris Hayes, Clinton supporter and Slate writer Michelle Goldberg complained that Sanders was saying the Democrats need to ditch identity politics.” To be fair, though Goldberg did repeat “ditch,” she did get the target of Sanders’ message right, noting it was for the Democratic Party and not his supporters. That’s neither here no there, except, perhaps, to show that Goldberg had taken enough time to go over what Sanders had said and deliberately chose to not update or correct the verb.

Host Chris Hayes, who was with Goldberg in the studio, interjected (though barely audibly), that Sanders, “didn’t quite say that.” Nina Turner, former Ohio State Senator and Sanders surrogate, who was speaking from a remote studio, also clarified, that Sanders, “didn`t say it that way. He didn`t mean it that way.” But Goldberg ignored the correction, continuing as if nothing had been said: “I think that there is a fear among some people that in this move, that kind of a purely class-based politics will throw women and people of color under the bus in this attempt to win back the culturally conservative white working class.” Goldberg, a white female Clinton supporter, speaking past Turner, a Black woman, to explain how the Vermont Senator who Turner had chosen to support was espousing an ideology that would throw women of color under the bus, was “problematic,” to use a word so frequently invoked by Sanders critics.

Politico swapped it out for “slam.”

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On the Right, The Blaze went with “quit.”

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The Observer chose “grow out of.”

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Others definitely went to great lengths to distort what Sanders said, and it’s hard to believe they were innocent.

As for opinion pieces and tweets, this one stands out as being utterly unrelated to reality.

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What makes the attacks on Sanders so disingenuous is that they are so clearly partisan and unprincipled. Contrast Sanders statements on class and race with Clinton’s.

What Clinton Said

Back in February, Clinton delivered a speech in the suburbs of Las Vegas where she explicitly pitted economic policies against “progress” for women, immigrants, people of color, and LGBT. In an obvious dig at Sanders, who the Clinton campaign was deriding as a “single issue candidate,” Clinton asked, rhetorically, “Not everything is about an economic theory, right? If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?” When the audience responded “No!” Clinton took the call and response and really ran with it, asking “Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight? Would that solve our problem with voting rights, and Republicans who are trying to strip them away from people of color, the elderly, and the young?”

The audience responded to each of these questions with… “No!”

Clinton gets a lot out of this call-and-response jam session. She makes the strawman argument that Sanders thinks or has ever suggested that breaking up the banks will end racism, sexism, homophobia, voter disenfranchisement and xenophobia etc. She is certain that taking on the banks is insufficient. But she goes further by saying that it may not even be necessary. She vows that she will do something about the banks, “if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk.” Clinton is agnostic on whether the banks deserve any kind of regulation or are a risk. And Clinton paints breaking up banks and fighting against structural racism as two discrete and unrelated projects.

The truth is that the foreclosure crisis was one of the most stunning and disturbing examples of institutionalized racism. As Nathalie Baptiste writes in the American Prospect:

“Across the nation, black homeowners were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis, with more than 240,000 blacks losing homes they had owned. Black homeowners in the D.C. region were 20 percent more likely to lose their homes compared to whites with similar incomes and lifestyles. The foreclosure crisis also affected blacks of all income brackets; high-earning blacks were 80 percent more likely to lose their homes than their white counterparts, making the homeowners of Prince George’s County prime targets.”

Clinton wraps up her speech by calling herself “the only candidate who’ll take on every barrier to progress.” Of course, her ignoring the systemic risks already posed by the banks and de facto racist policies already practiced by the banks, makes it hard to believe that she is at all equipped to do this.

People who care about identity politics should have been in an uproar. They may not particularly care that she oversimplified and distorted Sanders’ analysis. But how could Clinton have ignored the racist nature of the subprime loan scandal? Also, how could she present economic justice and other forms of justice as so unrelated?

And yet there was no outcry.

Clinton’s statements were nowhere near as nuanced as Sanders. Sanders doesn’t make one more important than the other. Clinton does. Had Clinton spoken about class and identity politics with the same intersectionality and nuance as Sanders, her statements would have been very different. She would have taken the very sensible position that while bank reform is a good and necessary thing, it alone will not end racism or sexism. She would have emphasized the need for attacking the overlapping issues.

But she didn’t and Sanders did. Not that you’d know.

Katie Halper hosts the Katie Halper Show. You can listen to her latest episode, featuring Matt Stoller and Leslie Lee, below.

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