I’ve never worked harder to rally people around a candidate in all my life. Bernie Sanders was and — truly, in some ways in my mind — remains my ideal candidate when it comes to discussion of the global economy and America’s failure to provide for its citizens. I donated more money to his campaign than anyone I’ve ever supported, attended fundraisers in support of him, and ultimately voted for him in the primaries last spring. But I wouldn’t do it again, not while he throws core constituencies under the bus for the sake of appealing to easily race-baited white voters.
I won’t deny it. I’d had my concerns about Bernie Sanders before voting for him in the Illinois Democratic primary in March of 2016, since at least the January before, when Ta-Nehisi Coates published an important critique of the senator’s language regarding race, as well as his flippant attitude regarding the concept of reparations in a modern-day context. I brushed them aside, then, in the midst of the election season and my fervent desire to support my candidate, despite his faults. I rushed to Cedric Johnson’s critique of Coates’s critique. I looked for every reason to dispute the even-handed criticisms Coates’s leveled regarding the problems of race in this country that exist independently of the worker / employer relationship. I was relieved with Coates ultimately endorsed Sanders’s presidential bid (although not without some reservation and definitive caveats). But I’m now of the firm belief that we’re talking about a both/and scenario when civil rights and worker’s rights are discussed.
It’s not that one is more important than the other. It’s that we need to be active in advocating for both, constantly and unequivocally. This, to me, has been Sanders’s most significant failure, especially when he goes so far as to opine that it was “political correctness” that got Trump elected, which obviously dismisses in one glib expression the realities and concerns of tens of millions of Americans who have every right to having their feelings validated. A part of me strongly believes Sanders knows this, but he’s decided through political maneuvering that it’s more important to extend an olive branch to skeptical (and sometimes, yes, racist) white Americans who balk at a more heterogeneous American demography. The following cringeworthy statement seems to support this, “I belong to the white working class,” which is itself an odd and arguably cynical claim since he has, in fairness, worked in politics for his entire career, “and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party can’t talk to the people where I come from.” I’m increasingly discomfited by Bernie Sanders and his coterie at Our Revolution attempting to control the levers of modern progressivism and dictate who is ‘in” and who is “out” in this regard.
I’ve heard a lot of arguments in defense of Sanders, but few of them really persuade me. We’re supposed to accept Sanders’s tone deaf behavior regarding issues that most directly affect women, gender nonconforming individuals and / or people of color because at least he’s raising awareness about the corruption of our government and how deeply in bed with corporate interests it’s become. It’s undoubtedly an important message, one that I was persuaded by, and frankly, continue to be persuaded by. But as Cedric Johnson in the previously cited critique himself notes, although with an admittedly different opinion:
Liberal antiracist discourse further isolates the conditions of the most excluded segments of workers, separating their experiences from those of other workers, and their labor from the broader processes at work, instead of emphasizing the empirical and potential political unity of the laboring classes.
It is precisely this quality of Sanders’s own rhetoric that has me unwilling to support him. From my own position of privilege, I could theoretically easily look past the ways that Sanders, borne of a different era, justifies trumpeting awareness for the overlooked “white” working class and is comfortable with supporting candidates who are not rigidly pro-choice (as he indicated on Morning Joe as well as on other occasions) for the sake of “winning.” I would counter that the whole point of progressivism is to insure that we hold tightly to our principles so that we don’t suffer the same mistakes made by the Democratic Party, an institution that is ossifying, and whose most inspirational figure, Barack Obama, is being paid nearly half a million dollars to speak at a Wall Street event. These things fly in the face of what progressive Democrats ought to be thinking about, and I’m not willing to become so craven that I care more about winning than I do about maintaining the essential values that are core to what progressivism stands for. The Republican Party has done just that and look at what its members have reduced themselves to: in an effort to pass favorable legislation and generally consolidate their power, they’ve made odious, possibly treasonous bedfellows.
To me this isn’t about Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, or Tom Perez, or any other Democrat. This is about what we expect the moral standard of modern progressivism to be, even when it doesn’t necessarily play in Omaha. I grant that Heath Mello’s stance on abortion rights is slightly more complex than some news outlets initially made it seem, but frankly, it was never about Mello in the first place. Instead, it was and remains about what Sanders is willing to sacrifice in order to turn red states blue.
Sanders should not alone be the one to whom we look when we want to imagine an America that stands for progressivism. He has shown his only real concern is economic in nature, and everything else is on the table. As Rebecca Traister and other critics have rightly noted, abortion rights are inextricably tied to economic rights and women’s autonomy. Sanders economic populism is myopic in its focus on a fantastical white blue collar worker, one who is also archetypally male. The working class of the present comes in all different races, sexes, sexual orientations and creeds. Focusing on these distinctions and dividing people based on historic hierarchies and separations, particularly by giving any one group tacit or overt preeminence over others, work to the favor of capital, work to the favor of the power structure as it exists at present. By ignoring these clear historical antecedents, Sanders’s words make it clear he’s perfectly comfortable playing right into that very power structure’s hands.
Matt Rowan lives in Chicago. He founded and edits Untoward and is managing editor of Another Chicago Magazine. He’s author of the short story collections, Big Venerable (CCLaP, 2015) and Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013)