Bernie Sanders has been having a moment in the public eye, despite Beltway consensus that Sanders can’t possibly beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary.
The self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont has seen his poll numbers jump since he announced his candidacy last month. Some observers are urging the media to take his candidacy more seriously because he has big, surprisingly mainstream ideas, and because he’s defeated long odds before.
Sanders is wildly popular on social media and widely loved by many progressives who see his unapologetic economic populism as a breath of fresh air.
But other progressives argue that Sanders’ laser-like focus on economic inequality is too narrow—not just because he talks about it to the exclusion of other issues, but because the way he talks about it only tells part of the story.
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They say he tends to pursue a one-size-fits-all populist message that ignores race and gender—and that even if his campaign’s only accomplishment is pushing Clinton to the left on specific issues, the way Sanders talks about those issues wastes opportunities to connect with key voters and better understand key policy problems.
And, critics say, this problem isn’t at all unique to Sanders; it’s a longstanding issue with the Democratic Party and American liberalism itself.
Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas called it “weird and unexpected” that Sanders would leave out any mention of immigration reform or the Black Lives Matter movement at the start of his campaign given how vocal Clinton has been on those issues, and how good Sanders—who took part in the 1963 March on Washington—has been on those issues historically.
Dara Lind argues at Vox that Sanders’ failure to discuss racial justice could dampen some of the progressive enthusiasm about his candidacy:
For other progressives—many of them black or Latino—economic inequality is important, but so is racial inequality. They’re extremely concerned about racial bias in policing, and about ending mass incarceration. They’re concerned about the treatment of unauthorized immigrants, and about protecting voting rights … And Bernie Sanders doesn’t speak to those concerns. He didn’t mention those issues in his campaign launch yesterday, or in his email announcement to his supporters last month, and they’re not on the issues page of his website.
Sanders’ campaign website doesn’t mention any gender or reproductive justice issues either.
Sanders, in his more detailed campaign launch speech, briefly mentioned equal pay for women, child poverty, nutrition assistance for pregnant women, and affordable child care. There’s no question from his record that he’s avidly pro-choice and supports women’s access to comprehensive health care. He is willing to speak out about women’s rights, and it’s likely he’ll have more to say about those issues as the campaign progresses.
But critics say there’s a difference between taking a position on an issue and making an issue out of a position, especially when it comes to connecting with voters.
“It’s the idea that speaking about racial inequality and gender inequality is an important thing to do, but you don’t have to do it first, and you don’t have to do it all the time,” said Anat Shenker-Osorio, a progressive messaging strategist. “If you don’t lead with it, then you don’t take it seriously.”
Clinton, dismissed by many on the left as “corporate,” has still put some race and gender issues front and center in her campaign. It’s worrisome, progressives say, if the so-called “left flank” isn’t pushing any harder for racial or gender justice issues than the “centrists.”
Sanders released a 12-point progressive economic agenda in December that doesn’t mention race once. It mentions gender once to discuss the pay gap but doesn’t discuss the much larger pay disparities that women of color experience, an issue Clinton is highlighting on the campaign trail.
“If [Sanders is] the candidate who’s speaking truth to power, but that’s the truth he chooses to speak, that doesn’t bode well for the outcomes of progressive policy,” Ludovic Blain, a progressive electoral activist, told Rewire.
It’s not just Sanders who won’t take ownership of these issues from the left, Blain said; he doesn’t hear Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) talk about race much, and he doesn’t hear her white progressive base noticing or complaining about the omission.
“Bernie Sanders is not a standalone person for me,” Blain said. “He comes from a long line of mostly, but not exclusively, white male liberals that white liberals are very excited about, and they all never talk about people of color or racial justice. They all make purely class-based appeals.”
Lind writes that Sanders focuses on purely economic issues because he’s just more passionate about economic justice than other issues, and because he thinks you can’t solve things like racial inequality without first addressing class inequality. It’s a position that was also easy for him to hold, and get elected on, in his mostly-white home state of Vermont.
It’s also a position that makes no sense historically, Shenker-Osorio said, given the way racial “dog-whistle politics” have consistently undermined calls for economic populism in the United States.
“You can’t talk about inequality, you can’t talk about the usurpation of control and the wielding of power by an elite minority, and not mention race. You just can’t,” she said. “Otherwise you’re not actually talking about it.”
Sanders seems to take a similar “class struggle first” view toward gender-based injustice. His Senate website reads, “Sen. Sanders supports women’s rights by challenging ongoing inequalities in our society.”
He also seems willing to put some of those ongoing inequalities ahead of women’s rights, at least in front of certain audiences. In a recent speech before members of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), Sanders said:
I know that there are differences in this room on abortion, on gay marriage, on guns, whatever it may be. Fine, let’s have our differences. But when it comes to whether or not our kids can go to college, whether or not we’re going to make it easier for workers to join unions, whether or not we’re going to have a trade policy which creates jobs in this country or whether it creates jobs in China, whether or not college is affordable, whether or not all Americans are entitled to health care as a right, let us stand together and not be divided.
This isn’t a surprising omission for Sanders to make, given his audience.
It’s also not a surprising rhetorical move for a Democrat, observers say. Sanders’ far more centrist colleague, the likely future Senate minority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), has pointed to economic populism as a way for Democrats to specifically appeal to white working class voters.
Talking about economic populism while avoiding talk about race or gender is a strategy that some observers and advocates say is behind the times. It not only fails to engage the progressive base, they say, but it also fails to tell the full story of inequality.
“Even if you’re trying to address it from a ‘purely’ economic populist frame—whatever that means, and I don’t even actually know what that means—I don’t know how you get around issues of race and gender,” Vivien Labaton, co-founder and co-executive director of the Make It Work campaign for family-centered work policies, told Rewire.
“There’s a disinfection of the message in order for it to be more palatable for a particular sector of white voters,” Lisa Garcia Bedolla, professor of education and political science at the University of California at Berkeley, told Rewire. “And to appeal to those voters you cannot talk about race or gender, and God forbid the two together.”
Bedolla said she is “cautiously optimistic” about Clinton, who is doing better than Bedolla expected on race and gender both in rhetoric and in hiring decisions. Bedolla, however, thinks that movements like Black Lives Matter have given Clinton “political cover” to say more than she normally would, that she’s following trends rather than being in the vanguard, and that her racial analysis of economic issues is still limited.
It’s a problem Democrats have had for decades, Bedolla said—from the racially biased New Deal, to Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, to today’s risk-averse echo chamber of Democratic political consultants.
“It’s appealing to an ever-smaller proportion of the electorate, and one that is increasingly breaking for Republicans,” Blain said. “It seems like a strange way to try to win the elections of the past, not of today and the future.”
Women of color are the Democrats’ most reliable base, followed by men of color; white women vote Republican a bit less than white men, but a lot more than men or women of color. Women of color also face more barriers than white women to the reproductive and economic justice that would give them more power over their own future and their children’s future.
“It’s no coincidence that women, and women of color specifically, often occupy the most economically precarious jobs, and I think that anyone who wants to put themselves out there as a champion of economic justice needs to speak to that loud and clear,” Labaton said. “Telling this story as it really is is more likely to allow a broader set of people to see themselves in that story.”
“You’re basically not speaking to the people who make up the new American majority in a language that they’re motivated by,” Shenker-Osorio said.
That affects policy as well as rhetoric, Bedolla said, especially when it comes to the difference between a “women’s agenda” (often code for “white women’s agenda”) and a “women of color agenda.”
Take equal pay, for instance. It’s important, but helping a low-wage woman of color make the same $8 an hour as her male coworker is less helpful than securing her a living wage.
Sanders has been on the front lines of the “Fight for $15” living wage movement, and Clinton recently came out in support of the movement as well. A higher minimum wage would disproportionately help women of color because they make less as a group.
But critics say progressive politicians too often treat this kind of analysis like an afterthought, if they mention it at all. Sanders typically talks about worker organizing in broad terms without any reference to race or gender. Clinton talks about how most low-wage jobs are held by women of color, but she hasn’t been specific about actually calling for the $15 minimum wage that disadvantaged workers are demanding.
“We often require people of color voters to think a whole lot more about stuff than white voters,” Blain said. “People of color voters are supposed to essentially take out a policy manual and figure out the proportionate impacts of generic policies. Whereas for white voters, we just definitely don’t ever want to bring up race so that they don’t even have to think about it.”
“There is a long history of Democrats pushing for economic equality on the presumption that by doing so they would also help some communities of color,” Bedolla said.
It’s not that such policies won’t help at all, Bedolla said, but the solutions will be incomplete without getting specific about the root problems.
Take immigrants in her state of California: Obama favors more access to early childhood education programs, but mere “access” isn’t enough even in San Francisco, where Latinos are still the least likely to have early childhood education despite the city’s universal preschool program. And Latinos were also less likely to sign up their eligible children for state health benefits, partly due to fears about immigration status.
“The policy agenda that comes out of a misdiagnosis of the problem can’t actually solve the problem,” Bedolla said.
Campaigning isn’t the same as governing, of course, and it’s hard to say what kinds of policies either Clinton or Sanders would actually prioritize as president. But as much as campaigners pander and make promises they’re sure to break, Shenker-Osorio said, the things that candidates are willing to say on the campaign trail matter.
“Presidential campaigns are times when our nation suddenly actually pays attention to its governance,” Shenker-Osorio said. “So the stories that get told are about what matters in America, what we desire, what we’re seeking as public policy.”