On Monday, during a stop on his book tour, Bernie Sanders was asked about identity politics. “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough,” he said in response to an attendee’s question about how to elect a second Latinx senator to Congress. “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.”
His response has caused outrage of seismic proportions on all corners of the internet.
Sanders released a statement to the New Republic clarifying his comments, stating the importance of a diverse Democratic party. But he also doubled down on his position that the gender and race of a candidate doesn't necessarily have anything to do with policy:
Yes, we need more candidates of diversity, but we also need candidates – no matter what race or gender – to be fighters for the working class and stand up to the corporate powers who have so much power over our economic lives."
Bernie Sanders is right! But Bernie Sanders is also so wrong.
From the beginning of his run for president, Sanders positioned himself as a champion of the white working class—at the expense of other identities. “We can talk about [class] as a racial issue, but it’s a general economic issue,” he said during a debate in the primaries. He was criticized for failing to embrace black voters early on in his bid. And in the end, Sanders performed well in industrial strongholds, winning states like Wisconsin and Michigan, West Virginia, and Indiana.
Meanwhile, the Hillary Clinton campaign blithely ignored the anxieties and anger of a white working class that has been hit hard by failing steel, coal, and auto industries, as well as by jobs shipped overseas. Instead, Clinton had faith that the Midwest’s powerful labor unions and history would sway the results in her favor. (Wisconsin, for example has gone Democratic since 1988.) Largely ignoring the needs of these populations, Clinton instead capitalized on a “new” America, appealing to voters of color and white women.
Throughout the DNC, I sat in front of the television amazed to see a string of black, Latinx, and Americans with disabilities paraded on stage. I joked to friends that it felt like a disingenuous stunt and looked more like an episode out of the popular 1990s PBS series "Reading Rainbow" than an effort to unite all Americans. Over and over I yelled out, “Where the fuck are the white people?”
White people were missing from that stage and from her campaign speeches. They were an afterthought on her campaign stops (she didn’t even visit Wisconsin!). White Americans who might have voted Democrat but don’t identify as liberal just didn’t see themselves reflected in her campaign. She was undeniably part of Washington D.C.’s elite class, and she didn’t exactly do much to quell that perception among voters. Unfortunately for Clinton, white voters without a college degree still represent a third of America’s eligible voting population, and she failed to court a big chunk of them, costing her the election.
But while Clinton did fail, Sanders’ overly simplistic position on identity politics doesn’t pass muster, either. His take isn’t new—it’s part of a historical fight on the left, where identity politics has been dismissed as unproductive and hoity-toity. Clinton was not a candidate for president of the United States just because she was a woman. Clinton may not have been a compelling candidate for the political environment of 2016, but she was certainly a valid one, with, like, you know…experience.
But not only that, her gender enhanced her candidacy; she has unique insight into the political system just by virtue of her not being a white man. Her experience as a woman had an influence on her policy proposals like paid family medical leave, the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, and fighting for equal pay. So yes, the fact that she is a woman who ran for president of the United States was a critical part of her candidacy. And it is too for people of color and other women who run for office in this country.
When Sanders presents identity politics as a nuisance, distilling them down to a vote based on identity, it’s not only reductive, it’s incorrect. White men on the left cannot be excused from racism or sexism simply because they are on the left. And ignoring the fact that being a woman or a person of color can affect policy is detrimental to the health of a better Democratic Party.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.