On Being a Reformed Bernie Bro
(or Progressives, Identity Politics, and Chickenshit part 5)
Hillary Clinton wrote a book. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the book in the last few days, most relating to her eagerness to assign blame for her loss to anyone but herself. Most of that criticism comes from supporters of her Democratic primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders. I’ll leave aside for a moment the fact that her book has yet to actually come out, that these criticisms are based mostly on the handful of excerpts circulating on the late night talk show circuit, and the profound self-righteousness that this implies. It at least brings up a decent discussion.
To their credit, Clinton supporters seem accutely aware, not only of the crazy and categorically unfair factors that contributed to her loss, but also those that lie squarely on the shoulders of their prefered candidate. I’m sure part of the reason is that the news media has beaten incessantly into their heads all the ways that their candidate was “flawed” for at least the last two solid years. But I’m not sure I can say the same of Sanders’s supporters.
Bernie Sanders lost because of a rigged primary, corporate interests, Hillary Clinton shills in the media, corporate interests, the Democratic machine, low information voters, and most of all corporate interests. Some of those things probably did help pump the brakes on his campaign but there seems to be very little interest in what Sanders himself may have done better.
Though the primary itself was infuriating to me for any number of reasons, I was generally pleased with the two candidates with whom I was presented. A lifelong politician with nearly limitless practical experience in national government and a lifelong political independent with a history of economic radicalism. A woman with a three decade record of advocacy for women and children and human rights and a man with a three decade history of advocating for economic justice. When presented with the choice in May or June of 2015, I chose Bernie Sanders but seven or eight months later I found myself an increasingly enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton. I think my journey from point A to point B might be instructive.
My views on economic issues and redistribution and health care and social safety nets have always been pragmatic and fairly pliable, but when push comes to shove, I am extremely progressive. I was excited about Bernie Sanders for basically the same reasons that everyone else was. I thought it was about time that someone pushed hard for free public college education and for single payer healthcare and stronger minimum wage laws.
My enthusiasm for him was always buoyed by my pragmatism but I still very much liked him. Though I was perfectly fine with Clinton’s more cautiously progressive policies (debt-free college, strengthening the existing ACA, more measured minimum wages), it was not that pragmatism that eventually soured me on the Sanders campaign. Actually it was quite the opposite.
In early January, Bernie Sanders was asked if he supported any form of reparations for slavery or the century of Jim Crow that followed. Sanders said that he did not and invoked the impracticality of getting such a policy through Congress and the “divisive” nature of such a policy as explanations for his position. In his critique of Sanders’s response, “Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination,” Ta-Nehisi Coates argued the following:
The left, above all, should know better than this. When Sanders dismisses reparations because they are “divisive” he puts himself in poor company. “Divisive” is how Joe Lieberman swatted away his interlocutors. “Divisive” is how the media dismissed the public option. “Divisive” is what Hillary Clinton is calling Sanders’s single-payer platform right now.
So “divisive” was Abraham Lincoln’s embrace of abolition that it got him shot in the head. So “divisive” was Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights that it fractured the Democratic Party. So “divisive” was Ulysses S. Grant’s defense of black civil rights and war upon the Klan, that American historians spent the better part of a century destroying his reputation. So “divisive” was Martin Luther King Jr. that his own government bugged him, harassed him, and demonized him until he was dead. And now, in our time, politicians tout their proximity to that same King, and dismiss the completion of his work—the full pursuit of equality—as “divisive.” The point is not that reparations is not divisive. The point is that anti-racism is always divisive. A left radicalism that makes Clintonism its standard for anti-racism—fully knowing it could never do such a thing in the realm of labor, for instance—has embraced evasion.
As the primary campaign moved forward and Hillary Clinton was grilled with similar questions she produced reluctant apologies for her advocacy on behalf of her husband’s destructive law and order policies and produced substantive responses and policy positions on the issue. Sanders’s support for (and vote in favor of) the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that contained so many of those destructive provisions seemed to fly under the radar.
In the initial weeks of the primary, Sanders over performed in states where the primary voters were far younger and far whiter than most Democratic general election voters (Iowa, New Hampshire) and Clinton won easily in states with somewhat older and more diverse electorates (South Carolina). Clearly annoyed at his losses, Sanders spoke about it on late night television:
Well, you know, people say, ‘Why does Iowa go first, why does New Hampshire go first,’ but I think that having so many Southern states go first kind of distorts reality as well.
I began to sour on Bernie Sanders’s campaign because the old-school labor progressivism that I appreciated about his campaign was dragging with it all the baggage that once came with that progressivism. There was a stubborn insistence that his failure to appeal to the working and middle class voters of color (particularly women and older voters) that make up the most loyal part of the Democratic base was the fault of structural aspects of the primary process. That insistence suggested to me, for right or wrong, that he had not learned the lessons of a progressivism that allied for decades with the solid south by excluding citizens of color from its benefits. In America, colorblind progressivism has historically been white progressivism.
Hillary Clinton based her campaign more on a desire to pair cautious and less-than-thrilling economic progressivism with explicit policies designed to disperse the benefits of those policies more equally. She was ridiculed for her “identity politics” but her recognition that factors other than class impact the efficacy of her economic policy and her willingness to say so and be berated for it were enough to slide me into her column.
The rush to assign blame to for the loss is not productive coming from either side of the primary fight. The simple fact is that Bernie Sanders would have been better if he did specific things as well as Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton would have been better if she did specific things as well as Bernie Sanders. Thrilling root-and-branch economic progressivism is probably an important part of a newly progressive Democratic Party. The “identity politics” that compel the party to scratch and claw for every fraction of that progressive change to be distributed equally regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or anything else is equally important and the Democratic Party should realize that naming that intention explicitly is not “identity politics” but a concession that they have repeatedly neglected that equality in the past.
The firebrand progressive side of the Democratic Party wants to claim its future. I think it probably will. But if it doesn’t recognize that it has its own errors and shortfalls to overcome, then it will be nothing more than the other half of the “identity politics” progressivism it ridicules so viciously. It will be its own mirror of the Clinton campaign’s style of progressivism, but no less incomplete.
The progressive left needs to stop ridiculing “establishment” politicians for adopting progressive policies, be damn glad they did so, support their decision and hold them accountable, and keep pushing for more. The progressive left needs to divorce its movement from the cult of personality of one man and open itself to leaders and thinkers who might bring more to the table. Look to activists like DeRay McKesson who fuse radically progressive economic and social politics with incremental, results-oriented activism and speak to each of those things as parts of a whole. Thinkers and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates whose radical progressivism stems from a longing for social justice and who refuses to excuse the former for neglecting the latter. The progressive left should supplement its Joseph Stigletz and Bernie Sanders with Angela Davis (either one) and James Baldwin.
I’m glad that the Democratic Party was jolted with the shock of economic progressivism and I’m glad that it went to battle on issues of identity that are just as important to economic and social justice. I’m disappointed that it remains divided on the issue as if it were supposed to choose one. Choose both and get on with it.