Bernie Sanders Is Not a Real Progressive

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4, 2017, urging Republicans to abandon cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4, 2017, urging Republicans to abandon cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images)

America’s most marginalized people could use a real progressive politician who is fearless enough to take on the racist doctrine of Donald Trump. That person is not Sen. Bernie Sanders, and that is a pity.


Black people and immigrants have been particularly singled out in Trump’s racist attacks. Besides his support of police brutality and attacks against civil rights legislation via his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, Trump has employed the nation’s leading voter-suppression activist—Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—to lead his so-called Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.

Although Trump did not start voter suppression, his embrace of the GOP tactic reveals his understanding of how disempowering people of color at the ballot box is the surest way to secure the Republican hold on political power.

Trump has been particularly harsh toward Latinos. He launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and killers, and he’s been trying to build a wall to keep them out of the country. In an act of pure heartlessness, he stripped up to 800,000 undocumented immigrants of their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals benefits. And let’s not forget his Muslim ban. All of this is fine with Trump’s supporters, as study after study after study (pdf) reveals that racism is what drives their support of him, not economic fears.

Sanders seems unwilling to accept this. After robust criticism for lacking a racial analysis to complement his economic equality-heavy framework, he still insists on ignoring the fact that racial inequality is a leading concern of black voters in the United States and that racial anxiety was a motivating factor behind Trump’s base.

This was evident when Seth Meyers asked him recently if the indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller in connection with the Russia investigation could distract voters. From the Daily Beast:

“Yes. I mean, I think we’ve got to work in two ways,” Sanders answered. “Number one, we have got to take on Trump’s attacks against the environment, against women, against Latinos and blacks and people in the gay community, we’ve got to fight back every day on those issues. But equally important, or more important: We have got to focus on bread-and-butter issues that mean so much to ordinary Americans.”

Sanders said those “ordinary Americans” are “not staying up every day worrying about Russia’s interference in our election.” Instead, he said, “They’re wondering how they’re going to send their kids to college” or “how they’re going to be able to pay the rent” or “whether they can afford health care.”


The problem is that he said, “But equally important, or more important.”

So black and Latinx people aren’t concerned with bread-and-butter issues? We aren’t ordinary Americans? Why put such a break between race and economics? Sanders clearly means white Americans when he says “ordinary Americans.”


This is a very strategic move. Engaging black and Latinx people would require Sanders to navigate the messy politics of race that neither he nor the party he refuses to join wants to touch. Sanders and Democratic Party elites would have to come to grips with the fact that the white working-class voters who pulled the lever for Trump are Republicans who reject racial and gender equality and are essentially a lost cause.


Minorities disaffected with the political process should be Sanders’ true target. As my colleague Anne Branigin wrote earlier this week:

Systemic racism and sexism regularly affect those “bread and butter” issues Sanders describes: paying for college, rent and health care. Black and Latinx families are losing wealth, not gaining it. The Trump administration’s attacks on environmental regulations can also compound the damage suffered by marginalized communities, which are disproportionately affected by global warming and environmental disasters. Black and brown people regularly give a fuck about social justice issues, like police brutality and criminal-justice reform, along with their job prospects. At the same damn time. In fact, they understand better than other “ordinary Americans” how those circles intersect.


For someone who is heralded as America’s leading progressive politician, Sanders’ views on race are awfully regressive. The more Sanders touches on race, the more dismissive he sounds. He and Democratic insiders can’t seem to understand that black and Latinx folks have the same economic fears as the white working-class voters they so covet. Someone who considers himself a progressive would find a way to draw parallels between these groups of people while dealing with their individual needs. A true progressive has the ability to shift gears and adjust his approach.

It is clear that Sanders simple chooses not to do so.

In 2016 we could give Sanders a pass for his lack of experience with black voters—even though black politicians would never, ever be given such a pass with white voters. But his insistence on solely focusing on regaining white working-class voter proves that he’s not interested in winning over black and brown Hillary Clinton supporters.


His most avid backers consistently point to his notable showing with young black voters in some states, while dismissing the votes of their parents and grandparents. My Twitter mentions are full of Bernie supporters who essentially say that young voters of color are the future and that, basically, trying to win over older black voters is a waste of time.

Translation: Fuck your parents’ vote. And your parents’ parents’ vote, too.

It’s a sad commentary because we could really benefit from a Sanders whose rhetoric could speak to the racial anxiety of working-class voters of color as Trump does for the white working-class voters who support him. But, more important, do Democrats really want white working-class voters who elected a man who vowed to reverse a health care policy that they actually need? Do Democrats want people who voted for a man who insults Mexicans and thinks it’s OK to grab a woman by the pussy? Do Democrats really believe that they can win over working-class Trump voters simply by getting back to “bread-and-butter issues”?


If they do, they are delusional, and so is anyone who believes that Sanders’ pure economics approach will change the minds of people who choose their whiteness over their pocketbooks. Or, more specifically, the 53 percent of white women who chose their race over their gender. White working-class Trump backers chose their team. They voted for a racist who convinced them that the current order of America was attacking the value of their whiteness.

And they believed it.

A true progressive would understand all of this and, instead of treating issues of race like a nuisance, reconfigure his politics to earn the respect of the bread-and-butter voters who are the Democratic Party’s moral conscience: working-class people of color who don’t elect bigots.


For the moment, Sanders’ supporters are celebrating Donna Brazile’s allegations that Clinton hijacked the primary process. It will further bolster his base and the “Bernie would have won” crowd, but it will do nothing to unify the Democratic Party. Clinton may have been a seedy player in 2016, but just as Bernie backers supposedly do not care about the Russian investigation, non-Bernie backers are likely to be unmoved by the high-level politics of the Democratic National Committee. None of this will help Sanders win over critical black and brown votes in the 2020 primaries, if he does decide to run.

The Democratic Party truly needs a progressive with Sanders’ passion in these very divisive times. But his refusal to evolve on race will leave Democrats in the same position in 2020 that they found themselves in in 2016: defeated by a racist who realizes that identity politics are the true key to victory.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.


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