Bernie Sanders is still not a Democrat. Now that the independent senator has made his run for president official, that fact bears repeating. When you want the nomination of a political party, your commitment to that party matters, especially to people who are in the party, the very same people who are going to select the party’s nominee.
That Sanders is not a Democrat means he must find a coalition outside the party that is of two minds: attached to the party for arbitrary reasons as well as hostile to it. I’m not talking about people who want the party to go in new directions, because those people are already in the party and they are moving it in new directions. I’m talking about voters with weak ties to the party, who may or may not have a history of supporting its nominees, but who are generally hostile to the very idea of parties.
To be sure, Sanders appeals to partisans inside the Democratic Party. There’s no doubt about that. But unlike 2016, when the choice was between him and Hillary Clinton, 2020 brings competition for voters drawn to his policy ideas. Joe Biden would split, at least, white working class Democrats. Sherrod Brown would split voters focused on labor and trade issues, and kitchen-table economics. (Neither Brown nor Biden are officially running yet.) But Sanders fiercest rival is obviously Elizabeth Warren.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think there are enough voters outside the party who want what Sanders is selling, not enough to bend the party in his favor. If there are enough people outside the party, I don’t think they are as mobilized as Democratic partisans in the current anti-Donald Trump climate we live in. Partisan commitments are categorical. And I suspect there aren’t enough voters inside the party to lift Sanders to the nomination, because why vote for him when you can vote for Warren?
To be fair, there are good reasons to vote for Sanders and not for Warren, but I don’t think they can compete for attention against what Sanders is bound to face, which is a deafening rehash of 2016. I’m sure he’d prefer we forget Wikileaks, the DNC hacking, Cambridge Analytica, Russian bots pushing “Bernie Would Have Won”—all of it. But partisans aren’t likely to forget. The vetting of Bernie Sanders has yet to begin.
Doesn’t 2016 count as vetting? A little, but mostly no. Yes, it showed us that Sanders has a constituency. But he never got a hard look for two reasons. One, the press never thought he had a chance against Clinton (no one did). Two, Clinton would not run hard against him, because she needed his voters. None of that is the case in 2020. The press is going to take him seriously. His opponents are going to run at him hard.
I assume he means his statements in good faith, but given those, it’s clear that Sanders has an exploitable blind spot when it comes to matters of racism, white supremacy and white privilege. In particular, he does not seem to know, or seem to care to know, what it is he is saying when he says the Democratic Party is in thrall to “identity politics.”
“Identity politics” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but we’re not talking about all kinds of people. We’re talking about Democrats whose support he needs to win the nomination. To a lot of these Democrats, especially the most intensely partisan of Democrats, saying he’s against “identity politics” means he’s against them. Not because he’s anti-black (I don’t think anyone’s saying that), but because he just doesn’t understand that Trump is the culmination of “identity politics” that are white.
Sanders wants Democrats to see his politics as color-blind, as favoring no one on account of skin color, because everyone is deserving of the blessings of liberty and justice. That sounds nice, but this is brass tacks, and brass tacks says that a lot of Democrats don’t have the luxury of living in a color-blind world, it’s not a choice they have the power to make, and brass tacks says Sanders, who does have the power to live in a color-blind world, is telling them to stop seeing the world in color, even though the world won’t let them. So for a lot of Democrats, listening to Sanders is like listening to a man telling them they don’t live the lives they are actually living.
Sanders’ critics don’t think he means well, but I continue to believe he does. He just doesn’t get it. He thinks his ideas transcend race, and that sounds appealing to people who can transcend race—because their race, in this racist world of ours, is the most powerful race. But for those on the inside of the party, for those who understand intimately the role of racism in their lives, his ideas may be just more of the same.
I can’t help thinking things would be different had Sanders been a Democrat.
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