Bernie Sanders Did Not Learn the Lesson of ‘Bittergate’

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Bernie Sanders Gives Campaign Speech At Georgetown University
Like Barack Obama in 2008, Bernie Sanders needs to avoid dismissing the noneconomic concerns of downscale voters.Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Remember “Bittergate,” one of the big but ultimately not decisive moments of the 2008 Democratic presidential nominating process? It’s pretty clear Bernie Sanders doesn’t, because he’s repeating Barack Obama’s much-repented mistake of condescendingly speaking of white working-class voters’ concerns on noneconomic issues as representing displaced anxiety about lost jobs and low wages. 

On Face the Nation yesterday, Sanders had this to say about Donald Trump’s appeal to downscale white voters:

Many of Trump’s supporters are working-class people and they’re angry, and they’re angry because they’re working longer hours for lower wages, they’re angry because their jobs have left this country and gone to China or other low-wage countries, they’re angry because they can’t afford to send their kids to college so they can’t retire with dignity,” Sanders said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“What Trump has done with some success is taken that anger, taken those fears which are legitimate and converted them into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims, and in my view that is not the way we’re going to address the major problems facing our country,” he said.

Compare that to Obama’s famous remark about the same kind of voters in 2008:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Other than the fact that Obama’s comments were made in a private Bay Area fund-raiser and subsequently leaked, while Sanders made his on national television, they differ mainly in that the former slighted the hot-button subjects of religion and guns while the latter limited his condescension to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim appeals. But in both cases you get a strong whiff of the ancient lefty habit of claiming the noneconomic concerns of economically stressed people represent a “false consciousness” actively promoted by the economic ruling class. Here’s another recent example, from 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean, this time referring to the South:

I am tired of coming to the South and fighting elections on guns, God and gays. We’re going to fight this election on our turf, which is going to be jobs, education and health care.

Note the implicit concession of noneconomic issues — including, in the case of "God," the ultimate meaning of the universe and human life — to the opposition. Like Obama four years later, though a bit more directly, Dean seemed to be telling working-class voters they had to choose between real pocketbook matters and bogus cultural anxieties. And Bernie Sanders, who has already gotten into hot water for appearing to lecture Black Lives Matter activists that their grievances are rightly economic rather than racial, seems to be close to the same economic reductionism and disrespect of voters’ concerns.  

What should Sanders (and other progressives) be saying to less offensively make their case for working-class economic populism? For one thing, it would be helpful not to conflate quasi-economic issues with totally noneconomic issues, as Sanders does with immigration and terrorism. You can tell people that corporate power rather than “illegal immigration” is the reason wages have been stagnating without insulting them. Telling them they should be worried more about money than (in their view) their families’ and their country’s security against terrorism is another matter altogether, especially when in both cases you are more than slightly hinting they are bigots for listening to Donald Trump. Having a progressive answer to fears about terrorism — even if it’s to say such fears are exaggerated — is invariably better than changing the subject or implying that if you care about terrorism you are a conservative. 

Barack Obama apologized immediately and often for “Bittergate,” and did not again make the mistake of appearing to tell downscale voters their professed concerns and beliefs show what dopes they are. But Democrats seem to need a reminder now and then, just as Republicans seem to need a reminder that their contempt for the poor and minorities is as easy to spot as Mitt Romney at a civil-rights rally.