What Bernie Sanders Gets Right About Identity Politics

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Bernie Sanders at a rally in the Bronx, last April.Photo: D Dipasupil/2016 D Dipasupil

Last week, Bernie Sanders argued that the Democratic Party must work to diversify America’s political class, while fighting to advance the rights of African-Americans, women, LGBT individuals, immigrants, and other marginalized groups.

He then stipulated that those fights cannot be won without advancing the material interests of the working class, because “our rights and economic lives are intertwined.”

Many liberal commentators declared this argument to be, at best, a testament to Sanders’s “white male brogressive” cluelessness — and, at worst, a sign of the senator’s latent white supremacy.

Sanders bears some responsibility for attracting this invective. His tweet poorly summarized the argument of his op-ed: The senator has, on occasion, used the phrase “working class” to refer to a segment of Trump’s base. Thus, his pull quote could be misinterpreted as a suggestion that the desire to nominate “diverse” candidates must be balanced with the need to appeal to white voters in the Rust Belt. Further, one didn’t need to misinterpret Sanders’s argument to take exception to it. Many decried his implication that there are Democrats who need to be told that diversity isn’t everything. Which is a reasonable complaint: Sanders has frequently attacked such straw men, at times, implying that Hillary Clinton’s entire campaign message was “I’m a woman, vote for me.”

Nonetheless, Sanders’s actual contention was the opposite of what many of his critics claimed: He did not argue that there is an inherent tension between identity politics and economic populism, but rather, that the latter is necessary for realizing the former’s aims — which is to say, that the goals of racial justice and gender equality cannot be achieved absent the redistribution of economic power away from corporate America and toward the working class.

This point is both accurate and necessary. While no one in the Democratic Party believes that a candidate’s skin color or genitalia determines his or her progressive bona fides, many have spent the past year arguing that Sanders’s appeals to class solidarity — and the social democratic programs that he hopes that solidarity can yield — are of little use to anyone who isn’t white or male.

This context is critical for understanding the post-election, intra-left debate over identity politics.

In recent days, liberal Democrats have rightly rejected calls for the party to abandon its advocacy for the identity-based concerns of marginalized groups. Among the most prominent of such calls was a New York Times op-ed by Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, which implored Democrats to cease their “moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity,” and embrace a politics of “commonality,” like those practiced by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie notes, Lilla’s veneration of these figures illustrates how easily a politics of white identity can be mistaken for one of universalism — and how costly that mistake can be:

Reagan gutted federal civil rights enforcement, nominated judges hostile to the “rights revolution,” and elevated a conservative legal movement that, in the years since, has chipped away at the victories of the 1960s. Bill Clinton was an expert practitioner of identity politics, with a “shared vision” aimed at white Americans. As a candidate, he took steps to repudiate the black left. As president, he reinforced the trend toward mass incarceration and enshrined discrimination against LGBT Americans within federal law. To describe either Reagan or Clinton as exemplars of a “post-identity” politics is to submerge whiteness, maleness, and Christian belief as identities.

As an alternative to Lilla’s prescription, Bouie argues that progressives must revive Jesse Jackson’s vision of a “rainbow coalition” — a movement that unites the disparate factions of the disempowered without ignoring the distinctions between their struggles, and thus “addresses all material disadvantage, whether rooted in class or caste.”

To the extent that the phrase identity politics signifies a commitment to alleviate the burdens of being an Other in a nation founded on the principle that “all [straight, white, propertied] men are created equal,” identity politics is indispensable for realizing Jackson’s ideal.

But this is not the identity politics that Sanders recently called on the Democratic Party to “move beyond.” Rather, he and his sympathizers are concerned with a strain of corporate-friendly liberalism that deploys identity-based critiques of class politics as tools for obscuring the divergent material interests of rich and poor Democrats.

For the left to overcome its infighting and realize the promise of the rainbow coalition, it will need to be on guard against this particular brand of liberalism; because an identity politics that disdains class solidarity is one that will fail the most vulnerable members of the marginalized groups it claims to represent.

To understand why such class-blind identity politics is ascendant — and thus, likely to bedevil the left in the coming battles for the soul of the Democratic Party — one needs to consider the growing socioeconomic divide within blue America.

A tale of two parties.

Going into 2016, the Democrats were a tale of two parties, a coalition that linked cosmopolitan capitalists and upwardly mobile professionals to a largely nonwhite working-class base: In 2012, Obama won roughly as many votes from the bottom 40 percent of America’s income ladder as he did from the top 40 percent. That same year, the top 0.01 percent of earners contributed 25 percent of all donations to the party of organized labor — up from 7 percent in 1980.

As that last figure suggests, the class contradictions in the Democratic tent weren’t always this severe. Throughout the 1980s, Americans making over $100,000 voted for GOP presidential candidates by a two-to-one margin. In his race against Mitt Romney, Obama won 45 percent of all ballots cast by Americans with six-figure salaries. And this fall, Hillary Clinton won 46 percent of Americans who make more than $250,000 a year, according to exit polls, while Donald Trump took 41 percent of voters who make under $30,000 — a 16-point improvement on Romney’s share of that bracket (all of these figures derive from exit polls). Democrats still do better with the working class than with the rich; but this is becoming less and less true.

Photo: Paul Chinn-Pool/Getty Images

Critically, the growth of the Democrats’ upscale wing has coincided with a vast increase in economic inequality: Over the past four decades, the gap between the average earnings of families in the top quintile of the income ladder — and that of those in the middle quintile — has grown from $68,600 to $169,300 (both those figures are inflation adjusted).

In other words: The class divide within the Democratic Party is growing at the same time that the divide between classes in the United States is doing the same.

The challenge this presents to Democrats is not unlike that confronted by Richard Nixon, when he sought to fortify and expand the GOP’s gains among the white working class. Then, to mollify class tensions within the “silent majority,” Nixon deployed appeals to white identity politics (a.k.a white racial resentment, a.k.a. racism), to obfuscate the divergent material interests of rich and poor Republicans.

In a Democratic Party increasingly divided between a predominately white professional class, and a largely nonwhite working class, left-wing identity politics — or, more precisely, “intersectional” critiques of economic reductionism — can serve a similar end.

And, in fact, Hillary Clinton — and liberal commentators sympathetic to her campaign — used identity politics to that very end, throughout the 2016 Democratic primary.

What Clinton talked about, when she talked about a “single-issue candidate.”

To the extent that the Clinton-Sanders race was a debate about domestic policy (as opposed to personal competence), it was a debate about whether the government should drastically increase taxes in order to fund a massive increase in social spending.

Sanders argued in the affirmative, contending that the government has a moral responsibility to guarantee health care to every citizen and access to higher education for every adolescent with the intellectual aptitude to pursue it. The senator further argued that the sorry state of the nation’s infrastructure — and the scarcity of well-paying blue-collar jobs — justifies a $1 trillion investment in rebuilding America’s roads and bridges.

Clinton offered alternative proposals in each of these policy areas, but the size and scope of her plans were constrained by her opposition to raising taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year.

If one’s central concern is advancing social equity, the best case for preferring Clinton’s platform was its political safety. After all, the Democratic primary is not a referendum on federal policy, but a means of selecting a candidate to send into a high-stakes general election. For understandable reasons, however, Clinton didn’t want to frame her candidacy as an argument for the virtues of risk-aversion. So, she instead framed Sanders’s emphasis on the importance of economic redistribution as an affront to the causes of racial, gender, and LGBT equality.

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton asked a crowd in Nevada this past February. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?”

Clinton went on to ask whether forcing Wall Street’s largest firms to separate their commercial and investment banking wings would “end sexism” and “discrimination against the LGBT community” or “make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

Her supporters didn’t think so.

Of course, there are literally no policies that could satisfy these criteria. Clinton’s point was that many within the Democratic coalition confront non-economic forms of oppression and that Sanders’s emphasis on material concerns betrayed his (implicitly white, male) ignorance of those barriers to equality. In other, oft-repeated words, Sanders was a “single-issue” candidate.

Clinton reiterated that charge in the debates, on the stump, and in television advertisements, though she rarely specified what this single issue was — sometimes it appeared to be campaign-finance reform, at others, it sounded like the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall.

This ambiguity reflected the fact that the characterization was transparently false. Sanders’s “issues” page featured proposals on such varied subjects as the gender wage gap, criminal-justice reform, LBGT equality, the need to establish chapter 9 bankruptcy protection for Puerto Rico, and the San Carlos Apache tribe’s rightful claim to the land known as Oak Flat.

On the nexus of issues concerning gender and racial equality, Sanders’s positions were comparable — if not more comprehensive — than Clinton’s. To take just one example, Sanders campaigned in support of the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, a Senate bill with 21 Democratic co-sponsors that guarantees 12 weeks of paid family leave to full-time employees, funded by a slight increase in the payroll tax. Clinton could not offer her support for the bill, because it would (very modestly) increase taxes on Americans who make less than $250,000.

Thus, Clinton’s “single-issue” charge wasn’t grounded in Sanders’s neglect of racial and gender equality in policy terms. Rather, it referred to the greater rhetorical emphasis he placed on issues of redistribution — and the attendant implication that economic justice is a central, unifying concern for Democrats of all colors and genders. It was an objection to the politics of class solidarity.

Photo: Andrew Renneisen/2016 Getty Images

The utility of identity-based critiques of economic populism to the Democrats’ money wing is well-illustrated by Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed’s endorsement of Clinton — which, as the Intercept discovered, was primarily written by a corporate lobbyist.

“Sanders assumes his single-issue platform will help everyone, but only Clinton’s plans work from the ground up to identify and break down barriers unique to African-American families,” Reed wrote with the aid of Tharon Johnson, a lobbyist for UnitedHealth and MGM resorts, among other clients. “For the single mother riding two buses to her second job, Sanders’ one-issue platform just doesn’t cut it. And for the poor child in Flint, Michigan, forced to drink tainted water from a government tap, Sanders’ Wall Street–focused message doesn’t carry weight.”

One would imagine that this single mother might have found Sanders’s plan for universal child care to be of use. And while it’s true that Wall Street reform would not resolve Flint’s water crisis, to the extent that the crisis was the product of systemic racism — which is to say, of the state government’s indifference to a politically and economically disadvantaged African-American community — the dysfunction of our financial system is clearly relevant. Among the proximate causes of black America’s current disempowerment is the legacy of the subprime mortgage crisis, which erased 43 percent of the community’s wealth. Loan officers at Wells Fargo pushed black clients — or, as they referred to them, “mud people” — to take out subprime loans, even when their credit histories qualified them for prime ones.

But in Reed’s framing, Sanders’s calls for expanding the social welfare state and taking a more adversarial approach to financial regulation are less relevant to the average black family than the way the senator’s plan for free state college would undermine private, historically black colleges and universities; even though only 2 percent of black college students attend such institutions, and Sanders expressed openness to amending his proposal to accommodate such schools.

Few campaigns, including Sanders’s, treat their opponents’ arguments with maximal intellectual honesty. And the single-issue attack gestured at one of the Vermont senator’s genuine political failings. Policies aside, Sanders was rarely eloquent in connecting his economic message to the lived experience of black voters.

Less concerning than Clinton’s attempt to exploit this weakness, was the way her narrative was internalized and amplified by some advocates of social justice — and has, thus, outlived her campaign.

The problem with class-blind identity politics.

At a debate in February, Sanders was asked if he thought race relations would improve under his administration.

“Absolutely,” the senator replied. “Because what we will do is say, instead of giving tax breaks to millionaires, we’re going to create millions of jobs for low-income kids.”

Legal analyst and racial-justice advocate Imani Gandy derided Sanders’s answer, tweeting, “Sandra Bland HAD a goddamn job. She still ended up dead. Jobs is not the solution.”

It’s understandable that some would object to a candidate answering a question about race relations with a discussion of race-neutral economic policies. And Gandy’s vigilance in guarding against attempts to erase the subject of police violence from our national debate is admirable.

But her specific critique is unsatisfying for a few reasons. For one, it’s not clear why criminal-justice reform is considered a “racial issue,” while expanding federal employment or the social safety net is not: None of these reforms target racial disadvantage explicitly, but all would disproportionately benefit people of color. (To take just one example, the uninsured rate among African-Americans is roughly twice that of whites, while the rate for Latinos is nearly four times as high. Those ratios have declined significantly since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but they could be all but eliminated by a truly universal, Medicare-for-all system).

For another, if we understand “race relations” as a euphemism for the systemic disadvantages that African-Americans face, increasing opportunities for employment within black communities would seem a vital way of improving such “relations.”

Finally, the fact that Sandra Bland’s employment status did not save her from discriminatory treatment at the hands of police does not mean that expanding economic opportunities for African-Americans would have no effect on the community’s vulnerability to such abuse. Certainly, reforms that directly combat police violence are urgently needed. But Gandy’s assertion is akin to claiming that, since Kelly Thomas was white — and still ended up being beaten to death by California police — race is irrelevant to one’s risk of being physically abused by cops.

In fact, African-Americans who are given opportunities for economic advancement have a far lower (while still far too high) risk of being victimized by our (profoundly racist) criminal-justice system. Black men who lack high-school diplomas are roughly ten times more likely to be incarcerated than those who complete college. And African-American men with college degrees have a lower risk of being incarcerated by the time they reach their mid-30s than do white men who lack high-school diplomas.

The central importance of employment opportunities to the well-being of African-American individuals and communities is reflected in how often black voters cite a “lack of good jobs” as the top problem facing them in public opinion polls.

Nonetheless, Quartz cited Gandy’s critique as evidence that Sanders’s central problem with minority voters was his emphasis on economics. And “Sandra Bland had a job” remains a favorite slogan among some advocates for racial justice. (As does the considerably more asinine “Goldman Sachs didn’t shoot Michael Brown.”)

Some liberal commentators went even further, suggesting that social democratic reforms weren’t merely irrelevant to racial justice — but antithetical to it. In early March, New York Times columnist Charles Blow reflected on Sanders’s economic agenda over Twitter.

Blow’s ethical objection to taxing the wealthy at pre-Reagan levels is a bit odd for a writer who focuses on issues of social justice: To believe that millionaire capitalists and landlords earn their passive income — and thus, that it would be immoral for the state to confiscate half of their gains — is to embrace the ethical framework of right-wing libertarians. But Blow is entitled to an idiosyncratic worldview. His response to those who encouraged him to see our current tax rates in historical context, however, was more troubling.

Here, Blow appears to suggest that there is an inescapable correlation between high top-marginal tax rates and Jim Crow–style racial discrimination. No writer should be judged by his or her weakest tweets, and Blow is an incisive commentator who would likely frame his argument more cogently given more time and characters. Still, his sentiment is worth dwelling on for the way it crystallizes the pathologies of class-blind identity politics: A reference to our nation’s legacy of racism is deployed as an argument against raising taxes on disproportionately white Americans to fund social programs that disproportionately benefit black ones.

Without question, the non-class-based dimensions of disadvantage in the United States — which women, LGBT, and nonwhite voters are acutely aware of as a function of their identities — must be addressed by any political party that considers itself progressive. And identity-based social movements like Black Lives Matter helped the Democratic Party better earn that label in 2016, by forcing both its presidential candidates to adopt platforms more representative of their voters’ interests.

But racial justice and gender equality cannot be achieved without confronting economic inequality — not when people of color and women are overrepresented among the financially disadvantaged. And it’s difficult to see how the Democratic Party will ever take aggressive action to combat inequality, unless its downscale wing becomes both larger and more class conscious.

Any discourse that encourages working-class voters to see social democratic policies as irrelevant to their struggles does more to protect economic privilege than to promote social justice.