White House

The Unbearable Whiteness of Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Sanders' comment should have been completely uncontroversial.

Bernie Sanders catalyzed the Democratic party’s post–Barack Obama move to the left, and if he were elected president in 2020, it would represent a truly historic swing in the country’s orientation.

Yet among the flaws on Bernie’s résumé for many progressives is an unalterable one — he is a white male, and an old one without a cute Spanish nickname. The straight, cisgendered Sanders is burdened by his utter lack of intersectionality, unless being a Vermont senator from Brooklyn counts.

In his announcement interview on Vermont Public Radio, he was pushed on how he can lead a diverse Democratic party. Sanders cited the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote about judging people by the content of their character and replied: “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age. I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a nondiscriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.”

For expressing a sentiment that would have been considered jejune just a few years ago, Sanders was roundly denounced.

Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress thundered, “At a time where folks feel under attack because of who they are, saying race or gender or sexual orientation or identity doesn’t matter is not off, it’s simply wrong.”

Former Hillary Clinton aide Jess McIntosh added, “This is usually an argument made by people who don’t enjoy outsized respect and credibility because of their race, gender, age and sexual orientation.”

Stephen Colbert snarked, “Yes, like Dr. King, I have a dream — a dream where this diverse nation can come together and be led by an old white guy.”

But what Sanders is getting at here should be completely uncontroversial. Of course it is important that we look beyond the demographic characteristics of candidates, to their views and their merits. Do we want to live in a society where no one can represent people different from them?

By this logic, given a choice between South Carolina senator Tim Scott and Bernie Sanders for president, progressives would want all African Americans to vote for the black Republican (of course, in that scenario many progressives would pronounce Scott “not really black”).

Bobby Kennedy, lionized for his unifying campaigning, would be retroactively deemed just another straight white male.

In effect, we would become a society of Shiites and Sunnis, conducting a census every election cycle by automatically voting for our own.

Anyone who looks at, say, Steve Forbes and Bernie Sanders and thinks, “Oh, just a couple of white guys” is disregarding every political and philosophical difference in favor of a racialist reductionism.

In a recent interview with GQ, Sanders described his vision as bringing together “a coalition of people — of black and white and Latino and Asian-American and Native American — around a progressive agenda which is prepared to take on an extraordinarily powerful ruling class in this country.”

Once upon a time, this would have been considered an inclusive view. Today, though, Bernie is not race- and sex-obsessed enough for the identity-politics hall monitors of the Democratic Party.

At bottom, Sanders is an old-school socialist who attributes primacy to a class struggle that crosses racial boundaries, rather than to race as such. A starker version of his worldview can be seen in Adolph Reed, the University of Pennsylvania professor who complains, as he put it in an interview last year, “Any claim or proposal concerning durable patterns of economic inequality is now taken as being tantamount to making excuses for white supremacy.”

If Sanders ever said anything like that, he’d have to drop out of the campaign the next day. It’s an odd turn of events when unreconstructed socialists are, in at least this one respect, more broad-minded than the Democratic party. But it’s true, and Bernie will have trouble living it down.

© 2019 by King Features Syndicate

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