The Toxic Centrism of Bernie Sanders

The Toxic Centrism of Bernie Sanders (Image by Gage Skidmore)
Bernie Sanders by Gage Skidmore

For many people, calling Bernie Sanders a centrist is the most counter-intuitive kind of doublespeak there is. He may have lost the Democratic primary last year, but he did in fact win the branding war: in the media, Sanders is immediately associated with the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party. This is a neat trick, given that he’s steadfastly refused to share his mailing lists with the party, support their candidates, or even join the Democratic Party, something that’s generally considered a prerequisite for being part of the leadership.

But for all his success branding himself as the radical firebrand of the Trump Era, Bernie Sanders is essentially a centrist. That’s something that we need to acknowledge and come to grips with if we want a truly progressive resistance. For a lot of people, Sanders has come to represent what it means to be “progressive.” This is especially true of those who are just discovering political activism for the first time.

My Democracy Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit

For all his bluster and fire about change, Bernie Sanders’ radicalism evaporates like spit on a hot stove the minute that you wander away from the strictly economic issues that are near and dear to his heart. That’s not to say that they’re not important issues. On the contrary: they’re hugely important, and I’m glad that Sanders has brought them into the public eye. But no truly progressive agenda can stop there.

As soon as Trump got elected, Sanders began leaving a veritable trail of declarations saying that we need to emphasize economic populism over all else. The very first thing he said the day after the election was that the Democratic Party needs to ditch so-called identity politics”:

“It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry,” the Vermont independent senator and former Democratic presidential candidate said in a not-so-subtle rebuke to Hillary Clinton.

That was only the first of a long chain of such comments, and I could fill up an entire blog post merely documenting them. But the point is that for all the radical cred that Sanders has built up, his commitment to progressive principles dissolves the moment the discussion moves away from the anti-corporate agenda that he’s built his name on.

Nothing could have crystallized the narrowness of Sanders’ vision more than this week’s events: He not only refused to endorse Democrat Jon Ossoff in his run to take the congressional seat in a solid red district, he cast doubt on Ossoff’s credibilty as a progressive: “If you run as a Democrat, you’re a Democrat,” he said. “Some Democrats are progressive, and some Democrats are not.”

As if to add insult to injury, he went on to stump for the Omaha mayoral campaign of Heath Mello, a longtime opponent of abortion. In 2009, Mello sponsored legislation that would have required people to look at an ultrasound of the darling zygote growing within their body in order to get an abortion.

We Don’t Need Another Hero

If you hadn’t figured it out long ago, Bernie Sanders considers some rights to be disposable. And that’s a big part of why I fell away from his campaign last year after first being an ardent supporter. By the time the California primaries happened, I had decided to vote for Clinton, something that I wouldn’t have imagined scant months before.

When I shifted my support from Sanders to Clinton, it was a hesitant move tinged with regret. Now, I feel like I dodged a bullet. It’s not just that Sanders is willing to dismiss key civil rights accomplishments like abortion or queer/trans rights as “identity politics,”; it’s that Bernie’s vision of what a movement should be doesn’t extend beyond Bernie. He clearly believes that he — and he alone — should be able to define what “progressive” means, and that’s a problem.  The powerful thing about movements is that they’re far bigger than any one person. They’re a huge, complicated conversation that takes place between thousands of people, sometimes millions. Being part of a movement means that you have to speak up and make your voice heard as part of that conversation, but just as important (if not more so) is knowing when to shut the fuck up and listen to what the other people are saying. This is the part that Sanders and his followers don’t get. He has brought some very important issues into the conversation, but they’re not enough. We’re long overdue for a raise in the minimum wage and for reform of educational funding, but they are not nearly enough to defeat the evil that Donald Trump embodies.

One thing that Sanders might learn if he were willing to stop and listen for a few minutes is how essential reproductive rights are to economic justice. I recommend that he (and anyone else interested in listening) start with this piece by Imani Gandy (aka @AngryBlackLady), who says it all better than I could:

The cost of contraception, insurance coverage restrictions, the lack of public funding for abortion, and the rising cost of abortion all threaten the economic security of women in this country. The connection between access to abortion and poverty could not be any more clear: Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a public health research group at the University of California San Francisco, conducted the Turnaway Study, which explored what happens to women who are denied abortion access. The study found that women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term are more likely to live in poverty:

Women who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term are three times more likely than women who receive an abortion to be below the poverty level two years later.

Indeed, 40 percent of the women surveyed said they had sought an abortion due to financial reasons.

Abortion rights should be a central plank in any economic justice platform. And as Sanders and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez have embarked on their DNC-sponsored unity tour, both of them have demonstrated that they are willing to throw abortion rights under the bus by embracing Mello.

Black Activism Matters

Sanders has been arguing that we need to narrow the conversation by drawing closer to the center — meaning that we should cater to the interests of the “white working class” that Democrats have allegedly ignored for the past several decades  — and nothing could be more destructive to a truly progressive movement.

For one thing, white people people have some serious work to do if we’re going to effectively resist Trump. Bullshit is a luxury that we can’t afford right now. When we look at the great Mango Mussolini, we have to remember We did this.  Trump is a creation of white people and our fears about race. Even those of us who didn’t vote for him and tremble in terror at the thought of what he could do in even a year in office need to own up to that. I’m not saying that we need to feel guilty as individuals, but we do need to be more responsible for acknowledging racism in our communities, our loved ones, and ourselves, and challenging it.

Bernie Sanders has been vocal about trying to absolve Trump voters from the accusations of racism and sexism. Just last month at an appearance with Elizabeth Warren, he told a crowd:

Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks. I don’t agree, because I’ve been there. Let me tell you something else some of you might not agree with, it wasn’t that Donald Trump won the election, it was that the Democratic Party lost the election.

I wish I could find a more elegant, articulate way of saying it, but this is bullshit. Donald Trump kicked off his campaign by summoning the specter of Mexican rapists swarming over our southern border, and then proceeded to dig the hole deeper over the course of several months. The best-case scenario for a Trump voter is that they heard all that naked racism and decided that although they didn’t agree with it personally, it wasn’t a dealbreaker. They refused to take a stand against racism.

No matter what someone feels in their heart, voting for Trump was a racist act. To deny that simple reality is the worst kind of moral cowardice. The kind that Sanders always accuses Democratic leaders of.

But it’s worse than cowardice: In going to such lengths to absolve white Trump supporters of their racism, Sanders is erasing black activists from the progressive agenda. When the question of Jon Ossoff’s progressiveness came up, Sanders could have taken into account that he’d been endorsed by Congressman John Lewis, who’s been fighting the good fight for decades. He could have looked at the fact that Ossoff has gotten support from Black Lives Matter activists. These should be hints that we’re not looking at some corporate clone. But for whatever reason, those voices weren’t sufficient.

If American democracy and the American people do survive Trump, we’re going to owe a lot to activists of color. While Bernie Sanders was outlining the ways that he could see himself working with Trump, John Lewis was the first elected official to bluntly condemn Trump as an illegitimate president. I am feeling very grateful right now for people like Lewis, Maxine Waters, Elijah Cummings, and New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow. They’ve provided the careful balance of righteous anger and sensible rationality that’s so hard for me to maintain so much of the time. It is unlikely that we would have as much of a resistance as we do now if Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock activists hadn’t already been organizing for the last few years and making systemic civil rights violations an inescapable part of the public dialogue. Their issues are not marginal.

Bernie Sanders has himself brought important issues to the table, but he resists taking part in a conversation. He wants the rest of us to listen to him while refusing to listen to others. But democracy is not built on heroes or saviors, and that seems to be the only role that Sanders sees himself in. It’s time for us to take what good Sanders has brought with him and move on, building a movement that is made of multitudes.

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The Toxic Centrism of Bernie Sanders

4 thoughts on “The Toxic Centrism of Bernie Sanders

  1. 1

    I can’t think of anything to say other than foolery like “Booya!” and “SLAM, BOYEEEEE!” Well, good job there. Nice article. I was having these kinda feels lowkey during the primaries back before the current apocalypse.

  2. 2

    Melissa McEwan over at Shakesville has the same “reservations” about Bernie Sanders. See posts like this, on “telling it like it is”, or this, about what Sanders is trying to achieve by telling the Democrats how to run their party. There’s more, but you get the gist.

    In some ways, Sanders is to the Democrats what Trump is to the Republicans: someone who never was invested in the party, until he started to see it as a useful vehicle for his own ambitions.

  3. 3

    Sanders would have won. Clinton lost. To me, it was that simple. He isn’t the candidate I would have chosen, but if your top priority was stopping Trump, he was the right choice in the primary. And I said so at the time. Pragmatism.

    Now, of course, the situation is different and I wish he’d be a more useful leader. 🙁 So I agree with you 100%: build on Bernie’s movement, build on the anti-Iraq-War movement, build in Clark’s movement, build on Dean’s mmovement, build on MoveOn, build on all of these huge movements. We’ve been creating huge movements on something like a yearly basis since the late 1990s. We should be getting somewhere by now in sheer person count, and I think the Women’s March shows that we are.

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