During the Democratic primaries, I preferred Bernie Sanders to Hillary R. Clinton but could never really “feel the Bern.” Sanders’ populism and “class talk” often sounded anachronistic and sometimes even patronizing. Similar to MSNBC’s Chris Matthew’s nostalgia of the fabled and forgone white ethnic working-class, Sanders’ views on class were always about the white working-class and expressions of his own identity politics. Sanders did not speak to “class” issues in the broadest sense, but his own imagined construction of a mythological “working-class.”
Recently, Sanders has returned to the spotlight and once again his ideas about class and his views on “identity politics” have taken center stage. This discussion of “identity politics” is not new and for decades, it has been a thorn on the side of the Left–especially those who complain that an overemphasis on race and gender fractured the Left, moving away from “class politics.” Too often conflating “diversity” with anti-racism, this segment of the Left undervalued, and at times ignored, political activism against racism. These old framings of “identity politics,” remnants of the “cultural wars” during the Reagan years, are now being promoted by Sanders as an effort to place the Democratic Party on the “right course.”
In a recent exchange with a Latina named Rebecca who asked him how she might become “the second Latina Senator in U.S. History,” Sanders gave a response that underscores his mythologized identify politics. He said he would “fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans—all of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.”
Sanders continued: “But here is my point, and this is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is 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.
In an effort to clarify, Sanders added, “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African American CEO of some major corporation. But you know what? If that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of his country and exploiting his workers, doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot of if he’s black or white or Latino.” Linking his ideas of identity politics and class with of the election of Donald Trump, Sanders noted, “The working class of this country is being decimated. That’s why Donald Trump won. And what we need now are candidates who stand with those working people.”
All of these statements raise a series of questions about Sanders’ views on class and identity politics. In this post-corporate liberalism era, can we continue to give Sanders the benefit of the doubt and presume that he understands “class” or racism or any other forms of inequality? Is Sanders’s support of Minnesotan congressman Keith Ellison, a Black Muslim, for the chairmanship of Democratic National Committee, an expression of Sanders’ support of his version of a class-based form of “identity politics”? Or, as Bruce Dixon of the Black Agenda Report argues, is Ellison “another empty black face in a very high place”?
It is impossible to know Ellison’s future, but speaking recently to the issue of “identity politics,” he said “a lot has been made about the white working class. I think we’d better take a look at the working class of all colors . . . the one thing that unites us all is money and economic opportunity.” Ellison, unlike Sanders, neither jettisoned “identity politics” nor equated it with “diversity.”
No one disputes that class played a role in Trump’s victory, but he also won because of racist, misogynist, xenophobic, and homophobic voters. White people won Donald Trump the Oval Office. White nationalists, most white women, and the white middle-class and college-educated elected Trump. Sanders and his supporters have rightly distinguished “diversity” from efforts to support the working-class, but it is clear that he does not hold an intersectional class politics. His statements suggest that he does not understand the variegated ways class operates in and through racist discourses, practices, and institutions. If Sanders is equating “identity politics” with antiracist struggles, then he inadequately understands the working-class and what contributes to poverty, especially in black and brown neighborhoods. It will not be enough for Sanders and the Democratic Party to “layer a big dose of economic populism on top of these social-justice concerns,” for antiracist or social justice efforts are not necessarily distinction from class issues.
At this point, Sanders should know that his notion of “identity politics”— a Left dog whistle and shorthand for color-blind— strips efforts against racism among other forms of “isms” of their truly political integrity and remakes them into calls for “diversity.” In this apolitical formulation of “identity politics,” he renders invisible our very human experience of racism, misogyny, nativism, and homophobia and the sundry ways these “regimes of oppression” are refracted by and activated through class. Sanders’ color-blindness is based on his imagination of a fabled working-class. It alludes to white heterosexual men and women, toiling in the manufacturing sector, thereby excluding everyone else. In the end, our erasure derives from his parallel imagination of the exploited white working-class, victims of deindustrialization, outsourcing, and corporate greed.
There is no denying that many white workers who toiled in factories for generations faced economic challenges in the wake of industrialization. Yet we must remember that deindustrialization devastated black working-class neighborhoods. We should also remember that white working-class men and women have historically defended and elevated their white identity as an expression of their own class politics over class solidarity.
Certainly, class exploitation occurs in institutions and arenas that are not patently economic. No one can read the policy demands of The Movement for Black Lives, especially their call for economic justice and equate them with “diversity.” Surely Sanders understands, for example, that institutions of punishment have historically and continue to operate as economic, racist, sexist, and anti-queer institutions. As the African American Policy Forum’s “Say Her Name” report states, “many black women who are abused and killed by police are among the low-income and homeless people increasingly targeted by the policing of poverty and ‘broken windows.’”
Sanders’ class talk cannot explain working-class life in Ferguson, MO, where local government operated as an institution of repression and revenue generation. As the Department of Justice stated in its report on Ferguson’s police department, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”
In the era of Black Lives Matter, Sanders should know these things. In this so-called “post-truth” era, we cannot afford to accept Sanders’ mythmaking and identity politics.
Shannon King is Associate Professor of History at The College of Wooster. He completed a Ph.D. in History at Binghamton University (SUNY). His first book, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? argues that Harlemite’s mobilization for community rights raised the black community’s racial consciousness and established Harlem’s political culture. Follow him on Twitter @permission.