Can’t Feel the Bern!: Bernie Sanders, Mythmaking, and Identity Politics

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane Sanders, speaking with supporters at the Agriculture Center at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona, March 19, 2016 (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore)
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane Sanders, speaking with supporters at the Agriculture Center at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona, March 19, 2016 (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore)

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.”

Supporters of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally at the Paul R. Knapp Learning Center in Des Moines, Iowa, January 9, 2016 (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore)
Supporters of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally at the Paul R. Knapp Learning Center in Des Moines, Iowa, January 9, 2016 (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore)

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.

Supporters of Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona, October 4, 2016 (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore)
Supporters of Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona, October 4, 2016 (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore)

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 @KingShannon23.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Comments on “Can’t Feel the Bern!: Bernie Sanders, Mythmaking, and Identity Politics

  • “always about the white working-class” ? Are you sure about your factual premise?

  • It’s hard to separate “working class” issues from what he calls “identity politics” (as Sanders clearly does) without in effect whitewashing those working class issues. His calls for a need to “listen to the working class” ignore that working class people of color are *not* the ones who voted for Trump. So, yes, I agree with the writer’s premise. His rhetoric indicates that either 1) he sees the working class as white, or 2) he doesn’t see a need to address the working class experiences and voices of people of color.

  • I think this is a good piece. I’m a Sanders fan, but I think it’s fair to say that he has room for improvement when it comes to his rhetoric around working class issues to make sure he is not myth making and centering white workers.

    But I do think that at times in the article the claim is made too strongly and ascribes to Sanders a particular worldview which I’m not sure he actually holds.

    For example, “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.”

    How does this square with his very vocal support for Fight For 15, which is a movement that certainly doesn’t represent the fabled white factory worker?

    With regard to his understanding of “identity politics” and his statement to the woman who wants to become the second Latina Senator in U.S. History, I had interpreted the statement as a critique of the mainstream wing of the Democratic party, which does not center working class issues at all. I did not interpret his comments as a call to jettison the discussion of identity, but rather a call for a politics much like the one articulated by Ellison, which the author favorably describes.

    Perhaps my interpretation of Sanders is overly charitable, but I do think there is a case to be made that Sanders’s politics and worldview do not match the one which the author attributes to him.

  • I think this is a good piece. I’m a Sanders fan, but I think it’s fair to say that he has room for improvement when it comes to his rhetoric around working class issues to make sure he is not myth making and centering white workers.

    But I do think that at times in the article the claim is made too strongly and ascribes to Sanders a particular worldview which I’m not sure he actually holds.

    For example, “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.”

    How does this square with his very vocal support for Fight For 15, which is a movement that certainly doesn’t represent the fabled white factory worker?

    With regard to his understanding of “identity politics” and his statement to the woman who wants to become the second Latina Senator in U.S. History, I had interpreted the statement as a critique of the mainstream wing of the Democratic party, which does not center working class issues at all. I did not interpret his comments as a call to jettison the discussion of identity, but rather a call for a politics much like the one articulated by Ellison, which the author favorably describes.

    Perhaps my interpretation of Sanders is overly charitable, but I do think there is a case to be made that Sanders’s politics and worldview do not match the one which the author attributes to him.

    • Thank you all for reading the essay. Alex, I agree and acknowledge Sanders’s support of Fight for 15. Certainly, Sanders supports work people of color, but only in certain ways. I tried briefly to layout his intellectual heritage, the fabled white industrial worker of the 19th century. This intellectual heritage generally excluded the slave or convict laborers. This intellectual heritage requires an understanding of class outside the formal “site of production.” My usage of “fabled white industrial worker” was an analytic.

      And yes the fast food workers comprise a “diversity” of working-poor people. But should support of working-class people be limited to those receiving low wages and harsh working conditions? What about other arenas that contribute to poverty and the making of the working-class communities of color? For example, Fight for 15 is politically “safe,” but a discussion of the class and race politics of Ferguson requires a different analysis and it also requires him seeing racism as institutional. But how could he if he limits it to “diversity”? If you worked at Walmart and lived in Ferguson, MO (or the surround environs) where black people were targeted as a means to subsidize the city’s coffers, you were poor because of Walmart and because you’re being your black. Again, calling and equating “identity politics” to “diversity” ignores this and, therefore, ignores and erases us.

      • Thanks a lot for the reply, Dr. King, and thanks again for the piece. I appreciate it and will be thinking about it. I do hope Sanders can improve and expand his politics to address all arenas that contribute to poverty for communities of color because I do think his voice and his critique of our current system is a vital one. But I understand he has a ways to go. (Also apologies for accidentally posting twice).

  • Sure, Bernie talking race and gender makes us cringe a bit, feel queasy, and even give us a case of vicarious embarrassment. And yet, despite all this obnoxious whiteness, which politician of any race/ethnicity/gender, since perhaps Shirley Chilsom, was so clearly a champion of poor and working folks? Is the author suggesting that he would oppose legislation that would to protect voting rights? Would he oppose legislation to address brutal inequities in the criminal justice system? Would he oppose civil rights and affirmative action; affordable housing; healthcare for all; a race and yes, CLASS segregation at all levels of the educational system? How precisely can we afford to loose an ally like Sanders, in a Congress that is overly populated by the self serving and out-right corrupt? Senator Sanders is not mythical in any way other than he is that rare politician who has stood by his values. Of course, I welcome concrete examples of leaders who we should be looking to support instead.

    • correction: a solution to the race, and yes, CLASS segregation at all levels of the educational system?

    • Is it too much, as a person of color, to ask for someone who claims to be revolutionary and principled to *not* make me cringe when he addresses (or fails to address) some of the central obstacles to human justice: race, gender, sexual orientation? Is it too much to ask that such a person not in effect characterize these as side issues? I say this particularly this is, in fact, a repetition of the history of the white left in this country at least. It fits in with a long tradition in American politics, on both the left and the right, of ignoring the unique elements of oppression that flow from the differences I mentioned above. Is it too much, as a person of color, to demand that Sanders be better? I’m not looking for a politician who won’t oppose the fight for justice on these issues; I’m looking for someone who will lead it. Sanders’ characterization of these issues as “identity politics” indicates that he isn’t that person, at least not yet.

  • I was hoping to, but did not find this op-ed particularly persuasive. Unfortunately, I don’t think the author adequately supported the premise that Sanders is “identity blind.” A fair reading/hearing of Sanders comments (including the ones lifted up by the author) clearly indicate that he is “identity plus.” Sanders claim is that social group membership alone is insufficient. I agree. Not really seeing the problem here. Of course, this is an op-ed piece, so, it’s just the author’s personal opinion. Here’s another personal opinion that resonated with me more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYyARkExbpI As always, I appreciate the work put out by AAIHS – @womanistpsych

    • Thank you @womanistpsych for reading the essay. And I watched the clip, and it speaks to exactly the misinformation that I write about in this blog. I was surprised about your comment that the blog was “just the author’s personal opinion.” As you know, this blog post, like others here, have embedded hyperlinks.

      We both agree with Sanders that “social group membership alone is insufficient.” There are problems, though. One is that some folks have accepted Sanders’ framing of “identity politics” and ignore, or don’t know, the politics around its usage. Robin Kelley’s essay, embedded in the second paragraph, is useful here. As Kelley points out, there’s a long history of a segment the Left de-politicizing social justice efforts that don’t focus on a particular notion of class. This misinformation leads to equating “identity politics” to “diversity.” The second problem, of course, is then being “blind” to understanding how and why people become poor in the first place.

      Also, I never said Sanders was “identity blind.” I wrote that his usage of “identity politics” was a “Left dog whistle and shorthand for color-blind.” The dog whistle which you and the man in the youtube clip have accepted is that “identity politics” is the same thing as “diversity.” This view, although it might attract some folks, is severely limited and it might be a ‘safe’ way to attract some Trump’s voters, but where would that leave poor, black, brown, women, queer folks?

  • Sanders was making the completely valid and correct point that a politician’s policies are important, not his or her identity vis a vie race, gender, sexual orientation etc. A politician’s race, gender or sexual orientation do not, and should not matter one iota, and that is precisely the point that he was making. There is no problem with this. It is, in fact, precisely what Dr. King imagined as the end-game for the civil rights movement: a world in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. If a person, or a law, or an institution is “colorblind,” (or “genderblind,” or “sexualorientationblind” etc), then it, by definition cannot discriminate based on race, gender, sexual orientation etc. Full stop. That is the goal. This idea that “colorblindedness” is somehow problematic, or even racist (as has been argued by some) is incoherent. The overemphasis on identity politics is counterproductive to reaching this goal because it emphasizes these skin deep and unimportant differences (whiteness, blackness, gayness etc), and encourages people to think in terms of collective guilt for individual transgressions. It is wrong to accuse white people who have never discriminated against anyone of participating in white supremacy. It is wrong to accuse police who have never shot anyone unjustifiably of being instruments of racist oppression. An innocent black man is no more responsible for the high murder rate among his demographic as a typical white man is responsible for the KKK. Sanders was entirely correct in what he said, and indeed the problems that he addresses like income inequality, under employment, etc are problems that affect people of all colors, and thus solving them would benefit people of all colors. The problem is not that there is a lack of employment opportunities in the black community. The problem is that there is a lack of employment opportunities. If solving that problem disproportionately benefits black people, that is immaterial.

    “… [Trump] 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.”

    This is an excellent example of the issue with identity politics. Notice how the author lumps racists, xenophobes, homophobes and white nationalists in with white people in general. Setting aside the fact that a significant percentage of white people did not vote for Trump, it is frankly offensive to put these groups together as if they were one without any caveat. Also, does the author believe that homophobia does not exist in non-white communities? Can minorities not be xenophobes or racists? Was it that the black, latin, asian and middle-eastern homophobes, racists and xenophobes all voted Trump? As many of written, it’s not hard to see how this kind of collectivized pathologization (is that a word?) of white/male/hetero/cisgender people, these constant accusations both explicit, and as here implicit, of bigotry, make people tire very quickly identity politics. It really is a dead end. Better to get back to good old fashioned liberal individualism.

    • A majority of the white electorate ‘did’ vote for Trump. So, I disagree with your comment that a ‘significant’ amount of whites ‘did not’ vote for Trump. The opposite is true, a ‘significant’ amount, if not the majority, and do think it was the majority of the white electorate ‘did’ vote for Trump. That’s how and why he won so many states, and thus electoral college votes.

      • 58% of the White Population voted for Trump, leaving 42 for Clinton.

        While Trump indeed won the majority of the white Vote, 42% is still a significant amount. Rob never mentioned that a majority of white people didn’t vote for Trump, just that his Majority wasn’t so big as most people imagine.

  • I think Sanders understand racism and its implications in the plight of the ‘working class.’ Short of black nationalism, why would a politician distinguish between black and white working class? That is what Trump campaigned on, ‘white working class’ and the media took the bait, hook and line. Do recognize the ‘white working class’ as having distinct rights violations is to essentially say they deserve jobs and employment above others in society. So, today when I heard VP Biden express his sentiments on why the Democratic Party has forgotten this population I was sorely disappointed. Ellison is correct, it is the ‘working class’, black and white that have suffered because of policies implemented in Washington.
    Now, we could address black working class problems since we share the burden of the highest unemployment in the country. I think Bernie Sanders understand well the thoughts and psyche of white people in this country and he was cautious, unlike Hillary Clinton to not alienate them by addressing ‘all’ workers in the country as working class.

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