Bernie’s Greatest Weakness

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd of supporters in New York city on September 18, 2015. (Photo: Michael Vadon)Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd of supporters in New York City on September 18, 2015. (Photo: Michael Vadon)

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In politics, few experiences are more unpleasant than being roasted by your allies. Just ask Bernie Sanders, who has spent the past week getting thoroughly barbecued by the left. First, his single-payer healthcare plan came under attack by prominent liberals like Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein. Then, two new Sanders controversies erupted. On Tuesday, his offhand remarks describing Planned Parenthood and the LGBTQ rights organization the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as “part of the establishment” created a firestorm, particularly on social-justice Twitter. Less than 24 hours later, his tone-deaf comments on reparations stoked even more outrage. Sanders’s left-wing critics have seized on both statements as evidence of his alleged weakness on civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ issues.

Although some of their attacks on Sanders have been unfair, his critics, regrettably, have a point. For all his political virtues, Sanders has had difficulty connecting his message of economic populism to the other major social justice concerns of the modern left, such race, gender, and sexuality. And unless he overcomes these problems, he will be unable to achieve his goal of expanding beyond his base and sparking a popular mass movement.

Of the controversies Sanders is currently embroiled in, the one involving Planned Parenthood/HRC is by far the less serious one. That’s because critics who claim that Sanders was “dissing” those groups are distorting what he actually said. Bernie wasn’t attacking the mission or good works of those organizations; what he was taking aim at is their political strategy. Asked by Rachel Maddow why organizations like the HRC and Planned Parenthood didn’t support him, Bernie replied that although he has “friends and supporters” in those organizations, “Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time. Some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”

If anything, that is an understatement. Both Planned Parenthood and the HRC are highly sophisticated political players with massive fundraising operations and budgets in the tens (HRC) or hundreds (Planned Parenthood) of million dollars. The HRC has come under fire for actions such as endorsing former Senator Al D’Amato, a conservative Republican who frequently opposed gay rights, and honoring the likes of Goldman Sachs. Of course these groups are part of the establishment, and as such, they would never endorse underdog candidates like Bernie.

HRC, Planned Parenthood, and other big, well-funded political groups tend to envision politics as transactional, and they nearly always endorse either the incumbent or front-runner of the party that is most friendly to them. Sometimes they even support candidates from parties who are hostile to them. Much to the exasperation of their allies, SEIU 1199 used to regularly endorse Republican Joe Bruno, the former New York State Senate majority leader. Sanders himself has received few union endorsements, even though he arguably has the strongest pro-labor record of any politician in America.

Organizations make these kinds of endorsements because they believe it’s the best way to maximize their leverage to get the things they want. Indeed, that strategy is often effective, at least in the short term. But as Sanders implicitly suggests, a relentless tactical focus on proximate gains can come at the expense of a long-term strategy for political transformation.

While Sanders’s HRC/Planned Parenthood remarks were lacking political deftness (some good old-fashioned pandering to these organizations’ constituencies would have done him a world of good), they barely rise to the level of a political gaffe. His treatment of the reparations issue, on the other hand, is a political cock-up of the first order. Bernie’s first mistake was his failure to engage the reparations issue in any depth. He dismissed reparations as “divisive” and impractical (“its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil”).

Though opposing reparations is a defensible position, discussing the issue in such thoughtless and insensitive way is distasteful. And for Sanders, the man famous for proposing such implausible (for now) schemes as free college and single-payer, to play the pragmatism card is even worse. His handling of the issue has alienated the very voters (African Americans) that he needs to win over (one recent poll shows Clinton leading Sanders among Latino and African-American voters by some 50 points). The campaign’s failure to return Ta-Nehisi Coates’s calls asking for further comment added insult to injury (and also says not very comforting things about Team Bernie’s competence).

What’s especially frustrating about this episode is that is such a missed opportunity for Bernie to connect his democratic-socialist vision to issues of racial injustice. A number of black scholars have defined reparations in ways that that would be completely consistent with Bernie’s socialist politics. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, for example, supports a form of reparations that centers on universal health, education, and jobs programs. And sociologist Sandy Darity and economist Darrick Hamilton are proponents of race-neutral “baby bonds” as a tool to narrow the racial wealth gap. It’s depressing that Sanders has given reparations so little serious consideration; does he even have close African-American advisers he consults on these issues? The one saving grace is that Sanders has shown an ability to learn and grow from his mistakes. Early in the campaign he stumbled over Black Lives Matter issues, but he now discusses BLM concerns in an engaged, heartfelt way. In short, he gets it. Those of us who support him can only hope that he makes a similar recovery from his self-inflicted damage on the reparations front.

Both the Planned Parenthood/HRC and the reparations controversies highlight what is perhaps Bernie’s greatest weaknesses: Race and gender issues frequently seem like an afterthought to him, and he doesn’t embrace them with anywhere near the fervor he devotes to economic inequality. Yet his record on racial justice and LGBT issues is excellent, and objectively better than Hillary’s (he was supporting civil unions and same sex marriage long before she was, and he’s also to her left on civil-rights issues like welfare and criminal-justice reform). And on women’s issues, he’s at least as good as she is. (To take one example: Hillary has recently been touting her opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which is fantastic, but Bernie has been voting against it for decades).

That should count for a lot. However, politics is not only about walking the walk, it’s also about talking the talk. Unfortunately, when it comes to race and gender issues, Bernie sometimes sounds like who he is: an occasionally clueless 74-year old white guy (witness his language about paid leave as a program that would allow “mothers” – as opposed to parents – to stay home with their kids).

But along with his faults, Bernie Sanders is also a leader with rare strengths. He has passion, vision, and courage. His message has a thrilling, wake-the-hell-up forcefulness and clarity that has moved countless people and expanded the boundaries of the national political imagination. Because Bernie cares so deeply, he’s forced us to care as well. A powerful endorsement of Sanders penned by Lucy Flores, a Democratic Congressional candidate from Nevada, captured this inspirational quality of his. Flores wrote:

I believe that Bernie Sanders wakes up every day with [economic injustice] on his mind. That the unfairness of it all weighs on his heart, just like it does mine, and that when he is elected, he will do whatever it takes to make America the land of opportunity again.… I believe that now, more than ever, America needs a political revolution.

Sanders’s Achilles heel is that because he focuses so singlemindedly on economic inequality, he is not always able to speak to the needs and desires of the modern left, a left that is passionate not only about economic injustice but also about injustices tied to race, gender, and sexual identity and orientation. Today the left urgently needs leaders who are fully comfortable with and fluent in the politics of intersectionality, and who clearly understand that, while race and gender inequality are deeply rooted in economics, they also have separate dimensions that cannot be addressed by economic remedies alone. My hope is that the Sanders campaign will be a training ground for some of those future leaders, and that they can learn from Bernie’s strengths as well as his weaknesses.