One of the most common criticisms of Bernie Sanders by liberals and even by some people on the left is that his supporters are predominantly white and male (derisively referred to as ‘Bernie bros’) and that is because Sanders is locked into a white privilege mode and has not addressed issues of importance to women and people of color. This view is promoted by the Democratic party establishment and its media supporters, who backed Clinton during the last campaign and are backing Joe Biden now. It is true that Hillary Clinton seemed to have more support from women and people of color during the campaign for the 2016 nomination but the reasons for why that was so are not clear. Katie Halper writes that the current media narrative that Sanders lacks support fro those groups is false and deserves to be countered.
A recent CNN poll shows that among potential Democratic candidates in Iowa caucuses Senator Bernie Sanders has the highest approval rating from people of color. And the diversity of the Sanders-inspired left was on display at the Sanders Institute Gathering in Burlington Vermont earlier this month, which I covered on my podcast, The Katie Halper Show.
But empirical evidence has not stopped much of the corporate press—including many “liberal” or “progressive” outlets and commentators—from condemning the senator as having “a race problem.”
Most politicians could “do better,” when it comes to addressing and speaking about racial inequities, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and classism. But the claim that Sanders is exceptionally problematic is absurd, given, for example, that Biden opposed integrated busing in the 1970’s; mistreated Anita Hill during the confirmation process of Clarence Thomas; called Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”; and said “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”
Sanders’ critics smear him as blinded by straight, white, male privilege. The mere mention of class gets Sanders and others condemned as class reductionists. The irony is that many of the most vocal critics attacking him for being insufficiently intersectional fail to address class altogether as an aspect of identity.
It’s cruel, immoral and politically disastrous to dismiss the experience of working class people of all colors and backgrounds. But even those who openly mock the concerns of the white working class, undermine their own alleged commitment to marginalized voices when they ignore the diversity of Sanders’ supporters. By ignoring the people of all ages, backgrounds, genders, sexuality, and ethnicity who support Sanders, they engage in the very erasure and marginalization of the women, people of color, LGBTQ people (and all the intersections thereof) that they claim to oppose.
The real story is very different, as I found at the Sanders Institute Gathering. Organized by Jane Sanders and David Driscoll, the 3-day event was more about the movement that Sanders helped spark than it was about the man. Though Sanders delivered the keynote and participated in several panels, the gathering focused on issues, bringing together leaders, thinkers, organizers and activists. Participants included physician and public health activist Abdul El-Sayed; San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz; actor and activist Danny Glover; executive director of Good Jobs Nation, Joseph Geevarghese; Our Revolution director, Nina Turner; Presente.org’s executive director Matt Nelson; and many others. Over the weekend, the panels and roundtables addressed healthcare, climate change, criminal “injustice,” civil rights, immigration, Puerto Rico, the housing crisis, the international progressive movement, and other issues with attention to class, race, and gender.
Halper goes on to describe her conversations with the diverse attendees who had been energized by the Sanders campaign. She met eighty-three year old Gus Newport, former mayor of Berkeley, CA who is a great grandson of a slave and was the mayor of Berkeley from 1979-1986. Newport went across the country to Vermont to campaign for Sanders in 1972 and 1976.
Newport recalls that as the two campaigned in Burlington, a reporter asked Sanders, “Why does a Jew from Brooklyn, who’s a Socialist, invite Gus Newport, a former black nationalist and a socialist from Berkeley to campaign for him in a state that is 97% white?” Bernie’s answer was short: “Because we’re gonna talk about the issues.” After that, Newport explained, the reporters had no more questions. “I’ve loved him ever since,” he said.
Sanders would later appoint Newport to the Democratic Unity Commission in 2017 in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump. “I found out more than I ever wanted to know about the Democratic National Committee than I ever wanted to know,” he said, but “nobody in the Democratic Party has ever spoken to all the issues in the depth that Bernie Sanders has.”
While some smear Sanders for being a “single issue” candidate, Newport believes it’s the centrist “neoliberal” Democrats who deserve that label. “They are a single issue people,” he declared. “They do not work around other issues [like class or poverty]. They’re usually not a part of the working class. We’re looking for real people.”
Though people often consider the intersection of race, gender and sexuality—class and age are often excluded. A popular narrative which pits people of different ages against each other is that of the spoiled, entitled and lazy millennial. Newport has sympathy, empathy and righteous outrage for the bleak economic reality that millennials face.
Halper spoke to others as well who were angry at having the Bernie bros label applied to them.
Former executive director of National Nurses United and of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, Roseann DeMoro does not mince words when describing the dishonesty of the latter group.
“I was just talking to Susan Sarandon,” she explains. “We were all accused of being Bernie Bros. It’s to delegitimize us. It’s a lie. It’s a duplicitous, ugly, malicious, horrendous, calculated lie. It’s a calculated lie by the DNC. It’s a PR campaign masquerading as politics.”
DeMoro objected to prioritizing identity over policy and profits over people. “People are suffering across the spectrum,” she said. “They can’t take care of their families or of themselves. Their personal dignity is going down the drain. Ultimately, what we were supposed to do was to buy into a neoliberal paradigm to elect a neoliberal woman who didn’t share our values because she was a woman. Well, Margaret Thatcher was a woman.”
Halper also spoke with Maria Svart, the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) about the ‘Bernie bro’ narrative.
“Look at Bernie Sanders,” Svart said, “the most popular politician in the country. And yet people that support Bernie are called Bernie Bros. You look at DSA. I am a Latina. I’m leading the organization. And there are many women of color in leadership, and yet we are characterized as a bunch of Bernie Bros.”
An ardent supporter for Sanders to run again in 2020, DeMoro is prepared for more of the smears which started in 2016 and never really went away. “They’re gonna throw everything at us, when it comes to Bernie, and we’re gonna be like Wonder Woman and bounce ’em right back. So put on your bracelets.”
All these people emphasized the important role that class plays in cutting across all the other distinctions. Sanders is relentless in his drive to use the energy that his campaign created to create a lasting progressive organization that will keep the important issues front and center. This was something that Barack Obama singularly failed to do after his electoral wins. He just allowed his organization to wither away once it had served his purpose of getting him elected.