The role of identity in selecting candidates

In response to my earlier post about how Bernie Sanders, despite a contrary narrative promoted by the Democratic party establishment that dislikes his progressive stances, has considerable support in the black community, hyphenman wrote the following comment: “I don’t have a candidate, but I do have a hierarchy with African American Women at the top of my list and European American Males on the bottom.”

The role of identity is undoubtedly important. Compared to most democracies, the US is way behind in having women and minorities occupy the top elected office. The US is long overdue to having a woman as president and having a woman of color would be even better, and one can only dream about the possibility of an LGBT woman of color becoming president. I have no argument about that. But for me, identity is one of those “all other things being roughly equal” considerations. Among candidates who have broadly similar progressive agendas, the factors that hyphenman notes would be extremely influential in making the final choice.

But even on the issue of the desirability of an identity breakthrough, there is one factor that is rarely spoken about because Sanders does not raise it but if elected he would be the first president of Jewish ethnicity. While that community is not as marginalized as people of color, anti-Semitism undoubtedly exists and is an increasingly serious problem in the US and his election would be a significant milestone in breaking that barrier. (One should not discount the possibility of an increase in anti-Semitism following a Sanders victory, the way that racist sentiment was whipped up against Barack Obama.) Another issue is that Sanders, as far as I can tell because he does not talk about religion either, is secular in his beliefs. I suspect that several past presidents have been too but they professed religiosity because of the negative perceptions about nonbelievers. Sanders does not pander on this issue and so having a secular president would also be a first.

Cornel West has just come out with a ringing endorsement of Bernie Sanders. West was an early supporters of Sanders last time. He was also one of those who supported Barack Obama in his first run in 2008 but quickly became disillusioned with his neoliberal policies and support for US militarism and, in an interview with Mehdi Hasan calls Obama the “the brilliant black face of the American empire with all of its ugly militarism and racism and materialism and poverty. And Donald Trump is the know-nothing white face of the American empire with the same things and much worse. He’s got neo-fascist sensibilities that needs to be called into question.”

Hasan points out that Bernie’s support for progressive issues and the rights of people of color go all the way back to his student days when he was arrested at civil rights demonstrations.

Bernie Sanders, who incidentally was also one of only a handful of elected white officials in America to endorse Reverend Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids in 1984 and 1988, Bernie was arrested in 1963 at a protest over school segregation. To quote my colleague Briahna Joy Grey, Bernie, especially these days, has less of a “black problem” and more of a “pundit problem.”

When Hasan asks West if he will support Sanders this time too, he replies:

“Well, as you know, I was blessed to do over a hundred events for my dear brother. And this is the first time I’ve had a chance to publicly endorse him again, but yes, indeed. I’ll be in his corner that we’re going to win this time. And it has to do with the Martin Luther King like criteria of assessing a candidate namely the issues of militarism, poverty, materialism, and racism, xenophobia in all of its forms that includes any kind of racism as you know against black people, brown people, yellow people, anybody, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, Kashmirians, Tibetans and so forth. So that there’s no doubt that the my dear brother Bernie stands shoulders above any of the other candidates running in the Democratic primary when it comes to that Martin Luther King-like standards or criteria.”

When asked about policies apart from Sanders as a person, West points to his “policies against militarism, policies against poverty, the critiques of Wall Street, the consistency of his call for Democratic accountability of corporate elites and financial elites and basically the greed that we see among so many of those elites.”

Hasan raises the identity issue and the problem if the Democratic party nominates two white men to head the ticket but West says that is highly unlikely to happen. West explains why he is supporting Sanders over his rivals even though there are so many women and two candidates of color (Cory Booker and Kamala Harris) running this time.

Yeah, but they’re newcomers, you know, and they’re latecomers. Bernie is the real thing. Bernie has been a thermostat. He has shaped the climate of opinion. Too many of them are thermometers. They reflect the climate of opinion. When you’re a thermostat, you are consistent. You are speaking your truth. You are bearing your witness and there’s no doubt that Bernie and he would say, of course the whole movement from Occupy, especially in the younger generation, multiracial to the core, that they have been thermostats. They have shaped the climate of opinion and I think many of us in our own small ways really we can celebrate the fact that people now have to talk about grotesque wealth inequality as a result of social movements, as a result of organizing and mobilizing. The Black Lives movement, that’s part of that too. The Black Lives movement has a critique of grotesque wealth inequality just as they have a critique of militarism. All of these things go hand in hand.

So that in that regard, I mean, I have respect for my dear sister Elizabeth Warren. I’ve got love for Cory. I’ve known brother Cory Booker for 20 some, 25 years or so. And he’s a liberal and I, you know, I’m more than a liberal but I can still love my brother. Elizabeth Warren is very progressive. I respect my dear sister. But Bernie Sanders is the best that we have of this group and he’s the real thing in terms of being consistent.

When asked what his critiques of Sanders are, West replies that he did not say much about US foreign policy in 2016 but that he has moved positively on those issue since then. West also spoke in support of people like Ro Khanna, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar

West addresses the issue of ‘electability’, which is code in media pundit circles for their desire to have yet another neoliberal ‘moderate’ who will preserve the status quo and protect the interests of the oligarchy. West is having none of that.

“I don’t know about that, brother. I just don’t think that a neoliberal centrist can generate any of the deep fire hat we need among the best of our, the best fire or the best sensibilities among our citizens. You’re going to have to have somebody who’s got a long history and longevity of integrity.”

Indeed, it looks like Bernie’s campaign is catching fire this time around too, drawing in enthusiastic support from people across the political spectrum. And as Cory Doctorow points out, much of that support is coming from young people and African-Americans. I think that young people can sense his authenticity, that he is as West nicely put it, a thermostat and not a thermometer.

On a less significant matter, although Sanders’s career as an elected official has been in the rural state of Vermont, he still has the street-smart edge that comes from growing up in a lower-middle class, urban home in Brooklyn. You saw it in the way that he dismissed Howard Schultz with the brilliantly withering “Isn’t that nice!” comment. Of all the candidates, I think he is the one who will be able to best counter Trump’s shtick of using ridicule and turn it back on him. Sanders-Trump debates (if there are any) that pit a sharp, informed, passionate, advocate for ordinary people against an ignorant, preening, narcissist benefactor of the billionaire class will be fun to watch.

The biggest problem that Sanders faces will not be Trump but the political-media establishment that is part of the oligarchic support structure that will be lined up against him. This is where his campaign to mobilize millions of volunteers all across the country will be valuable so that he can bypass traditional influencers of public opinion.


  1. says

    But for me, identity is one of those “all other things being roughly equal” considerations. Among candidates who have broadly similar progressive agendas, the factors that hyphenman notes would be extremely influential in making the final choice.

    I get that. However, at the beginning of a campaign, many primary candidates are roughly equal. Although some may have policies you slightly prefer to others, you don’t really know how much they’re actually going to fight for them: they are, after all, in a profession where habitually breaking your promises is part of the job description.

    So when I’m looking at a number of someones this early in the electoral cycle, where none of them is the incumbent whose performance in the specific job we can compare to their rhetoric, then the vast region between the error bars of someone’s likability rating is going to overlap with quite a few other candidates.

    Thus, at this point in the campaign, you can’t say that the candidates are equal, but you certainly can say that quite a number are close enough to equal to bring into play factors like whether or not this candidate can serve as an inspiring example to previously unrepresented groups. And that matters. Because if early enthusiasm is roughly split but normal, well-documented psychological dynamics such as the availability heuristic are going to affect how “presidential” someone seems and thus how “viable” a candidate seems, then those equal candidates are going to receive different levels of coverage (dictated by perceived “viability”) and different levels of response to that coverage (dictated towards subjective judgements that are -- at least on a demographic level -- affected by cognitive biases and heuristics) and ultimately different levels of money.

    These different responses will further shift public opinion, and coverage, and thus the next round of money in the same direction that popular biases and cognitive shortcuts tend to push us.

    So if you wait until the end, for all the information and to narrow things down to, “Yep, I’ve eliminated the error bars and they’re exactly equal,” you’re guaranteeing that women of color have to be many times better just to be equal, because to arrive equal at the end, they repeatedly have to dodge snowballing effects just to arrive at the end at all.

    No, there is an entirely reasonable case that we should adopt an explicit bias towards certain candidates from marginalized groups even before we take into account the potential power of an inspiring example. There is an entirely reasonable case that we should adopt an explicit bias long before we can be sure that the candidates are, in fact, “equal” when making decisions about who deserves to be discussed on our blogs or with our friends. We should adopt an explicit bias on whose campaign materials we read first. We should adopt an explicit bias on whose campaigns we fund. And then, a year or more from now on the day you vote, if things are still tied at that point without having considered the powerful symbolism of centering the previously marginalized, we can use identity as the deciding factor.

    But we need to start with an explicit bias for entirely different reasons if we’re going to achieve just and reasonable effects.

  2. says


    …for me, identity is one of those “all other things being roughly equal” considerations. Among candidates who have broadly similar progressive agendas, the factors that Hyphenman notes would be extremely influential in making the final choice.

    That’s true, you’re absolutely correct. Elsewhere I have inserted the “all other factors being roughly equal” caveat and forgot to do so in this comment.

    I would also add that I have a “better enough” standard. For me to support someone “down-hierarchy,” the candidate must be significantly better than a candidate “up-hierarchy” for me to move the up the list.

    On Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness: I do not know, but I suspect that he, like myself, is a secular Jew who adheres to some extent to the moral/ethical philosophy of Judaism without embracing the religiosity. Of course, I could be wrong and Bernie is taking a it’s-none-of-your-business stance and keeping his private religious beliefs private.

    Either position presents no problem for me.


    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

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