What Sanders Doesn’t Understand About Identity Politics

Last Sunday Bernie Sanders spoke in Boston and some of his remarks caused quite a stir. His speech was eventually published on Youtube, so rather than run with what was reported about it (which was not always accurate), you can take a look for yourself. The portion where he addresses the issue of “identity politics” comes at 39:20.

In response to a woman who said that she wanted to be the second Latina senator and asked for tips, the senator said that he was going to respond in a way that the questioner might not like. He agreed that we need more women and people of color in the political process. At that point, you knew there was a huge “but” coming. It did. And it went like this:

It is not good enough for somebody to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me,” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on big money interests…

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.

Perhaps Sanders had some idea of how insulting that was to the Latina woman who asked the question because he prefaced his remarks by saying she wouldn’t like his answer. But it appeared to me that was simply because he thought it wouldn’t be the answer she expected. That is probably true. But his response demeaned her in ways that Sanders doesn’t seem to comprehend.

What the senator demonstrated with his answer was that he views attempts to diversify the Democratic Party as merely tokenism. Instead of welcoming women and people of color into the coalition in order to listen to their concerns and elevate their agenda, they are welcome only if they adhere to his priorities and agenda.

Based on what he said, Sanders seems to assume that if a Latina wants to run for office, she comes with no agenda other than being a Latina. He repeats that charge with regards to women of other ethnicities. That is remarkably insulting. And then he suggests that the only way they can become “good enough” is if they embrace his agenda. That is precisely how white men have always attempted to dominate their spheres of influence. If you are a woman or a person of color who has tried to have your voice heard, you’ve experienced that response regularly.

It is true that in order to end racism and sexism we have to begin by giving women and people of color a seat at the table. But that accomplishes very little unless/until we listen to them and find a way to work with them in coalition. To the extent that Sanders wants to avoid doing that in order to foster division within the Democratic Party, he is merely defending white male supremacy.

I’m not suggesting that the senator’s agenda is necessarily white male supremacy. If he were to actually listen to what that woman wants to accomplish as the second Latina senator, he might find ways that their vision overlaps. But giving her a seat at the table means that first of all, you don’t assume that she has none, and second of all, you hear her out.

Sanders’ remarks were followed a few days later by an op-ed in the New York Times from Mark Lilla titled, “The End of Identity Liberalism.” Coming on the heels of what Sanders had just said, it prompted a whole host of responses. Giving women and people of color a seat at the table means at least listening to what they have to say. By listening, I don’t necessarily mean agreeing. But I do mean listening with a mind/heart that is open to expanding our horizons. Rather than create divisions, these are some of the voices that need to be heard:

The Enduring Importance of Identity Liberalism by Lovia Gyarkye

Democratic Politics Have to Be Identity Politics by Michelle Goldberg

Blaming Clinton’s Base For Her Loss Is the Ultimate Insult by Rebecca Traister

Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again by Katherine Franke

Stop Calling It Identity Politics – It’s Civil Rights by Marcus Johnson

As many of these writers acknowledge, it is appalling that these divisions are being created in the Democratic Party exactly at the moment when the gains that have been made in this country to advance the rights of women and people of color are under such powerful assault. White men like Sanders and Lilla need to reject the idea embraced by so many conservatives that this is all a zero sum game and begin to envision a Democratic Party that remains intent on “perfecting our union” and built on an inclusive “we” that forms the basis of “we the people.” For a refresher course on that, it might be time to revisit President Obama’s speeches in Philadelphia and Selma.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.