When Bernie Sanders Becomes a Pragmatist

The passion of Bernie Sanders is so much a part of his persona that Larry David was able to capture it perfectly in this skit on Saturday Night Live. But one of the things I’ve noticed in every debate so far is that Sanders’ demeanor and language changes pretty dramatically when the topic is gun control. He stops waving his arms, shouting, and talking about the big money that controls our politics. Instead, he talks about the need to reach out to opponents and work to find consensus. Sanders often refers to his own personal experience with gun owners in rural Vermont and his ability to understand them.

I was reminded of that shift towards consensus-building and pragmatism when I read this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled: Why Precisely is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations? As a prelude to that discussion, it is important to remember that in June 2014, Coates wrote a definitive article in The Atlantic on The Case for Reparations. It was widely acclaimed as being one of the most important contributions to the topic and reignited a discussion that had all but vanished from the American scene. That explains why Coates would be so interested in the response from Sanders when he was asked whether he was in favor of reparations. Here is the crux of his answer.

No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.

Obviously Coates doesn’t agree. But what bothered him about this response wasn’t so much that Sanders doesn’t support reparations (almost all politicians – including Hillary Clinton – agree with that position). Where Coates takes Sanders to task is in his reasoning.

The spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as “divisive” (there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist) is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist. Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is “nil,” a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform…

Sanders is a lot of things, many of them good. But he is not the candidate of moderation and unification, so much as the candidate of partisanship and radicalism…

Unfortunately, Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy.

The question this kind of thing raises is whether or not Sanders’ passion is an indication of his priorities. When he says that we need a revolution to combat Wall Street and the influence of money in politics but offers pragmatism and consensus-building on issues like gun control and racial injustice, is he telling us that the former are more important than the latter? I suspect that is the message that seeps through to people of color and is at least part of the reason why Sanders has had such a hard time eliciting their support.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.