Bernie Sanders is still not a Democrat. Now that the independent senator has made his run for president official, that fact bears repeating. When you want the nomination of a political party, your commitment to that party matters, especially to its members who are going to select their nominee.
Because Sanders is not a Democrat, he must find a coalition outside the party that is of two minds: those who are attached to the Democratic Party for arbitrary reasons, and those who are hostile to it. I’m not talking about Democrats who want the party to go in new directions. I’m talking about voters with weak ties to the party, who may have a history of supporting its nominees, but who are generally hostile to the very idea of political parties.
To be sure, Sanders appeals to partisans deeply committed to the party. There’s no doubt about that. But unlike 2016, when the choice was between him and Hillary Clinton, 2020 brings competition for voters drawn to his more liberal policy ideas. Joe Biden would split, at least, white working-class Democrats. Sherrod Brown would split voters focused on labor and trade issues and kitchen-table economics. (Neither Brown nor Biden are officially running yet.) But Sanders fiercest rival is obviously Elizabeth Warren.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think there are enough voters outside the party who want what Sanders is selling. If there are, I don’t think they are as mobilized as Democratic partisans in the current anti-Donald Trump climate. Partisan commitments are categorical. I suspect there aren’t enough voters inside the party to lift Sanders to the nomination, because, really, why vote for him when you can vote for Warren?
To be fair, there are good reasons to vote for Sanders and not for Warren. But I don’t think they can compete for attention against what Sanders is bound to face, which is a deafening rehash of 2016. I’m sure he’d prefer we forget Wikileaks, the DNC hacking, Cambridge Analytica, Russian bots pushing “Bernie Would Have Won.” Longtime Democratic partisans, however, aren’t likely to forget. The 2020 vetting of Bernie Sanders has yet to begin.
The 2016 race showed us that Sanders has a constituency. But he never got vetted hard for the nomination for two reasons. One, the press never thought he had a chance against Clinton (no one did). Two, Clinton would not run hard against him, because she needed his voters. None of that is the case in 2020. The press is going to take him seriously; his opponents are going to be gunning for him hard.
I assume Sanders is running in good faith, but it’s clear that he has an exploitable blind spot when it comes to matters of racism, white supremacy, and white privilege. Three years ago, he struggled to win black voters. He does not seem to know, or seem to care to know, what he means when he said the Democratic Party was in thrall to “identity politics.”
“Identity politics” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but we’re not talking about all kinds of people. We’re talking about Democrats whose support he needs to win the nomination. To a lot of these Democrats, especially the most intensely partisan, saying he’s against “identity politics” means he’s against them. Not because he’s anti-black–I don’t think anyone’s saying that–but because he just doesn’t understand that Trump is the culmination of white “identity politics.”
Sanders wants Democrats to see his politics as color-blind, because everyone is deserving of the blessings of liberty and justice. That sounds nice, but this is brass tacks, and brass tacks says that a lot of Democrats don’t have the luxury of living in a color-blind world; it’s not a choice they have the power to make. Bass tacks also says that Sanders, who does have the power to live in a color-blind world, is telling them to stop seeing the world in color, even though the world won’t let them. So, for a lot of Democrats, listening to Sanders is like listening to a man telling them they don’t live the lives they are actually living.
I think Sanders means well. He just doesn’t get it. He thinks his ideas transcend race, and that sounds appealing to white people who feel they can transcend race—because, in this racist world of ours, theirs is the most powerful race. But for those on the inside of the party, for those who understand intimately the role of racism in their lives, his ideas may be just more of the same.
He is already starting his campaign trying to assuage those concerns. He told Sirius XM radio on Tuesday: “I think we have a message that is going to resonate, resonate all over this country, and in the African-American communities. It’s going to be a message which says we’ve got to end institutional racism, we’ve got to pay special attention to those people who have been hard hit economically. We have to invest in urban communities, and we have to deal with all of the massive disparities that currently exist in American society.”
But for many, I’m afraid, those words might ring hollow. I can’t help thinking things would be different had Sanders been a Democrat.