In a discussion about politics with some students this week–outside of structured class activities!–several were surprised to learn that I wasn’t a fan of Bernie Sanders. How could a sociologist not support Bernie, they wondered (I should have pointed out that some great sociologists actually hold conservative convictions; next time, Gabe!).
The truth is that in some conservative states there will be candidates that are popular candidates who may not agree with me on every issue. I understand it. That’s what politics is about
And he’s right! But, he then went on to say
If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation. And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.
And I get off the Bernie train at this station. The man who can’t take the criticism of purity built his campaign on the idea of purity on economic populism of the kind that would help white, male workers in formerly union-heavy industries. Asking people to accept an anti-choice candidate as a means to an end for pro-choice policies doesn’t ring a note too discordant from finding wealthy supporters to fund support campaigns of politicians elected to upend economic inequality. Talking to Goldman Sachs should disqualify a Democratic candidate from consideration, but actively supporting an anti-choice candidate should not.
This type of acceptable compromise has dogged Sanders before. During the campaign, he got embroiled in a debate over reparations with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates called out Sanders for his sudden epiphany of pragmatism:
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. The chances of a President Sanders coaxing a Republican Congress to pass a $1 trillion jobs and infrastructure bill are also nil.
Sanders’ willingness to find the pragmatic solution on women’s fundamental right to choose and white supremacy stands in contrast to his (and, more importantly, his supporters’) claims to legitimacy due to his uncompromising stances. He’s willing to trade women’s bodies and black bodies for political expediency while excoriating anyone who dares mention anything short of a radical overhaul of the entire U.S. economy.
Hypocrisy should not disqualify politicians, and hypocrisy ends up being an overwrought accusation against them. But, just as Coates argued, when your entire raison d’etre as a political force comes from your unwillingness to compromise, then more attention should be given to what compromises one does make. Bernie’s devotion to absolute principle on economic policies that stand to benefit white men the most while compromising those that affect women and people of color shows where he draws his lines in the sand.
Compromising does not make Sanders a bad politician, just a conventional one. And that makes him the one thing that his supporters, my students included, think that he is not.