not on the bernie train

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!).

This came up in the context of Sanders’ ignominious return to the news following his endorsement of anti-choice Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello. He defended his position by saying:

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.

5 thoughts on “not on the bernie train”

  1. Sanders’ vision is a nice course correction for the Democratic party, both in terms of ideology and organization. The Democrats are just decimated in terms of local organization. Just ask Theda Skocpol. So I don’t see the big deal about him campaigning with Heath Mello–AFTER the primary has occurred*–who early in his legislature career pushed some anti-abortion legislation but evolved and defended Planned Parenthood.

    And I don’t understand this argument about “Bernie’s devotion to…economic policies that stand to benefit white men the most while compromising those that affect women and people of color.” Who is going the benefit the most from universal health care? From free college? From public investment? From reducing the power of the wealthy to influence our politics? Pushing for reparations is a great way to stop a cross-racial coalition from emerging that would struggle for policies like universal health care and minimum wages–policies I’d wager would benefit especially African Americans. Oh, and whom did Ta-Nehisi Coates support in the Democratic primary? Sanders.

    * Our Revolution also supported Mello during the (5-way, non-partisan) primary, but again, that seems like the right call to me. Mello’s Democratic opponent did not have much experience in politics, as evidenced by his 3% of the votes in the 5-way primary, compared to Mello’s 41% share.


    1. Free college will certainly help whites more than blacks given high levels of residential and racial segregation that, on the margin, make it much more difficult for black and Latino students to get the qualifications in primary and secondary schools necessary to benefit from a free college education. Public investment (by which I assume you mean infrastructure) will go disproportionately to the skilled trades, which are almost exclusively composed of men and are disproportionately white compared to the service sector or even unskilled trades. Universal healthcare would help everyone, but Sanders’ position isn’t that much different than lots of Dems on that issue.

      And I don’t disagree that politics requires being expedient; it’s absolutely necessary. And, like Coates, I support most of his domestic platform. But, Sanders isn’t some ur-politician driven by principle alone. He has been an effective politician for providing exactly what you claim: a course correction on the Democratic party that has an opportunity to gather cross-racial, cross-gender working class support. But the Sanders supporters I talk to base their support on the absurd notion that he is totally pure and doesn’t do the expedient thing and speaks truth to power. I’m pointing out that–like every other politician–that’s not really true. He has his priorities and his support reveals what those are, and it seems like he’s willing to compromise those things important to women and people of color in that bargain.


  2. If you are arguing Sanders ain’t Jesus, I don’t disagree with that, but then, I am not sure who is arguing otherwise beyond some undergrads. And the evidence he is compromising on “things important to women and people of color” is pretty weak. Supporting Heath Mello, the pro-life, pro-Planned Parenthood Democrat who is the only serious Democrat running in a mayoral race? Not getting on board with reparations? (a social democracy with a robust welfare state would go father in ameliorating racial inequality than some token one-time payment that you know reparations would result in, IF it ever got off the ground). That means he’s going to sacrifice women’s bodies and black bodies?


    1. Sanders is a skilled, but conventional politician. He has been more effective than nearly everyone out there, save maybe Elizabeth Warren, getting his message out and affecting the debate. That is impressive. But he is a standard politician. I have heard many supporters — colleagues, friends, and undergrads — argue that what we need is something so revolutionary that is outside of conventional politics. The whole kerfuffle over Ellison v. Perez was over some purity test that Wall Street interests supported Perez, so he should be immediately disqualified that was not limited to some undergrads (who are voters and therefore matter).


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