Bernie Sanders identified what he sees as the major struggle over what the suddenly leaderless Democratic Party should stand for: Can Democrats go “beyond identity politics”?
“This is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party,” Sanders said Sunday in Boston, according to Boston Magazine reporter Kyle Scott Clauss. “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”
Having the party embrace both gender and racial diversity is a necessary first step, Sanders said. But if “identity politics” means promoting black and female candidates who don’t have “the guts to take on the oligarchy,” Sanders argued, it’s largely beside the point.
“I think it's a step forward in America if you have an African-American head or CEO of some major corporation,” Sanders said. “But you know what? If that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country and exploiting his workers, it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot if he's black or white or Latino.”
This is Sanders engaging the fight over the Democratic Party’s future direction — and over the cause of Hillary Clinton’s loss — in the sharpest possible terms.
“It is not good enough for someone to say, 'I'm a woman! Vote for me!’” he continued, in what’s hard not to read as a criticism of Clinton’s campaign. “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.”
Sanders is spelling out the implications of his critique of the Democratic Party
The comments give us some new insight into Sanders’s thinking, but it’s not shocking that this is how he conceptualizes the divisions within the Democratic Party.
In several statements and editorials since the general election — not to mention throughout the Democratic primary — Sanders has said that the party’s core problem is its failure to distinguish itself from the corporate interests and millionaire donors who rushed to fund much of Clinton’s campaign.
As Sanders told Vox’s Ezra Klein more than a year ago:
I think it would be hard to imagine if you walked out of here or walked down the street or went a few miles away from here and you stopped somebody on the street and you said, "Do you think that the Democratic Party is the party of the American working class?" People would look at you and say, "What are you talking about?"
Sanders made this critique — of the Democratic Party’s allegiance to the 1 percent — explicit throughout his primary campaign. But it was never paired out loud with the unspoken implication of his whole campaign — that Clinton was letting her gender, and historic candidacy, stand in for an agenda that would excite the working poor of all races and genders.
Of course, a lot of Clinton supporters would vehemently object to the idea that she merely represented a superficial “identity politics” divorced from the concerns of the working poor, or that she lacked “the guts” to fight corporate America. (They’d certainly point to her extensive proposals for improving child care in America, or a bounty of other policy plans aimed at expanding the safety net.)
But it is interesting that Sanders himself understands his main intraparty ideological opponents in these terms. Some may see the chief obstacle to full Sanders-ism as red-state Democrats’ fear of adopting his aggressive, far-reaching environmental and tax plans. That this is not how Sanders himself appears to see his opponents gives us an idea of how the fight for the party could play out over the next few years.
Here are his remarks in full:
Let me respond to the question in a way that you may not be happy with. It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans — all of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.
But it's not good enough 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.
One of the struggles that we're going to have right now, we lay on the table of the Democratic Party, is it's not good enough to me to say, “Okay, well we've got X number of African Americans over here, we've got Y number of Latinos, we have Z number of women. We are a diverse party, a diverse nation.” Not good enough. We need that diversity, that goes without saying. That is accepted. Right now, we've made some progress in getting women into politics — I think we got 20 women in the Senate now. We need 50 women in the Senate. We need more African Americans.
But, but, here is my point, and 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. In other words, one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it's a step forward in America if you have an African-American head or CEO of some major corporation.
But you know what? If that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country and exploiting his workers, it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot if he's black or white or Latino. And some people may not agree with me, but that is the fight we're going to have right now in the Democratic Party. The working class of this country is being decimated. That's why Donald Trump won. ...
We need candidates — black and white and Latino and gay and male — we need all of that. But we need all of those candidates and public officials to have the guts to stand up to the oligarchy. That is the fight of today.