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The controversy over Bernie Sanders’s State of the Union response, explained

Relitigate 2016 forever.

Annual MLK March And Rally Held At Columbia, SC Statehouse
Bernie Sanders at an MLK Day event in South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is giving the official Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night. After her speech, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is going to give a separate response on Facebook Live, as he has done each year since Trump was inaugurated.

This has, somewhat bizarrely, become a major flashpoint in left-liberal online spaces, part of a broader argument that’s been roiling the Democratic Party since the 2016 primary. It is a fight that is less about timing and more about Sanders, who remains a controversial figure in the party.

Sanders’s Democratic critics are accusing him of trying to upstage a black woman, part of what they say is a long-running blind spot on issues of race and gender. His supporters are countering that he’s speaking after Abrams, not upstaging her — and that the criticism is an example of party loyalists’ willingness to smear Sanders in advance of a potential 2020 presidential run.

This is a petty fight, kicked off in part by a false report in a Capitol Hill trade publication. But it’s a revealing petty fight that shows just how deep the wounds from the 2016 primary remain in the Democratic Party — and how likely those divisions are to come back up if Sanders does, in fact, mount a 2020 run.

Bernie Sanders and Stacey Abrams: what the hell is happening, explained

Since his 2016 primary run, Sanders has occupied a curious space in Democratic politics. He’s still formally a political independent, and is thus in no way beholden to the Democratic Party’s leadership. But he also caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, put up a strong fight for the presidential nomination in 2016, and is widely expected to run again in 2020, which would make him the party standard-bearer. Thus, Sanders is both not a Democrat and one of the party’s presumptive leaders.

For this reason, some Democrats get a little grumbly about his annual State of the Union response video. Typically, the Democratic Party chooses one standard-bearer to respond to Trump as party representative; Sanders chooses to give a separate address as an independent. Some Democratic partisans already saw his campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016 as disloyal and damaging to her general election campaign; they see his SOTU responses as part of the same pattern.

So the Sanders response has long been a powder keg. The match that lit that it this year was Abrams’s identity as a black woman, alongside a false assertion, published in an article by the Hill Monday night, that Sanders’s response would be at the same time as Abrams’s speech. (Sanders is actually going to speak after Abrams.)

The Hill has since edited its article to remove this claim — though the article does not contain a formal correction. But the angry tweets about Sanders upstaging a black woman came fast and furious:

Sanders’s office told the Hill that its initial report was wrong. Indeed, Sanders himself had tweeted support for Abrams yesterday afternoon, going out of his way to point out that his speech would be “following” the Democratic rebuttal:

But none of this killed the controversy. The mere fact of Sanders’s response has sparked a broader conversation about whether him speaking at all, even if it doesn’t conflict with Abrams’s response, is a bad idea.

Sanders’s critics are arguing that he needs to cancel his address. Their view is that any attempt by a white man like Sanders to give a separate response is an attempt to take attention from a voice that rarely gets this kind of national stage, to take the focus off Abrams on a night that really should be hers. This is a bad look for Sanders, and, the argument goes, he should thus sit down and hand the mic to the former Georgia legislator.

Bernie’s defenders, by contrast, argue that this makes no sense. He’s not taking attention away from Abrams by speaking afterward, he has already gone out of the way to highlight her speech, and he’s not even formally a Democrat. Why should he refrain from doing what he does every year?

What’s most interesting about this episode isn’t the particulars over the fight about a speech in response to the State of the Union; it’s the fact that the fight is happening at all.

What this is really about

If you look at the people who are attacking and defending Sanders, they tend to line up along familiar lines. Many of the most prominent critics of Sanders’s decision to speak on Wednesday night tend to be people who clearly favored Clinton in the 2016 primary, often longtime Democratic partisans; his defenders are generally people who backed him in that fight, who typically hail from the party’s insurgent-socialist wing.

In other words, this has become just another opportunity to relitigate the 2016 primary. Everyone’s arguments here are, on the surface, about the State of the Union response, but are actually about whether Sanders is a good standard-bearer for the Democratic Party in 2020.

The knock on Sanders from Democrats is that he has consistently downplayed race, gender, and other identity issues. They point to a history of comments that they say fit that line, ranging from suggesting that mass immigration could hurt the American working class to saying the Democratic Party needed “move beyond identity politics” to a 2018 address that some black observers saw as denigrating President Barack Obama’s legacy.

“It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me! No, that’s not good enough,” Sanders said after the 2016 election. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies.”

Some Democrats look at these arguments and see a politician so obsessed with class that he can’t empathize with victims of other forms of oppression. He doesn’t “get” racism or sexism, doesn’t understand how these are distinct from economic oppression — and thus shouldn’t be the person to represent a diverse and intersectional Democratic Party.

Sanders’s supporters don’t deny that he’s said some impolitic things. But they argue that he’s spent time learning, listening to advocates for racial justice and gender equality and immigrant rights, and is on board with the party mainstream. The actual policies he’s supported on criminal justice reform and immigration are progressive; his speeches, like his recent address on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, are more in tune with where the party is.

“Today we talk about justice and today we talk about racism, and I must tell you it gives me no pleasure to tell you that we now have a president of the United States who is a racist,” Sanders said. “We have a president intentionally, purposely … trying to divide us up by the color of our skin, by our gender, by the country we came from, by our religion.”

Some Sanders supporters, then, see some criticisms of his record on identity issues as a cynical ploy from Democratic loyalists, who were willing to forgive Hillary Clinton for her comments about black youth and “superpredators” in the ’90s and overlook Joe Biden’s support for policies that have increased America’s mass incarceration problem, but turn readily to identity-based critiques of Sanders. It’s bad faith all the way down, in their view: The critics just don’t like him, either because he’s an outsider or because he’s a democratic socialist, and are looking for any excuse to discredit him.

This basic divide — which has sparked fight after fight since the 2016 primary — is why the Abrams situation is so controversial despite seeming so minor. Sanders critics see it as proof that Bernie hasn’t really learned his lesson on race and gender; Sanders defenders see the critics as once again ginning up faux-outrage about something unimportant to discredit their guy.

It’s most likely this particular situation will just blow over. Abrams and Sanders will give their speeches, and everyone will just move on. But if Bernie runs in 2020, this kind of mini controversy will likely happen over and over again — playing a defining role in the conversation surrounding the Democratic primary.

2016 never ended.