Bernie Sanders’ white populism

Apr 19, 2018 · 11 min read

If you’re active on Twitter it might come as a surprise to see Bernie supporters harass and intimidate black activists. If you take the time to get more familiar with Bernie’s political movement over the last four or so years, it isn’t really very surprising after all.

In this article I want to document how Bernie, from when he first started talking about running for President in 2014 to very recently, has created a movement of white populism and rage not so very different from that of Trump.

In 2014, during some interviews, Bernie started to talk about the voters he wanted to appeal to:

He says working-class white voters have abandoned Democrats in large numbers. The party, he says, has “not made it clear that they are prepared to stand with the working-class people of this country, take on the big money interests.”

Well, here’s what you got. What you got is an African-American president, and the African-American community is very, very proud that this country has overcome racism and voted for him for president. And that’s kind of natural. You’ve got a situation where the Republican Party has been strongly anti-immigration, and you’ve got a Hispanic community which is looking to the Democrats for help.

But that’s not important. You should not be basing your politics based on your color. What you should be basing your politics on is, how is your family doing? … In the last election, in state after state, you had an abysmally low vote for the Democrats among white, working-class people. And I think the reason for that is that the Democrats have not made it clear that they are prepared to stand with the working-class people of this country, take on the big money interests. I think the key issue that we have to focus on, and I know people are uncomfortable about talking about it, is the role of the billionaire class in American society[1].

This idea: that he wanted to appeal to white working class people since then became like the cornerstone of Bernie’s movement.

The working class people of this country are somehow always white working class people, in Bernie’s thinking.

His campaign never targeted black voters:

It takes outreach. But several former members of Sanders’ black outreach team told me the campaign didn’t believe pulling black voters from Clinton was a real possibility; the white vote, the staffers said, was the campaign’s priority. He appeared not to realize that you can’t simply deliver the same speech on economic inequality to a room full of black people in Atlanta that you would to a room full of white people in Iowa.

One former Sanders staffer, who spoke to Fusion only on condition of anonymity, told me that the outreach team’s efforts to make inroads with black media were consistently blocked by the campaign. This included denying requests for interviews and access to the campaign, the staffer said”.[2]

Bernie Sanders’ campaign was very much a campaign of economic populism, aimed at getting the white vote behind him.

Although it is not easy to define what populism is, a workable definition has been suggested by Albertazzi and McDonnell: “We define populism as an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice”.[3]

On top of this, populists often suggest simple solutions for often very complicated problems. In this definition, both right-wing and left-wing populism are included.

There were many similarities between the trump and the Sanders campaign/ message: both appealed to an angry white voting bloc, angry at being left behind. Both created a false distinction between themselves and the DC elite and then turned that elite into the enemy (a classic populist strategy), both used simple solutions for complex economic problems (another classic populist strategy).

When it came to people losing their jobs to automation and/ or factories shipping jobs overseas, Bernie and trump raged against NAFTA and the TPP. Neither were honest to people about automation or the positives of free trade. Neither had the intellectual honesty to talk about the complex issues of overseas trade, automation and the costs of labor.

On top of this: the fact that closing your markets would predominantly hurt poor colored people in overseas countries, didn’t interest Sanders.

Or, as an economist said: “Limiting trade with low-wage countries as severely as Sanders wants to would hurt the very poorest people on Earth. A lot[4].

Both Bernie and trump made the party they ran for, the enemy. Where Bernie time after time accused the DNC elite of rigging the primaries against him, trump did the exact same thing with the GOP.

Both suggested the DC elite had lost touch with the ‘ordinary people’ and that somehow they would fix this. Both tried to not just describe anger, but also stir it:

The anger both Bernie and trump stirred among people led to this more or less shocked remark by then President Obama:

How has a country that has benefited — perhaps more than any other — from immigration, trade and technological innovation suddenly developed a strain of anti-immigrant, anti-innovation protectionism? Why have some on the far left and even more on the far right embraced a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore — and that, for most Americans, never existed at all?[5]

At the core of Bernie’s and trump’s message is the idea that the white working class in America was left behind or ‘screwed’ by the system.

When trump won the election in 2016, Bernie was very clear about his willingness to cooperate with trump:

if Trump is prepared to work with me and others on rebuilding our infrastructure and creating millions of jobs, on raising the minimum wage, on passing Glass-Steagall, on changing our trade policies — yes, I think it would be counterproductive on issues that working-class Americans supported and depend upon if we did not go forward.[6]

I Intend To Work With President Trump[7]

If Mr. Trump has the guts to stand up to those corporations,” said the former Democratic presidential candidate, “he will have an ally with me.”

Sanders, speaking with reporters at a Christian Science Monitor sponsored breakfast, said he is ready to embrace Trump on a handful of campaign promises. Those include protecting Social Security and Medicare, negotiating for lower drug prices, raising the minimum wage to $10, imposing tariffs on companies that ship jobs overseas, and re-regulating Wall Street by re-establishing Glass-Steagall.”[8]

I mean, regardless of the stunning naivety of it all, it is clear Bernie truly felt trump and he were close on these issues.

Although standing up for working class people in itself is of course positive, the problem with Bernie is that whenever he speaks about working-class people, he makes it clear he means white working-class people.

One of the astounding things that’s happening among white working-class people in this country now, we’re seeing a lowering, a reduction, of life expectancy”.[9]

In fact, since the election in 2016 Bernie has been on an almost obsessive rant about the white working class and how the Democratic party abandoned them.

Which is strange for a number of reasons. In the first place because everyone knows that the working class consists of black, brown, Muslim, Asian and white people.

In the second place because all research has shown that working class people and low income people actually voted for Clinton:

I think this warrants the question why Bernie continues to obsess so much about white working class people….

I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”[10]

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday lamented Hillary Clinton’s failure to appeal to the white working class voters who helped propel President-elect Donald Trump to the White House[11].

One of the reasons why Bernie obsesses so much about the white working class, is in my opinion that he hopes to win that vote in 2020.

He repeatedly stated that in his opinion the people who voted for trump weren’t racists.[12]

In Bernie’s opinion people voted for trump because of purely economical reasons:

Sanders also said that Trump’s policies directly resonated with people who are: tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids — all while the rich become very much richer.”[13]

On top of this he started to ‘attack’ identity politics, a term which in itself is veiled racist language for civil rights:

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”.[14]

It has been noted that the very use of the term ‘identity politics’ (which Bernie often uses) is racist in itself. “the drive in this decades long moment of economic panic to label anything to do with the specificity of various demographics as “identity politics” is integral to the White backlash as a whole.[15]

The problem with Bernie is that his entire thinking is about class and economic justice, but never includes race or structural racism.

Simply put: you can introduce economic equality (which will of course also benefit POC), but that will not stop racially profiling, police brutality and all the other day to day forms of racism. The two black men who were recently arrested at Starbucks were real estate agents, but that didn’t protect them against racism.

As some have pointed out: Bernie moved to lily white Vermont (94,3% white population) in 1964 and has since then never again addressed or even spoken about racism and all the problems associated with it.

In fact, he seems so out of touch with issues of race that we can now attribute an entire series of completely tone deaf remarks about race and black people to Bernie.

Tone deaf, or in certain cases even purely racist.

I will list some of them:

1: During a primary debate in 2016, Bernie made the remark that white people “don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”[16]

2: During “a September meeting with Campaign Zero, a movement formed out of the Ferguson protests, activists asked Sanders why, in his opinion, there were a disproportionate amount of people of color in jail for nonviolent drug offenses. Sanders, seated across the table, a yellow legal pad at hand, responded with a question of his own, according to two people present: “Aren’t most of the people who sell the drugs African American?[17]

3: During an interview he said about the Mueller investigation:

Yes. I mean, I think we’ve got to work in two ways,” Sanders answered. “Number one, we have got to take on Trump’s attacks against the environment, against women, against Latinos and blacks and people in the gay community, we’ve got to fight back every day on those issues. But equally important, or more important: We have got to focus on bread-and-butter issues that mean so much to ordinary Americans.”[18]

It is clear that Sanders here contrasts women, Latinos, blacks and lgtb people with ‘ordinary Americans’ and then adds that their issues are equally or more important…

4: In 2015 Bernie had this to say about guns:

I come from a state where there is virtually no gun control. But the people of my state understand, pretty clearly, that guns in Vermont are not the same thing as guns in Chicago or Los Angeles. In our state, guns are used for hunting. In Chicago they are used for kids killing other kids or gang members shooting at police officers, shooting down innocent people”.[19]

Okay? Let’s not pretend no one understands what Chicago means here..

Guns in white Vermont are used for hunting but in Chicago scary black kids use them to kill each other and…cops.

5: Bernie latest remarks about President Obama during a town hall to commemorate Dr. King.

Much has been said already about the denigrating reduction of President Obama to a charismatic candidate and the fact he uses an event to commemorate Dr. King to go after Obama, but the fact is of course that Bernie has always been very critical about President Obama. Every single time Bernie criticizes the Democratic Party’s past 10 or so years, he is directly criticizing Obama.

Saying this out loud would be political suicide if you intend to run again in 2020, but every single time Bernie suggests Democrats haven’t accomplished anything in the past 10 years, he goes after Obama.

To do this during an event to commemorate Dr King shows exactly how incredibly tone deaf Bernie is on matters of race.

Bernie apparently marched for civil rights in the 60s of the last century.

He then moved to white Vermont and has in the last 50 years not shown the slightest interest in matters of race[20].

Sanders “was just really dismissive of anything that had to do with race and racism, saying that they didn’t have anything to do with the issues of income inequality.”[21]

It is clear that living in white Vermont and even refusing to meet black activists there[22] hasn’t exactly made Bernie Sanders a civil rights hero, or even someone who knows how to talk about issues of race without f*cking up badly.

However, in light of Bernie 2020, we are now told Bernie wants to learn and “forge new relationships among African-American leaders and democrats”.[23]


So far this leads to rather cringeworthy moments where Bernie injects himself in black marches and photo shoots or mentions a POC on Twitter, which is apart from the pandering nature of it, almost offensive.

But more importantly: Bernie is 76, he’s been an active politician for 37 years now, without showing any kind of interest in racism/ civil rights.

Isn’t it a bit late to forge relations with black leaders or to show even the slightest interest in civil rights issues, now?

Does anyone really believe a 76 year old can still learn and change, or should we maybe conclude Bernie’s had 50 or so years to learn and fight for civil rights and well, to be honest: we’re not impressed.



[3] Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008), Twenty-First Century Populism, 3.