Bernie Sanders and the Politics of Identity

Those Sanders-to-Trump voters were not an aberration — they were the voters that Bernie Sanders was coveting all along.

Last week it was revealed in a large-scale study by Professor Brian Schaffner of the University of Massachusetts that approximately 12% of people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary ended up voting for Donald Trump in the general election against Hillary Clinton. Much commentary has focused on whether there was any precedent for this in previous elections (yes) or if this was proof that Sanders supporters threw the election to Trump (no, there were other factors such as BernieorBusters and third-party voters.) However, I want to examine what the study shows when you look at it from another angle:

What was in Bernie Sanders’ message or missing from his message by design that appealed to people who ultimately voted for Trump?

Let me go further: those 12% of Sanders voters were not an aberration — they were exactly who he was courting and trying to reach throughout his entire campaign. Even when asked about this analysis yesterday, Sanders tried to just shake it off as people voting the way they want to vote. But more importantly than Sanders’ willful lack of any self-reflection, is how those voters should be a strong warning to those in the Democratic party who would too easily trade civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights for any semblance of economic purity. Because in the end, you can get certain people fired up about income inequality or “Wall Street” or the billionaires (not “millionaires” anymore, mind you, since a certain U.S. Senator became one) but they were already very angry about the gays, the blacks, and the women and that’s what they will always come back to.

I consider myself a progressive Democrat and during the early part of 2016, I was truly undecided about who I was going to support for the Democratic nominee. So, I started to do research on both candidates and listening to people and the specific criticisms they had about each. I started to notice a certain pattern early on so I decided to go deeper into the issue of civil rights (“identity politics”) and why Clinton seemed to connect more with people on that level than Sanders did.

A few years before running for president, Sanders said this in an interview: “These are guys getting hung up on gay marriage issues. They’re getting hung up on abortion issues. And it is time we started focusing on the economic issues that bring us together: Defending Social Security, defending Medicare, making sure that Medicaid is not cut, that veterans’ programs are not cut.”

This quote surfaced several times during his primary campaign when it became very clear to many that not only was Sanders not comfortable talking about race issues or even showing any inclination to understand them on deeper levels, he seemed to intentionally steer away from them. Perhaps because discussion of these issues diminished his main message about economic equality as the most important balm for all that ails our society. Sanders has always believed that once you fix income inequality, all the other inequalities will disappear. He has been locked into this worldview for over 40 years. In a speech just a few weeks after the presidential election, he strongly advocated that the Democratic party should move beyond identity politics, still not realizing that it was exactly this colorblindness that cost him the South and ultimately, the Democratic nomination.

When Sanders talks about Donald Trump winning the votes of the “working people,” you can almost sense a certain wistfulness from him because he truly believes that those voters should have been his. Of course, he means white working class because if we’re taking about working class as a whole that includes a lot of minorities and Hillary won the majority of those voters — those who stated that the economy was their number one issue.

Again, this soft-pedaling of racism and sexism was not a bug, it was a main feature of Sanders’ campaign and message. And guess what? The best way to make white (mostly male) folks feel comfortable is to not talk about racism or sexism or at least, only talk about it through an economic prism — thank god, we’ve finally moved past all that stuff! Hallelujah!

Throughout his entire campaign, Sanders telegraphed to all those white working class people who were independents, conservatives and moderates that it was alright to be a little racist, or a little sexist, or a little homophobic because fighting for economic equality is what will bring all of us together. Many of his surrogates and endorsements reflected this too, whether it was Tulsi Gabbard or Marcy Kaptur and their questionable records. Sanders was wrong then, is wrong now and the data from Schaffner’s analysis seems to prove that it would be a disastrous road for the Democratic party to pursue.

There was a very small percentage (less than 10%) of those who identified strongly as Democrat in this group of Sanders-to-Trump voters. A vast majority of this group were precisely the people that Sanders wanted to win over with his economic message, people who were not “hung up” on the social issues.

But surprisingly, further analysis showed that these voters didn’t have “views on trade policy that marked them as significantly more opposed to free trade than the average Democrat.” Where was the economic issues push then?

So hmmm…. what component differentiated these voters from your average Democratic primary voter? Yes, they were older and whiter but what else? Well, here’s some interesting data:

Boom. There it is. And it is way out there. On attitudes about race, these voters were much more conservative and in the end they came back home: they voted for Trump. So really, should these be the voters that the Democratic party should spend energy, time and resources trying to catch? Do we make a Faustian bargain to give up portions of the most progressive platform in this country’s history to appeal to them because that’s what it will take. And even then, it will never be enough because it is about identity. If you are racist, sexist, or homophobic at heart then no economic message will ever change your mind about those attitudes.

Bernie Sanders may not want to reflect on why he was able to appeal to those voters who defected to Trump, but those of us who want to have a stronger Democratic party that values civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights do not have that same luxury. We need to take away the lessons from this study and continue to strengthen the base of our party, not dismantle it.