I Caucused for Bernie in 2016. Here’s Why I’m Worried About His 2020 Run.
There are two crucial things about his candidacy that must be addressed
In 2016, I caucused for Bernie Sanders in my Seattle neighborhood. Then, he won my precinct, so I volunteered to be a delegate to caucus for him again at the district level. I loved him because, to this day, he has the most economically progressive platform of anyone I’ve ever seen run for president. Also, remember when that bird landed on his podium? So neat, right?
I live in the Central District, a gentrifying, traditionally Black (read: formerly redlined) neighborhood in Seattle. Caucusing for Bernie meant going head-to-head with my neighbors, many of whom were older Black women, who were out caucusing for Hillary Clinton. There’s an element of confrontation that’s basically inherent to caucusing. As a delegate for Bernie, it was my job to explain why I thought Bernie was the best candidate for all of us, which meant telling people who disagreed with me why I thought he was better for them too.
As I was debating my neighbors, I began to think about how very hard it is not to be condescending and self-righteous when the nature of what you’re doing involves trying to convince someone else you know what’s best for them. Fortunately, because it was happening face-to-face, and because the people who were caucusing for Hillary were so sweet and generous back to me, I don’t think anyone felt too bent out of shape about our political differences. On my walk home, I saw one of the women I had just debated. She was in her garden and she smiled and waved, and I smiled and waved back. We were neighbors with a differing political stance on this one race, this one time in our lives, and it felt nice to smile and wave when it was over.
There are two things that are simultaneously true about Bernie Sanders’s 2016 candidacy that must be addressed in order to have a productive conversation about 2020.
The first is that there were coordinated efforts to suppress or otherwise warp the logic of his candidacy, from the Democratic National Convention’s blatant preference of Hillary Clinton to the troll accounts that were later revealed to have aggressively amplified support for his campaign—reinforcing the inaccurate notion that Bernie’s supporters were overwhelmingly young, white, male, and ready for a fight. This warped logic was exacerbated by the nature of the internet, where conversations don’t necessarily happen face-to-face, or even with people you’d consider your “neighbors.”
The second is that Bernie is used to talking to a specific audience, and that audience is not necessarily the same audience as the US electorate at large. For nearly four decades, Bernie’s constituents have been the people of Vermont, and when he defaults to pandering to white fragility, I suspect he’s doing it because he doesn’t want to alienate his constituency. But the demographics of the United States as a whole are very different from Vermont, and that’s where the disconnect comes in for some voters.
In the years since his first failed bid for the Democratic nomination, I’ve watched smart, thoughtful people bring up the latter, and I’ve watched them get torn down and dismissed by people—almost always white or male or both—who will also insist in the same breath that “Bernie Bros” are not a real thing (while actively doing the thing that everyone else identifies as “Bernie Bro” behavior).
2016 was legitimately traumatic for a lot of people, and the self-righteousness that Bernie Sanders seems to spark in some of his more privileged supporters significantly contributed to that trauma. (If you don’t see it, consider yourself lucky. And possibly somewhat responsible.)
Now Bernie has announced his 2020 candidacy, and even though I feel more politically aligned with him than probably any other candidate, I am genuinely concerned about what effect his campaign is going to have on the morale of people who need to build some solidarity and camaraderie in order to defeat Trump. Any way you slice it, given the well-trodden stereotypes about “Bernie Bros”—fair or otherwise—the optics of Bernie versus a field full of non-white-male candidates is going to be rough. I write this in the hopes of encouraging other people who might find themselves tasked with defending Bernie, just as I did, and will almost certainly do again, to try to do so without succumbing to the condescending, combative tactics that made 2016 such an emotionally draining shitshow.
If you’re a Bernie supporter this time around, and you don’t feel personally traumatized by, say, the systematic murder of Black children by police, or laughing rapists in the highest levels of government, or that horrible law that Bernie voted for that makes sex workers suffer, then I have something to ask of you.
I would like to ask that you please, please, please be as gentle and kind to the rest of us as you possibly can be. Be a neighbor who smiles at your neighbor, even if they’re on the other side of whatever divide you’re feeling right this moment. Find some humility and good humor if you feel attacked; ask people if they’re okay. Because the thing is, a lot of us aren’t okay, and the reasons why have a lot to do with the so-called “identity politics” that only some people have the option to ignore. Understanding this will help build the trust necessary to take us into the future we need from where we are right now.
Let’s learn from the past and try to do things a little differently this time.
UPDATE 2/8/20: I wrote this a year ago. At the time, it was shared widely because it echoed the sentiments felt by a lot of people who felt worn down by 2016, and were hoping to avoid a repeat. Since I wrote this, the Democratic field has narrowed considerably. But the dynamic I described here has already happened—most notably in the discourse around whether or not Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren that a woman can’t beat Trump.
Obviously the two candidates remember the conversation differently. I believe Sanders when he says, as he did in his response to the initial allegations, that what he meant was “that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.” I also believe that whatever was said, it had the effect of feeling very discouraging to Warren. (This is corroborated by the fact that he chose to announce his candidacy *after* she announced hers, even though he prominently attempted to persuade her to run back in 2015—that is, before anyone knew that it was Trump she’d be running against.)
The “controversy” that ensued was, of course, largely manufactured. No one really needed to be outraged at Bernie Sanders for stating the obvious. There’s a reason we’ve never had a non-male president. Our society is thoroughly, structurally misogynistic, and any woman running for that office is going to face an uphill battle, the likes of which male candidates can only try to imagine. And on that note, no one needed to be outraged at Elizabeth Warren because of how she chose to paraphrase what she remembered as a fundamentally discouraging conversation—one that touched on, by Sanders’ own admission, the uphill battle she would face against Trump.
One can prefer Sanders without demonizing Warren, and I would even argue that it is prudent to do so. The reason why this is good praxis is summed up by Kate Willett in a recent piece about how she learned to love Bernie Bros:
Politically, I was more liberal than Hillary Clinton, and yet the way people, especially men, talked about her hit a nerve. As a female comic, I was often held to a higher standard than my male peers. My ambition was regarded with disdain and my competence with skepticism. I identified with what I imagined Clinton’s life had been like and felt compelled to defend her.
If you’ve never tried to be a woman surviving in male-dominated environment, it might not even be possible to imagine what it might feel like to identify with a woman (even one with whom you don’t agree politically) seeking an office that has never been held by a woman. It is precisely because I can imagine it that I feel, as a Bernie supporter, compelled to try to conduct myself in a way that doesn’t completely alienate people I’m hoping to form solidarity with in the near future, and encourage others to do the same.
This dustup was as avoidable as it was predictable. All we had to do is not take the bait.
All of that said, I think there’s a gap between the Sanders campaign—and Sanders himself—and the worst behavior of a small but annoyingly vocal subset of his supporters. While that subset screeches about “identity politics,” Sanders himself appears to have been quietly taking notes on all the criticism he has received from people fighting for their civil rights, and using those notes to make both its messaging and platform more inclusive. As a result, I feel better about the Sanders campaign now than I ever have.
See you at the polls!