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 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 really does have an awkward-old-white-man-who-lives-in-Vermont problem when it comes to his analysis of how race intersects with economics and justice, and that’s the most generous way I can put it. 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, 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.