On August 14, 2018, Bernie Sanders appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. When Colbert asked him whether he “would put aside all speculation” and commit to not running, Sanders’s decided answer was, “No.” In this political environment, where pivoting and evasion are as natural as breathing, that answer is as good as a confirmation that Sanders will run. But what does this mean?
Doubtlessly, Sanders will have advantages in both the primary and the general elections that other candidates will not. He will have an established, anti-establishment base. He will likely attract skeptical Hillary voters who now think Sanders was the safer option. He still has an exciting socialist platform, which energized voters in 2016. But there are several factors that make him a weak candidate, factors that the most driven Bernie supporters have always willfully ignored.
For one thing, Sanders’s socialism manifests itself mainly around economics, and he has a weak commitment to social justice. In the 2016 Democratic Primary, Hillary Clinton easily led Sanders when it came to women voters, though younger women tended to support Sanders. Clinton also carried racial minorities by a large margin, while Sanders carried whites by a small margin. This can be explained in large part by the way in which Sanders chose to run a self-proclaimed socialist campaign, choosing to make class his campaign’s centerpiece while maintaining that race and gender are separate issues.
They are not separate issues. Women and minorities are overwhelmingly more likely to be below the poverty line than white men, and white men have a much better chance of escaping poverty. Granted, there are systems and laws in place that discriminate against the poor as a whole, and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening alarmingly. But there are also institutions that engage in racial and gender discrimination, and many specifically target those that are below the poverty line.
Take abortion restrictions, for example. State-mandated waiting periods are laws which dictate that a woman who arrives at a doctor’s office seeking an abortion can only receive one if she returns in three days. For a rich to middle-class woman with a secure job, that law is probably, at most, annoying. It creates a scheduling hassle, it wastes time, and it overtly implies that women cannot make decisions for themselves. But for a woman under the poverty line, a woman with little job security, or a woman making minimum wage, that law is catastrophic. The woman in the latter position now has to make a choice: is it worth risking my job, so that I don’t have this baby? Can I afford to miss two days of work instead of one? I can’t afford to have another child, but can I afford this abortion?
Here is just one instance where, though discrimination exists for all members of a marginalized group, impoverished members suffer the most. There are likely thousands of other ways that this phenomenon occurs for women and people of color. But to Sanders, who has refused to address racism in a meaningful way, if you get rid of the economic barriers that working-class whites face, you solve most socioeconomic issues. Well, that may be true for people who look like Bernie Sanders, but it’s certainly not true for people who don’t.
Furthermore, Sanders doesn’t just remain willfully ignorant of a prejudiced system that doesn’t affect him; he actively benefits from it. The sexism rampant in groups of his supporters has helped to keep him aloft post-primary and post-general election, where most candidates would have faded into the background. Granted, this sexism was exacerbated by Russian interference in 2016, but Sanders has barely addressed the sexism and the foreign interference. Some call Sanders a populist, and while I don’t agree that the definition applies to Sanders overall, I do contend that certain populist views, including dormant racism and sexism, contribute to Sanders’s popularity.
Sanders, though a privileged white man, might have been capable of taking down barriers created by race, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as class, with his socialist policies. Instead, by putting every one of these issues on the back burner, and making several choices that ultimately hurt the country, he proved that he is incapable of being a stellar public servant for all the people. The man who claimed to be the opposite of everything Hillary Clinton is proved to have the most dangerous Clintonian quality of all: when faced with the choice between “what is right and what is easy,” as J.K. Rowling once wrote, he will choose what is easy — easy for himself. And this was never better demonstrated than when Sanders chose to stay in the primary race when he knew that he had lost, which encouraged his more stubborn supporters to stay home on election day, and may well have cost Democrats the general election.
So, if not Sanders, who? There have been many other Democrats stepping up to the plate lately, the five most consequential, in no particular order, being Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Joe Biden. All of these candidates have their own weaknesses, and will face their own struggles if they choose to run. But all, with the possible exceptions of Cory Booker and Joe Biden, can be considered a part of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. All advocate many of the same reforms that Sanders does, and all have made a name for themselves resisting the tyrannical congressional majority that James Madison so prudently feared would come to power. Most importantly, all have shown they are capable of governing fairly and holistically, with consideration for every aspect of their actions.
When considering Sanders versus Harris, Gillibrand, Warren, Booker, or Biden, Democrats should consider what path they want their party to follow. Should we put our faith in the candidate that so disastrously divided us during the last election cycle? Will we really be a party of socialist reform if our reform only extends to those that, despite their unlucky circumstances, still retain undeserved privileges? Should our elected officials be dedicated public servants, committed to surmounting personal and professional difficulties in order to do good, or should we settle for those who will serve themselves before the public good? I fervently hope that when Democrats answer these questions in 2020, they will answer wisely.