Bernie Sanders: Dems Must Grow Out of Identity Politics Rhetoric

'‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!' No, that’s not good enough.'

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally on Capitol Hill, November 17, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally on Capitol Hill, November 17 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On November 21, Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested Democrats must go beyond the rhetoric of exploiting identity politics as a marketing strategy, and commit to making meaningful connections with diverse working and middle class voters.

“It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry,” Sanders said at book tour stop in Boston. “We need candidates—black, white and Latino and gay and male, we need all of that. But we need all of those candidates and officials to have the guts to stand up to the oligarchy. That is the fight of today.”

The reasons that Trumpism prevailed on Election Day are the same reasons the neoliberalism embodied by Hillary Clinton and propagated by elites and corporate media failed. While Clinton partisans used identity politics as a marketing strategy for her campaign, and depended on galvanizing support through attacks on Trump, the issues of economic injustice and corruption in government fell by the wayside. Assurances from Clinton that “America is already great because America is good” fell short because America isn’t good. It’s broken, and the Democrats’ brand of Clinton incrementalism won’t fix it.

Democrats have been resistant to reforms. Much of the rhetoric from Clinton partisans has been focused on diverting the blame from themselves and Clinton for her loss to Trump. This continues to include attacking Bernie Sanders.

Sanders supporters have repeated claims they made during the Democratic primaries that Sanders would have easily defeated Trump in the general election. Sanders polled substantially better than Clinton against Trump, giving their arguments some weight.

Newsweek claimed to have released GOP opposition research on Sanders, but everything cited was used by the Clinton campaign or largely reported on in the media. The negative publicity that the Clinton campaign provoked included an FBI investigation, WikiLeaks emails that confirmed nearly every criticism of Clinton’s candidacy and reaffirmed suspicions that the Democrats rigged their primaries to ensure she was the nomination, and the failure of the Clinton campaign to develop much strategies beyond fear-mongering voters into supporting her over Trump.

Despite the Clinton campaign coordinating directly with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and mainstream media to sabotage the Sanders campaign, in the primary, Sanders won many of the states that Clinton lost during the general election. Sanders won Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and West Virginia because of his ability to connect with working class voters who were already disenfranchised from the Democratic Party. Rather than bring those voters into the Democratic Party, Clintonand the elitist status quo she represented—repelled those voters.

And yet, the arrogance of Clinton and her voter base continues to prevent them from assuming any semblance of responsibility for Trump’s win. Clinton celebrity surrogate Lena Dunham ran a baffling blog post on her website that aptly demonstrates this cluelessness. Running up against the wall of parody, and then tunneling underneath it, writer Virginia Heffernan declared, “Hillary Clinton did everything right in this campaign, and she won more votes than her opponent did. She won. She cannot be faulted, criticized, or analyzed for even one more second. Instead, she will be decorated as an epochal heroine far too extraordinary to be contained by the mere White House. Let that revolting president-elect be Millard Fillmore or Herbert Hoover or whatever. Hillary is Athena.”

This infallibility complex is why the Clinton campaign, as President Obama pointed out, failed to develop a strong grassroots campaign effort in the states he won, but constantly repeated the claim Clinton was a “progressive who gets things done” to defend her moderate stances that appealed to few people outside of her wealthy and corporate donor network.

Clinton didn’t have the antidote to Trump’s populism—Sanders did. Sanders’ answer to Trump’s radical proposals to build a wall on the Mexican border, or develop a registry for Muslims was free tuition at public colleges and universities, single payer healthcare for all, and taking a strong principled approach towards getting money out of politics, rather than promising to do so while receiving millions of dollars from Super PACs as Clinton did.

The Democratic Party has now put Sanders in charge of its outreach, because no one has been better at connecting with disenfranchised voters on the left than he. But Democrats need to do much more than make Sanders their mascot in order to win back the millions of voters the party has let down over the past decade. Sanders has noted he plans to work with Trump on issues where they can find common ground—including mandating six weeks paid parental leave and re-enacting a modern day version of Glass-Steagall—while holding Trump accountable on issues where they strongly disagree. For Democrats to productively move forward, they need to rally around his vision to fight for the working and middle class, not continue wining and dining wealthy, corporate donors. 

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.

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