The history of an oppressed people is hidden in the lies and the agreed myth of its conquerors. ~Meridel LeSueur*
I recently provoked the ire of a (white, male) Bernie supporter and self-identified progressive when I stated my observation that Sanders’ supporters represented a privileged population. “Privileged”? He was clearly offended–and I was genuinely surprised by his defensive response. I had assumed that the privilege represented in Sanders’s predominantly white, male, and college educated following was self-evident, obvious to someone who walks the world in progressive shoes–which I take to mean someone who has done the work of understanding how privilege functions and actively works to redress the inequalities produced by systemic oppressions.
Our conversation reminded me of the central weakness of the second wave feminist movement in which the dominant white leadership advanced an agenda that reflected their identified priorities, operating under the assumption that these would be the same for all women. The white skin privilege benefiting the feminist leadership was not recognized nor acknowledged, yet it shaped a movement that was expected to represent all women.
Similarly, I have observed a disquieting tendency among Sanders’ supporters to ignore or neuter any suggestion that race and gender influence their movement — as though it is inoculated against these and other –isms by virtue of its sweeping progressive egalitarian platform. At best, I have found that the categories of race and gender are managed more as obstacles cluttering the meat and potatoes path of the real hardcore issues, like jobs, economic inequality, and the quest to wrest our democracy from the corrupt hands of the corporations.
LeSueur’s words have come to mind more than once over the past several months as the Democratic primary season has progressed, hand-in-hand with increasing levels of animosity among those on the left. I think these tensions are driven in part by a willingness to believe the myth that gender and race-based biases are but ghosts from the past, making only the occasional visit to our more enlightened present. Most Clinton and Sanders supporters agree that the game is rigged, that the era of money in politics has to end. I too agree that the game is rigged, but I think it is rigged in more ways than one. The Sanders inspired revolution may well be a revolution, but it is not the revolution.
Given Sanders’s entrenched populist position, many have wondered why he has not garnered more support among minority voter populations, senior citizens, and women. But maybe it is time we ask some different questions, like: What does it mean that twice the number of men than women are funding the Sanders campaign at the $200 plus levels? What does it mean when the majority of the spokespeople for the Sanders campaign are white and male? Does this not represent an element of white, male privilege — one that buoys Sanders’ campaign — that is rarely, if ever, acknowledged?
Clinton’s support by those with higher incomes is often held up as proof of her elitism, although the recent CNN Michigan exit polls show Clinton and Sanders evenly sharing the votes of those in the 100–200k income range. Sanders himself falls into the upper end of the American middle class and is facing no financial hardship as he heads into retirement, unlike many of his peers who support Clinton.
The rabid insistence that Clinton is the candidate who represents corporate interests and the rich does a great injustice to the vast majority of her supporters who are neither wealthy nor corporations. In fact, Clinton’s majority base includes the poorest Americans, the aging, ethnic minorities, Black voters, and, of course, women. Notably, all of these constituencies represent historically oppressed, minority, and/or vulnerable populations. Ironically, these are the people who have become, through some twisted logic, synonymous with “the establishment.”
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has been drawing support from a majority white, predominantly male, and overwhelmingly young population. As a demographic, they have benefited to a measurable degree by access to higher education and employment, by economic prosperity and security. As a whole they have not suffered the consequences of skin color or gender. Few could argue a case that these are not privileged constituents, yet I have discovered that to draw attention to any element of privilege within the Sanders’s base prompts denial and, often, rage.
Might it help to remember that progressivism as a movement was birthed within the boundaries of white, patriarchal privilege and little evidence exists to support any claim that much has fundamentally changed? Women continue to face sex and race discrimination in the workplace, women’s work is paid less because women do it, and women disproportionally suffer from job insecurity, homelessness, and hunger, particularly women of color.
Sadly, lost among the escalating rhetoric are the diverse people represented by Hillary Clinton, and with them, their stated hopes and priorities for a more representative democracy–one that ostensibly would serve and represent those who have been marginalized or excluded altogether. Among the silenced voices are the five African American mothers whose children were victims of gun violence or died in police custody (Maria Hamilton, the mother of Dontre Hamilton; Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis; Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland; Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin; and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner).
These mothers say they support Clinton because “she listened.” “She knew which cases went to jail,” Fulton said…She knew specifically what happened in our tragedies…. We sat there and collaborated with her and her staffers,” Reed-Veal recalled…Our concerns are implemented in her policy.” And yet Ms Reed-Veal is put in the position of having to defend her choice to support Clinton, to insist that she in not being manipulated. Would the reverse be assumed if Reed-Veal were campaigning for Sanders?
The Sanders’ movement is driven by men in more ways than one. For example, individual donations for Bernie pull from male wallets at twice the number and amount when compared to those from women — across all donation levels above $200 (data is not collected on individual donations under that amount). Hillary Clinton’s meanwhile are allocated more evenly between women and men. The Sanders’ campaign also employs more men (142 to 102 women) and is stacked heavily at the top by males, with the ten highest paying jobs going to men. In contrast, Clinton’s campaign employs more women (324 to 202), with the highest paying positions more equitably distributed between men (6) and women (4).
Many similarities exist between Sanders’ support base and those of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and it seems that some lessons could be learned from understanding the ways in which the Occupy demographic affected how the movement as a whole was organized: “though the movement had no official leaders, those who represented Occupy Wall Street in the public sphere were often white, male and highly educated,” in the end “recreating a lot of racist, sexist, classist structures.” Like many of the actively involved Occupy protestors, according to a new report, “economic disenfranchisement was one of the key factors attracting them to the movement… after the financial crisis left them underemployed and burdened with student loan debt.”
I’ve been yearning for a conversation that recognizes the ways in which white and male privilege have made a candidate like Bernie Sanders even possible, yet I mostly find the mere mention of privilege prompts defensiveness and anger. A recent post in Salon, “The shameful Bernie race smear: Hillary supporters have played a dirty, dangerous game narrative is a real stain on Democrats and the left” is but one example of this genre. Hyperbolic writing such as this does a disservice to the Sanders campaign and renders itself obsolete when a cursory glance at demographic surveys, exit polls, as well as photo and video footage supports the observation in question. Moreover, observations do not constitute smears.
Why is it so difficult to acknowledge the dominant whiteness of the left and consider what import this dynamic might have on the progressive movement as a whole? Jamie Utt writes in ‘Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left” “It’s notable that White Bernie supporters, who consider themselves the most progressive of us all, shouted down and booed Black women who dared to force Blackness into the center of White space….Because let’s be honest, every Bernie rally is White space.” These same white spaces permit public outrage against voter suppression when it impacts white people, as we have recently seen in Arizona, while ignoring the fact that voter suppression has been a persistent problem in the history of voting rights, one that mainly impacts communities of color.
I would argue that Bernie spaces are also masculine. By masculine I do not mean populated by male bodies, I am referring to ways of being, seeing, thinking, and communicating — from how priorities are established to how issues are framed and articulated, to whom authority and influence are granted and from whom they are revoked.
White, masculine spaces permit some players to change the rules of the game without prompting outcry, making it possible for Bernie Sanders to call for integrity in the voting process while simultaneously granting an exclusion for himself, as he deftly illustrated in his March 17 appearance on the Rachel Maddow show. During this conversation, the Senator outlined a scenario in which he might use the very super delegate system he and his campaign so recently decried in order to tip the nomination in his favor. In essence, Sanders would achieve this end by privileging the westward progressive votes over the deeply southern Clinton votes as the basis of his argument for swaying super delegates over to his side. He would combine it with persuasive reasoning to convince them that he is “frankly and very honestly…the stronger candidate to defeat Trump than Secretary Clinton is and I think many many of the super delegates understand that.” It was hard not to feel that the authoritative white male had spoken. Let the status quo reign.
What does it mean that the choice between Hillary and Bernie exists within our racist, sexist, capitalist system? Lauren Besser asks in “Had Bernie Been Bernadette–The Heartbreaking Truth about American Patriarchy.” For one, it means that white, masculine spaces will dominate unless they are interrupted; it means that Hillary will always bear the brunt of her gender in a game rigged to delegitimize and exclude her and her supporters. It means that we will see an increase in intimidation tactics such as those we are now witnessing in the growing number of Bernie voters who claim that they will refuse to vote for Clinton in the general election — tactics that are condoned, encouraged even, by commentators and fellow supporters as principled and just. Yet no equivalent exists on the Clinton side because there isn’t any; the majority of her supporters would vote for Sanders rather than take down their friends, families, and neighbors with the election of Trump or Cruz. Melissa Hillman asks: “How protected from the consequences of a Trump presidency do you need to be to think your hatred of Clinton constitutes… an “inviolable principle,” meaning that it’s more important than the lives of vulnerable Americans?”
It also means that Hillary hating will continue to clog our feeds and brains with divisive messages — and not just those replete with outright hate-inspired bigotry — but, as Sady Doyle writes, with “…the double standards, the quiet elisions and distortions. It’s what happens when Ben Norton, one of the loudest and most vehement critics of Clinton’s Iraq War vote, advocates for Joe Biden’s candidacy without mentioning that Biden also voted for the Iraq War. It’s what happens when H.A. Goodman declares that voting for Clinton would be a violation of his principles,because she’s too much like a Republican — even though he was openly planning to vote for an actual Republican, Rand Paul, last year.”
When Hillary-hating and white male privilege collide, some decidedly unprogressive behaviors emerge, such as castigating Elizabeth Warren for not snapping to attention and endorsing Sanders as many of his supporters demanded she do, as well as denigrating and patronizing Clinton supporters and diminishing the import of their votes. I’ve witnessed the steady march of Hillary blamers pile all of Bill Clinton’s failures on his wife’s back so she can be punished for decisions that he, not she, made. I’ve listened to many demonize Hillary Clinton while exalting President Obama, never mentioning that her work as Secretary of State was under his watch. And I’ve watched the ills of the world hog-piled onto her lone back. These are some of the more gentle abuses I’ve had the misfortune to see.
Hillary-hating and male privilege also frequently converge in a space that permits attacking or co-opting the lives of others, particularly women, to advance a personal agenda. Remember this meme?
“The meme suggests that Senator Sanders welcomed the disruption orchestrated by Marissa Johnson, Mara Willaford, and fellow members of the Black Lives Matter Seattle chapter,” writes Feministing’s Arielle Newton, “while frontrunner Hillary Clinton was dismissive, abrupt, and patronizing.” The origins of the meme are unknown, but the message is clear. Bernie Sanders is the progressive white savior sympathetic to radical Black voices, and is thus deserving of the powerful Black vote.” Newton concludes, “the meme is disingenuous and revisionist as fuck.” While this meme was being enthusiastically shared on the Internet and incorporated into Killer Mike’s pro-Sanders propaganda (without their knowledge or permission, as described by Marissa Janae Johnson in This Week in Blackness on BlackTV), “Mara and Marissa were smeared, called bitches, whores, and cunts, and shouldered death threats.”
Some may well see a revolution in Sanders and the impressive grassroots campaign he has waged. Others may see that the old hierarchies and status quo remain firmly in place, supported by the myth that gender and race are insignificant to the larger issues at stake. We should take caution to embrace a movement that so effortlessly dismisses millions of voters and whose call to arms renders their priorities invisible. The words of The Nation’s Joan Walsh resonate: “One thing should already be clear: No multiracial, left-wing coalition can be successfully built out from a white base. Let’s stop trying.” If the Sanders revolution is to become the revolution, it will have to stop waving its self-authored agenda as the beacon of hope to save our flailing, corrupt democracy. Because as it stands now, many of us aren’t being moved to dance to the progressive beat of the Bernie boogie. Share the dance floor and that might change.
*Meridel LeSueur (1900–1996) was a feminist socialist, whose work centered on women’s issues within the working class consciousness of the 1930s, offering a gendered perspective that was markedly absent in the traditional socialist ideology and writing of the time.
This post also appears on Medium at https://medium.com/@lizhanssen/whose-revolution-8eebf6b7d092#.r2wzs4905.