As the pre-2020 presidential race heats up, more and more presidential hopefuls are opening up about their strengths, flaws, and beliefs. One such candidate is Bernie Sanders, who, over the weekend, commented to GQ about diversity in the Democratic Party.
“My main belief is that we need to bring together a coalition of people …around a progressive agenda which is prepared to take on an extraordinarily powerful ruling class in this country. Many of my opponents do not hold that view, and they think that all that we need is people who are candidates who are black or white, who are black or Latino or woman or gay, regardless of what they stand for, that the end result is diversity.”
His comments drew ire from those who see parallels between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump with respect to a shared dour view on diversity. And as with the president, who enjoys the phrase “Many people are saying, it would’ve taken just one media professional to stop Sanders when he said “Many of my opponents” to ask “Who?”
He accused his alleged, unnamed opponents of engaging in diversity for diversity's sake essentially arguing, without evidence, that current intersectional coalition building ignores or has no qualifications to work toward economic equality. That is false.
— Tim Peacock (@TimAPeacock) January 26, 2019
Diversity is Under Attack
Prior to the 2016 election, it was a truth (nearly) universally acknowledged that Donald Trump was bad news for diversity, and his administration has proven it at every turn. Among the evidence is Betsy Devos reversing Obama-era rules regarding transgender teens and their right to use bathrooms in accordance to their gender identity, Trump’s recent victory in banning large amounts of transgender people from the military, and the president’s numerous racist comments and actions, dating all the way back to 1973, when he was sued by the Department of Justice for discriminating against black people in his housing.
Unfortunately, diversity, which in the world’s estimation, is one of the few truly admirable things about America, is under siege by the American government. Why, then, would this be the time that Sanders suggests diversity is getting out of control?
Between the largest House victory in the history of modern politics, with many liberal and progressive candidates including LGBT, black, Muslim, and female individuals; and Nancy Pelosi seeing her polls rise as the president’s slumped in the face of a wildly unpopular shutdown, the timing actually seems quite right to quench the American electorate’s thirst for more diversity in politics.
Sanders, intentionally or not, is throwing his bid in with the enemies of diversity by claiming that the current batch of candidates is primarying based on identity alone, especially disappointing coming from a self-appointed champion of diversity.
Listening to Sanders’ comments, it’s difficult not to recall the dinner table scene from the film American History X, illustrating the evolution of the protagonist’s eventually white supremacist worldview.
“Yeah, sure, everything’s Equal now, but I got two guys watching my back, responsible for my life, who aren’t as good as two other guys, who only got the job because they were black, not because they were the best.”
Compare that language with Sanders’ statements:
“… they think that all that we need is people who are candidates who are black or white, who are black or Latino or woman or gay, regardless of what they stand for, that the end result is diversity …”
“Yeah, sure, everything’s equal now, but I got two guys watching my back … who aren’t as good as two other guys, who only got the job because they were black, not because they were the best.”
In the clip, the father’s arguments are presented as reasonable, and that’s kind of the point. It’s obviously not racist or misogynistic to say you want the “best person for the job,” right? However, these arguments come straight from the added context of assuming that the diverse choice is simply “diverse” and cannot also be the “best person for the job,” and they echo complaints of affirmative action being “positive racism” and “discriminatory.”
By saying that the only asset of his opponents is their identity, Sanders is making it plain that when he sees a prosecutor, a senator, or a progressive bulwark against capitalist greed practiced on college students, the only relevant thing about that person to him is their identity.
The identity of Bernie Sanders
As I pointed out in a different essay, Senator Sanders’ identity never fits into the picture for him, but it is inaccurate to say it does not influence him.
“It is remarkable that moments after giving sharp condemnation to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi, Yemen, and a laissez-faire attitude towards violations of human rights, Senator Sanders, who is Jewish, voted for Cornyn’s Amendment, promising that Israel could still rely on support from the U.S., despite the long list of similar accusations against Israel.”
Sanders’ point comes off as being, “Everyone is playing the ‘identity’ game but me,” but do we believe that condemning the war in Yemen as unacceptable, but easily validating Israel’s actions is not tied to Sander’s Jewish identity? Sanders is asking the public to believe that every other person in the modern political arena is motivated and influenced by their identity except him, and it is an inherently unreasonable request.
What seems incredibly more likely is that Sanders would not like the conversation to be dominated by those who have different identities, and therefore different priorities than his own.
At a time when Americans of all stripes are pushing as hard as they can to showcase the value of diversity, Sanders’ comments strike a chord on both the left and the right. Sanders will seek the Democratic nomination, but has taken a position more fitting of a candidate from the Republican party, namely that identity beats ideology or competency.
However, it bears repeating that the senator’s thesis is not solely offensive, but untrue. Ben Carson, as a black man, may have had a much more successful presidential run if it were, but he did not, because identity, contrary to Sanders’ musings, is not the only thing on voter’s minds.
It is also unclear what version of history Sanders ascribes to that does not include a political candidate using their identity in a presidential run. Poor, black, prosecutor, immigrant, female, soldier, businessman, senator, farmer, and doctor are all identities on which candidates have run and won races at state, local, and federal levels.
Sanders’ critique has even less staying power in the face of a presidential field littered with female candidates so far. If Kamala Harris or Kirsten Gillibrand were to say, “I’m a woman, vote for me,” that is not a pitch that would distinguish them in a meaningful way from their opponents. Therefore, having more diverse candidates in the field actually leads to less of what Sanders suggests is going on. More scrutiny and investigation will be placed on the policies and attributes of the candidates, because they are not the sole representative for the gender of womenkind seeking the highest office.
All in all, Bernie Sanders’ comments do not align with a Democratic Party that is dynamic, changing, and thirsty for diversity. Having three viable presidential candidates being women so far is not false diversity — it is something that’s never happened before.