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Bernie Sanders's Blind Spot on Race Was Imported From Scandinavia

The limits of democratic socialism in America today

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign has hit its first speedbump: the Black Lives Matter movement. Ever since protesters interrupted an obviously frustrated Sanders at the recent Netroots Nation conference, there’s been a growing perception that he’s not concerned enough about racism, and that it could cost him crucial support from non-white progressives.

It’s not that the Vermont senator doesn’t care about systemic racism. His support for restoring the Voting Rights Act and his involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s suggest otherwise. In terms of policymaking, though, solving racism isn’t where Sanders’s heart is. His political worldview, democratic socialism, just doesn’t prioritize it. Consider his interview this week with Vox’s Ezra Klein, when he said:

What we have got to do is create economic policies that improve the lives of all of our people. The white working class is disappearing, the middle class is disappearing, and it's worse in Hispanic and African-American communities. We have got to come together and develop economic policies which improve the lives of all of our people. In terms of prejudice, yeah, of course that's an extra issue. Is there racism in America? Of course there is. We've seen an explosion of that recently.

What kind of progressive politician, in today’s climate, would categorize prejudice as just an “extra issue”? One whose home state is 94 percent white, and who gets his political inspiration from Scandinavia—particularly Denmark, where 90 percent of residents are of Danish descent. 

But it’s not just the racial makeup of Vermont and Denmark that inform Sanders’s political priorities. Sanders also told Klein that open borders were a “Koch brothers proposal,” ignoring that some on the left wing have advocated for open borders (albeit for very different reasons). This statement, coupled with Sanders’s opposition to gun control, also aligns with Nordic socialism, which generally doesn’t value easy immigration and an absence of guns as pillars of a democratic socialist state. The Nordic countries also have not made the reduction of structural racism a measurement of their success.

Douglas Williams of Democratic Socialists of America recently defended Sanders by arguing that the senator’s message of economic equality would help people of color as well:

Black people need jobs, justice, and economic equality. We should always be wary of those who seek to partition the working class of any color from the economic democracy that will give them more of the gains from their work than ever before. 

Williams’s rhetoric is a throwback to the old socialist message of yore: if workers of the world unite, they can force the hand of the bourgeoisie. But colorblind progressivism has failed the black community before—organized labor, for instance, has a long and well-documented history with racism. And calls for colorblind policy solutions also run the risk of tone-deafness, much like the “all lives matter” retort that has tripped up fellow Democratic candidates Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton. 

In the epilogue to his excellent 2014 book about the West’s love affair with Scandinavia, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, British journalist Michael Booth wrote of the trouble with seeing the Nordic countries as utopian models: “Some might argue that the reality of Nordic autonomy is that you are free … to be Nordic. If you are a Muslim who is looking to build a mosque, or an American who wants to drive a large car, espouse your creationist beliefs and go shopping with your platinum card on a Sunday … you are likely to experience various degrees of oppression and exclusion should you come to live in this part of the world.” Replace “Nordic” with “Vermont,” and Sanders’s political blind spots—not to mention the limits of democratic socialism in America today—become apparent.