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What Bernie Sanders Meant to Say About Identity Politics

He didn't really suggest that Democrats forget about race and gender. Or did he?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Talking Points Memo headline on Monday morning was guaranteed to raise liberal hackles: Sanders Urges Supporters: Ditch Identity Politics And Embrace The Working Class.” Soon a dozen nearly identical headlines were screeching from a wide variety of media outlets, picking up on remarks Bernie Sanders had made about the Democratic Party’s future on Sunday in Boston. At first blush, they made the Vermont senator’s message sound unambiguous. When it came to identity politics, he was telling Democrats to “move away,” “deemphasize,” or just plain “stop.” The man who’d been accused of tone-deafness about gender and race during the Democratic primaries was now, in the wake of the election, downplaying the importance of racial and gender inclusion in the party. 

Unless, of course, he wasn’t.

The trouble had begun when Sanders—who was promoting his book, Our Revolution—entertained a written question from a woman named Rebecca who said, “I want to be the second Latina senator in U.S. history. Any tips?”

Sanders began his response, captured on a smartphone camera, with a warning: “Let me respond to the question in a way that the questioner may not be happy with.” And then: 

It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political processLatinas, African-Americans, Native Americansall of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen. 

So far, so good ... 

But it is not good enough for somebody to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina. Vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and is going to take on big-money interests.

And then, after backing up to stress the need for diversity in politics—“We need 50 women in the Senate. We need more African-Americans.”—he hammered home his point about “where there’s going to be a division in the Democratic Party”:

“It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman. Vote for me,’” he said. “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’s big finish: “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”

On Twitter, the backlash to Sanders’s statements was swift. “I am so done,” wrote Guardian columnist Jessica ValentiMs. magazine’s digital editor Carmen Rios concluded Sanders wants “the left at-large to take up the mantle of the white working class—erasing in the process the unique marginalization faced by women and people of color, who more often live in poverty than their white and male counterparts.”  

This is a valid concern. But when you hear Sanders’s comments in full, it’s not quite so clear: What did he really mean by “go beyond identity politics”? 

Ever since Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, the senator has called for refocusing the Democratic Party on outreach to the blue-collar whites who gave the president-elect his narrow victory in the Rust Belt—and went more than two-to-one for Trump nationwide. Appearing on CBS This Morning, Sanders had lamented, “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.” 

The real problem for Sanders is that his recent calls for courting the white working class have been just as ambiguous—and open to misinterpretation—as his remarks on Sunday night. If “go beyond identity politics” signals that he believes Democrats should pursue an economic populism that doesn’t address the unique challenges faced by women, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, and other marginalized groups—if what he’s calling for really is the abandonment of identity politics—then the criticism of Sanders is on-target. It would be further evidence of what the writer Kathleen Geier, herself a Sanders supporter, called “Bernie’s Greatest Weakness” in The Nation earlier this year: “For all his political virtues, Sanders has had difficulty connecting his message of economic populism to the other major social justice concerns of the modern left, such race, gender, and sexuality.”

If, on the other hand, “go beyond identity politics” is a call for Democrats to layer a big dose of economic populism on top of these social-justice concerns—if Sanders is making a statement about building upon the existing political framework, not tearing it down—then he’s being misinterpreted.

The New Republic’s Clio Chang endorsed the latter interpretation, writing that “criticism that diversity on its own does not necessarily translate into lifting up the working class is a fair point and not, as [Talking Points Memo] implies, a condemnation of diversity itself.” The Intercept’s Lee Fang similarly tweeted that what Sanders opposed wasn’t actually “identity politics” but “shallow identity-first politics.”

That probably is what Sanders really meant. The problem is that he’s never fully explained how he sees his populism pairing with identity politics. He needs to clarify that he is in fact talking about all Americans, and make it clear that he understands the distinct challenges faced by various groups. Any leader of the left needs to understand the importance of that, and Sanders has shown in the past that he does. If his aim is to re-energize the Obama coalition and broaden it, rather than returning to the 1990s, when Democrats shaped their message around appealing to white “Reagan Democrats” and shunted feminist and racial-justice issues aside, then Sanders has something important—rather than just controversial and chiding—to say to the party. 

Sanders’s office didn’t respond to The New Republic’s request for an interview Monday. But Democrats need to hear from him. If he’s figured out a way to speak to blue-collar whites again, while simultaneously broadening the Democratic Party’s economic message for Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, and white Millennials, let’s hear it. And when he more fully explains what he meant by “going beyond” identity politics, we’ll also know whether his harshest liberal critics were right all along.