Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spar at St. Anselm College, New Hampshire on Dec. 19, 2015. (ABC / Ida Mae Astute / Flickr)

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and the Kind of Discourse We Need

In the midst of a heated presidential campaign, it’s crucial that the Left transcend sectarian squabbles

BY In These Times Editors

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The Left has been so marginalized for the past decades that it's not used to having public debates on a national stage.

When Gloria Steinem is saying something that sounds, well, sexist, and Bill Clinton is obliquely calling out In These Times for sexism, you know we are living in unusual times.

Last week, we violated one of our founding precepts in posting an article by Matt Bruenig, titled “Joan Walsh to Young Bernie Sanders Reporters: Get Off My Lawn.” This article was a reprint from journalist Matt Bruenig’s blog, in which he took aim at Walsh for a Nation article in which she gave an impassioned endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and denounced the sexism that has emerged from the woodwork during her campaign.

In her essay, Walsh vented about “a young white man—entitled, pleased with himself, barely shaving yet”—who “broke the news to Clinton that his generation is with Bernie Sanders.” Bruenig found Walsh’s characterization of this youth offensive and “anti-egalitarian,” and used her comment as proof positive that the preference of young voters for Sanders over Clinton and Sanders is a sore spot for “old pundits who like Clinton.” One of the “older” pundits he referred to, Amanda Marcotte, is 38.

Bruenig was making a political argument, but he was also employing ageist remarks to build his case. This is particularly troublesome in reference to women, for whom ageism is often intertwined with sexism. As everyone who is familiar with the political battles of the 1990s knows, Clinton, then in her 40s, was the object of constant abuse and ridicule—much of it sexist and devoid of any political content. Today, at 68, her age is thrown into the mix.

In These Times does not believe it is useful to label anyone “old” in a pejorative sense, nor to play on stereotypes of old people as irascible and intolerant—stereotypes that have been employed against both Clinton and Sanders. Nor do sexist remarks have any place in civilized political discourse.

The issue of civility in political discourse within the Left has become central in recent weeks as the contest for the Democratic nomination has heated up. Sharp disagreements are the stuff of politics, of course, but the fight between supporters of Clinton and of Sanders has at times become vicious. According to numerous reports by women on Twitter, self-identified Sanders supporters have gone over the line of even impolite disagreement into outright harassment and trolling, including “sealioning,” “dogpiling,” sexist slurs and threats. In These Times staff writer Sady Doyle reports receiving, among many other things, photos of pig testicles.

No one—save for perhaps a future President Trump—is served by alienating those who should be allies. Figuring out how to debate the future of progressive politics without balkanizing the movement isn't only a question of good manners—it's key to building the political coalition we need in order to win.

A long history of a fractured Left

The battles in the 1960s and 1970s between the Old Left and New Left come to mind. Longtime democratic socialists Irving Howe and Michael Harrington came of age politically long before the campus radicals of SDS, SNCC and other leftist groups of the 1960s. The political differences between the two groups—the New Left’s embrace of the counterculture to the Old Left’s fear that the new social movements were insufficiently anticommunist—were significant. But neither side could figure out how to engage the other in a comradely way; instead, they opted for denouncements and condescending hectoring. Howe famously yelled at a young New Leftist in 1969, “You know what you're going to end up as? You're going to end up as a dentist!” Perhaps Howe was right, but some good that did him: The New Left, to its detriment, marched on without him, convinced Howe’s and his generation's political counsel was worthless.

Bernie Sanders understands the dangers of alienating the people we should be making common cause with. On Sunday, when asked by CNN about the allegedly sexist and abusive behavior of online “Berniebros” by CNN, he was blunt: “We don't want that crap. … Anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things—we don’t want them.”

Regardless of how much stock one places in the “Berniebro” phenomenon, Sanders has taken the correct moral and strategic line: Trust women’s claims of sexism, acknowledge them as such, and denounce the abusive actions. It's simple.

By doing so Sanders pressures anyone engaged in such behavior to knock it off and demonstrates that he is a candidate for the Democratic nomination who holds no truck with oppression. It also frees him to move on to the issues at the heart of his campaign. Such an approach helps hold these different segments of the Left together rather than alienate them from each other.

In These Times does not endorse candidates, but we have made no secret that we like Bernie Sanders’ positions on many issues. We also appreciate the political investment of many people, including many of our readers, in Hillary Clinton. Since the 1990s, Clinton has been the object of a right-wing witchhunt. Indeed, the nation’s political landscape has been so awash in negative imagery of Clinton that even the most honest self-scrutiny makes it difficult to parse how that unrelenting criticism has colored what we think of her.

That hyper-visibility cuts both ways. For many women, she’s become a symbol of someone who won’t let herself be booed off the public stage. Women identify with the crap she’s taken, from her appearance being picked apart to criticism of the tenor of her voice. She has been caught in the double bind of women in power: Be feminine but not too feminine, commanding but not too commanding.

We can acknowledge all that without ending the political conversation there. This discussion of age and gender allows us to question our other assumptions, including about class and race. How do all of these intersect—particularly when political power is factored in? The Left has been so marginalized for the past decades that it's not used to having public debates on a national stage. Now that our debates are being heard, we’re forced to think harder about what we say and what we mean when we say it.

2017 and beyond

That’s a good thing. But we also need to remember that the fault lines here reflect the nature of the political moment. (If Elizabeth Warren had run against Clinton, we’d be having a very different conversation.) In 2008, race and gender were pitted against each other. Women of color were erased by this binary, and issues of class inequality were tough to track down. In 2016, it’s feminism and socialism in the ring. In this new false binary, it’s socialist feminists who are treated like an imaginary species and issues of racial justice that get sidelined. To the extent that race has been visible, we can credit the insistence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

As James Thindwa has noted in the pages of In These Times, the Left is not good at celebrating its wins. This election offers two potential victories: our first female president, and our first democratic socialist president. We can revel in the progress both would represent. Then we can talk, seriously, about what each of these candidates would be like as president.

One can debate whether eight years of the Obama administration has been a disappointment now—we’ve certainly retroactively adjusted our expectations to factor in what he was up against—but whatever we thought “hope and change” meant, few would argue that it’s been entirely realized. It’s this history that we bring to the Clinton-Sanders race and to our understanding of where the rubber of symbolism meets the road of governance.

In this era of congressional gridlock and corporate capitalism—two inexorable forces that limit executive action—the presidency has in recent years become a somewhat symbolic office. That is not to dismiss symbolism; a symbolic victory can have real-world effects. We can debate the weight of such effects, and along the way talk about political compromise, Supreme Court justices, what a Republican president (someone like, say, Ted Cruz) might do, late capitalism and revolutions of various kinds, and how to think about political change in terms of decades as well as election cycles.

We need to think about what we want 2017 to look like, beyond the presidency. Ideally there will be new converts to feminism and democratic socialism (and feminist democratic-socialism). Republican dog-whistling around race, religion and ethnicity will lose its ability to thrall. A woman on the national political stage will seem unremarkable. The nation will take strong steps towards reversing the oligarchic distribution of wealth and political power that have accumulated in the hands of a small elite over the last few decades.

We don't want 2017 to be a year when the Left was irremediably and interminably schismed, or when the Clinton-Sanders primary battle is only remembered for leaving a bitter taste in activists’ mouths.

Beth Maschinot, the widow of In These Times Founding Editor & Publisher James Weinstein, who worked with Walsh at the magazine in the 1980s, put it this way:

I wrote on Joan’s Facebook page right after her Nation article came out that I knew Jim would have loved her article, how real and impassioned it was, and how much he respected her, and he would have felt like she was part of the worthy opposition to his support of Sanders.

When this magazine was established in 1976, our mission then was to transcend the sectarian divides that had for decades riven the American Left and made it all but irrelevant in the national discourse. As we approach a historic presidential election, all of us on the Left should recommit ourselves to that task—no matter who we back for the nomination.

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