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

In These Times Editors

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

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.

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

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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