What is going on? Why are people so goo-goo ga-ga for this old presumably-cis-straight white guy running for president?
Even though I’m an anarcha-feminist who sees voting more as a form of harm reduction than the way to make transformative changes in a system as corrupt as ours — or in any system of state control — I’ve found myself staying up late anxiously watching the results come in during each caucus and primary of this election cycle, fingers crossed for Bernie Sanders. Other radical-identified people suggest voting for candidates from third-parties, or not voting at all, but I tend to like to work on grassroots change, while also making practical decisions about where my vote will make the most actual difference. I think in this case a vote for Sanders will be the most useful in getting us towards a place where we can push for actual radical changes, and, win or lose, I’m glad the issues he’s raising are receiving widespread amplification.
I get excited when Sanders wins, but I’m trying not to be seduced. I know Sanders seems to stand for a kind of honesty and realness that many people crave, and he has done some great things. I know he seems like the real deal, like a fighter positioned outside of the establishment — he’s talking revolution and all that good stuff — but I haven’t forgotten the way people were swept up with Obama’s first campaign’s promise of a new progressive era. While it’s true that Obama’s efforts have been blocked in every conceivable way by the Republicans, Obama has in many ways continued Clinton-Bush era policies, and his immigration record is heartbreaking. My point is that Obama was once seen as a shining progressive star, but he clearly hasn’t been the transformational president that some people hoped he would be.
Another thing that bothers me about the widespread adoration of Sanders is that, in part, the reason he comes across as so likable and trustworthy, particularly to other white progressives, boils down to straight able-bodied white male privilege. He may seem like the “real deal,” but how much harder would it be for someone from more marginalized communities to pull off? True, Sanders grew up working class, with an immigrant father, and is Jewish — and that does make it a big deal that his candidacy has done so well. Still, overall he comes across as a white man, with all the reception privilege that entails. Sanders has a message that seems genuine — maybe even more genuine than Obama’s seemed. But Obama didn’t have the luxury or privilege to be viewed as a renegade in the same way that a wild-haired older white dude does.
Where else is privilege at play? Sanders’ recent comments that Hillary Clinton is not “qualified” to be president, could be read as sexism, since women (as well as people of color and people with disabilities, etc.) are almost always considered less qualified. But in my best reading of the situation, I want to think that Sanders was not so much calling out Clinton herself, but the system by which almost all candidates run at this point. Her politics are war-hawk Democrat, and she has lots of experience working the system. In this way, her qualifications are more than adequate for what we’ve come to expect from presidents. So I don’t see it so much as a sexist personal attack about Clinton’s qualifications in particular, but a poorly-worded attempt to show that we need to get out of this corrupt, money-slimed game. At any rate, Sanders soon back-tracked, saying that “of course” Clinton is qualified to be president.
Like all campaigns, the Sanders campaign could be said to be selling a brand. His brand is about his “authenticity” and his revolutionary-ness, and while I do think he’s more progressive and ethical in practice than Clinton, we should recognize the way he too is playing the election game. Though he presents himself as above the fray of corporate politics, he is shoveling millions of dollars into mega-media corporations, spending more on national TV airtime than any of his rivals. While this is fundamentally different from accepting millions from corporations, and while his campaign frequently reiterates it isn’t about him, but about “us,” they’re still very actively operating within the moneyed system, and the cult of personality, that gets people elected.
I worry about the hero-worshipping of Bernie Sanders. I want him to win (still possible! Go New York!), yet turning people into heroes results in not seeing their flaws. It puts too much hope into a person or electoral politics, rather than into our own selves and communities. And what separates the chanting of “Bernie, Bernie!” from those shouting, “Trump! Trump!”? Obviously, there’s a big difference in the rhetoric these candidates are spreading, but there’s similarity in how each are adored as anti-establishment, and how each benefit from a kind of brand loyalty that can make their admirers unable to think critically.
Sanders is no progressive savior. As to his record on war, he backs F-35 jets in Vermont, voted in favor of the war on Afghanistan, in support of Israel’s 2014 decimation of Gaza, and he would merely “reform” the drone program. On Trans Visibility Day he gave a speech in the Bronx, but failed to mention trans lives and issues. Instead he repeatedly used the gender binary phrase “brothers and sisters,” while his reference to “gay” people related only to marriage. His debate “joke” that the Republican presidential debates demonstrate a need for more mental health funding ignores the actual issue, which is the candidates’ bigotry, while also stigmatizing people with mental health issues. Further, while I think Sanders is getting better on understanding racism, thanks to the work of badass activists of color, he’s still no anti-colonialist anti-white supremacy hero.
Sanders isn’t perfect, but Clinton is undeniably worse. “Why These Two Feminists Aren’t Voting for Hillary” by Juliana Britto Schwartz and Mahroh Jahangiri is the best in-depth exploration of the problems with Clinton’s record I’ve seen. Read it! But to mention a few more differences between Sanders and Clinton, take their views on abortion. At a Town Hall in March, when asked, “Can you name a single circumstance at any point in a pregnancy in which you would be OK with abortion being illegal?” I got chills as Sanders stated firmly, “It's not a question of me being okay….I happen to believe — and let me be very clear about it….I happen to believe
that it is wrong for the government to be telling a woman what to do with her own body.” Compare his answer to an equivocating Hillary Clinton, who confirmed that, “I have been on record in favor of a late pregnancy regulation that would have exceptions for the life and health of the mother…And so I think it is — under Roe v. Wade, it is appropriate to say, [an abortion ban after 20 weeks is fine] in these circumstances, so long as there’s an exception for the life and health of the mother.” Then there’s the fact that Clinton, despite claiming to have a better record on gun legislation, has been integral to the distribution of weaponry around the world, including giving arms kickbacks to governments as a favor for donating to the Clinton Foundation. And on and on…
In some ways it pains me to turn my back on the Hillary who inspired me as a girl-child growing up in this woman-hating culture. But simply breaking the glass ceiling does not end patriarchy. We’ve now seen that female leaders can be just as horrible as males: Margaret Thatcher. Madeleine Albright. Condoleezza Rice. The breaking the glass ceiling goal is a tokenist, meritocracy-type of feminism that functions symbolically, and does not in itself do anything for those most vulnerable and wounded by patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism. That is not my feminism. My feminism does not play by the patriarchy’s old rules of empire, of war, of scarcity, of racism, of hierarchy, of environmental destruction. It does not abandon certain women (trans women, disabled women, poor women, women of color, incarcerated women, veterans, women in every country), in order to raise up other women (whiter, English-speaking, richer, cis, women in the US). My feminism does not abandon anyone, whatever gender.
My mom has supported Hillary Clinton in the past, but has now lost trust in her due to her connections with big banks, oil and gas companies and other corporations. Even though lately my mom’s been blowing up Facebook with pro-Sanders posts, she says she doesn’t think she’s trying to make a hero of him —j ust sees him as a “better flawed politician/human than most.” Because we know Sanders’ record, she thinks she can tell Sanders really is who he is, that he fully represents his values, and that with him, “we have a chance to make serious changes.” She knows he can’t accomplish all the things he’s talking about, but thinks this is an opportunity to rearrange the entire system to work better for everyone. I find myself getting caught up in his candidacy too, because I also think we’d have more progressive possibilities than under a Hillary Clinton presidency... but let’s not think this is a revolution.
My true dreamy desires are for an anarcha-socialist-trans-feminist revolution kinda thing. Voting is just a tiny part of the way I engage in the world. We all need to think about where we put our energy in the ongoing fights for transformative social and environmental justice. Revolution didn’t come from Obama. It won’t come from hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate media ads, and it won’t come from memes like the Easter one my mom posted of a cute little blue egg with glasses and glued-on Bernie hair. It will come from us, in conversation, in organizing work, in whatever ways we are able. Sanders’ candidacy and the excitement around it does make me hopeful, but I caution against his heroization. The question for me is where do we go from here, whether he wins or loses. Electoral politics only gets us so far.