The Intersectional Bernie Sanders

Issue 244

Linda Martín Alcoff Mar 2, 2019

In the 2016 presidential election, Sanders was running against a viable female Democratic candidate, and both he and his supporters got grief for not backing out of the campaign, as if this was a sufficient reason. In the ensuing commotion, I was surprised to find myself called a “Bernie bro” despite years of feminist and anti-racist activism and scholarship. There is no question that the term was pretty brilliant: any defense of Bernie, any critique he made of Hillary Clinton, even any reference to class politics, became proof that one was a bro who ‘just didn’t get it’ — that is, the need to redress sexism and put gender issues first, for once.

Today Bernie is running against not only viable female Democratic candidates but a viable black female one as well. And in the political culture, Trump has wrought, racism and sexism are worse than ever. We desperately need to diversify our political leadership. The House is 72 percent white! The Senate is 75 percent male! Almost 90 percent are Christian! These facts are the result of conscious discriminatory practices and stupid ideas that are way past their expiration date.

Yet, I’m voting for Bernie. Is it because I care about class more than race or gender? NO! It’s because I understand their connections. Their deeply intrinsic, intimate connections.

There are both structural and ideological connections between class-based forms of oppression and identity-based forms. Identity-based oppression is the kind that uses your social identity to keep you boxed in, no matter your talent or hard work. And when your identity group is kept silent and demoralized, the “deciders” are generally going to keep the status quo secure and stable. The structural oppression of identity groups is legitimated by ideologies, and those targeted are in the best position to unravel the false claims. But rational debate will never suffice. No one is given power; as Frederick Douglass and Frantz Fanon argued, you have to take it. That means, we who suffer identity-based oppression need to set our sights on taking power.

Class-based oppressions work similarly: upper classes have more say, and their say is skewed toward protecting their own power. But class is an importantly different kind of identity in two ways: first, you can change your class, unlike (in most cases) your social identity, and second, our goal as progressives is to eliminate or seriously transform class, not simply ensure its proportional representation. So the ugly moniker “classism” has never worked for me: class oppression is not analogous to race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, or other forms of social identities. Some may want to eliminate some of these, but most of us just want to be able to breathe and vote and be taken seriously when we speak and wear whatever we damn well please.

Bernie Sanders today, as always, actually represents our best hope for redressing both forms of oppression: those that are class-based, and those that are identity-based. Like many people here, one of my identities is as an immigrant. And like most, I feel connected to two countries, two nations. Another sadly shared experience I have is that one of the countries I feel attached to was bombed by the other one, during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. This was one of the most horrible experiences of my life: my family was in mortal danger, and I was behind enemy lines.

Bernie Sanders has often been the only voice in Congress calling out imperial actions in Latin America. He rejects “American exceptionalism” and has made it clear that the United States cannot expect to dominate the world and then claim to be on the side of democracy. He regularly reminds us about the U.S. overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected president in 1953, Chile’s democratically-elected president in 1973, and brings up the U.S. support for what he rightfully calls “murderous regimes” in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. Who else does that? In his 2017 speech on foreign policy, Bernie characterized the United States as serving global democracy only some of the time, while at other times undermining it, and he suggested we need to build partnership between peoples, not (just) governments. Further, he linked U.S. authoritarianism abroad with its concentration of wealth at home.

I wish he was stronger at times; I wish he’d call the humanitarian aid to Venezuela the ruse that it is, and demand an end to the sanctions. I wish his opposition to Israel was more robust. But in the past 40 years, Bernie’s vocal, consistent and sometimes emotional criticism of U.S. covert and overt actions in Latin America and elsewhere in the global south has won my trust and my loyalty. And he gets the link between U.S. imperial actions and its economic designs. As a Latin American, I trust him as much or more than any other political leader in my lifetime.

I believe that Bernie’s passionate commitment to ending identity-based oppression is connected to his own Jewish identity. His father’s side of the family that lived in German-occupied Poland was wiped out by the Nazis about the time he was born. He grew up unavoidably aware of how your social identity can keep you boxed in, or worse, subject to annihilation. As a friend put it, this is not your average white dude’s experience.

The real reason we aim for better representation of diverse identities in our political leadership is because we know we need better idea representation. We need people whose experiences inform their frameworks and motivations and values. Bernie’s got it all. I’m voting for him.

Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College. She is the author of The Future of Whiteness and Rape and Resistance.

Photo credit: Photo credit: Michael Vadon.

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