Why I Still Don’t Feel The Bern

Issue 244

Gerald Meyer Mar 2, 2019

The right candidate to represent the Democratic Party for president, in 2020, is the candidate who can unify the party while moving it leftward. Bernie Sanders is not that candidate.

Like Sanders, I am a 77-year-old white male who grew up in a working-class home where money was always tight and would go on to become a committed, lifelong leftist. Yet I’ve never felt the Bern. Why is that?

In his mid-20s, Sanders chose to move to the small, overwhelmingly white state of Vermont. His political career would flourish in that environment, but his inability to connect with Black and Latino voters was painfully obvious when he stepped onto the national stage in 2015 to run against Hillary Clinton.

He started his 2016 presidential campaign without a single African-American or Latino senior staff person and only made half-hearted efforts to correct that blunder. His campaign focused on large rallies that attracted predominantly-white audiences of students and other relatively young people. Evidence of his concern for, even awareness of, women, gays and lesbians was paltry. As a result, he garnered relatively few votes from the very groups most committed to the Democratic Party.

Sanders’ did best in states that selected their delegates by caucuses. These bodies met for long hours in the evenings and often required public affirmations of participants’ loyalties to one or another candidate. These supposedly democratic institutions effectively excluded mothers with small children, workers on evening or night shifts and the still larger numbers of voters who were intimidated by this process. In those states with caucus systems, on average, only 10 percent of the eligible Democratic voters participated. It is welcome news that the Democratic Party has changed its rules for 2020 to make it easier for people to participate in the caucuses without having to be physically present.

Sanders’ campaign, like Ralph Nader’s before him, drove a wedge between progressives — especially young, white males — and the great masses of Democratic voters. These divisions carry with them the mutant seeds of internal feuding and factionalism. The left in America should struggle for the maximum possible unity within the Democratic Party. This can be achieved by fighting for those gains that overarch the various groups that belong to the Democratic Party.

Now Sanders is running again. If he is to fare better this time, he will have to show he can win over groups that previously spurned him, especially African Americans, the party’s single most loyal voting bloc. Socialism by and for white people is not a socialism I want to be a part of.

Gerald Meyer is a Professor Emeritus of History at Hostos Community College and co-chair of the Vito Marcantonio Forum. He is the author of Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician 1902-1954.

Photo: Delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Credit: Mike D.

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