I think Matt Breuning’s defense of Bernie Sanders at Netroots Nation is very misguided. A few points:
- “Class not race” is, in fact, a very real view, and it makes civil rights activists suspicious of a certain kind white progressive for good reason. Jamelle Bouie is excellent on this. Sanders’s dismissive response seems to reflect this view, which is a problem because it’s wrong. Look, I’ve been beating the drum for the ACA for years. People should point out that people of color have disproportionately benefited from it, especially when brogressives try to argue that any reform that doesn’t nationalize the health insurance industry is worthless. But the idea that the ACA, or any other economic reform, is a solution for racial discrimination is just silly. An African-American who benefits from the Medicaid expansion is still much more likely to be subject to police abuse than a white person of similar socioeconomic status. Jobs are important, but in the wake of Sandra Bland it should be obvious that they’re not a comprehensive civil rights program.
- It won’t do to observe that Sanders has generally progressive positions on civil rights. Priorities also matter. I assume Ralph “I Don’t Do Gonadal Politics” Nader wouldn’t have voted with the majorities in Carhart II and Shelby County, but nonetheless his famous indifference to any politics that doesn’t involve the word “corporate” is a crucial reason that Sam Alito was there to cast the swing votes against civil rights. I’m glad that Sanders isn’t a malignant narcissist like late-period Nader, but he should also understand why there’s a strain of progressive politics that makes supporters of civil rights suspicious.
- Most importantly, in this context criticizing “communicative performance leftism” is deeply odd. If we’re evaluating Sanders as a legislator, I agree that how he votes is more important than what he says. But we’re talking about him is a candidate in the Democratic primaries. And — BREAKING! — Bernie Sanders is not going to be the Democratic candidate for president. His primary candidacy is, in fact, “communicative performance leftism.” If he’s not trying to shift the discourse within the Democratic Party, I have no idea what he is doing. Given his role in the party, to argue that his response to protests can’t be criticized is very strange.
Sanders screwed up. That doesn’t make his a bad person, or mean that his primary campaign is worthless. As Bouie says, he seems to be learning, and his strongest supporters should follow his lead.