The Absurd Identity Politics of Establishment Pundits Critiquing Bernie Sanders

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The Absurd Identity Politics of Establishment Pundits Critiquing Bernie Sanders

(Photo: Brookings Institution/Flickr)

The reason why Bernie Sanders has achieved so much success in the United States presidential election so far is because he is not a woman, argues Mark Joseph Stern, a writer on law and LGBTQ issues for Slate.

It is one of the most incredibly absurd arguments put forward by a commentator during the 2016 Election thus far, and yet it is only unique in its grandiloquent prose. In fact, the column is part of a trend in online punditry about the presidential election, where writers extrapolate idiosyncrasies of Sanders’ campaign and analyze those aspects of his campaign through the lens of gender.

The results have not led to commentary, which betters anyone’s understanding of the role patriarchy plays in American society and politics. Instead, it has degraded debate about feminist issues and boorishly transformed characteristics of personalities into matters of equal rights. 

If Hillary Clinton was anything like Sanders, they probably would not support her. In fact, one wonders if they share Madeleine Albright’s view that “there’s a special place in hell for women,” who do not support Clinton.

Stern’s core argument is a prevalent one among those who have diffident attitudes toward Sanders. It is a slightly more sophisticated variation of the argument around “Bernie Bros.” It attempts to challenge “Sanderistas,” who claim they are not sexist and would vote for a female presidential candidate. But not Clinton.

“I have no doubt that some Sanders supporters legitimately favor his policies over Clinton’s, and that they might vote for a woman with Sanders’ ideology,” Stern argues. “But my strong suspicion is that, in any nominating race featuring a female candidate, there will always be a Bernie Sanders—a male alternative whose gender allows him to do everything his female opponent cannot.”

Stern is not the only one making this claim. In a syndicated column published by the Washington Post, titled “The sexist double standard behind why millennials love Bernie Sanders,” Catherine Rampell argues young Americans like the authenticity of Sanders. She suggests this authenticity is “off-limits to any female politician, not just one with Clinton’s baggage.”

“Female politicians—at least if they want to be taken seriously on a national stage—cannot be unkempt and unfiltered, hair mussed and voice raised,” Rampell asserts. “They have to be carefully coifed and scripted at all times, because they have to hew as closely as possible to the bounds of propriety available to both their sex and their occupation. They can’t be too quiet or too loud, too emotional or too cold, too meek or too aggressive, and so on.”

Rebecca Traister of New York Magazine wrote a column about what Clinton has learned about “running for president as a female.” She notes many young voters in Iowa said their decision came down to head versus heart. Clinton was what their head told them to vote for, and their heart told them to vote Sanders.

To Traister, this is part of a “very old, very well-worn gendered pattern.” A female candidate could “never be as scruffy as Bernie Sanders, as uncombed and unkempt. A woman could never be as grumpy as Bernie, as left-leaning as Bernie, as uncooperative with party machinery as Bernie. And that stuff is true enough. But the bigger truth is that what Bernie does, to great acclaim, that Hillary Clinton could never do is make big promises of institutional overthrow, tug on our imaginative heartstrings by laying out a future that might not be grounded in reality, and urge a revolution.”

“Here is a truth about America: No one likes a woman who yells loudly about revolution,” Traister declares.

This presumes the establishment in the United States likes anyone who “yells loudly about revolution.”

The Washington Post Editorial Board has blasted Sanders’ push for a “political revolution” as a part of his “fiction-filled campaign.” Dana Milbank, another Post columnist, insisted it would be insane for Democrats to nominate Sanders because the Democratic Party would have to defend socialism, “massive tax increases,” and a “dramatic expansion of government.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof expressed concern that a majority of American voters would never vote for a socialist and a Republican nominee would win the election.

Two prominent male columnists, who write for major establishment newspapers, reject Sanders, even though he is a male who authentically has called for “political revolution.” If Hillary Clinton truly desired a “political revolution” (which she definitely does not), these same people would question and deride her in the same way they display contempt for Sanders.

Recall what happened with the Occupy movement. There were tens of thousands of people across the country, who desired a revolution against the 1 percent. The establishment mocked the movement for lacking “cohesion” and “pantomiming progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably.” Lauren Ellis of Mother Jones, a progressive magazine, chastised the movement for failing to get a cross-section of America to come out in the streets and suggested it was for “dreamers,” not “middle class Americans trying to make ends meet.”

Traister, as others have, maintains Clinton could never lay out a future that “might not be grounded in reality and urge a revolution.” It is an exceptionally odd counterfactual because it is clear from the formulation of this statement that, even if Sanders were a woman, Traister would still hesitate to support his idealism. So, essentially, she wishes Clinton had the right to yell about revolution so she could pen a column for New York Mag explaining why she is glad a woman is comfortable with talking revolution, but she still is not convinced the country needs such decisive action.

Circling back to Stern, he declares, “The key question for Democratic voters, post-Iowa, is whether they will allow themselves to be so wooed by Sanders’ gendered appeal that they abandon the woman who seemed poised to make history.”

This is what it looks like to invert what many consider to be the most compelling part of the case for supporting Clinton for president. Not only are Democratic voters, who include quite a few young women, supposed to recognize the significance of what Clinton can bring to the White House because she is a woman, but Stern also expects these same people to assess all the supposed gender privileges Sanders enjoys, which apparently make it possible for him to appeal so strongly to Democratic voters.

In other words, if one pretends Stern’s argument is not completely ridiculous, the prime reason why Democratic voters are “wooed” by Sanders is his male identity. It is no longer that he is a self-described democratic socialist. It is no longer his background of perceived honesty and forthrightness in U.S. politics. It is no longer his record of speaking up for the lower and middle classes against the interests of the rich and powerful. It is Sanders’ maleness.

Suddenly, the many aspects of Sanders and his campaign, which make it inspiring, become issues of contention, and as “Bernie Bros” defend their candidate against this wild argument, Clinton benefits because they are “sexists” and “misogynistic” for not accepting this theory as truth.

What this does is coerce, or worse, erase the many women who support Sanders because he is “paid for by the people, not the banks,” “cares about equality,” sees “healthcare as a human right,” and appears to be more “open, honest, and trustworthy” to them. (All things female students at Clinton’s alma mater, Wellesley College, said in a video for Sanders.)

Trailblazers, like Amanda Marcotte and Jessica Valenti, have come before Stern. He builds on their work by attempting to smack down the idea that Democratic voters are not supporting Hillary Clinton because she is Hillary Clinton and this has nothing to do with not wanting to vote for a woman president.

…The obvious problem is that we have so little data: Only twice in American history has a woman been a serious presidential contender; both times, that woman was Hillary Clinton. The paucity of data itself speaks volumes. Why don’t we have other women to compare Clinton to? Could it be because most women, facing the challenges that Clinton faces now, are not allowed to rise to the top tier of candidates? Is it because any woman powerful enough to run for president will quickly become undone by the image of power she projects? Are women simply hesitant to put themselves through the indignities that Clinton has suffered? I don’t know the answers, but the questions worry me. They suggest that no female candidate, however qualified, can ever be strong enough to fight back a challenge from a Sanders-type male rival. In other words, in any given race featuring a female candidate, there will always be a Bernie Sanders who can do what she can’t do and say what she can’t say. And if there will always be a Bernie Sanders, then there may never be a female president of the United States.

This is Grade “A” fickletypook. (Yes, that’s a made up word. I made it up just like Stern and all these other commentators, whose pseudo-feminist analysis is so clearly the product of some of the worst political tribalism in U.S. society.)

There will definitely be a woman elected president if Clinton does not win in 2016. Unless Clinton runs again, the next Democratic presidential primary will likely include a number of female candidates. These candidates will not have to face Clinton and potentially become the person, who cost Clinton her chance to make history as the first female president.

To conclude, the dominant trend in establishment media is to give a platform to columnists to guilt others into voting for Clinton because it will benefit women. However, as writer Roqayah Chamseddine has argued, these commentators are not “looking for women to dismantle an oppressive system but to join it, to become a part of the establishment class. This isn’t liberatory political consciousness but the politics of superficial preservation for those at the top.”

Each commentator making these arguments could promote the candidacies of women like Gloria La Riva, the Party for Socialism and Liberation candidate, or Jill Stein, the Green Party’s candidate. This would require them to face down the illusion of democracy in U.S. elections, which neither would like to do.

And, finally, every one of these columnists overlook Clinton’s record on immigration, rejection of single-payer healthcare, support for wars in Libya and Iraq, and her shameless defense of Israeli apartheid, which greatly impact women. They ignore, as Chamseddine has pointed out, her campaign donations from private prison lobbyists, which enables companies like Geo Group that are known for abusive detention practices toward women. Instead, they promote a narrow brand of feminism, which corporate-controlled politics is willing to grant Americans the space to promote because this brand poses no threat to corporate power and political elites in Washington.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, Unauthorized Disclosure. Follow him on Twitter: @kgosztola

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