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Not Just 'Two Old White Men,' This Democratic Primary Is Now a Serious Fight Between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

When it comes to the issues and their agendas, the contrast between these two candidates could hardly be more stark.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Warren’s suspension of her presidential campaign last Thursday capped a series of contenders exiting the race for the democratic nomination. The narrowing of the primary field, which began after the South Carolina primary and continued through Super Tuesday, has left Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in a two-way race for the Democratic nomination. Over the ensuing days, Warren supporters and sympathizers have lamented these developments. Many have bemoaned that the race is now between "two old white men" and identified sexism and racism as the culprits behind the shirking list of candidates. This narrative is part of an approach to electoral politics in which candidates' race, gender, and sexuality serve as the framework for explaining their success and even the worthiness of the candidates themselves. 

The reach for an identity-based framework to explain electoral outcomes is hardly unique to Warren. Four years ago, in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton's November 2016 loss to Donald Trump, her supporters, staff, and even Clinton herself, propagated a narrative which blamed  sexism and misogyny for her defeat. More recently, Kamala Harris' December exit from the Democratic primary spurred an uproar from supporters and portions of the media who cited racism and sexism as the reasons for her early withdrawal. Additionally, others have cited homophobia as a major contributor to Pete Buttigieg's loss despite the insistence that his candidacy center on policy and not sexuality

"In the aftermath of his win in South Carolina, the Democratic establishment and corporate media catapulted Biden's floundering campaign into its now frontrunner status."

It is surely the case that candidates who are women, people of color, and LGBTQ do face some unique hurdles during their candidacies. However, casting race, gender, and sexuality as the driving force behind electoral outcomes depoliticizes and decontextualizes electoral politics. For instance, it isn't difficult to explain Warren's inability to establish herself as a viable candidate. Warren consistently backtracked on her policy commitments to progressive politics, perhaps most notably in her retreat from supporting single-payer healthcare and her decision to start taking money from Super PACs. Additionally, blunders such as her false claim to Native American ancestry and her bizarre myth-busting website further undermined her campaign. But understanding Warren's defeat in terms of sexism and misogyny masks her significant shortcomings as a candidate.

In the same way that an identity-based approach to electoral politics misrepresents the more nuanced causes of electoral failures, it is equally as obfuscating when used to explain Sanders' and Biden's successes. Approaching Sanders' candidacy through an "old white man" framework inspires the dubious conclusion that his viability is unremarkable, even expectable. But Sanders' success has been anything but unremarkable. Prior to his 2016 presidential campaign, it seemed unfathomable to think that a self-described democratic socialist could be a serious contender in the Democratic primary. Sanders' unprecedented ascendancy has been built from an avowedly working-class platform, which takes on economic and political elites and addresses the interests of the multiracial working-class. The breadth of his support is even more remarkable given the relentless attacks he has faced from the corporate media and the Democratic establishment

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Just over a week ago, it was unclear if and how the centrist-establishment wing of the Democratic Party could slow a surging Sanders campaign. In the 72 hours between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, however, we witnessed a jaw-droppingly efficient consolidation of support around Biden's candidacy. In the aftermath of his win in South Carolina, the Democratic establishment and corporate media catapulted Biden's floundering campaign into its now frontrunner status. The fact that Biden is a white man does little to explain why he has remained in the race. Instead, his resurgence represents an astounding display of elite power driven by an increasingly acute fear of a Sanders presidency. 

In addition to depoliticizing and decontextualizing electoral outcomes, under this identity-based framework candidates become defined not by their politics but by their race, gender, and sexuality. Such was the case in 2017, in which media coverage of local and state elections lauded the victories of women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons such as the election Virginia's first openly trans state lawmaker. Missing from such commentary, however, was any discussion of the candidates' platforms. 

"Biden's policies protect the interests of political and economic elites at the expense of working-class people. In contrast, Sanders' campaign has centered on around universal public-goods programs and his funding has come from millions of low-dollar donors."

Foregrounding identity in this way insidiously renders a person's identity as a proxy for, or even the determinant of, their politics. It leads to the erroneous belief that the interests of identity-based constituencies—women, people of color, LGBTQ folks—can best or only be met by someone of their same identity. It isn't difficult to expose the flaws in this argument once you look closely at programs such as Medicare for All. If passed, it would disproportionately benefit women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons by virtue of the fact that it will provide free and universal healthcare to all. Yet despite their own race, gender, and sexuality, Warren and Harris backtracked their support of single-payer healthcare and Buttigieg has been vocal in his opposition. 

As for the Democratic primary, only two candidates remain in the race. Biden opposes Medicare for All and College for All, is financed by the healthcare industry and union-busting law firms, authored the infamous 1994 Crime Bill, and has repeatedly supported trade deals that depress wages and move jobs overseas. Biden's policies protect the interests of political and economic elites at the expense of working-class people. In contrast, Sanders' campaign has centered on around universal public-goods programs and his funding has come from millions of low-dollar donors. Sanders' campaign is founded on representing the working class in all its diversity. So yes, it's true that both are old white men. But the difference between them couldn't be more stark.

Carly Regina

Carly Regina is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Carly Regina is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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