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The problem with Bernie Sanders

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As candidates have begun dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding the lack of diversity among the leading candidates. In fact, of the top four candidates in national polls — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren — only one is a woman and none are people of color. It is notable that Buttigieg, although not the first openly gay major-party presidential candidate, is the first who is a serious contender for the nomination. However, this does not outweigh the stunning lack of gender and racial diversity among the current Democratic presidential candidates. Many critiques have focused on why two white men — Buttigieg, a young mayor, and Biden, a politician with many skeletons in his closet — have found more success in the overall primary, as well as recently the Iowa Caucus, than many candidates of color, including former New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and California Senator Kamala Harris.

Few articles, however, have been critical of Sanders’ success, perhaps due to the fact that Sanders is running on a significantly more progressive platform than Biden and Buttigieg. However, regardless of his platform, failing to analyze the gender and race dynamics that have helped his campaign thus far is a fundamental oversight in the discussion regarding diversity, in not just the Democratic party but also the progressive movement. This piece does not criticize Sanders’ ideology or political record; instead it seeks to examine why he, as opposed to others with similar ideologies, has become the second top-polling Democratic primary candidate according to recent national polls. 

Although part of Sanders’ success undoubtedly stems from his strong and consistent defense of once-radical policies (including a $15 minimum wage and a nationalized healthcare system) and a strong grassroots campaign, it is dubious that Sanders has not benefited from his likeness to 44 of America’s 45 presidents. I am not denying that many Sanders supporters have distinct policy or values-based reasons to support him over Booker, Castro and Warren. However, at least some measure of his success is likely due to his gender and race, in the same way that at least some measure of Buttigieg and Biden’s success is due to their gender and race. Sanders may be leading a political revolution, but he is doing so from within a packaging that Americans are comfortable with. 

The current lack of disposable income in American households that prohibits many from donating to political campaigns was cited as one of the potential reasons for the lack of diversity among the current Democratic candidates by Andrew Yang, the lone candidate of color represented on the debate stage. Yang’s logic seems to predict that white male individuals may be more likely to donate to white male candidates. Since white men tend to be at a strong economic advantage in America and are more likely to have access to disposable income to donate to a political campaign, it would follow that white male candidates receive an outsized amount of campaign donations compared to women and candidates of color. Sanders has received an outsized portion of grassroots donations from American households compared to other candidates, and there is some evidence that the skewed whiteness and maleness of the donor base may have contributed to Sanders grassroots fundraising success. In fact, as of August 2019, over 90 percent of individuals who donated over $200 to Sanders’ campaign were white and around 57 percent were men. Although this over-$200 donor base is more diverse than Biden’s and Buttigieg’s, it is less diverse than Castro’s and Harris’. Harris in particular, despite having fewer total individual donors than Sanders, received three times as many over-$200 donations from African-American individuals than Sanders as of August. 

(As the only data available from the Federal Election Commissions relates to campaign donations of over $200, it is entirely possible that Sanders’ under-$200 donors are more diverse than his over-$200 donors. But this would not negate the fact that Sanders has benefitted to some extent from the fact that more white men are in an economic position to donate a relatively large sum to a presidential campaign.) 

Iowa and New Hampshire’s outsized importance in the nomination process exacerbates the skewed influence of white males already reflected in campaign donor bases. Democratic voters in these states skew more white than Democratic voters in other states, and many experts predict their outsized importance consistently harms candidates of color. Sanders polls very well in New Hampshire and Iowa; he, in fact, had a strong performance in both states in 2016, winning New Hampshire and securing an unexpectedly strong second-place finish in Iowa. Therefore, it seems to be to Sanders’ advantage that these states begin the primary process as his message clearly resonates with this base of voters. 

Finally, discussions of electability and perceived electability have been employed against female and non-white candidates, carrying the implicit message that only white men stand a chance in the general election. Electability has been of particular concern to democratic voters this election cycle due to the strong desire to beat Trump by any means necessary. Harris, for example, was aware of  how this focus may have negatively impacted her candidacy. Prior to dropping out of the race, in an interview with New York Magazine, Harris described how the lack of reference points for her candidacy negatively impacts analysis of her electability by both experts and American people: “Are there four words who would describe who I am? There’s no frame of reference. Like, we have terms for that guy. He’s the boy next door. That’s your uncle, who’s at the Thanksgiving dinner, who does this thing and that. There are images. The girl next door, there’s an image for that, too.” Alternatively, there is a frame of reference for Sanders. He has, in fact, been compared to a priest, and his speeches have been compared to the “hug in ‘Good Will Hunting.’”  These comparisons make him easier to imagine in a leadership role. 

Sanders may have new ideas, but there is something fundamentally safer to many Americans about a radical white male compared to a radical person of color or a radical woman. Recognizing this, and the part this has played in Sanders’ success, is crucial to ensuring that, as more progressive politicians become national figures, the movement continues to be conscious of elevating the frequently disenfranchised voices it originally promised. 

Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu

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Claire Dinshaw is a rising senior majoring in economics and minoring in political science and feminism, gender and sexuality studies. She is originally from Connecticut. Contact at [email protected]