Bernie Sanders wanted to steal Stacey Abrams’ moment.
Or at least that’s what centrist Democrats said when Sanders announced his response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address. It didn’t matter that Sanders’ response aired on social media and not TV, or that it was scheduled after Abrams’ official Democratic response, or that Sanders has similarly responded to all of Trump’s major presidential speeches. The prevailing narrative was that Bernie was snatching away Abrams’ shine and making the night about himself.
Can someone explain under whose authority Bernie is giving this rebuttal today? He hasn’t announced his candidacy, right? And the Democratic leadership has chosen the official response giver.
So… WTF is Bernie doing? And why are summay’all okay with it?
— April (@ReignOfApril) February 5, 2019
Democratic centrists like Center for American Progress’s Neera Tanden have given Sanders plenty of flak about attacking Democrats and racial remarks in the past. Sanders is a career-long independent and race isn’t his most salient issue, so the attacks play well. But every non-controversy drummed up by the center left feel like obvious, overblown attempts to discredit Sanders.
“[Sanders] is a little behind the curve when it comes to expressing himself,” says Ryan Cooper, national correspondent for The Week. “He’s sometimes a little fumbling with his terminology.”
Last November, the Daily Beast quoted Sanders blaming Abrams’ and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s election losses on white voters’ reluctance to vote for black candidates. The quote was taken out of context and the article omitted Sanders’ comments about their opponents’ openly racist campaigns, as revealed by the full audio published by the Daily Beast.
— Josh Miller-Lewis (@jmillerlewis) November 8, 2018
Sanders’ opponents criticized the Vermont senator’s comments about Barack Obama and the Democratic Party during an event last May commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Sanders praised Obama’s political prowess but lamented Democrats’ enormous legislative losses during his presidency. While no one contested the accuracy of Sanders’ observations, he was derided as tone-deaf for making them against the backdrop of an MLK commemoration.
Criticism about the way Sanders discusses race is valid, at least to a degree. He’s a frumpy old white man from Vermont. He’s prone to hammering away about his favorite subject, wealth inequality—the core issue of his 2016 presidential campaign and overall political career. Sometimes he repeats his economic emphasis while talking about race. Without the context of Sanders’ positions on racial justice, it can appear that he’s avoiding talking about or prioritizing race. But as Cooper notes, Sanders’ constant insistence on discussing inequality is an effective communication technique.
“If you’re talking about strategic rhetoric, what you want to do is repeat yourself 10 billion times.” Cooper says. “I think it can occasionally come off as tone deaf, but it’s a minor rhetorical problem at best.”
Sanders’ focus on economic inequality doesn’t mean that his policies ignore racial justice. Inequality and racial justice overlap, and Sanders’ policies that target inequality often take race into account as well. His 2015 Racial Justice Plan addressed criminal justice reform, including racial profiling in policing, charging and sentencing. The plan also included a entire section on “economic violence,” which “draws connections between the rest of his platform of working class empowerment and the fight to end racial injustice.”
“If you look at [Sanders’] career, he’s been on the absolute cutting edge of anti-racist opinion for the entire [time],” Cooper says. “In a perfect way? No. But he was clearly against the big center move of neoliberal Democrats who helped build the mass incarceration system and pushed tough on crime policies.”
Sanders’ history on racial issues is clearly positive. He’s also shown a desire to get things right, even if he was mis-contextualized in the first place—his response to the Daily Beast article last November is a perfect example. But the intersection between racial and economic injustice can make it seem like he’s conflating the two issues, or eschewing the latter for the former. And that leaves him open to bad faith attacks about how how handles race.
Sanders detractors—sometimes called “eight percenters,” in reference to Sanders’ mere 8 percent disapproval rating among Democrats—also understand the important of repetition in messaging. It’s why we’ve heard “Bernie’s bad on race” and “Bernie isn’t really a Democrat” over and over again, and why we’ll continue to hear if he declares his 2020 presidential candidacy. Disingenuous smears are the go-to centrist recourse when a non-traditional politician gains immense party popularity. But with a politician as consistent as Sanders, the attacks wind up backfiring.
In the clip below, Sanders admitted he hesitated aiding Jesse Jackson’s 1989 presidential campaign because of its Democratic Party affiliations. But the rest of the clip is Sanders praising Jackson’s campaign and deciding to help it despite those Democratic ties. It’s an attempt to expose Sanders’ distaste for capital-d Democratic politics that falls completely flat.
The clip was posted by @never_bernie, a Twitter account seemingly created to discredit Sanders, mostly by posting 1980s Vermont public access videos. But all they reveal is information people already know.
Other anti-Bernie post videos trying to feed into the conspiracy narrative that Sanders is a Russian psy-op.
BREAKING: @SenSanders like you’ve never seen him!!
Bernie and Jane on their honeymoon in Russia singing “This land is Your Land” with their Russian comrades!!
Trigger Warning: Bernie is sitting at a table shirtless in his briefs. So are most of the rest of the men… pic.twitter.com/2DPyDY2WV0
— M. Mendoza Ferrer (@m_mendozaferrer) January 28, 2019
These accounts and non-controversies seem more than just artificial. They feel more like loosely-coordinated establishment hit jobs, attacks from party sympathizers attempting to “expose” Sanders as a disingenuous, racist egotist.
“Weaponizing racist accusations to slander people proves to be a pretty effective political tactic,” Cooper says.
Cooper likened the racism allegations piled on Sanders to anti-semitism accusations leveled against Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. In both cases, the imputations come from centrists and conservatives desperately searching for vulnerabilities with a popular progressive politician. Corbyn’s critics cast the Labour leader’s support for Palestinian rights as anti-semitic. Many people assume it as fact simply because the accusations are loudly and frequently repeated by a centrist coalition of journalists, pundits and fellow politicians.
Sanders’ popularity worries centrist Dems who would rather foreground the return of political civility than so-called radical ideas like free healthcare or a Green New Deal. It doesn’t matter that Sanders has already moved the party (and its presidential hopefuls) to the left. That’s just all the more reason to keep up the bad faith attacks.