Looking For Bernie, Part 4: Turning Right Towards 2016

[Content Note: Heterocentrism and homophobia, transphobia and internalized transphobia, nativism, racism. This is Part Four in a four-part series analyzing Bernie Sanders' political history through an intersectional feminist lens, and considering the role privilege has played within it. You can read the other sections here: Part One: Sanders '72. Part Two: Mr. Sanders Goes to Burlington. Part Three: Sanders '90.]


I ended Part 3 with a promise to evaluate Sanders' time in Congress, focusing on the areas where he's made some compromises with progressive ideals. Let's start with the obvious: Bernie Sanders is an extraordinarily successful politician. He has a largely white electorate, but that doesn't make it homogenous in its priorities. As became obvious in looking at his gun control record, he's done some compromising with progressive principles in order to represent the people who elected him, people who don't all share progressive views.

Let me be clear: I am not shocked that Bernie Sanders turns out to be a politician! But I was a little shocked, for example, to find him supporting sending Vermont's nuclear waste to a poor, Spanish-speaking region in Texas. Bernie Sanders has a lot of great votes in his record. He also has a few awful ones. His record is definitely... complicated.

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[Bernie Sanders and Sonia Sotomayor. Via Wikipedia.]

Take same-sex marriage. As I discussed earlier in part 1 and part 2, some of Sanders' more enthusiastic fans have been passing around his 1972 letter protesting anti-homosexuality laws as advocating for full marriage equality. That doesn't even make sense, considering that same-sex marriage wasn't really a cause until the 1980s. In that decade, Sanders was approving Gay Pride parades, but also explaining that LBG rights weren't necessarily a priority for him. So what happened in the 1990s and 2000s?

To his credit, Sanders voted against DADT in 1993, something his Senate website noted after the repeal of DADT in 2010. It should be stated that this wasn't necessarily the obvious pro-LGB vote at the time. Openly gay Barney Frank, although critical, voted for the law, hoping its "Don't pursue" aspect and provisions prohibiting asking about homosexuality during recruiting would make life easier for young LGB servicemembers. Noted bigots John McCain and Jesse Helms also voted for, probably loving the fact that the law's language confirmed that homosexuality was allegedly incompatible with military service. Both Senators Patrick Leahy (D) and Jim Jeffords (R) of Vermont voted for it. By voting against, Sanders joined both Russ Feingold (D) and Rick Santorum (R-eprehensible) with his "nay."

However, Sanders very clearly voted against the law's regressive nature; he writes supportively in his autobiography that "tens of thousands of gay men and women have served this country with honor and dignity." He also opposed DOMA in 1996. (So did all three openly gay legislators.) DOMA was a genuinely risky vote. It was taken when Gingrich's Republican Revolutionaries were at their greatest strength, and many Democrats, including Bill Clinton, feared conservative backlash if they opposed it. Clinton caved and signed the bill; Sanders, by contrast, stuck his neck out.

Having said that, it's also clear that Sanders evolved (yes, evolved!) in his public support for civil unions versus full equality.

In December 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on same-sex unions violated Vermont's constitution. The court ordered the legislature to either allow same sex marriage (i.e., open up marriage to same sex couples on an equal basis) or create an equivalent same-sex union status. In early 2000, the legislature took up the question: marriage or civil unions? In March, the legislature voted for civil unions. As the New York Times reported, the law made civil unions largely identical to marriage, but defined marriage itself as between one man and one woman. The conservative backlash was intense, and "Take Back Vermont" became the rallying cry for homophobes that election year.

When it came to coming down for civil unions or full marriage equality, Sanders was initially committed to non-commitment. Seven Days columnist Peter Freyne tried to pin Sanders' position down in January 2000:

Obtaining Congressman Bernie Sanders' position on the gay marriage issue was like pulling teeth...from a rhinoceros. Last month, shortly after the decision of the Amestoy Court was issued, Mr. Sanders publicly tried walking the tightrope — applauding the court's decision and the cause of equal rights without supporting civil marriage for same-sex couples.

This week we were no more successful getting a straight answer. All we did get was a carefully crafted non-statement statement via e-mail from Washington D.C. And Bernie's statement wins him the Vermont congressional delegation's Wishy-Washy Award hands down.

Once more he "applauds" the court decision but won't go anywhere near choosing between same-sex "marriage" and domestic partnership. "By all accounts the legislature is approaching this issue in a considered and appropriate manner and I support the current process."

Supports the current process, does he? What a courageous radical!

That's as far as Ol' Bernardo would go. It's an election year, yet despite the lack of a serious challenger, The Bern's gut-level paranoia is acting up. He's afraid to say something that might alienate his conservative, rebel-loving rural following out in the hills. Something that could be interpreted as "Bernie Loves Queers!"

In February, both Ruth Dwyer (then-Republican candidate for VT governor) and local Progressives spoke to Peter Freyne about Sanders's non-position. (Ayn Rand fan Dwyer was one of the leading "Take Back Vermont" assholes.)

Ruth couldn't help but marvel at Ol' Cowardo's, er, sorry, Bernardo's response to the gay-marriage question — Bernie was adamantly vague!

"Ah!," sighed Ruth, "he doesn't want to lose his loyal elderly voters." Bernie has a strong following among elderly voters, noted Dwyer. And they're not big on homosexual marriage. So Bernie didn't say anything that might offend them. Right on, Ruthie.

Since last week's report of Ol' Cowardo's magnificent dodging of the issue, Progs have been rationalizing their fearless leader's surprising cop-out. They point out in Machiavellian tones that Bernie's issues are "economic-based." So why risk losing supporters by taking a "progressive/ liberal" public stand on a controversial social issue?


Cool, indeed. And that calculus about "economic based" issues sounds familiar.

In March, Kevin J. Kelly wrote for Seven Days that while the Vermont Progressive Party struggled, Bernie Sanders managed to "bridge the divide" between white working class voters and his progressive values. His secret?

Sanders is no crusader for same-sex marriage rights, either, or other causes that some Progs take up even though a large section of the party's grassroots feels quite differently about them... Bernie's own political coming of age also predates the social upheavals of the ‘60s. Ideologically and personality-wise, he has little in common with that era's New-Left, gender-bending longhairs.

"No crusader for same-sex marriage rights." "Little in common with... gender-bending longhairs." Whatever would Sanders '72 say about that last part?

Finally, in April, after Vermont's legislature had cast its votes for civil unions and against marriage equality in March, Sanders finally voiced his support for the civil unions legislation to Freyne:

"I think the legislature handled this issue with a lot of dignity," said Sanders. "I know there are a lot of very different points of view on this issue. People feel very strongly. But I think the legislators handled themselves with a great deal of dignity, and I agree with what came out of the legislature."

So Sanders "agreed with" civil unions. Now that was a decent position in 2000. But it wasn't a totally pro-marriage equality position, either.

And this, dear reader, is where I lay into a very particular set of Sanders fanboys who want to use Sanders' support for equality as a silencing tool. (Note: if you're a Sanders fan who is not doing this, then please understand that this is not meant for you! If the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it.)

Sanders was cautious about same-sex unions in 2000. And Hillary Clinton shared his caution:

In October of 2000, Clinton made clear in response to a question from a gay voter that she did back civil unions -- implemented in Vermont that fall. "I don't support gay marriages, but I do support extending benefits to couples, domestic partner benefits," she said, "and the kind of civil union that Vermont adopted seems to be the way to create that opportunity for people."

Now, I've seen this certain set of fanboys (maybe you've seen them too) quoting Clinton's position as she expressed it in January of 2000: "Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time and I think a marriage is and a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman." That's a shitty and disappointing thing to say (and her statement then that she would have voted for DOMA even more so). But when throwing around that particular clobber passage, they never add her October quote, which taken together suggest that she didn't support full equality (shitty) but did support civil unions, a position that Sanders shared at the time.

That misrepresentation doesn't say anything about Sanders; it just makes it look like that particular set of fanboys are more interested in bashing Clinton than fairly representing their chosen candidate. Why bother? In 2000, Sanders went on record supporting the Vermont legislature choosing civil unions over marriage equality. That's a fact.

But Sanders has other, more genuine positives to be talked about in this regard, so anyone who wants to support him has plenty of genuine material. In 2006, Sanders and the rest of the Vermont delegation voted against a proposed anti-equality constitutional amendment. By 2009, Sanders was fully endorsing marriage equality; it was the same year that the Vermont legislature made it legal. Ahead of the curve? You bet. So why be an asshole and exaggerate the curve in order to be shitty about Clinton?

Anyway, back to 2000. It speaks well of the Vermont electorate that, despite the ugly homophobic backlash, many politicians who supported the legislation saw success that fall. Jim Jeffords, a Republican turned Independent, supported civil unions, and won. Ruth Dwyer, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who opposed them, lost. (The revelation of her anti-Semitic remarks revealed her to be a, umm, well-rounded bigot. There was definitely some ugly shit in Vermont politics that year!)

And Sanders won. No Democrat opposed him; his nearest rival was the conservative Republican Karen Kerin, the nation's first openly trans* candidate for Congress. Kerin opposed the civil unions law, because, she said, "[I]t's separate and unequal. That's a highly discredited doctrine in civil-rights history."

(As a point of record: Kerin's gender self-identification appears to have been somewhat complicated for her, and that attracted media attention during the election. I don't find even a hint of a whisper that Sanders in any way exploited that. Which is a matter of basic decency, not ally cookies, but I don't want anyone to wonder. He did the right thing.)

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[Bernie Sanders, from the 109th Congressional Pictorial Directory]

In addition to his DOMA vote, Sanders' congressional record has received much-deserved praise for his vote on Iraq. He was right when a whole lot of other people in Congress were wrong. And like his DOMA vote, that sometimes gets in the way of understanding how he's approached military votes overall. He is far from a pacifist, weighing each vote as a separate matter. He's not Sanders '72 anymore (even though some of his supporters would really like for him to be). For those on the left for whom any vote in favor of military deployment or funding is a genuine disappointment, well, Sanders is just not a radical peacenik. He's voted to approve most military appropriation bills. He voted for airstrikes in Kosovo under Clinton, and for a "pro-troops" resolution under Bush that included language expressing appreciation "to the president as commander in chief for his firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operations in Iraq as part of the ongoing global war on terrorism."

For the record, I personally don't argue with most of those those votes. But I also understand that there's a case to be made that they weren't the best choices on intersectional social justice grounds, that they validated and enabled American imperialism. One of his critics, Ron Jacobs, registered his disappointment with Sanders' vote on the Iraq "pro-troops" resolution, and found that Sanders' office invoked the Senator's 2002 vote as a shield against criticism:

Upon receiving notice of Sanders' vote, I immediately called his office and registered my dismay. Within days, I received a letter from the office wherein Sanders reminded me that he voted against the October 2002 resolution granting GW Bush authority to use whatever force it required to take over Iraq.

That's not a great response, frankly. Voting against the Iraq war in 2002 doesn't make every other vote okay. Jacobs also wrote that Sanders hadn't been terribly interested in engaging the critics of his Kosovo vote in 1999, either:

I served as a support person for a dozen or so Vermonters who sat-in in his Burlington office a couple weeks into that war. Not only did Sanders refuse to talk with us via telephone (unlike his Vermont counterparts in the Senate--Leahy and Jeffords), he had his staff call the local police to arrest those who refused to leave until Sanders spoke with them. The following week Sanders held a "town meeting" in Montpelier, VT., where he surrounded himself with sympathetic war supporters and one university professor who opposed the war and Bernie's support for it. During the question and answer part of the meeting, Sanders yelled at two of the audience's most vocal opponents to his position and told them to leave if they didn't like what he had to say. They chose to remain and point out that Bernie's style of democracy seemed awfully authoritarian.

It sure does seem authoritarian! I'm not sure what Sanders '72 would think of Sanders '99 having anti-war demonstrators arrested. Maybe he'd pass along some Liberty Union literature and tell Sanders '99 to get with the Revolution.

In all seriousness, it is concerning that Sanders was unwilling to engage his critics. One thing I've noticed in this research is that sometimes Sanders just decides he's not going to answer any questions on a topic he deems irrelevant, no matter how important it is to the questioner. The legendary "cantankerousness" is awesome when it's turned against Republicans. But it can be turned against others, including his own constituents, in ways that serve to insulate Sanders from hearing things that perhaps he needs to hear.

For example, I think Sanders is very sincere in his self-identification as a socialist. But I'd really like to hear him respond to his socialist critics who, over the years, have challenged him on that identification. He once pledged interest in building a viable third party, but that hasn't really happened. Amy Smith's 2006 essay for Socialist Worker reflected bleakly that he'd become an imperialist. The website for his old party, Liberty Union, hosts a 1999 essay on "Bernie the Bomber," expressing disappointment with him on a variety of issues, including his vote for the Kosovo bombing, his support for right-wing veterans' groups over the Green Mountain Veterans for Peace, his praise for the US's "strongest military in the world" in mailing to veterans groups, and his continued defense of military contracts in Vermont. In 2013, he drew socialist criticism for supporting the F-35 bomber installation at the Burlington airport, a project Thomas Grace and Paul Fleckenstein described as having a disastrous effect on the low-income residents of a nearby neighborhood. That support was part of a longer-term pattern, wherein Sanders modified his hostility towards Lockheed-Martin when it economically benefited Vermont.

For the record, I'm more sympathetic to Sanders on most of these issues than his socialist critics are. But they're something to consider for anyone who imagines that Sanders is single-handedly going to build an alternative form of politics, wherein the U.S. abandons the military-industrial complex and its imperialistic global ventures. Nor is he trying to build an independent, worker-centric socialist party to challenge the two party system. He's running for president as a Democrat. I don't think that's bad, but let's be honest about it. In fact, Sanders has functioned as a very traditional white Northern Democrat in some ways: protect good working-class jobs (bring more if you can) and support pro-union policies, then collect union votes and union financial support. As a former union member (not unionized now, not by choice), I like that. And his union support is really important to keeping him free from financial sponsorship by corporations. At the same time, the ways he has framed his admirable support for U.S. labor do raise concerns from an intersectional social justice perspective.

For example, here's Sanders on NAFTA in 1993, describing a trip to Mexico:

In Mexico, I observed workers employed at a high-tech radio assembly General Motors plant earning $1.80 an hour, and living in shacks without electricity or running water. I met with an employee of Zenith who broke down in tears when she tried to describe how difficult it was to support her family on the $1 an hour she was paid. I heard another woman express the view that her miscarriage, and the illnesses of other workers in her plant was related to the dangerous chemicals to which they was exposed. In Brownsville, Texas, I met with a physician who is deeply concerned about birth defects that may be linked to toxic wastes discharged by factories in the border maquiladora area.

The essence of NAFTA is that American workers will be forced to compete against Mexican workers who earn a minimum wage of 58 cents an hour, and an average manufacturing wage of $2.35 cents an hour...

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[Bernie Sanders, 2006. Via Wikipedia.]

No, you didn't mis-read that. Sanders just conjured up the most horrific pictures of conditions for Mexican laborers, and then immediately used that image as a yardstick so that his readers could size up the competition for their own wages. That's quite a rhetorical pivot. In the rest of the piece, he also talks about how PRI rigs elections in Mexico, and suppresses unions, and that things will definitely get worse in Mexico if the US passes NAFTA, because American companies will be hiring more people there. He does say that U.S. corporations must "not exploit desperate Third World workers," and the solution? "American companies must re-invest in America." Apparently, those "desperate Third World" workers are just going to have to fend for themselves.

Now, maybe it's not fair to expect Sanders to have addressed what Congress could to actively make things better in both Mexico and the U.S. at the same time. Maybe he just wanted to keep focused on issues that were most immediate to those U.S. voters feeling the loss of industrial jobs, who in 1993 were watching the Industrial Belt crumble into the Rust Belt and feeling pretty abandoned and hopeless. It's quite not what I would have expected, though, from Bernie Sanders, the Burlington mayor, writing epistles to Reagan about the plight of Nicaraguans in 1985, urging an end to the U.S. economic sanctions that were causing such misery in that country. That guy was able to take a "yes AND" approach rather than "either OR" to the justice issues involved. To say here's what we want here at home, AND here's how we want to enact justice abroad. The 1993 Congressman is starting to make a subtle but important shift in priorities.

Sanders gave a similar line in a 2005 interview on CAFTA:

[O]ne of the reasons for the decline of the middle class is these terrible trade agreements that force us to compete against desperate people abroad. People should know that in Central America, 40% of the workers there make less than $2 a day, and that's the competition that we're going to be engaged in.

Can anything be done to help those workers? Apparently not. Oh well! They're "the competition."

...Charlie Kernaghan is the head of a group in New York City called the National Labor Committee, which does extraordinarily good work in exposing sweatshops all over the world. And he brought to Vermont some workers from Honduras, women, who just described to us the kind of horrendous conditions that they have to work under. And does anybody think that in tiny, poor countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, that workers are going to be able to stand up for their rights? It just ain't the case, and it's going to be a bad agreement for the people there and the workers in the United States.

Now here he talks about how CAFTA is going to be a bad deal for everybody. But the implication is that we've got it pretty good, let's not screw that up, and by the way, we won't make it worse for "the competition." Make it better? Not my problem.

Sanders could be a lot worse here. But this isn't progressive Messiah territory, not by a long shot. Maybe it's just me, but I'm thinking demanding provisions to protect and expand workers' rights as part of trade agreements might be a bolder and more "progressive" approach, one that cares about the full humanity of "the competition." This is why intersectional thinking matters. It matters whether or not Sanders explicitly includes Latin American laborers in his call for economic justice. It matters that the people he is talking about are largely people of color.

It matters not just for people outside the U.S., but for people inside as well. It matters because immigrants of all races are subject to hate, bigotry, and violence every day. It matters because undocumented immigrants are actively hunted and killed. It matters because undocumented immigrants are also particularly harassed, raped, imprisoned, denied medication, separated from their kids/parents/families, not to mention subjected to other dehumanization, every single day. It matters because people who are not immigrants, but who are people of color happening to resemble immigrants in the minds of bigots—they also get that shit every. single. day. And it's all "justified" by bigots because of "American workers" allegedly being squeezed as they compete with immigrants. That is what nativism is. It's the primary rationalization for racist shit/hate/death lobbed at Hispanic/Latin@ Americans every. single. day. and GODDAMN that does not need even the slightest, not the tiniest, hint of reinforcement from Bernie Sanders. It matters.

In 2007, Sanders opposed an immigration bill which included an early version of the DREAM Act. Here is a video of Sanders talking to Lou Dobbs (yes, that Lou Dobbs) about his opposition to the bill. After (quite rightly) bashing Bush for praising big corporate interests that were running the economy into the ground, Sanders then goes on the argue that because of the weak economy, "I don't know why we need these millions of people coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages..." He goes on to decry the hiring of guest lifeguards (?) and elementary school teachers. (Here's a partial transcript and analysis of the interview. )

It's not an unfamiliar argument; and Sanders wasn't alone among progressives in making it. Immigration and economic issues are extremely complicated. I get that. It's still a problem that Sanders used language—"millions of people coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down"—which conjures up a faceless, threatening, mass overwhelming the borders. Particularly for Lou Dobbs' audience.

It matters that Sanders chose language that closes the door on the human value and human rights of immigrant workers. (Wouldn't having full legal documentation help immigrants unionize, organize, and fight for higher wages? Particularly in light of Sanders' apparent acceptance that they're just going to make low wages in their home countries, and there's nothing the United States can do about that.)

In my opinion, thinking about this in terms of intersectionality, Sanders in 2007 crossed a line. I don't blame anyone who feels a little (or a lot) ill hearing the hateful racist Lou Dobbs praising Sanders as the only one making sense in the Senate. Not something I want to hear on a loop during the election campaign. Or anytime.

It must be said that Sanders also has taken some admirable stances on immigration. He supported the 2010 DREAM Act, for example. In 2013, he ultimately voted for comprehensive immigration reform that established a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers—but only after railing at its guest worker provisions. And that's the way he seems to roll. I can't help but wonder, however, what would happen if Sanders turned more of his energy into enacting national versions of California's Domestic Workers Bill of Rights? Or to garnering financial support for groups like the Worker's Defense Project?

There are very important racinated and gendered aspects to the exploitation of immigrant labor, as well as to U.S. nativism generally, but Sanders just doesn't seem to want to talk about that. This is another place where Sanders has a white privilege problem. I don't think he's Lou Dobbs—but it takes a lot of privilege to be able to set aside how racist Lou Dobbs is for the sake of political alliance.

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[Sanders swearing in as Senator, 2006. Via Wikipedia.]

By Sanders' own admission he's really concerned with the votes of white people. One of the problems with that is that he keeps dragging them into places they just don't belong.

For example, in September 2005, Sanders was interviewed by The Progressive, and asked about then-recent Hurricane Katrina. He (accurately) noted that the structural failings in hurricane response revealed Bush's incompetence, and also how out of touch the government was with the facts of being poor, facts that Americans across the country saw on their television screens:

What they were seeing on television was people dying because they're poor. And they're dying because they don't have a car they can get into and go to a hotel. But what you don't see on television is people dying today because they can't get to a doctor and they can't afford prescription drugs. That's why they are also dying. They are dying in Iraq because they are poor and they have gone into the military because they can't afford to go to college. They're dying because they're living in communities where asthma rates are extremely high because the air is filthy.

...and black. Poor, and black. Sanders was absolutely right about the vast ignorance about the reality of poverty in the U.S. among those who are not poor. But in these statements, he didn't acknowledged the fact that it was the intersection of race and class that left so many people horribly vulnerable to Katrina. See, I remember this. I saw plenty of white people on television who were willing (briefly) to talk about poverty, and I saw plenty of them who really wanted to avoid talking about why so many black people, particularly, were in poverty. "It's a class issue, not a race issue." Am I the only one who remember hearing that? I bet not.

Sanders not only avoided that question, he turned the interview around to actually focus on white people:

Why is it that two-thirds of white, rural men voted Republican? Why? That's what we have to address. That's crazy. These people are working longer and longer hours. They can't afford to pay $3.50 for a gallon of gas. They're losing their jobs. So why do they vote for President Bush? And the Republican Party?...What we have to do is knock on doors and go into communities where there are people who disagree with us on certain issues. And we have to talk to them. They're our friends. They're our allies. They're our co-workers. We can't see them as enemies.

Why? Hmm. Could it be that racism thing no white person wants to talk about? And I really don't have a problem if a person of color decides they don't want to be political allies—or friends—with someone who's a damn racist. It takes a lot of white privilege to say "we" have to go into "their" communities and talk to "them." Let's just think about the basic safety of that for a moment. It's not Sanders' call to make. He can ask, but he doesn't get to order.

And there's some straight male privilege in that concern about these lost white voters as well. Here is Sanders on white Southerners' "abandonment" by the Democratic party:

"These are guys getting hung up on gay marriage issues," Sanders told Schultz. "They're getting hung up on abortion issues. And it is time we started focusing on the economic issues that bring us together: Defending Social Security, defending Medicare, making sure that Medicaid is not cut, that veterans' programs are not cut."

For the record, I am also okay in choosing not to be allied with people who want me to die.

Sorry, Bernie! I would like to defend Social Security. I would also like to be alive to collect it, even if I have a pregnancy that goes terribly wrong after 20 weeks. That's what "abortion issues" mean to me: do I get to live or die?

As I said earlier, it's downright alarming whenever Bernie Sanders sounds like Jim Webb, who is very sad that the Democratic Party has become a party of "interest groups." (Note: white men have no interests. Got it, Jim Webb!) But this isn't a fluke, unfortunately. It's a central part of Sanders' campaign strategy. Here he is in June 2014, on his yearning for white people's votes:

"Let me ask you," he says, his gangly frame struggling to contain itself to our couch, "what is the largest voting bloc in America? Is it gay people? No. Is it African-Americans? No. Hispanics? No. What?" Answer: "White working-class people." Bring them back into the liberal fold, he figures, and you've got your revolution.

Courting white voters is very revolutionary? I guess. Sanders and his team don't think much of the Obama coalition, either:

Over the past two presidential-election cycles, Barack Obama has cobbled together a coalition of outsiders—women, minorities, yuppies, and young people. In 2012, he won the lowest percentage of white voters for a Democratic candidate in 20 years. Especially with the country's Hispanic population increasing, many Democrats view the Obama coalition as one that will only grow stronger with time. But Sanders, and those around him, are not impressed. "The Obama way," says the senator's former chief of staff, Huck Gutman, now an English professor at the University of Vermont, "doesn't build a lasting coalition. It wins you an election. Obama wins the election and then he runs into all this resistance. He does not have the country behind him."

Well, it's certainly not going to build a lasting coalition if you abandon it the very next election cycle. But sure, yeah, let's return to assuming that everyone who's not a straight white dude is going to vote Democratic because they have nowhere else to go. And watch voters stay home on election day.

Or, even better (not really), take an issue that's very important to African-American voters, #BlackLivesMatter, and then link to an essay about jobs. Jobs are important! Don't get me wrong. The legislation Sanders is talking about (co-sponsored with John Lewis) sounds terrific. But #BlackLivesMatter isn't about jobs. A job is not much use if the police kill you on the way there.

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It's not that Sanders is hostile to #BlackLivesMatter, or indifferent to racial prejudice within the U.S. injustice system, I'm quite sure of that. But he cannot stay focused on those issues. This Daily Kos diarist really likes Sanders' address which touches on police violence and mass incarceration. Okay. But if you care to play it, notice that Sanders decries the rate of black incarceration, and then pivots to how much money that is costing taxpayers, and how the money could be better spent on education and jobs. (A line that gets great applause!) We then get to "people" behind bars, a pivot back to police training and accountability, and on to immigration. It's not that it's a terrible speech. But imagine for a moment if Sanders had spent that 45 or 60 seconds staying focused on white supremacy, on the terrible effects it has for young people of color when they get stuck in a school-to-jail pipeline. Spending on education and jobs isn't going to fix that pipeline. If it's a Pacers game, well, pivot away. But when we're talking about black incarceration, I want to see the candidate hold their position for a minute.

And here is Sanders on Hillary Clinton's terrible "all lives matter" comment, in full pivot mode:

Sanders said he would say, "black lives matter," but so do those of other races and ethnicities. And then he pivoted to economic welfare, as he typically does.

"Phraseology, of course I'd use that phrase," Sanders said. "Black lives matter; white lives matter; Hispanic lives matter. But these are also not only police matters, they're not only gun control matters, they are significantly economic matters. ... Because it's too easy for quote-unquote liberals to be saying, 'Well, let's use this phrase.' Well, what are we going to do about 51 percent of young African-Americans unemployed?

Black lives matter; white lives matter, Hispanic lives matter, but mainly: jobs! Oof. I don't know how else to say it: jobs will not solve police violence against African-Americans. They just won't. It's not either-or. It has to be, must be, both-and.

And yeah, Bernie, it really does matter what phrases you use.

Before I end, let me address one more aspect of Sanders' record in Congress that needs to be talked about, and (I hope) improved upon.

In 1997, Sanders supported the Texas-Vermont-Maine Compact, a bill that would allow the latter two states to dump their nuclear waste at a site near Sierra Blanca, a small, impoverished, hispanophone community in Texas. Then-governor George Bush enthusiastically supported the bill (of course). When the planning for the site had begun in the 1980s, the state of Texas deliberately sought out a Spanish-speaking area for the dump, believing that the less informed the population was about the bill, the less opposition there would be. (Plans for the site would eventually be released in a 28 volume, 60,000 page, English-only document). Sierra Blanca fit the bill:

Sierra Blanca has a largely Mexican-American population, and the percentage of Spanish-speaking residents is high, as one might expect, along the entire length of the border. This is an area where colonias, communities without water and sewage facilities, are still constructed, where US companies build factories in Mexican border towns and house their managerial staff across the river, and where the US Government maintains an army, complete with checkpoints, a network of radar balloons, an electronic surveillance grid laid out over rough, sparsely populated terrain, and, sometimes, camouflaged troops hidden in the brush along footpaths where drug traffic is suspected. Such a patrol last year shot and killed Esequiel Hernández, a high school student herding his goats, in the county immediately downstream from the proposed nuclear dump site. Poverty and unemployment are high, and the seat of government in Austin is over 500 miles distant.

The community rallied against the bill, getting 700 local signatures, and gaining national interest. The deal was hotly debated in Congress, with Senator Paul Wellstone one of its biggest detractors. In 1998, Wellstone decried the dump as "part of a 'national pattern of discrimination in the location of waste and pollution' that preyed on those lacking political clout and financial resources." Sounds like it's up Bernie's alley! Did he join Wellstone?

He did not. He spoke in favor of the plan, introduced to the House as H.R. 629, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Consent Act. There's a full transcript of Sanders' remarks from C-Span, but here are a few highlights:

Mr. Chairman, I rise in strong support of H.R. 629. Mr. Chairman, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act and its 1985 amendments make commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal a State and not a Federal responsibility...

One of the reasons that many of us oppose nuclear power plants is that when this technology was developed, there was not a lot of thought given as to how we dispose of the nuclear waste. Neither the industry nor the Government, in my view, did the right thing by allowing the construction of the plants and not figuring out how we get rid of the waste.

But the issue we are debating here today is not that issue. The reality, as others have already pointed out, is that the waste is here...It would be nice if Texas had no low-level radioactive waste, or Vermont or Maine or any other State. That would be great. That is not the reality. The environmental challenge now is, given the reality that low-level radioactive waste exists, what is the safest way of disposing of that waste.

No reputable scientist or environmentalist believes that the geology of Vermont or Maine would be a good place for this waste. In the humid climate of Vermont and Maine, it is more likely that groundwater will come in contact with that waste and carry off radioactive elements to the accessible environment.

There is widespread scientific evidence to suggest, on the other hand, that locations in Texas, some of which receive less than 12 inches of rainfall a year, a region where the groundwater table is more than 700 feet below the surface, is a far better location for this waste….

From an environmental point of view, I urge strong support for this legislation.

So that was Bernie Sanders making an "environmental argument" for dumping nuclear waste near a poor Hispanic community. Because it has to go somewhere, and Texas is really dry.

When it came up for a vote in May 1998, Sanders listened to 12 anti-dump delegates as they outlined their concerns. The next day, he spoke in favor of the bill because of its "strong support" in all three states.

But at least he listened politely that time. In September of that year, Sanders faced protestors in Vermont, joined by Texans from the Sierra Blanca area. Here's how independent Socialist Sanders reacted, as originally reported in the Texas Observer:

The marchers from Vermont were careful to restrain the West Texans from protesting aloud on any platform occupied by Bernie Sanders, Vermont's independent Socialist candidate for re-election to the U.S. House. Sanders' campaign committee had warned march planners that Bernie wouldn't show if the West Texans were on the platform.

…Before the rally Sanders invited the three West Texans to meet with him privately, and the Texans eagerly agreed. The meeting was no longer than Sanders' attention span - when it comes to Sierra Blanca. "He didn't listen," Curry said. "He had his mind made up." Afterward, Bernie was giving his pro forma campaign speech, never mentioning nuclear power or nuclear waste. Sierra Blanca activist Bill Addington, who'd arrived just that morning to join the march, along with his neighbor María Méndez, had had enough, and he yelled from the crowd, "What about my home, Bernie? What about Sierra Blanca?"

Several others joined in. "What about Sierra Blanca, Bernie?"

Sanders left the stage, which surprised no one in the small Texas delegation. Earlier, he had told them, "My position is unchanged, and you're not gonna like it." When they asked if he would visit the site in Sierra Blanca, he said, "Absolutely not. I'm gonna be running for re-election in the state of Vermont."

"Absolutely not. I'm gonna be running for re-election in the state of Vermont."

The guy who can visit Mexico and Nicaragua and the Soviet Union can't go to a poor community in Texas because he's running in Vermont.


And that is what I found when I went looking for Bernie.


Nothing in this piece should be construed as telling anyone who to support or how to vote. (Your vote is yours, and my vote is mine.) I suspect many of us will be making some compromises as we choose who to support and where to cast our votes, anyway: really getting to know a candidate always reveals humans, not superheroes. Whatever candidates we're considering, it's not too late to ask them questions, to productively challenge them, to move them beyond whatever limitations they currently have. But that's only possible if we're willing to raise criticism, and they are willing to listen. And change.

Right now, Bernie Sanders is getting a lot of superhero-ing, as people get excited about him, and that's perfectly fine. Excitement is good! But he's not the Chosen One, Bernie the Vampire Slayer, single-handedly staking the banker bloodsuckers and watching Wall Street turn to dust. Pretending so is counter-productive. Insisting that he is the "most progressive" candidate for everyone demands that some of us ignore our daily lives, and the oppressions we experience that are not among his priorities.

Looking at his history through an intersectional feminist lens, I see some problems stemming, in part, from various forms of privilege that he enjoys. He's not the only candidate with problems. He's not the only one with privilege problems. But he's the one who, as of now, seems most insulated from criticism about them. Whoever wins the nomination will need to think, speak, and act intersectionally in order to understand and address the needs of Americans who are marginalized by intersectional oppressions. Let's not condemn those future efforts with silencing, gaslighting, and downright false claims right now. Using the past honestly, and having inclusive conversations today, is critical as we work together to make our progressive dreams real in future.

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