"Sanders Democrats" Don't Own the Left

[Content Note: Racism; misogyny; rape culture.]

It is not yet 9 months since the last presidential election, and already people are talking about the next one. While I understand the desire to think about the end of Donald Trump's presidency, at this point we don't need to be talking about candidates for 2020 before we've ensured that we'll still have free and fair elections. Who's running doesn't matter if the election itself is corrupted by foreign influence, voter suppression, and voting machine hacking.

Nonetheless, people are talking about who they want to run against Trump — and one of the people frequently mentioned is California Senator Kamala Harris. Who used to routinely make the lists of "Women We'd Vote for Who Aren't Hillary Clinton, to Prove We're Not Misogynists," but now is suddenly also insufficiently progressive.

At the Week, Ryan Cooper decided to 'splain why it is that "leftists" are going after Democrats like Kamala Harris, and he wants us to know that it definitely isn't sexism or racism, even though he "would bet quite a lot of money the centrist Democratic establishment will" claim otherwise.

screen cap of the top of Cooper's article, showing the headline 'Why leftists don't trust Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Deval Patrick' and images of Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Deval Patrick, all people of color

The optics here are not good — especially given the attacks on Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, and even Elizabeth Warren just for endorsing Clinton during the last cycle.

Cooper assures us that racism and misogyny play no role, and that to assert they do is just a cynical attempt by centrists "to win dirty." But if racism and misogyny play no role, then why is it only men of color and women who come up for this sort of scrutiny?

That's one problem with this piece of apologia. The other is this: "Leftists" is defined to exclude anyone who doesn't support Bernie Sanders.

Writes Cooper: "At any rate, if I had to guess, I'd say we're in for a rather bitter fight for supremacy over the Democratic Party between big money elites on one side and Sanders Democrats on the other."

So, you're either a supporter of "big money elites," or you're a "Sanders Democrat" and thus a leftist.

That is a garbage construction, which elides that many of the disagreements between "Sanders Democrats" and Democrats are really about process, not policy.

It further elides how important the Democratic Party is, even when it's more conservative than "Sanders Democrats" would like, to lots of marginalized people in places across the country where Democrats are often the only ones standing between Republican state majorities and the complete annihilation of marginalized people's basic rights.

This is something about which I wrote during the primary in March of last year, by which point the word "revolution" had become a prominent fixture. There were voters talking about revolution, candidates talking about revolution, media talking about voters and candidates who were talking about revolution. But there was rarely any attempt made to clearly define what revolution meant, exactly. To some people, it meant (and means still) breaking up the banks. To others, it meant "making America great again." To still others, it meant electing a history-making candidate.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, there was particular disagreement about "revolution" — how it's defined and how it's best enacted — that came to be framed as those who want revolution (Sanders supporters) and those who don't (Clinton supporters).

But that was a false dichotomy, one that unnecessarily segments progressive voters in ways detrimental to our common interests; a misleading division born of and facilitated by a profound misunderstanding of why some Democratic voters, eager for change, may quite reasonably embrace a more measured and incrementalist approach.

Part of the reason that Black voters and non-Black voters, especially white voters from marginalized communities, joined to deliver crucial victories to Hillary Clinton across the Southern U.S. during the primary is because Sanders' message of revolution, which centered on upending rather than refining the system, failed to resonate. And contrary to pervasive narratives, it was not because voters in those states are too conservative or were too uninformed to appreciate Sanders' big ideas.

The truth is that the prospect of revolution, and the notions of monumental, sudden, chaotic change it conjures, can be utterly unappealing to people desperately longing for comfort and stability.

This is an idea with roots in Black anti-poverty activism, whose activists have detailed that, for many people living on the precipice, the idea of revolution can be nothing short of terrifying. People struggling to find money to keep themselves fed may be justifiably wary of the consequences of economic tumult for those already in financially precarious circumstances. People whose communities are under constant assault from police, corporations, and gentrifiers may be justifiably anxious about the prospect of further civil turmoil.

Like Black communities, other marginalized communities may have members who regard the specter of revolution with fear and suspicion. And with good reason: Revolution is not always kind to the vulnerable people.

At least not the kind of tumultuous, upending revolution that was and is proposed by people who don't view the incrementalist, within-the-system approach favored by Democrats like Clinton, Harris, Booker, Patrick, Gillibrand, and others as deserving of being called a revolution at all.

But how we view revolution often has a lot of do with from where we come.

My former colleague Ginger McKnight-Chavers, a Generation X Black woman, a Texas transplant to New York City, explains:
A discomfort with revolution is not necessarily passivity. With respect to African-American people, we're not monolithic by any stretch. But there is a sense of pragmatism in the way many of us approach politics that arises from needing real solutions to problems.

We don't necessarily want to overthrow the system — we want the system to work for us.

We want to turn on the faucet and be able to drink the water. We want our communities to be safe and clean. We want affordable healthcare. We want jobs. We want the criminal justice system to work for us instead of against us. We don't necessarily disagree with elements of the anti-Wall Street push. We don't see it as a zero sum game; we're just more concerned about our own streets.

And to be frank, many of us want the opportunity to be part of a fair capitalist system. We want to see people like us on Wall Street and in the capital markets, so that perhaps some of that capital will make its way into our communities.
There is a particular sort of privilege, easily and widely taken for granted, in being able to turn on the faucet and drink the water. To know that, despite other problems in a broken system, you reliably have access to clean water. To know that your basic physical safety and essential rights are not social and political footballs.

Marginalized people, especially those who live in states with legislatures governed by a Republican majority, are thrown into constant chaos by abortion restrictions, "religious liberty" bills, "trans bathroom" bills, housing and employment discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and all the other political tug-of-war we are obliged to navigate, in addition to social oppression and a ceaseless onslaught of microaggressions that can leave us reeling.

Those same things also make us urgent for change, but it disposes many of us toward an incrementalist approach, as opposed to the lurching upheaval of revolution.

It is a privilege, in many ways, to be able to "think big." To have the space and safety where one can imagine seismic shifts that don't come with the risk of falling off the edge. We don't all have that luxury.

Which is not to suggest that marginalized people don't desperately long for change. The greater the cavernous divide between reliable drinking water from the kitchen tap and having to bathe your child in bottled water, the more fervent that desire for change is.

In blue states and spaces where the Democratic Party is not as progressive as many of its constituents, the Party can seem almost quaint to its most privileged voters. It's easier to be contemptuous of the Democrats when one lives in a state, or municipality, where they have a comfortable governing majority.

People who live in red states, however, may rightly view the Democrats as the only thing standing between them (with varying degrees of passion and efficacy) and the obliteration of their rights by Republican-majority state legislatures.

The Democratic Party, for all its perceived and actual flaws, means a lot to people in red states. Like in Indiana and Wisconsin and Texas, where Democratic state legislatures left the states and went into hiding to try to stop Republicans from running roughshod over voters' rights and needs.

Many marginalized people in red states depend on the Democratic Party in ways that privileged people in true blue states don't need to. We don't have the luxury of being contemptuous of the Democratic Party for not being as progressive as we might like them to be, because our basic rights are constantly under assault.

There are certainly a number of people who voted for Clinton who appreciate and value Sanders' critiques of corporate corruption, yet bristle at his disdain for establishment politics, because we depend on them. In many red states, the near-total lack of progressive infrastructure means that the Democratic Party — the establishment — is the only well-funded institution prepared to hold the line against conservative oppression.

A revolution that includes the decimation of establishment politics risks leaving many Democratic voters in red states without any functional defense at all.

That's why when we see Bernie Sanders declare "the establishment wing of the Democratic Party" an enemy, or see "Sanders Democrats" launch attacks on Democrats like Kamala Harris, it can feel like an attack on the only institution that has had our backs while our rights are under assault.

And it's no fucking surprise that people who believe choice is negotiable don't understand why "establishment Democrats" who have stood the line for us, even if imperfectly, are important to us.

We all want meaningful change, but we have fundamental disagreements about how best to achieve it. Incrementalism is not a rejection of revolution, and it is certainly not indicative of indifference. It would be a mistake to misinterpret as indifference what is in reality a calculated caution.

And it is a mistake — and an incredible fucking insult — to assert that people who approach politics with calculated caution cannot be "leftists."

"Sanders Democrats" don't own the left.

For thirteen years, I've been occupying this space, advocating for progressive policy and social justice. I support universal healthcare and a basic guaranteed income. I am pro-choice, anti-death penalty, a prison abolitionist, and advocate for vast criminal justice reform. I strongly reject privatization schemes and strongly support free public education. I am an intersectional feminist; an anti-racist; a fierce defender of LGBTQ rights; an advocate for dismantling the rape culture; a disabled survivor; a fat activist; a Democratic critic and a Democratic supporter.

Those are not conservative positions. They are not even centrist positions.

They are leftist positions.

And I have spent the last thirteen years of my life being mercilessly inundated with gross harassment for taking those positions. [CN: Descriptions of abuse.]

Death threats. Rape threats. Threats to kill my family, my pets. Detailed emails describing what it would be like to commit various acts of violence against me. Emails imagining what sex is like between my husband and me, and how he must hate it because I am disgusting. Hopes that someone else will hurt me. Admonishments to kill myself.

Pictures of weapons that people want to use on me. Photoshopped images of me being jizzed on, raped, sliced, diced, murdered. Pictures of dead fetuses.

Pictures of my house. Emails and comments the entire text of which is just my address. Threats. Insults. Slurs. Oh my god, so many slurs.

Harassing phone calls. Voicemails with threats of violence. My home address and phone numbers published. A publicly posted campaign offering a reward to anyone for proof of my rape and/or murder.

Private images stolen and published. Photoshopped images of me as various historical tyrants. Hate sites. My image used in fake Twitter accounts, online dating profiles, blogs. My life scrutinized, my privacy invaded, lies told about me, my appearance mocked, my reported experiences audited.

People have pounded on my front door. Dumped garbage on my lawn. Smashed a phone just beneath my office window, as if to say this is how close I can get.

I have seen my face broadcast on cable news beneath a graphic of a sniper's crosshairs. I have listened to a conservative man say on national television that he wants to personally bankrupt me. (After, by the way, he got me fired from my job.)

All of this, and then some, because I have dedicated my life to leftist activism. It isn't because I'm a fucking centrist that I've had conservatives spit narratives at me about how they are the "Real Americans." That I've had to listen to Republicans call me a traitor for supporting Democrats, for protesting war, for marrying an immigrant. That I've fielded brazen death threats from self-identified Republicans with government email addresses because I am a progressive writer.

That said: Not a small part of this harassment has come from other leftists who accuse me of not being left enough, owing to my insufficient fealty to Bernie Sanders. And every time that "leftist" is defined in a way that writes me out of the left, it puts a target on my back for more of that shit.

Don't fucking tell me that I'm not a leftist when I have risked a lot and been obliged to navigate a colossal amount of abuse because of my politics and advocacy.

I have fucking earned my place on the left.

So have millions of other activists and voters and politicians who are currently being cast out as U.S. progressivism is redefined around a single man.

We are the left, too. And we're not going away.

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