What Happened to the New and Improved Bernie Sanders?

Drawing By Nathaniel St. Clair

Bernie Sanders kicked off his campaign just about two months ago in Brooklyn, New York opening with a speech saying, “we are going to defeat the most dangerous president in modern history.” He urged for “an economy which works for all, not just the 1%.” In the first sentences of his speech he remarked that “the underlying principles of our government will not be greed, hatred and lies. It will not be racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious bigotry.” The tone and approach of the speech sounded like a new and improved Bernie Sanders ready to tackle “identity” issues and oppression head on.

This however did not stop the Democratic establishment from staying on their anti-progressive message. Zerlina Maxwell, a paid Clinton operative and “MSNBC analyst” lamented that “twenty-three minutes in, Bernie finally mentioned race and gender.” For Democrats that watch MSNBC and didn’t hear Sanders’s Brooklyn speech, it reinforced what they already thought about him and 2016. The only problem is that Maxwell’s assertion was demonstrably false and the Sander’s team should have been quick to correct the misinformation. In any event, the well-disciplined MSNBC panel sat silent after Zerlina Maxwell’s untrue remarks just like the Sanders team.

Since his opening speech, Sanders has been ineffective in answering certain questions or has been beaten to the punch, on what too many white social democrats call, “identity politics.” Sanders was in fact, one of two white elected officials that supported one of the most progressive political platforms in memory, Jesse Jackson’s 1984 bid. For his Brooklyn speech, he was introduced by three prominent African-Americans, most notably, former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner.

Sanders discussed the current state of inequality as it relates to both the carceral state and xenophobic impulses. This was an enormous step for him and an incredibly important point of distinction from his previous run, but for some reason these points were nonexistent at his recent She the People Forum appearance. Sanders should avoid reading his press and needs to stop giving canned answers on race.

Why Sanders continues to stumble on the trail and has much more difficulty than he indicated in his speech is confounding. Why DSA rushed an endorsement vote when some Afro-Socialists Caucus members wanted to wait is also troubling. Few, if any, assume he himself lacks sincerity or principle on these matters. In his opening speech, he pointed to the GOP that actually ‘weaponizes’ “by color, origin, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.” Also in his kickoff speech Sanders referenced his own family that “escaped widespread anti-Semitism.”

He addressed these issues openly and repeatedly and incorporated them with a message about progressive foreign policy, single payer healthcare, housing, rent control, labor, and a living wage, to better “address the racial disparities of wealth and income,” while reminding his base, “we are going to root out institutional racism wherever it exists.” For many, all of these sentiments were indications that his 2020 run would be new and improved.

Sanders will need to improve his policies and positions in order to win. According to Cee A. Rivera-Jones, Sander’s previous media team helped him to lose the 2016 primary because he could not steer any conversation on race. Mind boggling efforts to reach the “Trump base” while under exposing Erica Garner’s endorsement of him failed incredibly and cannot be repeated in 2020. The Garner message was something that could have connected race to class over a period of time in modern America, showing what mainstream Democrats have neglected and what Sanders embraces.

If the Erica Garner video was plastered all throughout the South, a region Sanders struggles in, he could have increased his chances in 2016, but it was nowhere to be found. His recent comments and responses sound like he still underappreciates intellectually, the relevance of such a past endorsement. Of course liberal DNC operatives obviously aren’t anxious to evaluate Sanders objectively even when he does hit the right notes on race, but I worry that identity-last white working class or middle class voters are naïve enough to collaborate with the agenda setting liberal-centrists for another Sanders takedown.

Sanders will be victorious this time and win the presidency if he navigates gender and racial justice and ties it to economics, but at the moment he is failing to do so. Yes we need Medicare for All, wages, debt elimination, jobs, and free college, but winning the “black south” this time must include the black fight for liberation. This is not either-or, but will be equally important.

Already popular with POC and women aged 18-44, Sanders has to see the younger African-American voters who certainly understand the ongoing task of talking to generational folks within the Democratic Party, perhaps hesitant to reevaluate their place within the party while propping up centrist candidates because of their race, fiscal and emotional connections, moderate policies, as well as the “political usages of the past.” Yes, black voters are not necessarily progressive, but many are, and Sanders needs to win or split the vote in places too easily taken by Clinton in 2016.

Recall that Barack Obama was losing to Hillary Clinton in 2008 over his “misogyny,” and “origins,” until he delivered a now famous Philadelphia speech on race. The New Yorker wrote that it was given in spite of the campaign’s warning against it. Liberal networks scurried to delegitimize the speech but it was too powerful and the rest is history. Of course, Obama was nowhere near the progressive president that the country needed and currently calls for the organized left to go easy on the centrists. Nevertheless Sanders had a similar golden opportunity awaiting him after his kickoff speech.

It is true that the Sanders agenda is an issues-based movement that goes up and down, not just left and right. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s amazing feats did show the power of class politics. It was easy to see why she became so offended and resentful when right wing Democrats and Republicans stated that her victory was simply the result of being a Puerto-Rican woman. But her ability to speak to and connect with the pulse of her constituents obviously factored in with her background and her knowledge of the historically marginalized as well.

Additional Sanders supporters and inspired candidates won congressional seats, and at every level per state, all throughout the US. The Sanders campaign from 2016 set forth a ground game for progressives in 2018 and will continue leading up to 2020. The individual states that he currently leads were previously fortified by his 2016 support networks, and there’s enough to neutralize the party apparatus that offset his last bid.

Black women voters are crucial deciders in electoral politics for Democrats and as Sanders competes against an institutionally supported Kamala Harris, he must build the strongest coalition humanly possible. He must equip potential voters with a strong social justice message, as well as class, to force potential Harris supporters to jump ship. This does not mean that black voters will select candidates based solely on race, but these voters will expect Sanders to explain how his economic and healthcare policies correlate with race. He cannot expect to leave these matters unsaid or provide boilerplate talking points.

With a well-funded Harris securing a substantial portion of electoral structures and Robert Francis O’Rourke running on the sheer numbers he can generate in Texas, Sanders runs the risk of losing those two states outright, despite his massive grassroots and delegate support in California.

When you add a dark horse Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Indiana, and Joe Biden in Pennsylvania and Delaware, Sanders’s is facing an onslaught of centrists gobbling up primary votes in pivotal states where the machine Democrats are looking to rearrange the 2020 message as moving beyond the Sanders strategy of 2016.

Although a bust thus far, Cory Booker is a very smart guy, much more so than O’Rourke, that can ignite support throughout the Northeast Corridor, fashioning himself as a potential running mate. Perhaps the even smarter and solidly liberal Elizabeth Warren will split all sorts of Democratic voting constituencies. Bernie Sanders does find himself in a unique position to win the most votes while also leaving a majority of Democrats upset.

Furthermore, Sanders has to compete with a host of Democrats that are at least vocally supporting Medicare For All. Additional stumbling blocks for Sanders remain. What’s to make of his foreign policy positions, support for a border wall, failure to support investigative journalism, and silence on Stop & Shop?

Why can’t he connect the classical civil rights movement (legal, voting and political rights) to the long civil rights movement (social justice and economic rights) more easily, especially when economics are his main policy concerns? What’s the deal with the hemming and hawing on soft ball, basic questions? Why is it Warren (even if her policy ideas are consistently rooted in managing market forces, instead of subduing them), and not Sanders addressing African-American women directly with specific policies or with students and debt cancellation?

This current field of Democratic contenders, including Sanders, has shown what the left already knows, the limitations of the Democratic Party. But Sanders still remains the most viable challenger to Trump. He has also separated himself as the most progressive potential nominee issue by issue, but he stands to lose ground if he fails to revisit what made his Brooklyn speech so promising. His most recent outstanding support of voting rights for incarcerated people appealed directly to social justice advocates and he separated himself from the rest of the neoliberal field. Naturally, Sanders is more established and organized this time around after his 2016 experiences and as a result in a crowded field, Sanders can still look ordinary at times. He must continue to exemplify his extraordinary kickoff speech in order to win the presidency.

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.