Bernie Sanders’ Big Blunder: My Thoughts on Identity Politics and Classical Liberalism

So recently Bernie Sanders got into some hot water among progressives over some comments he made regarding identity politics. Here is a small snippet of what he said:

“To think of diversity purely in racial and gender terms is not sufficient…Yes, we need more candidates of diversity, but we also need candidates —  no matter what race or gender — to be fighters for the working class and stand up to the corporate powers who have so much power over our economic lives.”

“Our rights and economic lives are intertwined…Now, more than ever, we need a Democratic Party that is committed to fulfilling, not eviscerating, Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial, social, and economic justice for all.”

For some, it appears that Sanders is downplaying the importance of representing marginalized groups in favor of showing how we are really all “the same,” despite our different experiences as Americans. That is to say, some people see his words as an attempt to “white-wash” diversity, and thereby ignore those different experiences and perspectives that people of different races, cultures, genders, and sexual identities provide.

For others, it appears that Sanders is simply asking Americans to look past our superficial boundaries – racial, cultural, sexual, etc. – in order to embrace the challenges that unite us. That is to say, some people see his words as an attempt to bring Americans together by focusing on a larger shared experience in order to fight against common injustices.

However, the truth is that Bernie was likely in a lose-lose situation no matter what he said. This is because, in my view, the Democratic Party is trying unsuccessfully to have its cake and eat it too. While one side wants to place smaller identity categories (LGBT, black, female) before larger socio-economic categories (working class Americans), the other side wants to do the opposite.

Given this dilemma – a dilemma which arguably pits identity politics against classical liberalism in a zero-sum game – the Democratic Party is clearly in need of a compromise. Therefore, in the same way that we all presumably believe our republic can have majority rule with respect for minority rights, I think it’s safe to say that we can also embrace our national identity while respecting the identities of traditionally marginalized groups.

While I don’t agree with some people on the extreme fringes of identity politics that my being white and male makes me, by definition, racist or sexist, or somehow automatically makes me complicit in the plight of the marginalized, I also don’t agree with extremist classical liberals who think that identity politics should be dismissed outright.

On the contrary, as a college instructor, I understand the value of racial, cultural, socio-economic, and gender diversity because of its ability to bring different narratives, perspectives, and ideas into the classroom where they can be heard and understood. If every classroom was dominated by white, middle class males like myself, the conversation wouldn’t be as interesting, meaningful, insightful, or educational. Additionally, were the classroom completely homogeneous, my students and I would suffer from a very limited and narrow view of the issues we chose to discuss, and would likely walk away with a rather distorted view of the world.

Needless to say, it’s clear that we can’t dismiss categories of gender, race, and sexual orientation as unimportant because they draw our attention to the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the same way, nor is everyone treated in the same way by the world. This is an important fact we must continually remind ourselves of each day, no matter what side of the dividing line of race, class, sex, gender, or sexual orientation we happen to be on.

However, with that said, it’s also important that in our attempt to understand, value, and welcome diversity, that we don’t begin to see our identities or the identities of others solely through the framework of sex, race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. As David Brooks expressed in a recent New York Times column, to do so is to essentially dehumanize ourselves and others by ignoring our individual differences. Ironically, by putting too much emphasis on these identity categories, we end up producing the same effect that we do by ignoring them.

Of course, this isn’t to say that one can’t be proud of being black, gay, trans, or a woman, or that one can’t primarily identify along those lines. It also doesn’t mean that one can’t identify, first and foremost, as a rural or urban American and be proud of that fact. Rather, it means that by proclaiming ourselves to be one category or another, and by choosing to identify ourselves as such, we also need to be cognizant that not everyone identifies themselves as we do, and that the categories we choose are not the only ones which exist or possess value.

Moreover, when we place ourselves firmly into these categories, we need to recognize that the needs of our particular group might not always be the most important, and that sometimes the needs of other groups might take precedence over our own. Democracy, after all, is a process of negotiation, not a battle to the death. In any healthy Democracy, we should necessarily expect a large degree of compromise precisely because we are a country with such a diversity of people and opinions.

Simply put, we need to respect the needs of our nation’s different parts while acknowledging that those different parts make up a larger whole. We need to be attentive to each individual tree, yet understand that each of those trees is part of a collective forest. Paradoxically, we need to see “black issues” or “gay issues” as issues specific to blacks and gays, respectively, but also need to see them as “American issues” and “human issues” that affect all of us.

Although Martin Luther King Jr. was a black civil rights leader who was primarily concerned and affected by racism against blacks, he was also an American that cared about justice for all people regardless of how they identified themselves. And though King wouldn’t have been able to speak for black people the way he did without experiencing the reality of being black in America, he also recognized the need to go beyond race and connect with the larger white population that did not share his experience.

So, could Bernie Sanders have chosen his words more carefully in a way that appealed to our differences as well as our commonalities? Probably. Could he have conveyed his message in a way that didn’t appear to be downplaying the value of diversity? Yes, and it’s important that people are bringing this to his attention. However, let’s not get so caught up in this flaw that we ignore the content of his message: that we must value diversity while also recognizing the need to work together in pursuit of a larger human goal.

At the end of the day, it’s okay that we are different and we should celebrate that. It’s also okay that we have things in common, and we should celebrate that too. We really only run into problems when we focus on celebrating one and not the other.

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