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How White Feminism Failed Bernie Sanders 

The grief underlying many disheartened women who no longer found this race compelling, except to beat Trump, is this: Warren lost because of sexism.

In early March, before the world had turned upside down, I overheard two of my girlfriends in the kitchen the morning that Elizabeth Warren announced she was dropping out of the race:

“I’m so heartbroken about Warren” 

“Yep, two old farts left!” 

Working in the field of women’s rights in New York, where organisations are often staffed predominantly by women, I had grown used to Warren pins on most lapels. I have long been a Sanders supporter, a position that has abruptly ended some of my conversations with other women who question Sanders’s — and by extension my — feminist credentials.

Yet I felt my friend’s grief as she turned to me from her screen and said, “You know, this is it. We’ll never see a woman as president.” In that moment, I couldn’t help but feel saddened. It is disheartening to see women drop out of races time and again. But to reduce Sanders to one of two “old, white men” obscured what fundamentally matters.

07 This is certainly true, to great extent. But, the response to Warren’s exit cannot simply be, “Sanders is sexist, voters are sexist, delegates are sexist, and everybody but me is sexist, so she lost,” and indeed, such an allegation against the working poor reeks of elitism, and is essentially a repackaged version of “the poor are so stupid, they vote against their own interests” or more dangerously, “you need to be college educated to be “woke”.

While Warren’s campaign animated many, it failed to find support from the working-class. Over the past few months, it has been interesting to hear from colleagues in the social sector that organisations’ leadership often preferred Warren, while the constituencies they work for preferred Sanders.

We saw this through the primary, where Warren votes came predominantly from white, college-educated voters, especially women. This difference is important. Bernie’s campaign outreach was non-traditional, with Spanish-language satellite caucuses and canvassing in mosques; it relied on activating disaffected communities that had been systematically disenfranchised by the US political system. Consider, in this moment, whose constituents have been revealed to be the most vulnerable in the crisis brought on by COVID-19 while others (myself included) work from home, complaining about cabin fever.

As the pandemic throws millions of women into unpaid care work, increased risk of violence, and restricted access to reproductive care, we should  consider the question posed recently by Nancy Fraser and Liza Featherstone: “What is the true meaning of feminism and of women’s equality?”

Are we, as women, fighting for an equal chance at oppressing everyone else like men with privilege and those in power? Is any woman in power a good role model?

Hillary Clinton certainly was not, for instance, and I would be hard-pressed to celebrate a woman president who’d go on to further neo-liberal, neo-imperialist policies against the world’s marginalised, just like the men before her. There is no denying the fact that Warren was a qualified candidate, and it’s what makes the loss of her candidacy, compared to Clinton’s, so devastating. I would have been happy, at some level, with a Warren victory, but the differences between Warren and Sanders are significant.

Above all: Sanders is the most feminist candidate. 

Warren vs. Sanders

There are two things I consider in a Warren versus Sanders analysis: their policy stances and their idea of change. On the first, their agendas generally appear similar and they are, for the most part. They both wish to eliminate college debt, make healthcare affordable, levy wealth taxes, and support universal childcare, all things that aid the feminist agenda.

Many wonder if it matters when Warren claims that she hopes to reform capitalism from within, primarily by rooting out corruption, while Sanders’s claim is an outright rejection of capitalism and all its intertwined evils, within the United States as well as the world.

As a woman from the global South, this is certainly a meaningful difference; I care first and foremost about the US’s continued exercise of power at the expense of black and brown bodies both within and beyond its borders. Sanders is the only candidate to acknowledge the United States as a military empire, condemn its history of war crimes, and decry US imperialism abroad. Warren, on the other hand, hews to the liberal line that despite some flaws, the US does significant good in the world. (Note, for example, her recent support for sanctions on Venezuela.)

A similar logic applies to the disagreements over the Green New Deal. Climate is an issue where the global south continues to pay for the crimes of wealthy industrial nations. Whether it is US militarism or role in creating climate catastrophes, the US President has global power; for those that care about advocating for those most left behind, prioritising this is paramount.

Second, along with the “what” or the list of the policy issues they aim to address, Warren and Sanders differ in the “how”: Sanders is generating movement activists who will not stop working once the election is over. Take, for example, the fact that his campaign raised $2 million for charities helping those most affected by the coronavirus outbreak crisis in less than 48 hours. Earlier in the year, Warren said, “This crisis demands more than a senator who has good ideas, but whose 30-year track record shows he consistently calls for things he fails to get done and consistently opposes things he nevertheless fails to stop.”

Elizabeth Warren. Photo: Reuters

What counts as an “achievement”? Yes, the Iraq war happened, but what to make of the fact that Sanders spent years fighting against it? Consider this very race: When Warren and others began campaigning in 2019, they entered a different terrain from that in 2016. Yes, Sanders lost the nomination in 2016, but his campaign paved the way for many of the policies, not the least, the crisis of the moment, healthcare, that Warren herself advocated to become the mainstream question.

Sanders had already done the work in moving the needle to the left for the 2020 race.

It certainly would be easier to score victories through compromise, a value often claimed in Warren’s favour. But to what end? Warren, who demonised the role of big money throughout her campaign, refused to denounce a major super-Pac ad buy on her behalf in early 2020. She openly supported Sanders’s plan for Medicare but, in response to voter unease, changed her stance on eliminating private insurance. 

Time and again, Sanders has shown that he does not give up on change for political wins.

He was in a minority in his opposition to the Patriot Act. He argued for a $15 minimum wage when his peers were just about wrapping their heads around $10. In the current moment, a complete rethinking of US society is possible, whether that is right to housing, basic income, or erasing student debt. Once dismissed as radical, these policies are well within 2020’s Overton Window and could be put in place to rescue millions from the pandemic that has always existed, starvation and deprivation.

All of this demonstrates Bernie Sanders’ approach to change, to transform the very landscapes in which policy debates occur. It’s not easy to be the only person in the room raising questions of justice. Indeed, it is often easier to compromise, and many of us, women and people of color, have often found ourselves in this position (if we’ve been allowed in these rooms in the first place). 

How I wish Warren and her supporters would have endorsed Sanders, if only to prevent Biden, the Democratic candidate for the nomination with sexual harassment allegations against him, win the nomination.

I want a leader who I can trust, as President, to stay true to his principles and fight until the end for it. And surely, as President, Sanders was less likely to be stifled than he was as a Senator.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put succinctly, “Reality has endorsed Bernie Sanders.”

I wish the rest of us could have followed.

Could Warren have been different?

Still, I wonder the extent to which I am asking the impossible of Warren. A good friend remarked to me: “I’m not so sure that a woman could have run with Bernie’s campaign. A woman, and especially a non-white woman, with Bernie’s agenda and campaign strategy might never have gotten as far.”

Over the coming months, pundits will surely point to the nebulous nature of Warren’s campaign in its post-mortem, suggesting that she did not carve out a sufficiently original space for herself. This is where I wonder whether Warren could realistically have held her ground, whichever direction you think she ought to have moved.

Two hypotheticals present themselves here: As an avowed capitalist, she is indeed different from Sanders in her approach. This is a position she articulated clearly in the early days of her campaign. But she later aligned herself more and more with Sanders. Why?

Did the Sanders campaign not leave her enough space to build a distinct identity? The converse, also hypothetical, is to ask whether Warren could have been more like Sanders? As radical? I don’t believe this reflected her ideology, but even if it did, how difficult would it have been for a woman to run with such a campaign?

Much of Sanders’ campaign has been shaped by an ideology of anger (something I believe is a powerful source and manifestation of resistance, but also something for which he has been heavily criticised).

He has been accused of being loud and angry; the same accusations, when levelled against Warren, have been much more damaging. To what extent are angry women acceptable in US politics? And, importantly, how much of Warren’s tempering had to do with her being a woman? 

Vox journalist Sean Illing puts this eloquently in an interview with  Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne, asking:

“There’s a tension here that I find difficult to navigate. How do we acknowledge the reality that sexism exists and that women face an enormous electoral disadvantage, at least in some circumstances, while at the same time fighting against it effectively?” 

What about representation?

Hillary Clinton recently pointed to “Bernie Bros” to make the argument that Sanders himself has made it hard for women to thrive in politics.

But to reduce the Sanders movement to a few angry, white men (a group that Sanders has repeatedly condemned) does a disservice to the very women the gender equality field seeks to support. The demographic diversity of Sanders’ supporters reflects a different reality than the Bernie Bros narrative would have us believe, with more women than men, supporting and donating to his campaign consistently.

Women of color have built the movement since its inception in 2016. The phenomenon of some white men taking up far too much space is one we’re all familiar with, especially on Twitter.  To call Sanders just another white man is both thoughtless and also a refusal to see him as Jewish and acknowledge the anti-Semitism that he has encountered in running to be the US’s first Jewish president (the last few weeks of his campaign saw a man waving a Nazi flag chanting “Heil Hitler” at a rally).

Democratic US presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the 11th Democratic candidates debate, held in CNN’s Washington studios without an audience because of the global coronavirus pandemic, March 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Warren’s rallies, with endless selfie lines filled with young women and pinkie swears promising little girls they can grow up to become president, were some of the most meaningful and heart-warming moments of her campaign. With Warren dropping out, we have lost our chance at making “Madam President” a household chant in this election, but this does not mean a loss for all women in politics, and certainly not a loss for women’s access to power. Consider the fact that Sanders’ is the first major campaign to be unionized and have a union contract that addresses discrimination and pay equity, and workplace harassment. Imagine the effect such policies would have on women’s political participation when implemented across government and public offices. Under-representation of women in governments must be articulated in the language of rights, and the systematic neglect of the experiences of half the population is key to this. But touting representation as the only solution rests on a disturbing premise: that in this world, we will never be able to understand, empathize with, and fight for those whose experiences differ from our own. Instead, I want to return to Frazer and Featherstone’s definition of feminism as “gender equality within a society organized for the benefit of the 99 percent,” – articulated in Sanders’s agenda.

Yes, it would have been glorious to have a woman President, setting the stage for girls and women worldwide. But, an openly socialist President in the United States Presidency would have been historic. We grieved Warren by reducing Sanders and Biden to a race between men.

The primary was always going to be a test of how ambitious US voters are willing to be in their hope for change. And now, the Presidential election is a race to the bottom.

Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla is a feminist advocate from New York and a graduate of Princeton University. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.