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Bernie Sanders wants the future of the far left to be female. Is that enough?

January 30, 2020, 1:07 PM UTC

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) says that he wants to ensure that the future leaders of democratic socialism in the U.S. are women and people of color, and he says he’s building a coalition to boost those voices. But the question remains: Does it matter if the leader of such a coalition is a white man?

As the 2020 primary campaign veers into election season, the topic of likability, this time framed as electability, has once again reared its head, and the presidential front-runner has made clear that he believes there is only one way to beat President Donald Trump in the general election: coalition building through class politics instead of identity politics.

Still, Sanders has attempted to frame his operation as a movement that doesn’t focus solely on himself. Sure, he’s a white man, but, he argues, he’s also championing the voices of minorities around him and aiming to leave the future of the far left more female and more representative of American demographics.

Last year, Sanders began aggressively rolling out the new slogan, “Not me. Us.” He explained that he believed President Trump was attempting to divide Americans based on religion, sexuality, and the color of their skin.

While acting as a surrogate (an unpaid politician, celebrity, or person of influence who stands in for a candidate on the campaign trail) for Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), told a crowd that “it wasn’t until I heard of a man by the name of Bernie Sanders that I began to question and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being.”

Sanders has made a habit of surrounding himself with young women of color and using them as his personal advocates, partially to make up for his own lack of diversity and partially because he wants to make sure that the next generation of progressive leadership looks less like an Eagle Scout reunion. 

“Look, he’s a 78-year-old white man who has lived for the past 50 years in Vermont, that’s just who he is,” says Linda Sarsour, a Muslim-American activist and cofounder of the Women’s March who also serves as a surrogate for Sanders’ 2020 campaign. “But I think over the past few years, Bernie has really been very intentional about the types of people who are given platforms in his campaign; he wants to give voices to people on the margins.” 

But when voters think about whom they will vote for, they don’t think about long-term leadership plans, says Kelly Dittmar, professor of political science at Rutgers University and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. They think about the name at the top of the ticket, and the gender and race of that person.

“Sometimes it’s too easy for white men to say identity politics don’t matter,” she says. “To act as if being a white man hasn’t brought advantages to you in politics is counter to the facts. To deride or push aside identity politics, she claims, is often just an excuse to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.

Campaign surrogates for Sanders say that identity politics—when deployed in too simplistic a way—could undercut the senator’s more nuanced approach to tackling inequality. They argue that Sanders has long pushed to ensure that the future of his party is female, and has propelled those voices over the past few years. 

“We have to be careful not to give in to simplistic identity politics that say it’s only good for women of color if we have someone who shares that identity in the White House or even just shares that identity of being a woman like Senator Warren,” says New York State Democratic senator and Bernie Sanders campaign surrogate, 29-year-old Julia Salazar. “We need to recognize that it’s more important to have a candidate who represents our social and economic interests and a candidate who really brings in the leadership of people who look like us and have our experience.” 

Sanders recently found himself embroiled in an argument with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the subject. Warren accused Sanders this month of telling her privately that a woman could not win the presidency; Sanders denies the claim.

As the 2020 presidential field becomes increasingly old, white, and male, both Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the only female candidates left in the race, have fallen behind in polling. Sanders, meanwhile, has ascended in the ranks alongside his white male colleagues former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

Warren’s accusations against Sanders are particularly damaging as they strike a chord with those who are still sore over his run against Hillary Clinton in 2016—recalling the multiple accusations made by female staffers on Sanders’ campaign who claimed they were severely mistreated by senior staff. For his part, Sanders has apologized and met with some of those women. He called the controversy “personally humiliating,” “embarrassing,” and “disgusting.”

After claims of sexual harassment fell upon his 2016 campaign, Sanders released a 16-page document outlining how he planned to fix the issue. That included an anonymous tip line and a public pay scale. His campaign unionized in March, further addressing the divide in pay.

The Sanders team has also placed women and people of color in key decision-making roles in his 2020 presidential campaign. His current staff is 71% female and majority nonwhite. Joe Biden, in comparison, has claimed that his staff is the most diverse in the field, but has refused to release any actual numbers to back those claims. Elizabeth Warren’s team says about 40% of their full-time staff are people of color, and 60% of full-time staff are “female, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming.”

“Let me go through it right now: Campaign manager in Iowa is a woman. Campaign manager in Nevada is a woman,” Sanders told the New York Times editorial board in his endorsement interview. “Campaign manager in New Hampshire’s not a woman. Campaign manager in South Carolina is African-American guy. Campaign manager in California is a woman.”

But state campaign managers aren’t the face of Bernie Sanders 2020—and they’re not what people envision when they go to the ballot box. 

The argument between Sanders and Warren centers on electability. From the Democratic debate stage in Iowa this December, Warren asked the audience, “So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage,” she answered. “Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are women.” 

From that perspective, Sanders, a white male, is at a disadvantage.

Last week, Sanders’ 2016 competitor and longtime Senate colleague Hillary Clinton weighed in on the culture in his campaign, describing it as toxic in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

“It’s his leadership team. It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women. And I really hope people are paying attention to that because it should be worrisome that he has permitted this culture—not only permitted, [he] seems to really be very much supporting it,” Clinton said in the interview to promote Hillary, her forthcoming four-part Hulu docuseries. 

“That’s particularly true with what’s going on right now with the Bernie campaign having gone after Elizabeth with a very personal attack on her,” Clinton continued. “Then this argument about whether or not or when he did or didn’t say that a woman couldn’t be elected, it’s part of a pattern. If it were a one-off, you might say, ‘Okay, fine.’ But he said I was unqualified … I just think people need to pay attention because we want, hopefully, to elect a President who’s going to try to bring us together, and not either turn a blind eye, or actually reward the kind of insulting, attacking, demeaning, degrading behavior that we’ve seen from this current administration.”

Sarsour points out that it’s a “crazy thing” for a woman of color to say “some old white man taught her what she’s worth,” but that Sanders often empowers underrepresented Americans to “realize that the things we’re asking for are things we deserve.” There would be no Ocasio-Cortez or congresswomen Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) without Sanders, she says. 

Sarsour recalls a moment after a Sanders and Clinton debate where she was sent to the spin room to speak with the press. Advocating on behalf of Hillary Clinton were names like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). The spin room is a dizzying media spread that requires well-trained advocates to represent candidates to the press, quickly answer difficult questions, and explain why they should be credited as winning the debate.

“Bernie Sanders had me, he had Ben Jealous, the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he had Erika Andiola, who is an undocumented community organizer,” she says. “These are the people he wants to represent him.” 

He has the numbers to back his claims: Of all the potential 2020 candidates, Sanders has brought in the most money from women, with $17.1 million in itemized contributions or 40% of his total funds thus far. A recent Vice News/Ipsos poll found that 56% of black voters said they would possibly vote for Sanders in the general election, compared with 54% who said they would possibly vote for Joe Biden, who is considered the front-runner with that demographic. Sanders is also by far the most popular candidate with young black voters

Councilwoman Tara Samples of Akron, a Sanders campaign surrogate and longtime civil rights activist, says she’s drawn to Sanders’ long and consistent record of fighting for equality.

“I’m influenced by the people I see around him,” Samples says. “It’s important in this kind of political environment to have the support of what appears to me a sincere white male … And he’s been on the line, the same kind of line I’ve been fighting for, and he wasn’t afraid back then, that means a lot.” 

But the latest field poll in Iowa has Sanders holding a steady lead among male voters and tied with Buttigieg and Biden among female voters. The Sanders campaign clearly senses the lack of support: Last week they released a television ad in Iowa and New Hampshire that spoke directly to women.

“Bernie Sanders is on our side and always has been,” a female narrator says before Sanders adds that “women do not need 80 cents on the dollar. They need the whole damn dollar.”

Campaign surrogacy, says Dittmar, doesn’t always work when it comes to courting female votes.

“One doesn’t substitute the other … There’s a symbolic importance because we need to see what presidential leadership can look like,” she says. And even if Sanders claims he’s starting a movement of many, “at the end of the day, the candidate is the ultimate decision-maker. They decide what’s important and how they relate to voters. Surrogacy is different than having the candidate themselves share those perspectives and experiences in a first-person way.”

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