Bernie Sanders is discovering that it’s a big old world out there, now that he’s ventured far beyond the friendly borders of Vermont. The more he’s taken seriously as a candidate, the more scrutiny he’s starting to receive. Much of it, to this point, from the left; the right and the mainstream media don’t yet see him as a serious contender worthy of scrutiny.
The leftist critique includes a very close examination of his feminist credentials in a four-part blogpost on Shakesville, a progressive feminist blog.
Then there was his appearance at the Netroots Nation conference last Saturday, when he was confronted by activists protesting police violence against black people. And honestly, he handled it with all the grace you’d expect from an old guy who’s been talking from the same script for years.
Before he took the stage, fellow Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley’s own appearance had been disrupted by the protesters. (O’M handled it worse than Bernie did, but he’s gotten less attention because he’s doing so badly in the polls.) And then:
When Sanders approached the stage a moment later, the demonstrators continued. The candidate, a favorite of Netroots Nation, threatened to leave if they continued to interrupt him.
“Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” he said. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”
Sanders proceeded to deliver his usual presidential stump speech over sporadic shouting from below.
“Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!”
Good old Bernie has run into a couple of hard realities:
— What was progressive in 1969 does not necessarily qualify in 2015.
— If there’s one thing the left is good at, it’s circular firing squads.
Many years ago I had the opportunity to interview Allen Ginsberg, poet/activist/shitkicker/publicist for the Beat Generation. He was supremely gifted as a publicist for his literary movement. That’s not a bad thing; many artists are also salespeople for what they create. (Ask me about Robert Fripp.) There was a lot to like about Ginsberg, his thoughtfulness, his energy, his insight. But one negative stuck with me: he tried to claim that the Beats inspired everything that followed, including the feminist movement.
Which is pure hogwash. The Beats were deeply misogynist, as were many of the Sixties’ most prominent figures. Bernie Sanders is a creature of his time; he sees social inequality first and foremost as an economic problem. Those who’ve been on the short end of sexism, racism, and gender identity discrimination know better, and Bernie’s words rang hollow.
And it took him a good couple of days to recalibrate. After which he sent out a burst of Tweets about Sandra Bland. Righteous, but also kind of overcompensating.
If Bernie’s going to survive the rough and tumble of this endless campaign, he’ll have to become much more nimble in public forums, be they debates, Q&A’s, or speeches interrupted by protesters. It’s likely that he will face more confrontations from left-wing groups who are quick to form Purity Patrols whenever one of their own doesn’t seem quite radical enough.
The Shakesville piece, a longform essay in four substantial parts, explores Sanders’ rather checkered past with regard to gender issues. No more checkered than anyone of his generation, I suspect, but there’s some uncomfortable stuff. The essayist, writing under the pen name Aphra Behn, explores Sanders’ writings from the 1970s. We’ve heard more than enough about that one infamous piece, but she reads further and finds a pattern:
The essays certainly touch on gender issues, but most often as related to broader themes of liberation, including sexual. Sometimes, yes, they are downright creepy. In every case, they seem to reflect a Sanders who cares about equality generally, but hadn’t engaged with feminism, or considered his male privilege, at all.
Want some o’ that creepy? Try this:
“The revolution comes when two strangers smile at each other. …when a commune is started and people start to trust one another, when a young man refuses to go to war and when a girl pushes aside all that her mother has ‘taught’ her and accepts her boyfriends [sic] love.”
Eeeeww. Behn has plenty of excerpts like that, but I’ll let you click on over if you want more.
She also unearths an instructive bit from Sanders’ own campaign diary from 1972, which could go a long way toward explaining his current difficulties in broadening his appeal beyond the affluent, college-educated precincts of liberalism:
He couldn’t understand that women working their fingers to the bone would be less than enthusiastic about reading a political leaflet. Nor could he see that Dr. Spock was a polarizing figure at the time — and not necessarily a hero to women for his child-rearing ideas, which haven’t aged all that well.
—Went through a factory in Bennington with endless rows of middle-aged to elderly women sitting behind sewing machines. Horrible. “Excuse me, I’m Bernard Sanders, Liberty Union candidate for governor. Have you heard of Liberty Union? Well, if you get a chance I’d appreciate it if you read this.” And out goes the leaflet. A very deadly place. Barely made it through. As I left I heard a few women making snickering comments about Dr. Spock running for president. [ed: Spock ran on the Progressive Party ticked and was supported by Liberty Union in Vermont.] And I thought everybody liked Dr. Spock. I knew I wouldn’t get one vote from that place.
Behn also cites dismissive remarks made by Sanders about female politicians, who were fighting against very strong headwinds in the 70s and 80s. He saw no relevance to their gender — as a game-changing fact in a male-dominated world, as a symbol to all women, and as bearers of firsthand insight into the challenges of being a woman at the time. In mounting an independent candidacy for Governor in 1986, he called incumbent Democrat Madeleine Kunin and Republican Peter Smith “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” in spite of Kunin’s accomplishments and her status as a political pioneer.
And he claimed he was better on women’s issues than Kunin. Of course, he framed women’s issues in predominantly economic terms, as if women’s struggles were no different than those of any disadvantaged male.
All this could be dismissed as water under the bridge, happened long ago, Bernie’s learned a lot, except…
— There’s so damn much of it. A lot more than that one essay that’s gotten a lot of play in the media.
— There are strong echoes of his past in that Netroots performance: the self-contained, rather entitled smart guy mansplaining to a crowd of women and minorities.
Which is not to say that Bernie Sanders is a phony or a turncoat. Nobody’s perfect, and Behn acknowledges that overall, he’s got a very strong progressive record. But this is the kind of thorough scrutiny he’ll face from the left. And he’ll have to have better answers than he did at Netroots.
At the same time, he can’t abandon the message that’s won him so much support and enthusiasm. If anything, he’ll have to find ways to connect with voters who haven’t already Felt The Bern, even as eagle-eyed lefties are on the lookout for any signs of compromise.
Trouble is, Bernie Sanders has many fine qualities, but being light on his feet is not one of them. We’re in the early stages of a long, long, Oh Lord Please Deliver Us looooong campaign. Will we see more Berniementum, or will we get to a point of Bernout?