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Is Hillary Clinton Tone-Policing Bernie Sanders?

Inside Hillary Clinton’s attempts to exploit the power differential between these…two old white U.S. senators.


Bernie Sanders is coming into the New York primary with the wind at his back, having handily won three states over the weekend, but Hillary Clinton’s camp is telling him to back down.

Sanders still trails in the super-delegate count, but a sweep of Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii with commanding 70-plus percentages has the improbably ascendant Brooklyn native barnstorming into his old back yard. New York is a delegate-rich prize for the candidates, both of whom claim it as home.

Sanders pushed Clinton to agree to a debate in the Empire State, but a Clinton strategist’s answer on CNN Monday was cagey and conditional.

“This is a man who said he’d never run a negative ad ever,” Clinton’s chief strategist Joel Benenson said. “He’s now running them. They’re planning to run more. Let’s see the tone of the campaign he wants to run before we get to any other questions.”

“Let’s see if he goes back to the kind of tone he said he was going to set early on. If he does that, then we’ll talk about debates,” he continued.

Benenson was responding to a Washington Post report Sanders is polling new lines of attack—or contrast, as they say—on Clinton, but some in the Democratic base hear something different.

The hashtag #ToneDownforWhat trended Monday, collecting more than 100,000 incensed reactions of Democratic voters and Sanders supporters who think Clinton is “tone-policing” Bernie. Tone policing is a term used in the social justice warrior set for a “silencing” tactic the privileged use on the oppressed. A tone-policing exchange might go something like this:

Campus Feminist: I am pretty darn fired up about the lack of sculpture from a feminist perspective in the student union. It makes me want to smash things.

Campus Bro: Hey, let’s keep it calm so we can have a productive conversation. You’d catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar.

Or, as a Social Justice wiki puts it, more bluntly:

Person A: “Die cis scum!”

Person B: “I agree that cis privilege exists but I don’t like the implication of violence.”

If you think it sounds rather reasonable to suggest “Die cis scum” is a little much for a back-and-forth about social injustice, you are part of the problem. The idea is that tone policing distracts from the arguments of the oppressed by misdirecting with an argument about tone. Politeness is a privilege, the theory goes, not afforded those who are righteously angry about cis privilege and the dearth of feminist sculpture.

At its best, calling out tone policing protects from concern trolls who want to shut down a viewpoint by declaring it overemotional or upsetting. At its worst, it creates free rein for those categorized as historically oppressed to silence others simply because they are white or male or straight. Those who complain about tone policing often police with the best of them when demanding “civility” from anyone right of center.

This brings us back to Sanders, who has raised Hillary’s hackles with the mild Bern of his social justice-y rhetoric.

He has come at her with sick Berns like this: “Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the Secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!… Enough of the emails, let’s talk about the real issues facing America!”

And this: “In my view, Sec. Clinton, Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress.”

He has even declared her answers on Wall Street donations—gasp!— “not good enough.”

He once ran an ad that didn’t mention Hillary’s name but nonetheless “outraged” her camp.

Sanders supporters raged against Clinton’s attempts to exploit the power differential between these…two old white U.S. senators.

A few of the tweets would be hard to distinguish from the RNC’s lines of attack on Clinton.

She’s got a point. This is pretty rough stuff.

Clinton, as always, has a keen plan for combating the grassroots appeal of Sanders:

We’re supposed to think “senator” is the better of these two options.