Bernie Sanders returned to his roots Saturday to deliver a campaign launch speech in his hometown, Brooklyn. Notwithstanding the cold and snow, a healthy crowd arrived to hear the most famous socialist man in America. The Vermont senator is the first Democrat to announce a 2020 candidacy who has run a presidential campaign before. Judging from this speech, his pitch to the American voters will look a lot like it did in 2016.
From the very top, familiar refrains abounded: “We will no longer stand idly by and allow 3 people in this country to own more wealth than the bottom half of America while, at the same time, over 20 percent of our children live in poverty, veterans sleep out on the streets and seniors cannot afford their prescription drugs. We will no longer accept 46 percent of all new income going to the top 1 percent, while millions of Americans are forced to work 2 or 3 jobs just to survive.”
Sticking with same messaging from last time makes sense for a few reasons. First of all, the Democratic Party has moved strongly to the left since Sanders lost his race against Hillary Clinton. Frankly, compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and the extreme abortion laws in New York and Virginia, he almost looks like the moderate, at least for now.
It also makes sense that he might avoid trying to tack farther left, because his progressive base is not quite the same as the base supporting Ocasio-Cortez and her new wing of Democrats. In 2016, when I was covering the New Hampshire primary my biggest surprise was how many people told me they were on the fence between Donald Trump and Sanders. It seemed crazy, but it wasn’t, and as the Bernie Bros proved, they weren’t very sympathetic to claims of their misogyny and racism.
Indeed, the one thing clearly missing in Sanders’ meandering speech is any serious nod to identity politics. Early on he said, “The underlying principles of our government will not be greed, hatred and lies. It will not be racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious bigotry.”
Then later: “Donald Trump wants to divide us up by the color of our skin, our country of origin, our gender, our religion and our sexual orientation. We are going to do exactly the opposite. We are going to bring our people together – black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian American, gay and straight, young and old, men and women, native born and immigrant.”
Finally, he added, “We will address the racial disparities of wealth and income. We are going to root out institutional racism wherever it exists.”
Frankly, by today’s progressive standards this is pretty milquetoast stuff. Kamala Harris has regularly talked about systemic racism (very different from institutional racism), something Bernie didn’t quite address. Both Harris and Booker have come out for reparations for slavery, something Sanders does not mention.
Bernie got in some hot water in 2015 when he ran afoul of Black Lives Matter. At the time, Dara Lind of Vox wrote that “Identity based progressivism is ascendant in American culture, but economics are still the heart of progressive politics.”
Sanders is hoping that this is correct and still the case. It may be. Those New Hampshire voters I spoke to probably don’t want to hear about their white privilege. But there is a real danger in not at least paying lip service to these progressive identity shibboleths, especially if Sanders is once again confronted with more protesters. His “Cosby Show”-era take on race relations is not likely to appease them.
It is not inconceivable that identity politics has become so central to Democratic politics and punditry that socialist Sanders could find himself in the moderate lane with candidates like Amy Klobuchar and potentially Joe Biden. After all, at a time Democratic messaging is centered on absurd ideas like essentially ending personal cars and air travel, Sanders’ vague socialism and Occupy Wall Street slogans sound kind of quaint.
As Sanders begins his new campaign, which looks a lot like his old campaign, its useful to think about how that one ended. On the hot streets of Philadelphia, angry Bernie supporters protested the Democratic National Convention. Trump supporters weren’t the only ones saying “Lock her up” in the summer of 2016.
In that case, there was credible evidence that the DNC had put its thumb on the scale for Clinton, but it was more than that. It was frustration with the party itself and a feeling that their voices were not being heard. If Sanders doesn’t win, whoever does needs to keep his voters happy, and that might not be easy, even if a leftist takes the nomination.
A Democratic Party in which Sanders is a moderate without having moving an inch to the right since 2016 is startling. That socialism is the center in the Democratic Party is equally astounding. But as Bernie Sanders kicked off his campaign in Kings County, It sure looked like the reality.