#Blacklivesmatter and Sen. Sanders: social democracy and identity politics

(Winston-Salem) Last weekend, #BlackLivesMatter activists disrupted a forum with Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders at Netroots Nation. An objection to Gov. O’Malley was that he oversaw the State of Maryland while it incarcerated many thousands of young Black people. That was a pretty standard case of holding a leader accountable for his performance, and the governor’s response was terrible.

The critique of Sen. Sanders was more interesting, and I would love to see a real dialogue between the activists and Sanders–rather than what sounds like a dismissive response on his part. Without wanting to stereotype any individual, I would propose that Sanders and #Blacklivesmatter represent two wings of the American left that are genuinely different and that need more conversation. (See also “Why doesn’t Bernie Sanders talk about race” and “#BernieSoBlack: Why progressives are fighting about Bernie Sanders and race,” both in Vox.)

Consider two simplified ideological positions. One can be called classical social democracy. It holds that the root cause of social injustice is the economic and political power of capital, referring to the companies and individuals who control large economic investments. They represent a small slice of the population. The Occupy Movement asserted that the economic oppressors were 1% of Americans; and while that claim rested on some recent data about wealth distributions in the US, it has always been the case that capitalists are outnumbered by something like 99-to-1.

The classical democratic socialist view is that other problems follow from the power of concentrated capital. For instance, as I have argued, a situation like police violence in Ferguson, MO can be interpreted as a result of massive deindustrialization (the loss of hundreds of thousands of unionized blue-collar jobs in that region), which rendered young men without college degrees very economically weak, which has enabled violent abuse. So—argues the classical democratic socialist—it should be everyone’s priority to reduce the economic and political power of big capital. That means financial reform, antitrust, tax reform, and campaign finance reform to get capital out of politics.

Dara Lind writes:

When my colleague Andrew Prokop profiled Sanders last year, he pointed out astutely that Sanders’s career has been ‘laser-focused on checking the power of the wealthy above all else.’ Sanders believes in racial equality, sure, but he believes it will only come as the result of economic equality. To him, focusing on racial issues first is merely treating the symptom, not the disease.

Meanwhile, the political strategy of classic democratic socialists is to build very broad solidarity. Ninety-nine percent of us are not big capitalists, so we are in basically the same boat and should not allow ourselves to be divided. For instance, police officers are blue-collar or lower-income white-collar unionized state employees who need to be brought into the same coalition with unemployed youth.

The second view—I struggle to name it fairly—takes seriously many other sources of power, privilege, and domination. According to this view, we are not divided between the 99% and the 1%, but into a rainbow of racial/ethnic groups, genders, sexual identities, etc. Oppression is manifold and complex, and often “intersectional” in the sense that race, gender, sexual orientation, and class can overlap. Although it may be valuable to reform capital markets, that is neither sufficient nor the central concern. Power must be confronted directly in all of its forms and settings.

I suspect that neither Senator Sanders nor the #Blacklivesmatter activists at Netroots Nation would want to be placed simply in one of those two boxes. Every serious person develops more complex views in the course of struggling with difficult realities. But these are two general tendencies and they do explain, for instance, why the demographics of an #Occupy gathering or a Bernie Sanders rally are so different from the demographics of a #Blacklivesmatter protest.

For my part: I am not a democratic socialist, for two reasons. First, I am somewhat more enthusiastic about markets, individual economic liberties, and pluralism than a classical (statist) socialist would be. Secondly, I am somewhat persuaded by the second position summarized above and do not believe that concentrated capital is our only problem.

But I do worry a lot about concentrated, unregulated capital and doubt that much can be accomplished on other fronts if we don’t address that. I observe that concerns about race, gender, and sexual orientation have produced scattered victories over the past 30 years, not only in national politics (e.g., marriage equality) but also within institutions like corporations and universities. Meanwhile, the traditional democratic socialist agenda has been in steady retreat for the same 30 years, sometimes verging on a disorganized rout. National and global policies are more neoliberal and less economically egalitarian than at any time since the 1920s.

Younger people on the left typically have a lot to say about issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. They have diagnoses, solutions, heroes, and movements they can join. But most struggle for comparable ideas about reforming the global political economy, if they think about that at all. Despite the terrible injustices that motivate movements like #Blacklivesmatter, there is some sense of momentum toward policy changes, such as sentencing reform. We see nothing comparable when it comes to global capital markets. Thus I am glad to see the voices of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren resonating with at least some Americans.

I wish Sanders had taken the #Blacklivesmatter protesters seriously, because they deserve that, and the progressive movement needs their support to win. Yet I’d prefer that Sanders stuck to his position in a respectful debate, so that his side of the argument would convey. He is not going to be president; his contribution may be to put a different diagnosis and solutions on the table. The last thing I’d do is to silence #Blacklivesmatter protesters, but I wish that they and the Senator could have a substantive debate, in which both sides laid out some of these genuine points of disagreement.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Shakira A. Ali

    Great article! I want to share a few thoughts …

    First – I hope you won’t dismiss out of hand, the thought that Sen. Sanders won’t be POTUS. I issued the same caveat to many of my friends, when a Sen. Obama was called into the race for the WH.

    Second, I watched and certainly accepted comments that Sen. Sanders made after the Netroots Nation interaction with the #BlackLivesMatter activists. He had been invited, and came prepared to discuss the question of immigration. He felt a bit ambushed by the conversation about race. And – he was sorry that he didn’t provide a more substantive response in the moment.

    That said, while I as a Black American Muslim woman, am COMPLETELY committed to the #BlackLivesMatter cause (how could I be otherwise), I am also equally committed to the idea that Bernie Sanders’ position on economic equity and balanced income is absolutely paramount to having Black Lives, and all other American lives, achieve “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

    As far as I can tell, the ONLY reason that I am living in this country, speaking English with an American regional dialect, is due to the economic interests of early European settlers and colonialists. But for their desire for cheap, subservient and ongoingly-replenished labor, I would likely never have been here at all. In fact, I might be thriving in whatever West African community from which my ancestors were stolen and sold.

    So – YES – I agree that there must be a “meeting of minds” between Bernie Sanders / Elizabeth Warren / #Occupy supporters and activists, and #BlackLivesMatter activists and supporters. We’re all the same folks, in the end.

    Thanks again, for your thoughtful reflections.

    • PeterLevine

      This is a wonderful, thought-provoking, rich comment–thanks!