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Sanders' candidacy reveals Democrats' schism

Some on the left focus on class and economic inequality. And others prioritize race and identity.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), speaks at a news

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 30. Photo Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

I’m old enough to remember a time when an independent secular Jewish socialist with a long record of support for communist regimes would be considered a force for diversity in a field of Democratic candidates. Think back to when the likes of Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore and other white men vied for the Democratic presidential nod. If you threw a Bernie Sanders into that mix, you might have been forgiven for saying, “One of these is not like the others.”

Not anymore.

Sanders, the aforementioned socialist, announced he’s running for president again.

In an interview with Vermont Public Radio, Sanders was asked how he would compete in such a diverse field.

“We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age,” Sanders replied. “I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a non-discriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.”

The reaction from many quarters of the liberal establishment was fit for a Tom Wolfe novel. The LGBT magazine Out ran the sardonic headline, “Bernie Sanders Bravely Asks Us to Consider a Straight President.”

Stephen Colbert, a middle-aged white guy whose TV show is a mandatory stop in the Democratic primaries, did a Sanders impersonation, saying, “Yes, like Dr. King, I have a dream — a dream where this diverse nation can come together and be led by an old white guy.”

This is amazing.

For generations there’s been a schism on the left between those who argue that class and economic equality should be the dominant prism for social and political reformers and those who say race and identity should be the primary consideration. It can be traced to the fascinating history of American socialists and communists taking the lead on civil rights in the 1930s and 1940s, when mainstream parties turned a blind eye to Jim Crow.

It’s a complicated story, but it’s worth acknowledging both the real moral leadership on these questions by many on the left and the fact that much of it was driven by the useful idiocy of American leftists who bought into Soviet and Marxist propaganda. The socialist intellectual Sidney Hook once praised the Soviet Union for its “progressive elimination of national, cultural and racial hostilities among its heterogeneous peoples,” which had been achieved “voluntary participation in a socialist economy.” He later recognized that this was nonsense.

Regardless, the idea of colorblindness has a rich and noble pedigree on the American left, most famously articulated by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his March on Washington speech, which Sanders attended.

But suddenly, Sanders’ political radicalism is eclipsed by his whiteness and maleness. This is partly because so much of the Democratic Party has adopted his policy positions, he no longer stands out the way he did just two years ago. Still, it’s a remarkable change, made all the more remarkable because it’s mostly an elite liberal phenomenon.

There’s little evidence that average Democrats, including minorities, care as much about the demands of wokeness as the liberal talking heads on TV claim. For instance, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the face of the socialist, ethnically diverse Democratic Party, owes her upset win not so much to allegedly socialism-craving people of color but to more affluent white liberals. As Politico’s David Freedlander noted, Joseph Crowley, the old white male Ocasio-Cortez defeated in the primary, did well with blacks and Latinos, whom Crowley had served ably for years, while Ocasio-Cortez’s best margins came from “highly educated, whiter and richer” precincts that could afford to virtue-signal at the ballot box.

If that pattern holds, the forces of class over identity may not be as defeated as it once seemed.

Jonah Goldberg is a columnist with Tribune News Service.

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