Bernie Sanders Is Hurting Himself by Playing the Victim

Bernie Sanders Is Hurting Himself by Playing the Victim

Bernie Sanders Is Hurting Himself by Playing the Victim

The Vermont senator could turn from movement leader into the messiah of an angry white male cult with his claims of a “rigged” nomination process.


It’s been five days since the conflagration at the Nevada State Democratic Convention, and the embers are still burning. Much of it has singed Senator Bernie Sanders. The intimidation of speakers and the misogynist death threats against party chair Roberta Lange have led to a wave of critical pieces by Bernie supporters—some of them now former Bernie supporters. Sanders’s loyal CNN backer Sally Kohn wrote in Time: “I Felt the Bern But the Bros Are Extinguishing the Flames.” Esquire’s Charles Pierce, who voted for Sanders, weighed in Tuesday: “It’s Time for Bernie’s People to Calm Down.” Sanders supporter Harold Meyerson now insists, “The Bros Are Undermining Bernie.”

In the pages of the Sanders fanzine Salon (for which I used to work), at least two Bernie supporters have written that it’s over: For them, the mayhem in Las Vegas has doused the burn. Even on Sanders-friendly Reddit, former Berners were leaving the fold. Much of the media has reacted with shock to the Nevada chaos, and Sanders surrogates have faced tougher grilling on cable news than they have for the entire campaign.

But the Sanders camp is defiant, with the senator himself condemning the threats and reports of violence, but—and you never add “but” to a sentence that’s condemning threatening behavior—insisting party leaders had it coming, because convention rules were less than fair or “transparent.” Sanders has continued to rip the Democratic Party for unfairness, and his supporters are now telling reporters there will be trouble at the convention in Philadelphia over the “rigged” primary process.

“When you lose a fair fight, then you’re sad and disappointed. When you lose a rigged fight, then you’re angry and you hit the streets,” Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of the liberal group Democracy for America, told MSNBC. He predicted “disruption” in Philadelphia, and then he went off a cliff: “I think a little bit of disruption is exciting. That’s democracy,” Chamberlain said. “The reality is without that, all you have is boring parliamentary procedure and everyone falls asleep. So I think it’s exciting and it’s actually healthy.” “Disrupting” a party convention because parliamentary procedure is “boring” seems the height of entitlement.

Let me stipulate that the “Democratic establishment” isn’t blameless in this mess. I understand the anger and even fear of Nevada Democrats, but the local party’s letter to the DNC charging that there’s “a penchant for violence” in the Sanders campaign was histrionic and only escalated the conflict. I get it: After Clinton supporters were forced to walk a gauntlet of shame in East Los Angeles, screamed at by angry Sandernistas with bullhorns who even bullied children; after protesters crowded Clinton’s car on the way to a fundraiser; and now, after Nevada, there is growing concern about an apparent mob mentality that can cross the line into physical harassment, if not violence. But describing “a penchant for violence” is unfair to the many millions of peaceful, respectful Sanders supporters.

With hindsight, I wish chair Roberta Lange had used her discretion to call for roll-call votes on the contested issues—although it’s common in meetings like that for a chair to use her judgment in evaluating a voice vote, when one side clearly has the edge in numbers, but is out-shouted by the smaller contingent. And once again, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz escalated a conflict that she should have worked to defuse. Repeatedly accused of unfairness by the Sanders campaign—not always with clear evidence—she has time and again replied harshly and defensively to her critics. When the Sanders campaign sued the DNC in December for briefly locking it out of a party voter file—because Sanders staffers, who were quickly fired, tried to steal private Clinton voter data during a security breach—Wasserman Schultz took the lead in defending herself. Even Governor Howard Dean, a former DNC chair who normally defends his successor in public, suggested she should have left the defense to surrogates and waited for the results of the DNC’s own investigation.

The Nevada conflict is even more incendiary, and frankly dangerous to her party. Wasserman Schultz is not helping her friend Hillary Clinton with her attacks on Sanders. Just the appearance of fairness can go a long way in assuaging worries about fairness. Wasserman Schultz’s defiant rebuke to the Sanders camp has made it worse.

We’ve also seen some real injustice along the way to the nomination: more than 100,000 voters wrongly purged in Brooklyn; polling places shut down in Phoenix, Arizona. But both were the work of local election officials—and in Phoenix, a Republican—not the national party. Other Sanders complaints are specious: You don’t have to like closed primaries, but they were established long before Sanders came along, and acting like they “disenfranchise” his independent or non-aligned voters is an insult to the mostly African-American and poor people who are truly disenfranchised in this country. Still, several states, including New York, make it ridiculously hard to change your registration and become a Democrat. There’s plenty of room for reform to make the party more inclusive.

All of that said: The Sanders campaign has less than a leg to stand on in its Nevada protests. Politifact “fact-checked” campaign manager Jeff Weaver’s claim that the state party “hijacked the process on the floor” of the convention “ignoring the regular procedure and ramming through what they wanted to do.” After an exhaustive examination of the long day of skirmishes, it found Weaver’s claim to be “false.”

The defections of some supporters, the increased skepticism of even once-friendly cable hosts, and a rebuke by Politifact isn’t fatal to Sanders’s campaign, of course. What will be fatal to Sanders’s future as a mass-movement leader—as opposed to the messiah of an angry, heavily white, and male cult—is his continued insistence that his enemy now is not so much the corporate overlords, or income inequality, or the big banks, but a corrupt Democratic Party, epitomized by Wall Street flunkie Hillary Clinton, that has “rigged” the election to thwart him—as he raged in a tone-deaf speech Tuesday night, as cable news was showing the texted death threats to Roberta Lange in the background (which Sanders did not even mention).

“The Democratic Party is going to have to make a very, very profound and important decision. It can do the right thing and open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change,” he said, as the crowd roared, “Bernie or bust!” The alternative, he said, is “to choose to retain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy.” His attacks on the Democratic Party got even louder cheers even than his hits at Clinton—the kind of applause that once rang out for breaking up the big banks or ending the scourge of student debt.

And in Thursday’s New York Times, Sanders campaign leaders and their supporters said they plan to escalate their attacks on Clinton and the party. Top strategist Tad Devine insisted he’s “not thinking about” whether the attacks will hurt Clinton in her battle against Trump; they will do what they can to run up his delegate count, especially in California.

Though Sanders supporter Charlie Pierce wondered why the campaign would make such a ruckus over only a few delegates in Nevada, I’m starting to believe that the point wasn’t the actual delegates—he trails her by about 280 at this point—but creating the appearance of a rigged system. Sanders himself entered the land of either fantasy or prevarication Thursday when he thanked supporters Thursday for a “victory” in Kentucky—even though he lost narrowly there to Clinton. The campaign said it was pondering a recount and would decide on Wednesday, but there’s still no word on that. Some of his backers have been alleging “fraud” in Kentucky, with absolute no evidence.

This is starting to get delusional, and dangerous to the American movement for social justice.

First of all, I don’t accept the presumption of moral and ideological superiority from a coalition that is dominated by white men, trying to overturn the will of black, brown, and female voters or somehow deem it fraudulent. There’s a growing element of male entitlement in the Sanders “movement” that supporter Sally Kohn articulates well:

It’s also too easy to suggest that Sanders’ supporters are a different kind of angry than Trump’s. Are we entirely sure about that? The populist right may be more inclined toward misogyny and xenophobia, but the populist left is not immune from these afflictions. And as I’ve written before, when you see progressive white men—many of whom enthusiastically supported Barack Obama’s candidacy—hate Clinton with every fiber of their being despite the fact that she’s a carbon copy of Obama’s ideology (or in fact now running slightly to his left), it’s hard to find any other explanation than sexism. Either way, the brutish, boorish behavior of Bernie Bros (and their female compatriots, too) was a huge reason I was reluctant to seemingly side with them in endorsing Sanders—and has been the only reason I have ever questioned my decision to do so since.

I understand Sanders’s desire to amass the largest number of delegates at the convention, in order to be able to push the party left. There may well be worthy platform fights and political reforms to advance there. He’d like a major prime-time speaking role, which I always thought was a no-brainer (though his anti-party broadsides over the last few days have made me wonder if he’s putting that obvious sign of respect in jeopardy).

If you’d told me a year ago that we’d go into Philadelphia with 45 percent of the delegates committed to a socialist, as a firm flank on the left, backed by the many millions of Clinton supporters like myself who also identify with the left, I’d have said we were on the verge of transforming the party into a vehicle for racial and economic justice. Now I’m afraid of what’s coming. If Sanders wants to destroy the party instead of change it, if he wants to demonize progressives like Barney Frank and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy (Devine has suggested he wants them removed from leadership roles because they endorsed Clinton), if he wants to turn the first female presidential nominee into a corrupt caricature of herself, a cross between Carly Fiorina and Marie Antoinette, then Philadelphia will be a disaster. For the party, and for Sanders too. He thinks he’s the only one who can defeat Donald Trump. But in fact, he’s the only one who can elect him, by tearing the party apart.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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