In politics, few experiences are more unpleasant than being roasted by your allies. Just ask Bernie Sanders, who has spent the past week getting thoroughly barbecued by the left. First, his single-payer healthcare plan came under attack by prominent liberals like Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein. Then, two new Sanders controversies erupted. On Tuesday, his offhand remarks describing Planned Parenthood and the LGBTQ rights organization the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as “part of the establishment” created a firestorm, particularly on social-justice Twitter. Less than 24 hours later, his tone-deaf comments on reparations stoked even more outrage. Sanders’s left-wing critics have seized on both statements as evidence of his alleged weakness on civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ issues.
Although some of their attacks on Sanders have been unfair, his critics, regrettably, have a point. For all his political virtues, Sanders has had difficulty connecting his message of economic populism to the other major social justice concerns of the modern left, such race, gender, and sexuality. And unless he overcomes these problems, he will be unable to achieve his goal of expanding beyond his base and sparking a popular mass movement.
Of the controversies Sanders is currently embroiled in, the one involving Planned Parenthood/HRC is by far the less serious one. That’s because critics who claim that Sanders was “dissing” those groups are distorting what he actually said. Bernie wasn’t attacking the mission or good works of those organizations; what he was taking aim at is their political strategy. Asked by Rachel Maddow why organizations like the HRC and Planned Parenthood didn’t support him, Bernie replied that although he has “friends and supporters” in those organizations, “Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time. Some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”
If anything, that is an understatement. Both Planned Parenthood and the HRC are highly sophisticated political players with massive fundraising operations and budgets in the tens (HRC) or hundreds (Planned Parenthood) of million dollars. The HRC has come under fire for actions such as endorsing former Senator Al D’Amato, a conservative Republican who frequently opposed gay rights, and honoring the likes of Goldman Sachs. Of course these groups are part of the establishment, and as such, they would never endorse underdog candidates like Bernie.
HRC, Planned Parenthood, and other big, well-funded political groups tend to envision politics as transactional, and they nearly always endorse either the incumbent or front-runner of the party that is most friendly to them. Sometimes they even support candidates from parties who are hostile to them. Much to the exasperation of their allies, SEIU 1199 used to regularly endorse Republican Joe Bruno, the former New York State Senate majority leader. Sanders himself has received few union endorsements, even though he arguably has the strongest pro-labor record of any politician in America.