Following presidential contender Bernie Sanders’s recent victories in Nevada and New Hampshire and his surge in national polling, his unapologetic class agenda has begun to draw fire from corporate media voices and Democratic Party operatives. Recent comments about the campaign’s “Trumpian” parallels and yet another round of false reports of its white male chauvinist base have been accompanied by a slew of LGBTQ+ group and wealthy gay donor endorsements of moderate liberal and Wall Street–funded candidates. Gay media outlets have also come after the Bernie orbit of progressive reformist operations such as Our Revolution and Organize for Justice for those groups’ alleged “dark money” attacks on candidates like former McKinsey consultant Pete Buttigieg.
This is perhaps no surprise given that the corporate-backed LGBTQ+ movement is dependent on the very owners of capital and establishment politicians whom Sanders frequently denounces. The Human Rights Campaign, for instance, awarded Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos its 2017 Equality Award in recognition of the billionaire’s role in creating a supposedly inclusive workplace (despite the fact that one can open nearly any major newspaper and find detailed accounts of employee abuse, workplace injuries, and injustices).
Even the most nominally progressive national queer rights group, the National LGBTQ Task Force, recently held its annual activist conference adorned with sponsorships by Coca-Cola and the Comcast Corporation. These denunciations of Sanders and endorsements of his rivals seem to be less about the failures of the campaign to live up to its egalitarian message and more about how limited a vision of equality a corporate-funded constellation of queer outfits can afford.
Relatively straightforward corporate-induced behavior aside, skepticism of what the Sanders campaign stands for runs much deeper. Though Bernie leads the pack in support by LGBTQ+ primary voters, those within professional and activist circles consistently find fault with his emphasis on universal public goods—i.e., those policies that seek to decommodifiy health care, education, housing, and more. Taking an intersectional perspective, these critics often assert the need for identity-specific remedies to particular forms of suffering among the most oppressed or marginalized (typically defined along racial, sexual, or gendered lines). This often comes paired with the idea that—in order to build electoral strength—a candidate must assemble a coalition of identity-based activist groups rather than bring the disengaged masses back into politics.
A close look at a public goods agenda however, tells a far different story. Rather than being inattentive to oppression, such a program would address the underlying causes of social inequalities. Achieving this agenda will require a rejection of both a corporate-dominated perspective and the approach that works by stitching together small, disparate identity-based groups. Instead, the Sanders campaign—alongside its allies in the labor movement and emergent organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America—places its faith in a movement that brings working people back into American politics.
Given the working class’s inherent diversity and the unheralded diversity of the Sanders base, this approach to politics should inspire confidence. Rather than condemning this agenda for its overt class character, progressives should celebrate all the ways that a public goods agenda might begin to loosen the grip that capital-enthralled nonprofits, litigation firms, and activist groups have held for decades over our imagination of what a truly egalitarian politics might entail.
Class Agenda, Queer Impact
The antagonism between many LGBTQ+ advocates and the Sanders campaign is in many ways surprising. Sanders has, after all, been an ardent defender of queer rights for decades longer than most of his rivals. Back as far as 1972—a full decade before Mayor Pete was even born—he made the repeal of discriminatory sodomy laws a cornerstone of his first campaign for governor of Vermont. As mayor, Sanders made Burlington a regional capital for trans folks. Later as a representative and then as senator, he was ahead of the curve on same-sex marriage and military inclusion. In recent years, he has remained on the cutting edge of queer rights, as evidenced symbolically by his Senate office’s display of a—rather hilariously unironed—trans pride flag and more substantively in his consistent support for heightened anti-discrimination legislation.
But a defense of Sanders—and the political movement that he has inspired—doesn’t have to look backward. Reforms like Medicare for All and the Workplace Democracy Plan will do wonders for those who have been economically and socially disadvantaged by their gender, sexuality, or race as an effect of their relation to a class-based vision of equality.
For starters, a single-payer health care system like Medicare for All would address the needs of the nearly 25 percent of LGBTQ-identifying persons in this country who are currently without health care coverage. An inclusive version of this legislation would cover gender-affirmative treatments for trans people as well as care for those people living with HIV. Medicare for All would finally fulfill the dream of an earlier version of the queer rights movement, which marched on Washington, DC, in the 1980s with a demand for universal health care and increased funding for HIV/AIDS research and care.
Taking on the monopolistic practices of the pharmaceutical industry will also have a massive impact on those who are currently forced to forgo or ration medication. As journalist Meagan Day reports, the list price for the HIV antiviral drug Truvada (the brand name for the drug PrEP) is nearly $2,000 a month without health insurance, and the parent company Gilead (another Task Force corporate sponsor) has consistently raised its price.
Beyond health care, a federal jobs guarantee and housing justice program (with robust antidiscrimination policies built in) would create well-paying jobs, establish rent control, and impose regulations on real estate speculation. These policies would address many issues on the LGBTQ+ movement’s current agenda including the epidemic of homeless queer youth and general precarity of LGBTQ+ individuals. And they would do so by confronting larger crises like stagnant wages and the decreased availability of affordable housing.
Professional Class Blinders
Yet when confronted with some version of a public goods program, the response among LGBTQ+ interest groups and activists is frequently, “But how would it specifically address X category or identity-based issue?” The notion that disparities are the most significant indicators of inequality has become the lifeblood of identity-based organizations. Disparity has been reduced to a rhetorical device that allows a class-skewed representative group to tell a constituency—presumed to have a single united interest.— “this impoverishment or violence happens to people just like you, it could even happen to you, and you need us to stop it.”
This view distorts the actual causes of social inequalities by casting them as vague “overlapping” phenomena and the result of “interlocking systems of oppression.” It reduces class dynamics—where you live, where you work and for what wage—to one among many equivalent forms of oppression. The problem is that certain inequalities which appear on the surface to be caused by prejudice or discrimination are, in fact, actually rooted in economic causes.
The fight against exploitation—i.e., combating the health insurance companies, real estate developers, and venture capitalists—becomes a battle against “multiple oppressions” with no clear image of what is driving them at the root (beyond vague, ahistorical gestures to “the patriarchy”). This leads to the assessment of any proposed reform in terms of how many disparities it can wrestle with at once instead of digging deeper down to the roots of inequality (an approach that, perversely, can lead to policies that help fewer people).
Consider, for example, how social justice advocates talk about the epidemic of violence against transgender people. While queer nonprofits and activist groups have come to rightfully center these rates of violence, they consistently fail to highlight how a public goods agenda would address many of this tragedy’s causes. In a report, the HRC and Transgender POC Coalition identified rates of anti-trans violence as a problem that touches “upon some of society’s most challenging issues” including a lack of affordable health care, reduced employment opportunities, and workplace discrimination. Some of these social problems might indeed be remedied by the employment and housing-based anti-discrimination legislation championed by the LGBTQ+ movement including the Equality Act, which just passed in the House of Representatives last year.
But workplace discrimination or the need for a stable job with adequate benefits are also problems with solutions in progressive reforms to US labor law and the rejuvenation of the labor movement. Organized labor has played a huge role in the expansion of queer rights, as unions have historically fought against discriminatory legislation as well as protected their LGBTQ+ members in their contracts. The Workplace Democracy Plan and other pro-labor legislation would make significant headway in tackling these structural causes of suffering.
Or take the issue of health care. The reigning liberal outlook perceives prejudice and bias at the roots of gaps in coverage rather than as being an intrinsic feature of a market-based health care and insurance industry. This leads social justice advocates to target closing gaps along a variety of demographic distinctions, losing sight of the overall picture of health care inequality, particularly when taken in its comparative context.
Demographic-based gaps in insurance coverage would disappear overnight with the creation of a universal health care system like Medicare for All. The language and logic of disparity do very little to explain these gaps in insurance, nor do they point toward a clear solution to resolving them. They do not even come close to dealing with a national health care crisis defined by widespread devastation and an often indiscriminate impact, as evinced in how working-class communities of all backgrounds are left to rot.
Working-Class Politics for All
The route to a working class-based movement that takes seriously issues of disparity in the larger pursuit of public goods for all cannot be charted by self-anointed representatives of the interest group advocacy realm—nor by politicians who project themselves as avatars of the larger queer population. Neither will such transformation be won by the small groups of radicals who have attempted alternatives to mainstream gay politics since the days of the Stonewall Riot.
Both liberals and self-styled radicals often tell a story about how LGBTQ+ persons have always had to fight for their rights on their own, that nothing for queers has ever been achieved without their own independent struggle. The lesson is that no one will fight for liberation other than the marginalized themselves. Yet over the past several decades, formal rights protections and social acceptance have been accompanied by an absolute expansion of economic inequality. In an age of unprecedented tolerance, one in which the mainstream LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have never been stronger, queer-identified Americans experience devastating levels of economic immiseration. What good is an antidiscrimination law on its own, without a job that can pay the rent or put food on the table?
There is a tendency among queer activists to reach back into the past, looking to members of the black feminist lesbian Combahee River Collective or the activists in ACT-UP, for inspiration about how we might grow a budding left-wing alternative to the status quo. Like many others searching for the maps to fabled radical roads not taken, this long tradition of activist archeology mistakes the inspired, often poetic language of sectarian groups of academics, student radicals, and other activists for a strategic, programmatic vision for amassing a movement of workers. The problem with substituting campus-based pockets of protesters and the progressive wing of the professional class for actual workers is that the electoral math doesn’t add up.
The past and present of the US labor movement and its victories for sexual and gender minorities provide a better model of how we might meet these challenges. As historian Allan Bérubé recounted, the first labor fights for queer workers were waged in the 1930s by the multiracial and militant Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. Later victories against legislative attempts to keep gay and lesbian teachers out of public classrooms were won by labor coalitions including the American Federation of Teachers in California, the UAW, the United Steelworkers, the Teamsters, and the Culinary Workers, and Postal Workers. Today, a large swath of the labor movement—much of which represents incredibly diverse workforces—has begun to sign on to the Sanders agenda to continue these struggles.
Journalist and Sanders campaign press secretary Briahna Joy Grey recently made the case that building a working-class movement will sometimes require struggling alongside those who do not have perfectly progressive beliefs. As Joy wrote, “Sharing a big tent requires including those who do not share every one of our beliefs, while always making clear that we will never compromise our values. The truth is that by standing together in solidarity, we share the values of love and respect that will move us in the direction of a more humane, more equal world.” This does not mean shying away from addressing how we might treat the symptoms of capital’s social pathologies such as health care disparities or other intransigent forms of discrimination where they persist. But when we do so, we ought to be very clear about that project being one that extends from a given program’s universality in the first instance.
More than anything else, we should ensure that this work is carried out in a manner that is rooted in—not merely “directed toward”—a broad, diverse working-class constituency. The working class must be persuaded to mobilize for a left agenda not by moral appeals but instead through the promise of material benefit and ownership over our lives and working conditions. That’s the only way to break down and replace the monopoly that corporate-backed and university-based social movements currently hold over what counts as justice. That is what it will mean to build power and agency for working people—queer and straight alike.