I almost voted for Bernie Sanders. After all, in important ways his politics are closer to mine than Hillary Clinton’s are, and his campaign for the White House is inspiring. So why not put my tiny grain of sand on his side of the scale in the primary? Unfortunately for electoral democracy, I neglected to read the instructions on my absentee ballot, which clearly stated that it had to be postmarked the day before the actual primary, and thus missed my chance to vote. In the end, I marked my ballot for Hillary and mailed it anyway, figuring New York City’s Board of Elections is so dysfunctional that maybe they would count it by mistake.
Why didn’t Bernie get me? Well, there’s electability: I just don’t believe Americans are ready for a 74-year-old self-described socialist with a long far-left CV who would raise their taxes by quite a lot. By the time the Republicans got finished with him, he’d be the love child of Rosa Luxemburg and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and then it’s hello, President Trump. There’s the question, too, of how much Bernie could actually accomplish. Would he make an effective president, as I think Hillary will—all the more so now that she’s been forced to see that a significant part of the Democratic electorate is to her left?
Part of the answer is simpler, though: Bernie didn’t ask for my vote. Oh, you can go to his website and find a page of boilerplate setting out his general commitments to women’s rights: He’s in favor of equal pay, reproductive rights, the ERA, the Violence Against Women Act, childcare for all, and so on—a laundry list, indeed, of the causes dear to the heart of those often derided by his supporters as bourgeois feminists content with incremental change. I am aware, too, that Bernie has a good voting record on those issues in Congress. But there’s a difference between someone who votes the right way, and someone who introduces legislation and champions the issue. He never convinced me that gender issues, specifically the persistent subordination of women in every area of life, were of much concern to him. There were all those little tells. Pooh-poohing Planned Parenthood and NARAL as “establishment” when he didn’t get their endorsement. Arguing for parental leave because it allows a new mother “to stay home and bond with her baby” instead of as something that benefits fathers as well, and something that women need in order to work and advance on the job. Doubling down on the idiotic quip by his surrogate, Killer Mike (“A uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president of the United States”), with the pseudo-lofty pledge “No one has ever heard me say, ‘Hey guys, let’s stand together, vote for a man.’ I would never do that, never have.” Is there a word for someone whose entitlement is so vast, so deep, so historically embedded, and so unconscious it includes the belief that they got where they are by a resolute devotion to fair play? It’s not reassuring that his senior campaign staff, like his long-time political inner circle, is almost entirely white and male.
In a long campaign, everyone says unfortunate things. But these and other remarks suggest that when it comes to gender, he just doesn’t feel the burn. The problem is less that Bernie focuses on class and economic inequality than that he doesn’t seem to understand that the economy, like society generally, is structured by gender and race. Equal pay is great, but if women and men are funneled into different kinds of work by race and gender, with men’s jobs valued more because men are valued more, and if women are hobbled economically by doing most of the domestic labor and having to contend with prejudice against working mothers to boot, equal pay alone doesn’t solve the problem. It would have been great if Bernie had given a major speech about his plans to make women’s lives better—safer, fairer, less dominated by men. Instead, he gives every sign of believing that his basic program—a $15 minimum wage, free public college, breaking up the big banks, single-payer health insurance—is quite enough. Those are all great and important goals—in fact, the $15 minimum wage will benefit more women than men. But they do not speak directly to the rage and fed-upness that so many women, in every class, justly feel. Bernie showed a similar blindness to the specific harms of racism, but, thanks largely to Black Lives Matter, has moved a little further toward integrating race into his analysis.
At 74, you are who you are. Bernie is a traditional class-based leftist for whom feminism is a distraction. Abortion, as he told Rolling Stone, is a “social issue.” Women’s mental and physical health, their economic survival, their ability to determine the shape of their own lives as men do, is a social issue? The clear implication is that reproductive rights (like guns and LGBT rights, which he mentions in the same breath) are secondary considerations, impediments to winning broad support for his populist economic proposals. I can go to the comment sections of AlterNet—or The Nation—and get that view any day from the bros, but I really thought we’d be further along with a white man who wants to lead a movement in a party that is majority female and over a third people of color. (And that’s just registered members—in 2012, 46 percent of people who voted Democratic were people of color.)
After Indiana, the GOP looks more likely than ever to nominate a racist, xenophobic misogynist of staggering crudeness and mendacity. If elected, Trump would consult with the conservative Heritage Foundation on Supreme Court nominations. We could well lose what remains of a century of progress for women, workers, LGBT people, and people of color, including the right to vote itself.
Trump understands very well that racism and sexism are crucial components of the nationalistic insurgence he wants to lead; he appeals openly to some of the darkest impulses in our political id. It is more than disturbing that Bernie pays so little attention to these dangers. He’s changed the debate within the Democratic Party by showing that millions of voters want more than incremental, technocratic tinkering with growing inequality. For that, I’m grateful. But when it comes to dealing with the Republicans in November, I don’t think Bernie gets the awful reality we’re facing. Hillary does.