In this episode, author and activist Bill Fletcher, Jr. and author Chavisa Woods discuss Bernie Sanders’ frontrunner status in the Democratic primary, the campaign’s efforts to build a diverse coalition in 2020, and whether or not those efforts have worked. Fletcher talks to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about how Sanders has altered his approach to reaching out to black voters; Woods compares the Sanders and Warren campaigns, reflects on their appeal to women, and analyzes how voters talk politics online.
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Selected readings for the episode:
Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice · “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths about Unions · The Man Who Fell from the Sky · Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral (co-editor) · To the Point
* Part One: Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Bill Fletcher, Jr: One of the things that I would hear in 2016, when people would raise certain questions about Sanders is, they’d say, “Well, people need to get to know him,” and I said, “No, no. He needs to get to know people.” He needs to get to know the leaders in the communities of color. It’s not for the communities of color to go searching for him. And it’s a very different approach. And I think that there’s some veteran activists that would have helped him in 2016 on that, and hopefully are helping him now, but I’m not involved with the campaign. So I don’t know.
Whitney Terrell: Just looking at the numbers we have, there’s a Monmouth poll from earlier in February that showed—right after New Hampshire—showed that he was backed by 28 percent of black, non-white, Hispanic and Asian voters. And that’s the best of the Democratic candidates. Biden came in second with support from 20 percent of those voters and a Morning Consult poll from around the same time had Sanders with 28 percent support among black voters compared to 35 percent for Biden, so he was trailing Biden there, but that’s significantly better than he was doing with black voters compared to Hillary Clinton when she ran in 2016. Has he done some things to make up this difference?
BF: Yes. I think he has. I think that diversifying the campaign, the campaign leadership, was very, very important. I think that he has been meeting with leaders. I think he’s been speaking out on issues in a way that broadens his message. It’s no longer the one-note samba of 2016. It’s much more melodic. And I think that’s really important. Now, some of the challenges—many older black voters were inclined towards, or have been inclined towards Joe Biden. And, in part, for a similar reason, they were inclined towards Hillary. Which is that, both Biden and Hillary were very loyal to a black president. And it’s unusual to identify white people who are loyal to black leaders. But it was very clear that they were.
And so, there is sort of this sense that they need to get paid back, or they need to receive support, as a consequence. Secondly, there are many older black voters that do not believe that the mass of white voters are going to do the right thing in November. And that it’s too risky going for someone like Sanders and possibly Warren. And that you need a more middle-ground white candidate. I understand the first assumption. Absolutely. And I also understand the second. I just don’t agree with it.
WT: That’s how I felt in the last election. And that’s why I voted for Hillary Clinton. But I don’t feel so good about that choice now.
BF: I think it was right. I voted for Sanders in the primaries, in 2016. And I voted for Hillary in the final. But the problem with candidates like Biden is that they want to return to what they see as a more civilized moment. In his case, probably the Obama era or the Clinton era, and they want to return to normality. What they don’t understand is there is no returning to normality. We’re gonna have to create a new normality.
WT: I think Sugi and I would definitely agree with that.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: There is no normality.
BF: No, no there’s not.
VVG: There never was.
BF: We’re living in a period where irrationalism is the dominant discourse of the political right. So all bets are off. And that means you need a leader that speaks to that. I happen to think that that’s Sanders.
This is not just an election against Trump. It’s an election about the future.
WT: This is the thing I want to ask you, in essence, and Sugi, I’d love for you to chime in on this too, because I know you’re thinking about who you’re going to vote for. But, I didn’t vote for Sanders in the primary in 2016, because I heard critiques of him from friends of mine in the black community and other people of color who said to me, I can’t support that guy. And I know the Democratic Party candidate’s gonna have to unify and create a multiracial coalition to win. Now, I’ve always thought that there’s no reason why worker-party politics can’t be multiracial. And I guess we’re literally calling you up as someone who’s been involved in the socialist movement, and left progressivism to say, “Can Sanders do this?” Is he a safer candidate to vote for on that issue than he was in 2016?
BF: Absolutely. I think that he has learned major lessons. Like I said, people kicked him in his rear. And he deserved it. And I think that definitely influenced his shift. There’s no question in my mind—as my father would have said, there’s “no ’bouta doubt it.” But this is not just an election against Trump. It’s an election about the future. And I don’t think that that’s a cliche. It’s not going to be good enough—and this is where the Bloomberg candidacy comes in—it’s not going to be good enough to basically just block Trump. We have to articulate a set of politics that really challenges the way that the economy, and the environment, the foreign policy of this country, have been unfolding. And it means new vision, not a retreat to a safer time. What we don’t need is for a Democrat to defeat Trump, and then basically go back to the Obama/Biden era and say, “Okay, let’s go. Remember that thing called the Trans Pacific Partnership? Let’s resuscitate that.” We don’t need that. We don’t need a recitation of these neoliberal trade agreements. We need something different. And that’s why I think we have to go bold.
* Part Two: Chavisa Woods
Whitney Terrell: To draw this back to your comment about the media, we mentioned this at the top, but Chris Matthews, there’s a whole Twitter campaign today to get him fired because he compared Bernie’s victory to the Germans beginning their invasion of France, which seemed insane and over the top, and James Carville also had a kooky meltdown. They seem very angry that Bernie is winning these primaries.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: They are struggling for relevance. It is ugly. It is ugly. James Carville should not be on TV. How is that guy still a commentator? I do not understand. Sorry, I have very little patience for this stuff today.
WT: I want to hear this from you! Bring it on, Sugi! What do you got?
VVG: I was on Twitter this morning looking at this stuff and the way that commentators were reacting to Bernie Sanders’ win—frankly, I’m still not sure who I’m going to vote for, but the notion that Bernie Sanders’ victory is similar to the Germans overrunning the Maginot Line is so absurd. And James Carville is from the Clinton era. He’s from the Clinton era! Haven’t we been talking about how they laid the foundation for all the bullshit that we’re currently experiencing? You made this point earlier about the media lacking class diversity, but they also lack racial and ethnic diversity, and they’re still not very gender diverse either. And never was that more apparent than yesterday in the post-Nevada caucus commentary when you were just wondering, who are we listening to? They’re supposed to be bringing analysis and illumination to these results. And instead, they’re all but barricading the castle, which is not their job, or at least I didn’t think it was their job. Anyway, rant. But you were mentioning, Chavisa, that Warren is a very close second for you. And I think one of the things I really appreciated about your commentary is you’ve written about both your respect for her and also spent some time articulating what for you were the real differences between the two of them. So I’m curious, you said you’re more left than Bernie, would you call yourself a democratic socialist, or a socialist? Bill Fletcher was saying that he thought that the Sanders campaign was actually a populist left campaign. How would you characterize it and what do you see as the most important differences between Sanders and Warren?
You have to practice capitalism and participate in capitalism in some way when you live in this society.
Chavisa Woods: So those are a lot of questions. Let me see. I think that when you talk about what you are, and these labels like socialism, capitalism in America, it’s like America is so capitalist that it’s almost like stating a religious belief, because you can’t really practice your economic or social theory in such a capitalist society or else you won’t have anything. You have to practice capitalism and participate in capitalism in some way when you live in this society. I come from a background of anarcho-Marxism, which is very different than democratic socialism.
WT: I wonder how many people can say that in America. Probably not as many, but maybe more than you would think.
CW: Yeah, I think it’s a niche group, and I have my friends, and we are anarcho-Marxists, and that’s fine. And we share a lot of food.
WT: I have a question for you about that, though, because the point of being embedded in capitalism, I always think about this, I have a lot of criticism of capitalism and yet I still have to invest, I still have a retirement, and I still save money, and there’s nowhere to put it but in capitalist systems. It’s not like there’s an anarcho-Marxist mutual fund that you can try to save money in.
VVG: That’s actually part of my 401(k). That would be amazing.
CW: I moved to St. Louis when I was 18, and I moved into a collective that was a group of many collectives in St. Louis. An anarchist collective. And we lived really, really nicely for very cheap. I had less money, but I had more time. And we grew our own food in our garden, and we dumpstered food. It was 2000, and that’s what we did. And we shared all of the food and all of the bills and all of the resources. And we were also activists and took part in political action together. And I remember trying to talk to my family about this, and they were just like, you’re in a cult. And I thought, well, this is interesting. How can it be a cult if there’s no leader? That’s one of the main ingredients of a cult.
But also the fact that you would look at interacting with your neighbors, sharing food with a group of people, sharing some political beliefs or having similar political beliefs and taking part in political or spiritual actions, as a cult. I mean, isn’t that what a family does? Is the nuclear family a cult? I would say things like that to my family and it would just make them more certain that I was in a cult. So that’s where I’m coming from. I lived successfully in successful anarchist communities for many years in my youth. I grew. I wanted a little more space as I got older. Things got too dirty for me, I got a partner, and now I live in mostly typical capitalistic systems, somewhat. So Bernie is further right than me. He is the compromise. And I think when people say, “Well, what about Elizabeth Warren, why don’t you just vote for her?” Well, that’s just pushing the envelope a little bit further right for some people.
WT: Specifically, what do you think, in practical terms, would be the difference between a Sanders administration and a Warren administration?
CW: The biggest thing for me is I don’t think she will be elected. I would be happy to have either of them as the President. And if I could wave a magic wand and make one of them the President, I don’t really care who it is, honestly. I think they’re both going to be great representatives. I think Elizabeth Warren is smart. She has good plans. Her health care plan takes a little bit more time and gives a little bit more to private insurance than Bernie Sanders. It’s just a little bit more of a compromise. A lot of things with her are. When he talks about abortion rights, he says abortion is a constitutional right. He doesn’t want to go state by state. He also says, under his plan, abortions not only will be legal, it will be mandatory for them to be legal in the states, and they will be free. This is what he’s working toward. I don’t think he’s going to magically get all this done when he goes in, but I do think if you shoot for the stars, maybe we’ll land on the moon. He’s really shooting for what I believe in with all of these policies and hers seem to be more drafted off of his. A lot of them are, and she says that they are, that they’re built off of his policies. But I don’t know, I don’t want to trash Elizabeth Warren. I really do love her. I have a lot of respect for her, especially after the last debate. I just don’t think she has the movement.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai Condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan, Harmony Lassen, Hunter Moseley, and Abbey Outain. Photo of Laurie Chen courtesy of The South China Morning Post. Photo of Richard Preston by Michael J. Butts.