An Open Letter to Senator Sanders

Dear Senator Sanders,

I want to start off by saying I’m rooting for you. Ideologically, you and I are a match, and I trust you and your record more than Secretary Clinton’s. Though there are those who worry you won’t be able to govern, I don’t buy that line of argumentation. You’ve proven yourself adept at getting things done in an increasingly partisan Congress, and if you can continue to inspire progressive enthusiasm in a way Clinton is struggling to replicate, your down ticket impact could usher in a Congress that will support your agenda.

But that’s a big if.

I do think it’s possible. One need only take a gander at your meteoric ascent to see that you’re gaining traction in a way no one would have predicted a year ago. Your message about economic inequality is resonating among voters whose economy has been decimated by those who cared not for the issue. Your proposals on the subject are imperfect, but they’re leaps and bounds ahead of what’s offered by the rest of the field in terms of substance. What’s more, people believe you when you say you’re going to wage war against those who have long propped up a rigged system.

The problem is that the tunnel vision that propelled you to such heights has now become a liability. You are correct when you say that economic inequality impacts individuals from all walks of life, but in an era that has been distinguished by a rise in identity politics, this narrow brand of intersectionality is insufficient. And as I watch you approach subjects related to identity politics, this becomes glaringly obvious.

It is not that there is some massive gap between you and Secretary Clinton on reproductive rights. I have no doubt that both of you would veto anti-choice legislation brought forth by Congress and nominate justices to the Supreme Court who would uphold a woman’s right to choose. But that’s only part of the picture.

Beyond the actual responsibilities and powers of the presidency, women are looking for you to lead on such subjects. They don’t want one line in a stump speech. They want you to passionately affirm and defend their reproductive rights, because we’re in the midst of the greatest assault on a woman’s right to choose since Roe v. Wade. 

Even if you’re just a candidate, your voice has power as a result of your support. So use it. Take some of that rage directed towards Wall Street and direct it toward anti-choice proponents in state legislatures and Congress. Encourage your progressive brethren to do the same by setting an example. Make it loud. Make it bold. Prove to us that you’ll do more than play defense. Prove to us you’ll lead.

It’s not that I think you’re less likely to stand up for black lives than Secretary Clinton. Indeed, the Secretary’s record on race is rather spotty, and if we judge you by your history alone, your record on the subject is much better. But falling back on your actions during the Civil Rights era is not enough. When you respond to questions about race by deflecting to the economy and saying “everyone” is impacted by it, it sounds like a variation of “All Lives Matter.” You’re right; everyone is impacted by the economy. But individuals, and particularly women, of color are impacted in a disproportionate manner, and you can’t even muster an acknowledgement of that.

Your “we’re all in this together” rationale on race has problems outside of the economic conversation. Racial inequity extends far beyond dollar signs. It’s about schools in communities of color without the resources necessary to give kids a fair shot. It’s about discrimination in housing and hiring. It’s about a criminal justice system where black individuals are far more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested and convicted of the same crime while facing far stiffer penalties. It’s about the cycle of oppression that repeats again and again when these distinctive experiences are not explicitly recognized. And for years, that’s exactly what’s happened.

When you talk about white people deserving reparations too and start counting how many times you say the word “black” at a given event and fall back on the fact that some black people have endorsed you, you could not possibly sound more tone deaf. I’m glad you’re meeting with black leaders to discuss the issues, but it doesn’t seem like you’re growing much from those conversations. You can’t just say you’re going to improve race relations. You can’t just lump black issues into policies that benefit all lives. You have to engage in critical conversations about policies that will address the significant issues facing people of color in this country.

Again, this is about leadership. Too often, black voices are assimilated into general progressive rhetoric. If Ferguson and the subsequent tragedies have taught us anything, it’s that this approach isn’t going to cut it. So do better. Be better, Senator. You need to listen more and listen some more after that. Don’t just look for ways to address black concerns from within your existing platform. Start looking for ways to directly address those concerns, because such solutions are just as necessary as your proposed broad reforms, if not more so. Start acknowledging the validity of the concerns of people of color in a public and unequivocal manner. Don’t shy away from the calls for change and reckoning by relying on platitudes. As you have in the past, boost the voices of leadership within these communities. Use your privilege to do some good. I know you know how to do that. Get back to your roots.

You’ve been floundering on immigration, as well. I appreciate your dedication to keeping families together, I really do. I like the path to citizenship. I’m totally with you on your calls for better treatment of immigrant workers. As Sam Frizell put it, you have, “checked all the boxes for a Democratic presidential candidate” when it comes to immigration reform. But your framing of the issue is increasingly problematic.

There’s a reason that conservatives like Representative Steve King and Numbers USA president Roy Beck sing your praises on immigration. It’s because you’ve couched your conversations on immigration reform in the rhetoric of “protecting American workers.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with that sentiment on face, but when it’s put in the context of immigration reform, it’s a perpetuation of the myth that undocumented immigrants are “stealing” jobs from Americans and function as a drain on the economy. Indeed, you’ve said in the past that, “We should be bringing in significant numbers of unskilled to workers to compete with [unemployed] kids.”

Not only are the assumptions behind such comments demonstrably untrue, but this whole approach ignores the experience of documented and undocumented immigrants alike. They are not just faceless contributions to figures bandied about in political debates. These are real people who face unique struggles and fears. The sooner you start acknowledging that in your platform and on the stump, the better. Right now, you often sound callous.

Once more, this is about leadership. Your policies may be net beneficial, but without compassionate promotion, they are not enough. It’s not just about citizenship. It’s about widespread discrimination and often violence against those who are even perceived as immigrants, regardless of whether they are citizens or not. Those struggles deserve attention as well. You are in a position to not only push for effective reform, but reshape the conversation surrounding such reforms. And that’s important, because one without the other falls short in a major way. Put a human face on a policy problem and it changes the way we approach it. The immigrant population in this country deserves that. This is your chance to rise to the occasion.

Are you seeing the common thread yet, Senator? We need you to lead. We need you to be our champion, to wield your influence in a way that aids those on the ground who are fighting the good fight. We need you to not only know there’s a problem, but understand it. On so many issues, your policies are admirable. But what weakens those policies and causes a disconnect between you and the voters is a seeming erasure of the inherent human element of the problems you’re trying to tackle. You are paying lip service on a surface level to deep and complex issues that manifest in individual experiences. We need to feel like you care, and right now, it’s hard to feel the bern on that note.

Again, I’m rooting for you. I trust your experience and the judgment you’ve shown throughout your years of public service. But it’s hard to be an enthused supporter when I’m watching people I love and respect have their very real pain excluded from the conversation you’re leading. This is not about a fight between you and Hillary. It’s about a fight for our votes — point blank. If you want to earn the support you need to grab the nomination and make it to the White House, you’re going to have to do better.

Hopeful in Illinois,

Lauren Nelson

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