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The foundation of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is voters’ trust. Americans believe he’s sincere, earnest—that he’s a different kind of politician. But this trust is misplaced. Sanders is not really a different kind of politician, his election will not give rise to a different kind of political system, and Americans should trust neither our politicians nor our politics. It’s pleasant to indulge in the willful ignorance of Sanders’ candidacy, but we must be honest. The hagiographic narrative of his campaign is false.
Though he’s advocated a number of populist policy positions, Sanders is not a different kind of politician with respect to justice for the oppressed. Time and again, he has curried favor with blue-collar white voters at the expense of other groups. He urged Democrats to deemphasize reproductive justice because Southern whites “are getting hung up on abortion.” He claims he was “19 years ahead of the curve” on LGBTQ+ issues, but he opposed same-sex marriage until 2009 and resisted basic employment nondiscrimination initiatives as the mayor of Burlington.
In 1994, Sanders voted for President Bill Clinton’s hyper-carceral crime bill. Gun violence is a matter of racial justice, but he shored up support with rural voters by opposing gun restrictions, including universal background checks. He supported the loophole that allowed Dylann Roof to purchase a pistol and kill nine people in the hate crime at Emanuel Church. And Sanders has lobbied for bald-faced environmental racism, co-sponsoring legislation for a nuclear waste disposal site in Sierra Blanca, Texas. Poor, majority-Latino Sierra Blanca was selected as the dumping site for Vermont’s radioactive waste at least in part because residents couldn’t speak English and wouldn’t understand environmental reports that were never translated into Spanish. Sanders’ record might be better than former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s, but that’s not a high enough bar—especially since he comes from one of the most liberal states in the nation. When Sanders announced his presidential campaign in Burlington, few of Vermont’s black and Latino leaders attended.
Above all, Sanders’ candidacy is premised on a dangerous mistruth about American government. When he calls our political system merely broken, Sanders pretends as though it once worked and can be fixed. In fact, it has never been just. To trust any politician is to trust a political system that was founded on oppression and that is not built for the liberation Sanders promises. Ironically, as the putative independent and self-proclaimed outsider who cut a deal with Democrats to win his seat in Congress—and as both a white man’s populist and the most progressive candidate for President of the United States—Sanders is proof of this. Revolutions unfold outside and against power structures, not within them. In selling voters on a figurative revolution, Sanders dangerously legitimizes the American political system.
There is honor and value in the difficult work of chipping away at institutionalized oppression from the inside—of minimizing violence, mitigating pain, and reducing harm in a way that is painstaking, rarely inclusive, and never systemic. If Sanders is willing to lead this kind of change, he must make that argument in those terms. Instead, he is running on a false promise and flimsy policy proposals, validating his candidacy with a purist image that isn’t borne out by the facts. Just as electing a black president couldn’t end racism, electing a candidate who isn’t funded by super PACs won’t end corporate control of American government.
Though it’s pleasant to indulge in false hope and willful ignorance, it’s unethical to let this narrative about the United States go unchallenged. Our political system isn’t broken and can’t be fixed. It’s oppressive by design. The only revolution that can end institutionalized oppression—including class-based oppression—is one that will never happen: a real one. We can make incremental, limited but meaningful change, but that’s a hard sell and one Sanders seems unwilling to make. This is unfortunate, because the most radical thing he could do is acknowledge the hard truth that our political system can never be divorced from oppression.
Sanders is not really a different kind of politician, this is not a different kind of political system, and Americans should neither trust our politicians nor our politics. Vote for him or don’t vote for him, but don’t trust Bernie Sanders.
Ted G. Waechter '18, a Crimson editorial writer, is an African Studies concentrator in Quincy House.
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