A self-avowed Democratic Socialist and rising presidential contender, Sanders hopes to pull off an Obama-style upset against the juggernaut that is Hillary Clinton. With Vice President Joe Biden outside the race looking in, Martin O’Malley in the lurch, and a positively juiceless duo in Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee bringing up the rear, the Senator from Vermont is enjoying his moment on the national stage. He’s bringing an economic justice agenda to the forefront of his party’s primary.
But as steadfast as Sanders and his supporters may be, their belligerence on questions about key social issues reveals a major danger in developing a cult-like following.
These may be the boom times for Team Bernie, but there’s still a bit of trouble in paradise. On Monday, a Sanders interview ran in the New York Times Magazine, conducted by longtime political journalist Ana Marie Cox. One of her questions sent Sanders and some of his supporters into a tizzy: “Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?”
Sanders clearly didn’t care for the question, responding at first: “Yeah. OK, Ana, I don’t mean to be rude here. I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, OK? Do you have serious questions?” The response scored some points for Sanders in the mainstream media, to be sure, but that didn’t stop some of his sympathizers from taking it a step further.
Picking up the cue from his prickly response, some Twitter users (including Sanders supporters) reacted with similar amounts of disdain, deriding the question and sometimes attacking Cox’s personally. Some of the words that emerged from Twitter mentions include: “stupid,” “superficial,” “mainstream media is gutter trash,” “lame,” and “laughable.” Why, the thinking seems to go, should we be talking about hair when Sanders wants to talk about remedying economic disparities, about health care?
Here’s the thing, though: Cox’s question wasn’t about hair. In fact, to harp on the word “hair” is a misinterpretation that’s more disingenuous than one would assume. Although Cox chose to sidle up to a question about gendered double-standards by way of Sanders’ hair, that’s entirely incidental to her point. The question works just as well with any number of substitutes for Sanders’ coif: Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s ambition gets a lot more scrutiny than yours? Her fashion sense? Even the sound of her voice?
Any of these work just fine, because the point of reference is just a gateway to a broader conversation about sexist double standards. It wasn’t, contrary to the claims of some of Sanders’ overly ardent followers, just a ridiculous question about hair. Sanders’ testy response, however, emphasized two things: He didn’t think it was a serious question, and he thought it was bad for the media to be discussing either of their hairstyles.
Here’s how he phrased his reply, after Cox clarified that she was asking about gender:
When the media worries about what Hillary’s hair looks like or what my hair looks like, that’s a real problem. We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people.
Cox followed up by observing that this is a more common problem for women, to which Sanders replied “that may be, and it’s absolutely wrong.”
While Sanders’ answer might seem quite standard, there’s an interesting dynamic at play. Namely, it’s the way of responding to a specific issue that may look awfully similar what’s been highlighted by some Sanders critics within the Black Lives Matter movement. Rather than address the unique impact of gendered (and sexist) coverage of women in politics, Sanders tried to generalize the issue, placing himself and Clinton on equal rhetorical footing when it came to undue hair coverage.
Even when Cox pressed the issue, he didn’t give a full-voiced acknowledgment of the double-standard, acknowledging that women face these unnecessary questions way more than their male counterparts. Instead, he went with a more passive “that may be.”
While the stakes are nowhere near equivalent, Sanders’ response underscores Black Lives Matter activists’ early complaints about Sanders—ones he’s since made effort to rectify. Many politically conscious black people had trouble connecting with Sanders’ rhetoric because he primarily addressed race through an economic lens, framing the negative outcomes of institutional racism as wrongs that could be righted by increased employment and fairer wages.
Needless to say, not everyone agrees with that. To the contrary, countless black people in this country live with the self-evident reality that racism is a violent threat independent of class and income. Issues of economic and racial justice do indeed intersect, and poverty can exacerbate unfavorable life outcomes. But the specific plight of being black in a country built on white supremacy demands specific attention.
Despite ostensibly getting a lesson in this concept thanks to Black Lives Matter, Sanders seemed to slide right back his worst habits while talking with Cox about matters of gender. Rather than acknowledge the question’s legitimacy, or at least try to answer it in good faith, he minimized the differences between how the media covers him and Clinton. It’s a striking parallel to his past rhetoric on race. This is sort of like dropping an “All Lives Matter” on an issue of sexism—or, more to the point, All Hair Matters.
There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about a candidate that strongly aligns with our politics. But Sanders’ approach in this moment with Cox signals a pitfall that goes against most progressive principles. If his supporters on Twitter really #FeelTheBern, they should feel it enough to question his response and challenge him to do better.
Race and gender are two distinct, intersecting realms of progressive politics, both of which don’t relate to Sanders’ own lived experiences. He will never know what it’s like to be a woman under the intense glare of gendered campaign coverage. And Sanders won’t know what it’s like to face racism and police brutality as an everyday threat.
Sanders—and any candidate for that matter—won’t always have the right answer for every social struggle, because sometimes they may need more education on the issues. But it’s important for his supporters to channel their fervor into elevating the conversation, not derailing it as though their candidate is above reproach. Sanders’ policies, with recent activist pressure, have improved, a telltale sign that he’s listening and working on being accountable to constituents—even in the primaries.
However, the side of Sanders that appears when he’s faced with an unwanted question, an unexpected interruption, or a moment that requires extemporaneous dialogue is quite worrisome. Judging by his reaction to Cox, he could probably exercise more grace and humor in those moments, or approach them in a way that’s consistent with his personality and leadership style.
These are elements that should have been part of the discussion on Twitter following the interview with Cox, but a cult-like following for Sanders has not only enabled his defensiveness, it’s also making many of his supporters inflexible during key moments.
Sanders supporters should be mindful to distinguish their approach to politics from that of their candidate. When Sanders’ following harangues black people on Twitter about their existential civil rights struggle and derails a conversation about gender bias, these actions and attitudes run contrary to the values they claim to champion. It’s a closed-off, rigid approach that mirrors much of what’s seen on the GOP debate stage, not one associated with a leading Democratic contender.
Bernie Sanders appears to be an exciting candidate for many, and understandably so. In some respects, he excites me too. But if you find yourself arguing with all the presumption and derisiveness of a bad-faith right-winger, all in the name of defending a far-left hero, some introspection might be in order.
Chris Tognotti is a writer at Bustle and a contributor to the Daily Dot. Chris tweets at @ctognotti.
Illustration by Max Fleishman