If you were plotting a fissure point for liberals in the 2016 election, you might look to the divide between Hillary Clinton supporters and everyone to their left. But so far, that’s been a quiet divide. Clinton has refrained from attacks on her liberal critics, and the left-wing candidate in the race—Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—has focused more on issues than the competition. In the meantime, a fissure has emerged that could have a profound influence on the shape and tenor of the primary. With a new protest movement against police brutality and a social democratic candidate for president emerging at the same moment, an old liberal split—between focusing on race and focusing on class—has moved back to the fore.
This was illustrated in dramatic fashion over the weekend at Netroots Nation—the annual gathering of liberal, lefties, and Internet activists. For most ordinary participants, Netroots is a safe space of ideological camaraderie. For politicians, not so much. In 2007, attendees jeered Clinton when she refused to join her opponents, Barack Obama and John Edwards, in a pledge to reject contributions from lobbyists. In 2009, a liberal blogger heckled Bill Clinton over “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The next year, Harry Reid promised to repeal the measure after activist Dan Choi confronted him during a panel discussion. Anti-surveillance activists confronted Nancy Pelosi at 2013’s conference, and Vice President Joe Biden was interrupted by immigration activists at last year’s event.
Clinton skipped this year’s gathering in Phoenix—she hasn’t been to the event since her first, disastrous experience eight years ago. But her most visible primary opponents—Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley—made a trek to the conference. Again, the politicians in attendance stumbled and, in the process, brought the intraleft divide to the center of attention. Ironically, the struggles of O’Malley and Sanders offer an opening for Clinton on vital issues within the Democratic coalition.
This year’s disruption came from Black Lives Matter, the anti-racist movement sparked in the aftermath of Ferguson and fueled by the steady drip of police violence against black Americans. Midway through O’Malley’s remarks, demonstrators marched toward the stage, chanting names of black women killed by the police or who died in police custody.
After a few minutes of protest, organizers handed protesters microphones, and they used the opportunity to question and challenge O’Malley on police brutality. O’Malley, notes BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer, was supportive, nodding his head in assent to the questions and concerns.
He erred, however, when protesters shouted their slogan, “Black lives matter!” O’Malley responded, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” The demonstrators booed. The reason is easy to understand. “Black lives matter” is a statement of specific concern; police violence is most acute against black Americans, and so activists stress the importance of their lives. To reply with “all lives matter” is to suggest there’s no specific problem of police abuse targeted at black Americans. It’s as if someone responded to an annual breast cancer drive with “Breast cancer matters. Prostate cancer matters. All cancer matters.” It sounds like a dismissal, and that’s how it was received.
If this was a miscue, then the confrontation with Sanders was a fiasco. Whereas O’Malley adjusted to protesters, Sanders tried to barrel through them. “Whoa, whoa, let me talk about what I came to talk about for a minute,” he said. Speaking over shouts of “say her name” and “black lives matter,” Sanders tried to establish his civil rights bona fides. “Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” he said. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.” Even if that response was understandable, Sanders only made things worse. When he tried to cite Obamacare as something he’s done for people of color, protesters responded with jeers. One woman said, “We can’t afford that!” When he talked up free college and opportunity for black Americans, a heckler yelled “Public college won’t stop police from killing us!”
In the wake of all of this, O’Malley seemed to get his error. He apologized for using “all lives matter” and tried to account for his misstep by interacting with activists. Sanders, by contrast, went silent. He canceled his meetings, canceled an appearance, and sidestepped further questions on the subject. Eventually, he would make a response on Twitter, but not before critics launched a hashtag called #BernieSoBlack mocking the Vermont senator and his most vocal online supporters.
Some might want to dismiss the whole fracas as left-wing infighting, with no relevance for any but a small slice of American voters. Or they might dismiss it as New Left narcissism—the kind of identity politics that alienates ordinary Americans. The latter description is flat out wrong; say what you will on the optics of protests, but the fact remains that there is a genuine and serious problem of police violence against minorities, and blacks in particular.
As for the former critique, I think this episode was more significant than mere infighting. Regardless of where you stand on the wisdom of the direct action against Sanders and O’Malley, it showed the limits of Sanders’ brand of liberal coalition-building, which hinges on the idea that we could ameliorate serious injustice if we just achieve—or move toward—economic justice. It’s why he touts college education and affordable health care in response to questions on police discrimination and criminal justice reform.
For Black Lives Matter activists, this is almost an insult. To them, racism is orthogonal to class: They’re two different dimensions of disadvantage, and to improve the picture on one isn’t always to improve the picture for the other. Jim Crow, for instance, coexisted with strong unions, high wages, and an active welfare state. When that heckler said “Public college won’t stop police from killing us,” that person was right. To combat racism, you have to fight it on its own terms. Moreover, there are times when fighting racism in policing and other areas is necessary for headway on economic justice. Ending “stop and frisk” in New York City, for example, lowers the odds young men of color will lose their jobs because of unfair stops. And in Ferguson, Missouri, aggressive policing on small infractions essentially served as an additional tax paid largely by black citizens.
An effective and broad-based left has to have answers for anti-racist activists. The question is whether Sanders can see this. Is he adaptable enough to build a new platform that tackles these concerns? Can he include other conversations around fair and affordable housing—and employment—that intersect with anti-racist activism? If he can, then Netroots might stand as a valuable learning experience for the remainder of his campaign. And if he can’t—if Sanders is too stubborn to abandon the pitch he’s used for decades and adopt one more suited to today—then we may have seen the beginning of the end of Berniemania. (To his credit, it already appears as though Sanders is learning.)
As for Hillary Clinton, who avoided the whole kerfuffle? Even with her speeches on criminal justice and voting rights, she still has work to do. Indeed, this might be a more acute area of concern for the former Secretary of State, who stands the best chance at winning the Democratic nomination but needs to rally black Americans to her side if she plans to win a general election. It would be in her interest, and to her advantage, to craft a detailed agenda on police, prison, and criminal justice reform, as well as plans to reduce racial gaps in wealth and unemployment and further enforce anti-discrimination laws. If she pounces in the right way, O’Malley and Sanders’ stumbles could be her great gain.