This post has been a long time in the making. I’ve spent the better part of the last eight months on the fence, watching the battle lines be drawn in the Democratic primary fight. I weighed the pros and cons of the candidates running to represent the Democratic party in November, and while I’ve found all to be generally acceptable, none have been truly electrifying – or, at least, as electrifying as was a junior senator from Illinois in 2008.
To be honest, I didn’t think it would really matter whom I supported in the 2016 Democratic primary race; I believed that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would sweep her way to an easy primary victory early this year. I watched as many other highly qualified candidates declined to run, leaving only Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley standing in opposition to Clinton. No matter what I thought of their progressive politics, it seemed unlikely that Sanders and O’Malley would have the resources to seriously challenge the Clinton machine.
Boy, was I wrong.
On Tuesday, Sanders accomplished the seeming impossible when he earned a near tie with Clinton in the Iowa caucus – a mere .3% of the vote separated the two candidates. For a candidate who once trailed Clinton by more than 20 points in the state, Sanders’ second-place finish proved that his candidacy is, in fact, a viable one.
More to the point, I feel Bernie Sanders is the right candidate to support in the 2016 Democratic primary.
It should come as no surprise that Bernie Sanders’ progressive politics strongly match my own. Since he first announced his candidacy in the 2016 presidential race, Sanders has offered a clear and unifying message of social justice and political revolution, focused primarily around the core issue of income inequality and tax reform. Sanders rightfully notes the wealth disparities that exist between America’s increasingly stratified income classes, and has offered multifaceted proposals to improve economic mobility for lower-income and middle-income families by addressing not just whom we tax, but also how we administer Social Security and how we provide education access. Sanders seems to genuinely understand that income inequality in this country is not just about raising wages; it is about ensuring the rights of middle-class and lower-middle class workers to fully participate in all aspects of American life. At a time when one-fourth of the country’s pre-tax income is sequestered in the bank accounts of the nation’s wealthiest 1%, Sanders’ message of economic justice is particularly relevant.
On issues of specific concern to Asian Americans – jobs, the economy, education, immigration and climate change — Bernie Sanders offers an appealing vision for a better America. Sanders promises to provide free college tuition for all students attending public colleges and universities and to reduce student loan debt for those attending private institutions, to invest in sustainable, clean energy alternatives to reduce the country’s fossil fuel dependence, and to stop the Obama Administration’s deportation epidemic by reforming the country’s work visa system. Sanders plans to pay for these and other proposals by restructuring the tax system and requiring that the nation’s wealthiest finally pay their fair share in taxes. Predictably, therefore, Bernie Sanders enjoys a more favourable rating among likely Asian American voters than any other presidential candidate this cycle.
Nonetheless, I have been hesitant to throw my support behind the Sanders campaign. I remain troubled by the way Sanders routinely pivots the topic of racial justice toward an economic inequality framework. At the core of Sanders’ platform is the reasoning that because Black and Brown families are more economically underprivileged, racial disparities can be corrected with class-based solutions. This is savvy politics: Sanders offers a palatable social justice message that gift wraps solutions for racial justice activists with a dog-whistle appeal to impoverished White families. Yet, by eliminating the added complexity of race, Sanders fails to acknowledge that while race and class are intertwined, they are not the same. Racism does not solely manifest as poverty. When Sanders suggests we provide better schooling and a higher living wage without explicitly challenging how race additionally denies Black and Brown children access to these and other markers of American citizenship regardless of class, he fails to address institutional racism. No matter how often Sanders claims otherwise, he remains guilty of responding to “Black Lives Matter” questions with an “All Lives Matter” message. My growing support for the Bernie Sanders campaign persists in tension with this point.
Yet, I am increasingly convinced that of the two remaining Democratic candidates vying for our support, Sanders is far closer to presenting an intersectional identity politics understanding of race and class than is his opponent. Hillary Clinton has always focused on delivering individualized promises targeted to appeal to particular special interest groups — a framing best exemplified by her “Presents” ad from 2008. In other words, the Clinton campaign organizes its support network – and therefore its appeal to that voter base — according to how we differ from each other, rather than by our shared intersections. To its credit, this approach prioritizes outreach to typically underserved voting communities such as the Asian American community – the Clinton campaign is the only campaign this season to launch a concerted effort to appeal to Asian American voters – but by definition, it does so by de-emphasizing intersectionality.
The Clinton campaign’s failure to address intersectionality was no more apparent than yesterday when two key feminist supporters of Hillary Clinton went on the record with disturbingly sexist remarks about women who might choose to back Sanders. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared at a campaign stop that there is a “special place in hell” for women who don’t support Clinton’s campaign, echoing an increasingly regressive sentiment amongst Clinton supporters that the place of a well-behaved feminist is by Hillary Clinton’s side. Meanwhile, feminist scholar Gloria Steinem modeled the exact behavior of stalwart white feminists that have for decades troubled feminists of colour when she went on Bill Maher’s HBO show over the weekend to suggest that young female Sanders supporters are only seeking attention from boys. Here we see the overwhelming bafflement that conventional feminism has for the concept of intersectionality; neither Steinem nor Albright can conceive of a reasoned feminist critique of a Clinton candidacy, nor can they imagine that a free-thinking feminist might be informed by their feminism as well as their other identities to support a nominee other than Hillary Clinton. That the Clinton campaign’s core supporters propose that there is only one way to be a “good” feminist — White, professional, eager to lean-in and lend her unquestioning support to Hillary as she shatters that last, great glass ceiling — epitomizes exactly why many young feminists are disillusioned by the Clinton candidacy.
I am one of the many young feminists whose feminist principles don’t fit neatly into the “Clinton for President” box and who doesn’t appreciate having my feminism questioned because of it. My criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy have nothing to do with sexism, and I could give a fuck about the attention of (sexist) “Bernie-bros”. My reservations about a Clinton administration are focused on Hillary Clinton’s hawk-ish foreign policy. As we approach a foreign relations precipice in the coming four years, when it seems a military confrontation is increasingly likely between America and one of several Pacific Rim nations — a possible outcome with profound impact for Asian and Asian American people — I fear that Clinton’s tendency towards saber-rattling might unnecessarily escalate international tensions.
Nonetheless, the simple truth is that both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton offer a better alternative for America than any of the men and women running to represent the Republican party. Neither Sanders nor Clinton are open racists and misogynists who would make homophobia, xenophobia or Islamophobia the new law of the land. I would not fear for my rights as a woman or an immigrant under a Clinton or a Sanders Administration, as I might if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio were elected president. It should go without saying that I believe Asian American voters should vote for the Democratic candidate – whomever he or she might be – in November. Indeed, there are many who support Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary out of pragmatism, arguing that she stands the best chance of ensuring Democratic control of the White House against a Republican challenger. On the other hand, the likelihood that the Republicans will elect a Far Right hate-mongerer as their nominee in 2016 suggests that the Democratic Party’s strongest response might be to present voters with our most unassailably progressive alternative.
Regardless, a primary is not just a time to be practical. Now is not the time to hold our noses and vote the lesser of two evils. A primary race is a time to surrender ourselves – even if just momentarily — to idealism and principle, and to vote with our souls.
As an Asian American feminist, I believe we deserve better than just a Democratic presidential nominee who will merely accomplish the legislative priorities of the Democratic party. I believe we deserve a progressive candidate who inspires us with a compelling and inclusive vision of a better America, and who will courageously articulate the intersecting challenges of creating that better tomorrow in the face of today’s racial injustice, gendered violence, and economic inequality.
And, I believe that Bernie Sanders is the right candidate for that task. I urge you to go to the polls this Democratic primary season to vote for a Sanders presidency.