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What Hillary Clinton gets that Bernie Sanders doesn’t: Identity politics

Reuters/Mike Segar
Moment of truth.
  • Marcie Bianco
By Marcie Bianco

Managing editor, the Clayman Institute at Stanford University

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

A patriarchal ploy to keep women divided, women have been harangued for “voting with their vagina” for months. Such crude critiques are designed to undermine female political agency—specifically their support for other women.

And yet, feminism as an ideology espouses gender equality, which is attained under the law. Studies suggest a correlation between gender parity in politics and the increased political equality of women. “Women in political office make it a priority to advance rights, equality and opportunity for women and girls, in a way and to a degree that men in power overwhelmingly do not,” Nancy L. Cohen wrote in an op-ed for the L.A. Times. That means, Cohen continues, “Democratic and Republican women will offer three times more feminist bills than their male counterparts.” By way of comparison, Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock explained her support for Clinton by highlighting the former secretary of state’s prioritization of reproductive rights and reproductive justice. Rival Bernie Sanders,  Schriock notes, “treats abortion rights like an afterthought.”

Clinton understands that the long arc of equal rights in America is primarily based on identity.

Democratic voters, once a unified bloc, have split into polarized camps as Clinton and Sanders engage in increasingly heated rhetoric. But partisan posturing aside, the key difference between the two liberals is a simple one: Clinton understands that the long arc of equal rights in America is primarily based on identity.

The first people in the United States to have full rights were land-owning white men. The evolution and expansion of constitutional rights in America has occurred on the basis of identity. Take the 13th, 14th, or 15th Amendments—or the 19th Amendment.

Interestingly, abolitionists and suffragists had already realized as much in the mid-19th century, when, after contentious debate, they agreed that they would fight for black men to get the right to vote first over (white) women. “I hope in time … to add that last clause ‘sex’!! But this hour belongs to the negro,” abolitionist Wendell Phillips declared in an anti-slavery editorial published in 1865. Likewise, laws have been created with the explicit purpose of discriminating against a particular group of people. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), for instance, specifically targeted gay and lesbian Americans. The current round of state-sponsored bathroom bills specifically target trans people.

An economic revolution is not tantamount to a sociopolitical overhaul.

While admirable, Sanders’s “revolution” is primarily an economic one. And despite what he may say, an economic revolution is not tantamount to a sociopolitical overhaul. To put a finer point on it: Achieving a $15 minimum wage will not stop racially prejudiced cops from shooting black people. It will not stop immigrants or refugees from being detained at our borders. Dismantling Wall Street, whatever that means exactly, will not shore up or extend women’s reproductive rights.

Feminists have imparted such wisdom before, often in their critiques of Marxism. (Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, practices what one might describe as a modern, gentler version of Marxism.) For example, in her essay “One Is Not Born a Woman,” radical lesbian feminist Monique Wittig notes that any kind of economic-based, Marxist revolution fails to acknowledge the specific experiences that differ across marginalized groups.

“Marxism has denied the members of oppressed classes the attribute of being a subject. In doing this, Marxism… has prevented all categories of oppressed peoples from constituting themselves historically, as subjects… And when an economic transformation took place… no revolutionary change took place within the new society, because the people themselves did not change.”

The Achilles heel of Marxism is humanity itself. The universalism of the workers’ fight against “Wall Street” or the “1%” or whatever term is currently being used to describe the capitalist bourgeoise deliberately overlooks oppressed identity groups such as women, people of color, the disabled, immigrant communities.

It’s a fallacy on Sanders’s part to believe that a “revolution” in America could be so divorced from identity politics. As the New York Daily News wrote in their endorsement of Clinton, Sanders is “a fantasist who’s at passionate war with reality.” Clinton’s policy ideas, meanwhile, “are shaped for the world in which we live, not the world in which we might wish to live.”

This is also presumably why, in a rather stunning switch of support from Sanders to Clinton, political activist Tom Hayden wrote:

“My life since 1960 has been committed to the causes of African Americans, the Chicano movement, the labor movement, and freedom struggles in Vietnam, Cuba and Latin America. In the environmental movement I start from the premise of environmental justice for the poor and communities of color. My wife is a descendant of the Oglala Sioux, and my whole family is inter-racial… I have been on too many freedom rides, too many marches, too many jail cells, and far too many gravesites to breach that trust.”

Clinton’s platform is designed to advance the rights of the systemically oppressed. This is why she has the support of women’s rights groups, from Planned Parenthood to Emily’s List to the Human Rights Campaign, in addition to countless endorsements from leaders within the black and Latino communities. Sanders, who has dismissed Clinton’s commitment as “identity politics,” clearly has trouble engaging with and acknowledging the specific needs of these oppressed and marginalized communities. Just take his ghetto gaffe, or his continued slandering of “the South” as unimportant to his economic revolution.

It is not surprising that some of Sanders’s most ardent supporters are white men. Some, including the Wall Street Journal might even characterize them as “angry white men.” His economic revolution reduces all people to America’s “neutral” identity: the white heterosexual man.

Both Clinton and Sanders are progressives with the same endgame. But they have drastically different methods for getting there. Considering the history of the United States, only one candidate’s methods accurately reflect how rights are afforded in this country. Call it pragmatism, but Clinton “get[s] things done.” As a feminist, my identity is defined by the fight for equal rights for women, gender parity, equal representation in politics, and women’s reproductive justice. So, yes, my vote will most definitely be dictated by my vagina.

And that vote is for Hillary Clinton.

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