With less than two weeks to go before the Iowa caucus, a collective panic seems to have set in with prominent liberal thinkers and writers over the prospect of Bernie Sanders actually winning the Democratic nomination for president.
Many have responded with farfetched and hypocritical arguments to drive away voters. The fear is mounting that a repeat of 2008 may be unfolding, just as when a junior Senator from Illinois roared ahead of Hillary Clinton at the start of that primary season and went on to win the nomination and presidency.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times writer, who one might imagine would support an ardent critic of big banks like Sanders, penned a horribly titled op-ed, Weakened at Bernie's on Jan. 19. Starting with an obligatory denunciation of Clinton (she "is no paragon of political virtue") in order to cement his progressive credentials, he went on to label Sanders's positions on the economy and health care as "disturbing." After critiquing the senator for having an "unrealistic" outlook on the economy, Krugman then contradicted himself, going on to write that Sanders doesn't go far enough in calling for a restoration of the Glass-Steagasl Act without addressing the shadow banking system. Nowhere in the article does Krugman criticize Clinton's economic plan, which seems to focus simply on raising wages but leaving Wall Street's power intact. Krugman has taken aim at Sanders for not going far enough, but seemingly let Clinton off the hook despite her program not being as radical as Sanders (or as Krugman himself) has recommended.
New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait went one step further in his Jan. 18 piece with a title that left little room for interpretation: The Case Against Bernie Sanders. In it Chait, like Krugman, struggles to make a solid case. He relies instead on vague pronouncements like, "Sanders offers the left-wing version of a hoary political fantasy." His clearest argument is that Sanders' "self-identification as a socialist poses an enormous obstacle, as Americans respond to 'socialism' with overwhelming negativity." But the poll numbers leading into the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, and the record-breaking crowds Sanders has attracted at his events, clearly suggest otherwise. How to explain the tens of thousands of people streaming to see him speak, and that he "now has more individual donors than any other candidate in history?" Either his supporters and donors are self-described socialists or they don't care that he is. Either way, the "socialist" label is not hurting Sanders in the primary.
Chait's most convincing argument against Sanders is on foreign policy, saying that he has "difficulty addressing issues outside his economic populism wheelhouse." And while that is indeed true, a choice between Clinton and Sanders is a choice between a candidate with little experience in foreign policy, and a liberal Democrat who has proven her hawkish credentials. Sanders has criticized the size of the military budget, while Clinton has boasted of her friendship with Henry Kissinger, a man many consider a war criminal. Progressives can decide which they prefer. Frankly neither candidate has a particularly promising foreign policy agenda.
Another prominent liberal, Jessica Valenti, added her voice to the anti-Sanders cacophony in the Guardian, "Hillary Clinton supporters: it is OK to care about gender on the ballot." In it she accused Sanders's supporters of spewing "an extraordinary amount of scorn" against the idea that women might want to vote for Clinton because she is female, adding later that, "One could argue that, gender aside, Clinton’s policies are better for women than Sanders’." Valenti argued that voting for Clinton might help women stave off the "horrifying consequences that anti-abortion Republican leadership would surely pursue." But she doesn't contrast any of Clinton's pro-women policies or achievements with Sanders'. As we have found out over the past 8 years, having an African-American holding the nation's highest office has hardly brought justice for the Black community. Simply having Clinton as president is unlikely to improve women's lot unless she works hard to make women's rights a serious priority. So far we don't know that she will.
Perhaps the most hard to bear anti-Sanders critique has come from the hugely acclaimed Atlantic writer and MacArthur genius Ta-Nehisi Coates, a man who has been likened to this generation's James Baldwin and whose 2014 article "The Case for Reparations," catapulted him to fame. On Jan. 19, Coates wrote the sharply critical piece, "Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?" in which he quotes Sanders' desire to invest deeply in the African-American community and address poverty and unemployment rather than pay reparations. A cursory search reveals Clinton's response to reparations that also does not endorse reparations and instead calls for "programs and policies that have helped generations of African-Americans have a better life in this country [to] continue." Sanders wants to increase investments, while Clinton wants to continue current policies. Instead of comparing both leading Democratic candidates' positions on reparations and excoriating both for refusing to endorse them, Coates makes a blatantly one-sided attack. His argument that Sanders's class-based critique of racism being problematic is sound. But again, there is no comparison with Clinton.
I am not one to declare that I "feel the Bern." I don't generally like to get behind any presidential candidate, preferring instead to champion progressive causes that candidates need to get behind. Still, the snowball of unfounded and baseless criticism aimed at Sanders from liberal writers is disingenuous at best, and nefarious at worst.
What we need are strong and fair critiques from the left of both Sanders and Clinton. Only then will the best and most progressive candidate become apparent.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio. She is also the Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports women's rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence."