When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president last year, a lot of people wanted to know how she could possibly support a candidate with such a conspicuous lack of melanin and X chromosomes. “As a woman of color,” CBS correspondent Nikole Killion asked, “why back an old white guy? And is this the future of the party?” Ocasio-Cortez responded: “I’m actually very excited about this partnership because it shows what we have to do in our country. We have to come together across race, across gender, across generation.”
The director of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School, Jane Eisner, was just as perplexed as Killion: “I find it fascinating that women of color overlook female and minority candidates to endorse a white guy. Is ‘identity politics’ over? Is ideology more important than race and gender? Genuinely curious.”
While this attitude may seem insulting, you can hardly blame Killion and Eisner for their surprise. Comments about building broad coalitions, transcending barriers, etc. would be boilerplate for most politicians, but Ocasio-Cortez isn’t most politicians. She operates in a political environment where identity isn’t something to be downplayed—it’s the axis around which political action is supposed to revolve. This is a political reality she understands well, and when she isn’t saying nice things about coming together across race, gender, etc., she knows how to exploit it.
Sanders is out of the 2020 race, he endorsed Joe Biden (infuriating many of his supporters and surrogates), and likely won’t run again. To glimpse the future of identity politics on the populist left in the United States, we have to look at its next generation of leaders—people like Ocasio-Cortez. With an old white guy as the leader of the progressive movement, Ocasio-Cortez had to deemphasize her identitarianism and make her message as universal as possible. But this was just campaign-speak—to understand what Ocasio-Cortez actually thinks about the political significance of race and gender, look at her record.
Last summer, Ocasio-Cortez attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for what she described as the “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” The allegation that Pelosi’s criticisms of Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley were motivated by racial animus is as cynical as it is ridiculous. Pelosi simply recognized that members of the “Squad” have outsized political influence, and she was concerned about their attacks on moderates who snatched seats away from Republicans in the 2018 midterms (often by very narrow margins) and gave Democrats control of the House.
When moderate Democrats refused to support a progressive border aid package last July, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, described them as the “new southern Democrats” who “certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.” Instead of engaging in a good faith debate about immigration policy and the direction of the party, Ocasio-Cortez and her team took the opportunity to accuse Pelosi and moderate Democrats of racism. To see what a dead end this kind of politics is, consider the House Democratic Caucus’s response when Chakrabarti said Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids was enabling a “racist system” by refusing to vote for the aid package: “Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color? Keep her name out of your mouth.” The Caucus appears to think one absurd accusation of racism deserves another.
While Ocasio-Cortez is happy to use identity as a political weapon, she deploys it selectively. For example, as with charges of racism, she only fires off accusations of misogyny when they’re politically advantageous. She blamed sexism when she was (rightly) challenged for making a grossly inaccurate claim about defense spending last year. When Max Boot criticized her for a long series of false and misleading statements, she responded: “If you’re allowed to characterize female politicians as ‘unlikeable,’ are we allowed to describe takes like these ‘resentful?’” (Boot actually described her as “telegenic,” “down-to-earth,” “quick-witted,” and “cool” in the column in question.) After headlines misrepresented something she said to Stephen Colbert last year, she saw sexism and racism at work. Again and again, Ocasio-Cortez bludgeons critical journalists and political opponents with charges of bigotry.
But whenever those accusations were directed at her candidate, she knew she had to be careful. When the Warren campaign accused Sanders of arguing (during a private conversation between the two senators in 2018) that a woman couldn’t win the presidency, he said the comment was fabricated: “Staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened.” Then Warren confirmed it and accused him of calling her a “liar on national TV.” To describe Ocasio-Cortez’s response to this controversy as an equivocation would be generous: “I think with that whole situation, I kind of defer to both of their campaigns,” she said, which wasn’t helpful when the campaigns were saying irreconcilably different things.
It’s not that Ocasio-Cortez should’ve been harder on Sanders—Warren’s attempt to portray him as a misogynist was cheap and opportunistic. But given her hyper-sensitivity to misogyny (or what she perceives as misogyny), isn’t it a little suggestive that she decided to keep quiet when Warren accused Sanders of making a sexist comment and lying about it? It’s all the more suggestive that Ocasio-Cortez went out of her way to defend Warren on anti-“sexist” grounds at other points in the campaign. When Jennifer Rubin said “Mean and angry Warren is not a good look” during a debate earlier this year, Ocasio-Cortez pounced: “It’s truly time to retire the misogynist trope that angry men are powerful, yet angry women are unhinged. It’s such gaslighting nonsense.”
Take a moment to imagine if Warren had accused a different old white guy—Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg, for instance—of arguing that a woman couldn’t be elected president. Now imagine either of them accusing her of fabricating the story. Ocasio-Cortez wouldn’t have deferred judgment—she would’ve thunderously condemned their sexism and dismissed their claims to the contrary as “gaslighting nonsense.” Try the same thought experiment for the allegations of harassment and discrimination leveled against Sanders’ 2016 campaign (he later described his staff’s behavior as “disgusting”). It’s no surprise that a surrogate for Sanders’ campaign held him to a different standard. But this obvious inconsistency should arouse suspicion next time Ocasio-Cortez assails one of her political opponents for their bigotry.
While Ocasio-Cortez was willing to give Sanders a pass, many other progressives weren’t so generous. Sanders wasn’t just a candidate whose skin color and gender made him suspect in the eyes of many of Ocasio-Cortez’s political allies—in some ways, he even positioned himself as an active opponent of identity politics, which generated progressive outrage.
When Sanders announced his candidacy, he called upon voters to abandon the idea that identity should be either a qualification or a disqualification for president: “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age. I mean, I think we have got to try to move toward a nondiscriminatory society, which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.” If you think that sounds like a progressive sentiment—an echo of what Martin Luther King Jr. said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial almost 60 years ago—you don’t know how fundamentally identity politics has reshaped the populist left.
Sanders was immediately attacked by progressives for suggesting that discrimination on the basis of race, sexuality, gender, and age is a bad thing. An article in Out carried the mocking headline “Bernie Sanders bravely asks us to consider a straight president” and argued that Sanders had no business invoking King’s “pro-Black civil rights speech,” which was “definitely not intended to give white men the confidence to run for president.” After reprinting Sanders’ quote about building a nondiscriminatory society, the article concluded: “It’s going to be a long two years.”
The president of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden, was incensed: “At a time where folks feel under attack because of who they are, saying race or gender or sexual orientation or identity doesn’t matter is not off, it’s simply wrong.” In an article titled “Bernie Sanders’ Sexism Problem,” Jennifer Wright argued: “Bernie may think that you can elect a candidate without considering their gender, but to many of us, it’s clear that men like Bernie overlook the pressures that women are made to deal with because of their gender.” Predictably, this prompted her to reflect on “whether or not an older white man is the best person to lead the Democratic Party.” (The fact that Sanders would have been the first Jewish President never seems to find its way into analyses like these.)
Meanwhile, identity politics was an obsessive focus of Warren’s campaign. She assured voters that at least half of her Cabinet positions would be “filled by women and non binary people.” She supported reparations for slavery whereas Sanders discussed racial inequality in terms of his broader economic message. She promised to “ensure representation of LGBTQ+ people across all levels of government, including in leadership roles.” In November 2019, she argued that “Black trans and cis women, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary people are the backbone of our democracy.” Pundits and activists praised her for understanding and prioritizing intersectionality.
Sanders is clearly more squeamish about identity politics than Warren. After Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, Sanders chided Democrats who’ve become so infatuated with identity that they’ve forgotten about actual politics: “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” When reparations unexpectedly became a major issue early in the primary, Sanders emphasized the importance of helping all Americans in distress: “I think what we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities: black communities, Latino communities and white communities, and as president, I pledge to do that.” He also supported Jim Clyburn’s 10-20-30 bill, arguing that the “federal government must substantially increase funding for distressed communities that have long-term poverty rates. Often, not always, African-American communities.”
And yet, Sanders still managed to capture much more of the non-white, non-male, non-straight electorate than Warren. According to Morning Consult, a week before Warren dropped out, Sanders was leading her by 26 points among black voters, 35 points among Hispanics, 24 points among Asian-Americans, 40 points among “voters of other races,” and 16 points among women. In 2019, Sanders raised more money from women than any other candidate. And as of late January, he led the field among LGBTQ voters, outpacing Warren by 15 points and Pete Buttigieg (the only gay candidate) by 22 points.
When it still looked like Sanders had a shot at winning the nomination, some progressives regarded his success as a reversion to the mean in an American election—just another old white guy. This is untrue. Sanders is a democratic socialist who was in control of an American primary just two months ago, and he has created a vast progressive movement that will continue to shape the Democratic Party for many years to come.
The chances of Sanders running again in 2024 are slim—he’d be 82 on the campaign trail and inching into his late-80s by the end of his first term—so the movement he built will need a new leader. Many on the progressive left were willing to downplay identity politics in this election because Sanders seemed to be in a strong position to secure the nomination—he had a formidable base of support, name recognition, and fundraising infrastructure going into 2020. But the new standard bearers of the progressive movement are hyper-identitarian politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, and they certainly aren’t going to ask voters to look past race, gender, and sexuality.
It always seemed like Sanders was pulled into identity politics against his will. He learned his lesson in 2016, when Black Lives Matter protesters repeatedly disrupted his rallies, the Clinton campaign routinely hit him with allegations of misogyny, and many of his supporters were dubbed “Bernie Bros” and incessantly accused of bigotry—a line of attack that followed him into 2020. But Sanders has never been a natural identitarian, preferring instead to focus on universal issues around class and economic inequality.
The same can’t be said for his successors. While Sanders wasn’t immune to the bitter and divisive forms of identity politics that’ve taken hold on the progressive left, he was in many ways a counterweight to that trend. Now that he has twice failed to secure the Democratic nomination, progressives will almost certainly veer in the direction of Ocasio-Cortez and other figures who make explicit identitarian appeals. At a time when the populist left has built its biggest tent in decades, progressive leaders are about to start tearing it back down.