Gender, Race, Class and the 2016 Democratic Debates: Thoughts for International Women’s Day

Part II of Gender and the Democratic Primaries and Caucuses

Underneath it all, there is a real debate going on between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton – and probably even more, between their advocates and surrogates. But I am not thinking about the ones most of the blogosphere talks about most. This debate is class and wealth and race and gender.

For some time I wondered why listening to the Democratic debates and campaign exchanges keep taking me back to heated discussions I witnessed (ok, and participated in) back in my graduate student days in the early 1970s. In that era, varieties of Marxist theory framed the thinking and scholarship of many students of social and political theory, social stratification, comparative politics, and other fields. It was, simultaneously, the era of the serious rise of race studies and gender studies. Lots of lively discussion back then.

What keeps coming to mind, like an old and not beloved song that gets stuck in your brain, are the old, even historic debates over whether class and wealth inequality is “primary” in the sense that race and gender inequalities are in some important way driven and determined by class and wealth, or whether race and gender inequalities are also fundamental. If class and wealth are primary, then eliminating unjust class and wealth inequality will ultimately eliminate race ad gender inequality. If not, and if one actually believes that race and gender inequalities are important, then social change requires focusing directly on all these different bases of inequality in more equal measure. This debate has flared up from time to time since the late 19th century.

I believe that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both define the elimination of structural inequalities and lack of opportunity based on class and wealth, gender, and race as fundamental goals, and would make vigorous efforts to act on these commitments if elected. They have both spent their professional careers and adult lives acting on these goals. Yes, differently. And they and their advocates have complaints about how the other one has pursued those goals, and how seriously. But they are headed in the same direction, and a dramatically different one, certainly, than the candidates in the other major party.

My earworm is born of this: For Bernie Sanders, at least as evidenced by his speeches and debate responses, all issues lead back to campaign finance and class and wealth inequality. (Yes, he now spends a lot of time discussing the transcripts of speeches, but that can be coded under campaign finance and class and wealth inequality.) He sounds earnest about gender and race, but not nearly as comfortable, and he quickly returns to class, wealth, and campaign finance at every turn.

There are three ways to understand his constant return to home base.

One, the simplest one, is that sexism and racism are just not as important to him. They matter, but not as much.

The second, an explanation of political expedience, would say that whatever he cares about, he has stirred up the crowds and donations by emphasizing class and wealth because that is what works politically. The public, or his public, cares about and is moved more by class and wealth than gender and race. Given the primary and caucus results, it is reasonable to draw the inference that his supporters are more focused on class and wealth. He is sticking to his message and base.

The third explanation is that as a socialist (or “democratic socialist”) of a certain age, he reflects the traditional Marxist framework he must have heard when a student that defines class is primary, a driver for gender and race inequality. In this framework, gender and race inequalities are important but they are mechanisms for the more fundamental structures of class and wealth inequality.

Hillary Clinton has developed the standard response that she is not a “single issue” candidate, and wants, instead, to overcome all “the barriers that are holding people back.” Given Bernie Sanders’ longstanding public advocacy of gender and race equality, the only way to understand her criticism of the “single issue” basis of Senator Sanders’ campaign is that she hears the old primacy of class argument, which is not her take on the mechanisms of inequality.

Of course, equally important, is the way these social categories are woven together in our real lives — what some people call the intersectionalities. As many folks have discussed, our experience of gender depends on such things as race and class, our experience of race depends on such things as class and gender, and our experience of class depends on such things as race and gender. But that does not mean any of these things boil away to steam.

To some people, this discussion would all be left-wing claptrap. To others, too cynical and tied to a candidate to listen really closely to both sides, it would be irrelevant. Maybe it sounds too “deep” to reflect the real thinking of real candidates, but these are both smart and well-educated people who have been thinking about equality and inequality throughout their long adult lives.

Reading the comments sections after news articles on the Democratic race, the sparring that is now taking place on social media, and the results of the primaries and caucuses and the exit and entrance polls, it is clear that a lot of people are hearing dog whistles about gender and race and how much they are fundamental in the political and policy thinking of the two Democratic candidates.

No doubt, the vast majority of people who care about eliminating structural racism and sexism would prefer either Democratic candidate to any of the Republicans. But this political scientist can’t help mulling over these questions.

Now be gone, my earworm. And Happy International Women’s Day.      @VSapiro