2016 Democratic Primaries

An Open Letter to Senator Sanders

Dear Senator Sanders,

I want to start off by saying I’m rooting for you. Ideologically, you and I are a match, and I trust you and your record more than Secretary Clinton’s. Though there are those who worry you won’t be able to govern, I don’t buy that line of argumentation. You’ve proven yourself adept at getting things done in an increasingly partisan Congress, and if you can continue to inspire progressive enthusiasm in a way Clinton is struggling to replicate, your down ticket impact could usher in a Congress that will support your agenda.

But that’s a big if.

I do think it’s possible. One need only take a gander at your meteoric ascent to see that you’re gaining traction in a way no one would have predicted a year ago. Your message about economic inequality is resonating among voters whose economy has been decimated by those who cared not for the issue. Your proposals on the subject are imperfect, but they’re leaps and bounds ahead of what’s offered by the rest of the field in terms of substance. What’s more, people believe you when you say you’re going to wage war against those who have long propped up a rigged system.

The problem is that the tunnel vision that propelled you to such heights has now become a liability. You are correct when you say that economic inequality impacts individuals from all walks of life, but in an era that has been distinguished by a rise in identity politics, this narrow brand of intersectionality is insufficient. And as I watch you approach subjects related to identity politics, this becomes glaringly obvious.

It is not that there is some massive gap between you and Secretary Clinton on reproductive rights. I have no doubt that both of you would veto anti-choice legislation brought forth by Congress and nominate justices to the Supreme Court who would uphold a woman’s right to choose. But that’s only part of the picture.

Beyond the actual responsibilities and powers of the presidency, women are looking for you to lead on such subjects. They don’t want one line in a stump speech. They want you to passionately affirm and defend their reproductive rights, because we’re in the midst of the greatest assault on a woman’s right to choose since Roe v. Wade. 

Even if you’re just a candidate, your voice has power as a result of your support. So use it. Take some of that rage directed towards Wall Street and direct it toward anti-choice proponents in state legislatures and Congress. Encourage your progressive brethren to do the same by setting an example. Make it loud. Make it bold. Prove to us that you’ll do more than play defense. Prove to us you’ll lead.

It’s not that I think you’re less likely to stand up for black lives than Secretary Clinton. Indeed, the Secretary’s record on race is rather spotty, and if we judge you by your history alone, your record on the subject is much better. But falling back on your actions during the Civil Rights era is not enough. When you respond to questions about race by deflecting to the economy and saying “everyone” is impacted by it, it sounds like a variation of “All Lives Matter.” You’re right; everyone is impacted by the economy. But individuals, and particularly women, of color are impacted in a disproportionate manner, and you can’t even muster an acknowledgement of that.

Your “we’re all in this together” rationale on race has problems outside of the economic conversation. Racial inequity extends far beyond dollar signs. It’s about schools in communities of color without the resources necessary to give kids a fair shot. It’s about discrimination in housing and hiring. It’s about a criminal justice system where black individuals are far more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested and convicted of the same crime while facing far stiffer penalties. It’s about the cycle of oppression that repeats again and again when these distinctive experiences are not explicitly recognized. And for years, that’s exactly what’s happened.

When you talk about white people deserving reparations too and start counting how many times you say the word “black” at a given event and fall back on the fact that some black people have endorsed you, you could not possibly sound more tone deaf. I’m glad you’re meeting with black leaders to discuss the issues, but it doesn’t seem like you’re growing much from those conversations. You can’t just say you’re going to improve race relations. You can’t just lump black issues into policies that benefit all lives. You have to engage in critical conversations about policies that will address the significant issues facing people of color in this country.

Again, this is about leadership. Too often, black voices are assimilated into general progressive rhetoric. If Ferguson and the subsequent tragedies have taught us anything, it’s that this approach isn’t going to cut it. So do better. Be better, Senator. You need to listen more and listen some more after that. Don’t just look for ways to address black concerns from within your existing platform. Start looking for ways to directly address those concerns, because such solutions are just as necessary as your proposed broad reforms, if not more so. Start acknowledging the validity of the concerns of people of color in a public and unequivocal manner. Don’t shy away from the calls for change and reckoning by relying on platitudes. As you have in the past, boost the voices of leadership within these communities. Use your privilege to do some good. I know you know how to do that. Get back to your roots.

You’ve been floundering on immigration, as well. I appreciate your dedication to keeping families together, I really do. I like the path to citizenship. I’m totally with you on your calls for better treatment of immigrant workers. As Sam Frizell put it, you have, “checked all the boxes for a Democratic presidential candidate” when it comes to immigration reform. But your framing of the issue is increasingly problematic.

There’s a reason that conservatives like Representative Steve King and Numbers USA president Roy Beck sing your praises on immigration. It’s because you’ve couched your conversations on immigration reform in the rhetoric of “protecting American workers.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with that sentiment on face, but when it’s put in the context of immigration reform, it’s a perpetuation of the myth that undocumented immigrants are “stealing” jobs from Americans and function as a drain on the economy. Indeed, you’ve said in the past that, “We should be bringing in significant numbers of unskilled to workers to compete with [unemployed] kids.”

Not only are the assumptions behind such comments demonstrably untrue, but this whole approach ignores the experience of documented and undocumented immigrants alike. They are not just faceless contributions to figures bandied about in political debates. These are real people who face unique struggles and fears. The sooner you start acknowledging that in your platform and on the stump, the better. Right now, you often sound callous.

Once more, this is about leadership. Your policies may be net beneficial, but without compassionate promotion, they are not enough. It’s not just about citizenship. It’s about widespread discrimination and often violence against those who are even perceived as immigrants, regardless of whether they are citizens or not. Those struggles deserve attention as well. You are in a position to not only push for effective reform, but reshape the conversation surrounding such reforms. And that’s important, because one without the other falls short in a major way. Put a human face on a policy problem and it changes the way we approach it. The immigrant population in this country deserves that. This is your chance to rise to the occasion.

Are you seeing the common thread yet, Senator? We need you to lead. We need you to be our champion, to wield your influence in a way that aids those on the ground who are fighting the good fight. We need you to not only know there’s a problem, but understand it. On so many issues, your policies are admirable. But what weakens those policies and causes a disconnect between you and the voters is a seeming erasure of the inherent human element of the problems you’re trying to tackle. You are paying lip service on a surface level to deep and complex issues that manifest in individual experiences. We need to feel like you care, and right now, it’s hard to feel the bern on that note.

Again, I’m rooting for you. I trust your experience and the judgment you’ve shown throughout your years of public service. But it’s hard to be an enthused supporter when I’m watching people I love and respect have their very real pain excluded from the conversation you’re leading. This is not about a fight between you and Hillary. It’s about a fight for our votes — point blank. If you want to earn the support you need to grab the nomination and make it to the White House, you’re going to have to do better.

Hopeful in Illinois,

Lauren Nelson

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Foreign Policy: The Big American Stumbling Block

There are a great number of issues being debated in the 2016 elections. As candidates duke it out over their party’s nomination, a subject of repeated inquiry has been foreign policy, and with good reason: absolutely no candidate on either side of the aisle has a great foreign policy position. It’s not a Republican or Democratic problem. It’s an American one.

I’m not going to waste a lot of keystrokes on the Republican side of the equation. Any of them would have a catastrophic impact on global and national security with their chest beating, xenophobia, racism, and hawkish demeanor. They’re all to happy to send our loved ones overseas to die in the name of ego. They’re already making the world a more dangerous place. Case in point: the front runner is currently featuring in terrorist recruitment videos.

But the Democrats don’t get a pass on this subject, either. Both Sanders and Clinton are problematic in their approach to foreign policy, and giving them a pass in the name of bolstering our candidate of choice is not going to help things.

Foreign policy has long been a weak spot for Sanders. Some argue it’s a function of experience. After all, while he’s not without depth on issues of foreign policy, Clinton’s got him beat by a mile when it comes to bona fides.

And his answers on foreign policy? Not fantastic to date. Some have speculated that this is due to the Clinton machine cutting off his access to credible and experienced foreign policy advisers, and are quick to insist that he’ll have strong advisers once he’s in the White House to guide him to the right answers. Unfortunately, from a strategic perspective, that’s not a great defense. After all, Clinton’s argument is that she’ll be stronger on foreign policy out of the gates, and if Sanders needs time with advisers to get on her level, that’s not going to cut against her assertions.

The notes he does hit aren’t awful, but they aren’t deep, either. We war too much, we spend too much, we should rely on other actors to handle issues within their region, and — over and over and over again — that vote against the war in Iraq. These arguments aren’t fundamentally awful, but he’s less progressive than many think.

At every turn, Sanders has supported President Obama’s military proposals: from voting to fuel Israel’s ongoing human rights abuses against Palestine to supporting ongoing drone warfare. While one can argue that taking a firm stance on these issues is not tenable in the given political climate, these positions also cut against the idea that Sanders will not be business as usual. On the subject where he has perhaps the greatest influence once in the White House, Sanders offers more of the same.

But if you think Clinton is untouchable on this subject, you couldn’t be more wrong. Sanders would likely continue to support the foreign policy seen under the Obama administration, but Clinton is a sure thing. Yes, she is experienced, but her experience reveals a candidate who is even more hawkish than Obama. More than once, she was the one at the table pushing for Obama to more aggressively intervene in crises in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, favoring more on the ground efforts and a ramp up of drone activity. She’s also spoken more than once about a desire to provide Israel with even more firepower. When it comes to potential conflict down the road, she’s all too willing to go to war. In her own words, she “will not hesitate to take military action.”

And let’s not forget who she’s turning to for advice on foreign policy: Henry Kissinger. I’m not just talking about the praise she heaped on during a review of his book. She not only looked up to his example while shaping her own views on foreign policy, but turned to him for counsel on her decisions, occasionally asking him to present his case to the Obama.

Why is it a problem that one secretary of state turn to a former secretary of state for guidance? Because Kissinger is a fucking monster. A decorated war criminal. A man who referred to bombing as a form of diplomacy. A twisted nationalist whose advocacy and efforts gave rise to some of the most terrifying political regimes in the world. He’s a stain on American history, and often regarded as the father of the sprawling beast that represents American foreign policy today, in all its messed up glory. Know who else thinks he’s swell? That would be Ted Cruz. Not great company for Clinton.

If, in Clinton’s judgment, Kissinger is an admirable man and trusted adviser, her judgment is absolute shit. Point blank.

But Kissinger didn’t get us to this point on his own. His ascent and the continuation of his philosophy in American foreign policy was fueled by the electorate’s general ignorance of global politics and cultural differences. When the public accepts “America is the best!” as a justification for hawkish foreign policy, those pushing it get their way.

And that’s why we’re looking at a presidential field today whose foreign policy is discombobulated at best and downright dangerous at worst. Until we start prioritizing global affairs literacy and history lessons outside the tint of American exceptionalism colored glasses, we won’t get the leadership on this subject we need… but we’ll certainly get what we deserve.

The Feminist Fail

This one’s for the women.

When I was growing up, for a silly while there, I refused to call myself a feminist. I didn’t know any better at the time. Living in a super conservative community, the only thing my history classes had taught me about feminism was bra burning, and as a teen who developed early, I needed my bras, thank you very much. (I wish I was kidding.)

Then I got to college. It didn’t take long for my views on the f-word to change. OF COURSE I was a feminist. YES to pay equality. YES to reproductive rights. YES to bodily autonomy. FUCK YOU rape culture. I was a loud, proud, in your face feminist determined to raise my daughter as such.

When I left college and began writing in earnest, though, that badge of honor grew heavier and more cumbersome. The bright and shiny feminism that had so inspired me now seemed strikingly white, painfully straight, and more than a little out of touch with the times. I was uncomfortable watching women with skin like mine telling women of color to pipe down and get in line. I remember my horror when learning about Sangers’ eugenics and the “lavender menace.”

I tried to quell my misgivings with self-assurances that it was all just a part of “growing pains” for the movement, but in the past several months, I’ve grown more uncomfortable still. The pace of that growth in an era where technology gives us the ability to connect and learn from each other in an unprecedented manner seems exceedingly slow.

I’ve watched TSwift and Miley spouting the feminist version of #AllLivesMatter as women of color in the industry lamented racial disparity. I’ve watched Meryl Streep don a shirt proclaiming, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” before she today shrugged off film festival diversity laments by saying, “We’re all Africans.” I’ve watched people complain about Jenner receiving attention that should be reserved for “real women.” I’ve watched women of color criticizing Sanders lambasted by men and women supporting him for advancing the “politics of division.” I’ve watched Gloria Steinem tell me that I’m only supporting Sanders for the boys. I’ve watched Madeline Albright tell me there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support Clinton while the candidate herself laughed. I’ve watched feminist friends who I respect echo the same damn things with condescension that sounds a whole lot like, “GET OFF MY LAWN” while younger voices ignore entirely the historic moment we face in today’s political climate.

And you know what I think? I think there’s a special place in hell for this kind of tone deaf feminism: this feminism that says the experiences of women are homogeneous, this feminism that thinks the movement needs a singular voice, this feminism that tells people saying otherwise to shut up and sit down.

I am all for empowering women. I am there for the ongoing battles and the battles we’ve yet to wage. But we’re going to lose the war if we keep trying to corral people onto this path that ignores the battles going on to our left and right, because that strategy leaves a lot of people behind.

You may not see color, but the economy sure does. Unemployment rates for white women in the last quarter of 2015 may have been at 4%, but it was 6.7% for Hispanic and Latina women, and 8% for Black women. White women may make $0.78 to a white man’s dollar, but Black women make $0.68 on the dollar, and Hispanic and Latina women bring in only $0.54 on the dollar. And these figures can vary dramatically by region, state, and city.

And violence against women of color is not just structural. It’s estimated that 17.7% of white women will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives, but the numbers are worse for women of color. Approximately 40% of Black women report encountering coercive sexual activity by the age of 18, and it is estimated that for every Black woman who reports a rape, there are 15 that do not. Anti-immigrant vitriol can frequently discourage Hispanic and Latina women from reporting, regardless of immigration status. But migrant workers know all too well the dangers they face, with more than half a million women calling the fields they work “fields of panties” due to the prevalence of unchecked sexual assault.

And there are other issues that are distinctly important for women of color that white women may not give a lot of thought to in the end. Black women are eight times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated, while Hispanic and Latina women are four times more likely to face jail time. When women of limited means face the legal system, they overwhelming lose.

It’s not just about color, though; sexuality and gender identity can play a significant role in risk factors, too. Half of bisexual women and more than 64% of transwomen will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.  It’s estimated that at least 20% of homeless youth are members of the LGBT community, and 41% of transwomen will attempt suicide at some point in their lives.

Let’s not forget age, either. Young women today identify as feminist in record levels. They may not have experienced the battles faced by their foremothers on the ground level, or the days before Roe v. Wade, or a world without women in politics, but they face a new set of demons. They’re the ones punching up in the face of widespread digital harassment. They’re the ones born into an economy ruined by those that came before them, a climate exacerbating the gender gap in the workforce. And their voices, in today’s political climate, are chastised for not directly aligning with women in leadership on all issues, the assumption beneath it all being that they’re not smart enough/informed enough to know what’s what. Silly little girls.

That doesn’t mean that older women don’t have unique struggles. They know, perhaps better than most, exactly what’s on the line today because it’s what they sacrificed so much for in their younger days, and are frustrated when young women remain apathetic. They’ve been hit hard by the economic downturn, as well, with wiped out retirement savings pushing them back into a workforce that doesn’t know what to do with them. Their ballooning healthcare costs are nearly incomprehensible to many younger women with relatively more robust health. The bottom line: age matters no matter which side of the spectrum you’re on.

And how about a shout out to the often dismissed women with disabilities? These are women who are statistically far more likely than other women to be assaulted, unemployed, and discriminated against, but you won’t hear much about them in feminist cannon. From forced sterilization to police violence against those with mental illness to feminist events that consistently fail to accommodate those with special needs, women with disabilities are left out in the cold at every single turn. They’re footnotes. It’s repulsive.

The point of this very surface level collection of differences is to highlight that every woman’s experience in life is unique. It’s going to be influenced by their race, their income, their sexuality, their gender identity, their location, and more. Those experiences are important, and the stories they tell should inform that fight instead of being pushed to the side if we want changes that actually make a difference. Those experiences are going to foster unique perspectives that shed light in the gaps that pepper our own. Those experiences make women as a collective so much stronger.

To argue that a feminism that does not recognize these differences and raise up the distinctive voices who can speak to them is somehow representative of the women it purports to support is breathtaking in its idiocy. When the movement and its figureheads say we only need to hear from someone that looks like them, loves like them, lives like them, they make it clear that this is not about fighting for women; it’s about fighting for women like them. It’s a demonstration of a willingness to sacrifice the women not like them to advance themselves.

So stop telling women they’re distracting from the cause when they voice an experience that deviates from the central narrative. Stop telling women they’re traitors when they dare to criticize the mainstream feminist culture. Stop telling women that the only way they can be supportive of women is if they support your woman. Stop telling women the battle they’re fighting doesn’t matter.

Just stop. Listen. It’s the only way the war gets won.