Actress Susan Sarandon has not yet received her late-in-life “I was a radical once” laurels like the beloved Jane Fonda, who politicos on both sides of the aisle used to detest. That’s because, decades into her leftist political activism, Sarandon still disturbs moderates—or more specifically, the often morally panicked center-left liberals of the Democratic Party who are so outwardly desperate to get Trump out of office that they’re preemptively swatting at progressives and socialists, condemning them for not falling in line.
On Tuesday, Sarandon retweeted Biden-critical socialist Ryan Knight, showing her support for his People’s Party initiative, writing: “Standing by @ProudSocialist and respect his courage in sharing his journey over the past few years. We need more Ryan Knights to stand up and speak truth to power every single day.” In turn, pundit Soledad O’Brien, a Harvard legacy graduate who earns millions a year from her various TV gigs, retweeted Sarandon with an aside jibe, “(Rich white lady reminding people of color why they shouldn’t trust her take on anything).”
The tweet, which of course went viral, was followed by Sarandon’s own viral thread pointing out that she had already pledged to vote Biden in order to get Trump out of office, but would be supporting the People’s Party thereafter in the hopes of building progressive political representation for the left. Sarandon also pointed out several technical issues with Biden’s campaign site that have long gone unaddressed. (O’Brien returned to tweeting about journalist Bob Woodward.)
Ryan Knight and his People’s Party have garnered both support and criticism from amongst the wide, wide spectrum of the further left. Knight supports Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and the transition to what he calls an eco-socialist economy. His perspective aligns pretty faithfully with that of the Jacobin magazine crowd but draws ire from leftists who seek to divest from political expediency and electoral politics overall, as well as those who see a Green New Deal as encouraging continued U.S. imperialism (where will all the precious metals for this new green technology come from?) rather than envisioning a society that does not use up so many resources, so fast. This kind of committed discord is famously common amongst more radical leftists, but since it’s an election year, constant centrist interjection triggers a sense of principled unity within the group.
Sarandon, who enthusiastically supported Bernie Sanders in the last two Democratic presidential primary races, is undoubtedly rich and white; she has had a long, successful Hollywood career surely propped up not only by her undeniable talent but also by her whiteness. In fact, plenty of leftists and socialists and communists are wealthy white people; class—and race—traitors are warmly welcomed if they’re useful. But O’Brien, the sixth—of six children—in her family to attend the world’s most famous Ivy League college, is also rich; she not only earns $3 million a year as a big-name broadcast journalist, but is also married to an investment banker. O’Brien’s mother was Black, an Afro-Cuban who left her native country at 14 for the U.S., where she eventually met O’Brien’s father, who was white, while they were students at Johns Hopkins University. Springing forth from her well-appointed interracial family, O’Brien has crafted a powerful online presence as center-left journalism’s voice for Black civil rights, and takes regular opportunities to call out those further left than her for being out of touch with an unidentified mass of “people of color.” When she does this, she tends to omit much of the biography she has previously shared on social media and that her own wealth, in upbringing and as of late, may raise questions about her ongoing performance as an unimpeachable authority on matters of justice.
Sarandon, also sitting on millions, has used her status as a Hollywood star to serve as a voice against the Iraq War, long before it was popular on the left to point out the lies and cynicism of the U.S.’s post-9/11 crusade. She also faced criticism for voting Nader in 2000 and telling MSNBC’s Chris Hayes ahead of the 2016 election that “some people feel” a Trump win “will bring revolution immediately” and that she was waiting to see how she would vote, later clarifying on Twitter, “LOL that I would ever vote Trump.”
To many on the left, its easy to see that Sarandon is obviously anti-Trump, but what she questions in her provocative statements is whether the political system we have in place ought to be upended altogether rather than accommodated by status quo-obsessed Dems like the Clintons and Biden who, for the record, are pro-war, pro-fracking, and, in terms of funding at least, pro-police. This kind of revolution-driven sentiment was inserted into the American political tradition via the Black radical tradition, not just by white leftists reading Marx. But then, Sarandon is an easier target for pundits like O’Brien who make a lot of money by declaring themselves the only reasonable people left of Mitt Romney, the voices most fit to speak to the needs, desires, and political priorities of Black Americans writ large. Rather than have to engage with the substance of Sarandon’s political commitments (if she’s going to engage with Sarandon at all), O’Brien can dismiss them as too white, too privileged to be of interest to—it’s implied—poor and working class Black people.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said it best when she pointed out that if this were nearly any other country, she and Joe Biden would not be in the same party. The same goes for Sarandon and O’Brien, and it seems like Sarandon—after she dutifully fills out the bubble for Biden in an extremely blue state—has actually made plans to associate with people who have a similar set of basic political commitments to her within the distorted yet powerful realm of electoral politics. At first glance, it seems a bit weird that centrists are so mad about it—don’t they want a party full of people who are ambivalent about fracking and love their private health insurance, and emptied of those pushing for ICE abolition and wealth redistribution?
On further examination, however, it becomes clear that what people like O’Brien fear is their obsolescence. If more people start to realize that the Democratic Party largely represents a more warm and fuzzy kind of conservatism—dominated politicians willing to shout diversity and peace as they drop drones and compete with Republicans to see who can hike up police budgets the most—then who will pay for her takes?