“Killary Clinton is stealing the nomination and the system is rigged against Bernie Sanders,” said the two young white guys standing behind me in line. They rambled incessantly about how she was cheating and could not be trusted. Superdelegates were their greatest frustration. Unelected delegates who could “decide” the nomination proved that the process was a sham that was intentionally set up to prevent Sanders from winning.
At first I tried to ignore the conversation and thought they were Trump supporters (“Killary” is usually a right-wing thing). But once it became clear that these guys were Sanders supporters, I had to jump in. For years, these guys had been “my people.” I have been a fan of Sanders long before his presidential run and have made many friends due to our mutual admiration of his policies. Surely, I’d be able to have a civil, rational conversation with these guys, right?
When, I chimed in it was evident that we were speaking different languages. We agreed on most of the substantive policy issues, and I told them how I even interned for Sanders about a decade ago. We should have been able to see eye to eye, but we could not. The main source of their frustration was merely the fact that they had lost. The fact that she is ahead in the popular vote, has won more primaries and caucuses, and has earned more delegates was to them a minor nuisance. They had their absurd talking points and were unwilling to deviate into reality.
The more I reflected on them, the more I realized the key point: They felt entitled to win, and a defeat meant that someone must have cheated or that their opinions did not matter, which of course couldn’t be true. They preferred to suspend reality and fabricate injustices rather than concede that Sanders has lost fair and square.
Essentially, we disagreed on what America supposedly promised or owed us. They felt success was promised to them. The entitlement to believe that you should always win allowed them to overlook how the system in many ways has always been unjustly rigged in their favor because they’re white. I brought up race during our conversation and how I’m very aware of how a system can be rigged against you. These guys acknowledged my point, but it was obvious that this reality did not factor much into their thinking. They felt aggrieved and cheated, and that was all that mattered.
They could not understand the perspectives of blacks, Latinos and other minorities in America who are regularly treated as threats to society before their voices can be heard. We are often silenced before we even have the chance to win. And as a result, we know that losing is a reality we will confront and that success can be a difficult and long process that may only show its face in the lives of our children or grandchildren who have more opportunities because we’ve spent a lifetime fighting for positive change.
These guys could not understand this struggle. They wanted immediate success and gratification, and they were not used to things not going their way. The issues and the lives of others had become irrelevant. All they wanted was for me to agree that they had been unjustly cheated, and that “Killary” and the DNC had rigged everything against them. I could not agree, so I had to walk away.
Sanders’s message has resonated mostly with a younger, predominantly white electorate like those two guys. Their message and frustrations have been heard loud and clear, but their electoral defeats have resulted in an intensified pack or tribalist mentality that unfortunately has similarities to the white tribalism that has guided Trump’s campaign. Sanders and Trump are mining similar disaffections amongst the white electorate.
On Face the Nation, Sanders recently attempted to pour cold water on some of the rage and rhetoric of his supporters, “I wouldn’t use the word rigged…I think it’s just a dumb process which has certainly disadvantaged our campaign.”
Trump on the other hand regularly feeds and emboldens these sentiments. He is speaking to voters like a commenter to The Atlantic whose perspective was so striking that the publication published his unsolicited comment in their Notes section, which regularly incorporates a more conversational and untraditional approach to covering the news. The commenter is a Midwestern, working-class white male in his late 30s who intends to vote for Trump if Sanders does not win the nomination because “if it is all going to be tribal politics, then well, I guess you have to go with your own tribe—if not for your sake, then for the sake of your kids.”
Sanders has broadened the Democratic electorate to include voters who may not normally participate in the primaries and caucuses, but now they need to combat the tribalism that could negatively impact Clinton and other Democrats in the general election. Sanders, unfortunately, has said that he has no obligation to convince his supporters to throw in with Clinton.
A beguiling component of Sanders’s campaign is how the unintentional white tribalism that has been forged on shared economic hardships has boosted his campaign, while at the same time rendering him unappealing to the minorities he needed to win the nomination.
Sanders’s class-based, inequality and economy focused agenda was not intended to stoke racial divisions, but even progressives are impacted by the class and race-based structures that American society has been built upon. Minorities agree with Sanders’s commitment to crack down on big banks and Wall Street, but many of the economic and social injustices we face exist on Main Street and within the police precincts that are supposed to protect us. And while Sanders may see this distinction, some of his supporters appear not to.
As an African American I could not join the tribe of Sanders’s belligerent, incensed supporters. But I should not have to as long as both they and I are committed to working together to combat structures that disenfranchise Americans electorally and economically. The fact that we could not should be incredibly disconcerting to Sanders, Clinton, and the DNC.
White entitlement is shaping up to be a critical issue during this election for both the Democrats and the Republicans. Trump and the GOP are championing the entitled white life of yore. But the Democrats have another dilemma and must figure out a way for their diverse electorate to converse and unite around the shared goals of equity and progress without the archaic divisions and privileges of the past. Thus far it looks like the Democrats and the Sanders campaign still have a lot of work to do.