Hillary’s Campaign Redux: The Return of Dog-Whistle Politics, With a Twist | #DemPrimary on Blog#42

During the PBS debate in Wisconsin on February 11th, Hillary Clinton used language that lends itself to what one might call racial dog whistling, all throughout the debate.

Clinton: “Judy, I think that the best analysis that I’ve seen based on Senator Sanders plans is that it would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40%, but what is most concerning to me is that in looking at the plans — let’s take healthcare for example.”

This is a very Barry Goldwater-like accusation to make. Why? After years of forced austerity by the GOP, with enormous losses of public-sector jobs at the federal and state level, it is horrifying that inadequate oversight allowed for the poisoning of Flint’s water supply to go unnoticed for so long – never mind the criminally indifferent behavior of public officials. Adding insult to injury, when Flint remains unresolved weeks after it was first reported, this kind of accusation is contradictory coming from a Hillary Clinton who claims to be a “progressive Democrat who gets things done.”

Moreover, there are many cities and rural areas, mostly inhabited by minorities, that are known to be the current targets of this kind of environmental racism. Then, just in the last three years, between the toxic dumping of chemicals in West Virginia and North Carolina, unsanitary conditions at Big Pharma plants, salmonella contamination of food stuffs at various Big Food packing plants, it is clear that corporate self-policing with minimal to no effective regulatory oversight just isn’t working. This points to a need for increased funding and additional inspectors and regional offices.

In, I Endorse, Jared Bernstein writes on this specific question:

–”If you roughly sum up the costs of what Sanders is proposing, you will find that federal government spending under his agenda grows to something like 30% of GDP instead of the historical average of around 20%. That’s not at all unheard of in European and Scandinavian social democracies, as the candidate himself often notes. It is, however, as I suggested in the piece, unheard of in our own history. Again, that’s one way to interpret his call for a “political revolution.” And it’s more evidence of his path-non-dependency.”

Attacking Sanders from the right on a core Democratic plank is a strange position for Hillary to take, especially coming off four straight years of obstructionism and the effective nullification of a very popular president. Clinton made this comment on the heels of Judy Woodruff’s question to Sanders about government size. The right answer, to a Democrat, is that government should be as big as necessary in order to prevent monstrosities like Flint, West Virginia and West, Texas. Why else, then, do we pay taxes?

While it is understandable a journalist would pose this type of question, it is bizarre that the candidate who bills herself as that “progressive who gets things done” would run with this particular ball. Here is the question followed by Sanders’ answer:

WOODRUFF: And, welcome back to this PBS Newshour debate, Democratic debate, here in Milwaukee. Let’s get right to the questions. Senator Sanders, to you first. Coming off the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, there are many voters who are taking a closer look at you, and your ideas, and they’re asking how big a role do you foresee for the federal government? It’s already spending 21% of the entire U.S. economy. How much larger would government be in the lives of Americans under a Sanders presidency?

SANDERS: Well, to put that in a context, Judy, I think we have to understand that in the last 30 years in this country there has been a massive transfer of wealth going from the hands of working families into the top one-tenth of 1% whose percentage of wealth has doubled. In other words, the very rich are getting richer, almost everybody is going — getting poorer. What I believe is the United States, in fact, should join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee healthcare to all people. Our Medicare for all single-payer proposal will save the average middle class family $5,000 a year. I do believe that in the year 2016 we have to look in terms of public education as colleges as part of public education making public colleges and universities tuition free. I believe that when real unemployment is close to 10%, and when our infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, our water systems, Flint, Michigan comes to mind. Our waste water plants, our rail, our airports, in many places are disintegrating. Yeah, we can create 13 million jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure at a cost of a trillion dollars.

Given this nation’s history with the use of racially-coded language to achieve political goals, demanding that Sanders “level with the people” is a curious tack to take, given that Sanders has never been accused of lying by anyone, about anything. In fact, when it comes to public trust, Sanders consistently rates much higher than Clinton who used that phrase against Sanders three separate times during this debate:

“Every progressive economist who has analyzed that says that the numbers don’t add up, and that’s a promise that cannot be kept, and it’s really important now that we are getting into the rest of the country that both of us are held to account for explaining what we are proposing because, especially with healthcare, this is not about math. This is about people’s lives, and we should level with the American people about what we can do to make sure they get quality affordable healthcare.”


“So if you’re having Medicare for all, single-payer, you need to level with people about what they will have at the end of the process you are proposing. And based on every analysis that I can find by people who are sympathetic to the goal, the numbers don’t add up, and many people will actually be worse off than they are right now.”


“I’ve tried to be as specific to answer questions so that my proposals can be vetted, because I feel like we have to level with people for the very reason, Gwen, that you are mentioning.”

There is a subtle subtext here and a running theme of well-known whistles that have historically been applied to people of Sanders’ heritage, using the economic stereotype of Jews as untrustworthy with money. This kind of expression by Clinton through at least the last two debates, mirrors the 2008 primary‘s progression into the ugly fight the Clintons waged against then-candidate Obama as his popularity grew and her lead started to evaporate. Obama, then, was also portrayed as the “other.”

Then, there is this exchange which goes to a different antisemitic stereotype, that of the treacherous Jew:

CLINTON: “I want to follow up on something having to do with leadership, because, you know, today Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test. And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment. He wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers’ remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy. And I just couldn’t agree — disagree more with those kinds of comments. You know, from my perspective, maybe because I understand what President Obama inherited, not only the worst financial crisis but the antipathy of the Republicans in Congress, I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for being a president…” (APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: “… who got us out of that…” (APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: “… put us on firm ground, and has sent us into the future. And it is a — the kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans. I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”

SANDERS: “Madam Secretary, that is a low blow. I have worked with President Obama for the last seven years. When President Obama came into office we were losing 800,000 jobs a month, 800,000 jobs a month. We had a $1.4 trillion deficit. And the world’s financial system is on the verge of collapse. As a result of his efforts and the efforts of Joe Biden against unprecedented, I was there in the Senate, unprecedented Republican obstructionism, we have made enormous progress.” (APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: “But you know what? Last I heard we lived in a democratic society. Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with the president, including a president who has done such an extraordinary job. So I have voiced criticisms. You’re right. Maybe you haven’t. I have. But I think to suggest that I have voiced criticism, this blurb that you talk about, you know what the blurb said? The blurb said that the next president of the United States has got to be aggressive in bringing people into the political process. That’s what I said. That is what I believe.” (APPLAUSE)

It is a rare sight when a Democrat questions the loyalty of a fellow Democrat. I can’t think of any other Democratic politician who has attempted to impugn another, using a tack that hearkens back to the Nixon administration. Moreover, throughout President Obama’s presidency, Bernie Sanders continued to caucus with Democrats and during the time the Senate was under Democratic control, chaired one of the Senate committees; a duty conferred to him by Democrats. So, clearly, Sanders’ allegiance has never been in question.

Of course, these questionable attacks could be completely innocent and the repeated use of familiar racially-tinged references coincidental. However, the Clintons having such long careers in politics that are rife with documented uses of racially-coded language and dog-whistles, including just last week, tends to support the suspicion that these are not mere happenstance.

I recently pointed out in this essay, questionable media ethics exposed by Gawker of “outsourcing editorial judgment to a member of Clinton’s staff,” Lately, I’ve seen a spate of articles about Sanders’ Judaism. The topic, in and of itself, is a perfectly valid area of exploration. However, when contrasting and comparing two new pieces published in different outlets one is left to wonder about a possible unseen hand.

In the Jewish Daily Forward article, “The Key to Bernie Sanders’s Appeal Isn’t Socialism. It’s Yiddish Socialism,” Daniel Katz writes:

“But even many liberal Jews retained a sensibility about the importance of racial-ethnic cultural diversity to a healthy democratic and economically stable society. Radical and liberal Jews alike overwhelmingly supported the Black Freedom Struggle and Johnson’s Great Society programs.

It was in this environment in the early 1960s that Sanders joined the Young People’s Socialist League and organized for the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. For some, Sanders’s call for revolution is mild. Medicare for all and increased taxes on the top 1% won’t change the economic, political and social structures. Perhaps. Sanders has for more than 50 years embraced a form of socialism that is both radical in its critique of social injustice and pragmatic in offering solutions. But his vision is also deeper and more complex than most commentators understand. His “political revolution,” steeped in a specific tradition, time and place, does not privilege class warfare over identity politics, or vice versa. This is the key to his growing appeal.”

Contrast the above passage with this one from Gal Beckerman’s “Bernie Sanders and A First For Jews,” in the New York Times:

“When asked at last week’s Democratic debate in Milwaukee if he was worried about “thwarting history” by blocking Hillary Clinton’s path to the White House, Mr. Sanders mused that it would still be historic for “somebody with my background” to become president. But the background he had in mind was probably his unwavering identification as a socialist.

It’s an identity that derives from the Jewish socialists at the turn of the last century whose embrace of a politics that strove for equality was also a way to escape from poverty and anti-Semitism. In some ways, Mr. Sanders is a Bundist, one of those Jewish but universal-minded socialists who valued their own culture but were fiercely secular, rejecting Zionism in favor of making a more equitable and just home for themselves — whether in Poland or America — through solidarity with the rest of the working class.

If Mr. Sanders’s candidacy is a test of whether a purely economic argument pitched against the “billionaire class” can win out over identity politics and the culture wars, then it’s also a test of his ability to promote this uniquely Jewish invention, an ethnic identity that transcends its particularity.”

While the first article informs, the second both questions Sanders’ Jewish self-identity incorrectly and assumes, based on one interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a mention that Sanders spent Yom Kippur speaking at Liberty University, that Sanders identifies primarily as a socialist. However, Sanders, who is not an observant Jew, does not shy away from asserting his Jewish identity whenever he is directly asked about it. Sanders is also not a socialist in the classic sense of the term, or in the “Jewish socialist” classification sense of the term. The kind of socialism Sanders identifies with is Democratic socialism of the kind one associates with Europe’s labor movements, and not the Jewish emigre movements of New York in the last century, even though, clearly, Sanders’ Jewish ethics are derived from the uniquely secular Jewish environment he was raised in. The first article, from The Forward, better explains the environment that Sanders matured in, but neither article explains the arc of Sanders’ development after he left Brooklyn for Chicago.

At a time when racial bias is at such an all-time high that it is the focus of a new movement for civil rights, Sanders provides a uniquely universalist approach to solving some of America’s most persistent problems; one that is decoupled from America’s race-centric approach, one that embraces the humanist ethos, rather than tribal affiliation, including his own. Sanders’ growing appeal in “firewall” communities may well be a subconscious appreciation by the youngest in these groups, that a universalist approach, together with the balancing effect of today’s new civil rights militancy is the wave of the future.

Martin Luther King was a Democratic socialist, as were many of the leaders of the 60’s and 70’s-era civil rights groups.  The work of the Black Panther movement, though radical in its day, is part and parcel of current day policy.

America’s shift to the left is both a rejection of 1990’s neoliberalism and an inevitable realignment, after 8 years of wild swing to the right that have brought us to the precipice of oligarchy. Hillary Clinton’s continuity is the continuation of neoliberalism, with a incrementalism added, to account for the politics of our time. Bernie Sanders’ political revolution, if he can bring it about, would be a return to FDR and a new, New Deal.

Additional sources

New York Times transcript of the PBS debate

USA Today: #NotMyAbuela: Twitter users mock Clinton post aimed at Hispanic voters

White neoliberal swagger: Hillary Clinton meets BLM 

Racial tensions roil Democratic race

A series of comments from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, her husband and her supporters are spurring a racial backlash and adding a divisive edge to the presidential primary as the candidates head south to heavily African-American South Carolina.

The comments, which ranged from the New York senator appearing to diminish the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement — an aide later said she misspoke — to Bill Clinton dismissing Sen. Barack Obama’s image in the media as a “fairy tale” — generated outrage on black radio, black blogs and cable television. And now they’ve drawn the attention of prominent African-American politicians.

“A cross-section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of some of these statements,” said Obama spokeswoman Candice Tolliver, who said that Clinton would have to decide whether she owed anyone an apology.




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