On Dolores Huerta and Bernie Sanders

After attending her Nevada caucus, revered labor leader, civil rights activist, and Hillary Clinton surrogate Dolores Huerta reported on Twitter that her attempts to provide a Spanish-language translation to caucus proceedings were shouted down by Bernie Sanders supporters chanting "English only." Although Buzzfeed confirmed the story, subsequent video released from the caucus shows Sanders supporters chanting only "neutral!"--meaning they did not think a campaign person should be performing this function--and that it was the moderator who decided, in the face of this objection, to conduct the caucus in "English only." This minor debacle gives rise to numerous observations, including the dubious value of the caucus itself, especially a poorly staffed one. But as the dust settles, it's clear that Huerta misreported what transpired at that caucus--intentionally or not--and that the press repeated this accusation before vetting it properly.

I don't have any desire, or see any gain, in attacking Dolores Huerta (or, for that matter, John Lewis, who recently claimed not to see Sanders at any of the black freedom movement's most famous marches or protests). These people are not beyond reproach, but they are icons for a reason and if we truly value the communities they have worked to represent, then I think the Sanders folks should be content with simply correcting misinformation. People who identify with those leaders will welcome or disregard any particular comment as they see fit.

To me the more meaningful reflection concerns the mechanics of controversies, even when they are more manufactured than real. The pernicious and longstanding bias in the media for superficial conflict, paired with their manifest bias for Hillary Clinton, elevates these encounters to a kind of "identity politics theater," a blunt but powerful narrative device used to measure the Sanders' commitment to his professed beliefs.

I personally don't believe Bernie Sanders will become a stronger candidate unless he begins to treat incidents like the Huerta accusation as an opportunity to affirm and to narrate the individual costs of the structural barriers that his campaign is devoted to dismantling. If there has been a woeful lack of critical scrutiny on the part of the press, there has also been a deeply regrettable reluctance on the part of Senator Sanders to put a face, a name, and a story to his revolution.

People of color inveigh against racism not because they have read statistics, but because they have experienced it as pervasive. Women denounce misogyny not because they have carefully inspected new statutes designed to regulate their bodies, but because they don't have the privileges men enjoy. Workers remain disgusted by Goldman Sachs, not because of the ways in which Dodd Frank has been vitiated, but because they don't have the time they want to spend with their kids or the savings to safely see them through college. Any or all of them may very well point to statistics demonstrating disparity, to new strictures placed on a woman's body, or to the lingering dangers banks pose despite Dodd Frank, but these should be regarded as citations to an argument as much as they are arguments themselves. The very power and persuasiveness of these facts derive from the profound ways in which they shape peoples' lives.

So, at the risk of chiding the Sanders campaign for something they did not do, I want to express some of my personal disappointment that they do not handle these interactions any better. They seem to minimize them, and I think that's a miscalculation, even if it is not a mistake. To my mind, these instances of "identity politics theater" present Senator Sanders with an opportunity to better ground, and more carefully nuance, both himself and his campaign. Naturally it's unrealistic and entirely inauthentic to expect him to become a maudlin presenter of America's woes, and one can take the point I am making entirely too far. But I think the recitation of statistics, though they attest to powerful realities, can never recognize the many ways in which people feel unseen. There is no one incident or interaction that can do that either--yet, even in light of that obvious drawback, it is good to seize upon them if only to acknowledge that simple fact. If Dolores Huerta's characterization of the Sanders supporters at her caucus struck a chord, it is because too many people feel silenced and excluded. People examine the Sanders campaign's response more in light of the latter than they will question the credentials of the former.

Since Sanders has made the laudable (and I think correct) decision not to elevate spontaneous or quiet interactions with his supporters as a stand-in for his views on identity--that is, create his own "identity politics theater"--then if he should choose to deal with these interactions as a moment to mark off his views, and underscore the personal dimension of his many interventions, then he'll have to rely upon Hillary Clinton and her supporters to supply such incidents, though it will come to him couched as an attack and perhaps unfairly so. The Clinton campaign has shown no reluctance on that score, and the press will (inappropriately) continue to function as willing handmaiden. It's fair for Sanders to ask that these encounters be used to judge both his primary opponent and "journalism" according to a fair standard, but I think that, in the long term, the smarter move is to treat them as an opportunity to hold himself accountable, and own up to what, if anything, his campaign is doing wrong--as well as to amplify what they are doing right, and why they are doing it in the first place.