Fans of politicians who plainly outline their proposals should admire Bernie Sanders, even if they disagree with him. Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont running for the Democratic presidential nomination, gave his first big speech of the campaign at a well-attended rally in Burlington Tuesday. And in 35 minutes of densely-packed policy proposals, Sanders laid out what was very nearly the distilled essence of progressivism as it exists going into the 2016 campaign — with one startling omission.
Calling income and wealth inequality the "great moral issue of our time," Sanders laid out a sweeping, almost unimaginably expensive program to transfer wealth from the richest Americans to the poor and middle class. A $1 trillion public works program to create "13 million good-paying jobs." A $15-an-hour federal minimum wage. "Pay equity" for women. Paid sick leave and vacation for everyone. Higher taxes on the wealthy. Free tuition at all public colleges and universities. A Medicare-for-all single-payer health care system. Expanded Social Security benefits. Universal pre-K.
Sanders wants all that, plus the breakup of big Wall Street banks, defeat for trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, repeal of the Citizens United decision, public funding for all campaigns, a carbon tax and more subsidized green energy — all while staying out of "endless, perpetual war in the Middle East."
Could there be a more complete expression of what a certain group of voters on the left would like to see in the White House? Certainly Sanders' wish list seemed to please the estimated 5,000 Vermonters who turned out, staying from the introduction of Sanders by local ice cream moguls Ben & Jerry to the Pete Seeger recording of "This Land is Your Land" that followed Sanders' speech.
The startling omission was the issue of race and policing that has roiled the political debate in recent months. Ferguson, Baltimore, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray — none were in Sanders' speech. Allegations of police brutality and black victimization were all absent. Sanders made one brief mention of African-American unemployment and at the end of his speech offered a catch-all sentence in which he envisioned an America "where every person, no matter their race, their religion, their disability or their sexual orientation realizes the full promise of equality that is our birthright as Americans." But the racial issues that have dominated the news at various times in the past year were nowhere to be found.
The oversight surprised some progressive listeners. "There really was no mention … of over-policing, mass incarceration, these issues," said MSNBC's Chris Hayes in reporting the speech. "It struck me as a missed opportunity."
John Nichols, a writer for The Nation appearing with Hayes, noted that the 73 year-old Sanders "attended the March on Washington in 1963." But Nichols, a Sanders fan, did not try to gloss over the omission. Sanders will have to "give a speech where he goes hard core into these issues," Nichols said. "They cannot be unaddressed."
Sanders' error was even more striking because of the setting. Vermont is a tiny, extremely white place, a kind of statewide version of what the writer Rich Benjamin dubbed "Whitopias." According to 2010 census figures, whites make up 95.3 percent of Vermont's population, while blacks are 1.0 percent. The percentage of black-owned businesses in Vermont is too small for the Census Bureau to calculate.
That's just the opposite of the place blacks occupy in the Democratic coalition. Not only are African-Americans numerically a large part of the coalition, they are the party's most loyal voters on election day. It is striking for a presidential candidate running as a Democrat to essentially ignore issues that have been of such deep concern to black voters; doing so confirms the stereotype of the white, well-educated, and comfortable progressive.
And doing so in the nearly all-white state of Vermont confirms it even more. (Just for the record, Sanders also ignored the question of immigration, even though Hispanic voters make up a large and growing segment of the Democratic coalition and were a key part of Barack Obama's defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012.)
John Nichols is undoubtedly right. Sanders will have to make up ground on the issues of race, policing, and justice — and probably immigration, too. What's striking is that he didn't cover that ground in the first place.