There is a myth floating around surrounding something called the “Bernie Bro”. The idea is that Bernie Sanders’ supporters are predominantly young white males, “Bernie Bros” if you will, who cannot bear the thought of a female President, and who thus aggressively support Sanders to the detriment of Hillary Clinton. In reality this myth is patently false. Bernie Sanders has built his campaign, and for that matter his entire 30+ year political career, speaking in a way other politicians refuse to on issues of poverty, race, and gender. This has resulted in extensive and passionate support for Sanders which crosses the lines of age, ethnicity, and, yes, gender. While purveyors of the “Bernie Bro” myth see themselves as defenders of women and anti-sexism crusaders the reality is quite the opposite. In distributing such a categorically untrue fiction they insult the millions of women and people of color who so enthusiastically support Bernie Sanders.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of generalization is the idea that women are somehow universally obliged to vote for Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. The misogynistic undertone of this assertion is that women are not appropriately engaged in the process to make a decision based on the issues, that they are obligated to, as Susan Sarandon put it, “vote with (their) vagina”.
Of course there is absolutely an inherent value which would come from having the first female President. To see them shaking hands with other world leaders, or sitting behind the desk in the oval office would certainly be symbolically beneficial to all women, as well as to the ideal of American equality. But it is up to each woman to decide for herself how much weight to give to this symbolism against the weight of policy position when casting their vote.
In this context it is understandable that support for Hillary Clinton is much stronger among older women than younger. Those who have been in the trenches of the fight for gender equality for decades may understandably put a greater weight on the symbolism of a female President. For someone who is younger, a proportionately more equal society has simply been part of their existence. It is interesting to think that the next President of the United States will almost certainly be female, Jewish, or Hispanic (or Donald Trump), or that arguably the second most powerful leader in the world is a woman, Germany’s Angela Merkel. This is not to suggest that the battle for gender (or racial) equality is over, far from it. Rather the suggestion is that when considering the weight of symbolism consider also the environment in which equality is being discussed.
In presenting Hillary Clinton as the default candidate for women there is also an implication which goes beyond symbolism. This is the subconscious suggestion that a President Hillary Clinton would not only be symbolically beneficial for women but also more substantively beneficial through policy than Bernie Sanders. However this is not necessarily the case. The topic of ‘women’s issues’ is one where subconscious assumption does not necessarily meet truth, where perception does not automatically meet reality.
Consider the following issues:
It seems ludicrous to think that more than 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed that women still only earn something like 78 cents to a man’s dollar. Seeking to rectify this embarrassment both Sanders and Clinton support the Paycheck Fairness Act. Seen as an extension of the Equal Pay Act this legislation puts the burden of justification on employers to explain why someone is paid less, and allows workers to sue for wage discrimination.
But an area regarding wage where the candidates disagree is minimum wage. Bernie Sanders supports raising the minimum wage to $15/hr, doing so through both words and physically participating in “Fight for 15” rallies, while Hillary Clinton supports raising the minimum wage to $12/hr. Why is minimum wage a women’s issue? Because in America approximately 2/3 of minimum wage earners are women. The extra $3/hr means almost $500 more per month, which would greatly improve the lives of millions of Americans, and especially women, across the country.
Before the enactment of Social Security, nearly 50% of senior citizens lived in poverty in the United States, a number which has dropped to only 10% today. This is a success which is especially poignant for women as more than twice as many elderly women live in poverty than men.
Hillary Clinton observes the success of Social Security and admirably states she will defend it from attacks by Republicans who seek to cut funding to the program, reduce cost of living adjustments, or raise the retirement age. Bernie Sanders on the other hand focuses more on the number 10, that is the 10% of senior citizens who still live in poverty today. More than defend, Sanders has pledged to expand Social Security benefits by $65/month and increase cost of living adjustments. Sanders proposes to make this possible, and he has introduced legislation on the issue, by lifting the cap on taxable income (a proposal supported by over 60% of Americans). Stated simply, currently a billionaire pays the same amount into Social Security as someone making $118,500 per year. Bernie Sanders proposes to change this so that everyone pays the same percentage of their income into Social Security, allowing him to have a platform of expansion rather than exclusively defense.
The United States is currently the only ‘developed’ nation on earth which does not guarantee paid leave to workers. This is something which Bernie Sanders has spoken out against aggressively and repeatedly throughout his career. He cosponsored the FAMILY Act while in the Senate and has made it an important part of his campaign platform. This piece of legislation would provide 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, or a family medical emergency. Hillary Clinton supports the idea of paid leave more vaguely, while specifically opposing the FAMILY Act. Worth noting is that Bernie Sanders also supports the Healthy Families Act, which would provide workers with 7 days of paid sick leave per year, as well as an increase in funding to the WIC Program, which provides nutritional assistance to low income mothers (a program which he has fiercely championed and defended in the Senate). Hillary Clinton does not mention either of these points in her campaign platform.
This is where things start to get a bit muddy. While both candidates have a career 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America, not much is universally publicized about Sanders’ history with the issue, while Clinton is presented as a great champion of reproductive rights. In truth the candidates do differ both rhetorically and functionally, but perhaps not in the way you might imagine.
The area of reproductive rights is one where Bernie Sanders has in fact, through his words as well as actions, been a progressive among progressives. Over the years he has used his position in Congress and the Senate to co-sponsor the Women’s Health Protection Act, to vote to allow interstate travel for abortions, vote to increase access and funding for family planning, vote against defining life as beginning at conception, among many other examples. Additionally, he has openly stated that as President he would only support new Supreme Court Justices that support Roe v. Wade.
On the other hand Hillary Clinton has taken a decidedly different approach. She has long been a purveyor of the position that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare”. As per her Methodist faith she believes the potential for life begins at conception which leads her to “respect those who believe there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be made available” and call to find “common ground” with pro-lifers. Contrasting with Sanders’ hard-line approach to women’s reproductive rights Clinton has endeavored to “create conditions where women have other choices”.
The conciliatory ‘other choices’ and ‘common ground’ approach by some pro-choice politicians has resulted in various states passing laws increasing bureaucratic and procedural hurdles to abortion. These include laws requiring women to wait 72 hours before receiving an abortion (including in cases of rape or incest), to endure mandatory counselling discouraging abortion, or laws requiring parental consent for minors (again, including in cases of rape/incest). Hillary Clinton is pro-choice, this is a documented fact and is not up for debate here. Unfortunately over 40 years after Roe v. Wade the issue of abortion and women’s reproductive rights do, extraordinarily, appear to be up for debate in the United States. Clinton and Sanders are both pro-choice candidates. It is simply up to voters to decide how firm they would like their advocate for women’s reproductive rights to be.
It is a well advertised point that Hillary Clinton proclaims to seek making the promotion of women’s rights around the globe a pillar of her foreign policy. This is certainly an admirable goal as women in the United States undoubtedly enjoy a level of equality greater than many women across the globe. Unfortunately, as in many advertisements, what is broadcast does not always meet actuality, position is not necessarily operation.
For Hillary Clinton this manifests itself quite blatantly in her record. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, have over the years donated tens of millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation. Related or not, as Secretary of State Clinton oversaw the sale of billions of dollars of weapons to these countries, representing an incredible 143% increase from the (W.) Bush administration. These countries are some of the worst violators of women’s rights in the world. Providing them with weapons quite literally provides them with the tools to oppress. Additionally, both supporters and detractors portray Hillary Clinton as a war hawk and it is not difficult to understand why. She supported the Iraq war, military intervention in Libya and Syria, escalation of the war in Afghanistan, as well as increased drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. War, tragically, has a disproportionate effect on women and children, who make up nearly 80% of the casualties in war, and 80% of the world’s refugees. Women in war zones also suffer other grotesqueries such as rape and abduction into slavery. To propose to promote women’s rights across the globe while selling weapons in enormous quantities to the most oppressive of regimes, and escalating military conflict at every opportunity is quite simply a direct contradiction.
Conversely, Bernie Sanders has presented a platform which is not ripe with rhetorical fervor, but rather is based on a career long history of opposition to the wanton use of military force. This is a history which includes being one of the only voices speaking (and voting) against the Iraq war, and opposition to many other military excursions. In contrast to every other presidential candidate from either political party Sanders advocates a course of action which focuses on diplomacy, the de-escalation of conflict, the increase of aid, and the promotion of education. In reality, this is the type of platform which promotes women’s rights around the world.
Equal Rights Amendment-
When the founding fathers stated that “all men are created equal” they of course meant that all white, land owning men in the United States were equal to white, land owning men in England. Eventually this became codified to include all white men, and finally all men regardless of skin color. Incredibly, despite all of the gains towards gender equality, in 2016 the United States Constitution still only recognizes men as those who were created equal, to the exclusion of women. This is what the Equal Rights Amendment has been trying to rectify for nearly a century.
Perhaps this is merely symbolic. But in an election in which the symbolism of potentially having the country’s first female leader is a large part of the conversation it is something which should not be ignored. Interestingly there is only one candidate who has made the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment a part of their campaign platform, and it is not Hillary Clinton. Rather it is Bernie Sanders who has pledged to fight to pass the “long overdue” amendment and finally codify women as human beings who are created equal.
There is little doubt that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton differ greatly across a wide spectrum of issues. While Sanders has made campaign finance reform a fundamental cornerstone of his platform, Clinton leads all presidential candidates in Super PAC contributions. While Sanders has spoken aggressively about the need to break up and reign in the unchecked power of Wall Street, Clinton has received millions of dollars in speaking fees and campaign donations from financial institutions and has presented a much more delicate approach in her platform on Wall Street reform. While Sanders has fought openly for 25 years against a criminal justice system which incarcerates the most people of any country in the world and has inexcusably decimated African American communities, Clinton spoke strongly in the 1990’s in favor of her husband’s disastrous crime bill which led to many of these problems, and received private prison industry campaign donations until only a few months ago. While Sanders strongly promoted LGBT rights in the 1980’s as Mayor of Burlington, in the 1990’s in Congress, and in the 2000’s in the Senate, Clinton vocally opposed these same rights as First Lady and as a Senator before finally coming to support them in 2013.
This is not meant as a specific critique of Hillary Clinton. In reality Clinton merely represents mainstream establishment politics in the way they are rendered almost exclusively today. Conversely Bernie Sanders represents a uniquely progressive voice across a broad spectrum of issues. As seen above, even on the topic of women’s issues Sanders presents, symbolism aside, a far more comprehensive and progressive platform.
It is an absolute inevitability that there will be a female American President, and probably sooner rather than later. Elizabeth Warren is one of the most prominent Senators in the United States, Nancy Pelosi was recently the influential Speaker of the House, Senator Nina Turner is a rising star in the Democratic party, and of course Hillary Clinton herself was recently Secretary of State. The point is that the idea of women in positions of power is no longer opposed by any moderately intelligent individual. What is not as inevitable however is the prospect of having a truly progressive President. As the political process continues to be increasingly manipulated and controlled by big money interests the possibility of genuinely inclusive and progressive policies diminishes. This is likely why women like Senator Warren and Senator Turner support Bernie Sanders.
There is an opportunity in this election for the symbolic achievement of electing a woman as President. But understand that the battle for gender equality does not end with the election of Hillary Clinton any more than the struggle for racial equality ended with the election of Barack Obama. However in Bernie Sanders there is an opportunity to fundamentally alter the political discussion in the United States and, most crucially, who is included in this discussion. And that is historic.