Warren vs. Sanders: A Clash of Classes

by Richard Goldstein

Now comes Hillary Clinton, adding gravy to Elizabeth Warren’s beef with Bernie Sanders by suggesting that he has a pattern of disparaging female opponents. One of them, former Vermont governor Madelyn Kunin, says Sanders called himself a better feminist then she and “urged people not to vote for me just because I was a woman.” Ouch! On the other hand, NOW has a history of endorsing men over women who don’t support their issues, and Sanders’ record has been good enough to earn him a 100 percent rating from the group. So, should you cast your ballot on the basis of Clinton’s assertion? Four years ago, I did.

I voted for her in the 2012 primary, mainly because I thought it was time for a woman to be president. Gender issues trumped the fact that Sanders had an agenda much closer to mine. I caught a vibe from him that reminded me of the progressive men I worked with at The Village Voice whose response to feminism and gay liberation was suspect. Well, Sanders still has a bit of that vibe, and he really is a skeptic about identity politics. Yes, women have to overcome a bias, he said shortly after his dust-up with Warren, “but everybody has a problem. I’m 78.” What he’s getting at, I think, is that identity politics can become an excuse for failing to see that oppression flows from more than gender.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past four years: identity politics is both fundamental and overrated. It’s fundamental to the process by which most people decide how to vote, and overrated as a key to who will win. Sanders was not the major cause of Hillary Clinton’s defeat. She suffered from the ravages of sexism, but she also ran a flawed campaign, and she really was a neoliberal. Examining the data after the election I concluded that the main reason Trump won — and why why most white women voted for him — is precisely what focusing on gender makes it easy to ignore: class.

When you look at the data — as I do, obsessively — you can’t avoid the fact that Warren and Sanders appeal to different strata. Her supporters are much more likely than his to be well-educated, well-off, and white. When Sanders campaign workers began making this point, Warren called that a slur. But it’s true, even if it doesn’t feel that way to her followers. Each of us is an individual, with all the variation that entails, but we’re also members of a class. Most professionals believe otherwise. They are a class that thinks it’s not a class.

Let’s dispel this notion with stats. Last week, Clare Malone, a senior political editor for Five Thirty Eight, the best of the data sites, filed a comprehensive piece about each candidate’s followers. It seems that Warren and Sanders both attract roughly as many women as men (so much for the Bernie Bros canard). But about a third of Warren voters have household incomes of over $125,000, while only about a fifth of Sanders supporters are that wealthy. About half of Warren’s fans have been to college, and another 25 percent hold bachelor or graduate degrees; that figure is 10 percent lower for Sanders. And when it comes to race, the difference between the two candidates is striking. Warren leads among whites, but she runs well behind Sanders and Joe Biden among blacks and Hispanics. That makes sense, because income and race are related. The only mystery is why young voters prefer Sanders to Warren, since they’ve been rocked in the cradle of identity politics. The answer, I think, is that their life experience inclines them to think about what’s left out of the tribal curriculum: Class.

Many young people feel excluded from professions that are the key to prosperity. I draw this conclusion from teaching at public and private universities (other than Harvard) for several decades. My students have a different sense of reality than I did at their age, and simply vowing to end their education debt strikes them as insufficient. They know that the real issue is the dearth of well-paying work and the hoarding of wealth, not just by billionaires but by the top quintile of the population, including older professionals. The interests of students dispose them to believe Sanders when he says that providing public healthcare requires an increase in everyone’s taxes. Most professionals think only billionaires will have to pay, as Warren says, but they have a less realistic concept of materiality. They are acutely aware of sexism, racism, and homophobia, because these stigmas stand in their way. The so-called social issues are how many professionals experience oppression. But they aren’t dealing with economic deprivation or the threat of impoverishment. Their values reflect not just their political principles, but also their perspective. Most of the liberal media follows their lead.

The power of professionals isn’t in their personal wealth, but in the aggregate of their fortunes. Whole industries arise to augment their group identity, and the criteria for what’s hip shift frequently, creating a rapid turnover of products. This is a fertile advertising environment, and the media benefit from it. The New York Times perfectly expresses the passions and anxieties of urban professionals, faithfully covering their obsession with mindfulness and their lust for kale. Only in the Times could an actress confide that “the Beyond Burger is orgasmic sometimes.” So when that paper announced its presidential endorsement last Sunday I was primed for Warren to the win the Oscar. But the paper hedged its bets by endorsing Amy Klobuchar as well. That was a surprise; the Warren endorsement was not. Actually it was the culmination of coverage that has favored her all along.

I’m not just referring to the positive tone of articles about Warren. I’m thinking about how often she’s mentioned in the paper; how frequently pictures of her appear, even in pieces that aren’t only about her; the way her name comes first in a list of candidates, even though it falls last in the alphabet. Here’s a sentence from an article about Trump’s threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites: “Historians, legal scholars, and Democrats such as Senator Elizabeth Warren noted that [this] would be a war crime.” That special attention constitutes a slant, one that reflects the attitude reporters and editors share with their readers. After all, they belong to the same class.

The data base Nexus Uni is an invaluable tool for examining a publication’s biases, because it registers every mention of a word or name. So let’s look at how often each leading candidate has appeared in the Times. In 2019, there were 4353 mentions of Warren, 568 more then Sanders, and 431 more then Joe Biden. This was true even though Biden was the frontrunner throughout the year. In the first 21 days of 2020, when Warren’s poll numbers fell below Sanders’, she was still mentioned 462 times, 19 more than he and 40 more than Biden. Were her pronouncements more newsworthy? In order to ascertain that, I looked at mentions of the same candidates in a local tabloid, the Daily News. In 2019, the News mentioned Warren 201 times, Biden 329 times, and Sanders a whopping 596 times. In 2020, the tally was: Warren, 11 mentions; Biden, 35; Sanders, 43. The difference in judgement is evident, and so is the fact that the News came closer than the Times to reflecting the actual standing of those candidates in the polls. If you get your news from a paper that affirms your beliefs, you might conclude that her sex is the reason why Warren isn’t as popular nationwide as she is among your peers. You may not realize that it’s also about the way she communicates a class identity and conceals her real position in life.

Bernie talks like someone with a working-class Brooklyn accent. This is the sound track of his image — it’s about authenticity; what you see is what you get. Warren relies on a folksy spiel adorned with references to dollies, mamas and daddies. In fact, she’s the richest Democrat on the debate stage, aside from the billionaires in the bunch — and it shows. Most working people can tell that she’s not one of them, despite the proled-up bio. But her patter charms her base, which experiences the working class mostly through dialogue in screenplays. They can tell themselves that she’s a champion of the masses, while grasping that she’s actually their kind. This hidden awareness of rank is as central as gender. It’s one reason why Bernie, who has worked with Democrats for many years, seems to the Times like someone who refuses to compromise. He’s rigid; Warren is flexible. Which of these qualities corresponds to the self-image of professionals? They like her for all the right reasons, but also because she’s a successful attorney and professor who became a politician. In other words, she’s one of them.

I still believe in identity politics. The issues that animate it are central and pervasive. But they are amply addressed in the media now. Class, on the other hand, often operates below the radar. It comes up as an explanation for how working people behave, but not as a standard to be applied throughout society. Class is not seen as a system; it is a colorful, sometimes ominous deviation from the norm. I think it’s time to correct that imbalance. The Times needs a class desk alongside the gender desk. Sending a reporter to the Ozarks now and then is not the same as hiring a columnist who lives there. In a Sanders administration, that asymmetry is likely to change, and we’ll discover that each of us belongs to a class. That’s why I’m betting on Bernie. He’s one of me.

This piece originally appeared in First of the Month: A Website of the Radical Imagination

I am the former executive editor of The Village Voice, the author of six books, and a professor at New York University’s Tisch College of the Arts.

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