I was a proud supporter of Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic primaries because of his bold, progressive stances on issues that I still believe represent the best path forward – not only for the Democratic Party but for the future of our entire nation. Yet I knew Sanders wasn’t perfect. On issues of racial justice, for instance, he was inadequate at best. And, of course, there was the “Bernie bro” culture surrounding his campaign, which was, frankly, off-putting.
This is all to say that I never put Sanders on a pedestal. But I’m afraid many Sanders fans are just now learning the problem with imagining your candidate to be beyond reproach. That so many were and still are adamant about the infallibility of their hero candidate, to the point of downright harassing anyone who scrutinized let alone criticized Sanders, makes his apparent mistakes all the more stinging.
Bernie Sanders has insisted that he didn’t know about the multiple claims of women within his 2016 campaign infrastructure who complained about sexual harassment as well pay inequity, according to New York Times reporting. In a statement to CNN, Sanders’ campaign committee acknowledged that some HR actions were taken during Sanders’ campaign, but did not go into detail on the allegations that triggered them. Even if we give Sanders the benefit of the doubt and believe he was unaware of the complaints, he definitely knew about his “Bernie bro” supporters, who pointedly and repeatedly attacked female Hillary Clinton supporters online.
In an interview with CNN, Sanders said of his “Bernie bro” following during the 2016 primary, “I have heard about it. It’s disgusting,” then adding, “We don’t want that crap. We will do everything we can, and I think we have tried.” But he clearly didn’t try hard enough, as even Sanders’ own campaign manager made sexist remarks about Hillary Clinton. And the culture, in general, continued.
I’m not saying Sanders and his senior team similarly turned a blind eye to sexual harassment within his campaign, but a pattern of denying responsibility while problems persist is emerging. Sanders is now making gestures to fix things, stating that if he runs for president again, he’ll do better, while simultaneously refusing to take ownership, let alone responsibility, for the problem.
Talking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper after the allegations came to light, Sanders apologized to women who “felt harassed” saying, “I am not going to sit here and tell you that we did everything right in terms of human resources,” and claiming that his 2018 Senate re-election campaign had “the gold standard” when it came to its principles. And, above all, as an excuse for his lack of proper oversight of his campaign, Sanders claimed that he was too busy “running around the country” campaigning for president – an argument that doesn’t seem, well, very presidential.
I guess we’re supposed to think the “gold standard” for preventing harassment is mandatory training and having an independent firm for women to turn to when they feel harassed?
No, the gold standard is taking responsibility for the culture you as a leader create and doing everything in your power, rhetorically and otherwise, to root out toxicity within it.
I realize I’m being hard on Bernie Sanders here. Deal with it. I don’t hold Donald Trump, for instance, to the same standard – nor does anyone in North America, as far as I can tell. Bernie Sanders explicitly presented himself as a champion of progressive values, so the bar is inevitably higher for him to live up to what he preaches. Since I raised these issues on CNN’s airwaves, my Twitter feed has been filled with Bernie supporters accusing me of attacking one of our own. But this isn’t about blind loyalty – this is about accountability. And if our principles actually mean anything, we have to apply them to ourselves first and foremost.
Look, I don’t know what actually went on in Sanders’ campaign. Few of us truly do. But I know that if Sanders took these allegations seriously, not just for the sake of optics but because he genuinely cares about the culture and climate his leadership creates, he would have been less defensive and would have given a clear, emphatic and heartfelt apology.
Sen. Sanders, if you’re reading this, try something direct and earnest, like: I honestly didn’t know this was happening inside my campaign but I wish I had because I would have done then what I’m doing now: Apologizing wholeheartedly for the culture that existed within at least parts of my campaign and doing everything in my power to make sure sexual harassment and pay inequity never, ever happen again in any fashion in any organization I’m involved with. What these women are describing is unacceptable. The buck starts with me and I’m going to do better going forward.