Bernie Sanders’s stump speeches are often criticized for neglecting his personal story including a hardscrabble Brooklyn upbringing and the early death of both of his parents. Sanders’s failure to “share his feelings” is sometimes contrasted to the “I feel your pain” emotionality of Bill Clinton.
What this omits is what has become increasingly obvious to the victims of Clinton’s economic policy. Clinton’s personal affinity with average citizens masked an underlying lack of concern and even contempt towards their suffering. Sanders’s reticence is the polar opposite, of a piece with a campaign based on a profound sympathy and solidarity with the victims of economic violence.
What Sanders understands is that for a fraction of the population, the experience of normal human emotions, including pain, has by now become a form of privilege.
This is most apparent in post-industrial small towns, devastated Midwestern cities or in the armies of homeless, now a permanent fixture of San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.
What Case and Deaton have documented as “deaths of despair” suffered by these groups is one indication of the casualties inflicted by neoliberalism. Another is that before becoming an entry in the grim morbidity statistics, the chances are good that, due to our dysfunctional health care system, they have lived for some time with an untreated chronic back or shoulder injury, unfilled cavity or an abscess requiring a root canal.
This means they are in a state of more or less constant pain, dulling and even erasing the awareness of everything else. What they are oblivious to includes what we are often most aware of: emotional crises caused by a collapsing marriage, a failed midterm exam, an obnoxious or abusive coworker or boss. For us, thinking about these subjects is traumatic or at least unpleasant or disturbing. For them, to be able to do so would be a luxury-a cause for celebration if not a panacea.
Only a relatively small fraction of Sanders supporters have reached this level of desperation. But they are aware they are on a knife’s edge, one paycheck from financial ruin as most families are. Sanders’s base is, as polls indicate, disproportionately female, black and poor and has no more than a high school education. And, as the stunning New York Times map of his campaign contributions indicates, they are disproportionately from flyover regions out of sight and out of mind of the bicoastal elites.
They are about as far from people like me (an affluent suburban white male) than can be imagined. And they share very little, demographically speaking, with a U.S. Senator, as Sanders himself knows. Sanders does not feel their pain, nor do we. And it would be insulting for us or him to suggest otherwise, just as it would be for Sanders to sell himself to them as if he were a brand of mouthwash or snack food using them for props as politicians have been doing for decades.
Rather, the only way Sanders can obtain their trust is to show them the respect they deserve by honestly laying out policies tangibly addressing the most acute sources of their suffering. At the core of Sanders’s political revolution are tens of millions who have been treated as human waste for decades. Also joining them will be some of those like us-those who refuse to continue to accept a society and a politics which arrogantly proclaims that we can’t do better.
This is the only coalition with the ability to deliver to Trump and the neo-fascist minority he speaks for not just a defeat but the electoral humiliation they deserve.