Sen. Bernie Sanders has undeniably been surging of late in the Democratic presidential primary process. He has also sparked concerns among the Democratic establishment that his openly socialist message (which likely wouldn’t fare well against President Donald Trump’s staunchly capitalistic message) will win over the increasingly progressive left-wing base of voters and win the party’s nomination.
Indeed, the RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Sanders trailing frontrunner establishment candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden by less than four points. That’s a substantial improvement over the 10-point lead Biden held in early January and the roughly 15-point difference between the two in early December.
Concurrent with Sanders’ rise in the polls over the past few weeks is an increase in attacks launched against him by his Democratic opponents via liberal media outlets.
The latest such assault on his character and reputation is a rehash of questionable comparisons to slavery and apartheid that Sanders made on numerous occasions in the 1970s and ’80s.
Unearthed interviews with local newspapers in Vermont in those days revealed that Sanders had a habit of comparing poor whites in the state to black South Africans living under apartheid, while also routinely comparing working-class white laborers to black slaves in pre-Civil War America.
The Daily Beast was the first to report in late January on the decades-old comments from Sanders, which came while he was a leading figure in a small political party known as the Liberty Union Party, a “radical” offshoot of the openly socialist People’s Party in Vermont.
One example cited was a 1976 interview in which Sanders had compared the sale of a Vermont mining company to a foreign company as being similar to “the days of slavery, when black people were sold to different owners without their consent.”
Another example was his criticism of the growing service economy in Vermont in 1977, which he also compared to slavery, and said, “Basically, today, Vermont workers remain slaves in many, many ways,” and added for emphasis, “The problem comes when we end up with an entire state of people trained to wait on other people.”
Politico has now joined in on the effort to fully reveal the extent of Sanders’ questionable commentary more than 40 years ago. That will almost certainly will hurt him with black Democratic voters, a demographic the elderly socialist senator has long struggled to gain sufficient traction with — though he is admittedly doing better with black voters this go-round as compared to his 2016 campaign.
That outlet noted that in a speech Sanders delivered in a 1986 public forum, he stated that poor white people from Vermont “are the equivalent of blacks in South Africa. They don’t vote, they aren’t involved, they don’t care about the issues.”
When Sanders was reportedly confronted by a fellow member of the forum over his “pretty fiery oratory,” the then-candidate for governor seemingly doubled down and actually insinuated that poor white Vermonters were worse off and more oppressed overall, as he said, “Obviously the analogy is not true … because in South Africa the blacks are not invisible — they are beginning to stand up.”
Politico also shared Sanders’ remarks about slavery in comparison to capitalism from a 1978 interview, in which he said, “I believe that the vast majority of the people of the world and of this country are living in a slave-like condition not terribly different from what existed in this country before the Civil War.”
The Sanders campaign has fired back against the reports documenting his old comments. The campaign’s national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray said in a statement, “We expect to see these desperate last-minute attacks continue as long as this movement thrives, but Americans trust Bernie Sanders, and they can identify a cynical, politically motivated ploy when they see one.”
Gray added that Sanders had been experiencing a rise in support from black voters, had a diverse array of supporters and surrogates, outlined policies aimed at helping minorities, and had a “long record of commitment to racial equality.”
How these decades-old statements about slavery play with black voters in the current era remains to be seen — obvious “cynical, politically motivated ploy” as it may be — but a pollster for former President Barack Obama, Cornell Belcher, who has remained neutral in the primary thus far, suggested the comments nevertheless “raise legitimate questions about how he approaches race,” according to Politico.
“A lot of minorities and sensible voters are going to look at these statements and say it’s incredibly insensitive and nonsensical to compare black South Africans in this way to workers in Vermont,” Belcher said. “It’s just an insensitivity about him on racial issues that are problematic. To compare slavery to workers not having a say in a company that pays them in Vermont is enormously insensitive.”
One overarching potential problem highlighted by those that Politico spoke with was Sanders’ tendency to co-mingle the issues of class and race, a “false equivalency” that some view as an effort to minimize the horrors of slavery while playing up the class-warfare angle.
As noted, Sanders has already struggled with attracting and keeping minority voters, and these outrageous comments will not help matters in that regard at all.
That said, whether the remarks make a substantial splash or are largely dismissed as unfortunate comments from a distant and different era is a question for Democratic voters to resolve.
It must be pointed out, though, that had President Donald Trump similarly compared poor West Virginian coal miners to slaves or historically oppressed peoples, the response from the media and the left would be several orders of magnitude greater than what Sanders is currently facing.
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