Erika D. Smith

Bernie Sanders is no victim of a ‘rigged’ system

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in San Jose last week.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in San Jose last week. The New York Times

“All politicians will break your heart eventually.”

After spending my youth tripping over politicians with my lobbyist father, I know this bit of advice from a colleague is true. But I’ll admit, I wanted Bernie Sanders to be different.

I never really felt the Bern, but I liked the idea of Sanders in the race for president – a progressive underdog in a process usually dominated by mainstream big dogs. I liked his perspective and what I thought was his moral code.

Bernie Sanders was supposed to be above the usual pettiness of politics. So much for that.

In the past few of weeks, Sanders has gone from someone seemingly capable of walking on water to someone diving headfirst into the political muck. His campaign has engaged in one ego-stroking, victim-baiting, politically calculated act after another – none of which serve the greater good of uniting the Democratic Party long enough to defeat Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump.

There was the dust-up over delegates in Nevada, and Sanders’ refusal to emphatically condemn the violence that his supporters used to vent their anger, mob-style at the Democratic Party.

Then Sanders escalated his feud with the party, deciding to publicly rebuke its national chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and endorse her challenger, Tim Canova, in a Florida primary race.

And if that weren’t enough, Sanders, making the rounds on the Sunday talk shows, called an election between Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Trump “the lesser of two evils.” That’s a claim I wouldn’t bat an eye at in most election years. But with Trump in the race – a demagogue who has proposed some truly evil policies – that’s a reckless charge.

Yet it all serves the purpose of rallying Sanders’ base, which sure sounds like petty politics to me.

That’s disappointing, but I can get over it.

What I can’t get over and, frankly, is far more heartbreaking is a victimhood narrative that’s creeping into the Sanders campaign. Wild claims about people “throwing shade” and the Democratic Party rigging the system against him.

This is captured perfectly in the Sanders’ response to the drama in Nevada, in which he spent three paragraphs of a statement chiding the Democratic Party for not being more welcoming to him. And then, in paragraph three, said his campaign rejects “any and all forms of violence.”

But in the very next sentence said: “When we speak of violence, I should add here that months ago, during the Nevada campaign, shots were fired into my campaign office in Nevada and (an) apartment housing complex my campaign staff lived in was broken into and ransacked.”

As if one act justifies the other one.

There’s a real danger in Sanders casting himself, his campaign and, by extension, his legion of mostly white supporters as victims.

It’s one thing to shed light on the money-driven reality of our election system. It’s quite another to blame all of the ills that befall you and your supporters on a rigged reality. That’s a lame justification for losing.

Bernie Sanders is not a victim. He is a man from the homogenous state of Vermont who has spent decades in a well-paid job in Congress.

Yes, he entered the campaign at a funding disadvantage. Yes, he had to prove himself to an establishment ready to hand the nomination to Clinton. And, yes, he had to lead voters through a needlessly complicated caucus and election system. Sanders has handled all of that heroically.

But he hasn’t had to deal with negative advertisements – from the left or the right – and, until now, he has largely escaped the crush of negative media coverage that so engulfed Clinton, Trump and former Republican presidential candidates.

What’s more, Sanders will have a role in drafting the Democratic Party’s platform this year. In a departure from tradition that typically passes that job to the chairperson – Schultz, in this case – he will be able to pick five of the 15 committee members who write it. Clinton will pick six members.

Sanders’ supporters aren’t victims either. Nor are they based on the groups most Americans consider disenfranchised minorities in this country – people who are genuinely victims of a rigged system or people who can feasibly lay claim to being victims.

According to exit poll data, Sanders supporters overwhelmingly skew young, white and male, many of them college-educated. Bernie Bros do exist in droves. Clinton’s supporters, by comparison, encompass vast numbers of everyone else – including blacks, Latinos and women, many of them poor and marginalized.

Coincidentally, those are some of the same minority groups Sanders professes to support.

“I want the American people to be voting for a vision of economic justice, of social justice, of environmental justice, of racial justice,” he said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “That is the campaign we are running.”

The campaign Sanders was running. Now I’m not so sure.

People who falsely believe they are victims get caught up in their victimhood. They lose track of who the real victims are and often end up fighting for themselves instead. Politics at its finest.

Anyone who is really a victim of a rigged system – black people who get chewed up and spit out by the criminal justice system, women still fighting for equal pay – wouldn’t dare threaten to stay home in November if Clinton gets the nomination. They wouldn’t dare let Trump take the presidency.

Yet, according to a McClatchy-Marist poll, 25 percent of Sanders supporters nationwide said they would not support Clinton in the general election if she becomes the nominee. Real victims couldn’t afford to do that.

Real victims wouldn’t dare compare Clinton to Trump. They know that there’s a big difference between a candidate who wants to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and ban all Muslims, and someone who wants to increase pay for women and, however pragmatically, reform the criminal justice system.

Let’s not lose track of who the real victims are here. Even petty politics isn’t an excuse for that.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith