Charlie Leight / Getty Images

Bernie Sanders confronts a deep divide within the progressive movement

Analysis: Confrontation with Black Lives Matter reveals the tension between movements for economic and racial justice

PHOENIX — Two major poles of the modern progressive movement — the racial justice movement and the economic reform wing — crashed into each other this weekend in Phoenix at Netroots Nation, an annual conference for liberal activists. Neither group left the encounter feeling satisfied.

The confrontation took place when activists from the racial justice group Black Lives Matter crashed a Saturday town hall featuring Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate and beloved figure of progressives.

The protesters demanded that Sanders, along with fellow candidate and town hall attendee Martin O’Malley, explain what they would do to stop police violence against unarmed black people. “What will you do to stop police unions from battering our names after law enforcement kills us? I want to hear concrete actions,” said Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrice Cullors, who took the stage during O’Malley’s scheduled appearance.

Sanders made little effort to disguise his irritation, telling the audience, “If you don’t want me to be here, it’s OK.” Shouting over the chants from the protesters, he plowed ahead with some prepared remarks on wealth inequality.

That response earned him loud boos and criticism from many of those sympathetic to Black Lives Matter. MoveOn.org’s executive director, Anna Galland, said in a statement after the town hall that “the implication that solutions to economic inequality will take care of racism represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how race operates in our country.”

That is troubling news for Sanders, whose campaign is built around the premise that the majority of Americans agree that the central political question in the U.S. is how to remedy the widening gap between the rich and everyone else.

He told The New York Times earlier this month that he believes working people of all backgrounds and ideological persuasions “are profoundly disgusted with the state of the economy and the fact that the middle class is being destroyed and income going to the top 1 percent.”

He is calculating that he can win white and nonwhite working-class voters by focusing narrowly on economic issues and only footnoting racial justice concerns. In other words, Sanders is running for president as a social democrat and gambling that the conditions for building social democracy exist in the United States. His experience at Netroots Nation shows why such a gambit is a long shot.

Sanders, a democratic socialist, has long identified himself with the politics of European social democratic parties, particularly those in the Nordic states. Last year he told Fox News that the U.S. has “a lot to learn from democratic socialist governments that have existed in countries like Denmark, Sweden, Finland [and] Norway, where all people have health care as a right, where higher education is free, where they have a strong child care program [and] where they don’t have the massive type of wealth and income inequality that we have in the United States of America.”

Those countries — particularly Denmark, Sweden and Norway, the three Scandinavian nations — are model social democratic states. In the years after World War II, the Scandinavian nations were governed by quasi-socialist political coalitions that sought not to eradicate capitalism but to tame it.

To do that, social democratic parties typically relied on cross-class constituencies, held together by a shared belief that the state should protect and provide for the most vulnerable in society. Sanders seems to want to build the same type of coalition in the U.S.

During a Saturday campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center, he told a crowd of more than 11,000 supporters that he wants to be part of a mass “political revolution” that transcends regional, racial and ideological boundaries.

“We need to stand together to make that political revolution, where we create an America and a government that works for all of us,” he said during his stump speech’s crescendo. “We can do it when we stand up. We can do it when we stand up and say enough is enough.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a figure also largely identified with the progressive movement, used similar language during her keynote speech. To make the point that a majoritarian progressive coalition is possible, she cited opinion polls finding that most Americans support tighter regulation of financial markets, a higher minimum wage, guaranteed paid sick leave and related measures.

“As different as we are, on these key economic issues that will shape the future of this country, America is progressive,” she said.

But the broad consensus that Sanders and Warren talk about may be much harder to build in the United States than it was in Scandinavia. The ideological divisions in the U.S. are much wider; the income gaps between the superrich, the affluent, the middle class and the poor are far greater, and the racial divisions, in particular, are much starker.

Political theorists are divided on whether ethnic uniformity is a necessary condition for building a stable social democracy. It certainly helped in Sweden, where one of the architects of the social democratic state, Per Albin Hansson, coined the term folkhemmet to describe his political vision, using folk, which carries a distinct overtone of ethnic solidarity.

It might not be a coincidence that the New Deal — arguably the closest thing the U.S. has ever had to a comprehensive social democratic program — gained the support of the Democratic Party’s Southern bloc by excluding black workers from key labor protections.

Sanders does not ignore racial inequality, but he focuses mostly on the economic issues that he says unite working-class people of all colors. Black Lives Matter remains unimpressed, and Sanders consistently polls in the single digits among black voters. A June CNN/ORC poll found him carrying 2 percent of black Democratic voters and 9 percent of nonwhite voters overall.

Ashley Yates, a St. Louis activist affiliated with Black Lives Matter, said it’s impossible to discuss economic inequality in the United States without emphasizing the role played by white supremacism.

“When you talk about economic justice, who’s the poorest of the poor? When you talk about gentrification, when you talk about mass displacement, when you talk about the things that actually contribute to poverty, who’s affected by that?” she said after the protest. “So if you’re doing economic justice and you’re not talking about black and brown people, you’re not actually doing economic justice.”

Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner said progressives need a separate political program for dealing with racial disparity. “Progressives need to come together and address this issue head on, not wrap it in everybody else’s stuff but say separately that black lives matter and we’re going to push policies and do something about it,” said Turner, who is black.

That would entail rejecting the midcentury social democratic vision of a unified people’s platform to build a new, distinctly American social democratic vision that is more firmly rooted in the social and political history of the United States.

Sanders and O’Malley should have gotten off the stage during the Black Lives Matter protest and joined the activists where they stood, Turner said. “They should have come down to where they were and had a real conversation.” 

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter