Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders ended his presidential campaign, making former Vice President Joe Biden the presumptive Democratic nominee. Sanders had suffered a string of losses in recent contests, before the novel coronavirus pandemic upended American life and politics as we know them. In a video address, Sanders said, “As I see the crisis gripping the nation, I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win and which would interfere in the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour.”
His campaign had already turned to COVID-19 relief efforts in recent weeks. On March 20, Sanders diverted his vast grassroots fundraising network to solicit donations for five charities addressing the pandemic, raising more than $2 million in 48 hours. Sanders also held virtual town halls on coronavirus with public health experts, healthcare professionals, and members of Congress. The needs of this current moment, in many ways, reflect Sanders’ long-standing political values, including the expansion of healthcare and increased protections for low-income workers. They also seem to exemplify his campaign slogan: “Not me. Us.” And as we look back on his campaign in the coming weeks, it’s worth asking: Who was this “us”?
Since 2016, the narrative of the “Bernie bro” has maligned both of Sanders’ presidential campaigns by caricaturing his base as white men who represent the worst of toxic masculinity and are unique in their online vitriol. Toxic masculinity and online vitriol certainly pervade all aspects of our culture, including the supporters of many campaigns. Yet throughout the 2020 primary election season, the “Bernie bro” narrative persisted, even in light of evidence of the gender, ethnic, racial, and religious diversity among Sanders’ supporters and staff. American Muslims, whose ethnic and racial diversity mirrors the broader diversity of the U.S., were a noticeable part of his support base. And while Muslims only make up approximately 1 percent of Americans, Sanders has inspired them to organize for his campaign in unprecedented ways. On Super Tuesday, Muslim Democrats voted for Sanders over Biden, 58.2 percent to 26.8 percent, according to the Council on American Islamic-Relations (CAIR).
From a policy standpoint, widespread American Muslim support for Sanders is not altogether surprising. He voted against the Iraq War, vehemently opposed Trump’s “Muslim ban” for its bigotry, and has acknowledged Palestinians as human beings worthy of dignity, a rarity among U.S. politicians. These issues all matter a great deal to many American Muslims, myself included. But these policies aside, he has also taken consistent measures to rightfully earn “the Muslim vote.” For example, he was one of only two candidates, along with Julian Castro, to accept the Islamic Society of North America’s invitation to speak at its first presidential forum last year. And Sanders has done more than just court our votes; he has also integrated some prominent American Muslims into his campaign. For example, he hired Faiz Shakir, a Pakistani American and the former National Political Director of the ACLU, as his 2020 campaign manager, and he tapped Palestinian American activist and 2017 Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour as one of his surrogates.
The end of Sanders’ presidential campaign has been looming on the horizon following disappointing defeats across the U.S., including in Michigan, where Muslim voters helped secure his surprise victory against Hillary Clinton in 2016. But what does the end of Sanders’ campaign signal for American Muslims who have been newly mobilized by its inclusivity? Do we assume our previous position as an overlooked minority-voting bloc that politicians are wary to acknowledge? Should we accept that moderate Democrats will quite possibly never conceive of us as more than either a threat or asset to national security? Is there at least some amusement to be found in the shifting political currency of Muslim women? Volunteers for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign considered us a liability and prohibited two women in hijab from being photographed behind him at an event; since then, Clinton, Biden, and Elizabeth Warren have all sought “hijabi clout” by appropriating our bodies in service of their campaign advertising. Now it is worth reflecting on the future of the newly conceived Muslim voting bloc beyond our beloved “Uncle Bernie.”
So what is there to know about American Muslims that might help shed light on the values and concerns of this emergent voting bloc? According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, 86 percent of voting American Muslims are under the age of 55. They also tend to hold progressive views about healthcare reform and minimum wage, with 61.2 percent supporting a single-payer healthcare system and 72.3 percent agreeing that the federal minimum wage should be raised to $15; both stances are broadly reflective of Sanders’ base. And significantly, when Sanders engages Muslim voices on issues such as Medicare For All or criminal justice reform, he recognizes us as three-dimensional actors who are capable of contributing to national conversations that are not related to terrorism.
Additionally, the CAIR Super Tuesday exit poll showed that 54.4 percent of Muslim women voted for Sanders, compared to the 5.1 percent who voted for Senator Warren. These findings help to undercut the trope of the Bernie bro. Recognizing Muslim women, many of whom are also people of color, as a key part of Sanders’ Muslim support, is critical for understanding how our intersectional identities inform our voting patterns and determine which policies and candidates we gravitate toward.
Understanding how misogyny informs election results and calling attention to gross double standards in media coverage of female candidates is critically important. So is recognizing the layered ways that sexism in the U.S. negatively affected Warren’s campaign. At the same time, accounts of gender bias that fail to take an intersectional approach to understanding voting patterns perpetuate the erasure of non-white women and non-binary individuals. For example, following Warren’s exit from the primaries, a cursory survey of op-eds, usually authored by white women, suggests a narrative that progressive voters who chose Sanders over Warren did so on the basis of faulty arguments over gender and “electability.” This undoubtedly rings true for some portion of the populace, but there are others for whom the two progressive candidates were never interchangeable in the first place. Moreover, these narratives do not fully illustrate the exit polling data that demonstrates Warren performed better among college-educated men than working-class women, and failed to win votes generally from those without bachelor’s degrees. Exit polls also show that in states like Nevada and California, Sanders’ victories were due to the support of Latinx voters. Broad umbrella arguments about gender bias and electability elide the minority demographics of Sanders’ base. Similarly, it is also necessary to confront that Sanders performed poorly among African American voters, as evidenced in Biden’s effortless victories in the South. Sanders supporters who condescend that African American voters simply do not know what is best for them are equally ill-informed.
Understanding candidate preferences requires more thoughtful analysis that accounts for the ways that voters who inhabit gendered, racialized, and classed bodies assess candidates’ platforms according to their identities as a whole. To the lamentations that now women will have to wait again for a chance to see themselves in a presidential candidate, what about those self-identifying women (among Democratic voters) who did not see ourselves in Warren and did not vote for her even when given the chance? What to say of the high-profile women of color, including the first two Muslim congresswomen—Somali American Ilhan Omar and Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib—who, along with their fellow “squad” member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all endorsed Sanders in this election? Or Muslim writer-activists Blair Imani, an African American queer woman, and Hoda Katebi, an Iranian American woman, who did the same? Are there better ways to mourn our candidates’ unsuccessful campaigns without a reductive and alienating postmortem? Language that employs broad assumptions about women voters can feel like a missed opportunity to think about gender beyond a singular framework.
It was frustrating to watch some Sanders supporters urge Warren to drop out of the race before Super Tuesday, based on false assumptions that her voters would automatically flock to their candidate for the “greater progressive good.” Warren’s base included progressives and moderates, which to her supporters indicated her willingness and ability to work with other Democrats more effectively than Sanders. Following Warren’s exit from the race, one of her supporters, African American trans activist Raquel Willis, expressed disappointment that no one in the Sanders campaign reached out to folks like her to initiate conversations about how to bring them into his camp. While Willis explained that her support for Sanders was based on shared progressive values, she also indicated that without confronting white male patriarchy on the left, it would be difficult to appeal to Warren supporters. The frustration that Warren’s supporters felt at being taken for granted also applies to Sanders’ supporters as we examine the end of his campaign. The expectation that we should all fall in line behind Biden before he substantively engages with any of issues that matter to us—healthcare reform, immigration, student debt—is exhausting. Not least because so many of us did exactly that for Clinton in 2016.
The distance between Biden and Sanders is truly vast. And yet, across social media and news sites, commentators flippantly collapsed the distinctions between them by conflating them as one and the same: “old white men.” In this conflation, there is no recognition that many of us who are young, of color, and women, have been very deliberate in our unbridled support for the Sanders campaign long before there were only two white men left in the race. Also, this characterization ignored that Sanders may have been the country’s first Jewish presidential nominee, or at best, treated this milestone as barely worthy of note.
This is not about staging a protest against Biden at the ballot box come November. American Muslims have much to lose under another Trump term and we hardly require reminders of such. Likewise, we could do without patronizing rhetoric about the merits of incremental change and the dangers of the far right. Most of us confront these dangers on a daily basis. But it is not pragmatic to take for granted Sanders’ Muslim supporters, especially after he has showed us what it feels like to be heard, understood, and courted, something that white middle-class voters may take for granted. So what happens to the Muslim bloc after Bernie? The #MyMuslimVote campaign for non-partisan voter education and civic engagement has mobilized tens of thousands of Muslim voters across the country since 2018. Though Muslims are a tiny percentage of American voters, minority-voting blocs are crucial when the margins of victory in key swing states are so narrow. Before Sanders, the best that Muslims could expect from candidates was to be tokenized or overlooked. Now that Sanders’ inclusive campaign has raised our standards, it will be tough for us to go back to politics as usual.
Tazeen M. Ali is an assistant professor of religion and politics in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. Her research and teaching focus on Islam in America, women’s religious authority, and Islam, gender, and race.