Unspinning the Flint Democratic Debate

by Benjamin Studebaker

There are a few things that were said during last night’s democratic debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton that are being spun in a deeply misleading way. Let’s talk about some of them.

Misleading Claims about the Auto Bailout

During the debate, Clinton made this claim:

Well — well, I’ll tell you something else that Senator Sanders was against. He was against the auto bailout. In January of 2009, President-Elect Obama asked everybody in the Congress to vote for the bailout.

The money was there, and had to be released in order to save the American auto industry and four million jobs, and to begin the restructuring. We had the best year that the auto industry has had in a long time. I voted to save the auto industry.

This is a total distortion, because there never was a senate vote on the auto industry bailout. The original auto industry bailout bill was passed by the house. Sanders expressed support for this bill at the time:

The problem is if you don’t act in the midst of a growing recession what does it mean to create a situation where millions of more people become unemployed and that could spread and I have serious concerns about that I think it would be a terrible idea to add millions more to the unemployment rolls.

But the bill never made it to a vote in the senate. But the Bush administration was determined to save the auto industry, so it decided to use funds from the Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP) to rescue it. When the Bush administration made this decision, TARP had already been passed–its original purpose was to rescue the big banks. Bush and Obama, used TARP funds to save the auto industry because they could not get independent legislation to pass. In so doing they bent the intent of TARP for a good cause. Sanders voted against TARP, but at the time he had no way of knowing it would be used to rescue the auto industry. He described his reasons for opposing TARP in this statement. Here are the key reasons he gave at the time:

  • This bill does not effectively address the issue of what the taxpayers of our country will actually own after they invest hundreds of billions of dollars in toxic assets.
  • This bill does not effectively address the issue of oversight because the oversight board members have all been hand-picked by the Bush administration.
  • This bill does not effectively deal with the crisis of foreclosures and addressing that very serious issue, which is impacting millions of low- and moderate-income Americans, in the aggressive way that we should be.
  • This bill does not effectively deal with the issue of executive compensation and golden parachutes.
  • This bill does not deal at all with how we got into this crisis in the first place and the need to undo the deregulatory fervor that created trillions of dollars in complicated and unregulated financial instruments such as credit default swaps and hedge funds.
  • This bill does not address the doctrine of “too big to fail.” In fact, within the last several weeks we have sat idly by and watched gigantic financial institutions like the Bank of America swallow up other gigantic financial institutions like Countrywide and Merrill Lynch. Well, who is going to bail out the Bank of America if it begins to fail?
  • This bill does not deal with the absurdity of having the fox guarding the hen house. Maybe I’m the only person in America who thinks so, but I have a hard time understanding why we are giving $700 billion to the secretary of the Treasury, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, who along with other financial institutions, actually got us into this problem.
  • This bill does not address the major economic crisis we face: growing unemployment, low wages, and the need to create millions of decent-paying jobs rebuilding our infrastructure and moving us to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.

All of these reasons have to do with the financial industry because when TARP was passed there was no reason to believe it was going to be used for the benefit of the auto industry, and indeed it would not have been had the auto bailout bill made it to a vote in the senate–where Sanders indicated at the time he was planning to vote for it.

Misuse of Identity Politics

On three separate occasions, Clinton supporters have tried to whip up outrage against Sanders for comments he made during the debate. This is really awful, for two reasons:

  1. Sanders’ lines are being taken out of context and deliberately misread for political purposes.
  2. By attempting to make the debate about rhetoric, Clinton supporters are distracting us from issues and policies.

Let’s look at each one of the things Sanders said that allegedly make him some sort of horrible person:

“Excuse me, I’m Talking”

Some Clinton supporters accuse Sanders of being a sexist because he allegedly told Clinton to be quiet. But if you look at the transcript, Clinton interrupted Sanders and Sanders was politely yet firmly refusing to allow himself to be interrupted–indeed, Anderson Cooper interjects to tell Clinton to let Sanders finish:

SANDERS: Well, I — If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed this economy…

CLINTON: You know…

SANDERS: … through — excuse me, I’m talking.

COOPER: Let him (ph) (inaudible).

“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”

Some Clinton supporters here try to claim either that Sanders literally doesn’t think white poverty exists or that Sanders thinks all black people live in ghettos.

Sanders was responding to a question about racial blind spots. The question was horribly worded–by definition, if you have a racial blind spot, you can’t see it, so both candidates immediately began giving pandering answers, trying to show you not what their racial blind spots are, but what they aren’t. They both demonstrate awareness of the experiences they have not had and then promise to alleviate poverty and inequality connected to racism. Clinton says:

Well, Don, if I could, I think being a white person in the United States of America, I know that I have never had the experience that so many people, the people in this audience have had. And I think it’s incumbent upon me and what I have been trying to talk about during this campaign is to urge white people to think about what it is like to have “the talk” with your kids, scared that your sons or daughters, even, could get in trouble for no good reason whatsoever like Sandra Bland and end up dead in a jail in Texas.

And I have spent a lot of time with the mothers of African-American children who have lost them, Trayvon Martin’s mother. And I’ve gotten to know them. I’ve listened to them. And it has been incredibly humbling because I can’t pretend to have the experience that you have had and others have had. But I will do everything that I possibly can to not only do the best to understand and to empathize, but to tear down the barriers of systemic racism that are in the criminal justice system, in the employment system, in the education and health care system.

That is what I will try to do to deal with what I know is the racism that still stalks our country.

She starts with a description of experiences she hasn’t had (not to show that this is a blind spot for her, but to show that she sees them). All of the policy areas she mentions–criminal justice, employment, education, and health care–these are all connected to the economic disparities that result from racism and perpetuate it.

Sanders’ answer is structured in the same way:

Well, let me just very briefly tell you a story. When I was in one of my first years in Congress, I went to a meeting downtown in Washington, D.C. And I went there with another congressman, an African-American congressman. And then we kind of separated during the meeting. And then I saw him out later on. And he was sitting there waiting and I said, well, let’s go out and get a cab. How come you didn’t go out and get a cab?

He said, no, I don’t get cabs in Washington, D.C. This was 20 years ago. Because he was humiliated by the fact that cabdrivers would go past him because he was black. I couldn’t believe, you know, you just sit there and you say, this man did not take a cab 20 years ago in Washington, D.C. Tell you another story, I was with young people active in the Black Lives Matter movement. A young lady comes up to me and she says, you don’t understand what police do in certain black communities. You don’t understand the degree to which we are terrorized, and I’m not just talking about the horrible shootings that we have seen, which have got to end and we’ve got to hold police officers accountable, I’m just talking about every day activities where police officers are bullying people.

So to answer your question, I would say, and I think it’s similar to what the secretary said, when you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.

And I believe that as a nation in the year 2016, we must be firm in making it clear. We will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system.

We know Sanders doesn’t think that all black people live in ghettos, because earlier in his answer he explicitly talks about an affluent black congressman facing racism when he tries to get a cab. We know he recognizes racism as a problem outside immediately economic settings, because he explicitly references people being hassled on the street and dragged out of cars. We know he doesn’t think that white people don’t experience poverty because Sanders has explicitly made overtures to Trump’s low income white supporters in the past:

Many of Trump’s supporters are working-class people. And they’re angry. And they’re angry because they’re working longer hours for lower wages, they’re angry because their jobs have left this country and gone to China or other low-wage countries. They’re angry because they can’t afford to send their kids to college, they can’t retire with dignity. And I think what Trump has done successfully is take that anger, take that anxiety, about terrorism and say to a lot of people in this country, ‘Look, the reason for our problems is because of Mexicans,’ and he says they’re all criminals and rapists, we gotta hate Mexicans. Or he says about the Muslims, ‘they’re all terrorists. We gotta keep them out of the country.’ That’s what we have to deal with to make America great.

We also know he’s aware of the experience of white poverty because he himself has lived it:

I grew up in a lower-middle-class home in Brooklyn, NY–and knew what it was like to be in a family where lack of money was a constant source of tension and unhappiness.

My father worked hard as a paint salesman–day after day, year after year. There was always enough money to put food on the table and to buy a few extras, but never enough to fulfill my mother’s dream of moving out of our 3-and-a-half-room apartment and into a home of our own.

While I had my share of hand-me-downs, there was enough money for decent clothes, but only after an enormous amount of shopping to get the “best buy.” At a very young age I learned that lack of money and economic insecurity can play a pivotal role in determining how one lives life. There’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

If you were to disregard everything else Bernie Sanders has ever said about white poverty, you could imagine based on the soundbite that he doesn’t realize that whites experience poverty. This is what Clinton’s supporters are hoping to attract by making an issue out of this–low information voters who haven’t paid attention to Sanders’ career or previous statements.

“You know, we are, if elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health. And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in that.”

Some Clinton supporters are claiming that this joke attacks the mentally ill. Clinton herself laughed at the joke live on camera:


But what makes this fundamentally ridiculous is that the joke comes right after Sanders said he wants to invest a lot of money into mental health. This is the running theme, in all three of these statements. When we look at policy–both the candidates’ histories and what they are proposing now–Sanders’ policies are objectively better for women, for African-Americans, for poor whites, and for the mentally ill. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has disparaged young women for having sex, supported mass incarceration and kicking people off welfare, backed job-killing trade deals, opposes the $15 minimum wage, single payer healthcare, tuition free college, the carbon tax, the list goes on. On the healthcare section of Clinton’s website, the phrase “mental health” does not even appear. But instead of focusing on these discrete, critical policy differences, proponents of identity politics want you to get upset about soundbites.

This is what is so troubling about the emphasis being placed on the discourse. Identity politics activists now seem to believe that it is more important for candidates to talk the way they want them to talk than it is for them to care about the relevant policies and issues. They are willing to back candidates who support the status quo if those candidates will use their lingo. This is incredibly dangerous–identity politics is becoming a tool of status quo conservatism. It is being used to silence policy debate and shut out progressive critiques. This increasingly makes identity politics and the affluent people who participate in it part of a neoliberal politics which does far more to defend the material interests of the rich than it does to meaningfully help the poor and powerless groups it purports to care about. It’s right wing economics in a cheap suit.