On Tuesday morning, Democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for president in 2020, joining an already crowded field of candidates that includes the most women and people of colour in history.
As part of his announcement interview with Vermont Public Radio, Sanders said the following in response to concerns that he is no longer the best representative of "the face of the new Democratic Party":
"We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the colour of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age. I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a non-discriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for."
Democratic women erupted with anger at him on Twitter, calling the statement tone-deaf. "At a time where folks feel under attack because of who they are, saying race or gender or sexual orientation or identity doesn’t matter is not off, it’s simply wrong," wrote Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
With several prominent women senators — Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren — in the Democratic race, many are hoping that the 46th time is the charm and we will finally have a female president. We've already seen what a difference it makes in terms of policy proposals and strategy. Warren unveiled her ambitious plan for universal child care on Tuesday, paid in part through her "ultra-millionaire tax." Gillibrand is running what the New York Times called an "unabashedly feminist" campaign, discussing her experiences as a mother and making issues such as paid family leave and affordable child care front-and-centre. She's also talked candidly about the impostor syndrome she felt that almost kept her from running for president, which resonated with many women.
But self-described "Sanders sisters" say they're willing to wait for a female president in exchange for someone with whom they align ideologically. They also believe that while Sanders has helped push Democrats to the left on issues like Medicare for All, it's his temperament that will help him actually achieve his grand ideas. "[Warren] plays politics too much, she calculates too much, she doesn't go hard enough on the rich," Andrea Rovenski, a 22-year-old self-employed video-game streamer from Maryland, said about the other prominent left-wing candidate, echoing 2016 concerns about Hillary Clinton. "We need fearless strength, this isn't a contest about anything else." Fearless strength is not a trait that women have historically been encouraged to project.
Rovenski, who identifies as an intersectional feminist, said she thinks identity markers like gender shouldn't make a difference in choosing a presidential candidate. "Anyone who judges candidates based on arbitrary characteristics isn't a serious person and are severely harmful to everyone in the country," Rovenski told Refinery29. Like other women who support Sanders, Rovenski noted what she sees as the big ideological difference between Sanders and Warren, despite their similar economic policies: While she has proposed making changes within the framework of capitalism, he wants to "Bern" it all down.
"The reason I don't support Liz over Bernie is because I don't think she's on the right side of the coin. She is a capitalist who wants to fix the system, whereas Bernie is a Democratic socialist who wants to move away from the murderous global economy that we currently live under. That fundamental difference is huge when discussing how they will go about bringing the political revolution to fruition," she said.
The Democratic field is large, it's early in the game, and most voters are still undecided, so it's currently almost impossible to predict who will win the nomination. Sanders is the predicted front-runner (although Joe Biden could knock him off if, or when, he enters the race), but he also has more name recognition than most of the candidates, so this could very well change as voters get to know the others. And don't discount the fact that women are expected to make up about 60% of the Democratic primary vote. If the 2018 midterms are any indication, there is a ton of enthusiasm around electing someone who represents their values and is a woman.
Ashley Sullivan, 29, from Plymouth, MA, a social media strategist by day and bartender by night, is still on the fence about whether she'll be one of these voters. She said she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 after backing Bernie in the primary, and remembers telling one of her two young daughters before she went to bed on election night that the country was about to choose its first female president. "I was scared to tell her what happened when she woke up," she told Refinery29. However, this time around, she said there isn't a female candidate who is progressive enough for her, and she won't "blindly" support a woman.
Sullivan prefers Sanders over Warren — for now — primarily because, she said, of Warren has only said she supports the "idea" of the Green New Deal, the sweeping climate change proposal championed by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, while Sanders has promised it would be one of his priorities. Nine senators and 60 House members support the plan, according to the Washington Post. These include several 2020 presidential contenders: Sens. Cory Booker, Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Warren, and Sanders. All of them had previously endorsed the Green New Deal.
Like Rovenski, Sullivan believes it's time for a large-scale change in the system. "I identify as a Democratic socialist and I know Warren is unequivocally a capitalist. I will be keeping close eyes on town halls and to their platforms. A lot can change between now and 2020," she said.