When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Wednesday invoked his Jewish background in a pledge to stand against Islamophobia and racism, he was making more than a personal statement.
The Independent senator was also responding to some of the toughest challenges he faces in the fight for the Democratic nomination: moving past his image as “an old white guy from Vermont” and connecting with historically marginalized communities, some experts say.
“His biggest obstacle is his inability to broaden his coalition beyond progressive members of the party,” who are typically wealthier, white professionals or college students, says Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont who has closely followed Senator Sanders’s career.
“To say it’s political doesn’t mean it’s not genuine,” Professor Dickinson adds, but “Sanders’s language is evolving to address those broader concerns.”
In a rare moment, Sanders brought up his personal history at a student town hall at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., after a young Muslim student asked him how he would combat anti-Islam rhetoric in the United States today.
“Let me be very personal if I might. I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in concentration camps,” Sanders said. “I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism which has existed for far too many years.”
“Our job is to build a nation in which we all stand together as one people,” he continued. “And you are right, there is a lot of … hatred being generated against Muslims in this country. ... If we are going to stand for anything, we have got to stand together and end all forms of racism.”
Sanders deserves a lot of points for warmly symbolizing interfaith bridges, actually supporting Muslim-Americans! https://t.co/72JB9CmjHc— Patrick Burnett (@prb493) October 29, 2015
The statement addressed at once Sanders’s reluctance to discuss his personal life and his tendency to approach issues of race solely through the lens of economic inequality – both of which critics have noted are among his biggest weaknesses.
At the same time, his pledge to fight Islamophobia – and the quick hug he later gave Remaz Abdelgader, the student who asked the question – placed Sanders in direct contrast to Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson, both of whom have made controversial remarks about Muslims.
Still, Dickinson warns against pitting Republicans’ and Democrats’ statements against one another at this stage in the race. For all the candidates, what's critical to their campaigns at this point is how their platforms and positions would affect their chances in the primaries – which means that most of what the candidates say now is directed toward potential primary voters within their respective parties.
For Dr. Carson, for instance, that means appealing to Republican voters who believe that race has been overplayed in politics by “trying to deracialize his own candidacy,” Dickinson says.
For Sanders, that means moving past his image as the progressive’s representative as he struggles to win voters from communities of color and other marginalized groups, who so far are leaning toward frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
“There’s this skepticism with this crazily-haired guy from Vermont who still speaks with a heavy Brooklyn accent,” says Dickinson. It thus makes sense for Sanders to reach out to the Muslim community “as part of a larger strategy strategy to broaden his voter base,” he notes.
Whether the effort will be enough to snag Sanders the nomination remains to be seen. But at George Mason, at least, he appeared to have won some potential voters.
“If there’s anyone that should be elected to the White House, it’s him,” said Ms. Abdelgader to Think Progress. “He stands for everybody, whether you’re gay or Muslim or black or Christian or Latino. He is for equality. That’s why I identify with the next president of the United States: Bernie Sanders.”