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Symone Sanders: The woman who puts ‘radical’ at the centre

Symone D. Sanders onstage during 2018 Urban One Honors at The Anthem in Washington, DC. (Photograph: Paras Griffin/Getty Images). - Credit: Getty Images

BONNIE GREER says centrists can be radical too – and points to Symone Sanders as an example of someone who is just that.

I was recently called a “centrist” by a Millennial friend of mine. I can only assume by his tone of voice and facial expression that being called this is A Bad Thing.

I asked him what a ‘centrist’ was and got a very long explanation that involved my political point of view. Mainly, what – for him – defined me in this way was still being for Remain and, also, not crying my eyes out at the personal fate of Jeremy Corbyn.

I tried to point out that Corbyn remains in the House of Commons and will continue to do what he has done for the last four decades. I said that the fact that he was still there was a kind of tribute to him, and maybe what made him so charismatic to a generation of young voters. I said that Corbyn is about idealism.

During the recent election campaign, I continued to my friend, I had thought that there was something heroic about the Labour leader, something true. He had held on to the politics of his youth that he and I had both shared; of the era that we had both gone through.

I knew guys like Jeremy at university in the 1970s. They did not take the shilling of a career and advancement. Plus, Corbyn’s own Euroscepticism was consistent with what he had always believed; what his mentor Tony Benn believed.

Corbyn went down to a defeat that was the signature of who he is. No one should be surprised. No one should really blame him. He was what the members of the Labour Party wanted and they rode into battle with the banner of his values.

The difference between my Millennial friend and me is that I did not vote for Jeremy. I voted for Labour, and always will because I think that it is a broad enough church for even an old centrist me.

Labour can return, and return big, when it understands why it lost those 60 seats last month. This can happen.

I am not an ideologue. I don’t believe in anyone. I just want Labour to be in government because I think that the party provides the best offer for the people I care about: The poor, the working poor, women, minorities, children, etc.

Two points strike me about the recent election. One: the response of Labour to the accusation of anti-Semitism, especially from the Jewish community, was simply not enough. Even a whiff of this abomination should have been crushed speedily and publicly in the bud. Right away. No matter where it came from and from whom. This did not happen.

Two: Labour allowed the Conservatives to have a general election in December, an error that many of us pointed out.

But if you are an ideologue on the campaign trail, as opposed to a campaigner on the campaign trail, there are things that you cannot hear, cannot see, cannot say. This is because your ideology is your value. My ideology involves winning an election.

So if an election is about winning in order to put into place the policies that you want – and I believe it is – then you have to listen and hear.

I was not on the doorstep and even I knew that it was clear that the election was about Brexit, and that Brexit is about a whirlpool of things: English nationalism; xenophobia; the disconnect with Westminster; the general London-centric atmosphere. And the election was also about austerity. This had changed from something the Tories created to, simply, something in the atmosphere.

Finally, do not rule out just plain old showbiz. Because showbiz won last month.

In the US, you can see regularly on the TV news political pundits of colour; plus older women; folks from away from the coasts – with their accents still intact; newspapers actually sound different from one another; and an active, passionate engagement with the republic exists. In the UK: not so much.

I suppose if I am a centrist I hope that I am like 30-year-old Symone Sanders. She was Bernie Sanders’ campaign press secretary for a time during 2016.

Folks thought that Bernie was utterly cool to have a young black woman with a shaved head, not built like a model – complete with sparkling long nails and a big mouth – working for him. And she had the same last name, too! Sanders is and was of that generation that saw Hillary Clinton as the establishment.

Clinton was not a retail offer in 2016, because that year was about change.

That year taught us that you have to know what an election is about, what the signature is. You cannot impose stuff on people. You cannot tell them what matters to them, or should matter. You have to find out what they want.

African American men and Hispanic men – males in general – did not go for Hillary. ‘White suburban women’ decided to give Trump a shot because they were tired of her and maybe a little scared, too. This year finds them with buyers’ remorse.

In the 2018 midterm elections, this demographic gave the House to the Democrats with the biggest loss to the Republicans since the Watergate era. They also voted for Joe Biden twice, in 2008 and 2012, when he ran as vice-president on Barack Obama’s ticket. They could vote for Biden again. The track record is there.

After all, if you do not win an election, how can you make change? And this is the point of Symone Sanders, and maybe what I call Radical Centrism.

I heard Sanders point out on CNN once that it became clear to her that African American women – who vote straight Dem up and down the ticket and are therefore the base of that party – did not go for Bernie. True, he touted his civil rights record and there are pictures of him being roughed up at an open housing march in Chicago in the 1960s when he attended the University of Chicago.

But a lot of us black women, especially us Chicagoans, also know that this was part of being a U of C student in those days. This is what you did.

This does not mean that Bernie was not and is not a champion of civil rights and rights for African Americans. It is just that if you attended, for example, the Universities of California at Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Michigan State, and others, and you were a white guy… well, you’d look like a jerk and worse if you sat it out. We remember.

Plus, many of us, black women, as young activists, supported senator Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic Convention when he sought the presidential nomination. We marched, rioted and disrupted the Convention to get our guy nominated against the establishment. He did not get the nod. So we refused to vote. The result: Two terms of Richard Milhous Nixon.

Youth is not here to listen to age. Long may that continue. But you could lose. Symone Sanders, now a chief advisor to Joe Biden, does not want to lose.

She still may, but it will not be without a fight for the hearts and the minds of Middle America, aka: The people who actually vote.

Shaun King, an African American activist and journalist, tweeted last year, after he found out that Symone Sanders was working for Biden: “I am genuinely embarrassed that @JoeBiden has Black surrogates and spokespeople out here defending the 1994 Mass Incarceration bill that he refuses to repudiate. It’s truly humiliating.”

The tweet referred to a piece of crime legislation Biden had helped to write in the 1990s, which critics say led to more prison sentences, more prison cells, and more aggressive policing – especially hurting minority communities.

Symone Sanders tweeted back: “1. What’s humiliating is the cape you blindly put on for the senator for Vermont [Bernie Sanders] everyday (he voted for the bill) 2. no one defended the crime bill 3. you have my #. Lest you continue to be petty on the internet. Don’t personally attack me Shaun. I hope now we are clear.”

That is Symone Sanders. I’m calling her a Radical Centrist. I’m with her.

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