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Meaning making

The erasing of Bernie Sanders

erasing BernieLanguage matters. How we name things, how we describe things, the things we choose talk and write about—all of those choices shape the shared world of meaning in which we live. It’s not that language creates our material reality, as I argued with a student last quarter. The socio-economic status of the family one is born or adopted into, the physiological features upon which race is constructed—these are not created by language. How we understand, interpret, make meaning of class and race—these are functions of language and power.

We are witnessing this phenomenon of meaning making in the current primary races. Ted Cruz, a Republican contender with approximately 18% of the total number of available Republican delegates, is considered by many in his party to be a viable alternative to Donald Trump, who currently has approximately 30% of the total number. Simultaneously, Bernie Sanders, with 24% of total number of elected delegates (975 as March 28) as compared with Hillary Clinton, with 31% of the total elected delegates (1243 as of March 28), is being asked by leaders in the Democratic party to step aside. “Viable” is not a function of mathematical percentages, but rather of the preferences of those in power—the political and financial establishment.

Hayakawa’s semantic parable—A story for our times

In 1991, Republican Senator S. I. Hayakawa published Language in Thought and Action, a treatise on the nature of language and its effects on perception. In it, he offered a “semantic parable”—the story of two communities hit by a recession, each with about one hundred heads of families unemployed. In A-town, leaders believed that giving people something for nothing would undermine their character. On the other hand, their families were starving. What to do? The town leaders opted to give unemployed families “welfare payments” but made sure getting those payments was difficult and demoralizing.

In B-ville, leaders faced a similar situation—a recession, and a hundred heads of families unemployed. Rather than opting for welfare, the leaders in this town determined that these families had contributed to—had helped insure–the overall wellbeing of the community. Instead of welfare investigators, B-ville appointed claims adjusters, to ensure people were paid.

As the parable goes, A-town relations festered. B-ville thrived. The point of the parable, Hayakawa suggested, was not that people can give different names to the same thing, but rather, that the different names we give make the things we are naming different. Social insurance in B-ville is not the same as welfare in A-town.

Where is Bernie Sanders?

I should have known better. On March 21, while I was working on a draft of this article, I got a ping on my smartphone informing me that CNN was airing its town hall, featuring all five current presidential candidates. In spite of my skepticism (why would they all agree to a debate/discussion now?), I turned on the television, only to find that what CNN calls a “town hall” was actually a series of one-on-one interviews with candidates.

I should have turned the TV off. When an ad for the town hall aired several minutes later, encouraging viewers to stay tuned, it featured four of the five candidates. Kasich, Cruz, Trump, and Clinton—no mention of  Senator Sanders. I kept watching. Hours later, I can report that the organization of this serial set of interviews perplexed me, going neither by alphabetical order nor by frontrunner status. CNN started with the three Republicans, and aired the interviews in order from least delegates to most—Kasich, Cruz, then Trump. That put Trump in prime time. When they switched to the Democrats, they reversed order, and began with Clinton, and then finally, hours later, ended with Sanders. From all appearances, he was the least wanted guest at the party. What’s up?

Provoking the establishment

All Senator Sanders has done is wage a successful campaign that is, in its very essence, a call for significant change. As he puts it on his campaign website,

“The American people must make a fundamental decision. Do we continue the 40-year decline of our middle class and the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, or do we fight for a progressive economic agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, protects the environment and provides health care for all? Are we prepared to take on the enormous economic and political power of the billionaire class, or do we continue to slide into economic and political oligarchy? These are the most important questions of our time, and how we answer them will determine the future of our country.”

Those who wield the economic and political power of the billionaire class are part of the “establishment”— a term that’s being used with increasing frequency to describe those who wield power in our society. As Robert Reich put it in a recent article, “there’s no official definition of the ‘establishment’ but it presumably includes all of the people and institutions that have wielded significant power over the American political economy, and are therefore deemed complicit. At its core are the major corporations, their top executives, and Washington lobbyists and trade associations; the biggest Wall Street banks, their top officers, traders, hedge-fund and private-equity managers, and their lackeys in Washington; the billionaires who invest directly in politics; and the political leaders of both parties, their political operatives, and fundraisers. Arrayed around this core are the deniers and apologists – those who attribute what’s happened to ‘neutral market forces,’ or say the system can’t be changed, or who urge that any reform be small and incremental.”

Senator Sanders’ campaign is grounded squarely in challenging the people and the institutions, including the media, that have exercised power over the American political economy. In response, major media companies are trying to erase the Sanders’ campaign. CNN’s pseudo-town hall is but one example.

Democratic Senators are in on this erasure too. According to Burgess Everett, writing for Politico on March 21, 2016, a group of Democratic senators, backers of Hillary Clinton, are calling on Sanders to stop pointing out differences between his positions and Clinton’s, and instead focus on the inadequacies of Donald Trump’s policies. The issues where differences can and should be ignored, claim these senators, for the sake of party victory, include trade, financial regulation, and foreign policy.

Counting Delegates

I’m not a party activist, and I’ll never be chosen to be a super-delegate, but in my role as an ordinary person trying to make sense of our political system, I found myself wondering what the vaunted delegate counts mean, in terms of actual voter turn-out.

I did some digging, and found two useful sources. Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, keeps a website entitled “United States Election Project” ( There, he keeps track of voter turn out for all the primaries and caucuses, noting the total number of the voting age population in a state, the voting eligible population, and the number that turned out for the primary or caucus, Democrats and Republicans. He includes notes about where he gets his data, and even a quick look at his table confirms that the number of people making decisions about the delegates awarded to these candidates is much smaller than the number of eligible voters. The highest voter turn-out so far has been in New Hampshire—52.4%. The lowest turnouts, under 10% of eligible voters, occurred in Nevada, Minnesota, Kansas and Maine.

I used the Real Clear Politics website to get a current delegate count ( One thing about this site, in comparison with the New York Times site, is that super delegates aren’t lumped into the delegate totals. (If you are trying to track elected delegates to get a sense of what people want, the New York Times site is maddening.)  After doing some simple math, I realized my concerns about biased reporting and the irresponsible use of language are well placed. For example, in Massachusetts, Sanders won 45 delegates and Clinton won 46. The Washington Examiner wrote, “Hillary Clinton has won Massachusetts, dealing a major blow to her rival Sen. Bernie Sanders.” In the Illinois primary, Sanders won 67 delegates and Clinton won 68. The Washington Post headline the following day read “Super Tuesday II: Clinton sweeps Florida, Illinois, Ohio and North Carolina.” In fact, in terms of delegates awarded in all four states, Clinton won 339 while Sanders won 239—in other terms, Clinton won 58.7% of the combined delegate totals, and Sanders won 41.3%. In terms of actual numbers of people who participated in those four Democratic caucuses, 3,525,243 voted supported Clinton, but 2,449,745 supported Sanders. Clinton won, but the nearly 2.5 million people who voted for Sanders have been swept under a rug of easy rhetoric.

It’s not over—nearly half the delegates are still to be delegated

As I write this article, about half the Democratic delegates have been elected. Half remain to be chosen, by people in the states whose primaries and caucuses fall after March 28. As strong as the establishment resistance is to Bernie Sanders’ candidacy (to say nothing of Trump’s, that that’s another story), so too are the millions of people who disagree with the Democratic party establishment that “trade, financial regulation, and foreign policy” are minor matters. In fact, we are living in—and actively shaping—a moment in U.S. history where the political and financial elite are being challenged through the democratic process in a new way. Even if the mainstream media won’t carry the story, this moment of political foment is real.

Emily Lardner lives and works in Olympia, Washington.


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