Senator Bernie Sanders has broken with the progressive orthodoxy on campus sexual assault, which holds that such accusations should be handled internally by colleges, under a kind of parallel justice system with different rules from the criminal courts. The Hill reports:
Decrying rape and sexual assault on campuses as an “epidemic,” [Sanders] said schools must not try to handle the issue internally.
“Rape and assault is rape or assault whether it takes place on a campus or a dark street,” he said Monday at the Black and Brown Presidential Forum in Iowa.
“If a student rapes another student it has got to be understood as a very serious crime, it has to get outside of the school and have a police investigation and that has to take place.”
These comments represent Sanders’ latest heresy on a hot-button cultural issue. He got burned by leftwing activists earlier in this campaign for declining to say “black lives matter,” and, after that, for suggesting that mass immigration could depress the wages of native workers. He is still taking heat from Clinton for his comparably more pro-gun record.
Taken together, these skirmishes highlight the fact that it’s too simple to describe the race between Clinton and Sanders as a fight between the “center-Left” and the “hard-Left.” In some ways, the race also represents the conflict between the “old Left” and the “new Left.” The old Left was organized around economic populism, believed strongly in civil liberties and due process of law, and cast a wider tent on social issues, like immigration and guns. The modern Democratic party, which is increasingly reliant for votes on minorities and single women, has instead organized its message around cultural issues and identity politics. That is Sanders’ weakness, as Clinton and her allies well know.
The fight over sexual assault is one of the remaining areas of controversy between the old-time liberals and the new social progressives. While the old-time liberals were protective of rights of the accused, and comfortable with the traditional definition of sexual assault, the new progressives are pushing a cultural revolution in rape law—one that has as its aim the creation of a whole new paradigm for how our society treats such accusations. The new standard should be “yes means yes” rather than “no means no” and the new presumption should be “guilty until proven innocent” rather than “innocent until proven guilty.”
Sanders’ view that campuses should be taken out of the business of adjudicating rape once again highlights the distance between his old-school economic populist liberalism and the new cultural left. To be sure, Sanders didn’t explicitly critique the campus tribunals on due process grounds—but by endorsing in these comments the criminal justice system as the proper place to handle campus assault, he implicitly repudiated the prevailing activist consensus that the courts provide too much due process for such crimes. This view is unlikely to win him too many supporters in the modern Democratic party. We wouldn’t be surprised if he starts backpedaling from it soon.