Here’s something I don’t write very often: Chuck Todd, NBC’s intellectual manifestation of the Beltway mindset, offered a real insight on the Democratic primary race.
On the night of March 8, during MSNBC’s coverage of the Mississippi and Michigan primaries, he noted that this would be an entirely different campaign if Bernie Sanders were simply holding his own among black voters.
It’s true. It’s damn true, as Kurt Angle would say. The number-one reason Hillary Clinton has a substantial lead among pledged delegates, and in total votes cast, is her overwhelming support from African-Americans. In Southern states, she’s drawing 80 percent or more of the black vote. In Michigan, she drew a “disappointing” 68 percent — still holding a better than two-to-one margin over Sanders.
That’s the single biggest handicap to Bernie’s candidacy. Bigger than the mainstream media coverage or lack thereof; bigger than the superdelegate system; bigger even than the occasional sniping of Your Obedient Servant.
This problem goes back to the very beginning, before the mainstream media even began to underplay Bernie’s chances or “anoint” Hillary. It goes back to sometime before that first confrontation with Black Lives Matter, when a couple of black activists usurped the microphone at a Bernie rally. That event was a symptom of a pre-existing ailment.
Now, before the Sanderistas jump in with their complaints about black voters and why they shouldn’t be backing Hillary, let’s lay down a ground rule or two. Let’s assume that black voters are as intelligent, insightful, and aware of their needs as white voters. Let’s assume that they support Hillary for reasons that are entirely sensible and well-grounded. Let’s not talk down to them, or tell them they’re wrong. That Way Lies Madness for us white liberals.
Let’s keep the focus squarely on the Sanders campaign. What have they done, or failed to do, that has caused his disastrous showing among black voters?
I don’t know for sure, but I can hazard some guesses.
First, the Sanders campaign was extremely well-organized in almost every way. But it wasn’t really a rainbow operation. They made their first high-profile black hire after the Black Lives Matter confrontation. Was it a Vermonter’s blind spot? Was it Bernie’s insistence that economic issues have primacy over all others? Partly both, I suspect. And speaking of Bernie’s insistence…
Second, Bernie is most comfortable when he’s on his own familiar turf. His vision of America is based on class and financial clout. Racism is more an expression of class resentments than an actual hatred of differing skin color. Racism is fueled by wealthy and corporate interests seeking to divide the working class.
There’s a lot of truth in that. But when Bernie pivots quickly from addressing racism as its own phenomenon back to his class-based arguments, he is communicating discomfort with the realities of black life, and subsuming their life experiences in his broader social critique. It’s the economic equivalent of his early misstep — insisting, in the face of Black Lives Matter protests, that “All lives matter.” It’s true, but it ignores the extra burdens carried by African-Americans.
For them, racism is a real, tangible thing that they feel in the form of hatred and exclusion. Bernie’s arguments can come across as overly academic, disconnected from gritty reality.
I suspect this is why Hillary enjoys the greatest dominance among older black voters — the ones old enough to have lived through the pre-Civil Rights Movement era of segregation, oppression, violence, Jim Crow, and the active denial of access to education and the right to vote. If that was all a plot by our corporate masters, well, it didn’t strike them that way. It hit them as a real, immediate threat to their lives.
I don’t know what Bernie does at this point to make up lost ground. I suspect it’s far too late to win over hearts and minds before Hillary clinches the thing. It is a lesson for the next phase of his political revolution, whatever it may be: make it inclusive. Make room for people of color — and women and the LGBTQ community. You can’t win a Democratic primary race without that rainbow coalition.
And it has to be authentic. It has to come up from the grassroots. It’s not a matter of fine-tuning the “message.” It’s gotta be real.
I welcome more ideas from the audience. But remember the ground rule: focus on the Sanders campaign, not the alleged myopia of the black electorate.