Primary Colors

Will Bernie Sanders be forced to suspend his campaign after the April 19 Democratic primary in New York?

At least one vigorous Sanders supporter–Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks–has declared that it will be “definitively, 100 percent over” for Sanders if he comes up short in the Empire State primary. If Sanders is compelled to conclude his campaign that night, let’s hope the Vermonter and his backers take a serious look at why his campaign failed to woo the African-American voters he needed to defeat Hillary Clinton.

I fear Team Sanders will simply dismiss his woes with black voters as a consequence of black “loyalty” to the Clintons, despite the fact that the “loyalty” argument can’t explain why black voters ultimately supported Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. (Hopefully Sanders’s supporters won’t try to blame the media again for his diversity deficit.)

I’ve argued before that Sanders’s economic vision alienates African-Americans who believe well-regulated capitalism, not “democratic socialism,” can best advance their economic interests. Joan Walsh touches upon another aspect of the Sanders campaign that has alienated African-Americans:

We should also acknowledge the extent to which Sanders has won whites by crafting a class-based appeal that minimizes, and sometimes even diminishes, the role that racism plays in creating American social and economic inequality. He has done so for his whole political career. Sanders is in some ways uniquely suited to be the Democrats’ white, working-class standard-bearer, because a career in 98 percent white Vermont has kept him on the right side of some issues that hurt Democrats with that group. Over the years, moving out from his Burlington base, Sanders carefully crafted a coalition that includes both urban progressives and rural, gun-owning moderates. The votes and positions that put him to the right of most Democrats, on guns and immigration, play well with his overwhelmingly white base. He frankly defends his pro-gun votes as necessary to serve his rural, gun-owning constituency. Protecting his rural and lower-income white base also explains why he voted against the 2007 immigration bill. During the 2016 campaign, he has said he cast that vote because the bill would have created a caste of guest workers living in conditions akin to slavery. But at the time, he also told the race-baiting CNN pundit Lou Dobbs that pro-reform senators are “selling out American workers. In fact, they are selling out our entire country.” When Dobbs replied by ranting against “illegal aliens” and “the amnesty legislation’s socio-ethnocentric interest groups who really have very little regard for the traditions of this country, the values of this country,” Sanders didn’t correct him, or note that those “values” included xenophobia and racism…

After Obama’s first election, Sanders emerged as one of his sharpest critics, the only person in Congress to suggest that the president should face a primary from the left. I remember the conditions in late 2011 that gave rise to such a suggestion, the series of useless compromises with an intransigent GOP that culminated in the awful and thankfully unsuccessful “grand bargain.” I made enemies with my own criticism of the president back then.

But it was, in fact, was, in fact, Sanders’s [2011] call to primary Obama that forced me to reckon with the reality of the 21st-century Democratic base—the bedrock of which is African-American voters. Given the horrific racism faced by the first black president, they weren’t going to see him primaried just because some loud-mouthed, white progressives thought he handled that intransigence, driven in part by racism, less than optimally. At some point, I had to say to myself: Shut up and listen. I am not sure Bernie Sanders ever shut up and listened.

One has to assume that African-Americans who were disgusted by Sanders’s criticism of President Obama are also repulsed by what they see as Sanders’s nitpicking and hectoring of Hillary Clinton. (Ask yourself how many African-American voters really care about Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches.) Would Team Sanders ever admit that these mistakes cost the campaign needed credibility with black voters?

If Sanders pulls out after losing the New York primary, he can do so with his head held high in many respects. His forceful call for the Democratic Party to pay more attention to the climate crisis has been perhaps the most important aspect of his campaign, since the Democratic Party must become as fervent in pushing for clean-energy solutions to the problem of carbon pollution as the Republican Party has been in its defense of fossil fuels. However, Sanders’s black-voter blues should be remembered as a cautionary tale for future progressive presidential hopefuls: if your economic vision and the overall tone of your campaign cannot secure African-American support, your dreams of “political revolution” will be deferred permanently.

Perhaps Sanders will go down in history as the Barry Goldwater of the left, a man who started the process of shifting America’s political direction. If that’s the case, it will be fascinating to see who will ultimately emerge as the left’s Ronald Reagan–and just how soon that shift will take place.

UPDATE: More from Blue Mass Group and Paul Krugman.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.