Promising Transformational Change Won’t Ignite African American Voters

A lot of pundits are beginning to caution Democrats that veering too far to the left on policies could damage their prospects in the 2020 race by alienating moderate Democrats and Independents. Here is how Ronald Brownstein introduced the concern.

Liberals drawn to 2020 contenders such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are arguing that Democrats must advance a “transformational” agenda that can ignite higher turnout among minorities and young people while still recapturing some of the disaffected white voters who were drawn to Trump’s promise to disrupt the political system…

Meanwhile, centrists attracted to candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar insist that Democrats must find a nominee and formulate an agenda that holds the support of swing voters, who are contented with the economy and may support some of Trump’s economic policies, but dislike his views on race and culture and find him personally unfit for the presidency.

But that framing is loaded with assumptions that are worth a closer look. First of all, Biden is the candidate who has recently been cast as the one who can appeal to “disaffected white voters.” So I suspect that he and Sanders are both competing for that group. But are Sanders and Warren the candidates who can “ignite higher turnout among minorities and young people?” As Martin Longman recently pointed out, Biden is actually the one who has overwhelming support among voters of color and leads Sanders with voters under 50 years of age.

One of the things that contributes to the false notion that people of color are attracted to the “transformational agenda” of a candidate like Sanders is the fact that the media spotlight has been trained on newly-elected Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, both of whom represent deeply blue districts. Much less attention has been paid to representatives like Colin Allred, Lucy McBath, and Sharice Davids, who were elected in much more moderate Republican-leaning districts. While those three are establishing strong progressive records—especially on issues such as universal access to health care and common sense gun safety measures—they aren’t attempting to upend the entire system.

But the analysis also dismisses what happened four years ago during the presidential primary that came down to a contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. That race was mostly decided by the southern primaries, where African Americans play a predominant role in the Democratic Party. Early on, Clinton outperformed Sanders by 47 points in the South Carolina primary. As you head west, Clinton beat Sanders by 43 points in Georgia, 58 points in Alabama, 66 points in Mississippi, and 48 points in Louisiana.

That showing sparked some conversation about why African Americans were supporting the more “pragmatic” candidate, which I touched on here. New York Times columnist Charles Blow had a strong reaction to Sanders supporters who were “Bernie-Splaining to black voters,” so he turned the tables in an attempt to explain the pragmatism of black voters. First, he quoted James Baldwin to describe why they are skeptical of big promises from politicians.

“Our people” have functioned in this country for nearly a century as political weapons, the trump card up the enemies’ sleeve; anything promised Negroes at election time is also a threat leveled at the opposition; in the struggle for mastery the Negro is the pawn.

Blow followed with this.

Even black folks who don’t explicitly articulate this intuitively understand it.

History and experience have burned into the black American psyche a sort of functional pragmatism that will be hard to erase. It is a coping mechanism, a survival mechanism, and its existence doesn’t depend on others’ understanding or approval.

To the extent that pragmatism is fueled by an understanding that progress is always tempered by compromise, African Americans look to the fact that, while Abraham Lincoln was willing to fight the civil war to end slavery, he never championed their right to vote. Progressive hero FDR was willing to sacrifice many benefits of the New Deal for African Americans in order to gain the support of Dixiecrats. With good reason, black voters are reluctant to trust white people. That explains why they withheld their support for Barack Obama until he demonstrated that he could win in the predominantly white state of Iowa.

Of course, it is also true that African Americans are much more diverse in their political positions than most people in the media acknowledge. But overall, they are less likely to support a candidate who promises idealistic transformational change and tend to prefer a more pragmatic approach. What has changed in the last few years, however, is that they are also less likely to support candidates who take their vote for granted, especially on issues that are a matter of life and death to their community.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.