What Northern Liberals Still Don’t Understand About the South

During the 2016 presidential primary, one of the questions that garnered a lot of attention was why Bernie Sanders got so little support from African Americans. Data shows that while he and Clinton ran about even with white voters, he lost black voters by 50 points. The question in the 2020 primary seems to be why African Americans are so strongly supportive of Joe Biden.

In exploring those questions, it is important to remember that African Americans are not a monolith, which is why Charles Blow narrowed his comments to those who live in the so-called “deep south,” where African Americans in majority-black towns are beginning to accumulate power.

White working-class voters in the Rust Belt behave one way because they feel that they are losing power. Black voters in the South behave differently because they feel that they are gaining it.

These Southern black voters are in control of the power structure most intimately affecting their lives — local government…[they] may be less excited by a national revolution because they are living through a very real revolution on the ground.

Drilling down a bit deeper, Marcus Johnson explains why liberal candidates in 2020, like Warren and Sanders, are failing to attract black voters. The first thing to understand is this history.

Moderate and conservative whites have gradually left the Democratic Party since the mid-1960s in a party sorting process that is still ongoing. This phenomenon has its roots in the successes of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, when Democrats officially became the party of minority rights. This sorting process was especially intense early on in the southern states, but it has since spread throughout the county. The result has been that the whites who have remained in the Democratic Party are generally further to the left of the political spectrum.

As a consequence, “white Democrats are further left ideologically than their black counterparts on a range of issues.”

In addition, Johnson echos Blow in talking about the fact that southern black voters place a priority on trust, supporting candidates that have “worked hard to build a relationship with their community over time.” He also notes that they tend to be strongly loyal to the Democratic Party, rejecting those who describe it as corrupt and infiltrated by corporate interests. Finally, this is a big part of the disconnect between southern blacks and the left.

One of the left’s biggest problems with black voters is their rhetorical focus on class. The left’s primary objective is to take on the billionaires and corporate elite. The class-first narrative posits that members of the working class have a common enemy — the wealthy.

This argument doesn’t fit with the lived experience of many black Americans, who have endured racism at the hands of poor and wealthy whites alike. For instance, there is a long history of racism in unions

[T]he black community is more likely to be drawn to rhetoric about the betterment of all black Americans instead of rhetoric about class divisions.

The black people I’ve known take a tremendous amount of pride in their brothers and sisters who have been successful, including financially. It makes sense that when someone tells them that those people are the villains of the story, that message doesn’t resonate.

When the media incorporates the Republican talking point about how the Democratic Party has drifted too far to the left, they are ignoring the voices of these African Americans. On the other hand, the so-called “centrists” shouldn’t assume that black voters are aligned with them either. As Ed Kilgore wrote, candidates like Stacey Abrams forged a new path for Democrats in the South.

African-Americans in the South have struggled to construct two-way biracial coalitions within the Democratic Party, and when they could it often required conspicuously nonprogressive messages. As the parties have continued to polarize, that path has become less viable than ever. There just aren’t that many white swing voters to whom to “reach out,” as the saying goes…

But the very different strategy pursued by Stacey Abrams looks like the future of biracial Democratic politics in the South: a strongly progressive (though not abrasively so) African-American who can expand turnout among a rising minority population while still appealing to increasingly liberal white Democratic and independent voters as well.

Much as we’ve seen with candidates of color in the 2020 presidential primary, those on the far left criticized Abrams for being too centrist, while moderates worried that she would fuel a racial backlash among working class white voters. But listen to the facets of her message that don’t fit into the ideological boxes we’ve created for politicians.

“We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together…For the journey that lies ahead, we need every voice in our party and every independent thinker in the state of Georgia.”…

“I am the child of a shipyard worker and a college librarian who were called to become United Methodist ministers. I am a proud daughter of the deep South. And I grew up the second of six children in a family where we struggled to stay above the poverty line, but never struggled to know what was right or to believe in our possibilities. My parents instilled in us the core values of faith, of family, of service and responsibility. Hard work is in my bones.”…

Abrams doesn’t have to be dragged into talking about race; she leads with it. “My being a black woman is not a deficit,” she told Cosmopolitan earlier this year. “It is a strength. Because I could not be where I am had I not overcome so many other barriers. Which means you know I’m relentless, you know I’m persistent, and you know I’m smart.”

It is way beyond time for the rest of us to discard our assumptions about black voters—specifically in the south—and begin to not only listen to them, but recognize that candidates like Abrams bring something powerful to the table.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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