Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders
Credit: Walter Hammerwold/Kristina Karisch

There’s a very interesting split on the left right now between groups that have everything to lose but completely different theories on how to protect themselves.

As Jenna Johnson, Matt Viser, and Chelsea Janes report in the Washington Post and Maya Gay editorializes in the New York Times, black voters in the South feel a sense of urgency about defeating Donald Trump because they see his reelection as a direct threat to everything they accomplished in the Civil Rights Era and since. On the flip side are the multiracial millennials who make up the Democratic Socialists of America crowd. As Tim Alberta writes for Politico Magazine, they’re rooting hard for Bernie Sanders to win the presidency, but their focus is more on local organizing and the long haul. On the whole, they no longer expect one person or one election to solve the problems they face. They’re not committed to voting against Donald Trump and generally see no reason to support Joe Biden.

The cultural difference was evident during the pre-Super Tuesday commemoration of the 1965 Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. All the major Democratic presidential candidates were there, with the exception of Bernie Sanders.

At a service at the historic Brown Chapel AME Church, Biden was welcomed like a close friend and given a seat of honor on the dais.

[Michael] Bloomberg, who spent millions on advertising and organizing in the state, sat in the first pew and was invited to address the congregation. As he did so, 10 people stood and turned their backs in silent protest of his past police policies.

The Rev. Al Sharpton rose to declare that black voters “are not looking for better slave masters, we are looking for freedom.” Then Biden got up to speak and directly addressed Sharpton’s words.

“Where I come from, we’re not looking for masters. We’re looking for servants. That’s how I was raised,” Biden said. “So don’t get confused, old buddy. I was raised to be a servant. Not a master.”

After the service, several candidates gathered to march across the bridge just as black activists had done 55 years earlier.

“We must go out and vote like we’ve never, ever voted before,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), whose skull was fractured in the 1965 march and who recently announced he has advanced cancer. “And help redeem the soul of America.”

This was a call for mass voter participation with the very soul and character of the nation on the line. It was also a demonstration of how the southern black community feels about Joe Biden. No-one turned their back on him over his authorship of a crime bill and support for a Drug War that resulted in a large spike of black incarceration. None of the critiques the left throws at Biden about his record on race had any resonance with the crowd. That kind of cool reception was left for Michael Bloomberg who clearly had not established a level of trust that could grant him universal respect.

There’s been a lot of debate over what Bernie Sanders did and did not do during the Civil Rights Era. He was at Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 where the reverend delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was active with CORE in the Chicago area. He has nothing to apologize for, but he didn’t see it as important to be in Selma with the other candidates in 2020 and traveled to a rally in Los Angeles instead. Perhaps that’s because, within his cultural bubble, there’s a completely different emphasis on the crisis facing America.

On the Tuesday before the South Carolina primary, Tim Alberta joined the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America for a debate party at a local bar. Yet, when the debate started, the sound remained muted and no one seemed to be paying the slightest attention. Initially perplexed, Alberta gradually realized that the DSA crowd simply wasn’t that invested in seeing Sanders win the presidency. This was the high point of Sanders’ campaign and he appeared to be on the cusp of securing the nomination, but no one seemed concerned that something might happen in the debate to derail their champion.

As he interviewed various attendees, he discovered that few of them were willing to even contemplate voting for someone other than Sanders. A couple of people said they’d settle for Elizabeth Warren but no one else. But, more than that, he realized that they didn’t see a Sanders win as particularly critical to the future success of their movement.

“The DSA has grown 10-fold since Bernie’s campaign in 2016. And it’s going to keep growing regardless of what happens in 2020,” [33-year-old paralegal, Kristin] Porter said. “That’s the difference between Obama and Bernie — this isn’t about the success of one person, it’s about the success of a movement. Bernie is building a movement that will be able to take power back. It’s just a matter of time.”

…“It doesn’t matter whether he wins or not,” [21-year-old Hunter] Kauffman said of Sanders. “He has put forth these big ideas, exposing them to people who hadn’t heard about them before. And now we need to move them forward.”

The view that it doesn’t matter if Sanders (or any other Democrat) wins in 2020 is very distant from John Lewis’s urgent call to redeem the soul of America by voting like we’ve never voted before. But the problems of millennials are pressing and immediate. Many are crushed under massive student debt and living in a gig economy with stagnant wages and little hope of crafting the same comfortable middle class lives their parents and grandparents enjoyed.

“My biggest fear is I’ll disappoint my parents. Everything is so commoditized in America, I’m afraid I won’t be able to support them, to pay them back for everything they’ve done for me,” [Nikki Velamakanni, an Ohio State sophomore studying neuroscience and pre-law] said. “And I’m afraid my family back home will think I’m a failure because of it.”

CONNOR MCCULLOCH, a 21-year-old aerospace engineering student, said he could relate. Raised by a single mother who worked 60-hour weeks for Southwest Airlines—and still does—McCulloch feels enormous pressure to make enough money not only to pay off his student loans, but to help his mom retire with security.

“I read about these people who spend decades trying to pay off student loans. What would I do if that were me?” he asked. “That’s why I majored in aerospace, because hopefully it lands a high-paying job.”

There’s a certain realism that this cannot be fixed overnight or through Bernie Sanders alone.

In addition to canceling student debt, McCulloch cares passionately about Medicare for All and universal childcare. Not long ago, he noted, these ideas were considered fringe. And while he isn’t optimistic about a President Sanders implementing them—“I’m concerned about any Democrat’s ability to pass these things into law”—McCulloch, who has never voted in a presidential election, takes a much longer view.

“People have tried to delegitimize these ideas with the label ‘socialist.’ But it’s not going to work for much longer; it’s like a red-scare tactic that loses its effectiveness over time,” he said.

For people like Kauffman, Velamakanni, and McCulloch, defeating Donald Trump is not only of secondary importance, it’s not really a solution for anything.

“I listen to people talking about the terrible things Trump has done, at the Supreme Court and the Mexican border and everywhere else, and they think impeachment is going solve all our problems. It’s like, no, that really doesn’t solve any of our problems.”

As pressing as their concerns may be, they are patient and have no expectations that things will improve in the near future.

Maybe the biggest distinction between the Democratic Socialists and the congregants of Brown Chapel AME Church is in their view of Barack Obama.

[Sythan] Pok became enamored of Obama in 2008, believing the problems he saw would finally be addressed by the progressive young president. When they weren’t—at least to his satisfaction—Pok became deeply cynical. “Obama’s failures are the reason for where I’m at with my beliefs now,” he said.

Today, Pok isn’t putting his faith in a political figure. He supports Sanders but is skeptical that a president, any president, can do much to affect his life. “That’s why I’m here,” he said, motioning toward the DSA allies behind him.

Of course, how you feel about Barack Obama can have a lot to do with how you feel about Joe Biden. When Jim Clyburn endorsed Biden, he explained why he was putting his faith in him:

“As I stand before you today I am fearful of the future of this country. I’m fearful for my daughters and their futures, and their children, and their children’s futures.”

Mr. Clyburn said he was sure Mr. Biden was the right choice. “I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us.”

There are a lot of people writing about why the black community in the South rallied around Joe Biden. Why didn’t they give more support to Elizabeth Warren, for example, who didn’t come with some of Biden’s baggage on drugs and crime and busing and cozying up to segregationist senators? But it’s not all about defensive voting. It’s not just the belief that Sanders is too radical or that a woman can’t beat Trump.

It’s about trust. Obama trusts Biden. Biden was his loyal lieutenant. Biden doesn’t run away from Obama’s record. These are all just as important as the belief that Biden can win. They know him and he knows them, and they expect his presidency to look a lot like a third-term for Obama.

If a third Obama term doesn’t sound good to you, then perhaps you’ll find reasons to support a different candidate. But it’s asking a lot to expect black southerners to choose Sanders because he supposedly has a better record on issues of importance to the community when he can’t even show up in Selma. It’s downright insulting to suggest that they’re voting against their best interests, as if they’re too stupid to know who they trust.

One thing we know for certain. The movement that was led by John Lewis and Jim Clyburn was very much about winning the right to vote. They’re going to turn up to vote Trump out. The DSA folks in Columbus probably will not.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at