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The Democratic Party: Why Sanders Struggles To Win Over Black Voters

The vast majority of black voters in southern states voted for Hillary Clinton on Super Tuesday. Clinton crushed Sanders in Alabama by winning 93 percent of the black vote. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders did well in states with fewer non-white voters, which reinforced a theme of the election that has been pushed by the establishment media.

According to most media pundits following the election, Sanders has a problem with black voters because Clinton has a better connection with black voters. She knows how to talk about issues of racism better than Sanders. Black voters are refreshed to hear a presidential candidate willing to confront systemic racism in the United States.

From another perspective, there is an affinity and a kind of loyalty to Clinton. Black voters are told by her campaign that she will carry on the legacy of the first black president, Barack Obama. Sanders’ vision for radical change, on the other hand, will shred to pieces all that Obama has accomplished. So far, this seems to have been incredibly persuasive, even if there are definite disingenuous aspects to her argument.

Black political leaders in the Democratic Party, like civil rights icon Representative John Lewis, South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn, and the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus, overwhelmingly support Clinton. And, why did these black political leaders endorse Clinton?

Lewis called her the “most qualified person to be President of the United States.” He claimed to know “her heart” and that not just America but the entire world needs “her leadership.” Clyburn said the “future of the Democratic Party” and the United States would be “best served with the experiences and know-how” of Clinton.

While also citing Clinton’s record of working with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Caucus’ political action committee endorsed Clinton because she “knows key black elected officials, clergy, fraternity and sorority leaders, educators, public intellectuals, athletes, artists, and activists. With their support, we will have a president who has dedicated her lifetime of public service to addressing the inequities that millions of African Americans still face.”

“We need a Democrat who has put forward thoughtful, realistic proposals on the fundamental challenges facing our nation ‒ including health care, affordable housing, education, day care, women’s rights, infrastructure, voting rights, gun violence, criminal justice reform, foreign affairs, and trade ‒ all of which he or she must turn into legislation that can garner bipartisan support upon taking office,” the Caucus leadership additionally declared.

The buzzwords “thoughtful, realistic proposals” send a clear signal to black voters to resist the idealism of the Sanders campaign because the Democratic Party establishment sees his vision as one wholly based in fantasy. Regardless of whether Sanders properly addresses issues of economic injustice and income inequality, the argument is Clinton can turn policy ideas into legislation that will pass in Congress.

Hillary Clinton gives a speech to supporters after conceding to Bernie Sanders, Hooksett New Hampshire, USA (Ted Eytan on Flickr)

Hillary Clinton gives a speech to supporters after conceding to Bernie Sanders, Hooksett New Hampshire, USA (Ted Eytan on Flickr)

Donna Murch, an associate professor at Rutgers University and author of the article, “The Clintons’ War on Drugs: When Black Lives Didn’t Matter,” eloquently addressed this political dynamic on “Democracy Now!”

…One of the things that I’m surprised about is that the issues of mass incarceration and the Clintons’ history, not only with the war on drugs, but also the war on gangs, which is the context in which that “superpredator” and “bring them to heel” comment was made, that much of the historical memory of that doesn’t seem to be informing the voting practices. And so, I think all of us who are very concerned about mass incarceration and these larger issues about equity and social justice are trying to interpret what’s happened in the South.

What I would say is that there are real social constraints in getting out the vote. Hillary Clinton and her husband have built a patronage network. They’ve been supported very strongly by a black leadership class, not only electoral. We know about the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, but Congressman Clyburn was supporting Hillary very strongly, as were local ministers and the local and municipal and state black legislatures. So I think that trying to make Bernie Sanders legible to a black population, many of whom don’t know who he is, a 74-year-old senator from Vermont, that is a large part of the challenge. In that sense, we have to think about it in that way. This is really an insurgent campaign inside the Democratic Party that can’t draw on long-standing patronage networks. [emphasis added]

What passes for valid analysis of racial issues in the election all too often omits the role of “patronage networks.” Unmistakably, Sanders would be doing better if he did not have to face this powerful force within Democratic Party politics. Without this force, there would be fewer suggestions that the reason he struggles with black voters while simultaneously doing well with white voters is because he is tone-deaf when it comes to talking about racism.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has effectively, through her use of language, managed to escape robust criticism of her record on poverty, welfare reform, support for free trade agreements, Wall Street, and other potent economic issues by playing to this perception that these issues are not minority issues.

At a rally in February, Clinton said to supporters, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” The crowd, of course, said no to both rhetorical questions. In other words, when Sanders incessantly focuses on issues of capitalism, he is a “single-issue” candidate. She is able to persuade black voters that Sanders is ignoring race by talking so much about class with universal language, and Clinton is able to imbue a sort of whiteness to his anti-poverty message.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is masterful politics. Bernie Sanders engaged in grassroots organizing against housing segregation in the early 1960s and was arrested while protesting segregation at the University of Chicago. He organized with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In contrast, Clinton told NPR in 1996, “My political beliefs are rooted in conservatism that I was raised with,” and that she was “very proud” that she was a “Goldwater girl.” Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it devastated his presidential campaign. She engaged in no such grassroots organizing.

The Clinton campaign has succeeded in making Sanders’ civil rights history somewhat of a liability by having Rep. John Lewis suggest Sanders exaggerated his role in the civil rights movement. They also have neutralized his civil rights history by maintaining his agenda for the 99 percent somehow exists in a cul-de-sac in some gated community away from issues of racism and criminal justice, even though his message bears great similarity to the economic equality message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., particularly after huge gains were achieved by the civil rights movement.

Bill Clinton’s administration also succeeded in convincing the Congressional Black Caucus to remove the Racial Justice Act from the 1994 crime bill. It would have allowed “death-row inmates to argue that they were being unfairly subjected to the death penalty if statistics showed that capital punishment fell disproportionately on minorities,” according to Newsweek.

The story of the Racial Justice Act may be what Americans can expect from a pragmatic Hillary Clinton, if she is elected president. Bill Clinton did not care if the “Racial Justice Act” was signed into law. He just wanted to make sure the bill did not prevent the crime bill from passing. The Congressional Black Caucus offered “not to push the Racial Justice Act if Congress dropped the 60-odd new death penalties that are part of the crime bill. No chance, said a White House official.”

Lance Selfa, author of “The Democrats: A Critical History,” wrote in his book, “At best, the Clinton-Gore administration promoted a ‘race-neutral’ approach to social policy that simply tried to avoid issues of racial discrimination. At worst it pandered to racism by scapegoating African-American welfare recipients as lacking ‘personal responsibility’ and Latino immigrants as deportable ‘criminals.'”

How do Americans expect Clinton to respond to her Republican opponent in the general election and as president, if she is elected? As a self-proclaimed pragmatist, she will follow in her husband’s tradition and compromise away efforts for social justice. She will shirk from struggling to build consensus before she even gets to a table to bargain with politicians, much like her husband.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks at a town hall at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. (Alex Hanson on Flickr)

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks at a town hall at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. (Alex Hanson on Flickr)

The Democratic Party has a rich history of co-opting the energy of social movements. Through the vehicle of Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic Party establishment is seeking to co-opt a social movement again: namely, the Black Lives Matter movement.

In May 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s administration viewed a mass civil disobedience campaign to desegregate businesses in Birmingham, Alabama, as a potential disaster that would scuttle an agreement already made with more conservative elements to “phase” out segregation. According to Selfa, it was feared if the agreement fell apart black people would become “uncontrollable.” Later, even though Kennedy recognized the administration had dragged its feet on civil rights issues, the administration asked organizers of the March on Washington to water down their speeches and limit their criticism of the administration. Speakers, including John Lewis, were successfully coerced into altering their speeches.

Today, scholars like Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” have eloquently attempted to dissuade black voters from supporting Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Election.

“If anyone doubts that the mainstream media fails to tell the truth about our political system (and its true winners and losers), the spectacle of large majorities of black folks supporting Hillary Clinton in the primary races ought to be proof enough,” Alexander stated. “I can’t believe Hillary would be coasting into the primaries with her current margin of black support if most people knew how much damage the Clintons have done – the millions of families that were destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes” (Alexander later wrote a powerful essay on Clinton’s support from black voters, which was published by The Nation.)

Now, in spite of the power of the Democratic Party establishment, Bernie Sanders has had success in mobilizing black millennials. In South Carolina, Clinton only beat him 56 to 43 percent in this demographic. But the inroads with black millennials, or any millennials of color for that matter, have not been enough to change the dynamic so Sanders can match Clinton’s name brand influence over the majority of black voters.

Sanders’ problem is his campaign’s inability to overcome the power of particular blocs within the Democratic Party, which intend to deliver the nomination to Clinton. His campaign’s struggle is an issue of party politics within a two-party system that typically offers citizens an illusion of choice as the political class and moneyed interests play kingmaker. And, while Hillary Clinton will not commit to radical change on social justice issues like Sanders, a majority of black voters seem more focused on superficial issues of electability and the fact that Sanders appears to be running against the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.

Logo for the Democratic National Committee and crop of photo of Wall Street sign in New York City (right: courtesy terrapin_flyer on Flickr)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."