Race and Progressive Politics

News sites are awash with “the momentum myth” and “demographics are destiny” this week in the wake of Joe Biden’s trouncing of the Democratic field in South Carolina over the weekend. Some of this is just reactionary news coverage explaining why the narrative they were so sure of for the last two months (Sanders has all the momentum and Biden is dead in the water) turned out to be so very wrong. Momentum is a myth– all winning really does is unlock donors, which does have a positive feedback but is hardly some unstoppable force. And demographics do matter. Anyone with a lick of political knowledge knew this race wouldn’t really begin before Nevada and South Carolina– Iowa and New Hampshire are simply too small and white to realistically be judged as proxies for the larger Democratic primary base.

What is being lost or left unsaid here is the clear tension between the two remaining viable candidacies and what they represent for the Democratic party. Bernie Sanders, lauded for his energetic crowds, fanatical social media community, and grassroots fundraising machine is the candidate of educated young (especially white) voters and Latino voters. Joe Biden, the establishment gaffe-machine supposedly sleepwalking through the primary, has a core of older working-class white and black voters. None of the other candidates really carved out a lane. Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Warren all basically split the older educated white professional vote. Where these votes migrate in the next several weeks will likely determine the election. If they coalesce around Biden, he will win. Ditto for Sanders (though this seems less likely, given their endorsement of Biden and the demographics/politics of these voters). If Warren hangs in and the A+P vote splits between her and Biden, you get a contested convention. The result is the same if Warren leaves and the delegates are fairly evenly split between Biden and Sanders.

As interesting as the horserace aspect is, I’m more intrigued by what these emerging cores and the conflict between them say about the future of the Democratic party. Given the recent developments in South Carolina and the social media responses to it, I’m particularly interested in discussing why progressives in general and Bernie Sanders, in particular, are having trouble building a caucus with the sort of working-class and black voters they claim their movement will represent.

First, I want to shine a light on the dismissiveness progressive activist have towards primaries in the South. “We are not going to win the South anyway” is just a whitewashed way of saying you are not going to bother to try to win black votes. Dismissing what happens in the South because polls show it to be a stronghold for Joe Biden and that Trump is likely to take many of the states in the general election concedes potential battleground states and ignores the shifting demographics of the region. Put simply, Democrats should be looking to build on record turnout in South Carolina to create another Virginia rather than dismiss it as meaningless.

Instead, what I see on progressive twitter seems more interested in attacking black voters– especially older black voters– as poorly informed. Why don’t they get how much better Sanders policies are for them then Bidens?

History, rather than ignorance, is the answer.

Progressive politics has a pretty poor track record with addressing issues of racial inequality. Far from reaching out to black voters, progressive movements have historically treated them like a nuisance, obstacle, or as a bargaining chip to be sold out in the name of the “general good.”

Reconstruction sold out freed blacks and left them with Jim Crow. Women’s suffrage was promoted as a counterbalance to black male votes (and the women’s rights movement had an atrocious record on racial attitudes and equality in general). Unions sold out their black members (when they didn’t straight-up exclude them from membership) and contributing to the decline of industrial urban cores. The GI Bill being effectively controlled as a white-only benefit. VA and FHA housing programs in the 1950s that intentionally cut blacks out of supposedly progressive expansions of wealth for the working and middle class. The history of 19th and 20th-century progressive movements is largely a long list of white liberals selling out black people.

It wasn’t the most liberal or progressive movements that paid heed to the needs of black communities. It has traditionally been the slow-moving, center-left, accommodationist wing of the Democratic party that has listened and (albeit often belatedly and rarely with the sort of force they should have mustered) rallied behind their leaders and causes. Not because these moderates are nobler or more just (or that progressives are especially racist or more racist than moderates). Instead, it is because centrist/moderates understand how much they owe their success (or failure) to the black community and can be held to account for their performance. LBJ pushed for the Civil Rights Act because he couldn’t win without it. The Democrats had their own Southern Strategy– incorporate the needs of black southerners in order to expand the base of the party. Black voices are heard by moderate Democrats because the coalition demands it.

When Sanders and his supporters say “Identity politics are why we lost in 2016” they are saying more than they realize. When you pair that with solutions that will supposedly benefit all, black communities hear this dog whistle and know what it portends. Universalist worldviews that claim the issues of the black community will be dealt with if we simply deal with income inequality in general, are rightly viewed with great suspicion. After all, black people have heard this song and dance from white progressives before. The rising tide of progressive policy has rarely lifted black boats. More often it sunk them and propped white boats up on top of them. And that is to say nothing of the risks associated with widescale change. Bougie white progressives can pay $128 dollars to go egg on the “socialists” of Chapo Trap House to “joke” about violent revolution and wear their edgelord guillotine necklaces in support of the coming conflict. Black voters know there are real consequences to radical change and that they are rarely borne by educated white progressives. The pains of change will undoubtedly be felt first and most keenly in our black communities.

Look, I’m just a white historian of 20th century US history. I emphatically do not speak for black people. They have their own voices and know the tale better than I ever could. But I do listen and this is what I am hearing. There is real fear in the black community that the universalist progressive movement that Bernie Sanders is the standard-bearer for is at best ignorant of the fact that economic solutions will not solve racial problems or at worst is likely to sell out the black community in the name of economic wins for the white working class. Sound like any movement you know circa 2016?

To outright win the nomination and to have a chance in the general election, Sanders and the progressive movement need to address this problem rather than sneer at it. They need to listen to the concerns of the black community and express policy solutions that will increase opportunity and success for black people. One size fits all solutions will not work. They never have.

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