I watched the Bernie Sanders interview on the Rachel Maddow show last night, and I came away thinking that he fails to understand why the nomination campaign has taken the direction it has, and consequently will be unable to adapt and to win.
Sanders' response to the question of why he continues to do poorly with African-American voters was tone deaf and worse, but it also goes to what he is failing to understand about the campaign. His response was part denial, even though the numbers are quite clear and follow the 2016 pattern, and part patronizing, that African-Americans were voting for Biden because he was Barack Obama's Vice President.
Let me suggest a different thesis, that goes straight to why the campaign is turning in its current direction. Democratic voters (or at least between 2/3 and 3/4 of them) are telling us they have one priority above all others -- removing Trump from the White House and ending GOP control of the Senate. They understand the stakes of the election, and what it means for the survival of American democracy, and they are saying that their vote is first and foremost an anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian vote. They assess candidates on whom they think gives us the best odds to accomplish this goal, and vote on that basis. There are not blind to the flaws in Biden and Bernie as the candidate to accomplish that objective, which is why Biden's support fell when his flaws became evident, but they are realists and will pick the candidate who, in their opinion, gives us the best shot.
African-American voters -- especially older African-American voters -- have a deep collective memory of having lived in an age of home grown American totalitarianism: that's what the Jim Crow South was for African-Americans. Trumpism is all too reminiscent of Jim Crow, and African-American voters are telling us with their votes that what they care about, more than anything else, is stopping it in its tracks. And, my white friends, if you think this is a hyperbolic formulation, you need to read the literature on how the Nazis studied and used the Jim Crow legal codes as they formulated the racist and anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws, starting with James Whitman's Hitler's American Model. We need to give our African-American brothers and sisters the credit of being every bit as serious and thoughtful political actors as the rest of us, and stop patronizing them with the idea that they make their decisions based on whom was close to Barack Obama.
There are three important corollaries of this thesis.
First, it is not that Democratic voters in general and African-American voters in particular don't want universal health insurance, or a wealth tax, or a forgiveness of college debt or any of the programmatic proposals that have defined both the Warren campaign and the Sanders campaign (notwithstanding the disingenuous attacks from Sanders supporters that suggested that Warren was abandoning her support for these ideas.) The polling on those questions show wide support, and there is no reason to doubt its validity. It's just that Democratic voters are not ready to pursue those programs in ways that they fear might endanger the prime directive -- defeating Trump. This explains the paradox of why wide support for the issues has not resulted in wide support for the candidates that championed them.
One of the lessons I took away from 2016 was that a campaign that focused entirely on Trump, on the dangers and evils that he embodies and promotes, was not sufficient for victory. I now think that I -- and many others -- gave too much weight to that lesson -- we over learned it. On balance, it remains true, but only as one among a number of axioms that should guide us. 2020 is not 2016, and Americans have seen the reality of Trump (when was the last time you had someone say he "should be taken seriously but not literally?") in a way that has focused their political minds. This is especially true among Democratic voters.
Second, the defeat of Clinton in 2016 has led to a fear among Democratic voters that the US is not ready to elect a woman as President. Among Democrats, this fear is mostly sub rosa, because they don't want it to be true, and they want to break through the sex barrier the way that Obama broke through the race barrier. The most ardent of Warren's supporters -- a category in which I include myself -- had hoped that Warren could persist even in the face of this fear. But we lost that fight: that fear was a significant reason why the woman who had very few flaws as a candidate when compared to the two remaining octogenarian men had to leave the race today.
Third, Democratic voters are looking for a broad center-left coalition to defeat Trump. They won't put that desire in the political terminology that I have used, but they are clear that they want to unite as many of their fellow citizens as possible behind the prime directive of defeating Trump and Trumpism. And here the political rhetoric and political direction of the Sanders campaign -- directed as much against Democratic centrists as against the Trumpists and the GOP -- is precisely the sort of message the majority of Democratic voters don't want to hear, because they see it as threatening the ability to put together a coalition that can defeat Trumpism.
The theory of Sanders case, that he doesn't need the support of Democratic centrists because he is transforming the political process by energizing and involving people who were not previously part of it, was proven false on Super Tuesday. So we are left with an electorate that remains the same, but with a political rhetoric and strategy ill-suited for the coalition building that needs to be done.
A broad center-left coalition is not one which must necessarily be under the hegemony of centrists and those who march to the corporate anthems of the last half century. But if the left is foregoing the very idea of a coalition in favor of a sectarian triumphalism which treats the center as an enemy equal to Trumpism and the right, there will be no coalition under progressive leadership, just an isolated -- and defeated -- left. On this fundamental question, Warren understand something that Sanders has yet to learn. And if he doesn't learn it soon, 2020 will be a replay of 2016 for his campaign.
What Is To Be Done ?
After Super Tuesday, nearly forty percent on the delegates to the Democratic Party convention will have been chosen, and the trajectory of the campaign to win the Democratic nomination for President will be much clearer. We will bring together a panel of political observers on the left to discuss their analyses of the state of the campaign and its likely direction, together with their prognosis of 'what is to be done' by activists and organizations on the left in general, and Democratic Socialists of America in particular.
Watch this google group and our blog for details.
The opinions expressed here are those of members and allies of DSA North Star Caucus meant to educate, inspire discussion and encourage comradely debate.