Bernie Sanders’s unexpected success has prompted the American left to consider something rather novel: the possibility of actually governing. The brutal rout in the South and failure to win by yuuuge margins in the Super Tuesday states where he is strong, however, highlight obstacles standing in the way. Namely: The U.S. lacks strong multi-racial social movements and the leadership of battered labor unions is mostly aligned with the party establishment.
The Sanders coalition is in significant part comprised of millennials, white liberals and, more interestingly, white working-class voters. But while Sanders has made inroads with black youth, black voters as a whole have stuck with Hillary Clinton in very large numbers. He has done somewhat better with Hispanics, perhaps better yet with Native Americans, and polls very well amongst Asian-Americans.
There have been many attempts to explain black support for Clinton holding strong amidst mounting criticism of the first couple’s role in mass incarceration and the destruction of welfare during Bill Clinton's administration. One idea is that Sanders’s focus on the billionaire class lost out to Clinton’s embrace of intersectionality (and the related not-so-whispery campaign to smear Sanders supporters as sexist). But this idea is not a very good one: Clinton maintained an overwhelming lead amongst black voters long before some staffer made her fluent in contemporary social justice discourse.
More plausible explanations include the Clintons’ long relationship with leaders and Hillary’s fierce embrace of the immensely popular President Obama. Most black elected officials have sided with Clinton even as Sanders has received support from left-wing black intellectuals and celebrities. One reason might be a cautious approach to politics in the face of constant racist right-wing assaults frighteningly crystalized in the person of Donald Trump. Another might be the establishment-oriented politics of middle-class leadership and older black voters’ relative conservatism vis-à-vis the young.
Those black people most harmed by Clintonite economic policies and mass incarceration are the least likely to vote and I would guess the most likely—thanks to felony convictions, voter suppression and understandable alienation—to be disenfranchised. And it is among young black voters that Sanders has done best. The Black Lives Matter movement reflects widespread youth opposition not only to the general status quo but to the legitimacy of the black political class in particular. A new generation of organizers in groups like Black Youth Project 100 are working to build an insurgent alternative.
All of these explanations likely answer pieces of the puzzle. But what’s more surprising than the fact that black voters haven’t rallied to a left campaign is that many white working class voters have. Sanders is leading Clinton in West Virginia by a two-to-one margin. This is the kind of state that in 2008 Clinton celebrated as a bastion of right-thinking “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”
So why are some white workers tilting left while many black workers rally around the establishment? It’s certainly not because black voters are more conservative. Just take a look 28 years back, when the dynamic was reversed and Jesse Jackson struggled to win white workers over to a multi-racial economic populist platform.
''The new South challenge is an economic challenge and it transcends race,'' Jackson said in 1988. ''This is the region where we have nearly half of the nation's poor children. In the South we have the highest rate of infant mortality. There are 13 million people from the South with no health insurance.''
Jackson’s message was nearly identical to that of Sanders: an economic populist appeal to working-class voters of other races. Jackson’s populism failed, as Sanders’s has so far, to breach racial divides. That year, Jackson garnered an estimated 92-percent of the black vote but just 12-percent of the white vote, and much of the latter appeared to be concentrated amongst well-educated liberals. This was sad but unsurprising: the racial politics of white workers has been a key obstacle to transformative change since they began to abandon the New Deal coalition for Republicans en masse during the civil rights era.
The good news for the left is that the Sanders and Jackson campaigns show that both black and white people can be mobilized behind a progressive candidate. The challenge is to mobilize them behind the same one.
Grassroots organization is the only path to a win for the left
Young and white working class voters didn’t join the Sanders campaign because decades of grassroots organizing has paid off—though Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and prior mobilizations, however short lived, did help lay the groundwork. Rather, historically particular political-economic conditions—namely, downward mobility—have primed many for an alternative voice.
It’s no coincidence that some white working class voters are breaking the mold to back Donald Trump while others are rallying to Sanders: Insurgency is the norm, but its direction is up for grabs. White working class people are not just in crisis. They are dying. Recent research has shown that death rates for whites are climbing. Economic pessimism is fueling opioid addiction, alcoholism, depression and rebellion. For many, socialism and white nationalism are the only real options on the table.
The left has to do better than getting historically lucky to win a Democratic primary and defeat a populist demagogue like Trump. Organization is necessary. Labor unions, however, are the left’s key if profoundly attenuated organizational asset; and most union leaders have, to many members’ chagrin, sided with Clinton, an icon of the very neoliberalism that has decimated their ranks. It’s now clear that establishment organizations’ pragmatism has become a key obstacle to the very transformation they purportedly stand for. In the United Kingdom, union support combined with young insurgents pushed Jeremy Corbyn into leadership. This election should embolden the labor left by clarifying their potential power and the ensuing stakes: a united union movement could actually fight back and win.
As it now stands, Clinton appears poised to fend Sanders off, though it’s still too early to know for sure. As Corey Robin writes,
“Clinton’s strongest weapon is the aura of inevitability that she and her supporters and the media have concocted around her. Part of that is based on reality, part of it is based on super delegates (which I refuse to concede), and part of it is based on spin. Don’t accommodate the super delegates, don’t accommodate the spin.”
But even if Clinton does win, the left can ensure that she is Clintonism’s last gasp. That’s why Sanders has a duty to keep his campaign going, even if the delegate math becomes impossible, to help lay the groundwork for the next left candidate. Young people have remarkably strong socialist leanings, as Elizabeth Bruenig notes, and win or lose this year they are poised to remake American politics.
Meanwhile, the establishment is sticking with what it knows best: the status quo. Ed Rendell recently told the New York Times that Clinton’s anti-Trump strategy will consist of winning over two socially moderate suburbanites for every blue collar voter wooed by the Donald.
“Forget having any positive message that might attract disaffected ‘blue-collar Democrats,’ meaning the white working class,” writes Doug Henwood. “The appeal is going to be to the center-right. Forget too the enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders among the young, an appeal based on hope for a better future… Policies that could materially benefit those disaffected blue-collar sorts but would displease the party’s funders must be ruled out. The Democrats’ desperate hope is that fear of Trump will close the deal… this strategy of writing off the white working class is precisely what has fueled his rise.”
As Alex Pareene tweeted,
“Trump will be brutal for the GOP but the Democrats are going to respond by running a campaign pitched at David Brooks it's gonna be awful.”
This strategy will bankrupt corporate Democrats—if the left learns the right lessons.