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Democratic Fracture: Clinton, Sanders, and Race

I recommend Sandernistas read Joy Reid’s Fracture for an understanding of some of the passion and vitriol pervading the Democratic primaries.

Based on long and disapproving observation of Hillary Clinton’s policies as Secretary of State, I am not a fan.  She relies on the lazy conflation of political advantage with national interest, and confounds frontrunning with leadership.  My opinion.  So I find the efforts of POC Hillbots to depict their candidate as the moral and spiritual heir of “The Obama Coalition” borderline ludicrous.

But Reid’s book provides an important and sobering perspective.

I hope I am not doing the argument of her book too much of a disservice by encapsulating it as:

The devolution of the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” into advocacy for a dwindling rump group of disgruntled whites relying on obstruction and voter suppression to preserve its clout and interests has been paralleled by the recognition by African Americans that only the Democratic Party offers any genuine promise of protecting their rights, especially through control of the executive branch at the national level.  It is therefore a priority of activists to leverage the solid African fracturereidAmerican voting bloc into acknowledgement by the Democratic Party that the bloc is indispensable to Democratic electoral success and should be accommodated accordingly.

Reid’s book came out too early to discuss the Clinton v. Sanders rumble, but it is striking to read the account of the 2008 campaign.  Clinton basically ran the same crappy, calculating, over-programmed campaign in 2008 that she’s doing in 2016.  The only difference today is that Clinton apparently does not face the risk of her African American support evaporating against Sanders, as it did when she ran against Obama in 2008.

Sanders is manifestly uninterested in soliciting African American votes as a bloc.  He’s running a class-based campaign where the “working class” regardless of color & creed are expected to unite and stick it to the bosses.  In his approach, Sanders resembles his hero Eugene Debs, who did the socialist thing, and dismissed racism as a distraction employed by capitalism to split and befuddle the working class.

Sanders’ apparent disinterest in racial issues except as a subset of economic issues drives pro-Hillary African American activists nuts.  The result has not only been accusations that Sanders is blind on racial issues, not inaccurate in my opinion, but also that he’s racist (more of a stretch but, considering his interest in attracting the disgruntled white vote at the expense of overt solidarity with black voters, not completely unfair).  Less convincingly, I’ve seen efforts to try to turn Sanders’ interest in economic equality as a mark against him, along the “communist tyranny” line.

The business-friendly explanation advanced by pro-HRC POC activists is that the way to address African American economic inequality is by going after racism, not by seeking to lessen economic inequality for all Americans.

Consider me unsold, given my perception of self-perpetuating systemic problems in US society that are brought on by globalization and the tilt toward interests of the well-off.  The house is on fire, in other words, and fighting for more black firemen is not going to fix the problem.

Then again, African American activists might say, Sheesh, another excuse not to hire black firemen.  Excuse me, that fire’s been burning for decades in POC neighborhoods.  Maybe getting more black firemen into the game would help.

My takeaway from Reid’s book is that theoretical consistency is, well, a luxury—privilege is the current mot juste—for white theorists.  Another way to put it is that the critique of some Sanders supporters may be pretty solipsistic: deep and ongoing problems in American society were only deemed a crisis when whites started to feel like they’re getting fu*cked; once the economy is rebalanced to make white people feel better, nobody’s going to care about the people of color who were f*cked and will continue to get f*cked.

African American activists see a different socio-political landscape, not a gradual, dispiriting decline, but a roller coaster from the highs of Clinton and Obama with the depths of George W. Bush in between…and the prospect if the deepest dip ever if Donald Trump becomes president.  Reid’s book goes back five decades to describe the long, arduous struggle of black activists and candidates to gain recognition and clout inside the Democratic Party, culminating in the unexpected and thrilling triumph of Barack Obama’s victory.

President Obama’s presidency—and the racist attacks he endured despite playing the inevitable role of white-pleasing supermoderate—gave African American voters an unprecedented feeling of pride, unity, and empowerment that caused them to vote Democratic not only in their traditionally high percentages but also in unprecedentedly high numbers.  And the decay of conservative white voting power to the point that it could be overwhelmed by a coalition of 40% of whites and 90% of blacks in which the African American vote was viewed as decisive provided a sense of leverage, of mission, that African American activists are loathe to abandon.

Unfortunately, the “indispensable black bloc” narrative works best in Democratic primaries in southern states, a fact to be celebrated by exponents of the invincible Obama coalition theory, and scorned if cited by Sanders as evidence of the limits of black political power.

The Republican Party has marginalized itself to the point that it is not a plausible home for African American voters.  Sanders is, perhaps, cynically banking on this fact, and assuming he doesn’t need to cater to the African American vote in the primaries; if he wins the nomination and moves on to the general, the black vote will come to him by default.

“Taking the black vote for granted” gives activists conniptions and necessitates a lot of huffing and puffing and indignation to demonstrate that Sanders, even if he was running against Trump, is a racist communist so vile he could not bring in the African American vote in sufficient numbers to win.

It also requires over-the-top adulation of Hillary Clinton, the candidate who lost the African American vote in 2008 in a rather clumsy and nasty campaign against Barack Obama, and who, judging by President Obama’s subtly telegraphed disdain for her legacy as Secretary of State in the Middle East and North Africa, is not anywhere near the natural “heir to the Obama coalition”.

To me, the energy and credibility expended by African American political activists in trying to drag Hillary Clinton across the finish line are indicative of the importance of the narrative and not the quality of the candidate.

In African American calculations, perhaps Hillary Clinton is just a place-holder: the one candidate, despite her shortcomings, ready to solicit the African American bloc in 2016 and who needs to be rewarded by delivering that bloc big time.  Otherwise, the decisive importance and free agency of the black vote is undercut, and people will relegate the black vote to the unimportant category again.

I’m betting the real game will be in 2024, assuming Clinton gets two terms.  By that time, perhaps the Democratic Party will produce another Obama, an African American candidate whose loyalty to the vision of improving black lives can be assumed and not asserted, advances the narrative that racism must be addressed in the pursuit for economic justice for all, and places the African American vote unambiguously at the heart of the Democratic strategy.

I’m betting that 2024 candidate is Kamala Harris.

But the question is whether the political environment in 2024 will present the same picture as 2016: a thoroughly self-marginalized Republican Party confronted by an ascendant Democratic Party in which a monolithic African American bloc can plausibly claim a decisive role during the primary season.

If the disintegration of the Republican Party and the transformation of the Democratic Party into pro-business Republican-lite continue, a party wing or even a third party might emerge that campaigns on the theme of across-the-board economic justice and lays claim to its piece of the African American vote.

African American voting power may have peaked under President Obama.  It might turn out to be a wasting asset, which might be one reason why activists are so keen to bring it into play in this election before their votes are once again taken for granted and their interests subordinated to other, more pressing priorities.

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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