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South Carolina Speaks for Whom?

Image Source: Flag of South Carolina – Public Domain

Because the African American vote is crucial, the conventional wisdom nowadays is that for Democrats to end up with a nominee who can defeat Donald Trump, Democratic candidates must win over African Americans’ hearts and minds. This is a rare case in which the conventional wisdom is spot on.

Because South Carolina will be the first state to hold a primary or caucus in which a majority of likely Democratic voters are African American, its primary is bound to draw more national attention next year than it usually does. South Carolina is where candidates will do their best to figure out which way the wind is blowing. It is where they will put the most effort into tailoring their messages and marketing schemes to appeal to African American voters.

But because demography is destiny, and because generals are always fighting the last battle, the thinking behind the conventional wisdom is, by now, somewhat superseded.

Trump and his racist co-thinkers – there are alarmingly many of them – seem to have figured this out, at least on an intuitive level. Democrats are slower.

But even they have got it enough right to realize that, if Trump’s luck holds – in other words, if his “base” remains more or less intact — the South Carolina primary will ultimately be more important than, say, the one in New Hampshire.

Things are no longer quite as black and white as they used to be.

Ironically, Trump’s white nationalist politics, so far from exacerbating tensions between “whites” and “persons of color,” as is plainly Trump’s intention, has actually reconfigured the racial landscape in ways that bring issues of race and class closer together than they were just a few years ago.

Understanding this is crucial for reflecting constructively on the importance of next year’s South Carolina primary, and ultimately for acting on what becomes evident from that perspective.

* * *

Decades ago, but still in living memory, white rule made the black vote in South Carolina, and nearly everywhere else in the South, inconsequential.

It still is in a way because, as we have learned to our misery twice already in this century, in presidential elections, the Electoral College is where the action is.

Barring a revolution more profound than anything the Bernie Sanders inspired “Our Revolution”” imagines, it is already predictable, with 99.9 percent certainty that the Palmetto State’s Electoral College votes will go to the Republican candidate in the 2020 general election.

Unless his diet and lifestyle or the rapidly deteriorating mental state of that “very stable genius” undo him first, they will go to Donald Trump.

Why, then, would anyone care who wins in South Carolina?

No one could reasonably deny that general election will matter because it will determine who will run on the Democratic line for state and local offices, and for Congress. In all likelihood, these outcomes are affected, at least to some extent, by the name at the top of the ticket. Generally, though, connections between down ticket elections and the contest for the presidential nomination are attenuated at best.

Thanks to gerrymandering, both duopoly parties get their (unfair) share of Congressional seats. When Republicans run states, this is likely to mean that Democrats get less than their fair share. Vice versa when Democrats call the shots, though they are often too high-minded to be anywhere near as blatant as Republicans generally are.

Even so, unlike in the bad (that is even worse than now) old days, in South Carolina and throughout the latter-day Solid (that is, Republican) South, there are seats that are all but officially allotted to Democrats.

For that, we can thank past struggles for voting rights. Before long, we could lose even that – now that corruption rules with Trump in charge, and now that Trump’s troglodyte Supreme Court Justices, along with the “conservatives” already there, have ruled that political gerrymandering cases cannot be contested in federal courts.

More likely, Republican state governments will regulate themselves as well, or nearly as well, as Trump-beholden judges would, given their own right turns in recent years. The political representatives of the money interests nowadays seem to have come to the realization that they and their bosses are generally better off throwing a few crumbs to the less well-off than by cutting them out altogether. Trump’s signature piece of legislation, his tax scam undertaken on behalf of corporations and the hyper-rich, reflects this awareness perfectly.

It should be remembered too that the situation in South Carolina, like everywhere else, is not written in stone. Thanks to shifting demographics and the vagaries of the Zeitgeist, gerrymandered allotments are sometimes contested, and sometimes even change hands.

Whenever that happens, primary elections play a crucial role – both in engineering and certifying changes underway. However, at this point, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly momentous along these lines in the offing in South Carolina in 2020. This far in advance, though, no one really can say.

A presidential primary can have all kinds of effects on matters not directly concerned with the choice of a nominee for president, but this is not the reason for the interest the South Carolina primary is already attracting. That has mainly to do with the state of race relations in recent years – after Obama and as the Trump era grinds on, driving the moral and intellectual level of the ambient political culture beneath a rock bottom that itself seemed out of the question just a few years ago.

In South Carolina as in nearly all other states, electors are elected on a winner-take-all basis. Whichever party wins the statewide popular vote gets all the electors the state has.

Voter suppression is the GOP’s forte, but that shouldn’t be an issue in a Democratic primary. It probably won’t be an issue even in the ensuing general election. In South Carolina, Republicans still have demographics on their side; and, thanks to Fox News, they have a full-service propaganda operation working overtime on their behalf.

Thus, despite pockets of enlightenment scattered around the state, South Carolina is still home to some of the most benighted white folk in the Land of the Free. For sheer vileness and execrability, many of them could even give the Donald a run for the money.

Therefore, in a statewide contest, whomever the Democrats ultimately choose for a standard-bearer, the result will be the same: the state’s electoral votes will go to Trump.

***

Working hand in hand with anti-Trump Republican pundits and their pre-Trumpian media flunkies, Democratic Party establishment types been pursuing the line throughout the country that “electability” – in an election in which the more odious duopoly party is running Trump – is and ought to be not just the main consideration in selecting a nominee, but, for all intents and purposes, the only consideration.

According to the conventional wisdom too, the African American vote is monolithic enough to warrant the assumption that what is the case in South Carolina is the case throughout the United States.

I suspect that this was much more the case years ago, when veterans of the civil rights movement, many of them from South Carolina and places like it, successfully fought their way into the electoral arena, becoming de facto leaders of African American communities across the nation.

They succeeded too well – to such an extent that they can no longer everywhere be said unequivocally to be “part of the solution.”

Years ago, black and white radicals were already aware of the dangers of cooptation. Their instincts were sound. In one way or another, nearly everyone who was not crushed by the system they were fighting against is now, in one way or another, working within it – and if not for it, then not against it either. African Americans were no better or worse than the others; the political machines they built in South Carolina and elsewhere are no more nefarious. But it would be foolish to claim that they come anywhere close to realizing the promise that they once seemed to offer.

But now the pendulum is swinging back as the old order ages. For that, we have not only the passage of time to thank, but also the resumption of radical organizing under the aegis of the Black Lives Matter movement among others, and rising militancy brought on by disgust with neoliberal economic policies and the outright racism of Trump and his kakistoratic minions. [Kakistocracy: rule of the worst, the most vile and inept].

The Clintons were not the only mainstream Democratic Party liberals to draw aging black militants into their fold. They may have thought they were doing God’s work; what they were actually doing was creating a bulwark against radical dissent.

As for over the hill militants, South Carolina is riddled with them, including a few “icons” from decades ago who, despite have lost their edge, seem to iconic to fault.

Their influence was plain in 2016, as they helped secure the Democratic nomination for Hillary Clinton.

Sanders would surely have done more for African Americans than she, if he had a chance.

On the other hand, he could have done more to appeal to African American voters or at least to make himself known in their communities. In personality driven electoral contests, having better policies is not enough. Clinton, though no prize, was the devil they knew. They therefore stuck with her.

But we mustn’t blame Sanders too much for his poor showing in African American communities. It was the political machines that the Clintons helped shape over the years that ultimately did him in; allowing the old centers of power in the Democratic Party to maintain control a while longer.

Even now, they function, as best they can, in tandem with the other ways the old guard maintains its power, to stifle militancy and support the status quo.

If their power could be broken over South Carolina it would be all for the good. But the Joe Bidens of the world are working overtime, calling in their chits to make sure it won’t happen.

This is why the South Carolina primary is shaping up to matter more than most. It is where the old guard’s last hurrah either will or will not occur.

This will be happening, however, at a time when the political scene is becoming less black and white than it used to be, and more brown – or, rather, more “of color.”

***

As recently as a decade ago, one heard more about “minorities” than “persons of color.” The reason why is partly demographic; as more of America becomes “majority minority,” “minority” loses its bite, especially when “minorities” think of themselves not so much as rivals of one another, as many of them once did, but as fellow combatants in a protracted struggle for full-scale substantive, not just formally equal, citizenship rights, and for the respect that human beings are due.

Much of that struggle has, so far, mainly had to do with words. This is regrettable, but words can be important in their own right.

Racist societies employ racial taxonomies peculiar to their own situations and concerns. Thus, in South Africa, “colored” has a different meaning than in the United States. It designates persons of mainly, but not exclusively, indigenous African ancestry.

There was a time when the worst, or at least the least genteel but not outright derogatory, name for persons we would now call African Americans, was “colored.” At a verbal level, the difference between “colored” and “of color” is barely even stylistic.

Before the civil rights movement morphed into the “black power” and “black liberation” movements of the late sixties and early seventies, “Negro” was still a respectable word. In short order, though, it became even worse than “colored” – to such an extent that it has all but passed out of common usage.

For a while, “black” was the “politically correct” designation. Then came “Afro-American” and eventually “African American.”

“Black,” however, is still often used. This is ironic because “Negro” is the Spanish word for “black.”

And so, inevitably, we have gotten also to “brown.”

That word used to be more regional than national – it referred to people in California and the Southwest, territories taken by war from Mexico and never entirely ethnically cleansed. When the civil rights movement was going full steam, there were a few Mexican neighborhoods in Chicago and a few other Midwestern cities, but there was a time when, for instance, you couldn’t even get decent Mexican food in New York City. Not too many years before that, Carmen Miranda was advertised as “a Latin from Manhattan,” the implication being that this was a rare and exotic phenomenon.

Well-entrenched African American machine politicians who came of age politically at a time when, especially in the South, racial divisions were almost entirely black and white must feel put out by the ways the world has changed just as much as white Southerners did. No wonder that as much or more than other old line Democrats, they could be mobilized to maintain the status quo.

“Brown” and “black” together are not quite the same as “of color.” That term is used more generically, to refer to anyone who is not “white.” Not that “white” means white anymore; old, biologically meaningless, pseudo-scientific racial categories notwithstanding, “white,” to Trump and persons of his ilk, now seems to mean something more like “European, but not Muslim.”

In effect, anyone Trump would send back to “where they came from” is “of color.” Thus through sheer vileness, that miscreant has effectively joined blacks, like Ayanna Presley with former “whites” – Arabs, for instance, like Rashida Tlaib — just as the evolving political consciousness of progressive thinkers and activists in the forefront of the opposition is doing. The irony is wonderful.

Black, brown, yellow, red – all are all “of color,” and they are all increasingly where the action is.

The political machines of the Clinton era are not by any means gone, but, as agents of change, they are rapidly becoming obsolete.

Along with ever increasing numbers of progressives, young and old and not of color, the four freshmen women Trump is targeting with a level of viciousness remarkable even for Republicans today are transforming the political scene in the United States profoundly – much to the discontent of corporate Democrats like the comparatively progressive and politically able Nancy Pelosi, who though good on bathrooms, remains, in the final analysis, on the wrong side of the class struggle.

Which side are South Carolina Democrats now on? Are they still in thrall to their icons and their icons’ Clintonite friends or are they in league with “the squad”? As the South Carolina primary looms, we will find out soon enough,

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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