How Biden Clipped Sanders on Race

After the South Carolina loss to Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders’ opponents effectively used the African American vote against him. The political moves that clipped his chances of winning, revolved around the following opportunistic argument: because Sanders ran a campaign with a racial justice and anti-racist approach that lost to huge African American majorities, how could it be anything but wrong; this, with the people that most mattered.

In effect, the forces backing Biden found a way to insert Sanders between Trump on one side – and Democratic Party harmony on the other, using race to power a campaign crushing compactor while Sanders was still in it (as to the African American vote of Biden versus Sanders, some of the exit poll numbers were: 61% to 17% in South Carolina; 56% to 17% in the Super Tuesday states combined; and 87% to 10% in Mississippi).

Contrary to polling evidence, that showed both men beating Trump, the chain of propositions leading to the conclusion of why Biden was exclusively electable, went something like this:

African Americans are the most stalwart Democratic voters. When Sanders lost the black vote by such numbers, he lost the heart of the Party (if there were a brokered convention, for instance, the numerical and moral politics behind these propositions, would ignite a formidable multi-racial force against him). Because Biden won so handily – only he can restore party harmony. Without Party harmony, Trump cannot be defeated.

From then on, a racially inoculated electability argument was used to immobilize Sanders’ comeback efforts. Without something like a sea-parting political change, it appeared that there was little he could do, to win over African American voters, even on substance. It got to the point in the March-capades that opponents of Sanders could cover over almost any negative about Biden with eight legged positives (wherein past racial disgraces seemed to willingly skedaddle, owing to Uncle Joe’s affability factor).

In the wake of suspending his candidacy, Sanders has not extensively discussed his shortcomings in this campaign-clipping process. Nor has he addressed, in hindsight, what offering more of an empathetic multi-racial identity freedom-sharing politics, could have done to get to the glory of the majority of the Democratic and African American voters, including those who got pegged into the category of moderates (a backdrop to this, is his predominant understanding, that attacking Biden on race, presented more negatives than positives).

Spiking the Punch of Triangulation

How did this happen?

As Sanders explained to Rachel Maddow, regarding his lackluster showing with the African American vote: “Biden is running, you know, with his – with his ties to Obama, and that’s working well.”

Georgetown professor, Michael Eric Dyson (who supports Biden) criticized such arguments as reductionist, if not denigrating of “black intelligence and the ability of black prudence to be able to adjudicate competing claims about what’s good and bad for black America.” Dyson’s criticism leans into Sanders as engaging in racial pandering: as in the notion of being told from the outside that Biden is playing a race card and it’s working with African American voters.

Sanders actual response signaled a broader challenge.

His words that Biden’s “ties” to Obama are “working well” are broad enough to also refer to the commercial media spin. The way they gave robust voice to the loyalty claim, in other words – was ‘working well’ for Biden. This was especially so, given the sidelining of a focus on his hawkish, racially biased criminal justice record; and his comradely caucusing with segregationists such as James Eastland.

Instead of interrogating those stories – anything like the way the networks impugned Sanders’ comments on Cuba’s literacy program (as somewhere between jaw-dropping and evil incarnate) – they talcumed his years of work with Barack Obama.

Nevertheless, Dyson’s critique signals a problem in Sanders approach to race, vis-à-vis winning the primaries.

One can add to this, what Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson describes as expanding conservativism in African American voting communities that skew older. Starting in the 1980’s and inclusive of the rise of the “prosperity gospel movement,” it also speaks of a realpolitik insight: as Elie Mystal wrote in The Nation, “Black voters opted for Biden because they have no faith that white voters will do the right thing and vote for a true progressive.” Then there’s the low voter registration numbers among younger African Americans.

Such factors may be long-standing: they likely contributed to similar outcomes for Hillary Clinton, regarding the African American vote in the 2016 primaries.

How did Sanders adjust, this time around?

Writing in The New York Times about a late-stage adjustment (in March), Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin described the recommendations to Sanders, by pollster Ben Tulchin. Tulchin identified “two clear vulnerabilities for Mr. Biden: his past support for overhauling Social Security, and his authorship of a punitive criminal justice law in the 1990s.”

Sanders however, opposed going negative on race (via criminal justice). If one follows the gist of Akuno, Mystal, and Dyson’s explanations of Biden’s African American support, and adds the overwhelming vote, such attacks would likely have been taken as race-pandering effrontery.

To have made major adjustments that didn’t go negative however, would have also meant honing-in on what else Biden’s forces were doing for him.

Biden operatives placed him above the fray of Trump’s race-baiting politics and his own problematic history regarding race. The commercial press steered him away from the lucrative beat of their identity drum-roll politics (wherein Sanders was spotlighted as “turning his fire” on Trump and combatively calling him racist). Instead they emphasized vague ‘positives’ like affable, authentic, compromiser, loyal, unity-builder.

Others concocted exploitable negative vignettes about Sanders (as with Representative James Clyburn’s televised claim that he shivered, sensing the fear that South Carolinian’s would feel, when Sanders made the “unforced error” of deigning to speak well of Cuba).

Another strategy that triangulated Sanders against Trump via race, was about sidelining all Democratic presidential candidates’ policies/politics – that weren’t deemed as unifying everyone in the Party (deemed as such, by Elite-Pest-ControlDNC, down the hall from The Resistance). The 100%-or-nothing unity position (meaning, ‘not Sanders policies’) was gamed in the name of the existential imperative of defeating Trump.

This fortifies the position that without winning the African American vote, there will be no 100% unified Party.

Then there was the fine print in the inspectors’ electability-extermination notice. The corporate media’s sponsors and commercial media’s assurance clause read: ‘no one should, under our hand, come to understand’ that Sanders’ 99% vs. the 1% message, and the policies that accompany it – are the country’s emerging majoritarian, center-unity politics. To add insult to injury, when it comes to Biden, “no one knows what his actual political program is”; this, according to Princeton professor, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Pressed Between Oligarchy and Authoritarian Malarkey: Hale Moderates?

A number of mainstream pundits touted a recent survey by More in Common, to show why only the so-called moderate-middle position can win the soul of the nation.

As David Brooks of The New York Times notes, when hailing the report as the liberalmoderate anodyne to leftright polarization:

Roughly two-thirds of Americans, across four political types, fall into what the authors call “the exhausted majority.” Sixty-one percent say people they agree with need to listen and compromise more. Eighty percent say political correctness is a problem, and 82 percent say the same about hate speech.

The word corporation is nowhere mentioned in the 156 pages of the report.

One would think that because it addresses polarization, the following question would appear: “how concerned are you that big corporations have too much power over politicians…[/]over-your-family-and-community?” 88% and 76% (respectively) are concerned, according to Public Policy Polling. There’s a persuasive case to be made, in other words, that big capitalist corporations are abhorrent polarizers because of their immoderate wealth and power accumulations. And Sanders’ polarization therefore, since it is against those oligarchies/oligarchs, would unite the 99%.

What’s missing in their report are ways for readers to consider the political duplicities of the elites – in both parties.

This also speaks of the Democratic elites’ authoritarian-governance-lacing politics. Along with: perennial big business tax cuts, union-eliminating privatizations, bailouts for the too big to fail corporations, subsidies to fossil fuel organizations, empire-sized nuclearizations, and racially skewed incarceration of more people than any other nation – the elites’, decades of ‘money’s just not there,’ austerity-ordinations for the 99%, rolled out the red ragecarpet for a Janus-faced populist: there’s the patriotic-nationalist on the backward-looking face, and the left political-correctness smashing autocrat mounted on the front.

Not wanting to cop to weaving inhospitable/authoritarian bureaucracies into the fabric of everyday life (or going the extra mile to don the Republican’s Janus-faced authoritarian cryo-smile), the Democratic elites’ modus operandi became: blame anyone but themselves; blame the white workingclass; blame Russia; blame the filibuster: impeach the liar in the grr-ass. Along with half-baked imitations of Sanders’ popular policies in hand, they serve trays of identity-inclusiveness souffles – that include (and provide cover for) the plutocrats and their valets (qua moderates).

Unfortunately (for Sanders’ allied movements going forward), this situation finds the 99% split – near 49.5 – 49.5 in the electoral college. The irony of this is that so many people end up fighting against each other, through gigantic-scale identity group constructions, less aware that – this is the way – they’re fighting the ruling class’s authoritarian embroilments.

(De)Polarizing Freedom

Sanders’ appraisal of his poor showing with African American voters, was predated by his admission that his campaign was too white. To address these concerns he developed an explicit social justice and anti-racist focus. Among other positives, it attracted young activists and voters.

It also speaks of a catch-22 dilemma regarding his approach to race and Democratic voters. According to University of California professor, Ian Haney López:

It’s incredibly important that we not get bogged down in questions of whether Trump is a bigot or not, and that we really focus on this question: …Is [Trump] strategically, intentionally, purposely and with calculation manipulating racial division in the broader public?

…When we ask it that way, then it makes sense when we come up against some really startling results.

Ninety percent of Republicans reject the idea that Donald Trump is a racist. Even more startling than that, when we tested dog-whistle messages that talk about terrorist countries and undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities, and all that sort of rhetoric that commonly comes from Trump’s mouth, the majority of Democrats found those phrases those messages convincing.

A majority of African Americans found those messages convincing. A majority of the Latinx community found those messages convincing.

It’s simply not true that the majority of Americans hear messages about hardworking vs. lazy, undocumented immigrants, sanctuary cities, thugs, gangs, all the dog-whistle rhetoric — it’s simply not true that the majority of Americans hear that and recognize it as a blatant endorsement of white nationalism. They don’t.

By one metric, the Democrats that López refers to could be called racists. By another, these Obama-supporting Democrats don’t think they’re racist. López is, in this sense, pointing towards a multi-racial unity-making message, that Sanders’ embraces. It’s about the across-the-broad-divides disdain for politicians who pit people against each other by race, in order to enrich the 1%. Nonetheless, Sanders’ prioritizing of anti-racist causes and language, and his frequent excoriations of Trump as a racist – gave the corporate press, some of the more telegenic raw-materials, to crowd out that other side of his message.

Press Secretary of the Sanders campaign, Briahna Joy Gray animates López’s insights by indicating how to further defuse the polarization between social justice advocates and Trump voters:

Applying shame to an entire category of people, rather than conducting a more nuanced assessment of why people feel the way they do and did what they did, means we might miss those among the blameworthy who might be identified as something more mutable, more persuadable than a “deplorable”—someone who might be convinced to join our side next time.

Gray’s ‘we-exhorting’ message implies the following: people of all identities, inclusive of deplorables, can be called upon to support freedom struggles against white supremacy (e.g., to support reparations). But in light of Gray’s concern, directing race-based shame at large-scale identity groups (e.g., Trump supporters) – in relation to these struggles – can undermine the ability to win state power in presidential campaigns and base-building.

Less accounted for – shame-insinuating impacts and depolarizing possibilities vis-à-vis these freedom-seeking politics, can be considered in relation to the following question (that also suggests a shift in social justice politics):

+ How many people who claim to be oppressed in relation to their identity, and want to end their oppression, want to end it, only to be widely labeled as – privileged beneficiaries of supremacy, rather than free?

If people who consider themselves oppressed by identity, would not want to move into that freedom-constricting state (evocatively speaking, if one group does not want to be the other, i.e., free and privileged), how would it be an effective part of a president winning, unity-exhorting strategy – to assign a morally-compromised state of privilege to all whites, for instance (projected as 66.7% of the 2020 electorate)?

White privilege is generally posed as forming a significant part of one’s subjectivity and social meaning. Like racial oppression, there’s little way of escaping it in national politics today; both are meaningful totalizing psycho-social productions of people’s existence.

Enter a crafty clown-biking, power-yikes-ing blowhard, honking his counter totalitarian nozzle: in the form of the candidate, ‘larger than life,’ who’ll thwack an exaggerated, buffoon blown-up slight – that a ‘yuge group of (his) good people’ are privileged in life. He’ll parody it, and create effigies of the alleged imposers, till the moon turns into blood red roses. In the name of freedom and ‘give me a break’ tolerance, free speech, and freedom from being the oppressor, he’ll whack it so hard, it’ll swallow its own stuffing: it’s ‘The Left’, it’s the Washington swamp occupying establishment; it’s the fake news media; it’s the social justice advocates on campus: one group’s authoritarian thwacker becomes another’s freedom fighting cracker.

Even if Democratic voters don’t believe such polarizations are rampant, Trump and company effectively provoke media and political elites to cast people as polarized identity effigies.

In this respect, Clinton’s statement “you could put half of Trump supporters” into “the basket of deplorables” didn’t lose votes for Trump. Instead it rendered maybe up to half of the Clinton-leaning voters more divided as president-voting Democrats in relation to identity-shaming. This is similar to what the phrase white privilege can do, to subtly point the Democratic polity towards divisively impugning one another with shame; this, compared to the resentment-rage-release, base-building it inspires when exploited by the hornswogglers at Breitbart and Fox.

Freedom-Sharing and Identity

If Sanders had pivoted towards addressing the findings of analysts like López, Akuno, Mystal, and Dyson and surveys like that of More in Common, he might have realized the following: there’s something to be gleaned from a large-scale survey, wherein 80% “say political correctness is a problem,” and 82% say “the same about hate speech.” In this respect, evidence indicates that in majoritarian politics in social justice matters, forgoing an eminent prioritization of a shame-opposing, identity freedom-sharing strategy was detrimental to his chances to beat Biden (this speaks of a politics that could be heard in the conclusion of his Nevada victory speech, and as a critique directed at exclusivist identity politics in the 2016 campaign).

It may sound like this puts most voters in the neoliberal’s center pocket (swaddled against the polar pinballs of hate speech and political correctness). But this doesn’t just have to be labeled as centrist/moderate. In moving forward with the movements that Sanders helped inspire, a strategic challenge would go like this: if exiting the triangulation maze between Trump, Biden, and race – is about ‘going positive’ but not in the way Biden did, why wouldn’t it be about prioritizing a social justice politics where people empathetically extend freedom, heart, and hand between all large-scale identities?

Some elements of such a strategy are:

+ shifting from mutually-impugning identities towards sharing freedoms between all large-scale identities (regarding, e.g., democratic freedoms; freedom of speech; freedoms realized through economic security and well-being; and freedom from – racially skewed police violence and environmental discrimination); and turning the term privilege on the 1%, instead of the masses:

+ this can be done by moving, for instance, away from presidential politics and policies that redress societal privilege of all whites, in relation to benefitting from white supremacy (as in shifting away from emphasizing cash reparations for African Americans in favor of a proposed Congressional study on the issue, and advocating oppressed identity-responsive reparative policies that support, empower, and are shared by all distressed communities; and expanding the emphasis in police reforming activism and coalition building – from a single identity to all marginalized and distressed communities by identity); and,

+ focusing on Trump and other alt-right candidates’ manipulation of racism, rather than their impugned racist/evil subjective essences; and doing this, as Sanders’ did, by promoting distressed-community and oppressed-identity responsive, freedom-sharing, parity and equality seeking policies that also uplift the 99%; and,

+ refining the ways these Janus-faced populists are called racists, including shifting the focus of who has knowledge about their racism; this would be done by persistently detailing howracists believe [they’re] racist“; this approach was deftly wielded by Mayor Andrew Gillum in his race in Florida against Representative Ron DeSantis; it offers the majority between the ideologically polarized sides more common ground to agree about these candidates’ racism and/or their manipulation of racism.

In expanding such an approach, its appeal would not just be to so-called moderate or Trump friendly constituencies. It would also appeal to social justice advocates – to find common and creative ways to extend heart and hand to share freedom between all large-scale identities; this, for the long-run in majoritarian electoral and base-building politics.

Seth Adler coordinated the Left Forum conference for nine years. He has taught sociology, community studies, and political economics in universities in California and New York City.