Coalition building


Bernie Sanders is losing, and will almost certainly lose, the race for the Democratic nomination. Pundits dissecting his campaign have pointed to his inability to reach out to the black and suburban white voters who denied him the nomination last time, and to court the Democratic establishment whose endorsements have impacted the race.

One of the turning points was the run-up to the South Carolina primary, in which black voters played a dominant role, and in which exit polls found that black voters were swayed by senior Democrat Jim Clyburn’s endorsement of Joe Biden. According to the Daily Beast, that outcome was partly Sanders’s fault. It ran a piece headlined: “Majority Whip Jim Clyburn: Sanders never courted my endorsement”, although, confusingly, Clyburn is quoted within as saying “I don’t need to be courted” and explained that Sanders, like most of the two dozen other candidates in the race, reached out to Clyburn to talk about his candidacy. (A more plausible explanation of his endorsement is related to what Clyburn said separately about Sanders: that he would cause “down-ballot carnage” by associating Democrats with the “socialist” label.) Scott Lemieux at LGM wrote that the Daily Beast story provided evidence that “Bernie all but wr[ote] off South Carolina and its predominantly African-American electorate”. Matthew Yglesias at Vox tweeted that Sanders’s strategy of “hop[ing] the opposition remains hopelessly divided so you don’t need to bother expanding your coalition” left his campaign “vulnerable to external events”, like the Clyburn endorsement. Kurt Bardella (a Breitbart publicist turned Democrat) explained in a USA Today opinion piece that Sanders’ rhetoric against Joe Biden’s “corporate” and “political” establishment-backed campaign was unfair and alienating, because Biden’s true base comprises black voters, who are neither corporate nor establishment. And one Mother Jones article quoted a senior advisor to Cory Booker as saying, “I think older [black] people feel like Bernie is yelling at them”, which is why they supported Joe Biden, the guy who famously never yells.

Besides his struggles with the black vote, Sanders has also been criticized for his misogynistic and toxic base, which is purported to have alienated (primarily white) women and other college-educated voters. Elizabeth Warren, in declining to endorse Sanders, claimed that the Sanders campaign had “a real problem with this online bullying and sort of organized nastiness. … I’m talking about some really ugly stuff that went on.” Paul Krugman echoed this criticism, saying that Sanders supporters are “only partly about progressive policy”; what they really care about is “someone who channels their sense of grievance”. Chuck Todd compared Bernie supporters to “brownshirts”.

In short, Bernie is said to have failed to build a coalition. He has been supremely satisfied with his base of diehard supporters, the 30% that he seems to win in every state. He has written off entire swathes of the rest of the electorate, and, worse yet, impugned their character by equating them with the political establishment. He shouts too much and listens too little; criticizes too stridently and conciliates too sparingly. If only he had Sister Souljah’ed the Chapo Trap House bros, hounded Jim Clyburn for his endorsement, and delivered the right speech about the intersection between race- and class-based politics, he might have won the nomination (which, according to Lemieux, was his “to lose”)

Suffice it to say that I think this is largely bullshit. A few points, in no particular order:

There were politicians who tried a more conciliatory, less strident approach. Quoting from an article by Ed Kilgore from October 2019,

Warren has been careful to develop policy proposals specifically designed to address the concerns of African-Americans, including a criminal-justice-reform agenda, a plan to boost black entrepreneurship, and an initiative to reduce maternal mortality among black women. And her retail politicking, as the Washington Post reported after a weekend of competitive Democratic campaigning in South Carolina, is showing some serious chops:

[I]n South Carolina, Warren and her team appeared to be navigating the racial landscape more astutely than Sanders. Among the speakers warming up a crowd for her Saturday evening in Aiken, S.C., was Lessie Price, a local black leader and the first vice chair of the state’s Democratic Party.

Warren’s message, Price said, speaks to African Americans. “Often­times, it’s getting that message out over and over and over, and someone starts hearing it,” said Price, who is staying neutral in the primary.

Warren ended up getting only 5% of black votes in South Carolina.

She wasn’t the only one. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar famously struggled with the black vote, and dropped out after their poor performance in South Carolina with that group. Even Kamala Harris and Cory Booker were, in most polling, trailing Joe Biden among black voters. Each of them tried different approaches: running on moderate/Midwestern appeal (Klobuchar); running on a weird Obama-like affect (Buttigieg); running on love (Booker); and running on toughness (Harris). They all failed dismally.

How quickly it is forgotten, too, that Bernie Sanders, not too long ago, was leading nationally among all racial groups, including black voters. That Intercept article notes that MSNBC constantly referred to the importance of the black vote (when it appeared, before South Carolina’s primary, that Sanders would lose it badly), without mentioning Sanders’s newfound success in that category. It might also be worth mentioning that, at the outset of this primary cycle, savvy political observers (including Jim Clyburn!) were praising Sanders’ efforts in correcting his image with and outreach to black voters, after the 2016 debacle:

Clinton beat Sanders 3-to-1 in South Carolina, where African-Americans made up about 60 percent of the vote. And she went on to rout him by similar margins across the South.

So it was not obvious that Sanders would make South Carolina his first stop in any of the early primary states this year.

But there he was Monday, marching arm-in-arm through downtown Columbia with NAACP leaders on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, calling President Donald Trump “a racist” and visiting black churches and a historically black college more than a year before any votes will be cast in the primary.

“He really struggled the last time,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the most powerful Democrat in the state, said Monday. “I think coming here today is a good start.”

Sanders waited to visit South Carolina in the last presidential primary contest, and that wasn’t the only change observers noticed.

Sanders was sometimes criticized — and even protested — by racial justice advocates who said his class-based view of the world missed the struggles unique to people of color. And even supporters were frustrated that he seemed allergic to talking about himself, including his activism and arrests in the Civil Rights movement.

But as he spoke with mostly black audiences in Columbia and Florence this week, Sanders opened up about his personal experiences traveling as a college student to see King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. And he drew heavily in his remarks on King’s work on economic justice.

“Combating racial equality must be central to combating economic inequality,” Sanders said.

Marcus Ferrell, who was the director of African-American outreach for Sanders’ 2016 campaign, said he was pleased to see the senator making an early play in the South.

“It’s obvious to me that Bernie is not going to make the same decisions that he made last time,” Ferrell said. “There were a lot of things that they could have done differently last time.”

And in another change from 2016, when Clinton locked up support from most political leaders, Sanders used his first trip to the state to meet with state legislative power brokers.

“He was very well received. He talked about the things that I think are important to all of the members,” said Democrat Todd Rutherford, the minority leader of the state House.

And, finally, I’ll mention that Joe Biden is a terrible coalition-builder and retail politician, and seemed to go out of his way to spit in the faces of other parts of the Democratic base: young voters, Latinos, and environmental activists. He told Carlos Rojas, who criticized the Obama administration’s record on deportations, that he would not apologize for that record, and, if Rojas didn’t appreciate his response, he should “vote for Trump”. He was frequently dismissive of young people’s concerns, saying, “I just don’t want people telling me on a college campus, ‘Oh, woe is me, I’ve got it so bad.’ … Come on” and that “his generation” fixed problems in America, so the younger generation should do the same and stop “tell[ing] me how bad it is”. He also condescendingly called a young environmental activist as “kiddo” while trying to explain why she shouldn’t care about the donations he’s received from fossil-fuel groups (after he’d vowed not to do so).

I am immensely frustrated with the way the Democratic establishment and intelligentsia has, in my view, cynically used the language of coalition politics to punish progressive politicians. There are a few things going on, simultaneously.

First, it is not at all clear whether, and to what extent, the way a campaign is run affects its support among various demographic groups. Warren was thought to have run an excellent campaign, before she wasn’t. Sanders was thought to be doing all the right things with black voters, before he wasn’t. Biden was a sleepy old man who couldn’t string together a coherent sentence, and he had a campaign that was hardly on the ground in most of the Super Tuesday states, but he still won. How many of the stories we tell about campaigns are post-hoc rationalizations of what is mostly predetermined or largely chance? If Warren or Sanders had won, political reporters would have told a different set of stories to explain their victory. But what does that say about the predictive power of those stories in the first place? In other words, to say, like Scott Lemieux, that Sanders’ victory was guaranteed but for his poor political campaign is simply epistemologically dubious. It is not so much untrue as it is unknowable. The state of polling and the state of the horse race oscillate so wildly that it is implausible to me that a few more legislative endorsements or NAACP events would have materially changed the outcome, but, to be honest, I really have no idea. (It should also not be surprising that these same people recoil at the suggestion that Hillary Clinton should have run a better campaign against Donald Trump.) The people who constantly further the narrative that progressive politicians, like Sanders, suck at campaigning are perhaps more interested in laying the blame for Sanders’ loss at his own feet than they are at reporting honestly on why the campaign turned out the way it did. The fact that this criticism also often comes from Warren supporters is even more galling, considering her even worse failure by these standards.

One manifestation of this attitude is the way in which demographic groups are talked about by white people. Back in 2016, Sanders lacked a diverse base of support and relied too heavily on white people. This time around, he has improved considerably: he dominates among groups like Latinos and Muslims, and he has also made strides among black voters. But pundits on TV cynically cherry-pick their coverage to focus on groups in which he is losing. I don’t doubt that, if Sanders were winning among black voters and losing among Latinos and Asians (the opposite of what is currently happening), Rachel Maddow, James Carville, and Terry McAuliffe (the three pundits excerpted in the Intercept article, above) would be touting the importance of those other racial groups to the Democratic coalition. This is the worst kind of racial politics: when white elites are responsible for deciding which minorities matter, and when. There was a reason that Sanders did not get the kind of “earned media” after Nevada that Biden did after South Carolina, and it’s not because one is a better campaigner or more of a coalition-builder than the other.

To offer my two cents, here is why Joe Biden is winning and Bernie Sanders is losing. It is not that Joe Biden reaches out to groups that Bernie Sanders ignores. It is not that Biden is a natural conciliator and Sanders is a natural divider. It is not that Biden invites people into the tent – he obviously doesn’t! And it is not that Sanders has run a bad campaign, although, certainly, it could have been better in various respects. The real reason Biden is winning is that people believe he can beat Trump. Many Democrats, like Jim Clyburn, believe only a moderate, and not a socialist, can beat Trump. Many Democrats agree with Sanders on the issues but disagree with him on his electability. Most like him and still won’t vote for him (as with Warren). Many Democrats flitted between Klobuchar and Buttigieg and Harris and Bloomberg and Warren before finally arriving on Joe Biden, not because the ideologies or platforms of those candidates were similar (they weren’t), but because they cared about ideological affinity less than they did finding someone whom disaffected white people would vote for in 2020. And many Democrats don’t accept the contention that elections are more about increasing turnout among nonvoters rather than flipping suburban Republicans. If you want to read a more expansive and eloquent version of this argument, centered on South Carolina and the black vote, I’d highly recommend this piece by Elie Mystal.

I hope things work out for Joe. He has certain advantages that Hillary did not have (notably, the possibility of a coronavirus-induced recession and the lack of a vagina), and I hope those overcome the handicap of the brain fog that seems to be slowly enveloping him. But it is deeply disturbing that the same arguments trotted out about electability in 2004, and 2016, are being repeated now, and that the same people are making them. (Heck, even Hillary Clinton is talking about how Joe Biden is “building the kind of coalition I had”.) I fear that the same pundits who only care about minorities when they’re opposing progressive politics, and who only care about coalitions when they’re being assembled in support of the establishment, have yet again convinced Democrats to support a candidate who won’t build the coalition we need to win in November.


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