Two nights after Joe Biden’s unexpected wave of Super Tuesday victories revealed that Democratic Party voters had turned away from Bernie Sanders in massive numbers, I watched Rachel Maddow pepper Sanders with tough but fair questions in a MSNBC interview. I came away thinking that he and his campaign fail to understand why the nomination campaign has taken the turn it has.
Asked why he continues to do poorly with African-American voters, Sanders responded with a dodge that his campaign was actually “winning among people of color in a very significant degree.” While it is certainly true that Sanders has won impressive levels of support from Latino voters, the same is clearly not true of African-Americans, who voted overwhelmingly for Biden. Pressed further by Maddow on why African-Americans had voted in very large numbers for Biden, Sanders responded that it was because Biden had been Barack Obama’s Vice President. These tone-deaf responses reveal a man in denial.
Let me suggest a different thesis about where the Democratic campaign for President currently stands.
Democratic voters (or at least between 2/3 and 3/4 of them) are telling us they have one priority above all others — removing Trump from the White House and ending GOP control of the Senate.
They understand the stakes of the election, and what it means for the survival of American democracy. They are saying that their vote is first and foremost an anti-authoritarian vote — a vote to defeat Trump and Trumpism.
They assess candidates on the basis of who can best achieve those goals, and vote accordingly.
African-American voters — especially older African-American voters — have a deep collective memory of having lived in an age of homegrown American totalitarianism: that’s what the Jim Crow South was for African-Americans.
Trumpism is all too reminiscent of Jim Crow, and African-American voters are telling us with their votes that what they care about, more than anything else, is stopping it in its tracks.
And, my white friends, if you think this is a hyperbolic formulation, you need to read the literature on how the Nazis studied and used the Jim Crow legal codes as they formulated the racist and anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws, starting with James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model.
We need to give our African-American brothers and sisters the credit of being every bit as serious and thoughtful political actors as the rest of us, and stop patronizing them — as Sanders did in his interview with Maddow — by claiming that they make their decisions based on whom was close to Barack Obama.
There are three important corollaries to my thesis.
First, it is not that Democratic voters in general and African-American voters, in particular, don’t want universal health insurance, or a wealth tax, or a forgiveness of college debt or any of the programmatic proposals that have defined both the Warren campaign and the Sanders campaign (notwithstanding the disingenuous attacks from Sanders supporters that suggested that Warren was abandoning her support for these ideas).
The polling on those questions show wide support, and there is no reason to doubt its validity.
It’s just that an overwhelming number of Democratic voters are not ready to pursue those programs in ways that they fear might endanger the prime directive — defeating Trump.
This explains the paradox of why wide support for these various issues has not resulted in wide support for the candidates who have championed them.
One of the lessons I took away from 2016 was that a campaign that focused entirely on Trump, on the dangers and evils that he embodies and promotes, was not sufficient for victory.
I now think that I — and many others — gave too much weight to that lesson. On balance, it remains true, but only as one among a number of axioms that should guide us.
2020 is not 2016, and Americans have seen the reality of Trump (when was the last time you had someone say he “should be taken seriously but not literally?”). The experience has focused their minds. This is especially true among Democratic voters.
Second, the defeat of Clinton in 2016 has led to fear among Democratic voters that the US is not ready to elect a woman as President.
Among Democrats, this fear is mostly sub-rosa, because they don’t want it to be true, and they want to break through the sex barrier the way that Obama broke through the race barrier.
The most ardent of Warren’s supporters — a category in which I include myself — had hoped that Warren could persist even in the face of this fear. But we lost that fight: that fear was a significant reason why the woman candidate who had far fewer flaws when compared to the two other septuagenarian survivors, had to leave the race after Super Tuesday.
Third, Democratic voters are looking for a broad center-left coalition to defeat Trump.
They won’t put that desire in the political terminology that I have used, but they are clear that they want to unite as many of their fellow citizens as possible behind the prime directive of defeating Trump and Trumpism.
And here the political rhetoric of the Sanders campaign — directed as much against Democratic centrists, as against the Trumpists and the GOP — is precisely the sort of message the majority of Democratic voters don’t want to hear. It threatens the party’s capacity to build a broad coalition that can convincingly defeat Trump and Trumpism.
The theory of Sanders’s case has been that he doesn’t need the support of Democratic centrists because he is transforming the political process by energizing and involving young people who were not previously part of it. This theory of Sanders’s case was proven false on Super Tuesday, as even he had to acknowledge that his campaign had failed to turn out young voters in the numbers it needed. Yet since Super Tuesday, his campaign has only doubled down on this approach.
A broad center-left coalition need not be under the control of supine centrists who have marched to the tune of plutocrats for the last half-century.
But if the left is foregoing the very idea of a coalition in favor of a sectarian triumphalism which treats the center as an enemy equal to Trumpism and the right — if the left goes down that lonely, sectarian path, then there will be no coalition under progressive leadership, just an isolated, and defeated, left.
On this fundamental question, Warren has understood something that Sanders has yet to learn.
And if Sanders does not learn the lesson soon, a campaign that appeared well on its way to victory a few short weeks ago will become irrelevant as the Democratic primaries continue.
Leo Casey is Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, Washington, DC.