The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, contrary to all expectation, has become the most important left insurgency in the United States in nearly half a century. A year ago, even his most optimistic supporters might have hoped that Sanders would enliven the presidential debates by challenging Hillary Clinton on issues of Wall Street power and big money corruption, and perhaps garner a quarter to a third of the primary vote. Instead, Sanders won primaries and caucuses in 23 states, and amassed over 12 million votes and nearly 43% of the pledged delegates. And all this while unapologetically and unabashedly proclaiming himself a “democratic socialist,” re-legitimizing a systemic critique of US capitalism for the first time since the one-two punch of Cold War reaction and neoliberal triumphalism froze the left out of mainstream American discourse two generations ago. The power of Big Banks, job-killing trade deals, ending the corrosive influence of big money in elections, eliminating private insurance companies from the health care system, and the merits of a “political revolution” became staples of prime-time presidential debates. Once stunning poll numbers now seem commonplace: 43% of Iowa caucus goers, including roughly a third of Clinton supporters, describing themselves as “socialists”; a New York Times poll late last year which said that 56% of Democratic primary voters had a “positive view of socialism;” and Sanders’ overwhelming support among young voters, by margins as high as 84% in Iowa and New Hampshire, but even reaching the low 60s in states like South Carolina, where he was otherwise crushed. Indeed, Sanders’ remarkable popularity among “millennials” prompted John Della Volpe, the director of a long-running Harvard University poll of young people, to tell the Washington Post that Sanders is “not moving a party to the left. He’s moving…the largest generation in the history of America…to the left.” Something significant is definitely going on.
At this writing, just after the California primary, it appears virtually certain that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, and despite her historically high unfavorable ratings, she is likely to defeat Donald Trump in the November election. But the unexpected breadth and fervor of the Sanders movement signifies that the shifts in US political discourse engendered by the financial collapse of 2008 and the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 are enduring. Bernie Sanders did not produce this moment—after all, he has been saying literally the exact same things about American society for over 40 years. But as in any movement moment, when the zeitgeist shifts and a leader’s vision gives voice to the hopes of tens of millions of people, the unthinkable suddenly becomes possible.
Despite its enormous promise, the movement has displayed critical limitations. Although Sanders worked hard to enrich his campaign’s analysis and message on issues of concern to people of color, the primacy he gave to questions of class, economic inequality and corporate power evidently prevented many African-Americas and Latinos from seeing themselves in his campaign. This is confounding given that African-Americans were especially hard hit by the ravages of the neoliberal, trickle-down economics Sanders attacks. Black family wealth, already only a fraction of their white counterparts, was halved after Wall Street melted down in 2008, and poor people of color were disproportionately victimized by the predatory loans which fed Wall Street’s speculative bond machine.
But African-American primary voters overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton. One leading Pennsylvania African-American faith leader explained to me that many black voters, especially older women, viewed their support for Hillary as upholding a “social contract” that was forged in 2008: after they abandoned Hillary for Obama that year, it was understood that eight years later she would have “her turn.” Younger activists of color, even some who support Sanders, say they didn’t “feel the Bern” because of his initial stumbling response to the challenges of Black Lives Matter protestors. And Michelle Alexander, who eviscerated the Clinton policy legacy in a Nation magazine article entitled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” attributed African-Americans’ 2016 allegiance to the Clintons to a widely held feeling that Bill Clinton was the first President “who actually treated black folks like they were real people, who could be viewed and treated as human beings…who actually would sit down to eat with them and sing in their church and acted like he enjoyed it, who recognized us as human beings.”
Race remains at the core of the American tragedy, and the struggle for Black Lives will not be subsumed in a broader movement. The future potential of a continuing post-Sanders’ radical mobilization for economic justice, racial justice, and democracy will only be realized if it integrates the social critique and constituencies mobilized by BLM and movements for immigrant rights. The support Sanders received from leading black intellectuals, artists and elected officials, like Alexander, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Cornel West, Ben Jealous and Keith Ellison suggest that bridging the gap between the Sanders campaign and the emergent black mobilization is by no means out of the question. Here the labor movement, which despite all its flaws and limitations, remains by far the largest multi-racial institution of working people in our society, could play a crucial role in ensuring that whatever movement building effort that follows the Sanders campaign reflects the increasingly diverse face of American society.
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