How Much Should BlackLivesMatter to Bernie?

By now, most of you have heard of the recent effort by members of the BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement to disrupt a Bernie Sanders’ campaign event in Seattle. For those of you still caught up in Deflategate, here’s a video of the interruption – jump ahead to the 2:40 minute mark to see the point at which the protesters walk on stage which, eventually, prompts Bernie to leave.

This disruption follows on the heels of last month’s confrontation at Netroots Nation between the BLM activists and the more economically-oriented progressives that are the core constituency in the Sanders camp. The ongoing disruptions have attracted more than their fair share of media coverage as journalists try to gauge the implications of this apparent split in the progressive wing of the Democratic party for the Sanders presidential campaign. In responding to journalists who have asked me about this, I have tried to make two points. First, to a certain extent Sanders is a victim of his own success, a point Clare Foran addresses in her National Journal piece on Bernie. The decision by the participants in the BLM movement to target Bernie’s campaign events are surely influenced by the tremendous crowds he has been attracting in recent days – crowds that are predominantly composed of Bernie’s core constituency: educated, affluent white liberals whose views the BLM movement is targeting. As Bernie gains more media attention, the payoffs to the BLM crowd for disrupting these events becomes proportional bigger.

My second point is that we should not be surprised that Bernie and his supporters are, to a certain extent, somewhat miffed about the BLM disruptions and, in part because of this, were somewhat slow to react in a positive manner. As Colin Daileda notes in this Mashable piece, members of the BLM movement aren’t necessarily Bernie’s natural allies – something that I suspect initially puzzled Sanders, particularly given his civil rights record. From Bernie’s perspective, the types of issues that he has championed, from repealing Citizens United to raising the minimum wage to pushing for single-payer health care system are precisely the issues that, if implemented, would disproportionally help lower-income voters, particular African-Americans who are suffering from among the highest unemployment rates of any voting bloc. How useful can it be to disrupt the campaign events of the one candidate who is doing the most to advocate on your behalf?

For those in the BLM movement, however, Bernie’s focus on economic issues does not address the racial justice concerns that are of particular importance to the leading activists in this movement.  As Van Jones, a former White House adviser to President Obama, argues in a particularly scathing criticism of the Sanders’ campaign, “Our economic problems include an unemployment rate that is double that of whites, racially biased policing and court systems, predatory lenders who deliberately target black neighborhoods and public schools that expel black children at staggering rates for minor offenses.” For the BLM movement, these issues of racial justice are different from and transcend what they see as the Sanders’ campaign more narrow focus on economic inequality.

To his credit, after walking off the stage in Seattle, Bernie has made a pointed effort to find common ground with the BLM activists, with issues of racial justice now figuring prominently in his speeches, and on his social media sites. But, as this Charles Blow opinion piece indicates, there likely are limits to how far either side is willing to go to accommodate the concerns of the other. This should not surprise us. Movements like Bernie’s economic populism and BLM tend to attract ideologues who are convinced they are advocating for the most important issue facing the country right now. While it might seem practical for activists in the economic and racial justice camps to join forces in a broader progressive movement, that is anathema to the true believers in each movement who are wedded to the sanctity of their particular cause. With apologies to Barry Goldwater, purists on both sides of the divide believe that “Moderation in the recognition of the other guys’ issue is no virtue; extremism in the defense of our issue is no vice.”

So where does this leave Bernie? The Sanders’ campaign is struggling to broaden its appeal beyond the aging hipsters, college students and left-wing professors to attract support from more moderate and conservative Democratic voters that right now are supporting Clinton and who typically constitute about half the Democratic nomination electorate. It’s not clear how having to respond to disruptions from BLM movement is going to help Sanders accomplish this goal if the effect is to highlight views not shared by those more moderate Democrats. On the other hand, as I have noted repeatedly, Sanders is going to need to attract some support from minority voters if he hopes to compete with Clinton outside of Iowa and New Hampshire. To date, however, Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in the polls among nonwhite likely Democratic voters. The key for Sanders, then, is to effectively fuse his message of economic justice with the BLM’s concern for racial justice in a manner that appeals to more moderate Democrats as well as racial minorities. But this is easier said than done, particularly when issue activists in both camps express reluctance to subsume their own views on behalf of a broader cause. In this vein, it’s worth remembering that those $50 campaign contributions the Sanders’ camp is proud of citing aren’t coming from Joe and Jane Sixpack – they are flowing in from ideological purists who expect Bernie to spread the gospel of economic progressivism. And they want to get what they paid for.

Meanwhile, I expect Sanders to continue to “shamelessly pander to voters who want to hear the truth”, as “political strategist” Harland Dorrinson reminds us (hat tip to Shelly Sloan for sending this piece by humorist Andy Borowitz* along!):

“Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is gaining legions of new admirers by shamelessly pandering to voters who want to hear the truth, critics of the Vermont senator say.

According to those critics, Sanders has cynically targeted so-called ‘truth-based voters’ to build support for his Presidential bid.

‘People come to Sanders’s rallies expecting to hear the truth, and he serves it up to them on a silver platter,’ the political strategist Harland Dorrinson said. ‘It’s a very calculated gimmick.’

But while Sanders’s practice of relentlessly telling the truth might play well in states that are rich in truth-based voters, like the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, critics say that his campaign could stall in states where the truth has historically been less important, like Florida.

‘At some point in this campaign, voters are going to get truth fatigue,’ Dorrinson said. ‘Right now, the novelty of a politician who doesn’t constantly spew lies is grabbing headlines. But after months of Bernie Sanders telling the truth, voters are going to start wondering, Is that all he’s got?’

Dorrinson is just one of many critics who is eagerly waiting for the Sanders phenomenon to come down to Earth. ‘Telling the truth may be working for Bernie Sanders, but it shows a serious lack of respect for the American political system,’ he said.”

Because, as we all know:

*My apologies for not linking to the Borowitz piece in my original post, and thanks to those who pointed this out.

4 comments

  1. Here, being somewhat upset that Sanders is being labeled as a: “socialist”.
    Which is rather a somewhat witch label as being a ‘communist’.
    Yes, he is, to some degree, taking the whisk out of Hilary’s broom….How is he going to remain on the trail, without real money helping him to do so?
    What does ‘anathema” mean?

  2. Haven’t we come to a dead-end as a democratic nation if the intellectual premise of successful politics is that we can’t handle the truth? The city on the hill run by systemically approved demagogues and sophists?

    Granted perfection escapes us, but doesn’t this legitimization of illusions and misinformation make meaningful management of our problems impossible?

    I know, you will say, but that’s the political reality. Maybe so. The trouble is that the price of living in unreality gets steeper over time until, as usual in history, there is a final reckoning.

  3. Lewis – The money issue is potentially a problem for Bernie. At some point, to compete with Hillary, he has to hope that an independent sugar daddy decides to invest in a Super Pac on his behalf, and then hold his nose while they spend money to keep him afloat!

  4. For me, if Sanders isn’t on the ballot I won’t bother to vote. The progressive movement is almost dead anyway and given how the right has seized power from the states all the way to DC I even doubt Sanders could alter the course this country is on now anyway. Did anyone notice that Congress has budgeted 350 billion dollars to build a whole new fleet of nuclear weapons? Pretty depressing. Add to this is the real possibility that CRISPER gene editing technology may allow the super rich to mutate into a new super intelligent humanoids and we may be dammed either way. http://www.wired.com/2015/07/crispr-dna-editing-2/

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