How Bernie Sanders Exposed the Democrats’ Racial Rift

Issac J. Bailey, Politico, June 8, 2016

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{snip} Democrats face their own racial split that could haunt the party well into the future if it isn’t handled properly now.

Though it might offend his uber-progressive supporters to hear this, the Sanders insurgency is largely a white revolution. All the talk about Sanders representing the future of the Democratic Party because of his overwhelming popularity among young people leaves out an important caveat: He couldn’t persuade minority voters to sign on. In many ways a Sanders victory, propelled by the least diverse states in the nation, would have been a step backward in American race relations. Now that Hillary Clinton has laid claim convincingly to the nomination with decisive wins in California and New Jersey, the party–and Bernie’s supporters–are at a crossroads. If they insist on maintaining their purist divide from Clinton, they will create a rift in the party that’s not just ideological, but racial.

Barring an asteroid strike that extinguishes life on Earth, the American electorate will be much more diverse in coming elections than it is today, especially the portion of it that Democrats plan to rely on. There are now more non-white than white babies being born every year, and the under-18 crowd is close to reaching majority-minority status as well. That’s the Democrats’ greatest potential strength, which grows only more pronounced the closer Trump comes to being officially named the GOP nominee.

But it’s also a fault line. Sanders coming from seemingly nowhere to seriously challenge Clinton while drawing historically large and enthusiastic crowds has soaked up much of the attention in the Democratic race, making it feel as though he’s hit a chord that resonates throughout the party. But his brand of idealism has been rejected by the majority of minority voters–Clinton won every contest with at least a 10 percent black population, except Michigan, and each state where Latinos make up at least 10 percent of eligible voters, except Colorado, according to Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight.com. On top of that, they have been mocked by some Sanders supporters for supposedly “voting against their self-interest” because they refuse to believe a political revolution is at hand. That has been particularly galling to black voters who had to endure claims from conservatives in 2008 that they were voting for Barack Obama only because of race–even though they had spent their entire adult lives voting mostly for white presidential candidates. Now their preference for Clinton’s brand of pragmatism, something they’ve seen result in real progress time and again, is being questioned as well, this time by fellow Democrats.

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People of color, like their white Democratic counterparts, may also want a revolution and more rapid progress than the halting kind that comes with pragmatism, but they’ve time and again seen incremental change improve their lives. That’s why they embrace Martin Luther King Jr. without question while revering Malcolm X from a distance. That’s why they are much more enthusiastic about the Affordable Care Act–which has helped minority Americans the most– than white progressives who have either been lukewarm or, in some cases, even hostile to health reform because they don’t believe it was radical enough.

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Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com has shown that Clinton’s victories look much more like the Democratic Party–which, with a projected 54 percent white vote this year, will be majority-minority long before the country is–than do Sanders’ wins. Even in Sanders’ upset in Michigan, pundits were claiming he had made a breakthrough with black voters because he lost them only by 35 percent points. And exit polling data in Nevada that showed him edging Clinton among Hispanics is widely suspected to be wrong, given where Clinton racked up votes in that state.

Think about this. According to Reuters/Ipsos polling in February, the Vermont senator received his strongest support among black voters from those aged 18-29–but only a third of that group backed him. That’s right. For all the talk about Sanders’ unqualified young voter support, Clinton had a double-digit lead among the youngest black voters nationwide.

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The evidence of the racial divide lies even within the general election matchup polls Sanders and his supporters love to cite. He leads in a potential matchup with Trump by a larger margin than does Clinton. But that’s largely because Clinton’s minority voters would eagerly back Sanders as the Democratic nominee. Latinos hold a similar rate of favorability for Clinton and Sanders and would vote for either Democrat against Trump in nearly the same percentage, according to a poll by Latino Decisions.

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Many Sanders supporters believed his push to regulate Wall Street and solve economic inequality would resonate with minority voters. It didn’t because minority voters know that liberal policies alone won’t reverse decades of racial inequalities. They have been loyal members of liberal unions where white Democrats received plush jobs, even if they were no more qualified than their black colleagues. They’ve seen the same thing in liberal Hollywood and the supposedly liberal world of the media, whose top ranks remain mostly white.

Even though the senator from Vermont began speaking about criminal justice and other types of racial reform, minority voters weren’t convinced he would make those policies a priority. Democrats can waste time debating why minority voters should have connected better with Sanders–and get caught in a condescending discussion about why white Sanders supporters know what’s better for minority voters than minorities do themselves–or they can begin the more difficult work of coming up with strategies to deal with a divide that will show itself in a more pronounced and public way once Trump exits stage left.

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