Can Bernie Sanders win the African American vote?

The Vermont senator won New Hampshire, but he still attracts little support from the African American community.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders speaks at the New Hampshire Democratic party's Jefferson Jackson dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire, on November 29, 2015 [Mary Schwalm/REUTERS]

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ solid win in the New Hampshire primary election was widely anticipated but its scope accentuates his lethal threat to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, the clear choice of the Democratic establishment.

Most analysts attribute Sanders’ victory to a general anti-establishment mood in the nation, a mood illustrated also by Donald Trump’s sweeping victory in the state’s Republican primaries. But Sanders’ victory also has an explicit ideological edge: He is the first self-professed socialist to become a major party candidate.

His campaign stresses the evils of income inequality, the need to break up the big banks and the cabal of billionaires that buy elections and keep the masses of Americans mired in economic stagnation. Sanders calls for universal healthcare, a living wage for workers and tuition-free college; he vows to pay for those programmes by taxing “Wall Street speculation”.

Socialism: like a crucifix to a vampire

However, many within the Democratic Party establishment feel that the political stakes are too high to experiment with a septuagenarian socialist. Members of the millennial generation may be more accepting of the socialist label but most Americans are not, they argue. The word socialism once repelled Americans like a crucifix does vampires, and Democratic operatives fear the Republicans can easily reactivate that political antipathy.

Some Democrats prefer Clinton for her centre-left policy prescriptions and for her experience in the legislative and executive branches of government – she has served as a US senator and a secretary of state as well as a first lady. Others find her preferable simply because she offers the most plausible route to the first female president.

The hardcore partisans of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) see Clinton as the best chance to fend off a total Republican takeover of the federal government. Republicans already control the two houses of Congress and they want the most formidable candidate to protect the presidency as a Democratic Party bastion.

What is more, they argue, Sanders’ platform is nothing more than an idealistic wish list with little chance of becoming policy. “I wish that we could elect a democratic president who could wave a magic wand and say, ‘We shall do this, and we shall do that,'” Clinton said recently in response to Sanders’ proposals. “That ain’t the real world we’re living in.”

There may be a logical argument that Clinton is a better bet than Sanders to fend off rampaging Republicans, but the numbers beg to differ. Most major polls suggest Sanders would defeat all of the Republican candidates, with the possible exception of Marco Rubio.

Clearly, there is something unprecedented about the surge of support for this two-term senator who is Congress’ longest-serving independent. Few expected him to become such a celebrity candidate. In one of many ironies of the Sanders campaign, the oldest candidate has become the darling of the youngest voters – in Iowa’s caucuses last week, Sanders defeated Clinton among voters aged 17 to 29 by 70 percentage points (84-14), and initial estimates put his New Hampshire percentages even higher.

What will it take for African Americans to believe in the future Sanders has to offer? [Win McNamee/Getty Images]
What will it take for African Americans to believe in the future Sanders has to offer? [Win McNamee/Getty Images]

Are African Americans ‘sleepwalking’ towards Clinton?

Another irony is the lack of support Sanders attracts from the African American community, despite the fact that his programme most accords with what some have characterised as the “black political consensus”. Michael Dawson, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and author of several books on black politics, even compares black electoral sentiment to the Scandinavian social democrats Sanders often invokes. But those political affinities thus far have failed to move all but a few black Americans to Sanders’ banner.

Race in the US: Know your history

Many black organisers are trying hard to alter that relationship. Among those is activist and scholar Cornel West, who sees Sanders’ candidacy as an extension of Jesse Jackson’s campaigns for the Democratic Party nomination in 1984 and 1988. West has also been acting as a Sanders’ surrogate, singing his praises in appearances at colleges and churches. The Vermont Senator has also attracted the support of Killer Mike, a hip-hop artist widely respected by black youth. But he has surprisingly sparse support among African Americans.

“The black community is still in a post-Obama stupor and we’ve been a bit lethargic in organising our forces,” said Will Cosby, a veteran political organiser in Chicago, who has spearheaded something called the Bernie Brigade because too many black people are “sleepwalking” towards Clinton.

Cosby is correct. According to recent polls Clinton is by far the favoured candidate for black Americans. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll shows Clinton leading in South Carolina, which votes on February 27, by a 37-point margin.

And that margin is heavily bolstered by the support of black voters, who prefer Clinton over Sanders by 74 to 17. Those kinds of margins are the reason Clinton supporters claim there is a “firewall” in some states that will stop Sanders’ bandwagon. Although it is also true that Sanders’ approval rating with minority voters climbed from 28 percent in July 2015 to 51 percent in February.

Cosby believes black voters will move towards Sanders “once they hear that Bernie is talking about issues that directly affect our community and he’s doing it fearlessly. The Bernie Brigade is dedicated to making sure they hear him.”

Secular socialism: the hard sell

The importance of black support is clear to Sanders. His first trip following New Hampshire is Harlem, to meet with the Reverend Al Sharpton, the influential president of the National Action Network. The candidate realises that unless he can ignite the so-called Obama coalition of youth, people of colour, single women, etc, his likelihood of primary victories is slim in all but a sliver of states.

Sanders faces a problem that often confronts progressive mavericks who may excite segments of the white electorate but leave black voters cold; Eugene McCarthy, Paul Tsongas, Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, come to mind. These candidates often ignore the specific interest of black Americans with overly broad appeals.

Racism in the US: The melting pot is boiling

What is more, the black electorate tends to be exceedingly pragmatic when assessing the political prospects of idealistic candidates. Black voters even withheld enthusiasm from candidate Barack Obama until he won Iowa and proved he could attract white voters.

Adding to this traditional distance are Sanders’ old-school notions of secular socialism, which embrace the materialist idea that economics shape the sociopolitical agenda more than race or religion. This is a hard sell in African American communities crippled by anti-black biases and accustomed to clerical leadership. Sanders has altered his pitch to sharpen his appeal. It may not be too late.

Source: Al Jazeera