Fear and Pandering in the Palmetto State

Why did Bernie Sanders lose in South Carolina, and what does it mean going forward?

I’ve been listening to the wave of lament and frustration over the South Carolina Democratic primary results, and recurring pleas that we take a more measured view of black voters. We should. So here are a few provisional observations and thoughts on Saturday’s outcome, and what it does and doesn’t mean going forward.

1

“Why did black people vote against their interests?”

On Saturday, some black people did vote their interests, as they understand them, which shouldn’t be a revelation if you see black people as a group who hold multiple, shifting, and conflicting interests. Black people are not a herd of sheep, and this is a notion that many folks, including some blacks, need to disabuse themselves of. And I should add, while class is objective, class consciousness and interests are historical and subjective and, as such, contradictory.

That said, voting for a presidential candidate is an expression of one’s choice. But this is only a proxy for political interests, which are again multifaceted and shifting.

You can imagine three folks living in the same household in Sumter, South Carolina — a retired woman, her forty-three-year-old daughter who works at a local hospital, and her nineteen-year-old grandson who attends Morris College part time and works as a dishwasher on weekends. On Saturday, they all pulled the lever for Clinton for dozens of different reasons, based on issues of concern as well as optics and messaging, all at the same time.

Maybe it was because she’s a better debater, she’ll be the first woman president, she has more foreign policy experience, her public appearance with the mothers of those slain by police and vigilantes, her promise to extend Obama’s policies, her vow to improve the Affordable Care Act, a church member’s endorsement after a prayer meeting, and so on.

Their impressions, preferences, and expectations have been formed in a conservative state in uncertain times.

2

Fear of a Trump presidency?

We need to factor in a sense of geography in all of this, that the election feels different in a place like South Carolina compared to Florida or Ohio. As Connor Kilpatrick reminded many of us, back in 2008, Democratic turnout in the South Carolina primary was 293,000 among blacks, 229,000 among whites. On Saturday, it was 218,000 for blacks, 125,000 for whites. By comparison, the GOP primary turnout was 738,000 this year (of course, overwhelmingly white).

Given this last figure — 738,000 voters turned out for the Republican primary — it’s no wonder that some blacks are uneasy about the prospects of a far-right president. Remember, they just took the Confederate flag down from the South Carolina statehouse last year.

So I agree with political scientist Lester Spence that some black support for Clinton was generated by palpable fear of seeing Donald Trump elected, but I also think that some logic of incumbency was at work as well.

3

Clinton's firewall.

Hillary Clinton’s firewall strategy worked. It was built on decades of campaigning in the state, and the widely held impression that a Clinton presidency has the capacity to deliver both substantive and symbolic benefits to supporters. As she’s said, she doesn’t need a tour of the White House.

The Clintons are not Daddy Daley or Boss Tweed, but they’re about the closest version we can imagine in today’s national context. Their ground game is strong, decades in the making, and was just too much for the Sanders camp to surmount in the time it had. Remember: Sanders started out polling around 7 percent support in South Carolina. That he was able to more than triple that backing over the past few months is significant, but obviously inadequate.

Exit polls during Saturday’s primary suggested that 72 percent of all South Carolina Democrats wanted to continue Obama’s policies, and only 18 percent wanted something more liberal than what Obama offered. In the same poll, only 43 percent of black voters identified as liberals.

Clinton’s firewall might make some folks feel good now, as a reminder that black votes matter. But African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population — and sadly, due to voter suppression, felon disenfranchisement, and alienation, we constitute even less of the national electorate in any given year. In addition, we are concentrated in states that the Republicans have won consistently and handily since the 1970s.

4

“The Sanders campaign didn’t do enough to reach black voters!”

I’ve heard some people say in the wake of the South Carolina primary returns that Sanders should have adopted the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter activists, that he should have endorsed reparations, and so forth.

I don’t agree with this, and there’s no evidence that such pandering would have challenged Clinton’s ground game in the state. That kind of thinking also ignores various overtures he’s made — his deference to the Black Lives Matters protesters in Seattle (he stood aside and let them speak; Clinton did not when she was confronted by a protester at a recent private fundraiser), his private meetings with the families of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner, and his advocacy of massive public works projects targeted at revitalizing the nation’s cities. Those programs, of course, would go a long way toward providing people with livable wage employment and an alternative to the informal economy.

Thousands of voters, too, saw pictures of Sanders being arrested during his days as a student protesting for black civil rights. But Clinton was able to hang on to black support.

She had more well-known, well-positioned black local surrogates and brokers throughout the state, and her approach to campaigning does not deviate from the well-established traditions of patron-client relations that exist in many states and cities.

5

Sanders was redbaited.

The Clinton camp was also willing to play some old-school redbaiting politics, albeit in a toned down way. Congressmen John Lewis and James Clyburn were dispatched to cast doubt on the feasibility of Sanders’s social-democratic platform, with both attacking free higher education and relying on the conservative refrain that “nothing in life is free.” This sentiment was repeated on the stump and circulated in smaller meetings, on radio and social media.

This kind of unimpeachable folk wisdom had to play well in a “right-to-work” state like South Carolina, where much of the state’s prosperity over the past few decades has depended on anti-union and anti-redistributive politics. It might have been more honest if they had just called Sanders a “carpetbagger” or an “outside agitator.”

6

What does this mean for the general election? Not much.

Since the Clinton years, Democrats have won the presidency by winning states that are more urban, populous, culturally diverse, and tolerant. Whoever the electorate or superdelegates nominate will receive the majority of black votes cast in November, but I’m not confident that Clinton can deliver those voters with a less rosy view of the previous Clinton administrations, or those who continue to struggle with crushing debt, unemployment and underemployment, and rising education costs after a two-term Obama presidency.

As always, turnout in the general election will be crucial to Democratic success, and most of the hypothetical matchups I’ve looked at don’t shape up well for Clinton. Will she generate the kind of turnout that swept Obama into the White House? The primary results so far don’t give me much confidence.

7

We need to prepare for a longer journey. Elections are signposts, not the road itself.

The South Carolina defeat was a tough loss in what has been a promising election season. But none of this should cause us to lose sight of the endgame here, which is not the election of a president, but the transformation of the country into a place that is more egalitarian, just, and humane, a society where poverty is not possible and where real freedom is enjoyed by all.

The kind of popular pressure we need to advance some of the best of Sanders’s platform — free higher education, postal banking, public works, a single-payer health care system, stronger financial regulation, and so on — cannot be built in an election cycle.

The Sanders campaign has revealed the potential for building a popular left politics, but it will take much more in the way of organizing for power, patient engagement, and courage to realize those possibilities.