For those of you who have read my recent postings on Facebook I offer this expanded version of an essay length draft that emerged from an attempt to understand why Hillary Clinton (whom I support) has drawn in the primaries the lion’s share of support from people of color. The post was written in a hurry with one finger and the result was rather uneven, full of unedited typos and could be easily misunderstood (I am definitely not anti-Bernie). The post emerged after an argument with an avid Sanders supporter who ranted at me for my support of both Obama and Clinton, as he views both of them as traitors to the liberal cause. I don’t see either of them that way, but that’s really beside the point. If Democrats are to win the upcoming election, and I consider that crucial for the advance or perhaps survival of any sort of liberal agenda over the next decade, then we must understand the dynamics of the race. What follows includes many speculations on the motives and responses of black Americans. As I am not black these are only theories, although I’ve had some intimate insights into black culture and find that my own reactions to the Hillary/Bernie debate often have lined up with sentiments expressed by people of color in the Democratic primaries so far. Thus, I’ll give it a whirl.
More Than The Economy
Progressives appear somewhat mystified why so many people of color appear to favor Clinton over Sanders. Are black people just ignorant of the facts? Don’t they know what’s good for them? Maybe it’s just that they don’t know Bernie and don’t realize how badly the Clintons and Obama have repeatedly betrayed them over the years.
Well, first of all, white people have been telling black people what’s good for them for centuries. The values that middle-class white people may assume based on their own experience can’t possibly take into account the influence of knowing that when one walks down the street one may be executed for the crime of one’s skin color. Not any more than a man can understand the experience of a woman trying to gain respect in a milieu that has been dominated by male values for so many centuries. In a society wracked with so many double standards one simply can’t understand what’s at play in this election cycle without evaluating it through lenses that factor in the effects of racism and sexism.
The progressive left has been trash talking the first black president almost ever since he took office under the shadow of an impending recession. From the beginning Obama was forced to put aside much of his social agenda in order to deal with the conditions of an economic meltdown. In the process he didn’t follow the advice of many of those who advocated a more progressive economic agenda. Instead he put precedent upon saving the banks and the auto industry, viewing them as the driving forces of the American economy. He didn’t take an effective stand against the Republican governor of Wisconsin in advocating for the unions, choosing not to get tangled in a state level confrontation. After the disastrous 2010 midterms when, as many predicted, Obama’s former ‘fans’ mostly didn’t show up to follow up on their ‘revolution’ the president was pushed even more to the right as he treaded the all-to-delicate minefield that a black president must walk in order to prove to a polarized, mostly white electorate that he’s not a dangerous alien agent trying to subvert the American Dream. Meanwhile the anti-Obama rhetoric on the left accelerated to a crescendo that rivaled that on the right, and it continues to this day. It turns out that those who voted for ‘hope’ and ‘change’ apparently assumed that change is somehow driven from the top in a sort of weird political echo of Ronald Reagan’s ’trickle-down’ theory of the economy. Having lost the congress and most of the governorships and state legislatures in a more effective and committed revolution led by the Tea Party Republicans, leading to a decimation of the process of court appointments and resulting delay in advancing any effective reforms, the president has been forced to govern almost exclusively by Executive Order.
Despite all of this Obama managed to realign many of the priorities of the executive branch, make some strides in advancing an environmental agenda and to bring about radical adjustments in a health care system that has resisted any kind of significant reform for several decades. He remains one of the most popular presidents in recent history, particularly with people of color. If this is a mystery it seems to me that one shouldn’t underestimate the radical historic, cultural and symbolic significance of having a black family in the White House. To those who have gone through centuries of white dominance the spectacle of a black man leading the most powerful nation on earth in itself is a profound revolutionary statement. Nevertheless his presidency has served to focus the racist backlash that has for many years hidden just under the surface of American culture.
By graciously endorsing Obama after bowing out to the inevitable, and then accepting the appointment and very prominently serving as the international face of his administration, Hillary Clinton bound herself to Obama’s legacy. To many of us who support her, and who have supported her in the past, the prospect of a woman president would mark at least as revolutionary a sea change, and perhaps even a greater one than Obama’s election achieved. By emphasizing her continuing support for Obama and his policies while speaking against the infantile bigotry on the Republican side she has made the clash of pissed off Republicans on one side and equally pissed off progressive Democrats look to many like the continuation of the gridlocked politics of the last eight years. To many people of color this endless feuding must look like a street fight between opposing white gangs battling over the crumbs of a failing middle class, while the plight of people of color is that they are having trouble even reaching the middle class. There is lots of talk about a revolution, but right now it looks like a bunch of pissed off people pointing fingers and calling names. If we do get a revolution my sense is that it’s more likely to be driven by the more organized grassroots efforts of the conservative right.
By reducing every problem to that of income inequality and suggesting that those who support another candidate are all ‘elitists’ who want to preserve the status quo is both insulting and demeaning to those whose support for a candidate may be based on a more nuanced view of cultural issues connected to race or gender or merely the desire to keep Republicans from appointing the next Supreme Court judges. America’s problems are much deeper and much more complex than a purely economic analysis can penetrate. True, economics can aggravate and be aggravated by our deep cultural divisions, but fixing the economy won’t necessarily address those deeper issues. The strident rhetoric of the finger pointers directed at those who have different priorities isn’t a tactic that’s any more inclusive than the racist rhetoric of a Donald Trump.
For the most part I agree with Bernie Sander’s critique of the American economy. If he is able to organize an inclusive enough voting coalition to overcome the Democratic establishment that supports Hillary Clinton I will gladly and enthusiastically support that coalition in the general election, just as I did the candidacy of Barack Obama. If Bernie can overcome the long odds and prove to me that he can expand his base significantly beyond the educated young (and mostly white) I will happily convert. Until then I will support the candidate who can win, and who may not advance or believe in all the goals of the liberal left, but who can effectively hold off the organized forces of extreme reaction on the right and perhaps even push back a little.