In March, 1988, Bernie Sanders, the democratic-socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, held a press conference to say that, for the first time, he would be attending his state’s Presidential caucus, in order to support the “historic” candidacy of the Reverend Jesse Jackson. “All political observers, regardless of their affiliations, now believe that Jesse Jackson in fact has a fighting chance to become the nominee of the Democratic Party, and has a fighting chance to become the next President of the United States,” Sanders said. That was an exaggeration. Jackson was still seen as an improbable choice, compared with Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, or Al Gore. But Sanders sounded absolutely persuaded that the nomination could come down to “a few votes” at the Convention, in Atlanta, and that it was his duty to rally Vermonters to deliver those delegates. Sanders, as a student in the early sixties, had been a leader of the University of Chicago chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, and was once arrested at a demonstration. Yet he framed Jackson’s message as primarily an economic one, emphasizing Jackson’s willingness to stand up to the “banks that presently own and control America.”
Sanders is still delivering a version of that speech, but the issue now is whether Sanders himself is a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton. Clinton only barely won in Iowa, and she lost New Hampshire to Sanders by twenty-two points. But Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative states. For one thing, they are, respectively, ninety-two and ninety-four per cent white. Vermont is ninety-five per cent white, and early in the campaign Sanders’s rallies were only marginally more diverse. The next Democratic contests, though, are this Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada, a state that has a significant Latino population, and a primary, on February 27th, in South Carolina. Almost a third of South Carolinians are black, as are more than half the state’s Democratic-primary voters. More primaries follow, in more Southern states with large numbers of African-American voters, on March 1st. Clinton, who has a civil-rights record stretching back over forty years, is overwhelmingly more popular with black voters than Sanders. Commentators have called this advantage her “firewall.” The gap narrows among young black voters, however, and so both campaigns have set to work.
The appeals started the morning after New Hampshire. Sanders flew to New York and had breakfast with the Reverend Al Sharpton, at Sylvia’s, in Harlem. (“It’s very important that he sent a signal,” Sharpton told reporters.) Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of “Between the World and Me,” who had previously criticized Sanders for not supporting reparations (neither does Clinton), said that he would vote for him, largely because of his ambitious economic vision. And Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow,” published an article in The Nation titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.” Alexander asks why Clinton continues to receive the endorsements of black leaders, given that, during the passage of her husband’s welfare-reform bill and the 1994 crime bill, she used “racially coded rhetoric,” speaking about “super-predators.” (Sanders voted for the crime bill but against welfare reform.) Then, as Sanders supporters began gleefully citing Coates and Alexander, Charles Blow, the Times columnist, warned against what he called “Bernie-splaining,” the process through which minorities are instructed that, whether they realize it or not, Sanders will make everything better for them.
This all may have felt familiar to Clinton. She was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008, when Senator Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. But she went on to win the New Hampshire primary, and South Carolina became the crucible. Bill Clinton, in particular, said things that were seen as leveraging race against Obama, a charge that both Clintons found painful. After Obama won South Carolina, and then more Southern states, Representative John Lewis, of Georgia, who had supported Hillary, switched to Obama. Lewis had been severely beaten as a young activist leader in Selma, in 1965, but this shift was “much tougher,” he told NBC. The Clintons were “friends, people that I love.”
Last Thursday, in Washington, D.C., Lewis stood with the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee as it announced that it would be endorsing Hillary Clinton. When a reporter started to ask how Sanders’s record on civil rights fit into the equation, Lewis interrupted him and said, “I never met him. I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963 to 1966. I was involved in the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and directed the voter-education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.”
Lewis’s comment should not be taken to mean that Sanders is a civil-rights phony. His college activism may have been that of a minor supporting player, but it was legitimate. More broadly, there is a suggestion that the discussion about Sanders, Clinton, and the black vote is really a discussion about the basis on which any candidate can or should claim the loyalty of any group. In speaking about firewalls, there is a risk that the tone will turn proprietary, and there can be generational rifts. When Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem seemed to disparage young women for supporting Sanders, and not the woman in the race, they did no one any good. There is no transitive property of indebtedness. In Thursday night’s debate, Clinton argued that Sanders has been disrespectful to the President, a theme that she is pushing strongly; Obama is very popular among black voters in South Carolina. Sanders’s reply, though, recalled why the state is complicated for her: “Well, one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”
There has been, in this contest, a valuable dialogue about the relationship between economic justice and simple justice, as well as about the balance between compromise and dreams. Democratic voters have a choice between a candidate who, in 1988, believed that Jesse Jackson was on the road to victory and one who, in 2008, believed that Barack Obama’s moment had not yet come. They were both wrong, Sanders erring in the direction of idealism and Clinton in that of pragmatism—the same qualities they hold out to voters now. Jackson lost the nomination, but not before winning primaries or caucuses in nine states, all of them in the South, with two exceptions. One was Michigan, which had a significant number of black voters. The other was Vermont.