Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Michigan: a crack in the firewall

Bernie Sanders' historic victory in Michigan appears to have been far more complicated than most of the reporting on it would suggest - for instance, as only a few people have noted in passing, the Arab-American vote appears to have played a fairly significant role. But given the significant role black voters have played throughout the primaries, a point I made a few weeks ago is worth revisiting:
If these trends...continue, it appears likely that Clinton's numbers would continue to deteriorate to her pre-Biden surge levels in the mid fifties, while Sanders' numbers would continue to climb into the mid-thirties. Crucially, while this still marks a significant preference among black voters for Clinton, it would not be enough to provide the so-called "firewall" she's relying on to win the nomination.
And that's exactly what happened in Michigan, where Sanders broke the 30% barrier and won enough support from black voters to deny Clinton a victory. Here, the simple point I'll make is that if black voices matter, the media needs to acknowledge what they said in Michigan and revise their analysis of this election.

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For months on end, pundits like Jeet Heer have insisted that black voters are rejecting Sanders' focus on economic inequality. This has always been sheer conjecture, with zero basis in polling about either the candidates (as pointed out in the above article, and here) or the issues (as Seth Ackerman pointedly explained long ago); it was largely rooted in the old red-baiting characterization of socialists as economic determinists, and had little basis in their actual platforms, which, as I noted back in July,
are virtually identical: both have called for body cameras, training initiatives, and end to police militarization, and so on. Long-term, both see it, in the words of Clinton, as "a symptom, not a cause, of what ails us today": inequality. Both propose different tactics to tackle the issue -- Sanders focusing on modest welfare expansions and taxing the rich, Clinton on economic growth -- but their basic conception of the problem is precisely the same.
In summary: black voters prefer Sanders' economic agenda, his non-economic agenda is virtually identical to Clinton's, his deficits in the polls can be easily explained through name recognition, and the "too socialist" critique of Sanders has its roots in an old anti-communist smear. This alternative account of the role of black voters in the Democratic primaries is intuitive, entirely plausible, has been substantiated and defended at length, and also has the advantage of corresponding with what black voters are actually saying as reflected in Michigan.

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That said, whether or not one accepts this (obviously correct) alternative explanation, it is clear that the "black voters have rejected Sanders" hypothesis has failed. Unless writers like Heer and Jamil Smith want to argue that 31% of black voters in Michigan are white supremacist communists, they need to provide an alternative explanation for what just happened. To go on repeating their current line would be precisely the sort of erasure of black voices that corporate media has always been complicit in - a problem that progressives presumably have an interest in fighting, even if it just so happens to benefit Hillary Clinton.