Column: Black voters are no longer the furthest left flank of the Democratic Party
“No Democrat is going to win the nomination for president of the United States without African American support. Nor should they,” Kate Bedingfield, Joe Biden’s deputy campaign manager, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell last week.
Bedingfield was pushing back on a single bad poll for Biden (from Monmouth University) that had the media and the other Democratic campaigns smelling blood in the water. The poll now seems to be the outlier that the Biden people say it is. But Bedingfield’s argument has a longer shelf life both for the Democratic primary and the country.
Let’s start with the big picture. For decades, African Americans have been an outsize segment of the Democratic base, all but defining the leftmost ideology of the party. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, the Congressional Black Caucus et al. may have been to the left of the average black voter (depending on the state), but at the national level they were the anchor of what constituted the most liberal major constituency of the Democratic coalition.
Now, that has changed. The most liberal flank of the Democratic Party is far whiter than it used to be, and decidedly to the left of many of the party’s blacks and other racial minorities on a wide range of issues. Zach Goldberg (no relation), a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia, wrote a comprehensive survey of the phenomenon for Tablet magazine in June in a piece titled “America’s White Saviors.” He notes that black and Asian liberals are more sympathetic to restrictive immigration policies than their white counterparts. And both black and Latino liberals tend to be more supportive of Israel and less supportive of the identity politics agenda around sexuality and gender.
Some of the more moderate views of many blacks and Latinos may stem from the fact that they tend to be more religious than increasingly secular white liberals, polling has found. Another factor is the age divide: Older voters in all parties and ethnicities tend to be more conservative. And some of it has to do with a sea change in attitudes on race in general. White liberals are the only demographic that says they have more positive views of other ethnicities than their own. As Matt Yglesias of Vox notes, “In the past five years, white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter. This change amounts to a ‘Great Awokening.’ ”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, let’s remember, defeated her primary opponent in 2018 largely thanks to strong support in the most affluent parts of her district, where woke white liberals are a bigger part of the mix.
More broadly, white liberals have become deeply ideological, shedding the coalitional and transactional orientation that long defined Democratic Party politics. One can see it as a left-wing version of the right-wing emphasis on ideological purity that consumed and ultimately bedeviled the Republican Party before Donald Trump smashed all that.
Meanwhile, many black and Latino Democrats — and voters — have held onto the political pragmatism that has defined a lot of the party’s politics for the last half-century.
While white liberals were quick to demand the resignation of Virginia Gov. Gary Northam in the wake of revelations that he wore blackface during his time as a medical student in the 1980s, a majority of blacks in Virginia said he should finish his term.
This is the context that is vexing many of the Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination. To many conservative ears, all of the talk about race on the debate stage sounds like pandering to the black vote. But they’re actually pandering just as much to the white liberal vote and its echo chamber on Twitter.
Meanwhile, as the L.A. Times reported earlier this summer, black voters, particularly black women — the king- or queen-makers of the Democratic primaries — are pragmatically focused on defeating Trump rather than on making the perfect the enemy of the good. And that’s a big reason why Biden commands such a large share of the black vote, particularly among older voters.
This is the great irony of the Democratic primaries. All of the major candidates, save for Biden, are desperate to prove they care the most about minorities. But they’re operating on an ideological theory that assumes they understand the interests of those minorities better than minority voters themselves.
This is what is so devastating about the Biden campaign’s defense against Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and even such non-white candidates as Kamala Harris and Corey Booker, all of whom are struggling to garner support from non-white primary voters. In a party defined by what used to be called white guilt, the last thing you can say is that black voters are wrong.
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