Let’s not get ahead of ourselves – Sanders’ “political revolution” is still far from realization.
It’s a very optimistic time for a supporter of Bernie Sanders. In the Iowa caucus, Sanders managed to tie with Clinton when he had been at a disadvantage in the polls just a few days before. In New Hampshire, Sanders managed to win by an over 20-point margin.
“What Iowa has begun tonight is a political revolution,” Sanders said to supporters after the Iowa caucus. Indeed, the fact that a socialist from Vermont could successfully challenge one of the most powerful and established Democrats in recent history is impressive, to say the least. But is it really the beginning of the vaunted “political revolution?”
To me – and full disclosure, I am a Clinton supporter – these proclamations of victory are premature at best, and quixotic at worst. To understand why we must look first at the demographics who form the main support of each candidate. A recent NBC News/Survey Monkey poll shows that Clinton remains the primary choice of older voters while Sanders remains the choice of younger voters – already an advantage for Clinton because voter turnout tends to be higher among older voters. But even this is not the largest obstacle that Sanders faces. Clinton also overwhelmingly dominates Sanders when it comes to minority voters, regardless of age. She enjoys about 60-70 percent black and Latino support among almost all age groups, and for all of the talk of millennial support for Sanders, she enjoys a 50-36 percent lead among black millennials as well. There is only one group of nonwhite voters among whom Sanders has an advantage, and that is Latino millennials. Sanders only wins two other demographics: white voters 18-24, and white voters 25-44. It is still relatively early in the race, so it is most definitely possible for Sanders to make inroads among minority voters in future. For now, however, the scope of his “political revolution” is still limited.
The reasons for this gap are debated. Both candidates have long individual records of fighting for civil rights. They have stellar evaluations from the NAACP, and just as Bernie Sanders marched with Martin Luther King in 1963, Hillary Clinton fought school segregation in Dothan, Alabama in 1972. However, perhaps Bernie Sanders’ limited appeal is to be expected from a senator of the rural, 95 percent white state of Vermont who has never had to build ties with the black community – and until recently, seemed to have no interest in doing so. In a November 2014 interview with NPR, Sanders referred to black and Latino support for the Democrats as “not important” and favored an approach that more explicitly focused on “the working class” in order to bring back white working class voters; only recently has he started to explicitly try to court minority voters. Hillary Clinton and her husband, on the other hand, have relied on black voters since Bill Clinton’s days as governor of Arkansas and have built relationships with black churches, civil rights groups, and communities for decades, according to Jamelle Bouie of Slate. It could have to do with a favorable view of the Clinton era, a time in which black family income rose by a third, and the Violent Crime Bill of 1994 bolstered community policing and established the Department of Justice “consent decree” program to reform abusive police departments. But as critics like Michelle Alexander have written, the same Crime Bill ramped up mass incarceration to a huge degree, which continues to crush communities of color underfoot even today. Clearly, then, the Clinton legacy is mixed at best.
Most likely, however, it could have to do with the basic issue that low-income and minority Democrats tend to be the least liberal and most moderate of all Democratic Party factions, according to the Pew Research Center Political Typology and Polarization Dataset (chart labeled “The Liberal Elite is Liberal”). For example, whereas 32 percent of white Democrats identify as “very liberal,” only 14 percent of black Democrats and 15 percent of Latino Democrats identify the same way. The centrist Clinton is poised to win such groups just as she won them in 2008 – Barack Obama’s victory came largely from his ability to add the traditionally more moderate (and therefore, pro-Clinton) black voting bloc to a coalition of more typically liberal Democratic factions. It is perhaps hard to believe that a white democratic socialist senator from a rural state can replicate the success of a black, liberal (but not socialist) senator from a more urban state. Whatever the explanation, the numbers still stand.
Minority support is an incredibly important factor in the Democratic primary, and Sanders supporters who proclaim the “political revolution” to have begun underestimate this. 40 percent of the Democratic Party does not identify as white; fully 22 percent of Democrats are black, and 16 percent are Latino. The power of minorities within the Democratic Party is not reflected in states like Iowa or New Hampshire, however. Iowa and New Hampshire are 87.1 percent and 91.3 percent non-Hispanic white, respectively, according to the 2014 US Census. They instead reflect the demographic that Sanders is most accustomed to appealing to in 93.5 percent non-Hispanic white Vermont: white liberal democrats. The true tests for Sanders’ “political revolution,” then, are not in Iowa, nor are they in New Hampshire. They are in Nevada, where 36.9 percent are black or Latino; or in South Carolina, where 55 percent of Democratic primary voters are black; or in diverse New York and California. In other words, they are anywhere minorities have political power, which unfortunately for Sanders accounts for some of the most populous and electorally valuable states in the Union.
Ironically, Sanders’ progressive campaign is actually quite regressive in an important way. Sanders’ support remains primarily white, but the era of Democratic candidates achieving nomination almost purely through white support is over. Sanders must appeal to minorities, or he will lose and lose badly to Hillary Clinton. Of course, there is still certainly time for him to gain that appeal, and it would not be the first time that Clinton as frontrunner has managed to lose a lead among minority voters – she did just that against Barack Obama in 2008. What Clinton supporters in Claremont and beyond must do is lose the arrogant illusion of “inevitable” minority support and do the work necessary to keep it. What Sanders supporters in Claremont and beyond must do is lose the arrogant illusion of an inevitable “political revolution,” and realize their candidate has a serious problem relating to those who do not look like himself. Until then, his political revolution is still nothing but a catchy campaign slogan.
Shayok Chakraborty PO '19 is from Los Angeles, CA, and intends to major in PPA-Politics.