Day of Reckoning: Hillary and Bernie Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul

Sanders is more economically radical, but Clinton better understands the role of racism in society

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood on February 17, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Clinton was joined on stage at the rally by several mothers who lost their children to violent deaths including Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland who was found dead in a Texas jail cell after a controversial traffic stop and Cleopatra Pendleton whose daughter Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in a Chicago Park.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood on February 17, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

For many years, we’ve heard about how the Democratic Party is more homogeneous and less beset by the intramural strife spawned by competing worldviews and ideologies bedeviling the Republican Party. But the Democratic nominating contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has begun to expose fault lines that might ultimately prove far deeper, and more dangerous, to the Democratic Party and the progressive left than the discord happening in the Republican Party and the conservative right.

The biggest fault line that is rising to the surface is the rift between proponents of an economic-focused progressive ideology, embodied by Mr. Sanders, and the Democratic Party’s longtime strategy of building a diverse coalition, embodied by Ms. Clinton.

Conservatives, for all their fissures, are generally bound together by a more-or-less coherent ideology: low taxes, traditional values, robust international interventionism. The left, however, is perpetually torn by the problem of how to appeal to nonwhite voters without alienating white voters, especially among the working class. Conservatives have a philosophy. Liberals have a quilt.

That quilt has been fraying for half a century. As non-college-educated white voters have perceived—rightly or wrongly—a greater focus on non-white Americans at their expense, they have left their traditional Democratic Party allegiances behind, in droves, for the last 50 years. This has led to constant hand-wringing among Democrats about how to win these blue-collar white voters back into the fold—or whether they should even bother.

Longtime Democratic activist and political leader Steve Phillips recently took the party to task in his new bestselling book, Brown Is The New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority, for failing to concede that these white voters are gone for good and possibly missing its opportunity to weave what he views as a new, better and more durable coalition.

Mr. Phillips, who cut his teeth on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988, posits that a coalition of progressive voters of all ethnicities now represents a majority of the population, and that its numerical dominance will only grow, while the percentage of working-class whites, as a share of the total population, continues to shrink. He argues Democrats have not gotten the memo and they mistakenly continue to short-change this progressive coalition—what Rev. Jackson used to call the “Rainbow Coalition”—while trying, in vain, to win back these disgruntled, non-college-educated white voters who began leaving the party in the 1960s. According to figures compiled by FiveThirtyEight.com, these non-college white voters gave Mitt Romney 62 percent of their votes in the 2012 presidential election.

‘Breaking up big banks will not stop police officers from killing unarmed Black people.’

In an e-mail discussion with the Observer, Mr. Phillips said a strategy of driving turnout among voters of color is the way forward for a Democratic Party that recently has done quite well in presidential elections, but very poorly in midterms.

“It’s not really a question of my strategy as much as it’s a question of what’s the proven way to win,” Mr. Phillips said. “The incontrovertible evidence of the past eight years is that when people of color have turned out in large numbers, Democrats have won (2008 and 2012). And, conversely, when candidates have run away from the Black president and his policies promoting justice and equality (e.g. health care and immigration reform), Democrats have lost. Badly (2010 and 2014). The attempt to moderate politics, and run away from being too closely identified with people of color has both failed to attract the elusive and shrinking sector of the electorate consisting of conservative white swing voters, and also resulted in diminished turnout of the very voters of color necessary to succeed.”

Hal Ginsberg, the progressive host of the Hal Ginsberg Morning Show and staunch Bernie Sanders supporter, takes a different view. He believes economic inequality and economic injustice drive many of the social ills rampant in America today, and that many of the problems besetting communities of color can be addressed by alleviating the problems of the poor and the struggling middle and working classes. This is generally the same view that has led detractors of Mr. Sanders to accuse the candidate of a form of ideological myopia—a singular focus on economic justice issues and a failure to recognize that problems such as institutional racism have more than an economic component.

Mr. Ginsberg disagrees with that criticism and argues passionately that progressives must not give up on the white working class, but rather that they must seek economic justice for all Americans.

“While demagogues and race baiters have succeeded in catalyzing violence when working and middle-class people felt economically insecure, civil rights for African-Americans were achieved in the 1950s and ’60s at a time when top marginal tax rates were extremely high, wealth disparities were low, poverty rates were falling, and the economy was growing at historic rates,” Mr. Ginsberg told the Observer. “The logical conclusion: we can build on the legal and political justice that blacks achieved during the civil rights years if we pursue policies to protect the losers in our market economy from destitution, build a strong and growing middle-class, and prevent any subset of individuals and corporations from dominating.”

Mr. Ginsberg also argues against what he sees as the perpetuation of “interest-group politics” by both Bill and Hillary Clinton over the past quarter century. He says while the demographic groups being targeted by what he calls “slice-and-dice politics” have changed, the strategy has remained the same. Mr. Ginsberg notes that in the 1990s, when Mr. Clinton actively pursued the votes of the white working class, he gave short shrift to African-Americans by executing a mentally impaired black inmate in Arkansas and blasting Sister Souljah during the 1992 campaign, but now that blue-collar white voters seem inclined in to go in another direction, Ms. Clinton is shifting her focus to voters of color.

“On a superficial level, current calls to ignore working whites would seem to be a repudiation of the politics of the 1990s,” Mr. Ginsberg said. “But underlying both strategies is the cynical assumption that successful politicians piece together a majority from various blocs of voters identifiable by immutable characteristics like race, gender, and ethnicity. Groups that are not needed or whose support is assumed (like blacks in the ’90s), are ignored or even scapegoated.”

Mr. Phillips does agree that there is certainly an economic component to structural racism in America, but thinks it is not the only issue.

“Structural racism and economic injustice in America are both distinct realities and also inextricably bound together,” Mr. Phillips said. “In a country that explicitly restricted citizenship from 1790 until 1952 to ‘free white persons,’ a country that held people in human bondage based on the color of their skin, and then practiced legalized racial discrimination and segregation until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, race is a distinct, pervasive, and powerful reality in contemporary American life. As such, it requires race-specific measures to address and resolve it. Race and economics are inextricably bound because the economic wealth of this country was built on stolen land worked by stolen people. And the legacy of that history is America’s modern racial wealth gap. So, all of that is to say that you have to incorporate attacking racial injustice as part and parcel of achieving economic justice. Racism won’t be solved as a by-product of dealing with economic inequality.”

Mr. Phillips points to the G.I. Bill and how institutionalized segregation practices in the years after its implementation prevented African-Americans from fully realizing the benefits of this progressive economic legislation.

“The unequal application of the G.I. Bill and home loans after World War II are a perfect example of this,” Mr. Phillips said. “The G.I. Bill provided billions of dollars to returning veterans and also guaranteed home loans so vets could become homeowners and begin to build wealth. Redlining, however, locked out African Americans from participating in that period of government largesse.”

Interestingly, many white progressives who Mr. Phillips sees as a vital part of the multi-hued progressive coalition he envisions are showing themselves especially receptive to Mr. Sanders and his laser focus on economic justice. They are leading the push to fight for every vote, including those in hard-to-get communities such as non-unionized, blue-collar whites, rather than simply maximizing turnout and energy among committed progressives, which Mr. Phillips sees as a wiser investment of resources.

Mr. Phillips does not necessarily see an inherent conflict here, though. Focusing an electoral campaign on a coalition of white and nonwhite progressives does not mean completely writing off the needs of conservative or moderate white voters when implementing public policy.

“Two things I’m saying,” Mr. Phillips said. “First, and this frequently gets lost, I’m actually saying let’s embrace and validate those working class whites who are progressive, and there are more of them than people appreciate. Thirty-six percent of white voters is enough to win elections, and there are at least that many progressive whites, based on the best data available. Second, there is a difference between where you focus limited time, energy, and resources, on the one hand, and who your public policies benefit, on the other hand. Obama and health care is the perfect example of this. People of color and progressive whites put Obama in office, but he passed the ACA which benefits everybody, including conservative working class whites, whether they like it or not! I call for a wealth tax on the top 1% and using that money to end poverty. The majority of people in poverty are white, whether they vote progressive or not.”

That said, Mr. Phillips does say Ms. Clinton’s more adroit attention to racism has given her an edge over Mr. Sanders with voters of color as the Democratic nominating contest has moved on from lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire to more diverse states. Nevada’s Democratic caucuses, which tend to have large numbers of Latino participants, occur Saturday, Feb. 20, and South Carolina’s Democratic primary, usually dominated by black voters, is coming up Saturday, Feb. 27. (The Republican schedule differs, with the GOP primary in South Carolina happening Feb. 20, and the GOP caucuses in Nevada on Feb. 23.)

“The Democratic presidential race is interesting because Sanders is more economically radical, but Clinton better understands the distinct role of race and racism in society. Sanders appears to genuinely believe that an economics-only approach will solve the problems of African Americans, but breaking up big banks will not stop police officers from killing unarmed Black people. And Clinton is now moving towards very race-specific solutions, but they are not as big and bold as Sanders’ calls for shaking up the economic system. I do believe that the specificity of Clinton’s approach will be more effective with Black voters than Sanders’ approach.”

Yet, Mr. Phillips also notes that Ms. Clinton has an advantage of familiarity with nonwhite voters built by her and Mr. Clinton over several decades, which he thinks will be difficult for Mr. Sanders to replicate over the course of one presidential campaign.

“I think the biggest reason Sanders trails Clinton among Black voters is because African Americans don’t know him,” Mr. Phillips said. “The Clintons are both very familiar to and comfortable with Black folks, and that’s the primary basis of her support. It’s very difficult to make up a 30-year gap of familiarity in 30 days. If Sanders led with race more forcefully, it would help, but it’s still a steep hill to climb.”

Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/ClistonBrownPolitics, or on Twitter: @ClistonBrown.