Bernie Sanders is unlikely to be the Democratic nominee, but he is having an impact on the primary race in several ways. First, he has helped focus the Democratic discourse on economic questions. Hillary Clinton, who remains by a very large margin the Democratic frontrunner, has kept economic questions at the center of her campaign. While most Democrats focus on the economy more than other issues, Mr. Sanders may have succeeded in moving the frontrunner’s economic positions leftward.
Mr. Sanders’s candidacy is not without precedent; candidates like Mr. Sanders appear in most contested Democratic primaries. In 2004, it was fellow Vermonter Howard Dean, in 2000, the upstart was Bill Bradley, in 1992 both Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown. And the list goes on. Collectively, these candidates might be described as elite protest candidates. Generally, but not always, they are underdogs from the left battling strong frontrunners. They win support from white liberal voters but they routinely lose the nomination.
Only one elite protest candidate has won the Democratic nomination and the presidency in recent years. In 2008, Barack Obama ran against the establishment candidate from the left, and had a strong base among educated, middle class voters. That alone was never going to be enough for Mr. Obama to defeat Hillary Clinton who was also the frontrunner in 2008. Mr. Obama won the nomination because he was able to marry his elite protest base with African American support. This is why so many Clinton supporters were flummoxed when African American voters moved to Mr. Obama early in 2008. Ms. Clinton was viewed as likely to do well among African American voters, even while running against an African American candidate, in large part because her husband, a white centrist Democrat from Arkansas, was widely known as the “first black president” for puzzling reasons that had something to do with his empathy and penchant for the saxophone.
This is the context in which the Netroots presidential forum occurred a few weeks ago. It is a reflection of the extent to which the Democratic primary is not competitive, and also on how much the dialogue within the Democratic Party has changed in recent years, that those events have not received more attention. Essentially, Black Lives Matter activists attending the event pushed both Mr. Sanders and Martin O’Malley for their views of police brutality, racial equality and the message, and language, of Black Lives Matter. These are essential issues to the core constituency of the Democratic Party, and ones that candidates seeking the nomination need to be able to discuss and probably embrace. Neither Mr. O’Malley or Mr. Sanders were able to do that. Ms. Clinton was not asked about her position at the event because she had declined to attend.
The African American activists drew deserved attention to the reality that race and police brutality have not been at the center of Senator Sanders campaign. Many of those activists and observers later railed against Mr. Sanders. For her part, Ms. Clinton later gave a thoughtful and nuanced response to the question, stating unequivocally that Black lives matter, as she had time to witness and process the events from the weekend. However, she also could not avoid making controversial statements about race, as she added that many white people are afraid when they see an African American man in a hooded sweatshirt.
Though Mr. Sanders’s response to the protestors may have made him seem out of touch with issues of race, he has a long history of Civil Rights activism. After all, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at a time when most Americans today had not yet been born. That activism speaks to a lifelong commitment to racial equality that cannot easily be dismissed. Mr. Sanders might also have pointed to his support of Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential campaign. Jesse Jackson has not been a major figure in American politics for at least a decade; and that 1988 campaign is all but forgotten. However, for a Jewish elected official to support a man who had called New York “Hymietown” was a very big deal. Then Mayor Sanders of Burlington was one of the very few Jewish politicians anywhere in the country to endorse Mr. Jackson. This also occurred more than a quarter of a century ago, but should not be overlooked by those who too cavalierly challenge Mr. Sanders’ record on racial equality.
Politics have changed since Mr. Jackson’s campaign. That campaign, among other things, highlighted tensions between African Americans, who voted for Mr. Jackson in overwhelming numbers and Jews who, put off by several of Mr. Jackson’s statements about Jews and Israel, did not support the Civil Rights leader or see him as the Party’s progressive standard bearer. Today, Jews and African Americans remain among the ethnic groups who vote Democrat in the largest proportions, but nobody is concerned or talking about strife between the two groups within the Democratic Party; and the events at Netroots have not been viewed through that prism. That is probably a good development, but it is nonetheless worth noting that a progressive Jewish candidate, with a half century of strong support for Civil Rights was recently all but shouted down by African American activists, thus helping a gentile opponent who, in her last race for President, had a very complicated relationship with African American voters.
Black Lives Matter has kept the issue of violent and racist police practices in the political spotlight. This is a valuable service to all Americans. All candidates for President must wrestle with these issues and should articulate a position on the language and ideas behind Black Lives Matter, but perhaps this can be done in a way that also recognizes the contributions, and indeed political courage, of an old Jewish socialist who has a strong record on Civil Rights.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.