Watching Bernie Sanders address a packed arena at Chicago State University last week, it was not hard to imagine a better world.
“We’re going to create an economy that works for working families, not the 1 percent,” Sanders thundered, and the crowd roared back its approval.
That was Thursday. Then came the South Carolina primary on Saturday, followed by Super Tuesday, where Sander’s campaign to transform the Democratic Party from the bottom up ran into resistance from a key element of the party’s progressive base: black voters.
At Chicago State, Sanders said his campaign had come from nowhere and generated significant momentum by “telling the truth to the American people” about our “corrupt campaign finance system,” our “rigged economy” and our “broken criminal justice system.”
Sanders has succeeded in channeling some of the energy of the Occupy and Fight For 15 movements, he’s adopted much of the critique of the Black Lives Matter, and he’s plugged into the discontent of young Americans caught up in the college debt crisis and older Americans with declining living standards.
The “rigged economy,” Sanders said, is symbolized by the Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart and the wealthiest family in America, whose low-wage workforce is subsidized by taxpayers via Medicaid and food stamps, while millions of Americans work longer hours for less pay.
Sanders pointed out that his proposals for Medicare for all and free higher education – common in other industrialized countries – are derided by the “establishment” as unaffordable, but “the redistribution of trillions of dollars of wealth to the top one-tenth of 1 percent, the rich getting richer, the middle class disappearing, and 47 million people living in poverty” is considered acceptable, or at least inevitable.
He has succeeded in challenging that consensus and putting millions of people on record supporting an alternative.
Last Thursday the young crowd gave Sanders some of his biggest cheers when he called for making public universities tuition-free, but the cheers grew even louder when he added, “And we’re going to pay for it with a tax on Wall Street speculation.”
“Everybody knows that greed and reckless and illegal behavior on Wall Street drove this country into the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, and that Wall Street after that went begging to Congress, ‘Bail us out, bail us out,’” he said with deadpan sarcasm. “Well, now it’s Wall Street’s turn to help the middle class.”
In pure policy terms, Sanders’ populist program should appeal to African -Americans, who disproportionately experience the economic and social inequities he seeks to ameliorate. In political terms, if he wants to move the Democratic Party away from its neoliberal moorings, he needs the backing of its most progressive bloc.
His campaign has gone to some lengths to appeal to black voters, including staking out a strong position on criminal justice reform. He’s attracted support from progressives like Cornel West and Harry Belafonte, as well as from younger black elected officials like Illinois State Representatives LaShawn Ford and Carol Ammons, both of whom spoke at Chicago State.
Second-generation civil rights leader Jonathan Jackson, a Chicago State faculty member, introduced Sanders, citing his activism against segregation in Chicago in the early 1960s to his support for Jesse Jackson’s presidential races in the 1980s.
“If you want affordable health care, there’s only one candidate,” Jackson said. “If you want someone who was against the war in Iraq before it was popular … if you want someone who will stop banks and their destructive behavior in pickpocketing the American people … if you want your child to pursue their education and have a stable job, there’s only one candidate.”
But in South Carolina, black voters preferred another candidate, Hillary Clinton, by a margin of 9 to 1. She won overwhelming support from black voters in Southern primaries on Super Tuesday as well.
There’s a “messaging gap,” Jackson told me following the South Carolina vote. “His opponent has been involved in national campaigns for 30 years. … I think if people know more about his history that will close that relationship gap.” People are just starting to pay attention, he said. He criticized the Democratic National Committee for scheduling so few debates.
The Sanders campaign is committed “all the way to the convention,” Jackson said, adding that Sanders’ supporters remain enthusiastic – and his small-donor base continues to back him. “Something like 1 in 9 Americans lives in California,” he said. “I don’t know how you can call the race before we get to California.” And by pushing through to the convention, the campaign can keep pushing Clinton in a progressive direction, he said.
In a series of viewpoints at Black Agenda Report, editor Glen Ford takes another view, noting the irony that black voters, “the most progressive segment” of the Democratic base are “acting as a bulwark” for “the right wing of the (party).” It’s overwhelming fear of what Republicans might do if they retake the White House that leads African- Americans to favor “the candidate that is richer, better connected to the party appartus and more acceptable to masses of white voters” over the candidate whose positions may be closer to their own.
That could be especially relevant this year, with a possible Republican nominee who has trouble disavowing the Ku Klux Klan.
In Ford’s analysis, the two-party system is a dead end, and what’s needed is “real black grassroots movement politics,” capable of taking on the establishment embodied in both parties.
Interestingly, Sanders made a somewhat similar point last week – arguing that “no president … can address the enormous problems facing this country alone,” and that “real change has always taken place from the bottom up.”
His campaign has made a strong statement for a progressive direction for this country and for fundamental economic and political reform. And I hope and expect that whoever is president next year, the young people who filled Chicago State’s arena last week will continue (in the words of their candidate) “standing up and fighting” for what they believe.