Monday, March 02, 2020

A Few More Reasons Why Black Voters Back Biden

Huge numbers among Black voters in South Carolina gave Joe Biden his first primary victory -- and re-energized the question "why do so many Black voters back Biden?"

Back in January, I gave one partial answer to that question: many Black voters with moderate or conservative views who, absent Republican racism, might be Republican are Democrats because -- again -- Republican racism makes GOP affiliation a non-starter choice for them. Consequently, there is likely (and polling bears this out) a significant percentage of self-identified conservative Black people voting in Democratic primaries, and it shouldn't surprise that they'd find a candidate like Biden relatively appealing compared to other options. More liberal Black voters will find someone like Sanders more appealing (and so it isn't surprising that younger Black voters -- from an overall more liberal generational cohort -- also are far more likely to support Sanders).

Elie Mystal in The Nation offers another hypothesis today: Black voters -- and especially older Black voters who lived through Jim Crow -- know better than to trust that White people really will go for the sort of radical egalitarian politics that Bernie Sanders is putting out there. So even if they might find Sanders appealing in abstract, they're voting pragmatically based on their assessment of White American voter behavior.

I think Mystal's hypothesis (and to be clear, these accounts are not mutually exclusive) also dovetails with a related explanation: the distinction between those who think things can't get meaningfully worse and those who believe they can get much worse. One argument I've seen from some Sanders supporters is basically a claim of "why not try it?" They think things are so screwed up that even if Sanders represents a dice roll it's worthwhile. While sometimes this is framed as them understanding the "real stakes" of this election, to some extent this outlook is based on minimizing the stakes -- not between Sanders and Trump, but between Trump and anyone-not-Sanders. The differences between Trump and all other candidates are collapsed into being two species of very bad (to borrow from a great movie review, one outcome may be materially better than the other, but "only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion").

To that, some people -- and again, I can imagine those who've lived through Jim Crow being more prone to this sort of view -- would say you have no idea how bad things can get. The difference between Trump winning and losing -- to any Democrat -- are massive. The degree to which four more years of Trump would intensify human misery among the most vulnerable among us is almost impossible to imagine unless you've lived through something approximating it.

This connects to two different "lessons" I think left-of-center persons could draw from the 2016 election. One lesson is that moderation and safe choices don't win elections, so why not go big? What 2016 discredited was establishment liberalism and its conventional wisdom. Another lesson, though, is that anyone who acts as if there isn't a huge gap between the absolute worst and most compromised Democrat and a Republican is not facing reality. What 2016 discredited was anyone who thinks that the differences between the parties are scant enough so that it ultimately doesn't really matter if Donald Trump is put into office as against establishment alternatives.

It's the difference, ultimately, between people who genuinely feel as if they have nothing to lose, versus people who feel like they know exactly how terrible things could get if they do lose. Different outlooks, and I'm not saying one is better than the other. And of course, there are plenty of supporters of both campaigns that do so for reasons that have nothing to do with this logic -- for example, they think Sanders is the safer pick against Trump (I've found this somewhat persuasive myself, actually!). But I think something like this debate is probably part of what's distinguishing at least some Biden versus Bernie backers.

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