One thing that has bothered me about the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign is that the people who support him are overwhelmingly white and highly educated. I don’t like to be part of such a homogeneous group. And this has caused a lot of people to call into doubt Sanders’ ability to mount an effective challenge to Hillary Clinton. But is that description of Sanders’ coalition even correct?
Earlier this month, Nate Cohn wrote, Why Bernie Sanders’s Momentum Is Not Built to Last. Basically: it’s just the strong liberals, stupid! In a companion article, he wrote, What the Hispanic Vote Says About Bernie Sanders’s Chances. He noted the whiteness of Sanders’ coalition and claimed that it didn’t include African Americans and Latinos because they were more socially conservative.
If that seems like an odd criticism, that’s only because you’ve been paying attention. The one thing that most defines Bernie Sanders is that all he talks about populist economic issues. Everything else is in that context. True: Bernie Sanders is a consistent liberal down the line. But like me, he is focused on economic issues. And economic issues are — you know — the most important issues for all groups. So are African Americans really not supporting Sanders because he’s in favor of same sex marriage — even though he rarely talks about it?
I was very pleased to read an article on this subject by Matt Bruenig, How “Consistent Liberal” Deceives. In it, he noted that it obscures what’s really happening to lump economic and social issues together — especially when talking about a candidate like Bernie Sanders who is all economics, all the time. This is something I’ve written about a lot around here over the last six years. One of my great disappointments with the Democratic Party has been its abandonment of economic issues in favor of social issues. I just don’t care that much about social issues — and neither do the voters.
So Cohn claims that African American and Latino Democrats are not supporting Sanders because they are less liberal. But they aren’t less liberal on the issues that Sanders focuses on. He isn’t running on same sex marriage or reproductive rights or criminal justice reform. So is it really the case that these voters aren’t flocking to Sanders because he’s too liberal? Or is it the case that upper middle class white New York reporters are so stuck in their own paradigms that they can’t see the truth of what’s going on?
It turns out that Bruenig was able to dig up some data on what Latinos actually think about Sanders. You would have thought that a number cruncher like Cohn would have used actual data on this question rather than just assume that Latinos aren’t keen on Sanders. It turns out that in the one poll Bruenig could find, Latinos are more fond of Sanders than whites. In a poll by The Economist/YouGov, they asked people how they would vote in a match-up between Clinton and Sanders. In it, Sanders got 38% of the white vote and 41% of the Hispanic vote.
Now it is true that Clinton’s support among African Americans is amazing. She got 79% of it and Sanders got only 11%. There are a lot of reasons why this might be. For example, it could be that the Clinton brand is just really strong and that she will get strong numbers until the campaign gets under way and people learn more about the candidates. It could have something to do with being in the Obama White House. It could be that being part of the underclass has made the African American community skeptical of candidates like Sanders who sound too good to be true. It could be scores of other things. There is one thing that most definitely isn’t the reason that African Americans aren’t supporting Bernie Sanders. It isn’t because he is too liberal.
Bernie Sanders is really only too liberal for one group: vaguely centrist pundits in the mainstream media. (I’m not really talking about Nate Cohn here, but I think he’s been poisoned by this attitude.) It is them, after all, who define centrism as economic conservatism and social liberalism. These people usually don’t see even the most extreme social liberalism as anything but common sense. But move even a bit to the left on economic issues, and they start freaking out. Maybe Bernie Sanders will never appeal to the African American community. But that isn’t what all this wringing of hands is about.