Everytime there's a challenge from the left to the Democratic mainstream -- the most recent one is Senator Sanders' decision to run in the presidential primaries, despite being a nominal independent, against Hillary Clinton -- we hear of a major handicap facing the challenger: an inability to gain support among black voters. The last time such an insurgent could show otherwise was Jesse Jackson, so the problem is clearly with white progressives. It's early in Sanders' campaign, but polls already show that he appeals to a considerably smaller percentage of blacks than whites, though his support is pretty small across the board. Sanders' handicap -- one shared by progressives who run outside the Democratic party like Ralph Nader -- seems to be one of perception. Because they run on the issues they feel differentiate them from the Democratic mainstream, most notably their more confrontational attitude toward corporate America, there's a perception that they care less about the issues that presumably matter most to the Democratic base and especially to blacks. Blacks presumably want to hear about voting rights, reforming the police, further reducing economic inequality, while progressives typically want to talk about fighting the big banks and corporations. I'd like to take it for granted that any self-styled progressive is concerned about voting rights, police brutality, etc. and committed to doing something about it all. But just as blacks need to hear people affirm that "black lives matter" and aren't satisfied with well-meaning general statements that "all lives matter," they may need to hear candidates like Sanders, or anyone else who runs to Clinton's left, talk with as much passion about the issues that concern blacks most as they show when railing against big money. Clinton has that base covered already; the Hillary news today is all about her warning against new Republican threats to voting rights and how she'll stop them. As much as her opponents would rather dispute her than echo her, sometimes you have to worry less about what she says than about what people want to hear.
The other side of the coin, it seems, is that black Democrats may not be as concerned with the malpractices of big money as progressives would like. If so, why should this be? I should like to hope that the havoc wrought by under-regulated banks and brokers doesn't fall under the category contemptuously labeled, "Rich [or White] People's Problems." But maybe many of them think that you've got to have wealth in the first place to redistribute, so why mess with the system? I can't say and I probably should be careful about speculating, but if we assume that blacks expect white politicians to say certain things to secure their support, then the perfectly democratic principle of mutual accountability entitles the rest of us to ask whether blacks think something should be done about the "too big to fail" banks, whether they think money has too much influence in politics, and so on. Some blacks may fancy themselves the moral center of the Democratic party, but if you consistently oppose the "progressive" candidates when they appear, doesn't that make you the "conservative" element in the party -- the right rather than the center? If progressive insurgents sometimes fail to reach out to blacks, or even to the working class in general, isn't it also true that the poor often fail to seek out alternatives with more potential to improve their lot and even empower them more? If progressives poll poorly among blacks or other minorities, it seems more fair to describe that as mutual misunderstanding than as some characteristic failing of white progressives. Either way, something has to be done about it or else the Clintons or people like them, who know how to say the right thing to all classes of people without necessarily ever meaning it, will dominate the Democratic party for years to come.