The bad run-ins with #BlackLivesMatter activists that Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley had at the Netroots Nation conference were in part verbal gaffes, failures to identify in a linguistically appropriate way with the specific claims about racial justice that BLM activists are trying to advance.
But Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, points out that there's a deeper tension between economic populism and the cause of racial justice.
"Populism," she writes, "identifies elites who are to blame for oppressing the masses" and generally "calls for majoritarian processes to alleviate the problem." That's why, for example, rolling back Citizens United is a widespread populist demand and why Sanders's campaign puts so much emphasis on his independence from megadonors.
The thesis of populism is that if the voice of the people were heard loud and clear in the corridors of power, we could achieve justice for everyone. Describing what's wrong with American politics to Jon Stewart, Elizabeth Warren said that "the wind only blows from one direction ... from the direction of those who have money," whose interests wind up reflected in "every rule that's written, in every conversation, in every discussion."
The problem with America, in other words, is that American institutions are biased toward the rich:
These theories of power and process are not obviously compatible with the BLM and related movements. Arguably, plebiscitary appeals about crime and punishment have contributed to the policies that created mass incarceration. Furthermore, economic populism identifies economic elites as the cause of the problem, stealing the American Dream from ordinary citizens. The intellectual foundations of the BLM movement implicate the majority and the American Dream. A movement that calls for thinking critically about institutions and values is not a movement that derives its strength from "the people."
Obviously, you can be for criminal justice reform and also for raising taxes on the rich or whatever else.
But what you can't plausibly do is cram the issue of structural racism in the criminal justice system into a frame that's about the perfidy of economic elites. Prosecutors, cops, and correctional officers aren't economic elites, they're hard-working middle-class Americans who often enjoy the labor union protections and collective bargaining rights that populists want to stand up for.
It's not just the racial specificity of BLM that is tough for populism, it's the focus on institutional reform. BLM charges that public sector institutions — in this case, specifically the ones focused on law enforcement — can perform poorly for reasons that are not explained by underfunding or by "revolving door" corporate capture. If that's true of police departments, then maybe it's true of schools and mass transit systems and any number of other public agencies.
In other words, BLM points to the fact that the world is a bit more complicated than a pure populist take allows for.