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Why Bernie Sanders picked Cornel West to help write the Democratic platform

West represents a black intellectual critique of Hillary Clinton — and of a middle-class black establishment that's chosen comfort over change.

Cornel West stumps for Bernie Sanders in Iowa.
Cornel West stumps for Bernie Sanders in Iowa.
(Alex Wong/Getty)

15 people will have the job of drafting the Democratic Party's 2016 platform. Bernie Sanders' campaign picked 5 of them (a highly unusual amount of influence for a candidate who's unlikely to win the nomination). Among his picks: public intellectual and political critic Cornel West.

The pick is only surprising to those who think of "black voters" as a monolith, and assume that (imaginary) monolith is solidly in the Democratic column. That's exactly the sort of lazy thinking that West, and other black intellectuals who've endorsed and are campaigning with Bernie Sanders, are trying to break people of.

As West and company see it, the fact that black voters reliably support Democrats isn't necessarily born out of contentedness or even by choice. To them, the Democratic Party, and the middle-class black establishment that supports it, has coasted for far too long on empty gestures to black voters, and on the uncomforting fact that they have nowhere to go. As Hillary Clinton's been praised for her outreach to black voters in 2016, these intellectuals see it as proof that the cycle's simply repeating itself.

Christopher Whitt, a professor at Augustana College in Illinois, summed up the black intellectual critique before the Nevada caucuses, at a Las Vegas event called "Political Revolution: a Discussion of History and Black Politics."

"We have allowed ourselves to become a commodity too many times," Whitt said to an assenting crowd. "We have to reeducate ourselves. We have to take the lead of the young people, when they shout 'Black Lives Matter' instead of" picking timidly at politicians. "Think about it. Whenever we have an opportunity to shake things up, we have to shake things up."

Activist Tia Oso takes the stage during a town hall with Martin O'Malley and moderator Jose Antonio Vargas at Netroots Nation 2015.
(Charlie Leight/Getty)

Sanders is an upstart — but what does that mean for black voters?

As Whitt saw it when I spoke to him in February, the difference between Sanders and Clinton can be seen in which black leaders support each candidate.

"Because [Sanders is] an upstart in terms of national-level politics, he's much more willing to bring in innovative thinkers. You can see by some of the people who have backed him that some of these are people who are leading the way when it comes to black political thought in the modern era. In thinking about mass incarceration, black wealth accumulation, political voice, things of that nature. Whereas Hillary Clinton has found a niche with more of the traditional leadership infrastructure."

The Sanders embrace of scholars like Cornel West, for example, is something of a virtuous cycle. West has been an asset for Sanders on the campaign trail — he headlined the event before the Nevada caucuses, and multiple attendees said his presence had gotten them to support Sanders. But West and the other pro-Sanders black intellectuals already shared Sanders's belief that the fundamental threat to black dignity in the US is economic inequality.

"When did Dr. King get taken from us?" Whitt asked the audience in Las Vegas rhetorically. "When he started building an interracial coalition. When he started uniting people on economic interests, he had to go."

For West, the fact that Sanders has been fighting the same battles — against the finance sector and money in politics — is a sign of his integrity, which is the most important asset he offers. "I didn't say he was a saint," West said in Nevada, "but he has integrity." The implication that being consistent and unpopular gives someone integrity makes for a flattering comparison to West himself, who's become increasingly iconoclastic over his career.

Bernie Sanders with Cornel West.
Bernie Sanders with Cornel West.
(Melina Mara/Washington Post)

The fact that the black intellectuals and the black establishment are two different arms of the community, and have supported two different candidates, isn't lost on the intellectuals themselves. But they resist the implication that anyone with a brain should support Sanders.

"Even within the Sanders campaign, they'll say, 'Once black voters hear what we're talking about, they'll automatically be on board,'" Whitt said in February — stressing that he wasn't publicly endorsing either candidate. "And I think that's a misguided strategy. Black voters make educated decisions. Everybody's coming from a different perspective, and not every voter who's supporting Hillary Clinton is misguided."

Indeed, this is clear when you look at what's happened so far with black voters in the caucuses. The black vote in Nevada, the first state with a substantial black population, went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. In the overwhelmingly black precincts that caucused at Doolittle Community Center in Las Vegas — the very site where West had addressed an amped-up audience the week before — Clinton won every single delegate.

But while Whitt might be sanguine about the prospect of black voters choosing Clinton, pro-Sanders black intellectuals don't take it as a vote of confidence in her. They've seen this drama play out before: Democratic candidates woo black voters right up until they win the nomination. During the general election and the presidency, black voters are ignored — at best.

There's a political science term that perfectly captures how some feel about black voters and the Democratic party

The idea that Democrats rely on black votes but take the community for granted is broadly accepted among many black leaders and political scientists. And the political science term for the phenomenon even retains the implication that black voters are being held captive by the party.

"It's called 'vote capture,'" Whitt said at the Doolittle event. "The Republicans don't want nothing to do with us. And the Democrats take us for granted.'"

Princeton political scientist Paul Frymer pioneered the concept of what he calls "electoral capture." The relationship between the Democratic Party and black voters was his paradigmatic example.

As Frymer puts it, there are two conditions that create electoral capture. The first is that, as Whitt put it, Republicans want nothing to do with black voters. "Blacks have as a group found themselves within one political party," says Frymer, and for the past 50 years that's been the Democrats.

Hillary Clinton and Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, at a get out the vote rally in Chicago.
Hillary Clinton and Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, at a get-out-the-vote rally in Chicago.
(Scott Olson/Getty)

But, Frymer says, Democrats also feel a need to reach out to "the white middle voter" to win elections. In campaign lingo, these are "the 'median voter,' the 'undecided voter,' the 'NASCAR dads,' the 'soccer moms,' the 'Reagan Democrats,' the 'silent majority.'"

Because black voters "are seen as a divisive voting bloc," Frymer continues, Democrats feel the need to distance themselves from their black base in order to appeal to white swing voters, while Republicans use Democrats' association with the black community to turn those swing voters against them.

Sometimes that means explicit condemnation of black America; sometimes it means not bringing race up at all. Bill Clinton, Frymer says, excelled at both. When he felt the need to "attack Jesse Jackson and to distance himself from black voters in his party, to reach out to white moderates," he went after hip-hop artist Sister Souljah — the attack is so famous among political junkies that any politician condemning an extreme voice on his own side gets called a "Sister Souljah moment."

Because Bill Clinton's presidency represents peak electoral capture, it's predictable that his wife's candidacy is bringing resentments to the surface. And it's undeniable that black voters have gotten more critical of the Clintons in retrospect; more than one attendee at the Doolittle event told me they hadn't realized the role of "the Clintons" in encouraging mass incarceration until this electoral cycle (though they, like many liberals, attributed a bigger role to Hillary Clinton than she actually played).

"In many ways," says Frymer, "the best opportunity for African Americans is to have a candidate running. It's where you see the issues get brought up." But it's also a double bind, as they saw with Barack Obama: Successful black candidates have to play into vote capture if they want to win.

The black establishment is built of middle-class institutions

"In many ways," Paul Frymer says, Obama "followed Bill Clinton's approach." But in another way, Obama was merely continuing a tradition of the black political establishment. And while some of the black left supporting Sanders are more willing than others to attack Obama himself, they're all willing to go after other career black politicians.

"Some blacks have gotten a seat at some table," Whitt told his audience in Nevada. "It's probably the kiddie table. But they feel good because they got a seat at a table" — and therefore, he doesn't need to say out loud, sold the rest of the community out. He points out that when members of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Clinton, they didn't do it as the CBC, but rather as "the Congressional Black Caucus PAC" — implying they weren't really representing the community, but rather the moneyed political interests that Sanders is fighting.

At its heart, though, the black radical critique of the political establishment isn't as simple as some individuals selling out.

"This has been a critique of a lot of the major black organizations," says Eric McDaniel of the University of Texas Austin. From the NAACP to the black church, "the main patrons of these institutions are the black middle class, and they respond more to the needs of their patrons than, basically, the broader needs."

This is also true of black churches, which McDaniel studies. They're a civic establishment that isn't interested in pursuing a political agenda: "Because the institution is so stable," says McDaniel, "it's very slow to move." It's an institution more interested in civic engagement — getting members out to vote — than in pushing a particular ideological agenda, much less a progressive or radical one.

A fundraising group from the New Hope Baptist Church and NAACP in Mississippi, 1967.
A fundraising group from the New Hope Baptist Church and NAACP in Mississippi, 1967.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Cornel West is one of the contemporary champions of that critique — and he unleashed it in full force at Doolittle. "It's no accident that our churches became commodified," he said to supportive cheers. "Prosperity gospel, the building fund bigger than the prison ministry, praise teams rather than the choir — because a 'praise team' is modeled on the market."

"We have a long history of preachers who turn the blood of the cross into Kool-Aid," West argues.

McDaniel points out that even at the height of the civil rights movement, only half of churches participated. And it took several years to get many of them on board — because the middle-class membership wasn't interested in taking the risk.

McDaniel cites the example of a pastor who literally and metaphorically preceded Martin Luther King Jr.: Vernon Johns, who led the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in the early 1950s. "He tried to lead movements, he tried to lead a bus boycott — I mean, he was actually on the bus trying to do it, and the members of his congregation would look at him like he was silly," McDaniel says.

"When the members wanted action, that's when you got action out of the pastors," he adds, pointing to King's legacy.

The Black Lives Matter movement, too, started outside of the auspices of the traditional black civic institutions. But instead of bringing the black church along, McDaniel says, "they explicitly don't want to represent the church" — and they don't want the church to represent them.

The most promising signs for black leftism are coming from outside the primary

To McDaniel, West, and Whitt, this is one of the things that makes the current wave of youth militancy so inspiring: their determination to remain independent of the middle-class institutions that have become uninterested, if they ever were interested, in a political ideology of representing those with the least.

This is especially interesting since many of the movement's leading activists are themselves from middle-class backgrounds, or at least college-educated. They could easily have stuck to the path of middle-class establishmentarianism, more interested in civic engagement than political engagement. Instead, they've embraced an agenda of (in McDaniel's words) "the black poor" — the 2016 equivalent of the civil rights issues their 1950 counterparts wouldn't have been willing to touch.

"Black Lives Matter, voter ID, the situation in Flint — these things are coming together," McDaniel says.

Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have addressed these issues. Coming from Clinton, black intellectuals dismiss this as another campaign tactic to be forgotten once she has working-class whites to woo. Coming from Sanders, it's a symbol of his listening.

But listening is not leading, and Sanders, on his own, hasn't woken up the Democratic Party to the problem of vote capture. Maybe it will take a black-led, electorally independent movement to do that.

"I don't think Bernie Sanders can carry the message right now," McDaniel says.

But arguably he didn't need to: Young activists have grabbed the mic.