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Bernie supporters need people of color if they don't want their movement to bust

Black Sanders supporters in Baltimore.
Black Sanders supporters in Baltimore.
Chip Somodevilla/Staff via Getty

Ever since the Democratic National Convention kicked off this week, there’s been a lot of renewed grumbling about the possible emergence of a "Tea Party of the left."

As Vox’s Andrew Prokop has noted, it’s hard to tell where the Bernie or Bust movement will go once the spotlight of the convention is taken away:

In some respects, the comparison between these Sanders supporters and the Tea Party is overstated. No one knows whether the Sanders movement will manage to live on once the senator’s presidential campaign no longer exists to give it a unifying purpose.

But in one crucial aspect, the comparison could be quite apt. The Tea Party was motivated partly by a deep and growing frustration with the way things are going in this country, and a sense that the party establishments weren’t up to the task of fixing it.

One thing is clear — creating a movement out of the amorphous disaffection of Bernie supporters will require that progressives learn lessons from the failures of the Sanders campaign.

Perhaps the most crucial of these: They’re going to have to get smarter about race.

As Prokop briefly argues, "If black voters or Hispanic voters end up becoming disenchanted with Clinton generally for whatever reason, an anti-establishment coalition could become incredibly formidable in Democratic primary politics."

Sanders failed to draw a critical percentage of black and Hispanic voters away from Clinton in the primaries. This is in part because he didn’t effectively organize in their communities, but perhaps more importantly it's because his platform couldn’t address their unique concerns without subsuming race and racism in the class rhetoric of "democratic socialism."

There's no way around it: For a lasting movement to rise from the ashes of the Sanders campaign, it would have to make huge inroads into the establishment’s black base. Creating a movement seriously and convincingly committed to the cause of anti-racism would be a good start.

Sanders couldn’t convince black voters that he could offer them more than the establishment.

The most common postmortem of the Sanders campaign goes like this: Bernie tore through Iowa and New Hampshire by galvanizing young, disaffected white liberals, but then he hit the South, and there, black voters sank him.

Now, to be sure, there is no such thing as "the black vote" in America. Though African-American voters did side overwhelmingly with Clinton, they also split along several demographic breakdowns like age and geographical location. That isn’t the story of a static voting bloc. The long history of stalwart black Democratic support did not arise because the party establishment offered incomparable solutions to black voters' problems but because Democrats promised the least harm.

Sanders’s well-meaning anecdotes about how hard it is for black men to catch cabs, and his clumsy railing against black poverty, simply wasn’t convincing for Southern black voters. And neither was his organizing. While Clinton was reaching black people where they lived — talking about institutionalized racism in Harlem, making the requisite stops on the Sunday church circuit — Sanders didn’t seem to catch on that he needed to specialize his message until it was too late.

That’s if he learned at all.

After failing to win big on Super Tuesday, Sanders said the Southern contests "distort reality" in the Democratic primaries, a response largely interpreted as blaming black voters for his losses. Honestly, it could have just been a gaffe, but as the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker wrote, at the very least it sent the impression that Sanders didn’t fully understand the type of coalition he would need to build to challenge Clinton.

At the worst, this all signaled that for the Sanders movement, specifically addressing the unique desires of black communities would have to take a back seat to their class-based socialist revolution.

Bernie Sanders with Killer Mike and La Shawn Ford in Chicago.
Joshua Lott / Stringer via Getty

Economic justice was Sanders’s strong suit. Racial justice simply was not.

As the Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith argued in March neither Clinton nor Sanders ran on a truly anti-racist platform. For Clinton, this shortcoming was obscured by both her husband and their long history of cultivating relationships within black communities.

Sanders had no such privilege, and it showed. During the campaign, as Smith notes, it was quite clear that Sanders "had spent his political career railing against the millionaires and billionaires — and not done the work of incorporating anti-racism into his analysis of inequality."

And judging by the incredulousness of his supporters when they found out people of color largely weren’t feeling the Bern, many of them hadn’t done that work either.

For their part, many could blame corporate interests for unfairly dictating their life outcomes but couldn’t grasp how a political economy built around the disproportionate jailing of black, Hispanic, and native people might do the same for those populations. They were outraged that they are projected to make less than their parents’ generation, but wouldn’t acknowledge that the wealth of their parents was tied to the exploitation of people of color and the extrication of resources from their communities since way back.

The biggest work of a new movement would be bridging that analytical gap — crafting policy objectives that would build on the common interests of all parties involved, without neglecting and erasing the differences of those most vulnerable among them.

Race was a collective blind spot for the Bernie movement, and it doomed him in the South. Still, Sanders’s relatively impressive showing among black and brown voters in other regions of the country, as well as younger voters overall, does indicate that his message, however incomplete, can resonate.

If the Tea Party is any indication, inside-outside political movements can be effective in driving change

Building this sort of progressive coalition would require a lot of grassroots organizing. That’s another barrier to its creation — progressives and Democrats just haven’t shown that they can organize in advance of state, local, and House races the way Republicans can. A quick look at the political landscape of America reveals as much: Both houses of Congress and the vast majority of state legislatures are red.

That’s why the progressive platform of free college or comprehensive immigration reform can be quickly discounted as "unrealistic" even as the Republican nominee for president is vowing to build a wall spanning the entire southern border. The Tea Party organized people on issues that fired them up. It focused its efforts on winning House seats, and by doing so, forced open the bounds set by the Republican establishment. Now their political dreams could very well become the country’s reality.

It’s yet to be seen if the Bernie or Bust movement can inspire that sort of sustained passion, either for the policies of democratic socialism or for the cause of combating institutionalized racism.

But if they could manage both, it would be something historical — a pro-labor, anti-racist faction in the Democratic Party — and it would be formidable.