Feeling Like You Have a Choice: the 2016 Democratic Primary in South Carolina


I lean strongly Bernie, but I don’t #FeelTheBern as others do. There are reasons for this which don’t qualify as content for this post since I’m not going to talk about why I support Senator Sanders. Whatever my rationale may be for favoring Sanders, (in spite of some misgivings) the point of what I’m about to type isn’t to say that because the issues are some such way, you should vote this way or that. The point is to not say that, especially when I don’t know, and cannot know, the minds of people whose experiences differ from my own.

Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in the South Carolina primary by a wide margin, and most of the credit for that margin goes to Black voters. The result was expected and Sanders’ concession speech was given not from a location in South Carolina, but in southeast Minnesota, where he’s warming up for Super Tuesday. According to the article linked above, Sanders said, “There’s no way we are going to lose Minnesota. I can see that. You are just too smart.”

While I have no reason to believe Sanders has any ill will toward voters in South Carolina, that statement reads poorly in its presumably unintended implication that voters in South Carolina are, shall we say, not smart.

As I read through my Twitter timeline I found Sana Saeed had asked a most pertinent question, (though not phrased as such) the source for this post.

I was able to respond to this tweet with something useful, having read moments before an editorial in the New York Times written by Charles M. Blow. Though the editorial predates last night’s primary by two-and-a-half weeks, it contains good insight into why Black voters might choose Clinton over Sanders. Blow makes a reference to condescension which, were such directed at me, I would want to resist too:

I cannot tell you the number of people who have commented to me on social media that they don’t understand this support. “Don’t black folks understand that Bernie best represents their interests?” the argument generally goes. But from there, it can lead to a comparison between Sanders and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; to an assertion that Sanders is the Barack Obama that we really wanted and needed; to an exasperated “black people are voting against their interests” stance.

If only black people knew more, understood better, where the candidates stood — now and over their lifetimes — they would make a better choice, the right choice. The level of condescension in these comments is staggering.

The remark by Sanders about how smart he thinks the voters in Minnesota are strikes me as a more positively spun version of the same condescension.

The rest of the editorial by Blow is excellent, but I found in another respondent to Saeed’s tweet a more direct and concise explanation (paralleling Blow’s) for why Black voters in South Carolina were so overwhelmingly pro-Clinton. From Glen Ford and the Black Agenda Report:

Blacks are drawn into the jaws of the Democratic Party, not by ideological affinity, but in search of protection from the Republicans. This is an entirely different dynamic than an alignment based on thoughtful examination of political platforms. It’s not about picking a candidate or party that sees the world as most Black people do, from the left side of the spectrum, on matters of social justice and peace. Rather, the overarching objective is to choose a candidate from the Democratic wing of the Rich Man’s duopoly who is best equipped to defeat his or her Republican counterpart. Under these stilted circumstances, the Democratic candidate’s actual political positions become near-irrelevant to the Black primary voter, compared to the candidate’s perceived ability to win a national election. The question becomes, is the Democrat strong enough to beat back the latest offensive from the GOP? – which Black people perceive as an existential threat. In the grip of that mindset, the contestant that is richer, better connected to the party apparatus and more acceptable to masses of white voters is the better Black choice.

I have it easy. I’m a white guy with a decent job living in the Pacific Northwest. Who the next President is will have very little effect on me as a personal matter. My life will go on much as it has, and the fact I can have some confidence in that speaks to a characteristic of privilege I suspect may not be well understood. I’m not going to vote for Clinton in the Democratic primary when it happens in Oregon. I’m damn sure not going to vote for any Republican Presidential nominee when the general election finally arrives. But the fact I can choose among a variety of candidates—in either of the two major parties or from other parties—without much sense of having been backed into a corner where only one possibility may be conceived of, is surely a luxury which, if Blow and Ford are to be believed, many feel they cannot afford.

There’s an ideal world existing only in my head where people vote their conscience and principles. We don’t live in that world, but if we did it might look, from the perspective of a Sanders supporter, like this.