South Carolina, Neoliberalism’s Stranglehold, and the Mystique of the ‘Black Vote’

Adolph Reed Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and an organizer for Medicare for All-South Carolina. Willie Legette is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at South Carolina State University and Lead Organizer, Medicare for All-South Carolina.

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by Adolph Reed Jr.Willie Legette

Many progressives hoped that South Carolina black voters, who have consistently expressed strong support for Medicare for All and other components of Bernie Sanders’ political program, would counter the conventional wisdom that the “black vote” is tightly aligned with the Democratic party’s establishment wing and deliver a Sanders victory on Saturday. Of course, those hopes didn’t materialize. Black voters were 56% of the Democratic electorate here, and Biden received an estimated 61-64% of their votes. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the only other candidate embracing a reasonably honest version of Medicare for All, received 17% and 5% respectively. That was the not so good news on February 29.

The much better news, though, is that exit polls showed half of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina supported “replacing all private health insurance with a single government plan for everyone.” Roughly 40% of voters indicated that they saw health care as the most important issue, and fewer than one in ten agreed that the economic system “works well enough as it is.” Indeed, 53% of those voters agreed that the American economic system “needs a complete overhaul.” South Carolina is one of 14 states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and medical debt is the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the state; so it’s not surprising that Democratic voters would be so open to transformative political change in principle.

Yet, of those in South Carolina who support replacing private health insurance, 44% voted for Biden, 29% for Sanders and 8% for Warren. Of those who said that the economic system needs a complete overhaul, 49% voted for Biden, and 22% for Sanders. A similar pattern emerged on Super Tuesday as well. So how do we make sense of what seems to be the disconnect between people’s concerns and how they voted?

Several factors account for it. One is likely confusion or uncertainty fomented by conservative Democrats and the corporate media.  Some voters believed erroneously, for example, that Buttigieg or other opposing candidates supported Medicare for All. In addition, the anti-Medicare for All industry front group, Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, spent $200,000 on non-stop ads that directly attacked Medicare for All, including during the Charleston debate.

That perspective helps to understand the vitriol with which Reps. Clyburn, Lewis, and Richmond attacked the Sanders program in 2016. It stemmed from a turf-protectiveness affronted by direct appeals to black Americans addressing concerns arising from their discrete social positions. Such appeals are “irresponsible” not only because they encourage black people to aspire beyond the constraints of neoliberal hegemony but also because those appeals disregard the brokerage role of the black political class and political-managerial class opinion shapers.

The black political class, to put it bluntly, uses the status of “representing” black people to accrue benefits for themselves and elite strata among black Americans. In pursuing such interests, it is not unusual for them to advocate anti-democratic positions.  In 2016 the members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and other black elected officials offered the strongest opposition to decreasing the role of Super Delegates at the Democratic Party Convention. Unashamedly, they argued that they as black representatives should not have to run against party activists, and they should not be expected to support presidential candidates that they did not have a role in selecting.  

Since 2016 the black punditry has converged around a narrative that Sanders has difficulty appealing to black voters, even as polls have shown repeatedly that his program is more popular among black Americans than any other group. This effort recently hit a comic plateau when the The Root produced a report purporting to evaluate the Democratic candidates in relation to a “Black Agenda.” The report, based on criteria crafted by anonymous “experts,” ranked Warren first with Biden, Buttigieg, and Steyer also ahead of Sanders. Tellingly, Buttigieg and Steyer offered decidedly class-skewed racial programs centering on entrepreneurship and business development, and Sanders was graded down for having had the temerity to consider mobilizing a primary challenge to “the first black president.”

Another facet of this black politics is that, in reducing all of black Americans’ concerns to race, it undermines our abilities to organize the majoritarian social movement response we need to combat the ever more naked assertion of ruling-class power against all working people in the United States. In 2018, we noted—regarding South Carolina in particular—that Republicans and Democrats shared an interest in making race the most significant fault line in the state’s politics. We recalled political scientist V. O. Key’s 1949 conclusion that the state’s preoccupation with race stifled political conflict and noted the irony that Key’s assessment of how race worked then largely holds today, albeit in a different way because black Democrats are as committed to that race reductionism as are white Republicans. Much as other Wall Street Democrats clearly are more troubled by a Sanders victory than a Trump re-election, the black brokerage stratum is ever more explicit that its main objective is to undermine black Americans’ participation in a broad movement for social transformation along economically egalitarian lines.

The CBC response to Trump’s election brings this problem into clear view.  In 2016, candidate Trump challenged black elected officials and the Democratic Party by asking black voters, “What do you have to lose” in voting for him.  Responding to the provocation, the CBC presented a report, “We Have A Lot To Lose: Solutions To Advance Black Families In The 21st Century” (pdf), to President Trump. The Caucus followed this up with the “Jobs and Justice Act of 2018.” Both offered moderate neoliberal solutions to the salient problems confronting the majority of black people.  After the press conferences both documents were submitted to the dust bin of history. Such posturing expresses the character of contemporary “black politics.”

This leads to our final observation regarding last Saturday’s primary. Johnson concludes his essay by stressing that our endgame

“is not the election of a president but the transformation of the country into a place that is more egalitarian, just, and humane, a society where poverty is not possible and where real freedom is enjoyed by all… The kind of popular pressure we need to advance some of the best of Sanders’s platform—free higher education, postal banking, public works, a single-payer health care system, stronger financial regulation, and so on—cannot be built in an election cycle.”

Now we should say: “two election cycles.” As our opponents have made strikingly clear in recent weeks, to whatever extent it wasn’t already, we won’t and were never going to be able simply to elect our way into the kind of just society we need and deserve. The struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination and the room for debate it provides remain crucial, of course. However, the South Carolina results, as well as those of several—e.g., Virginia, where Biden bested Sanders  53-23, and 53% of voters indicated preference for Medicare for All—of the Super Tuesday states, underscore the need to dig in and build on the potential the Sanders moment has provided us to take up the slow, unglamorous work of building organically rooted working-class politics around issues that connect directly with people’s lives and concerns all over the United States. That approach is what led us to undertake the Medicare for All-South Carolina campaign, for which nonpartisan grassroots political education directed toward the primary was only an initial phase.

We agree with Johnson, who is our friend and comrade, as well that the South Carolina primary in itself is significant really only in relation to the bizarre, disingenuous claim that winning the black vote in particular is the key to being able to win the presidency. No Democrat will win the South Carolina in November. And it is worth noting that the same is likely true of several of the southern Super Tuesday states as well; outside the southern states Biden and Sanders were basically competitive.

So here we are. The vaunted South Carolina primary has come and gone; the work remains.

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