Black Democrats weighing progressivism vs. moderate centrism in 2020

In what has been a whirlwind 10 days to say the least, the 2020 Democratic presidential field has winnowed from Sen. Bernie Sanders being the prohibitive favorite to best former VP Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, to now finding Sanders running a close second to Biden with the distinct prospects that by month’s end, he may be a distant second to the last Democrat standing!

When we flashback to last week, encomiums for Biden’s third presidential run had already begun until Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina provided a crucial endorsement on the eve of South Carolina’s Democratic Primary.  As the results trickled in last Saturday that signaled a landslide Biden victory, two things stood out to me regarding Biden’s dominance: 1. Exit polling that suggested that nearly half of the voters had made their minds up within days of casting their votes; 2. The facts that nearly two out of three Black Democratic voters decided to vote for President Barack Obama’s loyal Vice President.

Three days later, Biden–one who had never won a single primary or caucus in his prior runs for the White House in 1988 and 2008–replicated his success across heavily Black states of the Old Confederacy, rolling to victories in Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, while securing impressive wins in Oklahoma, Masschussetts, Maine, and Minnesota.

Never mind that in the Northern and Midwestern states that Biden won that there was a demographically diverse group of voters that decided that they are “Riding with Biden,” when the smoke cleared, it was Black voters who drew the harshest criticism from many Sanders supporters on traditional and social media. The criticism ranged from Black voters simply waxing nostalgic about Obama years and yearning for a return of “Uncle Joe,” to the more sinister Rush Limbaugh (irony) coined phrase that “Black Biden supporters are low information voters.”

While I certainly believe that Obama era nostalgia played some part for some Black Democratic voters, I join the chorus of political pundits who strongly disagree with the notion that a vote for Biden was tantamount to having low or no information.

As I have written in many social media retorts to supporters of self-styled Democratic Socialist Sanders, the overwhelming majority of voters in America cannot distinguish a communist, from a socialist, from a Democratic Socialist. That hard fact is one major reason why Republicans ranging from President Donald Trump, to Senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Rand Paul all have routinely averred that they would much rather face Sanders in the general election than Biden. They prefer Sanders because they would “cloud the force” by falsely branding Sanders as a socialist.  Lest we forget that Donald Trump was impeached for seeking opposition research from Ukraine on Joe Biden–not Sanders, Warren, or Bloomberg; such is an indicator that Republicans know that Biden will be a formidable foe.

To delve even deeper, it is important to note that many Black Democratic voters remain skeptical as to whether many of Sanders’s signature ideas, including free college educations, “Medicare for All,” and raising taxes on both the extremely rich AND the high end of the middle class, would work.

Further, we cannot forget that Progressivism is far from new; a Sanders presidency would be less a reincarnation of fascist autocracies, but perhaps an even more radical recrudescence of the Woodrow Wilson administration that incorporated progressive ideals into statist actions.

As a reminder, after the Civil War ended in 1865, the 12-year period known as Reconstruction led to the establishment of many still existing HBCUs, Black businesses including banking and insurance concerns, along with the emergence of Black political power across the South and in Washington. When Reconstruction ended and the reality of Jim Crow and lynching deaths set in across the South, many Black started to move to the North and Midwest in search of jobs in industries founded by the “Robber Barons.” These Barons were men of great wealth like John Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie–men who derived exorbitant wealth from Capitalism that exploited human capital–the workers–which often included children. Progressivism arose to counter these economic disparities as leaders like Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, and Robert LaFollete sought to establish union rights, minimum wages, women’s suffrage, and limits on how many hours children could work in factories.

As unions expanded, Black workers traditionally were NOT a part of progressive consideration. Black organizations like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were founded because no progressive white unions were caping for Black people. When Blacks crossed the picket lines to work during strikes, they were often beaten or killed by their “progressive” white brethren. When progressive white women’s suffrage groups protested in 1913, they rejected black support so much so that one group, the then all Black Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at Howard University, protested anyway despite the real fear that they would be beaten or killed.

Amid this backdrop, when Woodrow Wilson became president in 2012, his progressive reforms in the banking industry (The Fed), regulatory agencies like the FDA, and civil service often specifically discriminated against Black folks. This same type of discrimination would occur two decades later as well during the “progressive” Franklin Roosevelt administration, when his social reforms that many historians agree guided America out of the Great Depression, often found Black people depressed and discriminated against in the provison of social services, including the oft praised GI Bill that created suburbs, educational stipends, home loans, and wealth for white veterans–but did not always inure similarly tangible benefits for Black veterans.

Those who spent enough time reading these facts or talking to our elders about them will understand why some Black voters are skeptical about neo-progressivism. While I am not among those skeptics regarding progressive theory and believe that a radical reformation of the economy is a great idea, I also am a sober pragmatist who has lived long enough to know that the overwhelming majority of my white friends, colleagues, and acquaintances–and more than a few of my Black, Latino and Asian ones–would rather see the country cease to exist than to share wealth and services equally among all races, ethnic groups, and socio-economic backgrounds. I need look no further than the end of Reconstruction, the destruction of the wealthy Black Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida, and attacks by white Republicans and Democrats alike on affirmative action and racial quotas in my lifetime to know that any real attempts at equitable economic reforms are Quixotic quests at best, thus making the need to work within the existing economic and governmental frameworks far more dire–and sensible.