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You Asked Us: Why Do Black Voters Support Hillary Clinton?

Ethnic minority voters are the key to Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. Why don't they like Bernie Sanders?

Hillary Clinton won almost everywhere with everyone last night. She won women – by 32 points.  She won among white voters, among the over-30s, with Hispanics. But her biggest victories – and the votes that have ended Bernie Sanders’ hopes of securing the nomination – came from black people. Across the 11 states contested last night, she won black voters by 68 points. In Alabama, she got 92 per cent of the black vote.

It wasn’t just last night, either. As listeners to our podcast will know, one of the reasons why I never took the time to form a strong opinion about the merits of Bernie Sanders is because it was clear, even in his great triumph in New Hampshire, that he simply didn’t have a wide enough reach across the Democratic coalition. 

It was ethnic minority voters who powered Clinton’s victories in Nevada and South Carolina – even in ultra-white Iowa, her razor-thin victory came off the backs of minority voters, who preferred her to Sanders.

Why don’t black voters back Sanders? It’s a question that I’m often emailed as part of our “You Asked Us” feature on our podcast. (Did I mention we have a podcast? You can subscribe on iTunes.)

It’s a little about Sanders, a lot about the Clintons, and a little, too, about the question itself.

Firstly, Sanders’ problem is not a new one. He is from a long line of American liberals who have struggled to connect with black voters – Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas – which used to be a mild inconvenience for Democratic politicians and is now an insurmountable obstacle. (If America looked like it did in 1988, it would be Sanders who was in a commanding position in the primary race, and Clinton without a chance.)

Sanders – or his similarly demographically limited predecessors – has simply not had to speak to or about the issues facing black America all that much. Unlike Bill Clinton, a southern Democrat, for whom the black vote was an essential element of his successful bids not just for the Presidency but for his gubernatorial runs in Arkansas, or Hillary herself, a Senator for New York for eight years.

And while the compromises of what we may soon start calling the first Clinton era had dire repercussions for African Americans, Sanders’ Congressional career is no bed of roses either. Sanders voted for the same 1994 crime bill that saw the number of incarcerated black Americans skyrocket. His opposition to large waves of gun control legislation has directly endangered American lives just as surely as Bill Clinton’s bowing to a Republican Congress did.

Sanders, too, has spent large chunks of the last eight years opposing America’s first black President – calling for him to face a primary challenge in 2012, voting against his attempt to close Guantanamo in 2009. The small number of African Americans who have endorsed Sanders have tended to be hyper-critical of Obama – like Cornel West, or Killer Mike.

You can argue that Obama has deserved all that criticism, and whether or not black America has tended to turn a blind eye to the disappointments of the Obama administration – for a fuller explanation of the relationship between Obama and black America, Michael Eric Dyson’s The Black Presidency is indispensable – the fact remains: anti-Obamaism has been a large component of Sandersism, a sort of electoral halitosis that he has been unable to overcome.

But it’s worth noting that, actually, Sanders does fairly well among black Americans in the polls. Black Americans think that Sanders is honest, trustworthy, and so forth. They just don’t vote for him because they like the Clintons more.

A large part of that lies in the Clintons and their record. Under Bill Clinton, median household income grew by 25 per cent in African-American households, at double the speed as it did for households nationwide. Unemployment among African Americans fell by six points, against a three-point drop among the population as a whole. It was the first time in American history that the fruits of economic boom were truly felt in black households.

And crucially, the Clintons turn up to stuff. In this race, Clinton has been talking about fitting police with body cameras – a key demand of the Black Lives Matter campaign – before Sanders was even a candidate. The Sanders campaign produced one of the most powerful political adverts in history, designed to fix their candidate’s problem with ethnic minority voters. But it was produced just weeks before voting started in South Carolina. It was beautiful – but it was a beautiful afterthought.

Whereas Hillary Clinton has put in the hard yards if nothing else, and to many black voters, does genuinely seem to get it. That there is something more than just political opposition in the Republican reaction to Obama. 

And then there’s the supporter problem. Throughout the race, there has been an attitude among some Sanders supporters that either condescends or ignores black voters. That emails to say that of course, black voters might not be going for Sanders just yet, but as soon as they “listen to his message” they will be won over. That says, effectively, that Clintonism is a state of sin from which black voters will shortly be uplifted. Or, writes, as the Guardian did, that “the Clinton machine” has “a hold” on African-American voters, who didn’t vote for Clinton in 2008 and are no more in “the hold” of a “machine” as white liberal graduates – who have voted for Sanders at every election he has fought since 1991 – are for Sanders. That describes Clinton as the candidate of “corporate America” and ignores the fact that she is also the candidate of black America.  That describes Sanders as the “candidate of the future”, when the future of the Democratic Party increasingly rests on the same demographics that are least friendly towards Sanders.

That asks “why are black voters backing Hillary Clinton?” Well, for the same reason that white millennials are backing Bernie Sanders. Because they think she’s the candidate that best reflects their hopes and can win policy victories for them.

They may be wrong – but the presumption that they are any less well-informed or fixed in their views than supporters of the Sanders deserves greater examination than it has thus far received.

If you have any questions you’d like us to tackle either on the podcast or on the Staggers, drop me an email at stephen.bush<at>newstatesman.co.uk and we’ll try to tackle it. Eventually.  

Now listen to Stephen Bush  and Helen Lewis discuss Super Tuesday, on the New Statesman Podcast:

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder