It is no great revelation to say that our national electoral politics has been turned inside out, upside down — or even in a number of different directions that is reminiscent of Milton Bradley’s Twister game. While “one person, one vote” inherently carries with it the possibility of strange, unexpected or even highly undesirable outcomes, historically there is usually a banal predictability to our de facto two-party system. Sometimes the Republican candidate wins; sometimes the Democratic candidate wins. Some people are elated; others are disappointed. Rinse, wash, repeat …
Occasionally, however, the losing team experiences something akin to the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. (I use the word “team” purposely; our politics has become so parochial, so bitter, so adversarial that even the analogy of opposing teams may not adequately describe the rancor that attends the seemingly intractable battles between Democrats and Republicans.) Certainly, this has been the case since the 2016 presidential election — which feels like it never quite ended.
It is in this social, economic, political and cultural context that we find ourselves reflecting on the results of last week’s Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina. (Fortunately, the Palmetto state spared us of the highly problematic caucus format that plagues us, especially in Iowa.) As we all know, former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign hinged on his performance in South Carolina — especially among African Americans, whose support determined the primary’s winner. As professor-turned-pundit Eddie Glaude of Princeton University pointed out on “Meet the Press,” it’s ironic that Black folks have — for the moment — saved centrist Democratic politics. Given our growing disaffection (and, for some, disgust) with the Democratic Party, Biden’s Black-people-fueled primary victory heralded our strategic importance.
The outcome of the South Carolina primary is very interesting for at least two reasons. One is that Rep. James “Jim” Clyburn, who as majority whip is the third highest-ranking member of the U.S. House, decided to announce his support of Joe Biden following last week’s Democratic debate. Generally speaking, such endorsements are substantially less important than in years long past. However, exit polls suggest that Clyburn’s full-throated endorsement of his longtime friend did matter — a lot. (Clyburn did so despite the fact that he has been openly critical of those who are running Biden’s campaign.)
Clyburn, who will be 80 years old in a few months, wields the kind of power — and commands the kind of respect — that results from decades of being “on the battlefield.” He is one of the old school leaders who puts the “e” in establishment politics. (Incidentally, endorsing Biden so forcefully did not come without some risk. Had the former vice president stumbled, or even failed to win convincingly, Clyburn’s stature and prestige may have suffered.) And it is worth mentioning the fact that, thus far, Sen. Bernie Sanders has not expanded the Democratic base, as he and his surrogates frequently claim he will do. Sanders barely beat Biden among young Black voters — who are among Sanders’ core constituency.
I should point out that “Black voters” are not a monolith; even Clyburn’s own grandson supported former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg before his exit from the race. Still, there remains among most of us a sense of collective “defense.” To borrow from Ben Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
The other interesting aspect of African Americans’ support of Biden is the possibility that it might spur him on to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. (Assuming, of course, that South Carolina is not an anomaly vis-à-vis Black support for him.) Finally, if Biden then went on to win the presidency, it is fair to say that Black people in South Carolina, in effect, would have played the central role in determining that outcome. Admittedly, those are many “ifs,” but that conclusion is not at all hyperbolic.
Black people have frequently served as America’s conscience, especially as it regards to our own political interests. Perhaps this is no better demonstrated today than in the fact that former candidate and billionaire “Mike” Bloomberg had been steadily collecting endorsements from high-profile Black political leaders — despite his atrocious record regarding racial issues while he served as mayor of New York. In my view, by taking the deliberative step of publicly supporting Bloomberg, his Black supporters made the affirmative decision to place being an American above being an African American.
Similarly, by supporting Joe Biden over former candidate Tom Steyer, who supported reparations, Black folks testified that the goal of returning our nation to sanity is more important to us than rolling the dice on someone who (it would appear) was unlikely to defeat Donald Trump this November.
If Joe Biden does prevail in the presidential contest, I am hopeful that his victory will not be Pyrrhic for Black folks. We deserve more. It is incumbent upon us to demand it.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.