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

By reducing black Americans' concerns to race or exploiting the idea of a singular "black vote," the elite political class undermines our ability to organize a majoritarian social movement to combat the ruling-class assault on all working people.

Charles Brave, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, speaks during an "I'm a Medicare for All Voter" campaign press conference in Charleston on February 24. ,Medicare for All — South Carolina/Twitter

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.

A reason for that disconnect that we want to focus on in particular has to do with the complexities of what is called the "black vote." Nationally, black voters are more likely than others to support a single-payer health care system at 74%, compared to 69% among Hispanics and 44% among whites. And there is little reason to assume that black support for Medicare for All in South Carolina differs substantially from the national data. Our experience in the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute's Medicare for All-South Carolina campaign certainly comports with the national findings. Between December 2019 and the primary, our "I'm a Medicare for All Voter" initiative gathered more than 10,000 pledge cards from South Carolinians, largely black, who indicated that they would vote only for candidates who support Medicare for All.

The disjunction between candidate choices and issue concerns reflects how people are accustomed to making their short-term electoral calculations and how they understand the issues that affect their lives. People take different criteria to candidate selection than to their estimations of the issues that most concern them. In part that is the result of decades of bipartisan neoliberal hegemony in which electoral politics has been drained of serious policy differences. For more than forty years neither Republicans nor Democrats have sought to address Americans' decreasing standard of living and increasing economic insecurity. Both parties have subordinated voters' concerns to the interests of Wall Street and corporations. Therefore, in states like South Carolina Democratic party politics is fundamentally transactional, where people are habituated to making electoral choices based on considerations like personal relationships or more local concerns that do not center so much on national policy issues. In effect politics—or at least electoral politics—has been redefined as not the appropriate domain for trying to pursue policies that address people's actual material concerns like health care, education, jobs and wages, or housing.

That narrow view of politics was on display regarding the "black vote" in particular in the runup to the 2016 South Carolina primary when Congressmen James Clyburn (D-SC), John Lewis (D-GA), and Cedric Richmond (D-LA) denounced calls for free public higher education as "irresponsible" because "there are no free lunches." When Clyburn endorsed Biden in 2020, he took a swipe at Medicare for All, another issue with strong black American support, indicating that the choice this year is Biden vs. Medicare for All. (It may be worth noting that Clyburn, between 2008 and 2018, took more than $1 million from the pharmaceutical industry.)

Almost exactly four years ago, political scientist Cedric Johnson published a very important Jacobin magazine essay—titled "Fear and Pandering in the Palmetto State"—prompted by the, if anything, more disappointing outcome of the last South Carolina primary. In rejecting the interpretation that black South Carolinians had voted against their interests in supporting Hillary Clinton, he also rejected the idea of a singular "black vote." He insisted that "some black people did vote their interests, as they understand them, which shouldn't be a revelation if you see black people as a group who hold multiple, shifting and conflicting interests." He then laid out a variety of scenarios under which black South Carolinians would reasonably have voted for Clinton, noting that it's also important to take into account that their "impressions, preferences, and expectations have been formed in a conservative state in uncertain times."

Johnson problematizes "black politics" as a framework for understanding either black Americans' electoral behavior or their class and political interests. He points out that "voting for a presidential candidate… is only a proxy for political interests, which are again multifaceted and shifting." Black politics, in fact, is an historically specific phenomenon, as Johnson argues elsewhere. It is a label attached to the racialized black interest-group politics that consolidated after the great victories of the 1960s. It is thoroughly a class politics that rests on a premise—and one asserted with increasing intensity as class differences among black Americans become clearer in political debate—that all black Americans converge around a racial agenda defined arbitrarily by political elites and others in the stratum of freelance Racial Voices.

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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 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.

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.