Tone-Deaf

Why Is Bernie Sanders Slamming Southern Democrats?

According to Bernie Sanders, his red-state wins matter more than Hillary’s—an assertion with some troubling overtones.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

So what do we make of Bernie Sanders’s continuing habit of denigrating the Democratic voters of the South? He did it Wednesday night on Larry Wilmore’s show, when he said that having early Southern primaries “distorts reality.” And he did it again in the debate, when he dismissed the importance of Clinton’s votes from the South because the region is “the most conservative part of the country.”

Okay. I’m (in)famously on record as saying the Democrats should just forget the South. The argument of that column, admittedly florid rhetoric aside, was that for the purposes of general elections, the Democratic Party shouldn’t even try very hard in the South anymore. The party should of course fight to hold the African American House seats, and there might be occasional opportunities to swipe a seat in a college town. But other than that, for the foreseeable future, the South is gone, I argued, and the Democrats shouldn’t throw good money after bad down there. You can agree or disagree with that, but it is an argument about general elections (I wrote it right after Mary Landrieu lost to Bill Cassidy in a Louisiana Senate race).

Primary elections, however, are completely different animals. Primary elections are about voters within a political party—and sometimes without, in open primaries, which are another debate that we may get to in the future—having their shot at choosing which candidate their party should nominate. There are of course some states that matter more than others. But there aren’t any individual votes that matter more than others, at least among primaries (caucuses don’t usually report individual votes). For Sanders to dismiss Clinton’s Southern votes as distortions of reality is hugely insulting to Democrats from the region.

And to one group of Democrats in particular, who are concentrated in the South and who happen to be the most loyal Democratic voters in the country. I don’t think Sanders has a racist bone in his body, but is there not a certain racial tone-deafness in dismissing the votes of millions of black voters as distortions of reality? This is the one moment, their state’s presidential primary, when these African American voters have a chance to flex some actual political power in the national arena.

And then to write off Clinton’s Southern votes as “conservative” is just a lie intended to fool the gullible. Sure, the South is conservative at general-election time. But at Democratic primary time, it’s pretty darn liberal. It’s blacks and Latinos (where they exist in large numbers) and trial lawyers and college professors and school teachers and social workers and the like. They’re not conservative, any more than the people caucusing for Sanders in Idaho and Oklahoma are conservative, and he knows it.

The topic of Sanders’s own red state wins actually raises another point. He’s won seven states that both he and Clinton would/will lose by at least 15 points in November, and in many cases more like 30: Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, and Alaska, along with the aforementioned two. And he won them in caucuses, not primaries, which nearly everyone agrees are less democratic, less representative of the whole of the voting population.

Now let’s look at Clinton’s red-state wins. She’s won 10 red states: Texas, Arizona, Missouri, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina (I’m calling North Carolina purple, and of course Virginia and Florida and Ohio). Neither she nor Sanders would probably win in these states either, although a Clinton win over Donald Trump seems conceivable in a couple of them.

In any case, yes, they’ve both won states that are unwinnable in the fall. Yet do you hear Clinton going around saying that Sanders’s victories in these states are distortions of reality? I don’t. But Sanders goes around bragging, as he did at the debate, about winning eight of the last nine contests, “many of them by landslide” margins, referring to these very states where he or Clinton would get walloped in the fall, while denouncing her red-state wins as aberrational. What is it about his red states that count—or more to the point, perhaps, what is it about hers that makes them not count?

I try to set a limit on the number of times I use the “imagine if” device, because candidates have different histories, and those histories provide the context for our reactions to the things they do. But here goes. Imagine if the situation were reversed and Sanders had won the Southern states, and it was Clinton dismissing Southern Democratic votes as meaningless. The more sanctimonious among Sanders’s supporters would have tarred and feathered her as a racist weeks ago. Her very reputation among Democrats would likely be in tatters.

I’m not sure what the thinking is in Sanders land. Their collective back is against the wall, and they’re in a high-stress situation. But Sanders and his team—wife Jane, campaign manager Jeff Weaver—have been saying these things repeatedly now, for weeks. I guess it’s part of an electability argument. Even that is wrong—as I noted above, a couple of Clinton’s red states are possibly gettable in the fall, while none of Sanders’s states are. But insulting your own party’s—oh, wait. Ah. Maybe that has something to do with this too. Whatever the reasons—not a good look.