Who is the Better Candidate for Black Voters?
Veteran social and political activist Dr. Ron Daniels argues that Sanders’ campaign vision for a more progressive America will benefit African Americans
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
With the South Carolina Democratic primaries coming up this Saturday, polls are indicating that Hillary Clinton has a greater chance of walking away with the victory. However, according to our next guest, Dr. Ron Daniels, Bernie Sanders’ campaign matters a lot more than it is getting credit for. Dr. Ron Daniels is president of the Institute for a Black World 21st Century, and distinguished lecturer at York College at City University of New York. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Daniels.
RON DANIELS: It’s good to be with you.
PERIES: So, Dr. Daniels, last week the Congressional Black Caucus PAC endorsed Hillary Clinton, and now you’ve just met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, DC, who endorse Hillary Clinton. So what did you say to them when you met with them, and who did you meet with?
DANIELS: Well, we weren’t really meeting with them about the Bernie Sanders campaign, or about the Hillary Clinton campaign. We were talking about the UN Decade for People of African Descent. The Congressional Black Caucus every Wednesday has a luncheon in which its members come together to take up major issues, and we were delighted to have an opportunity for Mireille Fanon-Mendes France, who essentially is in charge of the civil society aspect of this program for the United Nations, to have an opportunity to share a few thoughts with the Congressional Black Caucus, and there is subsequently going to be a briefing about that.
So we didn’t get into any politics. These are, many of these are folks that I know. They are friends of mine, I have worked with many of them over the years. We just have a difference of opinion in terms of who is the more visionary candidate in relationship to not only black people, but for the nation. And so that’s how, I guess, politics works. So we’ll agree to disagree, at least with many of them. There are some within the Congressional Black Caucus, I suspect, who are leaning towards Bernie Sanders. But they’ve been very, very cautious and very, very careful at this point, and many of them have endorsed the incumbent. Not the incumbent, but the presumed nominee, so to speak.
PERIES: Dr. Daniels, in the article you wrote that we just cited, you wrote: “Under fierce assault from reactionary forces on the right, for decades the Democratic party has retreated from the hard-fought gains secured over generations.” You wrote that this is contained in the Roosevelt’s New Deal. Give us a sense of why you wrote that and what’s meant by it, and relate it to the Bernie Sanders campaign.
DANIELS: I mean, the fact of the matter is for from the Clinton era on what you’ve had is a kind of centrist approach, a kind of center-left, center-right approach. And this is what the Clintons represent. This is what they profess to be. There’s something called the Democratic Leadership Conference, and some people may have forgotten. I haven’t forgotten about it. When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988 I was deputy campaign manager. He ran on a slogan of bold leadership in a new direction. He was talking about, you know, how to build a better society, how to hold corporate America accountable. How to, in fact, get masses of people involved in creating, for lack of a better word, a counterrevolution based on economic common ground.
After that election was over, the Democratic party under the leadership of Clinton made a calculated decision that that would not win, that the way to win in their judgment was to take an incremental approach. It was to become Republican lite. Adopt–end welfare as we know it, for example, adopt trade policies that would be sort of a free trade system, or a free market system, as the Republicans call it, and to be tough on defense. And that’s the way the Democratic party essentially has been rolling, and when on key questions like privatization, the privatization of public institutions, the Democratic party has been retreating.
The fact of the matter is the public space, public hospitals, public schools, public education, this is the equalizer in a capitalist, political economy. And yet under the assault of the right wing, Democrats have not stood firm. And what Bernie Sanders’ campaign is doing–this is why it matters–you see, now, stretching our imagination to envision what America could be. It’s not a question of what we can afford, at this point. It’s what are we willing to fight for. Because the Democrats have not been willing to fight for very much. It’s been a kind of holding action. Bernie Sanders is coming out clearly saying there is a 1 percent, and that 1 percent is controlling an incredible amount of wealth in this society, and it is polluting the entire system, and it is, in fact, you know, devastating the lives of millions and millions of people in the middle class and working class people and the poor.
And that’s why this campaign matters, because there is a vision that’s involved here. And I think that’s why many young people are inspired by it, because they’re tired of just hearing what’s practical, what’s realistic. Of course we have to be realistic. But when you have nations in Europe where you have universal healthcare, you have universally across the board in Western societies paid pregnancy leave, paid sick leave, you have long vacations and whatever, here we in the United States are made to feel as if somehow we should feel privileged to be able to work for, you know, to be worked to death, indeed by these corporate bandits, if you will. And Bernie Sanders is railing against that in a very, very effective way.
PERIES: Dr. Daniels, recently we’ve had a lot of very good public intellectuals in this country in the African-American community such as Cornel West and Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic. We have also had stars like Danny Glover and others endorsing Bernie Sanders’ campaign. So I guess you’re in good company here.
Now, my question to you is, why is these kinds of very important endorsements not having traction in places like South Carolina?
DANIELS: Well, I think it’s having some traction. But the fact of the matter is over the years the Clintons have cultivated an image of being very heavy on symbolism and not very good on substance. A lot of people don’t remember that. They’re quite good at it. I mean, Bill Clinton could play a saxophone, you know, so he’s a down guy. In fact, he came to be known as the first black president.
And in some ways my friends and allies in the Congressional Black Caucus are at fault, because you know, politics is a matter of making tough decisions. We had, we supported, I supported Bill Clinton during the course of his presidency not because I agreed with all of his policies, but because all of us were under assault by the vicious attack from the right. And so Clinton was sort of the firewall. He was, that was a defensive move. That didn’t mean I believed in everything that he was about. I knew we needed a more visionary politics. So that was a tactical decision. But somehow this tactical decision in the black community came off as if this man was this great, you know, this really great lover of black people. And I’m not saying that in a [inaud.] kind of way.
The fact of the matter is we’ve had no urban policy, you know, since the Clinton era and before. I remember distinctly during the Clinton era he campaigned in urban areas after dark. He did, in the evening, he did not want to, in fact, be seen in black communities in the daytime. That was the thrust of, in fact, what Clinton was about. And of course the 1994 omnibus crime bill, which unfortunately some blacks signed off and so forth and so on, has been very, very devastating.
So I think that when you look at Coates and Danny Glover, Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Spike Lee and others, they understand that we need a politics which is far more, is stronger than that. But the Clintons are good at building relationships in the black community. And one of the things I think Bernie Sanders has needed to do is to have a clearer, more explicit position as it relates to black issues. Black Lives Matter, you know, have been pushing him on that. Ta-Nehisi Coates raised the issue of reparations. And it seems to me that Bernie Sanders could have at least said, I support HR 40. And my recommendation was that he have, in fact, he do a speech on race and lay out his positions on racial issues, including not just mass incarceration but indeed, what would he do in terms of investment in the black community? He has a bill before Congress, apparently, that would be very effective in that regard. But he’s not wrapped it in a message that would be as effective as it might be. The 1 percent issue, certainly inequality is an important issue.
In one of the debates he pointed out that during the great crash it was black people whose wealth was–I mean, emaciated by the great meltdown in 2008. Those are the kind of points that he needs to make in order to tie his major theme to issues that affect black people. And we hope that some of us, Danny Glover and others, can get that message across to him so that his message will resonate.
But to me, if it resonates, fine. We hope it does. But for some young people they kind of get it. They understand that we need an America which is much better than it is now, that it can, we can do better. But we won’t do better if we only focus on what is realistic, what is practical. We need to stretch the imagination of the American people, of workers, of poor people.
Let me just say this. For the longest time in the Democratic party they couldn’t even put poor in their mouths. They couldn’t say workers in their mouths. It was actually disgusting. All we talked about–and you know, the middle class is fine. But they were being–they’re captured by this consulting class, talking about the middle class, the middle class. Of course we have to help the middle class. But workers exist in this society. Poor people exist, and they need to be spoken to. And Bernie Sanders is speaking to them, and he’s asking them to join this revolution. Because the biggest political party in America today is not the Democrats, it’s not Republicans, it’s non-voters who become apathetic, who are in fact turned off by a system that they know is rigged. They in their gut know it’s rigged.
And Bernie Sanders is tapping into that. And quite frankly I’m so proud of so many young people across this country who understand that and who really want to fight for an America which is not exceptional because, you know, the only America–every Western industrial society has healthcare, and America is the exception because it does not have these things. There are so many things that can be achieved if we have a more visionary politics.
And let me just say this. At the end of the day it’s also important that this energy be maintained, because one of the problems we’ve had is we’ve not had a third, what I call a third force in American politics that would gather up those who are progressive, those who are visionary, to continue to battle at all levels. For school board, for city council, for state representative, senator, Congress. All the way up. That’s what the Tea Party did on the right. They not only mouthed their politics, they translated it into a force. I don’t agree with that force. But it has to be reckoned with.
We need to do the same thing on the left, no matter who wins the presidency. I hope Bernie Sanders wins, but if he doesn’t win we need to maintain a third force in American politics.
PERIES: Dr. Daniels, on February 11 Congressman John Lewis questioned Senator Sanders’ civil rights record. Let’s have a look at what he said.
JOHN LEWIS: Well, to be very frank–I don’t want to cut you off. But I never saw him. I never met him. I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963-1966. Was involved in the sit-in, the freedom ride, the march on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery. The director of the Board of Education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.
PERIES: Dr. Daniels, we now know that Congressman Lewis was in great error, and that this was not the case. Bernie Sanders was quite involved in the civil rights movement. I’m wondering about your understanding and comments about Congressman Lewis’ statement there.
DANIELS: Well, I thought it was very disingenuous, even frankly disrespectful of Congressman John Lewis, who was an icon in the civil rights movement, to somehow pretend as if he knew everybody who was involved in the civil rights movement. Not–of course it was impossible for him to have known that. If you look at the Mississippi freedom summer alone, where thousands and thousands of young white radicals and visionaries and dreamers came to Mississippi, he could not have known all of them. I’m a former executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. You know, people like [name inaud.], I mean, Bill Kunstler, Morty Stavis, they all went. And so John Lewis could not have known all of them.
And so that was really an irrelevant question. Bernie Sanders has an impeccable record on civil rights issues. And quite frankly, for him to say, but I saw Bill Clinton, and I saw Hillary Clinton, I mean, he was almost lying. I mean, were they at Selma? Were they, you know–.
PERIES: We now know that Hillary Clinton was actually not present in–.
DANIELS: Well, of course not. I’m just, I’m saying, so this was disingenuous. It’s a way of trying to, to prop up the Clintons. And by the way, it’s not necessary. This is not an anti-Hillary Clinton campaign. It’s not an anti-Bill Clinton campaign.
The question becomes who is the better choice? Who is the more visionary candidate, in order to build what it is that we need to do? And Bernie Sanders, by the way, he’s not adjusting his message. Bernie Sanders has been campaigning for years and years and years as a progressive, talking about key issues in terms of how to build a better society for the working class, for poor people, and for middle class people, including black people. So if you hear, you hear Clinton now trying to absorb some of Bernie Sanders’ message, which is what typical politicians do. This is not what Bernie Sanders has been doing. He’s been, America may just be learning about him, but many of us have known Bernie Sanders for 30 years or more in terms of his consistency.
So now America is getting to see him, unvarnished. You know, straightforward. And in fact conducting a campaign that a largely–not largely, campaign that’s clean. Martin Luther King, the night before he got assassinated, said I may not get there with you. In other words, the important thing is to lay out a set of ideas. And by the way, the other thing I talk about in my article is that Bernie Sanders’ ideas are very consistent with the economic bill of rights that Martin Luther King was putting forth at the time that he was killed. And that often gets lost as well. He was talking about jobs [inaud.] everybody. Healthcare for everybody. Education for everybody.
I mean, these are the kind of ideas that the progressive movement should be putting forward. And the point that he made the night before he died was I may not get there, you know, but my people will get there. The point is, I have laid out a vision, I have laid out where we need to go. Now, we may not make it in my lifetime, but the victory is in the striving. If you do not strive, if you do not dream, if you do not have a vision, the people in fact perish. And in fact people have been perishing in the society because the Democrats lack vision. Democrats have not been dreaming. They have simply been treading water, attempting to be realistic, to be practical, when indeed that plays right into the hands of the Republicans who are trying to define the game as one in which you have small government, limited government.
We don’t need to be limited. We need to talk about what we want, what our vision is, and what we’re willing to fight for. And I hope Bernie Sanders for the rest of this campaign will challenge Hillary Clinton on that. Are you universal free education, public education, or not? Are you in favor of putting Glass-Steagall back together, which your husband was responsible for tearing down, or not? Are you in favor, in fact, of regulating the banks as two members, at least one representative of the Federal Reserve in Minnesota said the banks have gotten too big to fail. Another just recently said they need to be regulated like public utilities. She needs to be put on the spot, and she needs to answer those questions, because that will show the difference between Bernie Sanders’ vision and the vision of Hillary Clinton, which is an incremental, very, very practical vision.
Now, at the end of the day, if Hillary Clinton wins, obviously we don’t, we’re not going to support her. Trump, we’re not going to support her. Rubio, we’re not going to support Cruz or any of those to the right because they are, they are lunatics. We’re not going to turn the house–we’re not going to turn the country over to the lunatics. So therefore we’ll have to make that tactical decision. But right now the battle is for–it’s about vision. And it’s about stretching even Hillary Clinton to go where maybe she would not ordinarily go. And we have needed that for decades, and I’m thrilled about it. And I hope he continues to do it at the end of the day, once the campaign is over. Win, lose, or draw, we do need to have the energy that has come into the Bernie Sanders campaign and all of the different forces that are part of it maintain themselves so we have a third force in American politics that can continue to push the vision and the values that Bernie Sanders is talking about.
PERIES: Dr. Daniels, I thank you so much for joining us today.
DANIELS: My privilege.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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