Now it’s Bernie Sanders who is the “white” candidate, supported by many of those same working-class voters. The extent to which they’ve abandoned Clinton this time around is surprising to me. I think there are a few explanations for this shift, the first of which is that Sanders is genuinely appealing to working-class white voters—they like fighters and outsiders, and they respond to a strong populist pitch. But we also have to contend with the extent to which Clinton may have been damaged by her close association with our first black president, serving as his secretary of state and eventually forging a close alliance with him. This relationship solidified Clinton’s status as “the black candidate,” while at the same time burnishing her credentials as a member of the global elite—a combination that was unimaginable eight years ago. Coming out of the administration and joining the Clinton Foundation only cemented that elite status. Making speeches to Wall Street for a quarter-million a pop also cost her white working-class street cred—as it should.
We should also acknowledge the extent to which Sanders has won whites by crafting a class-based appeal that minimizes, and sometimes even diminishes, the role that racism plays in creating American social and economic inequality. He has done so for his whole political career. Sanders is in some ways uniquely suited to be the Democrats’ white, working-class standard-bearer, because a career in 98 percent white Vermont has kept him on the right side of some issues that hurt Democrats with that group. Over the years, moving out from his Burlington base, Sanders carefully crafted a coalition that includes both urban progressives and rural, gun-owning moderates. The votes and positions that put him to the right of most Democrats, on guns and immigration, play well with his overwhelmingly white base. He frankly defends his pro-gun votes as necessary to serve his rural, gun-owning constituency. Protecting his rural and lower-income white base also explains why he voted against the 2007 immigration bill. During the 2016 campaign, he has said he cast that vote because the bill would have created a caste of guest workers living in conditions akin to slavery. But at the time, he also told the race-baiting CNN pundit Lou Dobbs that pro-reform senators are “selling out American workers. In fact, they are selling out our entire country.” When Dobbs replied by ranting against “illegal aliens” and “the amnesty legislation’s socio-ethnocentric interest groups who really have very little regard for the traditions of this country, the values of this country,” Sanders didn’t correct him, or note that those “values” included xenophobia and racism.
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