This has been a very good week for the Democratic Party and for its two leading presidential candidates. And no, I'm not kidding. Right now, the consensus is that -- for Bernie Sanders at least -- the protests carried out at Netroots Nation a week ago by #BlackLivesMatter activists represented a "very bad weekend." But there's more to a week than a weekend. When we look back, say, a year from now, our assessment will be quite different.
As Jamelle Bouie rightly put it, what happened in Phoenix was "more than a food fight." It brought to light a tension -- really, an open wound -- that already existed within the progressive movement, even if some of us couldn't or wouldn't see it until last weekend. The contentious interactions between Sanders and those who demanded he address racial injustice separately and independent from economic injustice only brought that wound to light, those interactions did not create it. Furthermore, Phoenix was absolutely necessary in order to begin to repair the wound, to heal it in a way that strengthens the progressive movement's ability to lead this country toward substantial progress on both of these vitally important issues. What connects them, of course, is the fundamental principle of progressive politics: the fight against injustice of every kind, the fight to build a more just society.
Now let's be clear about one thing. At Netroots Nation, Bernie Sanders missed a real opportunity. However, now the spotlight is shining even more brightly on him as he seeks to convince the African-American voters he needs to win over that he truly understands what needs to be done about racial injustice.
And look what has happened since Phoenix. The day after his Saturday fiasco at Netroots Nation, Sanders went to Texas -- the state where Sandra Bland was arrested for no good reason and ultimately died in police custody -- and spoke forcefully on the matter. Then, two days later, he was the first presidential candidate to release an official statement about what happened to Bland, one in which he condemned the "outrageous police behavior" that took place and called for "real police reform."
Once he has crossed the threshold of credibility with black voters demanding that he address the concerns raised by #BlackLivesMatter activists, Sanders will at least have a chance to get them to hear his broader message on economic inequality, a message that should resonate given the disproportionately high levels of poverty and unemployment among black Americans. We can see this in the comment by Rev. M. Keith McDaniel Sr. on the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House:
"[The removal of the Confederate battle] flag is simply a start; that's all it is," said Mr. McDaniel, the pastor of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation of about 1,300 people. He recited problems of poverty, inadequate housing and joblessness -- "people who are living not check to check but hand to hand." He added: "That flag coming down in Columbia, what is it doing for them?"
Although he was talking about the flag, the point is relevant here. African Americans are all too aware that economics matters. What they want from a candidate is to make sure he or she realizes that it's not all that matters. Now is Bernie's last, but best chance to demonstrate to black voters that he does.
As for Hillary Clinton, she got the same wake-up call -- one that will ultimately make her a stronger general election candidate -- as did Sanders, without having to take the direct hit he did in Phoenix. Her response to the Netroots Nation incident and her statement this week on Sandra Bland makes clear that her campaign takes the matter very seriously (Martin O'Malley, who, like Bernie Sanders, had a difficult time of it at Netroots Nation, also has attempted to make amends since then, and issued a similar statement about the mistreatment and death of Sandra Bland).
Although polls indicate Clinton already has overwhelming support from African Americans in the Democratic primary, if she is the nominee she will need to translate that support into turnout, as President Obama did. As helpful as it was that he increased his share of the black vote in 2008 and 2012 by a few percentage points over what John Kerry got in 2004, it was just as important that Obama brought more black voters to the polls.
It's also worth comparing how the leading Democratic candidates reacted to what happened in Phoenix to how the Republican presidential field reacted when Donald Trump -- now that field's leader, according to recent national polls -- started spouting off about "Mexican rapists" when discussing immigration. At first it was just "crickets," i.e., nothing.
Although eventually Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio spoke out -- which is unsurprising given their stated goal of increasing the Republican share of the Latino vote -- the field overall remained, as the Los Angeles Times put it, "divided." A number of the leading candidates said little to nothing in the way of criticism because they "hope to consolidate support among conservative voters suspicious of immigration." In other words, because a good chunk of the Republican electorate agrees with Trump. To review, essentially the entire Democratic field pivoted sharply in the past week to address the legitimate concerns raised by #BlackLivesMatter. By contrast, the Republican candidates couldn't even unite around condemning openly hateful remarks expressed by one of their own, unless, of course, they're directed at John McCain.
Oh, and the person who expressed that bigotry has not only rocketed to the top of the polls for the GOP nomination, he also appears to be "setting the agenda for GOP House leadership on immigration." The Republican House's move to block federal money for so-called sanctuary cities after a woman was murdered in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record led Tom Boggioni at Raw Story to write an article titled: "#BlondeLivesMatter: Republicans just did for Kathryn Steinle what they will never do for Sandra Bland."
What have Republicans actually said about Sandra Bland/BlackLivesMatter? Only three candidates have addressed these issues. One was Jeb Bush, and the only thing he had to offer was--brace yourself, I'm not kidding--that O'Malley should not (yes, I said "not") have apologized to black Americans for, in Phoenix, replying to the chant "Black Lives Matter" by saying that "black lives matter, all lives matter, white lives matter."
In fact, here it is straight from the Jeb's mouth:
"No, for crying out loud," Bush said Thursday in an exchange with reporters in New Hampshire, a video of which was posted online by a Democratic opposition research firm. "No. I mean, we're so uptight and so politically correct now you apologize for saying lives matter?"
For anyone who doesn't get why O'Malley needed to apologize, I'll let the aforementioned Bouie educate you:
To reply with "all lives matter" is to suggest there's no specific problem of police abuse targeted at black Americans. It's as if someone responded to an annual breast cancer drive with "Breast cancer matters. Prostate cancer matters. All cancer matters." It sounds like a dismissal, and that's how it was received.
Of the other two Republicans, one was Rick Perry, former governor of the state where Ms. Bland died. Five days after Sanders released his statement, Perry responded to a question on a Sunday talk show by calling for "transparency" in the investigation, and adding, of the officers who arrested Bland: "Obviously I don't think they acted appropriately." Fine, as far as it went, but not much of a sense of urgency or outrage, and nothing about systemic police abuse or the broader issues raised by #BlackLivesMatter.
The only other Republican who managed to say something about Sandra Bland -- also only after being asked a question about her -- actually did "echo many of the concerns that Black Lives Matter activists have expressed about Bland's arrest," according to Janell Ross of the Washington Post. That Republican? Donald Trump.
Electoral politics is a transactional business. The actions of the major Democratic candidates after the Netroots Nation protests make clear that every serious Democrat must demonstrate that he or she gets it when it comes to racial injustice. No one who fails to do so can hope to win the party's nomination. Moving forward, each of the candidates must put forth a serious plan to address the issues being raised by #BlackLivesMatter. What happened at Netroots has made sure of that.
Therefore, whoever does win the nomination will have to have won the respect of those activists and the huge number of people who stand behind them. Thus, when it comes time for the general election, not only will #BlackLivesMatter have a candidate who is committed to confronting racial injustice in a comprehensive manner, that Democratic candidate will have a community of activists that believes in him or her. Rather than simply asking for black votes in October 2016 after having taken them for granted up to that point, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders will possess the credibility that comes with having earned those votes over the previous 15 months. At that point -- if not a lot earlier -- the Democratic Party and its nominee will need to thank #BlackLivesMatter.