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How 2018 Became the ‘Year of the Black Progressive’

It’s too soon to award the moniker, but 2018 may well be remembered as the political “Year of the Black Progressive,” much as 1992 was the “Year of the Woman.”

Black women are taking office as mayors in major cities such as San Francisco and New Orleans. Record-breaking numbers of black candidates are running for office at the state level. No fewer than three black candidates are being seriously discussed as presidential nominees. And with gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida and congressional candidate Ayanna Pressley in Boston, among others, Democrats have nominated young, black, progressives where they typically would nominate white moderates.

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How is this happening, and why now? Simply put: White Democrats are becoming more liberal, and black candidates are running savvy, progressive campaigns that win the support of white Democrats while building a coalition with more pragmatic black voters.

Taken together with the results of the 2016 presidential primaries—in which Bernie Sanders managed to win half of black voters younger than 30, and nearly a third overall—some could interpret this rising wave of black candidates as a sign that the notoriously pragmatic black electorate is moving leftward politically. But a deeper look at the numbers and the candidates themselves suggests that something else is at play.

According to the Pew Research Center, since 2000, the portion of Democrats who identify as liberal has increased by 70 percent. But those gains came almost exclusively from white Democrats, 55 percent of whom identified as liberal in 2017, up from 28 percent in 2000. Over that same time span, the percentage of liberal black Democrats increased only marginally, growing from 25 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2017, with a slight drop-off following the election of Donald Trump.

For more than five decades, black voters have exhibited historic uniformity, supporting Democratic candidates in the lion’s share of presidential, congressional and statewide contests. Even so, just 1 in 4 black Americans identifies as liberal, while 71 percent say they’re moderate or conservative. The black electorate today remains just as steady and politically heterogeneous as ever, while white Democrats are becoming more liberal.

And yet, though white and black Democrats do not share the same politics, they are uniting behind black candidates in races where white moderates would typically win the nomination—in gubernatorial contests in Florida, Georgia and Maryland, and congressional races in majority- or plurality-white districts in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Texas.

Put another way: Skilled black candidates are winning Democratic nominations not despite being progressive, but precisely because they’re running to the left of their competition to have a shot at winning white liberals.

This is what Gillum, Abrams and Pressley did in their races. (It’s what Collin Allred did in Dallas, and Ben Jealous did in Maryland, too.) Abrams and Pressley adopted bold progressive platforms after spending previous years practicing a more moderate form of Democratic politics. Abrams cut her teeth in Georgia’s General Assembly, where she was known for her pragmatism, ability to negotiate compromises and willingness to break party ranks to resolve conflicts. Pressley was a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2016 who accused Bernie Sanders of pandering to voters with unrealistic progressive proposals. But both Abrams and Pressley understood that pragmatism wouldn’t mobilize voters or win party primaries.

But this isn’t a phenomenon confined to the Democratic Party. Minority Republican candidates must run to the right of the other contenders to have a shot at a primary victory. A recent study found that voters in the GOP’s base are “more supportive of minority Republicans who are viewed as the most conservative candidates,” particularly in gubernatorial and senatorial elections. Ideological purity muted the effects of any racial prejudice held by these voters, so racial minorities running as Republicans had to have more conservative platforms to have any shot at securing the party nomination. This approach has benefited several nonwhite Republican candidates in congressional and gubernatorial elections—from former Rep. Allen West in Florida to current U.S. Senate nominee John James in Michigan—since the Tea Party burst on the scene ahead of the 2010 midterms.

But whereas white conservatives can generally determine the Republican nomination, white progressives cannot generally determine Democratic primary outcomes on their own. How, then, can black progressive candidates get over the hump?

Enter the black electorate.

In present-day primaries, if an aspiring Democratic nominee—especially a newcomer—can pair white progressives with black voters, she or he has the inside track to victory. For that to happen, black voter turnout must be high. Though race alone isn’t enough to garner the support of black voters, there is nevertheless a desire by those voters to elect people who understand the experience of being black in America. Studies have shown that black support for Democratic candidates increases when those nominees are black, and it’s further bolstered when an historic “first” is in play, like Barack Obama in 2008.

Political scientists who study black voting behavior have noted the importance of both linked fate—the sense that group interest should govern one’s politics more than self-interest—and social incentives to mobilize voters. While a shared lived experience may be sufficient to activate linked fate in black voters, scholars have found that it’s an insufficient motivation in and of itself to increase turnout because of the act of voting comes with costs, such as time, travel and information gathering. That is, voters will turn out when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.

So where is the motivation to turn out coming from? For black voters, it’s Trump.

A recent Quinnipiac Poll shows that 92 percent of black Americans disapprove of the job the president is doing, 97 percent disapprove of his handling of race relations, and 79 percent believe he is racist. The prospect of defeating Republicans who practice Trump’s brand of politics energizes black voters—a phenomenon that was on national display in last year’s special election in Alabama, where black voters turned out at a historic rate to defeat Trump-proxy candidate Roy Moore.

Black progressive candidates are betting that Trump’s high disapproval rating among black voters coupled with the chance to make history will be sufficient motivation to increase turnout. This electoral strategy of pairing progressive policies with black voter appeals proved effective in winning Democratic primaries this year, but whether it can win general elections is an open question.

Some of these nominees are moderating their campaign rhetoric for the general election in order to shift the focus away from race—typically an electoral handicap in majority-white constituencies—and toward broader appeals to more voters.

Gillum offers an instructive example.

“When people see my face and hear our story, there’s a different level of passion and drive to go out and vote,” he told The Washington Post ahead of his August 28 primary. “Voters have an appetite for a candidate who is going to reflect them.”

Yet on the night of Gillum’s primary win, CNN’s Don Lemon asked him whether it had sunk in that he could be Florida’s first black governor, to which he responded in a manner reminiscent of Obama, “I am [vying] to be the next governor of the state of Florida, and it just so happens I’m black.” After alluding to the tremendous racial progress in the South, Gillum concluded, “The way we are going to win this race is making sure that voters know that I am going to be the governor for everybody and not just some, but for all.”

This isn’t duplicity; it’s just sound politics. The strategies that win primaries don’t necessarily win general elections. This new cast of progressive black Democrats has realized success because they are good politicians, too; they have managed to find common ground with various blocs within the Democratic electorate by reading their audience and playing to their strengths. And just as they adjusted their campaigns to emerge from the primary, they must now calibrate their approach to the broader electorate.

The polling suggests that Abrams, Gillum and Allred are in tight races (Pressley is running unopposed in the general). If they win, Democrats will need to rethink their rush to focus on white working-class voters and find candidates who will run on a progressive platform while connecting with the party’s base and the working class, writ large.

But if these nominees are unsuccessful, it would suggest, rightly or wrongly, that black progressive candidates may still be a bridge too far for too many Americans, just as Jesse Jackson was in 1984. And it may very well disrupt the white liberal-black voter coalition within the Democratic Party and push the party to redouble its efforts to woo the white working class.

No matter the outcome, this November’s election results will give us a taste of what to expect in the next presidential race. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, as well as former Governor Deval Patrick, will be watching how black progressives fare this year very closely before making their decisions on whether (and how) to embark on a presidential run. Trump and the Republican Party will be paying attention, too. The nation will be tuned in to see if this is truly the year of black progressives, or if they’re just the flavor of the month.

Theodore R. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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