OXFORD—Southerners are friendly folk, so Bernie Sanders is going to hear a lot of "Y'all come!" as he takes his populist presidential campaign to Dixie. The question is: Will they mean it?
The Brooklyn-bred son of a Polish Jew and current Vermont senator scored a lopsided victory in the recent New Hampshire primary and what he correctly called a "virtual tie" in the Iowa caucuses.
However, he faces his toughest challenge in South Carolina's Feb. 20 Democratic primary as well as in the subsequent March 1 "Super Tuesday" primaries across the South, and in Mississippi's on March 8.
Sanders brings a strong pro-working-class message with him to the South. However, his Democratic opponent has the Clinton brand name that still resonates with African Americans, a powerful force in the Democratic leadership and among the party's most loyal Southern voters.
The reality behind that brand name, sadly, is that the Clinton legacy—certainly Bill's—has left more harm than good for African Americans and the working class.
Polls show why Sanders is giving Clinton a run for her money (and there's a lot of that money!). According to the CBS News/New York Times, a strong majority of all Americans support raising the minimum wage; believe U.S. corporations have too much power; support more even distribution of wealth in the country; oppose cuts in Social Security; and support workers' right to join a union.
In other words, most Americans stand with Bernie Sanders on these issues and in opposition to most Republican politicians.
Sanders calls himself a "Democratic Socialist," the first major politician in U.S. history since Eugene Debs (way back in 1920) to use the term "socialist" in a serious bid for the presidency. What Sanders means by that nebulous word seems to be a strong belief in what Lincoln called a "government of the people, by the people, for the people."
So far this election, voters don't seem bothered by the term.
The big question for Hillary Clinton is: What does she believe? As The Economist once noted, "No one knows what she really believes." The former secretary of state and U.S. senator once supported the NAFTA-like Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which promises to further enrich her Wall Street friends but at the expense of workers. Now she opposes it.
On the campaign trail, she has been mildly critical of Wall Street—a reaction to the Amos-like Bernie Sanders' fiery condemnation of the princes of greed. Yet she remains close to Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, a major financial supporter, and she and her husband benefitted from hundreds of millions of dollars Blankfein's firm and other financial giants steered their and their foundation's way.
That Clinton brand I discussed earlier was shaken in 2008 after Bill's attacks against Barack Obama in that year's election, but Hillary looks to the South and its primaries as what has been called her "firewall."
Closer scrutiny of both Clintons shows little substantial support of black communities. Hillary Clinton was a forceful advocate of her husband's welfare reform measures in the 1990s as a way to get "deadbeats" off the government dole. Bill Clinton's welfare reform did nothing to alleviate poverty, but it did do something Republicans love: cut the federal deficit. Hillary Clinton today talks about criminal justice reform, yet she has never acknowledged how Bill Clinton's Violent Crime and Enforcement Act in 1994 made black communities targets in the "get tough on crime" campaign while marching untold numbers of black males off to prison for minor crimes.
Democrat and economic populist John Bel Edwards' victory in Louisiana's recent gubernatorial race should be a harbinger to Clinton that Southerners—like the nation as a whole—are tired of the status quo. They're not seeing benefits from Wall Street profits. As important as the social triggers of abortion, gender and gay rights may be to many, the economy is the issue to most in 2016.
Bernie Sanders has already made serious inroads into Clinton strongholds like women voters as well as black voters. And what's ironical for a 74-year-old politician is his strongest constituency is young voters, many of them strapped by college debt and uncertain job prospects. Hillary Clinton's biggest weapon in her arsenal may be money, but Sanders' grassroots fundraising is even challenging her on that front.
In many ways, this is an election about money. Those who have it wield lots of power. However, if this country is still the democracy we'd like to think it is, so do the people who don't have it.
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. His blog is laborsouth.blog
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