The left of labor or the left of inclusion. At the end of the vote tally for the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders’ narrow victory over Pete Buttigieg was a mirror image of the outcome of the Iowa caucuses a week earlier.
The self-professed socialist candidate has an election platform with many program points that are proudly social-democratic. Meanwhile, the young and energetic mayor of a small town in the Midwest, South Bend, Indiana, was catapulted to fame after a fawning New York Times editorial entitled “The First Gay President?”
On the one hand, there is the left-wing America, which has never found a voice at the highest levels of political representation, and which is now discovering an incredible momentum with the enthusiasm of many young activists; on the other, there is the America of civil rights, open and pluralistic, in tune with the innovations of our time and an advocate of change, but with moderation and pragmatism.
There is no one candidate in the race that can represent and hold together these two orientations, which don’t have to be antagonistic to each other—like, for instance, Barack Obama managed to do, although only to a certain extent and more in the public imagination than in reality. This doesn’t mean that Bernie is somehow indifferent to the issues brought to the fore in recent years by the movements fighting for civil rights.
Nor does it mean that Buttigieg has put these issues at the top of his agenda, overshadowing everything else. However, in the narrative oversimplification created by the media and by the opponents of the two, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, they have been de facto placed into the respective boxes of the old socialist and the young innovator, vying in an irreducible conflict.
This image, which comes from the first two stops on the route of the Democratic primaries, might be rendered obsolete or radically changed during the long road ahead—starting with the next upcoming primaries in Nevada and South Carolina—but in the meantime, it offers a first initial assessment of the nature of the Democratic race, one that is very different from what the pundits were predicting and which will have important consequences either way.
Before the start of the primaries, people were predicting a “classic” type of contest between the favorite, Joe Biden, representative of the old centrist tradition of the Democratic Party, and Bernie Sanders, who stands for an inspiring quasi-utopian project, which the establishment considers to be dangerous because it is supported by a strong and well-organized candidate, more fearsome than four years ago, where he almost managed to become Trump’s challenger.
That scenario has been discarded. The “moderate” option is inexorably fading. According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted just before the primaries in New Hampshire, Sanders is at 25% among Democratic and independent voters nationwide, while Biden follows behind at 17%, followed by all the others.
If the race continues along the path carved out by the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, it will be dominated by the clash between the “two lefts.” However, one particular—and crucial—unknown might shake up the contest: namely, the attitude of African American voters, who could play a crucial role in Nevada and South Carolina, and then, most crucially, in the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3, when 40% of the delegates to the Democratic convention will be elected.
Neither Sanders nor Buttigieg enjoys strong support among the black electorate—in the case of the former, because his background is oriented more toward class struggle than the struggle for minority rights, a theme that remains at the top of the list when it comes to black people’s expectations from a candidate. In turn, Buttigieg, as mayor of South Bend, implemented policies for ensuring public order that have particularly affected the black population.
Joe Biden has been the favorite candidate among this demographic, because of his connection with Obama and because he belongs to the democratic tradition of the “big tent,” with which the largest part of the black community and leadership also identify. Out of the six non-white candidates who joined the presidential race, only the Hawaiian Tulsi Gabbard is still in it.
The New York Times reports that J. Todd Rutherford, a prominent figure of the black community in South Carolina, has signaled that he is ready to throw his support behind Mike Bloomberg, aware of the likely unstoppable decline of Biden, his first choice, and believing that all the other candidates have failed to meet the expectations of black voters.
It will be difficult, however, for Rutherford’s choice—which is also the obvious desire of The New York Times itself—to get many supporters in the community. Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, did not leave a positive impression from his time in office, with statements—and policies—seen as hostile to the city’s black inhabitants.
In conclusion, we are faced with a very unclear picture, still fragmented, which could be seen as only natural—that is, if the Democrats were not faced with the displays of power coming from an adversary who is undoubtedly in a strong position already. The day before the Democratic primaries, in the freezing cold of New Hampshire, 12,000 raving fans attended a Donald Trump rally, a fearsome demonstration of strength and organizational prowess.