Bernie Sanders’ Southern Whitewash

The Sunday before the raucous Democratic  debate in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos to discuss the race and his conviction that he is the better general election candidate than Hillary Clinton. As he was channeling his inner Bob Dole to make the point that “Bernie Sanders is the stronger candidate,” Stephanopoulos interjected to point out that Clinton is getting more votes than him. Sanders paused briefly before brushing off the point by saying “Well, she’s getting more votes. A lot of that came from the South.”

On its surface, this seems like a curious retort. In a national primary, it doesn’t matter which region a candidates’ support comes from; all that matters is how many votes and delegates they win. Sanders, however, followed up on this line of thinking in the debate four days later, saying that the South is “the most conservative part of this great country”  before downplaying Clinton’s large margins there. While minimizing your opponent’s victories is no political novelty, there are two problems with this argument. The first is that it is completely misleading; the conservative voters Sanders is alluding to are not voting in a Democratic primary. The second is that he’s diminishing the vote of black Southerners, the most historically disenfranchised group of voters in the country.

Contrary to the talking points of Sanders and his surrogates, the voters who turn out in the southern primaries are not conservative representatives of the “Old South.” In the Mississippi primary, 71 percent of voters were black, and African-Americans also accounted for the majority of voters in the Alabama, Georgia ,and Louisiana contests. In every southern primary, the share of black voters participating is substantially higher than their overall share of the population, and in all these states Clinton won at least 80% of their vote.

Sanders is surely aware that these primaries are dominated by black voters, particularly since his campaign essentially ceded most of them to Clinton due to his poor poll numbers with that group. It’s unlikely of course that Sanders, who was a civil rights organizer, is attempting to sound the alarm about black voters. Instead, he’s trying to capitalize on more general cultural prejudices about the south. Given the crimson red conservatism of many southern states, voters naturally assume that their primaries would reflect that to some degree and Sanders is likely trying to evoke the image of Confederate-clad Southern conservatives marching to the polls in support of Clinton. Unsurprisingly, a quick a look at the exit polls shows that Sanders did far better with southern whites than he did with minority voters. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it belies his disingenuous insinuation that Clinton is winning the south because of its conservative bent. Perhaps Sanders should focus on broadening his coalition instead of diminishing voters who aren’t supporting him.

Flint: Then and Now

In Flint, Michigan, a city of 100,000 people that happens to be located in the richest country on Earth, residents turning on their taps for a glass of water may well get a glass of hazardous waste. The city recently announced, after a steady stream of complaints from residents, that the water being provided by the city and paid for by its residents was contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead. This latest calamity strikes another blow at a city that has long endured unemployment, pollution, public and private discrimination, and a host of other problems

Flint, of course, was not always a city awash in leaded water and red ink. Formerly a prosperous industrial town, the city has famously fallen on hard times as it has struggled with closing factories and a diminishing tax base. As part of its ongoing to efforts to right its financial status, the city decided to begin drawing water from the Flint River instead of purchasing it from Detroit. This move was projected to save the city $19 million over eight years. The rest of the story has been well reported – deteriorating infrastructure and a failure to properly treat the water led to thousands of children being poisoned by lead and may have also contributed to an outbreak of Legionnaires disease that killed ten people. This is Flint in 2016.

Were one to dive back into Flint’s history, however, a striking contrast could be drawn between past and present water problems. In the 1950s and 60s, as the mostly white suburbs of Flint boomed, the infrastructure of these areas was often ill equipped to handle the massive influx of new residents. The town of Flushing, a suburb roughly six miles outside the city, suffered a complete shutdown of its water system in 1954 as a growing population rapidly depleted its water sources. These problems were met with bond issues, revenue increases, and, importantly, federal assistance. As Andrew Highsmith writes in a recent book about the rise and fall of Flint, “[w]ithout fail, these projects drew financial and political support from the Federal Housing Administration and other government agencies.”

Although a lot has changed since the federal and state government were aggressively funding improvements in water systems, it’s striking and tragic to consider the gap between then and now. When suburbs were rapidly expanding in the 1950s, the government was eager to underwrite the growth of these communities. Today, with the city in dire financial straits and deficit hawks in Congress reluctant to provide funding for anything but the most basic federal services, the city is in the midst of a devastating and hugely expensive public health crisis – all to save $19 million.