Like the rest of the country, scholar and activist Dorian Warren woke up today to a new political reality: Joe Biden is suddenly the front-runner in the race to take on Donald Trump in November.
The former vice president has African-American voters to thank for his resurgence, so we asked Warren – who has written and taught extensively about race and politics, and now serves as president of the advocacy organization Community Change – to parse the results of Biden’s extraordinary turnaround.
Note: Warren serves on Capital & Main’s advisory board. This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Capital & Main: African-American voters, more than any other bloc, have saved Joe Biden’s campaign. Why?
Dorian Warren: Because they’re strategic voters. As much as they might agree with, say, a Sanders or a Warren on lots of things, strategically they decided to go with the safer choice. So there’s a little risk aversion there.
Also, we often think, on our side, that people vote on issues and policies. And I think time and again we keep getting shown that is not necessarily the case. And in this case, for black voters it wasn’t just on policies and vision and ideas, it was on personality and identity, and other cues as to who would be the best candidate to stave off the next four years of white nationalism.
What do you think African-American voters expect from Biden in return for their support?
They expect him to be sort of [what] the George H.W. Bush presidency was for Reagan, to be a continuation of Obama and to put a stop to Trump. It’s actually that simple. Black voters have a history of not falling into the cult of personality when it comes to presidents. My best example of this is the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidency. Both John F. Kennedy and LBJ’s black voters in ’60 and ’64 were super clear that it wasn’t going to be a president that delivered freedom for black people. It was going to take movement-building work and they would have to be pushed hard. So I would surmise that many black voters think Biden will deliver exactly what we ask him to, but it depends on what’s the pressure on him to do so.
Can either Biden or Sanders effectively rebuild the Obama coalition that delivered the White House to Democrats in 2008 and 2012?
I’m not sure that coalition will be built through the candidacies of either. I do think it’s up to independent, progressive organizations to do that, and probably to do it in a slightly different way because the landscape and the demographics have changed quite a bit since 2008, especially if you think of social media and particularly [of] disinformation and misinformation. It’s a different moment and we have to learn what we can from what Obama built, but we also have to innovate a bit more too.
How can the Democrat nominee, whoever it ends up being, most effectively challenge Trump on the economy, which he is using as his central argument for reelection?
Either a Sanders or a Biden campaign can’t just merely go back to what was normal before Trump. They have to offer a bold vision around economic security and justice that’s different from what Obama offered and goes further than what Obama offered.
And the centerpiece of that would be…
It would include taking on immigration and racial justice head-on, and calling out the divide-and-conquer politics of Trump. When and if the economy gets in trouble, he’ll have some villains and it’ll be our people. And then I think it is something like a New Deal for the 21st century, something bold and visionary that is a promise of security and fairness and justice for people who have been struggling all this time. Some people never got out of the Great Recession and we don’t really talk about those folks.
How do African-American voters ensure that they are not taken for granted by either Sanders or Biden in the coming months, as they have been in so many election cycles?
I think it’s staying organized after the election and not simply going home after Election Day. That’s the only way to hold them accountable and not be taken for granted.
Photo: Joe Biden speaks at the Ministers’ Breakfast with Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. James Clyburn. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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