DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Black voters are playing a key role in this Democratic primary season. Joe Biden's campaign was struggling until he secured a crucial victory in South Carolina, where there was a big African American turnout. So what was behind that victory? I spoke with Theodore Johnson. He's a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. And before that, he was a White House fellow during the Obama administration. He told me that when you think about the behavior of black voters, you have to consider history.
THEODORE JOHNSON: The black experience in America shows you that when government fails, it can be lethal.
GREENE: Theodore Johnson sees Biden's rise as the result of what he calls the politics of pragmatism.
JOHNSON: Most of America knows Joe Biden as the vice president to the first black president in history. And black voters especially look at President Obama and say if Biden is good enough for Obama to trust, then who am I to sort of question that? The other thing is Biden presents as the most electable. He's certainly had some dips but has sort of recaptured that, largely thanks to black voters. And so for an electorate where the most important thing is beating Donald Trump in November - and Trump's disapproval rates among African Americans is exceptionally high - Biden presents as the person that can do that not just because of his ability to win the African American vote. But there is a sense that he can win over some of those white, working-class voters given his Delaware-Pennsylvania roots. So Biden sort of meets the two prongs of pragmatism. One is, can we trust him to keep our civil rights protections in place? And is he electable. And on both scores, he did better than any of the other candidates that entered the Democratic primary this cycle.
GREENE: Talking about making sure that civil rights protections remain in place, and there's no backtracking - I mean, some would see that almost as risk-averse - you know, let's hold on to what we have and not lose it sort of approaches, as opposed to, you know, let's really make advances.
GREENE: Why is that in this case?
JOHNSON: I think this has long been the case, but it's especially tangible this cycle because if we look at things like voting rights over the last few years, there has been a rollback of voting rights in the nation and in various states. So we saw in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court remove a central part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And in the aftermath of that holding, a number of states passed voter suppression laws. And so when you think about the changes that have happened over just the last few years, keeping protections as they are is not only a necessary goal. It's vital to a democracy that allows black Americans to participate. So it's absolutely risk-averse.
But what pragmatism does is says, OK, let's consider this. If Sanders gets in office and fails to deliver on all of his policy promises, am I in a better place or a worse place with him in the White House? Is Sanders going to ensure that the civil rights that I enjoy today are going to be protected in advance for tomorrow? And on that score, some voters may feel like he he's not as equipped as a Joe Biden or wherever they fall out.
GREENE: I mean, many of Bernie Sanders' supporters point to his history supporting the civil rights movement.
GREENE: I mean, you're saying you sense some doubts there among some voters. How do black voters see that history?
JOHNSON: Yeah. So, you know, black voters, like every other voters, considers the whole of a candidate when thinking about them, just like they've looked at Joe Biden's busing record in the '70s and his '94 signing of the crime bill.
GREENE: There's also the way he handled the Anita Hill testimony and...
JOHNSON: That's right. That's right. But it's sort of like the old Janet Jackson song, "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" And in the last 10 years, Biden has been Obama's vice president. And so that tends to override whatever policy decisions he made four decades ago. That's one. The other are - most black voters, something on the order of 70%, identify as moderate or conservative. Only just over a quarter identify as liberal.
And so with Sanders talking about changing massive parts of our economy, massive parts of government in terms of how much power the executive has, those revolutionary, big swings are less attractive than the sort of incremental progress that has defined the black experience over the last few centuries. So it's not that there's no desire for major transformation. It's that experience has taught us incremental progress is the more likely and reasonable approach,
GREENE: There does seem to be a generational divide here. I mean, Bernie Sanders has done well among younger black voters. What do you make of that?
JOHNSON: What we're seeing in - among black Americans are two things. One is younger black Americans tend to be more progressive than older ones. But the type of progressive they are isn't identical to what white progressives believe. The other thing is there's this antiestablishment sort of sense that the way things have been working forever isn't good enough. And younger voters tend to be more willing to disrupt the rules and try something different.
Those two things kind of come together. And then when you layer the pragmatism on top of that - and that pragmatism fits from 18 to 80 among black voters - so voting in a risk-averse fashion, even if you're a black progressive, means that you're probably less likely to be willing to burn things down than the white progressive would be in this comparison.
GREENE: If we take this argument about pragmatism, and were Bernie Sanders to win the nomination, could we assume that African American voters would turn out enthusiastically for him in November?
JOHNSON: So we can definitely assume that about 90% of black voters would support his bid for the presidency. And that's because since 1964, on average, about 90% of black voters vote for the Democratic nominee whoever they are. I think that's safe to say. The question is whether he can increase turnout. In 2012, black turnout was 66.6% for Obama's reelection. 2016, black turnout is down seven points to 59.5%. The Electoral College still didn't work out in the Democrats' favor. So Sanders will get 90% of the black vote as the nominee.
The question is, can he get that 59.5% turnout rate up to 63 or 64 and get it up in places like Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and throughout Florida? And that's an open question. He could certainly select a black vice presidential candidate. That could help on that score. But I think the sense is that Biden would be the better candidate in turning out the black vote. Turnout is notoriously difficult to predict. But if the primary is any indication, he would have a harder go of it than Biden would.
GREENE: Theodore Johnson, thanks so much for coming in. We really appreciate it.
JOHNSON: Appreciate it. Thank you.
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