Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., embrace as Clyburn announces his endorsement for Biden at Trident Technical College on Feb. 26, 2020, in North Charleston, South CarolinaPhoto: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
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Moderates and Progressives in the Democratic Party

Why Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday win was powered by black America

by
Paul Berman
March 04, 2020
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., embrace as Clyburn announces his endorsement for Biden at Trident Technical College on Feb. 26, 2020, in North Charleston, South CarolinaPhoto: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The other clarification that emerged from Super Tuesday touched on the ideological labels, “moderate” and “progressive,” which turn out to be grotesquely misleading. The “moderate” current in the Democratic Party incorporates and advances African American political power in a massive degree. The “progressive” current incorporates African American political power only in a small degree, and advances it not at all. The “moderate” current is, racially speaking, profoundly integrated. The “progressive” current is integrated only in a marginal degree.

The “moderate” current represents in its inner political structure a reform of American life, in regard to the single most terrible flaw of American society. The “progressive” current represents no reform at all, in regard to that same flaw. The “moderate” current, by incorporating the black political class, practices the reform that it preaches. The “progressive” current merely preaches.

You could almost say that, in the Democratic Party, if there is a genuinely progressive current, it is the people (some of them, anyway) who go under the name of “moderate.” And if there is a genuinely conservative current, it is the people who go under the name of “progressive.” Everyone does see the reality, even if everyone persists in invoking the misleading labels. Do you live in a town with a hipster district that is overwhelmingly white and college-educated, and with other districts that are overwhelmingly black? The prosperous whites are the “progressives,” the blacks are the “moderates.”

The white “progressives” think the blacks are lacking in understanding of their own interest. The black “moderates” think the white “progressives” are part of the problem. Who is right in this dispute? The black “moderates,” obviously. Black America wants to be included in the zones of power. The “progressive” current would like to include black America. But somehow the “progressive” current is able to do so only now and then. It is the “moderate” current that systematically includes black America.

Four years ago, Bernie Sanders received 13% of the black vote in South Carolina; and this year, after four years of political effort, he received 17%. Four years ago, Bernie could not prevail against Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, and this year, he could not prevail against Joe Biden. Why not? It is because, when Bernie asks for your support, he is asking, in effect, for your submission to his own program. But when the “moderate” Democrats ask for your support, they are inviting you, in effect, to join a coalition, in which your own voice will count for something.

Rep. James Clyburn, who is the most powerful politician in black America, came out for Biden in South Carolina because, as he has explained, he thinks that Bernie will be a new George McGovern from the 1972 election, and will bring the Democratic Party to a calamitous defeat. But I would imagine that Clyburn endorsed Biden also because Clyburn understood that, in doing so, he was guaranteeing his own influence in a future Biden administration. I think that, in voting the way Clyburn advised them to vote, black South Carolinians understood that, in a Biden administration, their own power, as wielded by Clyburn, would count for a lot. Bernie offered them programs, which is to say, promises. Biden offered them power.

The “moderates,” then—they are the progressives. The “progressives”—they are the conservatives. A lot of people appear to have understood this. The Democratic Party in modern America is the progressive party. Therefore the Democratic masses have voted in surprising numbers for the “moderate.” Joe Biden’s success on Super Tuesday is a victory for progressivism. But the American political language, with its notions of who is a “moderate” and who is a “progressive,” makes this hard to see.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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