Two weekends ago, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn California race, social justice wing of Democrats finally comes of age Sanders to headline progressive 'People's Summit' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (I-Vt.) flopped on stage when confronted by Black Lives Matter protesters at a Netroots Nation presidential candidate forum.
Unable or unwilling to stray from his stump speech on economic matters, a testy Sanders demanded the moderator “take control” of the situation.
It was an unfortunate turn of events, one that exposed a racial rift between Sanders’s highly educated, white and mostly male supporters, and the younger, more diverse crowd fueling the fight against police brutality in communities of color.
Progressive activists have engaged on issues of unequal justice, police militarization and violence against people of color with an intensity I’ve never previously witnessed. At Daily Kos, coverage of those issues is nearly guaranteed to receive viral hits and has driven the site’s record growth.
Nothing else comes close to capturing community interest, not even Donald Trump, even though our audience is predominantly white. Sanders was utterly unprepared to discuss the topic that animates today’s progressive activism.
But he would’ve been, if he’d sought a more diverse set of advisers.
You don’t have to be African-American to pick up on this energy, but it’s certainly true that having a diverse inner circle will best prepare you for the issues that motivate Democrats’ varied base. Republicans are the homogeneous ones, not us. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at Sanders’s team.
His campaign manager, communications director, press secretary, field director and top strategists, such as D.C. veteran Tad Devine, are all white males. You have to go deep into his digital team to find the first woman. This lineup might work in lily-white Vermont (or in the nonrepresentative early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire), but for any aspirant for national office, or in a state more diverse than a NASCAR rally, candidates’ staffs must reflect the people they are trying to win.
Assuming Sanders actually believes he is in it to win, his demographic problems are brutal. According to last week’s ABC/Washington Post poll of the race, Sanders trails among whites 58 percent to 22 percent against Hillary Clinton. But he’s getting walloped among nonwhites, 79 percent to 9 percent. Among men, he’s down 57 percent to 23 percent, but among women it’s 76 percent to 10 percent in favor of Clinton.
Exactly eight years ago, Clinton led then-Sen. Barack Obama by double digits among whites but trailed him by just 6 points among African-Americans. Whatever her merits or demerits, Clinton has always had great support among communities of color. Sanders doesn’t seem to even care, much less put real effort into attracting their support.
That much was evident at Netroots Nation, where the senator retreated in the face of black voices rather than surrender his podium.
Consider a different approach: He could have taken the stage and invited those young protesters up with him. He could’ve explained that while he would love to talk about economic issues, he was struck by their passion and the momentous struggle they face.
He could’ve turned his appearance into a substantive conversation on an issue that still receives inadequate attention. Sharing that stage would have brought him credibility and accolades no money or speech could ever secure. Instead, he turned a critical part of the Democratic base against him.
So while it may be too late for Sanders, he should serve as a cautionary tale to future Democratic candidates: An exclusively white, male inner circle will not serve you well.
Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of political blog Daily Kos.
Updated at 11:29 p.m.
An earlier version of this post said Sanders had canceled an interview with activist Elon James White, a claim White says is not true. The author regrets the error.