Bernie Sanders said something he wasn’t supposed to say : that poor people don’t vote. Although it’s true that voter turnout is inversely correlated with income, all anyone wanted to comment on was that Sanders looked defensive and deflated on Meet the Press, where he made the statement on Sunday. Lost was the fact that this is a truth we should be struck by, ashamed of even, and should do more about.
The impolitic remark came in response to a question about why the candidate had been losing so much in the places he should have been winning (he’s lost 16 of the 17 states with the highest levels of income inequality). The most straightforward thing for him to say would be to acknowledge that he hasn’t performed well with minority voters who tend to be less affluent. But he didn’t want to say that on television. Instead, he decided to talk about something else that’s actually more important than where he, personally, is up or down.
He said: “Poor people don’t vote. I mean, that’s just a fact. That’s a sad reality of American society”. He also noted that “80% of poor people did not vote” in the 2014 election.
On the airwaves he was chided for acting like an analyst rather than a candidate and for bringing his campaign down to reality in all the wrong ways. Fact checkers immediately aimed to set the record straight only to discover that Sanders claim was “mostly true” or even, looked at comprehensively, totally correct.
What Politifact found was this: “In 2014, about 75% of people who made under $10,000 and about 69% of those who made under $30,000 didn’t vote. If we look at financial insecurity, however, Sanders is right on the money.”
Of course, financial insecurity should not, in fact, be excluded from an analysis of whether poor people voted in 2014. Sanders’ observation is as valid as it is disturbing.
Only 36.4% of eligible voters voted in 2014. Turnout was historically low, the lowest our country’s seen in 72 years . Typically nonvoters are overwhelmingly the less educated, the less affluent, the racially and ethnically diverse and the young, according to an analysis by Pew.
That means last election cycle was a record-breaking bad year for disadvantaged communities. Sanders performs well with some of those communities (young people, for instance) and very poorly with others (African-American voters). A Washington Post analysis confirmed what we already know and have known for months: Sanders real problem is less with poor voters than with African-American ones, who are statistically more likely to be low-income.
That he’s losing and will acknowledge he’s losing isn’t a revelation – he’s been losing since the race began. But hell hath no fury like an unfortunate utterance on a Sunday show and in this unguarded moment, he’d cast something obvious and uncomfortable for him in a new light.
It was an admission that his revolution had failed. What’s more, it had failed in its express purpose of firing up, enfranchising and ultimately empowering America’s poor and disadvantaged.
If Sanders has failed to motivate the less affluent broadly speaking, he’s essentially failed to fix an entrenched problem in American democracy with what amounts to a phenomenally successful, but probably ultimately not successful enough, insurgent campaign.
Perhaps, we ought to spend more energy figuring out how to more fully realize our democracy rather than tally all the ways he fell short of fixing it. Barriers to voting like long wait lines and strict voter ID laws contribute to the effect, as does the potential for the increased use of provisional ballots among minorities. Reform in those areas would have meaningful effects.
As Danielle C Belton explained in The Root , it is those who most need representation that are denied it. “The reason politicians ignore so many of the working poor is that they don’t vote”, she writes. “And the reason so many of the working poor don’t vote is that certain politicians have made sure it’s as inconvenient as possible for them”.
That, not some “gotcha moment” about how Bernie Sanders is losing, is what we ought to be talking about.