This week residents of Baltimore protested both police brutality and poverty conditions in mostly black inner-city neighborhoods. Also, the burrito chain Chipotle, enormously popular as a slightly more expensive option than poor-folk McDonald’s, announced it would limit its use of ingredients that come from from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Which action will be more important in the 2016 presidential election?
Bernie Sanders may have some influence over the answer. The U.S. senator from Vermont announced this week that he’ll run for the Democratic nomination, giving Hillary Clinton a challenge from the left and voicing outrage about an “immoral” economy in which 99 percent of new income goes to the top one percent of earners. One of his signature issues has been requiring the labeling of GMO ingredients in foods, something that plays well in the Ben & Jerry’s kingdom of Vermont (which has a statewide labeling law), an overwhelmingly white, rural state with little crime and relatively little poverty. Sanders may want to focus his campaign on economic inequality, but many of his contributors and volunteers will be more enthused by his lefty views on campaign finance law, environmental protection, and foreign policy.
Sanders is fortunate to come from a state bordering New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary next year. (It dominates news coverage along with Iowa, whose caucus night is the first event that involves choosing delegates to the national conventions. Both states are relatively rural and overwhelmingly white, with low poverty and high education rates.) His likely strength in western New Hampshire isn’t enough to beat Clinton, but it means he’ll be treated as a serious candidate, at least for a time. This is in contrast to previous “protest” candidates like Dennis Kucinich, who stupidly came from Cleveland. So we may be seeing a lot of him at Town Hall meetings and in debates in New Hampshire later this year. It will be interesting to see if Granite State journalists and voters ask him about police brutality, underfunded urban school systems, and the lack of jobs in cities where the manufacturing sector has been hollowed out. Particularly if Baltimore is quiet over the summer, my money would be on questions about GMOs.
Clinton may be willing to participate in such events with Sanders, since he has a history of avoiding personal attacks on opponents, no matter how riled up he gets by economic injustice. So he may not confront Clinton on her past support for the “tough on crime” policies that have led to a huge incarcerated population and increased tensions between police and inner-city residents.
The New York Times’s Charles M. Blow this week gave Clinton credit for a speech this week in which she came out solidly for criminal-justice reform. (“There is something profoundly wrong when African American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”) But he also recalled that Clinton was willing to play the soft-on-crime card against Barack Obama when they were competitors in 2008, with her campaign criticizing Obama for wanting to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes.
The campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire may not allow for the kind of context provided by the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, both in his magazine pieces and in this week’s remarks at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University (“The Clock Didn’t Start with the Riots”), in which he talks about how much of America’s wealth was built on “the taking from black people in order to empower other people,” from slavery through exclusionary housing policies. Coates’s description of “plunder” against African-Americans is the kind self-critical soul-searching that can enrage certain Republican candidates and voters—recall the indignation over President Obama’s alleged “apology tour” —and candidates may decide it’s not worth the backlash to engage in history lessons.
I should note that there is another probable candidate expected to challenge Clinton with an emphasis on economic inequality: Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore and former governor of Maryland. But if over-aggressive policing is at all a salient issue in 2016, it will be tough for him to overcome the criticism of his policies found in this incredible interview with David Simon (“Where the Baltimore Police Went Wrong”), the former newspaper reporter and creator of “The Wire.” Among his remarks: “O’Malley defends the wholesale denigration of black civil rights to this day.” Lesson: If you’re a mayor or governor who wants to run for president, do whatever you can to keep HBO from filming a series that features a quasi-fictionalized version of yourself.