New York’s Jamaal Bowman and Kentucky’s Charles Booker, two Black men running on very liberal policy platforms, likely defeated and nearly defeated (respectively) white Democrats in primaries last week, giving a boost to the party’s insurgent wing. Neither Bowman nor Booker got much help from the party elite — unsurprising, as they were running against establishment-backed figures — and also did not get much help from powerful Black officials in the Democratic Party. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Booker in his race against Amy McGrath, but Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris didn’t. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus interjected themselves into Bowman’s race — to endorse the longtime incumbent, Rep. Eliot Engel.
Speaking of Harris, she seems like a fairly logical choice to be presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate. But it probably doesn’t help her that some more liberal Black Democrats, such as Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, are publicly suggesting that they might prefer Warren for the VP slot over the California senator.
It’s not surprising that prominent Black political figures aren’t aligned on every issue — and there’s nothing new about that at all. But these particular divides are illustrative of major shifts happening within Black politics, by which I largely mean the world of activists, elected officials and other power brokers in the United States who are Black.1 We are in an era where one man (Barack Obama) is no longer the center of Black politics. So among the major power centers are the activist movement linked to Black Lives Matter that is as skeptical of Black elected officials as non-Black ones; a rising left wing of the Democratic Party that includes many Black voices; and a Black establishment that is arguably more powerful than ever before on Capitol Hill.
There are now, in my view, at least seven fairly distinct camps among Black political figures — concentrated in the Democratic Party but also stretching into the GOP. These groupings — which come from my own reporting and talking to experts, rather than any specific data set — are mostly informal. But the idea is to explain some common patterns and themes we are seeing, not necessarily to perfectly describe the politics of any particular person or faction in the party. I should also emphasize that these camps do not correspond exactly to rank-and-file Black voters, although I will talk about some places where there is overlap between activists and voters.
I have tried to order the camps by size, from largest to smallest. They are:
The Younger (Under Age 60) Establishment
- Major Figures: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Mayor Muriel Bowser of D.C., Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Rep. Cedric Richmond, Rep. Terri Sewell.
- Alliances: Often close to Biden and/or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
- Geography: Members often represent areas with large Black populations and/or areas in the South.
- Ideology: Fairly liberal, but somewhat wary of ideas like cutting police or military funding, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All; more aligned with business interests than some more progressive Democrats would prefer.
Many of the Black figures who entered electoral politics amid the Civil Rights activism of the 1960s and 70s have retired or passed away.2 They have largely been replaced by a younger cohort — at least relative to other elected officials3 — that is not on the streets protesting but instead trying to build upon the inroads the Civil Rights generation made once they got into office.
This group, trying to maintain and grow its power, tends to align with the Democratic Party’s existing powerbrokers. So Bottoms and Richmond endorsed Biden very early in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, even as other Black political figures waited to see if Booker or Harris’s campaigns would take off. Bottoms’s early endorsement is reportedly one reason that Biden is considering the Atlanta mayor to be his running mate. Bowser endorsed Michael Bloomberg for president, aligning herself with a figure who spent much of his campaign under attack for supporting aggressive policing policies during his time as mayor of New York that disproportionately affected Black people.
This younger establishment group is wary of the more progressive, anti-establishment parts of the Democratic Party. From the younger Black establishment’s perspective, Black politicians had to fight hard to gain a real foothold in the Democratic Party as it is structured now, and that standing should not be taken for granted. So members of this bloc tend to see attacks on party establishment figures, even white ones, as attacks on them.
And the young establishment is fighting back. Jeffries cast his endorsement of Engel over Bowman in terms of loyalty to Engel, a longtime New York political figure with a liberal voting record. But Jeffries’s backing of Engel was also another round in the moderate vs. left-wing fights that are happening in New York and Washington politics that feature Jeffries on one side and Ocasio-Cortez on the other. These fights cut across racial lines and include Black and non-Black officials on both sides.
If the Democratic Party remains largely dominated by its more moderate wing, Black officials in the younger establishment are likely to see their clout grow. Keep an eye on Jeffries in particular — he is one of the leading candidates to become the top Democrat in the House whenever Pelosi steps down.
The Older (60 And Above) Establishment
- Major Figures: Rep. James Clyburn, Rep. Val Demings, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Greg Meeks, National Urban League President Marc Morial.
- Alliances: Close to Biden and Pelosi.
- Geography: Often represent heavily Black areas and/or areas in the South.
- Ideology: Similar to the younger establishment, perhaps even more wary of very liberal ideas.
Many political experts have argued that Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden was the defining event of the Democratic primary, leading to Biden winning South Carolina’s Black voters, and therefore the state, by a huge margin. That victory seemed to catapult Biden to the nomination. An alternative explanation might be that Black voters in South Carolina and throughout the South were already fairly hesitant about Sanders becoming the Democratic nominee (see the 2016 primary), and Clyburn was just echoing a sentiment he was hearing from his constituents that was then reflected in the voting results.
Those alternative explanations — and perhaps there is truth in both — point to the importance and power of Black officials in the older establishment: This group both represents the existing views of older Black voters but probably also helps mold those views. And older Black voters vote at higher rates than younger ones, making older Black voters a crucial constituency, particularly in Democratic primary contests.
This group’s power is likely to wane when some of its most well-known members, particularly Clyburn and Lewis — who are two of the most influential figures in Democratic politics — retire from office. But whether the more moderate approach of this group is still influential in Democratic circles will depend on whether these officials are replaced by younger establishment figures or more anti-establishment black Democrats. Speaking of which …
The Younger Anti-Establishment
- Major Figures: Rev. William Barber, Barnes, Charles Booker, Bowman, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, people associated with Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter groups.
- Alliances: Often were endorsed by or have endorsed Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and/or Warren.
- Geography: Often represent areas that don’t have large Black populations and are outside of the South.
- Ideology: More supportive of liberal ideas such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and reducing police funding.
In the Obama years, it wasn’t obvious that there was a distinct black progressive bloc — there weren’t a ton of prominent black political figures who were well to the left of, say, Clyburn.
But the leftward shift in the Democratic Party overall has created an opening for more progressive Black politicians. The rise of this bloc is also arguably aided by the prominence of Black authors and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, formerly of The Atlantic, Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi and The New York Times’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, who are pushing sweeping ideas to combat racial inequality, such as reparations, that more establishment Black politicians often don’t talk about.4
There still aren’t that many of these politicians in office, particularly at the federal level. Bowman’s win aside, several of the more progressive Black candidates lost to more establishment figures in Democratic primaries this year.
But this bloc is worth watching, in part because its core constituency is arguably younger (under 45) and more progressive white voters as much as African Americans. Any white incumbent in a heavily Democratic area now has to be worried that a Black liberal candidate emerges, gets some support among Black voters who might like to have a Black person represent them and then also wins a lot of younger and more progressive white voters who are more “woke” on racial issues and want to vote for a Black candidate.
This bloc also complicates things for elected officials like Cory Booker and Harris, who have positioned themselves as more ideologically moderate. In a world in which someone like Pressley (who endorsed Warren) has a national profile, more progressive voters of all races may have felt more comfortable backing Sanders or Warren over Booker or Harris in the 2020 Democratic primary, as these progressive voters know they will probably get to vote for a very progressive person who is also Black (like Pressley) in a future presidential race.
- Major Figures: Former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Cory Booker, Harris, Rep. Jahana Hayes, Obama.
- Alliances: Not clearly aligned with other major figures in the Democratic Party.
- Geography: Not particularly linked to a region; interested in statewide and national office and therefore trying to build a large constituency of both Black and non-Black Democrats.
- Ideology: Generally speaking, left of the establishment but right of the anti-establishment.
In some sense, you can’t get more established (and hence establishment) than a former president and two sitting senators. But Obama ran against the older Black establishment in 2008. (Lewis, for example, endorsed Hillary Clinton before switching to Obama.) And since leaving office, Obama has signaled that he is open to more liberal ideas than those he implemented while president, although he has also expressed wariness of the party going too far left. In their presidential campaigns, Booker and Harris positioned themselves ideologically between Biden and Sanders.
The people in this group are quite … well, political — intentionally trying to avoid getting pinned down as especially establishment or anti-establishment, or to be seen as allied only with the old or the young. This positioning obviously worked for Obama. The result, though, is that these officials are kind of independent actors, not associated with an obvious bloc in the party. And that carries risk. For example, some Black progressives think Harris is too establishment and moderate. But it’s not clear that she is perfectly aligned with the establishment either — after all, she ran against Biden during the presidential campaign and at times attacked him fairly sharply.
So more moderate powerbrokers in the party, such as Biden, Clyburn and Pelosi, might prefer a Black person who is more aligned with them as Biden’s running mate, such as Bottoms or Demings.
Basically everyone in this group is between the ages of 45 and 60, which is likely explained by the fact that until recently, a Black person cast as very liberal had little chance to advance in Democratic politics outside of a heavily Black area. Many of these figures aspire or have aspired for statewide office and/or the presidency.
The Older Anti-Establishment
- Major Figures: Rep. Al Green, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Barbara Lee, activist, author and professor Cornel West.
- Alliances: Not clearly aligned with other major figures in the Democratic Party.
- Geography: Not particularly linked to a region or type of constituency.
- Ideology: Fairly similar to the younger anti-establishment.
This group is fairly small and doesn’t wield a ton of power in Democratic politics. In some ways, they are a cautionary tale for the younger anti-establishment figures. If the anti-establishment doesn’t really gain power in the Democratic Party, a Speaker Jeffries might ignore them in much the same way that Pelosi and Presidents Clinton and Obama have ignored people like Green, Jackson and West in the past.5
- Major Figures: Rep. Will Hurd, former Rep. Mia Love, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sen. Tim Scott, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
- Alliances: Not particularly allied with anyone, but generally not allied with President Trump.
- Geography: Not particularly linked to a region, but their constituencies are heavily white, since GOP voters are overwhelmingly white.
- Ideology: Conservative on many policy issues, but generally opposed to the identity politics of Trump.
There are few Black Republicans in major political roles — few enough that there is no real geographic or ideological unifier among them. But the president has made so many controversial and at times racist comments that Black Republicans and ex-Republicans are basically forced to comment on them. These figures tend to criticize Trump’s racial and racist rhetoric. That fits with their general political approach — even before Trump, many of these people had long suggested that the GOP needed to change its policies and outreach to appeal more to Black voters.
- Major Figures: Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Kanye West.
- Alliances: Allied with Trump and his administration.
- Geography: Same as the Trump-skeptical Republicans.
- Ideology: Conservative on many policy issues and not critical of Trump on identity and race issues.
It’s not necessarily that people in this bloc agree with everything that Trump says on racial issues, but more that they aren’t usually going to criticize him in public. This is a tiny group — but if Trump wins a second term, I would expect this bloc to grow, with more Black Republicans putting their political ambitions ahead of whatever qualms they may have about the president’s rhetoric.
Again, none of this is an exact science. But these divides among Black political figures are important and often a little hard to see clearly, since nearly all of these politicians are Democrats and most of them broadly agree on major issues. If, for example, Harris is named Biden’s running mate, there will be some Black Democrats who are excited about that and others who are more lukewarm. This is not Barack Obama’s party anymore — but at least for now, it’s not Kamala Harris’s party or Jamaal Bowman’s party or Hakeem Jeffries’s party or James Clyburn’s party either.