Rep. Elijah Cummings’ MLK day interview on Morning Joe demonstrated the astuteness of Donald Trump’s decision to attack civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis. More than any other constituency, the African American political establishment has been the cornerstone of the moderate wing of the Democratic party. Their strength was demonstrated when they helped Obama defeat Hillary in the 2008 primary, but that strength faltered in this past election cycle. During the primary Bernie did much better with the Black vote in the North than he did in the South and then in the general, despite President Obama’s pleas, Black voter turnout was down across the northern swing states. Now, like the rest of the Democrats, the Black political establishment has to navigate through the debris of their collapsed party. Donald Trump seems to be using this period of uncertainty to exploit a division within the Black political establishment.  Time will tell but it may turn out to be significant that northerner Elijah Cummings went on national TV and declared himself an ally of Bernie Sanders while discussing southern Clinton stalwart John Lewis’ feud with Trump.

 

As president Obama leaves office the battle lines are being drawn up within the Democratic party. On one side lies the remains of the centrist Clinton machine. They, along with the Russia hawks in the CIA, are trying to delegitimize Trump by portraying him as a Russian stooge. Their most immediate concern is the fate of the EU. Should Marine Le Pen or another European nationalist leader come to power it could mean the end of the EU and the neoliberal world order. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is certainly no fan of the CIA, nor is he a fan of neoliberal free trade policies. Sanders’ progressive wing has taken a different tack when it comes to opposing Trump. Bernie’s strategy is to hold Trump’s feet to the fire on the populist campaign promises that Trump made. He and other progressives have stated that they are willing to work with Trump on issues like infrastructure spending and renegotiating trade deals. This all came to a head last week when establishment golden boy Cory Booker was attacked by the progressives for “proving Trump right” that the Democratic party was in the pocket of Big Pharma. Amidst all this turmoil over the future of the Democratic party the biggest question of all is what will the Black political establishment do? And more importantly, will the Black political establishment remain unified or will a split emerge between centrist southerners and progressive northerners?

 

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Young Sanders supporters were dismayed when the Democratic primary took its turn through the south. How, they asked, could a small African American voting block in a group of red states hold such sway over the Democratic nomination?  Those of us old enough to have used a typewriter recall that it was the Clintons who designed it that way. During the 90s the Clintons were struggling with a different set of progressives- Carter, Mondale and Dukakis. Three elections in a row the Democrats nominated progressives to lead the party and three elections in a row the American voters unequivocally rejected them. After finally winning the White House Bill Clinton was determined to keep the progressive wing of the party marginalized. A big part of that strategy was to front load the primary season with conservative southern states. No only did it raise an insurmountable barrier to a progressive candidate but it also cemented Clinton’s control over the party after he left office. The path to the Democratic nomination lead straight through the Black churches of the South and until Obama came along there was no politician those church ladies loved more than Bubba.

 

Today the Clinton machine lays in shambles, leaderless. More troubling still is the lack of young centrist Democratic politicians capable of stepping into leadership positions. What little talent the centrists did develop, like Cory Booker, now faces endless progressive purity tests. Trump’s attack on Rep. Lewis once again spotlighted the age issues that the Democrats face. John Lewis is undoubtedly a larger than life figure in American politics but the optics of yet another 76 year old speaking slowly on national TV and at times rambling about a Russian conspiracy only served to reinforce the image that the Democrats are out of touch.

 

The contrast between Lewis’ and Cummings’ TV interviews could not have been starker. While no spring chicken himself, Rep. Cummings is a politician in his prime and full of charisma. But by far the biggest difference was which side of the centrist-progressive divide Lewis and Cummings came down on. Rep. Lewis came out as the most extreme voice yet of the old Clinton machine calling Donald Trump’s election illegitimate. This is not surprising as Rep. Lewis has been one of the linchpins of the southern Democratic party machine. But Rep. Cummings is not part of the southern Democratic party machine. He represents Baltimore and its suburbs. His constituents have little in common with Democrats in Mississippi and Alabama aside from the color of their skin. African Americans in Baltimore and the other rust belt cities have been hurt by globalization. Sanders’, and even Trump’s, populist economic policies resonate with them. Which is why Rep. Cummings made it a point to say that he was willing to work with Trump on issues like infrastructure and trade, echoing Sanders’ position.

 

That is the fissure that Trump sought to breach by attacking John Lewis, the lack of shared interests between African Americans in the South and the Rust Belt. Rep. Lewis made a political mistake by stating that a Russian conspiracy invalidated our presidential election. While some Democrats are coming to his defense, not many are willing to follow him all the way out onto that shaky branch. Most politicians would have let an attack by an elder statesman of Lewis’ stature slide, especially once other prominent Democrats called his statement a mistake.  But Trump didn’t let it slide; instead he made their feud the most talked about news story of MLK weekend.  In doing so he forced the issue of whether African American politicians are going to side with the centrist or the progressive wing of their party, a discussion they would much rather kick down the road. The fact that Rep. Cummings came out so strongly aligned with Bernie Sanders makes it appear that Trump’s gambit is working. At the very least Trump’s tweets gave us the most surreal moment of the transition when 78 year old Rep. Maxine Waters, who once blamed the CIA for the crack epidemic, rushed to the defense of our intelligence community on national TV.