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Opinion | Why a ‘Sister Souljah Moment’ won’t save Biden


For those too young to remember, Sister Souljah was a famous hip-hop star and activist for a short while, who gave an interview about violence against white people shortly after the 1992 LA riots proposed. Rev. Jesse Jackson then invited her to speak at a Rainbow Coalition event. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who was running for president at the time, spoke at the same event the following evening and took the opportunity to sharply criticize both Souljah and Jackson, them for their racism and he for giving their views a platform give.

The context of all of this was that, by 1992, many Democrats had decided that their party had lost the previous three presidential elections in part because they felt it was too under the spell of “special interests” in general, and Jesse Jackson and Black Civil stood activists specifically.

The party has a long history of both advocating civil rights and blaming them for their losses; Prominent voices within the Democratic coalition have often warned that promoting the needs of black Americans would hurt the party’s prospects. Clinton’s maneuver was seen as a way to demonstrate his and his party’s shift to the right in a ploy for eligibility. As Perry Bacon Jr. recently noted, Clinton’s speech and subsequent actions should “signal to white voters that Democrats like Republicans view some of America’s racial inequalities as self-inflicted problems in black communities rather than discriminatory politics.” and systemic racism. “

It is striking to what extent the Sister Souljah moment has been accepted as a viable and reliable strategy for white democratic politicians. As with many electoral narratives, it is seldom tested with hard evidence. But if we actually look at Clinton’s polls on the events as they happened, it is difficult to perceive a Souljah effect.

Trial surveys from the summer of 1992 show a rather complex and dynamic political environment. Clinton secured the Democratic nomination in early June. Souljah spoke at the Rainbow Coalition event on June 13, and Clinton gave his speech condemning her the next day. Clinton named Al Gore his vice-president in early July, and the Democratic Convention took place in mid-July. To make matters worse, Ross Perot was a gloomy candidacy for third party. The independent businessman was at the height of his popularity in June, even leading the presidential field for several weeks. However, thanks to heightened media attention, his popularity faded and he (temporarily, it turned out) withdrew from the race in mid-July. It is difficult, therefore, to tease out the consequences of a single episode, but some conclusions can be drawn.

The trend shown in the graph suggests that Clinton got a little more popular in late June. Is that because he criticized Souljah? Possibly. Is it because Perot’s popularity was falling? Probably. Are we talking about modest changes anyway? Certainly.

Clinton would become much more popular in July after Perot’s withdrawal, and with the unifying message of a successful Democratic party convention, he moved to the top of the polls in mid-July and did not lose that lead for the remainder of the competition. Clinton defeated Bush by 6 points in the referendum.

How did Clinton succeed where Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis failed before him? Well, in large part, it was the economy, stupid. Carter was blamed for a brutal recession and high inflation in 1980; Mondale attempted to remove incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1984 during a record boom; and Dukakis attempted to free the Republicans during the solid growth year of 1988. In contrast, the 1992 economy was shaky, having suffered a sharp recession the previous year, and media coverage of the economy was relentlessly negative throughout the year.

Is it possible that Clinton got some help on election day when he beat up Souljah five months ago? It is possible, but unlikely. Campaign effects generally don’t last that long. It was a very old story then, and it’s hard to see a big effect when the story was fresh. Polls this year show voters are more likely to trust Clinton on racial issues, but that was the case even before the Souljah moment.

So why is it important to consult this piece of political lore three decades later? Obviously, many opinion leaders consider it a belief that a democratic president can make himself more popular by beating up advocates of racial justice. The evidence doesn’t really support this, but it argues anyway.

Boot is right that there is a great deal at stake for both Democrats and American democracy in general. However, it is far from clear that the Democrats would gain anything by slamming a Black Lives Matter activist or crushing supporters of critical racial theory. In fact, it would only signal to blacks within the party that their leadership considers them expendable when things get difficult.

In mid-term elections, turnout usually suffers in key Democratic constituencies such as blacks and young voters. Biden would likely only compound this problem if he symbolically brushed aside people of color – especially if it’s just a page from the 1990s panditry that may not have worked at all.


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