Against Mansion Politics

At a $500-a-head fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina yesterday, Ashley Williams, a Black Lives Matter activist, confronted Hillary Clinton about her support for the 1994 Crime Bill as well as for her comments at the time parroting the racist media hype that some youth were “superpredators” who needed to be brought to “heel.” Clinton — who in a public speech in Harlem in the past weeks said that “White Americans need to do a better job at listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face every day… practice humility rather than assume that our experience is everyone’s experiences” — did not answer the protestor’s questions, acquiesced the crowd’s boos, allowed someone to escort the protestor out of the mansion, and then said, “Now let’s get back to the issues.” See the video here:

There is a lot that is going to be said about this clip, which should be widely seen. It’s best for others to comment about what this clip says about the Black Lives Matter movement or Hillary Clinton’s campaign. However, I will say this: this incident is a perfect example of the campaign finance system’s distortion of politics.

Take a look at this photo of the crowd:

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Now remember: ~50% — half! — of Democratic voters in South Carolina are black. In Charleston, ~28% of residents are black and since ~50% of Charleston is Republican (and if racial party demographics are similar across the state), one can assume about ~50% — half! — of Democratic voters in Charleston are black. And yet, at this precious hour of a candidate’s time in the rare week-long window when the candidate cares about this state, there are barely any black faces in the crowd.

The average black Charlestonian makes $22,000 less per year than the average white Charlestonian ($37k to $15k). The annualized living wage in Charleston (not counting childcare) is ~$24,000, which goes to show how much more more disposable income the average white Charlestonian has than the average black Charlestonian. So, its understandable why this crowd looks the way it does: when you charge $500 to have an intimate meeting with a candidate, you are saying “for this event, I only want to speak to folks with disposable income” and consequently selecting for a tremendously whiter crowd than your electorate.

When that happens, it changes the dynamics of your events. If this was a crowd resembling Clinton’s electorate — and half the faces in the mansion were black — the crowd might not have booed as hard and Clinton might not have been as dismissive. Perhaps someone would have even stood up for Ashley Williams for raising the same point that Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates have raised. But, the nearly all-white crowd likely never experienced their children being called ‘superpredators’ or had their neighborhoods ravaged by mass incarceration. So, they were unable to — as Clinton, in her Harlem speech weeks ago, challenged us to be able to — “practice humility rather than assume that our experience is everyone’s experiences.”

Even if this protestor had not been present, it still would have been a distortive event. The wealthiest Charleston Democrats would have asked Clinton questions and expressed their concerns, distorting her view of what the popular sentiment is to the view of what the wealthiest’s sentiment is. The needs and hopes of the vast majority of her electorate would have been unheard for the hour, because they could not have afforded to speak them. Eventually, no matter how detached a candidate is from such events, one cannot steep in wealthy rooms for so long without being affected by their narrow discourse.

This is not Hillary Clinton’s fault. She probably didn’t want to go to a mansion last night and speak to the whims of the wealthiest Democrats in Charleston. Judging by the popular understanding of her, she probably wanted to curl up and read some public policy journal instead. But, because our system requires you to run two campaigns — one for everybody and one for the wealthiest 0.23% who give $200+ to campaigns each year — she had to go to this mansion. And that means that half of the time she is held accountable to everybody and the other half of the time she’s held accountable to a donor class that skews sharply rich, white and male.

There should only be one campaign: for votes, not for dollars. If there was only one campaign, Clinton would have seen Williams as a representative of a larger public sentiment rather than as a rogue individual. If there was only one campaign, going to a North Charleston community center last night would have been as useful to Clinton as going to this mansion. If there was only one campaign, Clinton would never find herself in a South Carolina room with hardly any black faces.

This is why it is important that the Democratic Party must incorporate an Open Democracy Project into its platform: opening up our politics and government to more people in more ways. In her Harlem speech, entitled Breaking Down Barriers, Clinton decried “places where people of color and the poor have been left out and left behind” and unveiled a $125 billion plan to help impoverished black Americans. This is likely a great plan, but political outputs are not enough. Without changing political inputs, the poor and marginalized are forced to rely on enlightened insiders to always come to the rescue. The place where people of color and the poor have been most left out and left behind is in our democracy. The walls of the mansion fundraiser are the first barriers we Democrats should break down.