08 July 2011

Race and Party Identification: the choices for black Americans

Who said the following? "No administration in modern times has failed younger blacks more than the Obama administration." According to the "Sister Citizen" columnist for The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry, it was none other than Newt Gingrich, who's urging Republicans to make a greater effort to win black votes in 2012. Harris-Perry warns readers not to dismiss the possibility out of hand, citing her own research in longitudinal voting data to point out that African-American identification with the Democratic party had been declining in recent years before Hurricane Katrina reinforced a sense that Republicans, to paraphrase Kanye West, don't give a damn about black people.

The columnist notes that George W. Bush won more black votes in 2004 than he did in 2000. While African-Americans continued to support Democrats overwhelmingly, the switch from 7% to 12% Republican was still significant, and should have served as a warning for Democrats, especially since Harris-Perry attributes it not to greater GOP outreach but to increasing Black disillusionment with the Democratic party since Jesse Jackson's failed bids for the party nomination in 1984 and 1988.

Until recently, Harris-Perry argues, blacks had not joined white voters in seeing fewer differences between the major parties. " African-Americans had much stronger emotional and psychological attachments to the Democratic Party when they perceived it to advocate racial and economic justice reliably," she writes, "But the more interchangeable the Democrats appeared with Republicans on issues of racial advancement, the less enthusiasm black Americans showed for them."

Preparing her study in 2005, Harris-Perry and her colleague Jeffrey Grynaviski forecast greater black alienation from the Democratic party. The Katrina disaster and the rise of Barack Obama have stalled that trend, but the columnist contends that "as memories of Katrina become more distant and the reality of a black president becomes more routine, the possibility of shifting partisan alliances may re-emerge."

Harris-Perry suggests that blacks may reproduce the historic trends that eventually led Catholics and Southern whites from the Democracy to the GOP, but that strikes me as ahistorical number crunching on a first reading. Southern whites, for one thing, left the Democratic party precisely because blacks were joining it after a century of loyalty to the "party of Lincoln," and there's no equivalent for that condition now, unless blacks believe that Democrats are suddenly catering too much to Hispanics or immigrants. A larger black conversion to the GOP would also seem to require wider black adoption of the prevailing Republican ideology, which still seems unlikely unless disillusionment with Obama results in a repudiation of liberalism in general. On the other hand, if you accept the premise that the Republican party changed its thinking or rhetoric in order to win over disaffected Southern whites, it's possible that the GOP might tweak its image to attract Black swing voters in order to counter perceived Hispanic solidarity with Democrats. How Hispanics feel about the two parties is another question entirely.

Conversion to Republicanism isn't the only option, of course, for would-be ex-Democrats. Harris-Perry herself seems to think that the more likely short-term option is increased apathy. " The detachment of even a small percentage of African-Americans [from the Democratic party] in the next election would be a boon for Republicans," she warns in closing, "It is not necessary for African-Americans to become Republican voters; only that they fail to become voters at all. Predictably enough, the possibility of blacks becoming the base of an independent party more representative of their beliefs and interests is never mentioned in Harris-Perry's column. The American Bipolarchy never seems very distressed about declining electoral turnout. One side may complain if the decline costs them an election or two, but they soon set about trying to win over a greater share of remaining voters. After all, it's the people who vote, no matter how few, and not the people who don't, no matter how many, who put a party in power. If entire groups of people take themselves off the board, that's preferable to their jumping from one party to another, and infinitely preferable to their forming new parties to stay in the contest. If African-Americans want a government that's responsive to their needs and concerns, their best option is, at the very least, to threaten to form a new party while inviting like-minded Americans outside black communities to join it. But if fear of Republicans or Tea Partiers is too strong for that to happen, then Democrats have nothing to worry about.

1 comment:

d.eris said...

As you note, the bipolar analysis assumes that if African Americans leave the Democratic party, they will either become Republicans or apathetic non-voters. But over the last couple years, there have been more and more indications that African Americans are becoming more Independent and keeping their political options open. There is a fair amount of Independent political advocacy in the black community in Harlem, for instance. A couple weeks ago there was a talk with Omar Ali, who has written a number of books on the subject. See: http://grassrootsindependent.blogspot.com/2011/06/sarah-lyons-seeing-new-things-past-and.html

In terms of third party activism . . . at the bigger protests in NYC, there is always a significant African American contingent aligned with Freedom Party, which is headed by Charles Barron. Barron is a former Black Panther, and a Democratic member of the City Council, but last year he ran for governor on the Freedom Party line. I think his district is in Queens.