Blacks need to be savvier political players

Reflexive support for Democrats is a weak position to bargain from

LATELY, DONALD TRUMP has been making appeals to black voters.

His argument to African-Americans is that the Democratic Party relies on black voters, but has failed to improve their economic and social plight over the decades. He says that the needs of blacks often go unanswered, even as they remain loyal to the Democrats.

During his run for president, Trump has again and again proven he knows little about domestic policy.  He has been silent about how to improve the nation’s race relations.

But truculent Trump is on to something when he points out that blacks give more than they get from Democrats. There is an element of truth to his assertion that as blacks have become a loyal voting bloc for Democrats, they have often been ignored.

Trump is essentially blaming Democrats for the social misery being experienced by blacks. In hyperbolic language Trump charges that violence plagues the black community because of party neglect. He emphasizes the high rate of unemployment among African-Americans, particularly young black men. He seeks to cajole blacks into the Republican tent by stating how racism and discrimination hold African-Americans back, refusing them entrance into the middle class.

To understand how blacks got into this predicament requires a lesson in modern political history.

Black voters began flocking to the Democratic Party in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. The 1965 Voting Rights Act led to massive political mobilization among blacks, especially in the South. Because Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. worked closely with President Lyndon Johnson to champion electoral justice, blacks sided with Johnson and the Democrats. African-Americans rejected the Republicans because they were viewed as an obstructionist party. The GOP was viewed as sympathetic to states’ rights and friendly to Southern segregationist attitudes.

In his excellent book published last year, Give Us the Ballot, Ari Berman, details how blacks suddenly left the Republicans, even though the party led the way in ending slavery a century earlier. But the Republican Party, Berman writes, never overcame its own racism.

Since the Nixon presidency, Republicans have essentially ignored blacks. Sometimes they have been outwardly hostile, branding African-Americans as criminals, welfare queens, intellectually inferior, and shiftless.

Abandoned by the Republicans, blacks feel the need to cling to the Democrats, where there is little competition for their vote. The result is that African-Americans lack leverage to force Democrats to directly address their most pressing issues.

Trump has displayed his despicable racism in so many ways already. He brings out the worst racial sentiments among Americans by negative appeals to ethnicity and difference. He laments a country that is increasingly diverse.

But Trump may be right in stating that black voters must find a way to more forcefully lobby both parties to advance specific polices that will improve their conditions. When Trump ask what do blacks “have to lose” by voting for him in November, he makes an important point that should prompt African-Americans to consider whether their political capacity is compromised.

Under no circumstances should blacks vote for Trump in November. His disdain for blacks is palpable. But African-Americans should take the measure of their own low political effectiveness and blind allegiance to Democrats.

Blacks must develop a pragmatic political perspective that is less driven by party affiliation. They must adopt a brand of practical politics that relies on clear-eyed bargaining and negotiation. They must be more focused on achieving tangible policy results over engaging in unproductive relationships. They may even have to develop a separate, independent political party.

During the 2012 presidential contest, blacks voted at a higher percentage than whites for the first time in American history. Those votes went overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party.

But were blacks rewarded for their performance?

Democratic Party leadership should repay high black electoral performance with objective and substantive rewards. But blacks must also develop more sophisticated voting habits, methods of civic engagement and a powerful domestic and foreign policy agenda. Only then will African-American voters better ensure that political leaders address their substantive needs.

Meet the Author

Kevin Peterson, a democracy activist, is founder of the New Democracy Coalition