Courting The African American Electorate – Analysis


By Monish Tourangbam*

The ability of the African-Americans to vote have been uneven and restricted till the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. However, the roots of African-Americans overwhelmingly voting for the Democratic Party can be traced back to the presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt and most specifically the Truman presidency. Today, the African-Americans are undoubtedly known to be Democratic leaning. The Republican Party is seen as having minimal chance of making any substantial inroads into this demographic group. However, it was a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln who brought emancipation to the Blacks. After the Civil War that ended with the defeat of the Confederate Army, the Deep South became the Democratic Party’s bastion, unlike the current situation where the Republicans are seen as the preferred party there. In fact, the Democratic Party which brought the Civil Rights Legislation in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 stood against any initiation towards civil rights for almost a century after the end of the Civil War.

Even the otherwise Idealist President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, acted to reinstitute segregation in the federal workforce. Franklin D Roosevelt despite being more accommodative of Black rights was still cautious on the question of civil rights, and fearing political backlash towards his legislative bills, stayed neutral on an anti-lynching bill that was brought to the floor of Congress in 1937. At his 1948 State of the Union Address, Democrat and President Harry S. Truman said, “….Any denial of human rights is a denial of the basic beliefs of democracy and of our regard for the worth of each individual. Today, however, some of our citizens are still denied equal opportunity for education, for jobs and economic advancement, and for the expression of their views at the polls. Most serious of all, some are denied equal protection under laws. Whether discrimination is based on race, or creed, or color, or land of origin, it is utterly contrary to American ideals of democracy.”

President Truman did not really come up with ground shattering legislation to push forward civil rights, besides desegregation in the military which is also seen as a product of the exigencies of the Korean War. However, the fact that he could win reelection by standing on the liberal plank, supporting civil rights proved that the Democrats could win the presidency without winning the Deep South. This was indeed a sea change towards understanding the math of American electoral politics that would have deep consequences for voting patterns. President Lyndon B. Johnson led the Civil Rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act to passage in the Congress, no mean achievement. He famously reflected, having signed these bills to laws that the Democratic Party had perhaps lost the Deep South forever, but Truman’s electoral victory proved that the Democrats no longer had to compromise on civil rights positions just to carry white votes in the South.

Since then, the African-Americans have largely voted for Democratic candidates and both the parties have usually taken this for granted. However, another facet of voting patterns among African-Americans emerged in 1988. Blacks might not vote for a Republican candidate but that does not necessarily translate into them voting for a Democratic candidate. When the Michael Dukakis campaign presumed that the Blacks had no alternative but to vote for Democrats, they were in for a shocker when Black voters turnout dropped by nearly 5 percent. The normal assumption that Blacks had nowhere else to go was proven wrong. As the proverbial phrase says, they could always “go fishing”, acutely affecting the number games of elections. However, even the understanding that Blacks might not support a Republican candidate, but could also just stay home rather than voting Democrat is being questioned by new studies.

African-Americans’ constant support for the Democratic Party is something unseen among any other groups of voters in American politics. This political behavior has been attributed to a phenomenon termed as the “black utility heuristic” or in practical parlance called as the “linked fate”, based on a study done by University of Chicago professor Michael Dawson in 1994. It simply means that Black voters, more than individual priorities, emphasize group priorities, asking who and what is best for the African-Americans at large. This group mentality seems all the more energized and coalesced as a result of continuing cases of disparity and discrimination across spectrums.

However, new studies point out the possibility of the “linked fate” theory vaporizing in the face of economic disparities within the Black population leading to different experiences of life in America. This seems all the more plausible given the new generations of African- Americans who do not have experiences or memories of the Civil Rights Movement era. There seems to be a waning down of group mentality, leading to individual experiences and hence individual policy preferences making inroads. It might be too early to predict a dramatic interlude into the voting behavior of the Blacks. However, the winds of change might portend, if nothing else, that the Republicans need to rethink their approach to issues close to African-Americans, and the Democrats need to shout out their political lineage that has attracted Black votes till now.

Simply put, the political behavior of the African-American electorate might be more complex than otherwise thought. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton speaking at the 2015 National Urban League Conference, argued that race still played a significant role in who gets ahead, and who gets left behind in America. “The real test of a candidate’s commitment is not if we come to speak at a national conference, as important as that is, it’s whether we’re still around after the cameras are gone and the votes are counted,” she said. Though the next Democratic presidential candidate might not attract as many Black votes like the surge seen when Obama stood for presidency, the Democrats will likely maintain the overwhelming support that they have got from the community over the years. However, any chances of a modest decrease in either voter turnout or drop-off in vote shares are seen as detrimental for Democrats. Hence, sustaining support among Black voters and ensuring high turnout on the Election Day is being seen as imperatives for the Democrats.

There is increasing enthusiasm among the Republican candidates as well to grasp any opportunity of dissatisfaction with the Democrats found among African-American voters. Republican candidates including Rand Paul and Jeb Bush have been speaking on issues intending to attract Black voters. African-American and Republican candidate Ben Carson has been working on increasing Black voters’ participation in the Republican primary. However, at this juncture, Republicans’ fortunes as far as making a dent among the African-American electorate is reflected in the words of Angela Rye, a political strategist and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Black folks shouldn’t be beholden to the Democratic Party, they should be beholden to their interests….To me, however, the Republicans are style over substance. Anybody can come up with a good talking point or two. I’d love to see what their real agenda looks like.”

*Monish Tourangbam is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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