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Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Politics and "the base"


I learned about American politics listening to my father, whose career depended upon them, and reading some of the books that we had around our house.  One of them was The Roosevelt I Knew, by FDR's Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.  She described a conversation she had with New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, her first political mentor, in which he criticized her for refusing to join either political party while lobbying on social and economic issues. He explained that he could always count upon Democratic party loyalty in New York City, and that gave him the freedom to take different positions to appeal to voters upstate. One could, in short, deal confidentially with one's political base thanks to mutual trust, while seeking to broaden one's appeal.

The current Democratic party often seems to be working from opposite principles.  Black politicians like to refer to black voters--and often, female black voters--as the base or heart or backbone of the Democratic party.  The Democratic leadership seems to accept that--and also to accept an obligation to give its black constituents visible rewards.  The two most important appointments Joe Biden has had to make--to the Vice Presidency and to the Supreme Court--have gone to black women.  Even though Kamala Harris's own presidential campaign in 2020 never got off the ground and she has failed to forge any bond with the American people in office, it seems accepted that she cannot possibly be dropped from the ticket.  Biden also insisted on making South Carolina the first Democratic primary state on the calendar, which will allow that state's black voters to anoint the party's front-runner. 

I was moved to write this piece by a weekend article in the New York Times suggesting that Biden's appeal among black voters might nonetheless be dropping, threatening his re-election.  Here are three key paragraphs:

"In his campaign announcement, Mr. Biden made no secret of the importance of Black voters to his re-election. The Biden allies with the most airtime in his three-minute video, aside from his wife, were Vice President Kamala Harris, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"Mr. Biden’s allies maintain that his administration has delivered for Black voters but that he has failed to trumpet some of his progress. Since taking office, he has provided billions of dollars for historically Black colleges and universities, and he has appointed more Black judges, including Justice Jackson, to the federal bench than any other president. Black unemployment is at a record low. The economy, a top concern for Black voters, has recovered from its pandemic doldrums, though inflation, which spiked last summer, remains higher on a sustained basis than it has been for decades.

"The president and vice president have made issues Black Americans care most about a priority and are running to finish the job,' said Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s campaign. 'The campaign will work hard to earn every vote and expand on its winning 2020 coalition.'"

Leaving aside the rather questionable description of a Supreme Court justice as a presidential ally, the first paragraph jumped out at me because I too had noticed the racial composition of the announcement video--but from another angle.  The video is filled with shots of ordinary Americans, both with and without Biden or Jill Biden or Kamala Harris, and I had decided to document their racial balance myself.  Leaving out a couple of crowd shots, and not counting the shots of Harris or Jackson, I counted 45 black women and girls, 22 black men and boys, 8 Hispanic women, 4 Hispanic men, 27 white men and 12 white women, and one Asian women--or totals of 67 black people, 39 whites, 12 Hispanics and one Asian.  When I mentioned this to a friend involved in Democratic politics, he referred me to Biden's first campaign ad, whose dominant image is the American flag, and which has a Reaganesk "morning in America" feeling.  There I counted 28 average white people--15 males and 13 females--16 black people (11 women and 5 men), one young Asian boy, and three males whose race I could not identify.  (I have left out the white people in several shots of the January 6 rioters from both videos since the viewer is obviously not being encouraged to identify with them.) 

Now let's compare the ethnic distribution within these videos to the distribution of Biden's vote in 2020.  A recent report found that of Biden's voters, 61 percent were white, 20 percent were black, 12 percent were Hispanic, and 6 percent were Asian.  That 61 percent, interestingly enough, almost exactly matches the percentage of identified ordinary Americans in Biden's first ad, although it's much higher, obviously, than the percentage in the announcement video.  Blacks were overrepresented in both, clearly, and the omission of Hispanics from the first ad is rather striking. Among the total 2020 electorate, whites still made up 72 percent of voters, with blacks 12 percent and Hispanics 10 percent.  

And how did Biden manage to increase his popular majority so dramatically over Hillary Clinton's in 2016 and thereby win a solid Electoral College victory?  The Democratic share of the white vote, the same report shows, grew 3 percent, from 41 percent to 44 percent, in 2020 relative to 2016, while the Democratic share of the black vote fell from 93 percent to 90 percent and the share of the Hispanic (the new report uses "Latino") vote--the fastest-growing sector of the electorate--feel from 71 percent to 63 percent.   The Democratic gains in the white vote came mostly from college-educated white people--who, by the way, remain a minority of white voters.  

When Richard Nixon died, the columnist William Safire--a former Nixon staffer--described their last conversation.  "Let's get a woman on the ticket!"  Nixon had said.  "It hurts the Democrats, but it would help us!"  Nixon, as it happens, was exactly the same age as my father, and equally sensitive to the real rules of US politics.  According to those rules the Democratic Party should if anything be favoring white male candidates, who would have broader appeal outside their party, while the Republicans look for female and nonwhite candidates to broaden theirs.  (When the Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2002, as I recall, their female candidates significantly outperformed the Democrats'.)  And despite the near-unanimous Democratic view of the recent midterm elections as a victory, the Democrats lost the national popular vote for House candidates by about 3 percent.  White and Hispanic voters, inevitably, will hold the balance of power in the 2024 presidential election.

The greatest progress for civil rights in the United States took place from 1948, when Harry  Truman took up the issue, through 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.  That was also the era in which the black vote was genuinely up for grabs and both parties had to pay attention to it.  And that, in my opinion, was not a coincidence.

1 comment:

Energyflow said...

So to be clear from this blog entry, before the voting rights act, dems and repubs were neither side into identity politics. Class consciousness was the dividing line. Then the dems took on minority and women's rights, later gay rights. The repubs did this before the civil war to free the slaves, start the war. They won that,then after a while left the South to its own devices, jim crow. Mixed racial military units were not a thing in WWII. Now in this saeculum the race, identity card has become the big deal internally as well as the WWII topic remains our foreign dominance or not. The two issues seem intertwined as we use human rights to justify foreign sanctions, excursions. This however is superficial justification and alienates. Also internal divde et impera based on identity keeps the rich in control of the various subclasses of peoples in America. Supposing that after the saeculum ends the USA is not hegemonous due to USD decline then Europe and Japan will reorient accordingly and internally class consciousness could reemerge as the critical factor in America once national bankruptcy and demilitarization takes place.