The Democratic Party has enjoyed nearly overwhelming support from Blacks for a number of decades. But that will not necessarily hold for eternity, as there are indications that things are starting to change regarding the allegiances of the African-American vote.
Theodore R. Johnson makes the case in The Atlantic that there are signs that lockstep support for the Democrats among Black people could be waning. He quoted the late Ed Brown, executive director of the Voter Education Project, who, in light of Democrats ignoring Black voters in 1988 and 1992, said, “The view is that blacks have nowhere else to go, but blacks always have somewhere to go—they can go fishing.”
Since 1980, 88 percent of Blacks have voted Democratic in presidential and congressional elections, and have been more likely to stay home than vote Republican. This phenomenon is known as the “Black utility heuristic,” or “linked fate,” which was developed by University of Chicago professor Michael Dawson. Heuristics are shortcuts that voters use to facilitate the decision making process. Under the banner that “we are in this thing together,” Dawson argued that Black voters consider what is best for the group rather than their individual concerns, and that race has been the principal factor in the Black experience. Under this theory, one’s fate is linked to the race as a whole, and Black voters assess a political candidate based on how that person comes out on civil rights and equal opportunity. Typically, the Democratic candidate wins, based on a history of Democratic support for civil rights legislation and current Republican opposition.
An alternate view of linked fate, Johnson notes, operates with a history of racial oppression and discrimination as a backdrop and is present in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This view suggests that Black people are not loyal to a party but to Black people, and that if Black people are not free then no individual Black person is free.
However, in the post-Obama era, unqualified Black support for the Democratic Party may be eroding due to the influence of economic class on party preference. Further, three generations away from the civil rights movement, Black voters no longer have a single experience, but rather a broad array of views and experiences when compared to earlier generations of Blacks. In addition, in the 2012 presidential election, while Black turnout increased, so too did a decrease in Black independents lead to a rise in Black Republican support. Further, other factors such as the growth of a young-people-led #BlackLivesMatter movement that challenges Democratic and Republican policies may be a sign of seismic shifts ahead.
Time has shown that Black political allegiances and affiliations are not etched in stone. After all, during Reconstruction, when there were 2,000 Black elected officials, the Republicans—as the party of emancipation, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Freedmen’s Bureau –were the party of choice for Black people. During the twentieth century, the parties competed for Black support, and by the end of President Roosevelt’s first administration in 1936, 75 percent of Blacks supported the Democrats. With the Johnson administration came another influx of Black support for the Democrats, as disaffected Southern whites began the exodus to the GOP, which implemented a Southern Strategy to appeal to white hatred of Black people and resentment over the gains of the civil rights movement.
The current political landscape may provide an opportunity to Republicans, but less certain is what the Republicans will do, if anything, with that opportunity. For example, the GOP of late has played the role of a white nationalist party, doubling down on appeals to white supremacy and placating its base of white conservative voters, even as–if not because–the U.S. becomes an increasingly Black and Brown country. How the GOP will reconcile national demographic changes with the homogeneity of its base remains to be seen.
White liberalism, with its racial tone deafness and blindness to Black concerns, is on trial, or at least under scrutiny with the rise of #BlackLivesMatter. However, white reactionary conservatism has been placed on notice as well.
The consequences for the major political parties, and for a Black independent political movement, are open for debate.