Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Democratic Leadership Council 2001 Article: Why We Need To Build Biracial Coalitions

One of the unmistakable big trends in American politics is the emergence of a multi-ethnic society. White European-Americans will soon cease to represent a commanding majority of the population. Meanwhile, the numerical prominence of African-Americans among minority citizens is being eclipsed by a rapid increase in the Hispanic population, with Asian-Americans on the rise as well. But for the moment, there are still key parts of the country where politics -- especially Democratic Party politics -- remain a matter of black and white. This is true for most of the urban centers in the industrial heartland of the country, from Philadelphia to Kansas City, and for one entire region: the Deep South. In the wake of Al Gore's loss of every single Southern state in 2000 (with the arguable exception of the distinctly un-Southern state of Florida), it's important to look closely at the present and future condition of biracial Democratic politics in Dixie.

In a Southern crescent that sweeps from Virginia through Louisiana, African-Americans currently represent between one-sixth and nearly one-third of the electorate, depending on the state. More important to Democrats, the black vote in these states ranges from one-third to well over half of the Democratic vote in competitive races. This means that in some congressional districts, blacks effectively control the Democratic primary.

African-Americans have been remarkably faithful Democratic voters, in the Deep South and elsewhere, since the civil rights era. Even unsuccessful Democratic candidates in Southern statewide races have been able to count on black percentages near or over 90 percent. The key to Democratic victories has been to combine the black vote with a minority of the white vote necessary to get to 50 percent in each state. It hasn't been easy.

There have been three waves of Republican ascendancy in the Deep South since the Civil Rights Act of 1964: in the late 1960s, in the early 1980s, and in 1994. In every case, Republicans aimed at (and on occasion, temporarily succeeded in) generating a racial polarization of the parties in which very large majorities of white voters left the Democratic Party. Democrats have managed to recreate a successful biracial coalition in each era: in the 1970s by rebuilding rural white support once the shock of desegregation had passed; in the 1980s by exploiting GOP divisions and mistakes; and most recently, in 1998, by championing educational opportunity in a way that united African-Americans with school-focused white suburbanites.

But throughout these back-and-forth partisan struggles, the almost exclusive political focus on white swing voters naturally began to stimulate resentment among African-American voters and leaders, who were grossly under-represented in the ranks of Democratic elected officials, especially in Congress and among statewide offices.

This problem manifested itself most clearly in the decennial redistricting process, where the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided specific safeguards for minority representation in Southern states. During the 1990s redistricting process, the first Bush Administration's Justice Department worked aggressively with civil rights groups to create as many black-majority congressional and state legislative districts as possible. The GOP's political motive, of course, was to consolidate reliably Democratic black voters in their "own" districts, making the remaining districts "whiter" and more likely to go Republican.

Exhibit A in the claim that "racial gerrymandering" was designed to disrupt the South's Democratic biracial coalition was Georgia, whose U.S. House delegation changed from 9-1 Democratic (eight whites, one black) in 1991 to 8-3 Republican (all three Democrats black) four years later. Two Supreme Court decisions (Shaw v. Reno and Miller v. Johnson) in the 1990s placed constitutional limitations on redistricting schemes aimed at controlling the racial composition of legislative delegations, but this year's Hunt v. Cromartie ruling seems to reopen the door to racial gerrymandering so long as legislatures disguise it as old-fashioned political gerrymandering (since African-Americans vote so heavily Democratic, it's easy to use political criteria to achieve specific racial percentages in a district). But there are early, encouraging signs that both black and white Southern Democrats have learned from the experience of the 1990s and are working together to achieve better black representation while furthering the party's interests as a whole.

In the long run, it's obvious that the alternative to racial gerrymandering for Democrats is to show that white Democrats and independents will vote for black Democratic candidates under the right circumstances. During the 1990s, a number of Southern black members of Congress -- often younger and more moderate than their predecessors -- began building significant and durable levels of white support. These include Sheila Jackson-Lee and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas; Harold Ford of Tennessee; Sanford Bishop of Georgia; and Corrine Brown and Carrie Meek of Florida.

But the most promising sign of a new, two-way biracial coalition occurred in Georgia in 1998, where two centrist, New Democrat African-Americans, Michael Thurmond (elected as labor commissioner) and Thurbert Baker (elected as attorney general) won statewide office, carrying as high a percentage of the white vote as their white ticketmates, Gov. Roy Barnes and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor. If this precedent is repeated elsewhere, it's not too much to expect that a black governor or U.S. senator can be elected in the South quite soon -- so long as the candidate is a centrist who can achieve biracial support.

The Democratic resurgence in the Deep South continued at the state level in 2000, with Mike Easley's election as governor of North Carolina and Zell Miller's easy U.S. Senate win in Georgia. But at the presidential level, Al Gore lost everywhere, for the simple reason that he failed to win anything like the percentage of the white vote recently won by successful Southern Democrats. The numbers are stunning. In 1998, Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman won 48 percent of the white vote; Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes won 37 percent; and South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges won 40 percent. Gore won 26 percent of the white vote in each of these states. In North Carolina in 1998, U.S. Sen. John Edwards won 41 percent of the white vote; Gore won 31 percent. Adding these white votes to the reliably 9-to-1 Democratic margins among blacks put all these candidates into office.

Democratic strategists should take a long look at why Siegelman, Barnes, Hodges, and Edwards were able to put together a successful biracial coalition and Al Gore couldn't. The simple answer is: In the South, it's no longer about race, it's about message.

Moreover, this formula has implications for Democrats in other parts of the country, such as California and Florida, where multi-ethnic rather than biracial coalitions are required. A diverse, centrist Democratic Party with an inclusive message of balanced growth, education, equal opportunity, and personal responsibility will be more successful and unified than a party patched together in tense negotiations between ethnic-group leaders with different agendas. A common message can build unity from diversity.

Ed Kilgore is policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council.

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