Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Black America and the 1984 election

By E. Ablorh-Odjidja

The truth must be spoken. This strategy of voting predominantly democrat is politically vulnerable. It is like playing football with an offence only squad. Our correspondent in America throws new light on the repercussions of the recent American elections
The 1984 elections are over, and Mr Reagan, the incumbent President, has won a decisive victory, and another four years in the White House. The massive effort to register black discontent against Reagan's re- election is clearly over. What is not clear now is the well-being of Blacks, and the shape of black American politics under the coming administration and beyond.

President Reagan's victory is an accomplishment of historic proportion: First, it is a landslide. Second, it marks the first time an incumbent President has been re-elected in a period spanning over a decade. A New York Times editorial said the day after, that "It has been twenty-four years since a President served out two terms" - implying the strong possibility that Mr Reagan will complete his term in office. Third, it registers a turn back in the first real attempt to elect a female vice- president. All told, it is a solid victory for Reagan, a resounding defeat for the Democrats, and a devastating blow to black political strategy in presidential elections.

The determined effort by Blacks was to elect a much preferred candidate, Mondale, over a candidate of low black esteem, Reagan, whom Blacks regarded as anathema to their politics and interest. Now that the results are in, indications are that black politics will not be the same again, so far as presidential elections go, and that changes in black political thinking and strategies are in the offing.

For the most part of forty years, Black America has voted consistently for the Democratic Party. This vote gained significance over the years, and reached its peak when Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1976. In recognition for this help, Blacks were rewarded with access to the corridors of power in American politics. Mr Andrew Young became Ambassador to the United Nations, a post which was up-graded during this era to rank with that of the Secretary of State. Mr Young rightfully became the symbol of the new political might of Blacks, and a force within the leadership ranks of Black America.

But some assess the gains of Blacks under Carter as minimal, and not better than those under the previous Republican administrations. Relatively, they said, the vote turned in for Carter far exceeded the gains.

One wouldn't hear the above argument from the black leadership, which is strongly Democrat. They claim that the lot of the blackman is better under a democrat, and that it was under a democrat President, Mr Johnson, that Blacks registered the most civil rights gains.

Maybe it is time to call up another courage in Blacks, the sort that led to the march for civil rights, for the re-alignment of the future of Blacks with that of both parties, Republican and Democrat

Such was the lasting impression of these gains that the perception among the majority of Black Americans is and has been that the Democratic party is the party that understands the needs of Blacks, the party that cares, and the party with compassion.

Thus, Mondale has compassion, and, therefore, must win. Instead, Reagan won. The equation has changed as a result. The question to be asked now is whether Reagan has any compassion? Or does Mondale have the most compassion, and Reagan some? But compassion, for now, must remain a question mark..

There are those who have already pointed accusatory finger at this compassion as the major cause of Black disenfranchisement in the political structure. They associate it with the same compassion that caused White intrusion into Africa and the resulting diaspora. They see compassion, in Africa of today, supporting negative causes; rebellion, fragmentations, secessions, hunger, civil wars, apartheid and renegade military regimes.

But, one must not allow compassion to be roundly kicked in the face. It has its good sides and has produced legitimate results, and Blacks are the best placed to know it. So, keying in on compassion as a political issue is not entirely without merit.

However, this being politics, one must question the merits of a political strategy that is strongly based on a simple virtue.

In 1976, Blacks gave Carter, a Democrat, 85% of their vote, and then 86% in 1980. His opponent in 1976, the incumbent President Mr Ford, got a mere 15%. Reagan registered 10% of the Black vote against Carter in 1980 and 11% in 1984 to Mondale's 89%. Clearly, the Black vote is one-sided. In this respect Blacks do and have done more for the Democratic party than any single bloc of identifiable voters within the party: The Hispanic voted 30% for Reagan in 1980 and 50% in 1984.

That same year, the AFL-CIO, the mighty labour organization, set out openly to destroy Reagan in the elections. In spite of their gallant effort, Reagan gained 7% more from organized labour than he did in 1980 bringing his total to 47%. Not the Hispanic, not Labour can deny Blacks this bragging right.

But what will be the pay-off for Blacks for their 1984 election effort? They already know that their candidate did not win. And to add insult to injury, there is the accusation that they are polarizing American politics along racial lines. The case of the elections in Mississippi is cited as an example where it is said that Whites, regardless of party affiliations, voted massively for Reagan because Blacks were doing better for Mondale.

One is tempted to caution danger in the face of this kind of thinking as such reasoning does not bode well for America, the Democrats, and Black s. The pity is, when all Blacks get for a honest effort to seek redress of the grievances, the accusation of helping polarize the political system along racial lines. To, at least, avert this pessimistic and racist view, a new outlook is called for in black politics.

Which brings us to Blacks and the Republican party. Obviously, Blacks have made very minimal contributions and investments in the Republican party for these past years when they were busy going with the Democrats, and much less in the political career of Ronald Reagan.

If they were to hope to benefit from the Reagan administration, it would be for reason of the same quality that they accuse him of lacking compassion. The future will tell whether Reagan has compassion or not, and this ought to be weighted with the realities of American politics as background.

As Blacks know well, the political process does not end at the polls. Its influence remains long after the votes are counted, and after the candidates are established in office. That losers and their supporters are not rewarded with the spoils of victory, and "pork- barrel" profits.

Mr Benjamin Hooks, the National Director of the oldest civil rights organization in America, the NAACP, commented sadly on Reagan's victory when he said: "we've finally got a President who will say no to Negroes: You've got to get your own boot; your own strap and lift yourself up." He may be right, but he failed to comment on the strategy that provides the excuse for the neglect he fears.

But truth must be spoken. This strategy of voting predominantly democrat is politically vulnerable. It is like playing football with an offence only squad. Now Reagan has the ball and the Black team has no defence, only 11% of the defence squad is available to block attacks, run interceptions, and possibly score a touch down. It is an impossible feat, and the score on the boards after the game is likely to read nightmarish.

In the same league, however, is another minority group, the Hispanic. They have another strategy. This time, they are playing 50% Reagan (defence), up from 30% in 1980. Offence/defence must be the name of their game. And it is not a bad strategy either, since hedging one's bets is not.

The results of both manoeuvres are predictable with the help of American political standards. But, were these real football games, the coach of the Hispanic team would be rewarded with another contract, and that of the Blacks fired on sheer results alone.

A new leadership, some say, must be sought now from within the growing rank of black Republicans, since they have made the switch already and may not be hampered by any sense of loyalty to the traditional Democrat

Here, outsiders must admit that the political prudence of the black political tactics may be lost to them because they do not share the same emotional pith with Black America concerning the issue of racial politics in America. But the question still remains valid - whether it is wise to put all one's eggs in the same basket? And whether it is not time, especially in the face of the Reagan rout, to re-evaluate the singular nature of this political strategy which gives all the votes to a specific party before the elections are announced?

Maybe it is time to call up another courage in Blacks, the sort that led to the march for civil rights, for the re- alignment of the future of Blacks with that of both parties, Republican and Democrat.

But, there is reason to doubt that the present leadership is capable of this re- alignment. Rev Jesse Jackson, Mrs Corretta Scott King and Andrew Young, all veritable black leaders of the democratic grain, are too entrenched in the party's philosophy and processes to want to make the switch. Besides, one must sincerely question whether these leaders would be comfortable among the ranks of the Republican party leadership?

The assumption is that the well- known sentiment of loyalty and gratitude of black tradition may be too strong a pull on these individuals. Rev Jesse Jackson threatened to pull Blacks out of the 1984 election if his demands were not met. They were not. And, instead, he ended up with a noble and conciliatory speech at the San Francisco convention.

A new leadership, some say, must be sought now from within the growing rank of black Republicans, since they have made the switch already and may not be hampered by any sense of loyalty to the traditional Democrat. There are already indications that this group is beginning to have some impact on the black electorate. Despite the strong voter registration drive of the Rev Jesse Jackson among Blacks, the black vote for Reagan was not reduced in 1984.

The reading now is that because of this resounding defeat of Mondale, Blacks will be disillusioned and disenchanted with the traditional support of the Democrats and may want to look for another option. This eventuality is what black Republicans are hoping may help to swell their ranks a bit. Then, they claim, both sides, together, will be able to impact more successfully on future American administrations, regardless of which party is in power.

Until then, Blacks in general will continue to depend on compassion, especially from the Reagan administration.

talking drums 1985-02-11 open letter to rawlings