ABOVE PHOTO: David Fitzsimmons, The Arizona Star
Where does the Black community go from here? Part One
By Rahim Islam
On November 9, 2016, America witnessed one of the biggest and most historical political earthquakes ever. Very few people saw this coming. In fact, most predicted that Donald Trump would lose convincingly to Hilary Clinton. Donald Trump won the presidential election by championing White nationalism and by slamming and degrading the “establishment.” It did not matter if it was Democratic- or Republican-driven. It was a victory fueled by the so-called White “working class” voters who had seen their issues go unaddressed election after election until the overconfident Trump began to cater to this constituency. Of all the people, there could be no one more unworthy of their vote, because he has never championed any cause except his own.
It was the most polarizing presidential campaign ever, and Donald Trump attacked almost every minority group in America, except the Jews (he would only hint negatively about them). He also took aim at every institution and long-held ideals regarding American democracy. While it is clear that Donald Trump is not a typical Republican, his election is an absolute and decisive mandate against the Democratic Party and its leadership (i.e. Hillary Clinton, President Obama, etc.). This was more than a victory; this was a slaughtering. Democrats are in their worst political position since the 1920s with the Republicans now in control of the White House, Senate and the House of
I, for one, clearly underestimated what turned out to be two obvious facts about this presidential election: 1) How difficult it is for a woman to become the President of the United States. I thought we would see more jubilation and energy to break this barrier, especially from White women, but it did not happen. I, like many others, believed that this group would have been supportive of her candidacy. At a minimum, I thought that they would do what they did for Barack Obama (I would have never figured that America would elect a Black man before it elected a White woman); and 2) whether it is fair or not, the Clinton “brand” has been damaged beyond repair. Over the years, the Clinton name has evoked extreme levels of hatred and anger, which usually followed the political dialogue in which it was no longer possible to separate fact from fiction when discussing her presidential qualifications. Donald Trump masterfully stoked the “distrust” negative of the Clintons ad nauseam, and now we spend much of our time arguing one side or the other. This is the classic case of “perception being reality.”
If you are even a casual observer of the political climate we live in today, you must conclude that things are not moving in the right direction, at least politically, for the Democratic Party. And because the Black community is so intricately tied to it, things cannot be good for Black people either. I often say, when America catches a cold, the Black community catches triple pneumonia. No matter how bad it gets for White Americans, it is much worse for Black Americans, and even though many White Americans can withstand this defeat, this could forever haunt the Black community.
However, since the election of Barack Obama, our nation’s first Black president, the Democrats have lost power across the entire country. I attribute much of this to the backlash of Obama’s presidency. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States caught the Republican Party off-guard. An unintended consequence is that their base was strengthened as a result. Trump has expanded the base even further with new voters and White extremists. Republicans have always flirted with views that could be interpreted as anti-Black and racist, but never did they have a leader so outward and direct. Trump was someone who could capitalize on their pent-up disdain and hate of a Black president.
Donald Trump began his political career as the founder of the “birther movement” (delegitimizing the presidency of Barack Obama), and he began his campaign for President with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Both efforts were racially motivated and laid the foundation for energizing the far-right wing of the conservative movement and a large group of uneducated Whites. One of the tools used to advance racism is to get poor Whites to believe that no matter how much a Black person gains or achieves–even the Presidency of the United States–he could never be equal to a White person.
These factors, coupled with their existing political plan to take and keep control, will keep the Democrats on their heels for some time in the future. In addition to having complete control of Washington and the future of the United States Supreme Court, the Republican Party has a significant level of control of the country, with 31 governors in office compared to the Democrats having only 18. However, even when Democrats do control the governor’s office, in most cases they do not have control over the state legislature and are unable to implement an agenda. These realities of political weakness and mathematical minorities will have damaging consequences for the Democratic Party going forward, especially in achieving any progress on the implementation and advancement of a national agenda.
During this election, I heard many complaints about the Democratic Party, mainly from young Black people. They stated that our vote does not matter, nor does it matter whom we elect; our plight would not change either way. While I did not fully agree with them, I sincerely understood where they were coming from; it is called hopelessness. The Democrats lost Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by less than 110,000 votes. This outcome could have been prevented with a small percentage increase of Black voters. However, there is a deeper picture here regarding the Black community and the Black agenda. Republicans have control of Washington, and have the power to implement their agenda, which is definitely not a Black agenda. If the Democrats had won, the Black agenda would still be compromised.
Let us be fair. The Democrats did not give our young Black people a real reason to participate. Not because Hilary was not as inspiring an orator as Obama (even before Donald Trump began to discuss the relationship between the Democratic Party and the Black community as disrespectful), but the Black community support for the Democratic Party was melting. Yet, the party did absolutely nothing about it. Many Black voters felt the impact of the Obama backlash (even with a Black President, nothing really changed) and our lack of understanding of the political system. There was little discussion on the issues Blacks felt to be important (i.e. poverty, criminal justice system, jobs, education, etc.) and when there was a discussion, it was lumped into the discussion with other groups. As crazy as Donald Trump is, he spoke directly to Black people by telling them he would bail out our cities and bring more jobs back to the urban communities. Whether it was rhetoric or not, the Democrats did not match his rhetoric.
Democrats must ask themselves why so many people, especially young people, were attracted to Bernie Sanders. “One of the reasons that Donald Trump won is, in my view, a failure of the Democratic Party that must be rectified,” Sanders told a cheering crowd at a post-election rally on Capitol Hill convened by his political action committee and a coalition of progressive advocacy groups. Sanders became popular because he was an independent and because he challenged the “establishment.” Many of his positions aligned with the issues expressed by millions of Americans struggling economically and specifically young people (i.e. higher minimum wage, more vacation days, mandated sick pay, free public colleges, wealth redistribution, etc.). The magic behind the early Sanders surge is not so mysterious: what he says, invariably, is popular with the Democratic base at a time when many feel fatigued by promises of hope and change.
Democrats must ask themselves, giving where they are today, where do they go from here? This will be tough, given that they lack leadership. What went wrong? There are those who say that Clinton did not do enough to drive out the Obama coalition of young people and African Americans. This usually dependable Democratic voting group simply did not turn out in the numbers it did in 2008 and 2012. In fact, the Black vote turnout declined by ten percent from 2012 levels, which contributed to losses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Restated, if we had sustained the 2012 Black voter turnout level, which was significantly less than 2008, we would be celebrating the election of the first woman president of the United States, and no one is more responsible for this not occurring than the leadership of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign.
The Democratic leadership just did not get it, and could not keep the Obama coalition together, which included an overwhelming majority of people of color and a minority of Whites. This is still the winning formula. Nearly two million fewer voters than 2012 (people of color and progressive Whites) ultimately stayed home and did not vote. Maybe those voters that stayed home were lured in by the Trump rhetoric of the election being “rigged,” or “what do you have to lose?” Perhaps they stayed home because all of the polls showed Hillary was a sure shot; or did the democratic elite overestimate the voter registration of the Latino community?
There were some who argued that Clinton was just too much a part of the political establishment that White working class rejected. I believed that they stayed home because the Democratic leadership took the Black vote for granted. Democrats first fatal flaw was to believe that the suburban White vote was the key and, therefore, they poured a disproportionate level of resources and attention to secure their vote. Experts stated that the Democrats spent over $300 million on television ads targeting these swing voters versus the paltry amount allocated to Black voter turnout. It is estimated that there were only five to six million White swing voters, versus more than 25-30 million people of color. The Democrats spending should have reflected this, and many in the Black community felt the neglect. I know firsthand the spending was paltry and woefully insufficient. With the polls showing double-digit leads in some of these states, the Democrats started spending money in traditionally Republican states like Georgia, Texas, and Utah (how cocky).
Where do Democrats go from here? Democrats must address the future of its party quickly and seriously address its relationship with the Black American community. The Black community must ask themselves the same question, because when Blacks place all their eggs in the Democratic Party basket, when they lose, we lose. In Part Two of this article, I will attempt to answer that question for the Black community.
Rahim Islam is a national speaker and writer, Convener of the Philadelphia Community of Leaders, and President/CEO of Universal Companies, a community development and education management company headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. Follow Rahim Islam on Facebook(Rahim Islam) & Twitter (@RahimIslamUC).