The first edition of In the Balance of Power went to press in the fall of 2008, just days before Barack Obama was elected to be the forty-fourth president of the United States. Omar Ali was able to see that African Americans were creating “new political practices” that could lead to “the remaking of a black and independent alliance.” Ali, a brilliant historian and history-maker himself, had—and still has—a boundless enthusiasm for new possibilities and new sources of power for the dispossessed.
Of course, history defies forecasts and sets its own timelines for progress, having to navigate and negotiate the actions of men, women, institutions, pandemics, and masses of people along the way. In this case, while the historic Obama victory in 2008 was powered by his winning 95 percent of the black vote1 and taking the independent vote by eight points,2 making that nascent alliance a reality, Obama and the political party to which he belonged neither nurtured it nor protected it. By 2012, Obama was hemorrhaging independent support, as many nonpartisan voters felt he had succumbed to the pressure to govern as a partisan Democrat. In his reelection bid, Obama lost independent voters to Republican Mitt Romney by 5 points,3 a swing of thirteen points.
I know this story not simply because I read the exit polls. I know this because I was engaging with the highest levels of the Obama team throughout the spring and summer of 2012 in an effort to persuade them to reinvest in the development of the black and independent alliance. How? By having the president, elected by an independent coalition, respond directly to the growing concerns of independent voters who felt that party interests were eclipsing the national interest. Those independents had provided his margin over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries and then over John McCain in the November election. They needed a signal that Obama still intended to champion their antipartisan values. Eight months into the discussion, the Obama team revealed that the Democratic National Committee had nixed any such outreach to independent voters. Its stakeholders believed they could win reelection without them.
In the short term, they were right. They did. But the political costs of that decision were immeasurable. Once independents were cut loose by the DNC, the swing by independent voters to the Republicans in 2012 helped lay the groundwork for the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It is estimated that as many as 9 million Obama voters—many of them white independents—cast ballots for Trump in 2016.4
But the story goes even deeper. The falloff in African American turnout for Hillary Clinton in 2016—estimated to have been upwards of 1.5 million—was intentional and significant.5 Beyond reports of voter suppression among black voters that year, African Americans seem to have been making a point by not voting. The combination was likely sufficient to have swung Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even Florida into the Trump column. As the Washington Post recently reported on numbers from the political data firm L2, “more than a third of those who didn’t vote in 2016 after backing Obama four years prior were black.”6
In this book’s final chapter, Ali quotes Michael Dawson from Behind the Mule as observing, “Political behavior also includes the decision whether or not to vote.” In this case, the disillusionment with Clintonism among African Americans elicited political behavior of some consequence.
Thus, one might reasonably conclude that some millions of African Americans and independents were politically aligned in their lack of confidence in the 2016 Democratic ticket. Though independents—in a show of distress with all corners of the political system—realigned in 2018 and gave control of Congress to the Democratic Party, this coalition is by no means consolidated for the long term.
What then is the 2020 status of these two historical movements—the independent movement (which sometimes but not always appears in third-party form) and the black empowerment movement? And what can those concerned to bring these two potent forces together learn from the vivid and conflicted history that Ali narrates in this volume?
First, we note the explosive size and diversification of the community of independent voters. As of January 2020, the Gallup polling organization found 45 percent of Americans identifying themselves as independents, a jump of 7 percent in two months.7 And, independent politics is not the sole province of the “moderate white center,” though the media like to portray it as such. Polls have shown that 27 percent of African Americans between eighteen and twenty-five years old identify as independents.8 The Congressional Black Caucus found in January 2017 that 63 percent of African Americans feel taken for granted by the Democratic Party.9 Ali himself conducted a survey of college independents in 2012 in North Carolina finding that 82.6 percent of the respondents said they did not want to be labeled as either a Democrat or a Republican.10 A little-noted study by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found that 57 percent of those who had voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1984 Democratic primary would have voted for him as an independent if he had continued his campaign as a third-party candidacy.11 Forty-seven percent of African Americans cast ballots in New York City in 2005 for Michael Bloomberg, even as Stop and Frisk was in full effect.12 Bloomberg himself was elected in 2001 by a newly crafted black and independent coalition that flourished while he was mayor, largely because it was cultivated by its independent black leadership, most notably Lenora Fulani.
Still, the prospects for a durable crossover coalition of African Americans and independents are challenging. While it is the case that the prodemocracy passions of independent voters—who find themselves relegated to second-class status as primary voters, candidates, taxpayers, and debate participants—bind them to African Americans and the long and bloody struggle for civil and voting rights, it might also seem that common cause would be hard to sustain. Certainly, Ali documents plenty of those difficulties in this book. And the idea that independent voters—millions of whom voted for Trump in 2016—could have anything in common with African Americans might seem implausible in these times. And yet, if these divisions are in the forefront of America’s current political crisis, might we not look for ways to bridge that gap?
For a deeper look at this, I recently turned to the insights of James Baldwin and his now famous 1965 debate with conservative William F. Buckley Jr. at the Cambridge Union. The topic, or motion before the Union, a half century ago, staged with full Cambridge Union pomp and circumstance, was “The American Dream Is at the Expense of the American Negro.”13 In front of a packed chamber, Baldwin argued the affirmative. He presented a blistering and personal account of the bitter history of slavery and racism at the heart of the American experience. But he also did something else, something unexpected, something wholly relevant to the question of whether a black and independent alliance that reaches across the color and ideological divide is possible circa the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
Recounting a story of being made to wait for service at a Western Union office by a Southern white woman clerk, Baldwin explains:
But what is happening in the poor woman, the poor man’s mind is this: They have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation, which is like a heavenly revelation. At least they are not black.
Now, I suggest that of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being, that is one of the worst. I suggest that what has happened to white southerners is in some ways, after all, much worse than what has happened to Negroes there . . .
Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breast, for example. What happens to the woman is ghastly, what happens to the man who does it is, in some ways, much, much worse. This is being done, after all, not 100 years ago, but in 1965, in a country which is blessed with what we call prosperity, a word we won’t examine too closely, with a certain kind of social coherence, which calls itself a civilized nation and which espouses the notion of the freedom of the world . . .
I suggest further that, that in the same way the moral life of Alabama sheriffs, and poor Alabama ladies, white ladies, that their moral lives have been destroyed by the plague called color, that the American sense of reality has been corrupted by it . . .
One of the great things that the white world does not know, but I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else. One has used the myth of Negro and the myth of color to pretend and to assume that you are dealing essentially with something exotic, bizarre, and practically, according to human laws, unknown. Alas, that is not true. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars—we are human, too. What is crucial here is that unless we can manage to establish some kind of dialogue between those people whom I pretend have paid for the American Dream, and those other people who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble . . .
It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one ninth of its population is beneath them. And, until that moment, until the moment comes, when we, the Americans, we the American people, are able to accept the fact that I have to accept, for example, that my ancestors are both white and black, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country. Until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And if that happens, it is a very grave moment for the West.” 14
With these prophetic words, Baldwin lays down the contours of the “conundrum” America faces today. And we must ask ourselves, in light of his words and in light of the last fifty years in which we have seen the election of a black president by a black and independent alliance and a broad reaction to it, what is the future of such an alliance? Is its ultimate power not simply as an electoral coalition, but as a bridge of empathies and interests between whites and blacks who have—each in different ways—been left behind, manipulated, hollowed out and abused by the dominant system? Could these Americans join together to transform an exploitative and divisive political and cultural system?
Ali documents the unlikely cross-racial and often cross-ideological coalitions that have appeared and reappeared over time with controversial and visionary black leaders Frederick Douglas, Walter Pattillo, W. E. B. Du Bois, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Lenora Fulani at the helm. There is historical precedent. But today’s political crisis demands more than just precedent. Today there is also a profound weakening of governing and political institutions, of parties and ideology and public trust. The consent of the governed is slipping away. While the stranglehold of party loyalty is at an apex, the public desire for political freedom, for choice, for mobility, and for development among ordinary Americans is spreading. New institutions based on new partnerships and ways of being must be built.
Will these historical shifts thrust African Americans and independents into playing a leadership role in the balance of power? This is the next question, the next challenge, the next call to action.
Footnotes 1-14 can be found on pages 233-234, In the Balance of Power
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