Omari Ali’s book, In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States, chronicles the voting strategies employed by black voters throughout our nation’s history. He provides an in-depth analysis of the varying strategies debated and adopted at different points in our history, from the founding of a new nation through the election of our first black President.
According to the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal, and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are rights endowed by the creator. However, from the beginning, there has been a disconnect between these words and reality. This reality was especially apparent when the founding fathers declared their independence but allowed slavery to continue in the colonies.
From the first days of our nation’s founding, abolition of slavery was a primary goal of free blacks, and others. When moral suasion proved largely ineffective, participation in politics became a necessary component of the effort to end slavery. Dr. Ali explores the history of black politics and documents the varied strategies used to achieve results in support of interests of concern to the black community.
Black voters often lent support to major party candidates, sometimes formed independent third parties, and at other times withheld their votes in order to win concessions from a major party.
Formation of the Republican Party in 1854, as a coalition of Democrats and Whigs opposed to the expansion of slavery in new states, ultimately resulted in the abolition of slavery. While black voters’ support for the Republican Party remained intact for some time, those later migrating to the North found their interests more aligned with Democrats. After 1948, “Dixiecrats” left the Democratic Party and efforts to end Jim Crow in the South and the promotion of black civil rights found their best allies in the Democratic Party. That alliance remained rock solid in the aftermath of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the alliance is beginning to show some cracks.
While signs of political independence continue to grow among African Americans, black Democratic officials are on the frontline attempting to restrain that independence.”Ali, Omar H., In the Balance of Power (p. 165). Ohio University Press. Kindle Edition.
We saw this play out in Florida last year over the fight to pass proposed Amendment 3 which would have opened our state primary elections to an additional 3.8 million voters, of which, 1.5 million are people of color.
Sean Shaw is a black man. He is a former state representative and the Democratic nominee for Attorney General in 2018. He led the charge in opposition to Amendment 3, falsely claiming that it would “bleach” black-majority districts and result in black candidates being unable to win elections. He made his case using an analysis of raw voter registration data produced by a freelance consultant with ties to the Florida Democratic Party.
The Black Legislative Caucus scheduled a press conference denouncing Amendment 3 within days of the story breaking in the Tampa Bay Times (Shaw’s home turf). It was sent to all state units of the NAACP and, in turn, was used to pressure the state League of Women Voters to reverse their previous support in the 11th hour. The state party funded a mailer using a stock photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and others marching. The mailer claimed that Amendment 3 would reverse all the gains made in the past. Shaw also ran negative ads on Facebook while refusing to reveal donors to his nonprofit organization.
Shaw ducked debates on several occasions, but when he was pressed about his opposition, he remained firm. He said numerous times that he was black and, if we wanted to vote in a primary, join a party.
Since the 1970s, what has come to be the dominant black political strategy—getting more African Americans elected via the Democratic Party—has required the continuous mobilization, recruitment, and cultivation of loyal black adherents who, in turn, climb up the party’s ladder. The Democratic Party, however, has gone considerably further, manipulating electoral processes and structures to constrict the choices available to African Americans in order to ensure their candidates’ reelection (often working hand in hand with Republicans to minimize overall competition). The party does this while simultaneously demonizing independent, insurgent, and fusion candidates—in the cases of Fulani, Perot, Nader, and Bloomberg, calling them ‘egomaniacs,’ ‘closet right-wingers,’ or ‘spoilers,’ among other terms.95”Ali, Omar H., In the Balance of Power (p. 165-166). Ohio University Press. Kindle Edition.
Dr. Ali rightfully highlights the methods employed by the Democratic Party to keep black voters in their camp. The tactics employed, in conjunction with the failure to deliver solid results on issues important to communities of color, have many rethinking their allegiance to the party. Jackie Salit provides some numbers to back this up in her Afterword.
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”Salit, Jacqueline, In the Balance of Power (p. 174). Ohio University Press. Kindle Edition.
Voters, including people of color, have become disillusioned by the degeneration of politics in the context of a partisan duopoly, and they are declaring their independence in greater numbers than ever before. Where that takes us is anyone’s guess, but I am optimistic that independent voters will continue to be primary agents of change — perhaps on a scale as never before.
Steve Hough is a lifelong independent and became an activist for political reform after retiring as an accountant. He is the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries.
Politics for the People Zoom Event
With Author Omar H. Ali
Sunday, February 21st
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