Omar Ali and In The Balance of Power
Commentary by Al Bell
February 5, 2021
Old white guys like me generally don’t know much about the history Omar Ali unfolds in the update of his 2008 book, In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States. I am hardly alone in that, of course. This is a crash course in the historic ebb and flow of political influence and impact by Black Americans and avowed independents. The story has special relevance to American political forces taking shape in this pivotal initial fifth of the twenty-first century, driven increasingly by the “outs:” Independent Voters who do not choose to kowtow to the Democratic and Republican party dictates and Black Voters who continue to seek their legitimate place at the table of governance. Formidable obstacles confront both of them and new ones emerge regularly.
I owe readers of this commentary (not review) a full disclosure: All of this matters, I believe, because the Great American Experiment faces unusual internal challenges. Parties, labels, silos, movements, interest groups, tribes, myriad organizations, etc. all have their place. The purpose they are part of, however, is much larger than any of them, including what we refer to as the Independent Voter movement, in which most (if not all of us) following the Politics For the People book club are active. Viewed this way, political and voter rights for independence is not merely an end (though that is worthwhile); it is a means. So, for that matter, are political parties from time to time, but current party behavior belies any real grasp of purpose other than raw political advantage.
One more disclosure: my current stack of “must read” books has me overwhelmed. Why, then, should I bump all of that aside and read Omar Ali’s book? Well, I didn’t. I only read parts of it and skimmed the rest. I have never written a review of a book on that basis. I am now in uncharted territory.
On a personal level, I will finish it in increments over the next few weeks. Driven by the P4P calendar, I am reluctantly sharing my thoughts thus far in the hope that they will stir interest by others. This is not a review; it is a commentary. These observations are stimulated by what I have read so far, including the major update: an afterword by Jackie Salit.
Do not expect the following points to follow any pattern; they don’t. And please do not blame Dr. Ali for these comments; he is responsible for stimulating them, but has no responsibility at all for my interpretation. I hope he doesn’t cringe if he reads them, but he surely has that privilege.
We continue to be faced with what I refer to as a “DuopoLith” (the duopoly of two parties; the monolith of the two-party power collusion and world view) of American political life: the seemingly impregnable fortress constructed by the Democratic and Republican parties as a pathetic surrogate for American governance. It is a dismal distortion of what the Great American Experiment requires. Not surprisingly, the challenges to this domination arise from outside the parties. Black Americans, often associated with other marginalized segments of the population (though not always) have played significant roles in bending the Nation’s political trajectory. Indeed, they are sometimes the determinators, as are independents, increasingly. Black independents are a force of nature in electoral terms.
Winners get to write the history books. That is why so many make it seem like the DuopoLith is the only game in town. That is often true in the short run and seldom in the long run. That is a major reason why this book is so important—and remains so over a decade after its first edition.
Parties focus on ideology and control; independents, often including Black Americans, focus on issues requiring resolution. The process often consumes decades, with sharp reversals and varied alliances along the way. The long game requires a long view; difficult to achieve and sustain when the consequences for large swaths of Americans are often so significantly degraded. That includes Black Americans for the last 456 years (from St. Augustine onward) and poor populations generally throughout our history (and everyone else’s).
Our society, from the very wording of the Constitution in 1787 until today, takes certain segments of the population for granted, as do parties with voters who are not loyal to the DuopoLith but vote for party nominated candidates anyway because there are seldom options. Parties want our money for campaigns and our votes for candidates and then our silence until the next election.
The DuopoLith views the political landscape as a zero-sum environment, in which there must always be winners and losers, with the parties dictating who is which. Black Americans have experienced this phenomenon from all parties throughout our history.
The so-called party base (for each party) is impervious to critical thinking and voting for the most part. This leaves the “margins” to determine who wins and who loses elections in selective areas—in recent years, coming down to half a dozen states or so that swing numerically relatively little, but enough to elect a President. Those thin margins are populated in large measure by Independent Voters and Black Voters in different proportions and at different times. Many factors account for this micro-focus on a few areas: the nature of the electoral college, gerrymandering, DuopoLith collusion, cynical voter suppression tactics, segregated socioeconomic patterns evolving over time, and skewed economic policy, to mention a few.
A key example of this cited by Mr. Ali is the drop-off in ballots cast by Black Voters between 2008 and 2012, in which millions of Black Voters did not cast ballots. Contrary to conventional description, however, they did vote. They voted for the winner. All people who are able to cast ballots and do not, vote for whoever wins. Jackie, in her afterword, mention’s Michael Dawson’s quote used by Omar Ali in his book:
Political behavior also includes the decision whether or not to vote.”
That is not the decision; the decision is whether or not to cast a ballot. Either way is a vote. The reason this perspective is so pivotal in terms of increased voter rights and responsibilities (a bias: those words must always appear together) requires more words than belong here. Some other time.
Much of the history described here is about having a voice—or not—in the political arena. The problem with the DuopoLith is that it is one thing to have a voice; it is quite another to be at the table with other voices when the critical choices and decisions are made. The DuopoLith is very accomplished at maintaining a “pure” table, as they choose to define it, by whatever means works. Black Voters and Independent Voters can tell you all about that. So can poor White Voters in economically devastated communities.
A major issue discussed in depth is the matter of self-determination or consolidation (more broadly, integration), a theme that keeps reappearing through history. My only comment at this point is this; we are one Nation and that embraces the theoretical vision of the Union. In reality, as has often been the case, we are all “in this,” but not at all together. To understand how this happens and what we might do about it, we can benefit greatly by understanding past evolutions of attempts to bridge that span, both successful and not.
Now I know why I need to finish the book.
Al Bell lives in Peoria, AZ and is an activist with Independent Voters for Arizona. Al served on Independent Voting’s Eyes on 2020 National Cabinet, working to get the 2020 presidential primaries open to independents across the country.
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