Only by Breaking the Partisan Divides Can We Find True Equality
Imagine if George Floyd had died, instead of less than six months before one of the most polarizing, rhetorically charged partisan elections in our history, it had been prior to a top-five nonpartisan/truly public primary?
A top-five primary, or any iteration thereof, greatly opens up our political process to give all voters and all candidates a level playing field. All candidates from all party preferences, including no party preference, appear on the same primary ballot, and the top five (or other iteration) of vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election, where voters use ranked choice voting to determine the final winner. Would his death, and the ensuing protests, have been viewed and responded to through a less partisan lens?
Although Omar Ali didn’t directly pose this question in his book In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States, I feel like he’s invited me to ask it.
Ali outlines the contributions and influences of Black outsider movements throughout our nation’s history, showing that the strength of the struggle for equality, justice and democratic reform has largely been found through independent politics among African Americans, and that true equality must be forged through a Black and independent alliance.
Unfortunately, the nature of our two-party system wields power in such a way as to heavily disadvantage and block those who try to work independent of the two major parties; it practically forces those trying to make a difference to wed themselves to a party.
In particular, Ali demonstrates how the Democratic party that has taken the Black vote for granted has both succeeded and failed. He points out that “there are over six times as many African Americans serving in Congress as there were in 1965. The number of elected African Americans serving in local, state and federal offices now exceed 8,000 – from less than 300 prior to 1965.” But, Ali asserts, “Despite the substantial number of Black Democrats serving in office (and some Black Republicans, including at the highest levels of office . .), the Black community – as a whole –remains politically marginalized and chronically poor.”
George Floyd’s death, and the ensuing protests, should have united our country to come together to make further advancements towards equality, and to make visible progress in obliterating systemic racism and disparate income inequality. But instead, his death further divided us.
Jackie Salit, in her Afterword to the book, eloquently quotes James Baldwin from his 1965 debate with conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. The topic being debated was, “The American Dream Is at the Expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin said,
[W]e the American people . . . have to accept . . . that on th[is] 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 this country. Until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream.”
Baldwin also said,
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 . . . .”
That is the problem with our partisan political structure. It doesn’t bring about true equality and it doesn’t foster dialogue. We need to forge a new identity to enliven the American Dream, and Omar Ali writes about those who have been working on that for years in the African American community.
I have countless friends and family on the Republican side who believe that there is no systemic racism, that we’ve already achieved “equal opportunity,” and now it’s just a matter of people “working hard.” They don’t believe that “victim mentality” serves anyone. Perhaps somewhat ironically, they also believe that the tables have now been turned against them. That racial minorities, buoyed by Democrats, seek disproportionate power to wield the state to advance themselves above THEM, to begin a new era of discrimination against THEM.
On the other hand, my Democratic friends have absolutely no sympathy for this mindset and are quick to label anyone on the right who doesn’t favor Democratic policies as racist, bigoted, fascist, uneducated, etc.
If our political system didn’t divide us into two competing teams, as well as along racial, class and ideological lines, we’d be able to see each other better and we’d be less apt to view a different viewpoint as the enemy, but simply as different. We’d work harder to incorporate various perspectives into policy rather than find ways to manipulate the system to marginalize the viewpoints we don’t like. We’d be able to see that politics doesn’t have to be about power and non-power, but it can be about empowerment, for everyone.
While it may appear like Black Americans are currently prospering with a home in the Democratic party, we need to create a political environment where they can move politically as freely as whites do, and not feel as though the Democratic party is “their only real home.”
I agree with Ali and Salit that to “transform an exploitative and divisive political and cultural system,” hope lies in a successful Black and independent alliance. We need to continue building coalitions that are cross-racial, cross-ideological, and that cross the class divides. Moving to nonpartisan / public primaries is a good way to press forward in the same spirit of many who went before, documented by Omar Ali. In fact, it seems our country, in my lifetime, has never been so in need of, and ready for, these changes.
Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and President of New Hampshire Independent Voters and New Hampshire Ranked Choice Voting.
In the Balance of Power:
Independent Black Politics and
Third-Party Movements in the United States
By Omar H. Ali
Video of our Feb 21st zoom conversation with Dr. Omar Ali will be available soon.