Poor blacks are still poor and isolated, even after the victories of the civil rights movement. Poor blacks are alienated from the political system, even after Bill Clinton became, some say, our first “black President.” Poor blacks are not the focus of attention of their own elected officials, even as the number of blacks in Congress has increased exponentially. These sad truths set the stage for Eva Thorne’s and Eugene Rivers’s powerful and provocative essay critiquing the way black leadership has neglected the black poor. Thorne and Rivers are right to push us to rethink some of the strategies of the last thirty years. They correctly identify the need for a moral and social-justice vision rooted in the experience of the black poor. They are also right that to galvanize energy for practical problem-solving and visionary leadership we need to change paradigms and move outside the status of captive audience for the Democratic Party.
That the Democratic Party as presently constituted offers little reason for hope is a view now shared even by some of its most ardent standard bearers. Democratic Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. pens an email about “the death throes of the Democratic Party.” Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich writes in the New York Times, “The Democratic establishment in Washington is no longer connected to the grass roots. The national party is nothing but a fund-raising machine. Terry McAuliffe, head of the Democratic National Committee, is distinguished mostly by his ability to wrestle dollars from donors. The Democratic Leadership Council is distinguished mostly by its opposition to organized labor. Congressional Democrats who flock to the vacuous ‘center’ of a rightward-creeping agenda lack the courage of any strong conviction.” And, in the Washington Post, Reich repeats and strengthens his charge: the Democratic Party is not just playing dead. It is dead.
So it is not hard to agree with Thorne and Rivers that “the departure of our Democratic ‘friends’ from the White House, however sobering, may also open up space for a more frank assessment of what we want from national government.” Thorne and Rivers are equally persuasive that “the very illegitimacy of the present administration, as well as the departures in policy it represents, may provide new opportunities for pressure and engagement.”
But poor blacks will not experience such opportunities for pressure and engagement simply by shifting their party loyalty. As one colleague told me, “Democrats may sell out retail but Republicans sell out wholesale.” If the Democrats are dead, the Republicans are alive and dangerous. This Republican administration’s “compassionate conservatism,” its robust tokenism, and its faith-based initiative may have supporters within the black community. But behind the charm offensive, the people actually running the government have strong ideological commitments that are “further to the right than either the first Bush or the Reagan administration,” says Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. “Across the board, it’s obvious that the right wing is in control. And it’s a right-wing agenda that’s being implemented.”
Those who lead cannot do so by shadow-boxing with either the Republican or Democratic Party. The truth is that neither of the two major parties is prepared to deal honestly and vigorously with the needs of the black poor. Poor black people will not find salvation with a political party that believes government is the problem and private markets are the solution. Nor is there much hope when both parties endorse policy agendas that put more young black men in prison than in the job market or in college on any given day. To become a political force, poor and working-class blacks need to organize at the local level and form independent political parties committed to emancipating their minds, not incarcerating their bodies. If Thorne and Rivers intend to revitalize a movement for social justice that is genuinely redistributive and democratic, they need to move beyond a critique of the symptoms to root out and transform the source of the decay.
The root of the problem is not the personality of our leaders or the elitism of individuals who run civil rights organizations. Instead, it is the rules that protect and entrench America’s flawed two-party system. The problem is political, not personal.
The current rules of the political game undermine competition around ideas, and substitute the appearance of competition around candidate character and personality. In our system, whoever wins gets “all” the power. Under those circumstances, both sides—and certainly people of color playing on either side—move to the middle (i.e. the middle class), where most of the votes currently are. Because poor people do not vote, certainly not anywhere near their proportion of the population, their issues are not heard. But they don’t vote precisely because neither party offers them any hope that their daily circumstances will change much at all. No one in either party speaks to issues or constituents by going door-to-door, organizing poor people generally, much less poor black people. Black politicians who play this game, whether Democrat or Republican, have to move to the middle if they want to continue to have an influential voice.
And in the world of politics, winning is not just about the next election. It is also about the next job. So we get a seniority system, in which incumbents climb the ladder of success and are socialized by our elite, candidate-centered apparatus in the process. That such politics fails to mobilize, inform, and inspire half the eligible electorate is not surprising. That it has failed to respond to the needs of America’s most needy is no longer even shocking.
The only way to put the needs of the black poor on the national agenda is to galvanize an all-out democracy movement that breaks the back of the current two-heads/one-party duopoly. What poor blacks need more than an entrée into the Democratic or Republican leadership is a pro-democracy movement. Such a movement has a good chance to succeed if it focuses on unfair rules whose dislocations may be felt first by blacks but whose effects actually disempower vast numbers of people across the country. This movement may, and indeed should, begin within the black community, but could easily develop a truly redistributive, and not just compensatory or legalistic, anti-discrimination agenda. If such a movement is genuinely committed to racial as well as social justice, if it builds from a forward-looking vision rather than a backwards-looking set of grievances, it could rapidly spread across the nation. The question, in other words, is not how far have we come but where are we, or should we be, going?
A pro-democracy movement would focus renewed attention on the importance of ensuring to minority voters—racial, political, and urban minorities—a more meaningful voice as well as a real opportunity to participate throughout the democratic process and not just on election day. It would challenge the rules that give the two major parties a political monopoly. For organizations to represent issues of interest to poor blacks and other people—both white and of color in dire economic, social, and psychological straits, they have to be, as Thorne and Rivers recognize, rooted in the community. But they also need to develop mechanisms and structures of accountability to their constituents. Just claiming to speak in the name of poor black people is not enough. Poor blacks, as is true of all citizens, should be encouraged to participate in democratic practice within organizations dedicated to their interests and speaking not only for them, but also with them.
This requires structural change, not just a different set of leaders. It means multi-party, not just two-party, democracy. It means election rules that permit locally grounded, issue-oriented political organizations. Such rules are called proportional representation orproportional voting. The vast majority of mature democracies have already adopted systems of proportional representation (PR).
Each voter’s vote counts when it is cast. In a party-list system of PR, the party runs a slate of candidates who are committed to a legislative platform, held accountable to the party’s vision, and have an organic relationship to the party’s base of voters rather than to its funders. Depending upon the percentage of votes cast for the party, a certain number of candidates on the party list are elected. Assume a ten-member city council. If the party wins 30 percent of the vote, it gets three of ten seats. Those council or legislative seats are then filled with the first three names on the party list. The order in which names are listed is an internal party issue, around which different constituencies can mobilize and negotiate. These internal struggles enable issue-oriented constituencies to advocate effectively for real power within the party.
As a result, women do much better with party list systems than they do in winner-take-all, candidate-centered elections like we have in the United States. Proportional voting can also support the development of local political organizations that educate and mobilize voters because it changes the incentive structure for elections. Unlike our system, in which incumbents are reluctant to do anything to broaden the electorate that put them in office, under PR such organizations gain seats to the extent they mobilize additional support.
But voting for a candidate or a party is not enough. It is only when voters are vigilant, even after the votes are counted, that the interests of poor blacks, white workers, and disenfranchised urban minorities of every color shall help shape public policy. Here Thorne’s and Rivers’s description of the work of black churches is critical to developing local grassroots organizations that can monitor not only elections but also legislative actions. The ideological nurturing of local leadership, rooted in the experience of such organizations, could also fuel the development of a new era of issue-centered politics, where people reflect upon and express their political views through advocacy groups, church forums, and local democratic (small d)organizations.
Of course, there are downsides to issue-oriented politics that builds from the bottom up. Such efforts require enormous energy from people whose lives are already consumed with the burdens of survival. But the upside is a powerful antidote to the sense of futility and isolation that often accompanies the daily grind for those who act alone. Political organizations that promote an issue-oriented agenda, that are rooted in the interests and the energy of poor blacks, and that are committed to a vision of social and racial justice, would provide opportunities to experience the joy of solidarity and renewed faith that comes from collective struggle. And such local, community-centered, issue-driven organizations would give those constituents greater tools of accountability and greater incentives for sustained participation. They would enable them to fight the power with a new kind of power-from-within. Even poor black people could form and participate in locally driven political parties, rather than political clubs driven by the ego and fund raising ability of individual candidates.
PR and the consequent development of issue-oriented political organizations are no panacea. It would still be essential to fight fragmentation and to aggregate, rotate, and share power among progressive interests in a lasting and sustainable way in order to realize a fully democratic movement. But the key is to orient the debate away from elite-driven oligarchies and toward the energy and the vision of poor black people themselves. This is not about playing ball with either party in its current form. This is about creating a new ball game, organized around the needs and interests of poor and working-class blacks, that reaches deep inside the anger and frustration of those who have been raced black and dismissed as poor in this society. Its momentum may build from within the black community, but its vision needs to include and incorporate issues of class, gender, and justice without losing sight of the real stakeholders in a democracy—the people themselves.