Rick Perlstein has a laudable goal—the crafting of a strategy that will ensure a lasting progressive electoral majority centered on the Democratic Party. While some might question the focus on the Democratic Party, the need to forge a new majority based on progressive principles and aggressive tactics cannot be doubted. Perlstein does an admirable job of diagnosing the problems facing the Democrats as well as suggesting some solutions. But Perlstein’s approach is likely to fail because he has failed to directly address the century-old Achilles’ heel of the left—the deep fissure of race which continues to undermine efforts to build a broad multiracial progressive coalition.
Perlstein is correct about many important points. First, as his analyses suggest, the great benefits that Boeing reaped when it focused on long-term investment and strategies (and, conversely, the catastrophe that occurred when it started focusing on short-term profits) provide an important lesson for the progressive movement. Progressives need to put aside short-term electoral strategies, as the conservative movement did, in favor of long-term gains. Perlstein correctly argues that a new strategy must also focus on historic core principles—particularly those of economic justice—that can unite a majority of Americans. He makes the much-needed point that progressives in general, and those who seek to transform the Democratic Party in particular, must be willing to take the fight directly to the opposition. All of the above, he correctly notes, require not only patience but a deep commitment to principle and the goal of identifying the Democratic Party with a core, central message. Progressives must be as persistent with their message and principles as were conservatives in their own dark days of the early 1960s.
But Perlstein does not confront one of the key vulnerabilities that he identifies. He offers no strategy for addressing the racial divide that slices through the Democrats’ electoral coalition. As Perlstein writes, both Democratic and Republican Party strategists see the white voters’ identification of the Democratic Party with African-Americans (a phenomenon well documented by several political scientists) as a critical liability. This is hardly a new problem: in the second half of the 19th century, Republican Party strategists also complained out loud that their party’s perceived ties to blacks were costing them white votes (blacks of that time overwhelmingly supported the party of Lincoln). The Democrats of today, particularly those who are sympathetic to the analyses of the DLC, pursue the same strategy as 19th-century Republicans and several generations of (white) progressive organizers—distance the party from blacks while concentrating on non-racial issues. The most progressive of this family of strategies concentrates, as does Perlstein, on an agenda centered on economic justice.
The problem is particularly acute for today’s Democratic Party. While African-Americans remain a small minority—and they are declining in size relative to other minority racial groups—their geographical concentration and massive allegiance to a progressive economic policy, foreign policy, and racial agenda make them a critical component of the Democrats’ base. Without black voters, the Democrats would not be competitive in the South. In key battleground states such as Michigan and Missouri, black turnout, or the lack thereof, can mean the difference between a Democratic presidential nominee winning or losing. And blacks can be a key determinant when an electorate is closely divided, as is now the case. Pragmatically Democrats need to pursue strategies that encourage energetic black mobilization at the same time that they want to win substantial white support.
The way around this quandary, we are told, is to push a universal progressive program that de-emphasizes racial issues. Since many African-Americans are among the most disadvantaged of Americans, such a program will be very beneficial to the race without incurring the racial animosity that flows from over-attention to identity issues. But why should this strategy work now when it has been largely a failure for over the past century? For most blacks, concern for racial issues are not a matter of identity politics but instead have at their core a concern for justice and fairness. The parties’, not to mention the polity’s, lack of attention to these issues has led to a deep and growing disillusionment about racial progress in the United States among African-Americans. In March of 2003, 79 percent of blacks believed that blacks would either not achieve racial equality in the United States during their lifetimes or not at all. Conversely, 67 percent of whites thought that blacks had either achieved racial equality or would do so soon. My work has shown that black racial disillusionment has led not only to a massive rejection of the Bush presidency (he has an 8-percent approval rating among blacks as this is being written) but also to a political agenda more conducive to black-nationalist than progressive organizing attempts.
Dr. King asked in 1967, “Where do we go from here?” At the time he also saw deepening distrust and hostility among the races taking root. And he also made the argument at that time that black anger and cries for black power were the result of white backlash and an insufficient commitment to racial justice, not the cause of white hostility. We should not be shy in admitting that such hostility is still alive and well. A recent article by the sociologist Doug Massey states that a large minority of whites (20 percent) would prefer to live in all-white neighborhoods and that a larger fraction (25 percent) prefer neighborhoods that do not have any black residents.
How do progressives avoid alienating white voters, skeptical at best of a political party too closely identified with blacks, without further alienating a black electorate that is increasingly disillusioned, and which could either withdraw from the electoral process or turn to a more nationalist agenda?
Perlstein provides part of the answer. Progressives in general and Democrats in particular must commit themselves to a course that may be difficult in the short run, but that is most likely to pay off in the long run. First, there should be a debate about what is the nature of a new progressive alliance. Certainly the core Democratic Party constituencies should be included, but new possibilities should also be energetically pursued. Such a coalition would include old labor but also new labor (which is often composed of racial and ethnic minorities, many of whom are immigrants). It would organize around the concerns of women and reach out to younger women who are seeing their reproductive choices not so slowly being narrowed as the result of an aggressive conservative agenda. It would reach out to the new immigrants of this century just as the Democratic Party reached out to immigrants a century ago. But progressives would also pursue a dialogue about race that would openly address the grievances of the past and present, debate which are legitimate, which can and cannot be repaired, and what role the state should have in compensating those who have been disadvantaged by racial subordination within the United States. The process will be painful for all involved. But without such a discussion, without building a party committed to justice on all fronts, the Democratic Party will be condemned to a future of occasional victories but continued weakness.
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Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.