It’s an election year and the prevailing wisdom has it that the coming “blue wave” will sweep Democrats back into the majority in the House and possibly even the Senate. But a growing number of black political organizers are asking: will more blue dots on the Congressional map mean our policy priorities will be represented? Political strategist Jessica Byrd, founder of Three Point Strategies, a consultancy that aids African-American women running for office, is skeptical. “I’ve never not run against the Democratic Party. There’s this fake feeling that when Democrats are doing well, everyone who has a progressive vision is doing well. That’s not true.”
Although black people make up 22 percent of the Democratic Party and routinely vote for them at rates above 90 percent, the party does little to address issues that specifically affect them. Democrats tend to talk about healthcare, education, support for the poor, the rollback of the war on drugs, and criminal justice reform in vague, color-blind language—which ignores the particular, devastating impact that each of these issues has on black people. Princeton political scientist Paul Frymer has called this “electoral capture”: the Democratic Party’s habitual disregard for a loyal constituency that has no other reasonable alternative for representation.
Additionally, the Democratic Party is slow to support progressive candidates of color, generally preferring to back moderate white candidates, and the policies that Democrats do tend to support do not help communities of color overcome institutionalized disadvantage in economic or social life. As we know, black Americans suffer from growing income and wealth gaps, housing segregation and eviction, incarceration, ongoing discrimination, and a worsening maternal and infant mortality crisis. In the social realm, blatant racism has become more common, with white supremacists enjoying a level of public tolerance unseen since the 1950s.
The point here is not to blame the Democratic Party for these ills, but to show that the problems that disproportionately affect black people and other people of color—a large plurality of the Democratic coalition and the most reliable Democratic voters—are not at the top of the party’s priorities. Where is the plan to address the disparate economic recovery of white and black Americans? Where is the call for a civil rights investigation of Michigan state officials who have poisoned a generation of Flint’s mostly black children? Where is the plan to reverse the astronomically high risks of maternal mortality for black women? And where are the party’s advocacy and proposals for ending the disproportionate warehousing of black and brown people in jails and prisons as well as their often lethal harassment by police?
Black voters feel this disregard keenly. A 2017 poll by Cornell Belcher, head of the polling firm Brilliant Corners, reported that 63 percent of black voters feel taken for granted by the Democratic Party. In an open letter to DNC Chairman Tom Perez published in May 2017, a group of black activists, academics, and political professionals warned:
The Democratic Party has a real problem. The data reveals that black women voters are the very foundation to a winning coalition, yet most black voters feel like the Democrats take them for granted. The party’s foundation has a growing crack and if it is not addressed quickly, the party will fall even further behind and ultimately fail in its quest to strengthen its political prospects.
The electoral capture of African Americans is a critical problem from the viewpoint of democratic representation and social justice. But it is also a symptom of a larger ill afflicting the American left—of refusing to name, in plain terms, the most intransigent obstacles we face: white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. When Democrats ignore the suffering of their members most affected by the post–Reagan era policies of economic and social austerity—groups marginalized by race, class, sex, immigration status, and gender identity—they end up supporting policies that lack the strength and creativity to truly challenge their underlying causes. Dismissing the need for what bell hooks has called a “margin-to-center” politics—one that addresses those most impacted by systemic injustice—as “identity politics” is one of the left’s greatest failings today.
The Movement for Black Lives, a consortium of organizations, has sought to challenge this political understanding by arguing that we can’t rely on a trickle-down approach to fix these problems. Instead, their starting point is to envision a world where black people can not only survive but thrive. Movement-affiliated organizations and individuals have therefore taken direct aim—both in the streets and at the ballot box—at both the criminal justice system and economic inequality.
The movement’s proposals include reducing protections for abusive police, redirecting funds allocated to police budgets to education and community investment, voting out district attorneys who wield their prosecutorial discretion as a discriminatory weapon, and electing reformers who seek to radically reduce incarceration rates.
Reforming the system that steals so many young people from their neighborhoods, however, is only the first step. The movement also demands economic justice, including advocacy for a federal jobs guarantee that specifically targets the most marginalized, and federal and state grants and loans that support the development of cooperative or social economy networks. Additionally, the movement centers the struggles of black women and LGBTQ individuals, which means they fight for the right of every person to unapologetically control their own reproductive capacity, health, and bodily autonomy.
In sum, the Movement for Black Lives seeks not only to raise awareness, or change policies, but more fundamentally, to change politics—to challenge assumptions of what is politically possible, desirable, and necessary. Their strategy is not only about short-term wins, but long-term results; theirs is the long, slow work of building a new, realigning coalition. And they are not afraid to challenge the Democratic Party to achieve their goals.
Freedom from electoral capture
Under the umbrella of the Electoral Justice Project, launched in October 2017, the Movement for Black Lives is building an ecosystem of organizations that aim to: organize black voters, some of whom have been disconnected from, or shut out of, the political system; recruit progressive black candidates for all levels of government; and support both these endeavors with dollars and expertise that are independent of the Democratic Party. People like Stacey Abrams in Georgia, the first black woman to become a gubernatorial candidate in American history; Summer Lee, an avowed democratic socialist, recently elected as Pennsylvania’s state representative; Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the radical mayor of Jackson, Mississippi; and Tishaura Jones, the innovative and social-media-savvy treasurer of St. Louis, are seeking to change the horizon of political possibility. They are doing this by creating an active constituency to the left of the Democratic Party, and by advocating for bold progressive policies such as a $15 minimum wage, publicly subsidized child care, free pre-K and debt-free higher education, the elimination of cash bail, single-payer healthcare, moratoriums on fracking, decriminalization of marijuana, and reproductive rights.
The constellation of organizations that support these candidates are a part of an emergent independent political infrastructure. Organizations like Collective PAC, which has raised $850,000 for candidates including Lumumba and Kamala Harris since its launch in August 2016, are helping to sweep promising black politicians into office. Likewise, BlackPAC, credited with mobilizing black voters in the Alabama special election that sent Doug Jones to Washington, the first Democratic representative of that state since 1992, describes its mission as “committed to long-term, sustained engagement with black voters.” Other organizations, like Three Point Strategies, provide direct campaign consultation to candidates, and still others, like Higher Heights for America, work specifically with black women to cultivate them as potential candidates for political office.
With the help of behind-the-scenes organizers like Jessica Byrd (left), progressive black candidates like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams (right) are reshaping the Democratic agenda. Photos courtesy of Three Point Strategies and David Kidd/Governing.
By working from all these angles—raising funds, providing candidate support, and mobilizing voters—these organizations that constitute the electoral justice arm of the Movement for Black Lives aim to create an infrastructure that is capable of recruiting and supporting candidates, and pushing forward an agenda with or without the blessing of the Democratic Party apparatus. The professionals working to build independent black political power are not playing around. Jessica Byrd explained to me:
We ask the candidates we work with about fighting mass incarceration, demilitarizing the police . . . and ending cash bail. We talk to them about what decriminalizing black people means—including thinking through the physical and mental barriers to health and well-being that exist in many of our neighborhoods. . . . We talk about fighting for access to equal education and reimagining benchmarks for students as well as workers’ rights to a living wage and to form a union. . . . We want our candidates to go the boldest route.
These goals may seem lofty, but my research on contemporary American social movements shows that if movements have a clear vision and objectives, they are likely to succeed if they make their case persistently and in resonant terms over time. In my book The Politics of Common Sense (2015), I showed how the marriage equality movement, which was met with vociferous opposition from the right and a lack of support from the Democratic Party, nevertheless managed to transform the politics of their cause from anathema to a boon. Over the course of twenty years, they relentlessly and consistently made the case that love is love, and, for people to be equal, the state must recognize that fact.
In the case of marriage equality, the movement advanced its cause largely without the support of the Democratic Party. (It also spent the 1990s getting slaughtered, in the courts and in legislatures, and was blamed for John Kerry’s loss in 2004.) Democrats didn’t move to a general position of acceptance of gay rights until 2012. But today it is unthinkable that any serious contender for office running as a Democrat would fail to support marriage equality or any other LGBTQ rights. Those issues, once shunned as inappropriate for politics, are now expected parts of the Democratic political agenda. That doesn’t mean LGBTQ folks always win, but it does mean that they now have a seat at the table and are not told that their issues are too narrow to matter. In addition, the way one feels about LGBTQ issues is a part of what defines one’s political identity.
The Movement for Black Lives seeks to challenge convention on more than one issue, but the logic of the way politics evolves remains the same: stake your claims, make a positive case in resonant terms, be consistent, be relentless—odds are, the political tide will turn.
Black politics for black lives
The reality of electoral capture is that black Americans stick with Democrats because they have had nowhere else to go. Given the barely concealed malice of the Republican Party for black people and their communities, it makes sense that few African Americans have supported it. However, it is also true that since the early 1990s, the Democratic Party has not only been unwilling to address racially disparate impacts of generally harmful policies, it has also devised policies that have themselves negatively affected black life. The 1994 Crime Bill that was hailed as a triumph of Democratic Third Way moderation devastated generations of poor and working-class black people, instituting the mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes” laws that have put thousands of low-level offenders behind bars for decades and grossly engorged the prison population. And the nefarious policies championed by Democrats didn’t stop in the 1990s. As just one example, in Chicago, the Democratic mayor and former Chief of Staff to Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, has been in a pitched battle with local activists over his closure of fifty schools and six mental health clinics mainly in majority black neighborhoods on the West and South sides to fund a new, $95 million state-of-the-art police academy. The message is clear.
The Democratic Party has remained unwilling to spend political capital on issues that specifically seek to improve African-American well-being. In fact, the party has made a virtue out of dissociating itself from policy positions that aim to either directly remediate racial inequality, like affirmative action, or that have been racially stigmatized in public discourse, like providing for the poor. Instead, the Democratic Party spends much of its time and attention on trying to hold on to white “swing voters” who it assumes will be offended or threatened by too strong a push for racial equity. Party leaders have argued that taking strong stances on issues like criminal justice reform, publicly funded and desegregated education, a decent living wage, or unstigmatized provision of welfare benefits would disrupt the broad-based coalition that is necessary to win state and national office.
However, black progressives are challenging that common assumption. In a recent interview, Stacey Abrams argues “we have left too many voters untouched.” She and other movement-backed candidates are betting that the path to victory for progressive candidates is not through the “moderate” white swing voter, but through mobilizing black voters and other voters of color in coalition with white liberals. And with Abrams’s recent win in Georgia, where she sailed to the democratic nomination, beating her opponent by 50 points, there is clear evidence that the inherited wisdom of the late twentieth century no longer applies to today’s political conditions.
Electoral capture has worked because of the belief that supporting racial justice will not mobilize enough voters of color to counteract the resultant backlash among white swing voters. The question that the black progressives running for office are asking is: does this long-held assumption still hold true? There is new evidence that it doesn’t. Research shows that the Democratic Party is growing less white, and further, that white Democrats are increasingly concerned with racial justice. In 2009, 81 percent of black Democrats, 50 percent of white Democrats, and 49 percent of Latinx Democrats agreed with the statement “the country must do more to give blacks equal rights.” A Pew survey taken last fall showed that those numbers have dramatically increased, now 90 percent of black Democrats, 80 percent of white Democrats, and 76 percent of Latinx Democrats believe that advocating for racial justice should be a top political priority. This shift in opinion did not come out of nowhere. It is the result of movement work—a nearly four-year push, via mass direct action and purposeful social media campaigns highlighting stories and images of the unjust murder that black people endure at the hands of police (including when their fellow white citizens use the police as a weapon). The broader public awareness and protest campaigns of the movement are ongoing and simultaneous with the electoral work, each making it more possible for the other to succeed.
Breaking with orthodoxy
Nowhere is this choice between the conventional and the new clearer than in Georgia. Stacey Abrams soundly defeated her primary opponent, who was backed by the state party, capturing 76.5 percent of the vote, winning in 153 of 159 counties. But what about the chances of a progressive black woman winning the Georgia governorship? This is surprisingly tricky to divine by parsing the numbers. According to a Pew research poll, slightly more of Georgia’s 6 million registered voters identify as Republican (32 percent) rather than Democrat (31 percent), and in the two most recent presidential elections, the state has gone with the Republican candidate by a margin of at least 5 points. In the last governor’s race, 200,000 votes separated the Republican winner, Nathan Deal, from the moderate Democratic hopeful, Jason Carter.
If these patterns hold in the current election, Democrats should prepare themselves for another near miss. However, 2018 is a unique political environment. The Republican president and his party are broadly unpopular and the Democrats hold a 7 percent lead on the generic ballot. Additionally, since 2016, voters most sympathetic to the Democratic Party are highly motivated to vote and have carried several long-shot candidates to victory in regions where Democrats rarely win, most famously Doug Jones in Alabama.
Abrams and her team are betting that the upset necessary to win will come from a new kind of candidate, one who doesn’t try to play it safe on issues like race and inequality in the hopes of wooing moderate Republicans or regretful Trump voters, who have proved time and again that they will not swing toward the Democrats. Instead, Abrams believes she can win by mobilizing both liberals agitated by Trump’s America and minority voters who have previously felt uninspired to go to the polls. Using her impressive fundraising apparatus, Abrams raised nearly $3.3 million during the first nine months of her campaign, which has allowed her to build a formidable turnout operation that penetrates every part of the state.
Although the odds of her winning the general election are long, Abrams’s plan is a credible one and the enthusiasm she has so far generated in Georgia and around the country bodes well. African-American candidates, supported by the independent infrastructure that enables their escape from electoral capture, are betting that they can lead black voters, other voters of color, young people, and white liberals to the polls. And that they can do so by advancing unapologetically progressive policy. Given the stunning results thus far, it’s a solid bet.
The significance of progressive black women and other women of color like Idaho’s first female Native American gubernatorial candidate, Paulette Jordan, gaining historic leadership roles is huge. More than merely increasing the number of blue dots on the map, should these movement candidates win, they will inaugurate a new era of American politics—built on the recognition that none of us are free until all of us, as the movement puts it, get free.
Deva Woodly is an Associate Professor of Politics at the New School. A former fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study (2012 –2013), she is the author of The Politics of Common Sense: How Social Movements Use Public Discourse to Change Politics and Win Acceptance (Oxford University Press, 2015).