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Democrats Must Stop Taking Black Voters for Granted

Supporters of Doug Jones watch results during an election-night party in Birmingham, Ala., on Tuesday (John Bazemore / AP)

For many observers, the hotly contested Alabama race for the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions felt like déjà vu, conjuring memories of the 2016 presidential race. On one side stood a man holding dangerous ideals and accused of predatory behavior. On the other side stood a moderate Democrat, a man who hardly meets the definition of radical leftist but who offered a bulwark against fundamentalism. While both candidates are white, they represent starkly different platforms, and both polarized the electorate along sharply racial lines. A majority of whites voted for the thoroughly discredited right-wing Republican Roy Moore, while a near totality of blacks, along with a minority of whites, picked Democrat Doug Jones. While this outcome was broadly similar to what happened nationally in 2016, the result was the opposite—but only by a razor-thin margin. The Alabama race has offered yet more evidence that Democrats need to shift their approach to win decisive power against their opposition.

To be fair, there are stark differences between Donald Trump and Moore, whom Trump threw his weight behind. Moore’s Christian fundamentalism has a longer and deeper trajectory than Trump’s. Similarly, Doug Jones is not Hillary Clinton—especially given the context of his politics in a very conservative Southern state. But nationally, the stakes are so high that any lessons learned from Alabama’s Senate race ought to be carefully viewed by the Democratic National Committee. As we have seen over this past year, Republican control of both houses of Congress, as well as the presidency, have led to major losses on a number of social and economic issues (a massive deportation program, a Muslim ban, close calls on health care for millions of Americans and a pro-corporate tax code rewrite that’s still to be decided, to name a few.) Regardless of how toxic Democrats appear to moderate Republicans and to progressives like myself, only with the nominally liberal party in power can we hold off the worst abuses of corporate greed and Christian fundamentalism.

Like black women all over the country, who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 at a rate of 95 percent, in Alabama a whopping 98 percent of black women chose Jones in this week’s election. Overall, black voters have tended to pick more progressive candidates when presented with facts and good media coverage. But as many have pointed out, the Democratic Party has often taken the concerns of black women for granted. Charles Barkley, who stumped for Jones, made an excellent point hours after the election during a CNN interview. Rather than targeting Trump, Barkley wisely called out Democrats. “They’ve taken the black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time. It’s time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor,” he said. “This is a wakeup call for Democrats to do better for black people and poor white people.”

Democrats would do well to adopt a strongly progressive platform, such as that espoused by Sen. Bernie Sanders, which clearly outlines the need for single-payer health care, higher minimum wages, stronger protections against corporate greed and criminal justice reform. In fact, the myth of black voters preferring candidates less progressive than Sanders is exactly that: a myth.

Indeed, when black Americans’ concerns are prioritized, our entire democracy is stronger. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are among the most critical pieces of legislation in recent history, passing largely because of the black-led civil rights movement. The Republican Party, recognizing that black Americans vote for progressive policies and candidates, has shamelessly targeted their voting rights under the guise of voter ID laws. In Alabama, an aggressive effort to disenfranchise black voters could have easily swung Tuesday’s vote tally toward Moore. There were many reports of the suppression of black votes on election day. Despite this, Jones won simply because voter turnout was high. The lesson for Democrats is that, in mounting an effort to take back political control of state legislatures in order to roll back voter suppression, it is critical to focus on voter turnout to ensure large enough margins of victory.

But as Barkley warned, Democrats cannot take it for granted that black voters will turn out in high enough numbers to stave off the worst of the worst Republican candidates, especially in order to back milquetoast Democrats. This responsibility cannot fall entirely on the shoulders of black voters who live in a nation that consistently fails them on issues of police brutality, education, health care, and economic and political power. If the Democratic Party actually upholds a vision that prioritizes the concerns of black Americans, it will attract the backing of a broader swath of voters.

As online commentator Michael Harriot at The Root pointed out, “Now that Dems think Doug Jones has a decent chance to pick up a Senate seat, they have turned to Alabama’s black electorate as if they were in the state the entire time.” Harriot continued to analyze the broader framework of the party with just as much eloquence. “The Democratic Party is trash,” Harriot wrote. “It is the reason Hillary Clinton lost. It is the reason Donald Trump is president.” The Democratic Party is so unpopular that Jones had to find a way to win over Alabama voters by tacitly distancing himself from his own party.

In the lead-up to the critical 2018 midterm elections, on which so much hinges, Democrats need to reevaluate their approach to political power. Many hoped that the debacle of last year’s national election would lead to such introspection and change of heart, but it didn’t. Now, after the Alabama win—which was a toss-up until the very last minute—will Democrats realize what they need to do to win?

Changes are broadly needed in three key areas: a shift toward a boldly progressive platform that salvages the Democratic Party’s reputation from pro-corporate and pro-war and steers it back to pro-people; a strong deference to black voters and voters of color rather than a pursuit of the ever-elusive white conservative; and huge efforts to increase voter turnout in all 50 states to overcome the voter suppression tactics of Republicans. This is what the party should have been doing all along. It has less than a year to get it right.

Sonali Kolhatkar
Columnist
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
Sonali Kolhatkar

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