Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Black Voting Patterns

In yesterday's WSJ James Taranto provides the following analysis of black voting behavior:

What's fascinating about this is that in the century between the abolition of slavery and the establishment of civil rights, changes in black political behavior more or less tracked changes in the political behavior of the country as a whole. As blacks voted Republican in the postbellum period, so did the country; FDR was the first Democrat in 80 years to win the presidency with a majority of the popular vote. Blacks became more Democratic with FDR's ascendancy, and so did the country. And when blacks voted overwhelmingly against Goldwater, the country did too. Black voting patterns differed from those of whites, but they generally moved in the same directions.

Since 1964, by contrast, the country has become more Republican. The GOP has won six of nine presidential elections starting in 1968. After the 1964 elections, Democrats held a 68-32 majority in the Senate and 295-140 in the House. Today Republicans hold majorities of 51-49 and 227-208 (counting two left-leaning Vermont independents as Democrats). Yet while the Republican Party has been ascendant, it has gotten virtually no black support.

The result is a sort of political segregation. To judge by voting patterns, blacks perceive their political interests and identities in a way vastly different than other Americans do. And, curiously, this trend dates almost precisely to the extension of full political rights to blacks (Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965). The reasons why this may be the case are a topic for another time, but it shouldn't be considered racist or insensitive to talk about it.

Where to begin? First, black voting has tracked with national voting patterns in only the most superficial ways. Yes, blacks did vote Republican from the 1870s to the 1930s and, yes, Republicans won most of those elections, but most of them were very close while blacks were voting overwhelmingly for the GOP.

Second, and relatedly, blacks have almost always been politically segregated. Until the 1930s, not only did the Democratic party not want black votes, but it constructed itself in large part around white supremacy. And after 1890, the Republicans gave only the most superficial support to black interests.

This all changed with FDR as blacks move en masse from the GOP to the Democrats. From 1936 to 1960, the Democrats never did worse than 60 percent of the black vote. Since 1964, they've never dropped below 80 percent. I'd even argue that, like the post-bellum Democrats, racial conservatism is an integral part of the Republican coalition.

The more interesting conclusion to draw from this analysis is that except for two brief periods (1864-1872 and 1964), the parties have often paid an electoral penalty for strongly advocating black rights.

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