Going for Black

In wooing African-American voters the GOP is resorting to deception and cynical claims of racism -- in other words, business as usual.
Not content with their November victories, the Republican Party is hungry for more. While Democrats have unsuccessfully approached elections in recent years with a "tightrope" strategy of doing just enough to win, Republican thinking under Karl Rove has tended toward the more ambitious and long term. Rove and company have set their sights on a permanent Republican majority which means chipping away at the Democratic Party's core constituencies. Gone are the days when working-class Americans voted en masse for the Democrats, and now the GOP has turned its greedy gaze to today's most loyal Democratic constituency, a group that consistently votes for Democrats by nearly a nine to one margin: African-Americans.

The Republican Party's next coup is to woo just enough of the black vote from the Democrats to tip the scales even further toward the GOP. Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman is laying the groundwork, courting African-American support for President Bush's political agenda in media appearances and "town hall" meetings across the country. His pitch? "Give us a chance, we'll give you a choice." As former Gore-Lieberman '00 campaign manager Donna L. Brazile has warned, "Among Democrats, Mehlman's efforts should be cause for alarm."

Another cause for alarm for Democrats is that conservatives in the media are doing their part to complement the work of Mehlman and the RNC. Take, for example, the most hotly debated domestic issue in America today, Social Security. The Bush administration has argued that, because of shorter life expectancies, blacks are getting a raw deal under the current Social Security system, and private accounts are the solution. Conservatives in the media such as nationally syndicated radio host and former Reagan administration official William J. Bennett have eagerly adopted and advanced the administration's claim, declaring that "if the Democrats were doing it, it would be called positive affirmative action." More troubling, reporters from the Associated Press, the Washington Post and the New York Times have unquestioningly presented the notion that blacks are "shortchanged" under the current system (see here and here).

For Republicans, convincing African-Americans that Social Security discriminates against them is sort of a "bonus" claim: On the one hand it's an explicit attempt to achieve that conservative grail of partially privatizing one of America's most successful government programs; on the other hand -- the "bonus" -- it's designed to highlight Republican concern for the condition of African-Americans and, quite simply, to parlay that concern into votes. While recent polling suggests that President Bush has a long way to go in selling private accounts to African-Americans, it hasn't stopped him from trying. Bush has gone so far as to cast Democrats and other privatization opponents as racist for expressing concern over lower-income groups gambling their retirement in the stock market: "They say certain people aren't capable of investing. ... Sounds to me like a certain race of people living in a certain area."

As Senator Barak Obama (D-IL) has pointed out: "[the administration's use of life expectancy] disparities as a rationale for dismantling Social Security... is stunning." NAACP chairman Julian Bond expressed a similar sentiment: "It isn't Social Security that's a bad deal for blacks - dying too early is the real bad deal! They would rather play the race card than actually address blacks' shorter life expectancy... The black-white disparity in life expectancies practically disappears at retirement age." These are crucial arguments, to be sure, but the problem is, if it's the only counter-argument from privatization opponents, they run the risk of allowing a consensus to emerge that blacks actually do suffer unfairly under the current Social Security system, when it simply isn't true.

The available evidence from Social Security experts suggests that blacks benefit at least equally under the current system. A Government Accountability Office report, Social Security Administration actuary Stephen C. Goss, and Center for Economic and Policy Research economist Dean Baker have all documented that because of Social Security's progressive tax structure, as well as disability and survivor benefits, the current Social Security system does not discriminate against African-Americans. Fortunately for the Bush administration the press is loathe to include inconvenient facts and figures or those who wield them. Were these facts to get out, the Bush administration would find it terribly difficult to exploit race to promote its privatization agenda.

But Social Security is just the latest issue where Republicans and conservative pundits have cynically teamed up to exploit race. The conservative media has also pressured Democrats to support Bush's black conservative judicial and cabinet nominees, and deflected attention from serious concerns about those nominees by tarring their opponents with the "racist" label. Even more odious are efforts by the conservative media to discredit major black institutions and leaders by questioning their "relevancy" and portraying them as unrepresentative of most African-Americans, thereby delegitimizing their opposition to Republican policies. Still, despite the shameful track-record and current campaign to exploit blacks, the conservative media is denying that they have ever done so. Conservatives have even denied that the Willie Horton attack ads against Michael Dukakis were "racial politics" or, in some cases, have resorted to claiming that: "Al Gore brought up Willie Horton."

For Democrats, the stakes are high. Bush won the 2004 presidential election by 3 million votes despite Sen. John Kerry's (D-MA) winning 88 percent of the African-American vote. If progressives and the mainstream media continue to allow conservative misinformation aimed at blacks to go unchallenged, the GOP could win enough African-American support to achieve their coveted permanent majority.
Andrew Seifter has experience organizing, advocating, and fundraising for several progressive not-for-profit groups. He also served as a research assistant for a Member of the British Parliament. Seifter is a member of the Research Department at Media Matters for America.
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Election 2018