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Race and Realignment in American Politics (Part III)

Manning Marable15 February 2016

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Read Parts I and II of Manning Marable's 1985 analysis of the dynamics of party realignment and racial polarization in American electoral politics here.

(Ronald Reagan delivers his acceptance speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention, via Wikimedia Commons)

A preliminary anatomy of the 6 November 1984 election results seemed to give Reagan a resounding mandate. The president received 59 percent of the popular vote, and carried popular majorities in 49 states. Predictably, Reagan did best in constituencies controlled by the far right, or among those who had benefited most from the administration’s economic policies. The incumbent received strong support from voters identifying themselves as ideological conservatives (81 percent), voters with annual incomes between $35,000 and $50,000 (67 percent); Mondale’s core support came from African-Americans (90 percent), Jewish Americans (66–70 percent), Hispanics (65 percent), unemployed workers (68 percent), lesbians and gay men (60 to 80 percent). Reagan’s reelection can be attributed to the continued erosion of partisan loyalties among the various segments of the Democratic coalition. One-third of the voters who supported Hart in the Democratic primaries switched to Reagan in the general election. Voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine, who had given Reagan only 43 percent of their votes in 1980, produced 58 percent for the Republican in 1984. About 49 percent of all Catholic voters — who constituted 26 percent of the total electorate — had supported Reagan in 1980; their 1984 vote for the president increased to 55 percent, despite the presence of a Catholic, Ferraro, on the Democratic ticket. One of Mondale’s greatest disappointments was the inability of organized labor leaders to produce a substantial majority for the Democrats. After exerting “maximum energy” to guarantee a level of support of 65 percent or more, only 57 percent of all union members backed Mondale. Among all blue-collar workers, union and non-union, Reagan received 53 percent of the vote. 

The most striking characteristic of the election was the racial polarization of the electorate. Nationally, Reagan obtained 66 percent of the white vote, and an unprecedented 73 percent from white Protestants. The feminists’ “gender gap” — the recent trend for a greater proportion of women to support liberal centrist candidates — was largely irrelevant, as white women supported the incumbent by a ratio of 64:36. Electoral support for Reagan among white women in 1980 had been only 52 percent. Racial stratification in the electorate was particularly sharp in the South, where Reagan, the Moral Majority and other conservative forces nearly succeeded in creating a “white united front.” Reagan’s campaign speeches during the fall repeatedly reminded whites of his firm opposition to affirmative action and civil rights. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the president attacked “forced busing” for school desegregation; in Macon, Georgia, Reagan invoked the racist motto of regional segregationists by declaring: “The South will rise again!” On election day, 72 percent of all white southerners voted for Reagan. Although the black voter turnout was up by 750,000 since 1980, “most goals set by black politicians went unfulfilled,” noted the Washington Post. In the Democratic primaries, black Democratic congresswoman Katie Hall of Indiana was defeated by a white candidate. In the November elections, the number of black state legislators rose by only three, to 376 nationally. The most painful defeat occurred in Mississippi, where black Democrat Robert Clark, in a well-financed campaign, lost by over four thousand votes to conservative Republican congressman Webb Franklin. The contested congressional district had 53 percent black voters, but a massive voter registration drive among rural whites and selective intimidation of poor black voters produced a Republican victory. Most of the white democratic left, feminists and progressive trade unionists refused to acknowledge or even to discuss critically the obviously racial composition of Reagan’s conservative electoral bloc; blacks, on the other hand, had no choice except to face reality. Chicago congressman Gus Savage observed that “white Americans [had] voted en masse to accept the Reagan philosophy of narrow individualism, me-tooism and greed.” NAACP organizer Joseph Madison viewed the election as a “white backlash.” White Americans of nearly all social classes were “probably fearful of blacks getting too big for their political breeches. They responded in a manner that reflected a fear of black political power.”

On closer examination, however, the Reagan “mandate” was not as definitive as it may at first appear. A few media commentators drew parallels between Reagan’s victory and that of Lyndon Johnson twenty years earlier, when the Texas Democrat received a popular vote of 61.3 percent and 486 electoral votes. Actually, the 1984 results were much closer to Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 re-election “mandate” of 57.6 percent than to the Johnson victory. Johnson’s triumph produced two-thirds Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, while in 1956 the Democrats had retained small congressional majorities despite the Republican presidential sweep. Similar to the latter, in 1984 the Republicans gained only fourteen seats in the House and lost two Senate seats. Eight of the fourteen House seats lost had been held by southern “Boll Weevils” or conservative Democrats who were already backers of Reagan, including Representatives Jack Hightower of Texas and Elliott H. Levitas of Georgia. African-American voters provided the critical margin of support to elect three white senators and at least eight Democratic representatives. Liberal populist Tom Harkin defeated ultra-right Republican senator Roger W. Jepsen in Iowa; liberal Democrat Paul Simon received only 43 percent of the white vote in Illinois, but with 87 percent of the vote from blacks defeated powerful Republican senator Charles Percy. In gubernatorial elections, the Republicans gained four states against three for the Democrats.

There were other anomalies as well. Reagan carried Los Angeles County with 55 percent of the vote, but a “Jobs with Peace” referendum on the same ballot, calling for cuts in the military budget to fund jobs programs and human services, passed with 61 percent. In a few states, Communist Party candidates received their highest vote in several decades. In Arizona, a Communist candidate for state representative received 5 percent; in Massachusetts, Communist congressional candidate Laura Ross received 15,668 votes against Democratic House speaker “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. — roughly 8 percent of the district’s electorate.

The odds are that the Democrats will take back the Senate in 1986, since nearly twice as many incumbents seeking re-election that year will be Republicans. Representative Tony Coelho, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, emphasized his colleagues’ defiance to the re-elected president: “As of today, you are a lame duck. Accept it. Elected officials do not have you to contend with any more.” New-right leader Richard Viguerie agreed, predicting that “Reagan faces two years with a hostile Congress — and the likelihood of an electoral disaster in the congressional elections.”

For the Republicans, Reagan’s re-election simply meant that the struggle for power between the moderate conservatives and the radical right would now be fought without quarter. Both tendencies had benefited from Reagan’s electoral white united front, but traditional Republican conservatives sought to break the leverage of radical reactionaries inside Congress. Veteran senator Robert Dole of Kansas, denounced by Gingrich as the “tax collector for the welfare state,” handily defeated new-right candidate James McClure for the post of Senate Majority Leader. Liberal Republican John Chafee of Rhode Island defeated ultra-rightist Jake Garn of Utah to become chairman of the party’s Senate Conference Committee. Pennsylvania moderate John Heinz also overcame a challenge by another Reaganite, Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, for the chairmanship of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. Dole and other traditional conservatives promptly indicated that they would seek to reduce federal budget deficits and Reagan’s defense expenditures to 5 percent at most. The new right sustained other blows as well. The removal of presidential adviser Edwin Meese to the post of attorney general reduced the rightists’ immediate access to Reagan. The resignation of Kirkpatrick from the UN, lamented Viguerie, was “a loss from which Reagan’s foreign policy will never recover.”

The battle to succeed Reagan is now on, and its resolution may well determine the future of the Republican Party. Currently, the best-known Republican aspirants are traditional conservatives: Dole; former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee; and vice president George Bush, who is so vehemently hated on the far right that he has been popularly described as having “put his manhood in a blind trust.” If Reagan remains “neutral” in the 1988 campaign, the Republican presidential nomination will probably be won by an ultra-rightist. The two leading candidates are Jack Kemp and Lew Lehrman. In 1984 Kemp campaigned personally for nearly one hundred congressional Republican candidates, and raised $220,000 on their behalf. Kemp is a favorite of the Moral Majority, is the “mentor” of Gingrich’s COS, and has the powerful backing of reactionary academic and financial institutions, including the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. As of late 1984, Lehrman’s CFA was established in over 225 congressional districts, and, although he has never held public office, political observers note that his private wealth is such that “there’s no limit to what he can spend.” Closely behind these candidates and even further to the radical right is Gingrich, who may ultimately become the right’s spearhead for bringing its quasi-fascist agenda into state power. 

As the Republican leadership has degenerated into a series of fractious squabbles, the Democrats have turned their post-election blues into a thinly veiled condemnation of blacks and other progressive currents inside the party. Georgia Democratic chairman Bert Lance argued that Mondale’s loss was due to the party’s inability “to move in the direction the voters are moving in,” especially “in the South.” But which voters? Most leaders focused on Mondale’s abysmal totals among white professionals, managers, and white-collar employees. Carter’s domestic-policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat declared: “We must win back the middle class that has drifted from our ranks...” It was “not enough just to hand the middle class a bill for new taxes,” concurred party consultant Bob Squier. The moment had arrived to “unchain the ghost of Roosevelt” and to find “new solutions to old problems.” What is to be done? The first step proposed was to reduce the democratic access of blacks, feminists, and other insurgent social forces inside the party’s governing apparatus, the Democratic National Committee, by giving state chairmen and moderate governors greater authority. Second, the party’s “welfare state” image had to be scrapped. Neo-liberal New Republic editor Morton Kondracke suggested that the party give “maximum sway for free market competition and individual initiative.” Oklahoma Representative James R. Jones advanced the “slogan of passionate conservatism.” But most emphatically, the Democrats should “insure” that the Rainbow Coalition and Jackson do “not drive the party further left,” according to Kondracke. “A minority of activists ... coalition[s] of underprivileged racial, ethnic and other groups and single-issue advocates” had for too long dominated “the national party’s affairs,” advised Peter Rosenblatt, head of the centrist Coalition for a Democratic Majority. “These groups do not add up to a majority of the voting population.” Other white Democrats unwilling to go on public record were more blunt, charging that the party was “pandering” to black voters at whites’ expense, and that “they shouldn’t have given Jesse Jackson everything he wanted” — ignoring the fact that the Rainbow Coalition had received virtually nothing at the San Francisco convention.

The black movement was suddenly forced to confront a victorious Reagan, and, at the same time, a Democratic leadership who blamed Mondale’s loss partially on the active presence of African-Americans inside the party. Instead of capitulating to the pressure, black leaders struck back in a bold and imaginative manner. Two early activists within the Rainbow Coalition campaign, US civil-rights commissioner Mary Frances Berry and executive director of TransAfrica Randall Robinson, along with Congressman Walter Fauntroy, coordinator of the 27 August 1984 march on Washington, decided to initiate a series of anti-apartheid demonstrations outside the South African embassy in Washington DC. Throughout , there had been an outbreak of demonstrations inside South Africa, similar to the 1960 Sharpeville uprisings and the 1976 Soweto revolts. On November 5-6, almost one million people participated in a nationwide strike against the regime; in September and October alone, over 150 demonstrators were murdered by police, and an unknown number were detained without charge. Despite Reagan’s recent “mandate,” activists recognized that the administration’s flagrant policies favorable to apartheid made it vulnerable to domestic criticism. In a small demonstration on 21 November, Berry, Fauntroy and Robinson were arrested. Within days, other members of the Congressional Black Caucus staged non-violent protests and were also detained, including Parren Mitchell, Ronald Dellums and Charles Hayes. Civil-rights leader Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Rosa Parks, the initiator of the Montgomery bus boycott movement, soon followed.

Within two weeks, a new national campaign had begun, the Free South Africa Movement. Every constituency in the Rainbow Coalition, plus national figures in the more moderate centrist bloc of the Democratic Party, began to volunteer to be arrested next. Leaders of the American Jewish Congress and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations organized pickets; black nationalists, most prominently the National Black United Front led by the Reverend Herbert Daughtry of Brooklyn, staged major protests; feminists, socialists and trade unionists all joined the demonstrations. Bill Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Thomas Donahue; Steelworkers’ vice president Leon Lynch; and Newspaper Guild president Charles Perlik, Jr. were arrested in Washington protests. Even AFL-CIO leader, Lane Kirkland, who had been mute on the question of apartheid and was a bitter opponent of the Rainbow Coalition, saw the light. In a well-publicized meeting with Secretary of State George Schultz, on 29 November, Kirkland advocated a “progressively selective ban on the importation of South African products and ... if necessary, a full boycott, barring of new investment, complete disinvestment and severance of all social, cultural and diplomatic ties.”

A national Free South Africa Movement steering committee quickly formed, which included Jesse Jackson, Berry, Fauntroy, Robinson, Lowery and NAACP leader, Benjamin Hooks. The strategy had been refined by early December to encourage local mobilizations with a deliberate anti- Reagan emphasis, drawing the obvious connections between domestic and international racism. Demonstrations in December and in January assumed different forms across the country. In New York, South Africa’s consulate was picketed daily at 3:00 in the afternoon — by religious groups on Tuesdays, black nationalists on Mondays, youth and student groups on Wednesdays, and so forth. In San Francisco, longshoremen refused to unload South African cargo. In Mobile, Alabama, Fauntroy and Lowery led a “pray-in” protest at the house of South Africa’s honorary consul on 6 December. The next day, in Berkeley, California, one thousand students held an anti-apartheid rally, blockading the administration building for three hours, resulting in thirty-eight arrests. In Cleveland, more than two hundred trade unionists, religious leaders and civil-rights activists organized a public demonstration. On 9 December, four hundred protesters in Seattle picketed the home of the honorary consul; twenty-three were arrested. FSAM proponents in electoral politics introduced divestment legislation in forty-four states; the National Conference of Black Mayors agreed to pressure all mayors and city councils to withdraw public funds from banks with apartheid connections. Reagan desperately tried to stem mounting criticisms of his policies, as administration officials announced that the demonstrations would have absolutely “no impact” on government policy. “The real losers in this are the black community,” explained one aide. Such denials were immediately undercut by a group of thirty-five new-right congressional leaders, led by Gingrich, Vin Weber, and Robert Walker of Pennsylvania. In an open letter to South African Ambassador Bernardus Fourie, they warned that they would “seek sanctions” against the regime unless it moved immediately to end racial violence and “demonstrated a sense of urgency about ending segregation laws.”

Despite the achievement of a new level of unity among black, progressive, and centrist political forces in combating apartheid and Reagan, larger questions remain unanswered regarding the future of the Democratic Party and the necessity to build a permanent coalition of social groups capable of defeating the right. The classical strategy of developing fascism is to splinter the working class, winning over the bulk of the disconnected lower petty bourgeoisie, then enact a series of authoritarian laws constricting bourgeois democratic liberties. Appeals to the “race consciousness” of white workers were a decisive factor in Reagan’s 1984 victory, especially in the South. And the administration has already prepared plans to initiate a series of “Palmer Raids” against democratic and progressive forces when the opportunity presents itself. On 4 April 1984, the president signed Executive Order 12472, which gave the Secretary of Defense the authority to seize all “telecommunications resources” in the event of a vaguely defined “national emergency,” without prior congressional approval. Reagan has authorized the use of “lie detectors, wiretapping, blacklisting and censoring”; has forbidden liberal critics like Coretta Scott King from speaking on the Voice of America; and has attempted to void the Freedom of Information Act. During the next three years, Reagan may have the opportunity to place three to four more judges on the Supreme Court, thus guaranteeing a conservative majority for the next quarter century. On 12 October, Reagan signed into law a series of “anti-terrorism” bills, mandating stiff penalties for the taking of hostages and airline sabotage, and providing cash rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals who commit “terrorist” acts. Six days later, the new laws permitted four hundred FBI agents and New York City police to seize nine activists on the grounds that they were planning to commit jail breakouts and robberies. But the Ku Klux Klan, which committed at least six hundred documented acts of racist violence between 1978 and 1984, is “not regarded as terrorist by FBI guidelines.” Racism, institutional and vigilante, is the essential ideological approach for the ultra-right’s efforts to divide workers and to build a permanent white united front. Authoritarian legal measures are the means to ensure that the left and national minorities will be unable to fight back.

Reagan’s reelection was not inevitable, and, despite the financial and organizational power of the new right, a future authoritarian order in America remains only a possibility. However, the bulk of the Democratic Party’s leaders, with their eyes fixed upon the white upper middle class, are looking in the wrong direction if they seriously intend to regain power. It is true that more than 67 percent of all Americans earning more than $35,000, annually voted for Reagan, and that this sector comprises 31 percent of the electorate. But they also total only 16.3 percent of the voting-age population. They are overrepresented in national elections because they are ideologically motivated to affirm their social-class interests at the polls. Of workers who earn less than $12,500 annually, 53 percent supported Mondale; they comprise 28 percent of the adult population, but only 15 percent of the active electorate. Unemployed workers, 68 percent of whom supported the Democrats, represent 3 percent of the electorate, but 8 percent of all adults. Had Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, the unemployed, low-income workers and people with less than a high-school education participated in the election in identical numbers to those earning above $35,000, Mondale would have won. The weakness in this scenario is that, had these constituencies actually voted in these numbers, the Democratic Party would now no longer be the “Democratic Party,” but would be forced programmatically toward a Western European Labour party model. Hence the refusal of Mondale, Glenn, Hart and company to support demands for massive voter registration and education made by the Rainbow Coalition of Jackson. Given the domination of sections of capital, Southern moderates and the trade-union bureaucracy within the party’s internal apparatus, it is highly unlikely that the left and its liberal allies, led by blacks’ demands, will be able to reverse the Democrats’ stampede toward “compassionate conservatism.”

These democratic left forces will only sustain themselves if they coalesce as an independent political entity, which may operate for a time inside the Democratic Party, but run “independent candidates’ against the two major parties in local and statewide races. To do so will take the same kind of panache displayed in Jackson’s primary campaign and the FSAM demonstrations in late 1984. Fundraising and the recruitment of personnel are important factors, but not crucial to the development of this strategy, pace David Gordon. The real challenge is the creation of a realistic social program that can actively unify blue-collar employees, semi-skilled workers, the unemployed, and other disadvantaged sectors across the color line. In March 1985, the principal organizers of the Rainbow Coalition met in Gary, Indiana to create a permanent national formation. Jackson’s new thirteen-point program, which includes demands for “fair immigration policies, revitalization of cities, aid to small farmers, and revamping the tax structure,” has the potential for reaching oppressed whites and Latinos who resisted participation in the 1984 primary campaign. The paradox of American social history is that the activism of people of color has been the decisive component in moving the boundaries of politics further to the left for the entire society; yet “race politics” is also the central component for the far right to discipline the entire working class. Whether the Rainbow’s progressive utilization of race is able to transcend the conservative racist social movement and the white working class’s tendency to affirm their racial identity rather than material interests at the polls is a political question of such decisive importance for the future of democratic politics in the USA that progressives of all races and classes ignore it at their peril.


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