This year, polls indicate that more than a third of urban 18- to 24-year-old black voters are unaffiliated with either major party, while another third self-identify as independents even though they are registered Democrats. Like a growing movement of voters, they are neither Republican red nor Democratic blue.
“People like me have come to be known as purple voters …”
—from the book We the Purple
Colin Powell’s recent endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency may signify more than the former secretary of state’s disenchantment with his Republican Party. It might also be viewed as evidence of an emerging movement in American politics.
While the mainstream media obsess over such irrelevancies as putting lipstick on a pig, many significant stories have gone unreported during this critical election season. Among those is the rise of the black independent voter, a phenomenon that was unimaginable in previous decades.
Particularly in the years following the civil rights era, Democrats had a lock on the black vote, and Republicans conceded the black electorate to their opponents. So entrenched was this scenario in partisan thinking that it didn’t seem to occur to the Democrats that they shouldn’t take the black vote for granted — or to the Republicans that they could take advantage of this oversight.
Neither did it seem to occur to the Democrats that one day there would be entire generations of voters who carried within them no direct memory of segregation and civil rights marches, no images of racial riots and police brutality, no personal connection with the moment when Democrat Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
But that day has come, and many black voters are finding it difficult to commit to one major party to whom they feel no sense of obligation or to another with whom they find little common ground. As a result, a growing number of blacks–particularly younger voters, who normally trend Democratic among all ethnicities–are registering as independents. This year, polls indicate that more than a third of urban 18- to 24-year-old black voters are unaffiliated with either major party, while another third self-identify as independents even though they are registered Democrats. Among all black voters, 25 percent are independents.
Across the country this year, the percentage of blacks who voted as independents in primaries was unexpected: Massachusetts, 33 percent; Connecticut, 22 percent; Missouri, 18 percent; Tennessee, 17 percent. Considering that in recent years fewer than 10 percent of blacks have voted outside Democratic Party, those percentages are significant.
Why this is happening now, beyond disenchantment with the two parties, is a matter of considerable discussion, with authors like John Avlon (Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics), Keli Goff (Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence), and Omar Ali (In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States) weighing in on the subject. One thing is for certain: the re-election of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg laid to rest any notion that blacks would never abandon the Democratic Party and embrace independent politics. In that election, 47 percent of black voters did just that, voting for Bloomberg in the independent column and giving him the votes he needed to win. (See my examination of this in We the Purple.)
Independent activist and former presidential candidate Lenora Fulani, who aggressively campaigned for Bloomberg, blames the Democrats’ failure to bring about radical change and progressive reform for its loss of black voters — and for a budding alliance between blacks and independents that started in New York and is fanning out to the rest of the country.
The alliance is an understandable one. Although independents exist along the entire ideological spectrum, those who are politically active generally agree on the need for radical political reform — something that minorities realize is essential if they are to have full access to the political process. Such an alliance also has the potential to give the underrepresented the leverage they need to have their concerns addressed; as Fulani has long believed, blacks stand a greater chance of getting candidates and elected officials to listen to them if their vote is up for grabs. And given each segment’s opposition to the war in Iraq and disgust with partisan politicians who court their vote right up to Election Day and conveniently forget them the morning after, the alliance has not been a difficult one to create.
But regardless of whether blacks and independents ever become a powerful, united political force, independent leaders don’t expect the Democratic Party to regain its lock on the black vote any time soon.
During the primary season, black independent leaders like Fulani and Wayne Greer of South Carolina, among others throughout the country, resisted significant pressure from powerful Democratic leaders to support Hillary Clinton and keep the black constituency in the party. But it was just this type of partisan pressure that had repelled Fulani and Greer years earlier and drew them to the independent movement.
Greer went on to form the first statewide committee of its kind, Independents for Obama, citing this as his reason: “I believe that Obama — and his campaign — are both products of the swing towards political independence. Here’s what Senator Obama has to say about the cynicism and partisanship of American politics. He says restoring confidence in the political process is ‘the most difficult task that confronts us, even harder than dealing with Iraq.’ … Those words are spoken by independents every day of the week. … Barack Obama is the presidential candidate who stands for that new politic.”
Obama is popular among many politically active, reform-minded black independents because he speaks the language of reform — and not just because he’s black.