The GOP of today, bears little resemblance to the ‘Party of Lincoln’ to which black voters had been fiercely loyal since the era of Reconstruction.
By Michael Taube
Frederick Douglass, the great writer, orator and abolitionist leader, was a trusted adviser to President Abraham Lincoln — and a black Republican. In an Aug. 15, 1888 letter, he famously wrote, “I recognize the Republican party as the sheet anchor of the colored man’s political hopes and the ark of his safety.”
It’s probably fair to say that Douglass would be saddened by the fact that today’s black Republicans have become rather lonely in the Grand Old Party.
There are black conservative and libertarian thinkers in different circles of interest. Some well-known figures include: Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Armstrong Williams, Star Parker, Larry Elder, Clarence Thomas, Amy Holmes, Herman Cain, Ben Carson, Stacey Dash, Jason Riley, Alfonzo Rachel, Ward Connerly, Robert A. George and Deroy Murdock.
Yet, black support for the GOP has dropped significantly. In the post-Civil War period, most voted for the Republicans. During the 1936, 1940, 1944 and 1956 presidential elections, it was between 37-42 percent. Since 1980, it fell to 4-12 percent.
What happened? While it’s certainly true that racial politics and the civil rights movement played a significant role in this decline, it’s not the whole story.
Leah Wright Rigueur’s book, “The Loneliness of the Black Republican,” provides an intellectual and thought-provoking voice to this intriguing debate. The author, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, described herself to me in an email as a “liberal or left-leaning Independent.” Regardless, her well-researched work is evenhanded — and, at times, sympathetic.
In many ways, it’s the most significant book ever written about the collapse of black support in the Republican party.
“The GOP of today,” Ms. Rigueur writes, “bears little resemblance to the ‘Party of Lincoln’ to which black voters had been fiercely loyal since the era of Reconstruction.” The Republicans have become “indelibly associated with Herbert Hoover’s ‘lily-white’ movement, ‘Operation Dixie’ of the 1950s, and Richard Nixon’s ‘southern strategy.’” Moreover, while “politicians shaped the GOP from the ‘top down,’ ordinary white city dwellers and suburbanites from all backgrounds and income levels along with an ‘army’ of conservative activists, influenced the direction of the GOP from the grass roots, reacting to changing social and cultural norms, the liberalism of the civil rights movement and the radicalism of Black Power.”
At the same time, “[o]ur implicit views of black Republicans — either as strange alien creatures or as noble exceptions among their duped Democratic brethren — reject the notion of political choice.” Ms. Rigueur points out that “too often we assume that blacks in America are Democrats by default” and “black Republicans are simultaneously invisible and hypervisible: isolated political misfits who provoke extreme reactions.” As she correctly states, these types of views, “whether voiced by liberals or conservatives, of any race, are troublesome, muting reality and history and ignoring the complex ways that race and politics intersect in the United States.”
The history of black Republicans has been a mixed bag of liberal, conservative and contrarian figures. Ms. Rigueur’s book focuses on the period between Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Ronald Reagan’s first presidential victory in 1980. Hence, she spends less time on current GOP figures such as Mia Love, Ken Blackwell and Tim Scott, and more on former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, Arthur Fletcher (“the father of affirmative action” who served in several GOP administrations) and baseball star Jackie Robinson.
Nevertheless, it was an interesting era of growth and development.
For example, black Republicans “were in the midst of a revolt” during the Nixon years, and refused “to abide by the GOP’s ‘eleventh commandment’ to remain silent.” While they attempted to take more liberal and activist positions to exert influence, the majority of black Republicans “never truly abandoned their pragmatic ‘loyalty’ to the president.”
Meanwhile, Brooke became the first Republican to call for Nixon’s resignation. The GOP’s “shift to the right in the mid-1970s” frustrated black Republicans, and their enthusiasm was geared toward liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller. On the flip side, Reagan “appeared to embrace African American support.” He met with black Republicans, and gave them hope that they “finally felt included” in the party, in spite of nagging concerns about his conservatism.
Ms. Rigueur doesn’t believe black voters are “irrevocably lost to the Republican Party.” The successful implementation of politics and policy to this important demographic could lead to a resurgence of political support. If this were to happen, black Republicans could be a lot less lonely in the future.
An older version of this post appears in The Washington Times