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How The Two-Party System Obscures The Complexity Of Black Americans’ Politics

Joe Biden has encountered a number of awkward moments with Black voters this summer.

Whether telling Black voters that they “ain’t Black” if they’re considering voting for Trump or telling reporters that the Latino community is “incredibly diverse,” “unlike” the Black community, Biden, like many other politicians, has repeatedly failed to demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of Black people’s politics.

This is likely a byproduct of the fact that Black Americans are nearly uniform in their support for the Democratic Party. According to data from the 2016 American National Election Study, for example, 82 percent of Black Americans identified as Democrats, with 90 percent casting their ballot for the Democratic Party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton. Only 10 percent voted for Donald Trump, the Republican nominee. For scholars and analysts obsessed with partisanship, it is no wonder that Black Americans appear monolithic. If partisanship is politics and politics is partisanship, Black partisanship must tell us all we need to know about Black people’s politics, or so the logic goes.

Choosing a political party and a candidate to support are, however, only two expressions of an individual’s politics. Yes, Black people are overwhelmingly Democratic and, like most Americans, vote in line with that partisan identity. But we know, both from debates among Black people throughout this year’s Democratic presidential primary and from the historical record that Black Americans, like members of any group, often disagree with one another about politics.

The argument here is straightforward: Black people’s politics cannot — and should not — be reduced to partisanship.

So what other markers might better showcase the diversity of Black political thought?

One obvious candidate is how Black Americans identify ideologically. There is, after all, much more diversity in Black Americans’ ideological identities than in their partisan identities. In 2016, for example, 45 percent of Black Americans identified as liberal and 43 percent identified as conservative.1 This is a far cry from the near-uniformity of Black partisanship.

In fact, this ideological variation has led some scholars and other analysts of American politics to wonder why conservative-identifying Black Americans remain so loyal to the Democratic Party.

The problem is that this ideological split is an illusion. It turns out, a large subset of Black Americans simply don’t make use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” when discussing politics. That is, these terms — which are familiar to those who participate in certain types of elite political discourse — are often just unfamiliar to many Black Americans for whom these terms are not part of their political lexicon, as one of the authors of this piece, Jefferson, found in his research.

In the 2012 ANES, for example, 44 percent of Black Americans categorized Barack Obama as conservative. A similar share categorized Mitt Romney as liberal. And 35 percent of Black Americans said the Democratic Party was more conservative than the Republican Party. In other words, ideological identification actually tells us very little about Black people’s politics because standard ideological terms are not commonplace in Black Americans’ political discourse.

So while the standard survey item used to capture how Americans identify ideologically appears to work fine for white Americans, the question — and ideological identification, more generally — simply cannot be used to accurately represent the contours of Black people’s politics.

So, what do we do if we want to get a more accurate portrait of Black public opinion? Look at their policy preferences.

Following an approach similar to one taken by political scientists Shawn Treier and Sunshine Hillygus, we looked at what Black people think about various economic and social policies, splitting respondents into three separate bins for each policy: 1) respondents who adopt the more liberal policy position; 2) respondents who adopt a status quo or moderate position; and 3) respondents who adopt the more conservative issue position. And as you can see in the chart below, Black Americans have diverse views on government spending, which is masked when we focus solely on Black partisanship.

Take Black Americans’ attitudes toward two issues for which they are often thought to have uniformly liberal preferences (especially in comparison to white people): crime and welfare. It turns out, Black public opinion is much more complex. On the question of whether spending on crime should be increased, decreased, or kept the same, 84 percent of Black respondents said that spending should be increased. And when asked the same about welfare spending, 28 percent of Black respondents agree that spending should be decreased while only 31 percent adopted the more liberal view that welfare spending should be increased.

This diversity in Black Americans’ preferences — not to mention the conservative bent on some of these key issues — suggests we should be wary of claims that the “Black community,” as a whole, supports any particular party’s policies.

What about Black Americans’ attitudes toward social issues that they’re perceived to hold liberal positions on, such as affirmative action and the death penalty? On the question of whether Black Americans should be given preferential treatment in hiring and promoting decisions, 51 percent of Black Americans oppose it (49 percent support it). Likewise with the death penalty, which disproportionately affects Black people, 37 percent of Black Americans support capital punishment for people convicted of murder. (Although 63 percent oppose it.)

So, why does this all matter?

First, as analysts of and participants in the American political system, we should have an accurate portrait of what the public desires. This point is even more important for elites interested in convincing Black Americans to support their candidacies. They must recognize disagreements that exist among Black voters if they are to build the broadest coalition of Black support. Second, reducing the politics of any group to a singular fact — even when that is partisanship or vote choice — limits our understanding of conflict, which is the essence of politics.

The key takeaway from our analysis is this: There is no “Black vote” and you should be skeptical of anyone who claims that there is some cohesive “Black community.”


To be sure, we’ve only presented a snapshot of the diversity of Black political thought; readers interested in learning more should read (or skim) a few key texts:

This is an incomplete list, to be sure, but anyone seriously interested in understanding the complexities of Black politics would do well to read these texts (and talk to some Black people).

Footnotes

  1. Respondents were asked to place themselves on a 7-point scale, where 1 represented “extremely liberal,” 4 represented “moderate, middle of the road,” and 7 represented “extremely conservative.” Respondents who placed themselves as either a 1, 2, or 3 were coded as “liberal,” while those who placed themselves as 5, 6, or 7 were coded as “conservative.”

Hakeem Jefferson is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University where he is also a faculty affiliate with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and the Stanford Center for American Democracy. His research focuses primarily on the role of identity and stigma in American politics. He is especially interested in examining diversity in the politics of Black Americans. (hakeem@stanford.edu; twitter: @hakeemjefferson)

Alan Yan is a PhD student in political science at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on class identity and inequality in American politics. His work tries to tie macro historical changes to micro shifts in voter behavior in American politics.

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