Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Jamelle Bouie’s piece in the American Prospect on the glass ceiling for African American candidates is worth reading: it’s an interesting, and generally incisive, reminder that not a single African American has come within hailing distance of being elected to the Senate or governor (except the narrowly reelected incumbent, Deval Patrick) since Barack Obama’s election. Bouie avoids the usual rhetorical trope about racism and white backlash and pays appropriate attention to the constraints posed by representing liberal, partisan districts that provide a limited donor base. It’s also to his credit that he focuses on institutional factors over vague claims that the system has simply failed to produce enough compelling black candidates.
Bouie’s one major omission, though, is a failure to dig more deeply into the failure of credible black Democratic contenders to command significant support within their own party in recent races: it’s a vexing truth for liberals and Democrats and is at odds with one of the central narratives in politics today, that it is liberals who are advancing the ambitions of ethnic minorities and conservative Republicans who are thwarting them through schemes like voter ID.
As I have argued before, it is striking that virtually each black who tried to crack that ceiling in 2010 met with indifference or hostility from their state’s own Democratic hierarchies—in my race in Alabama, Thurbert Baker’s gubernatorial bid in Georgia, Ken Lewis’ Senate race in North Carolina, and Kendrick Meeks’ Senate run in Florida, local Democratic powers either lined up behind white candidates in the primary or in Meek’s case, ostentatiously pushed for others to enter the contest (the same phenomenon reared its head this cycle, when the Mayor of Charlotte, Anthony Foxx, was quickly discouraged from joining an open governor’s race in North Carolina). Not surprisingly, all of the aforementioned candidacies were under-funded by the Democratic Party’s donor network (in my case, a transfer of a million dollars from my congressional account padded otherwise lackluster funding totals). In each case, it was not thinly veiled race baiting from Republicans (which shaped failed races by Harold Ford in 2006 and Harvey Gantt in 1990) but intra-party politics and back-room undermining that figured in each defeat.
Because Bouie more or less ignores the specifics of the 2010 cycle, he avoids analyzing a trend of Democratic opposition that is hard to wish away. “Electability”, touted often in my race, offers little in the way of explaining why Baker was short-changed when he had won two statewide races as Attorney General– or why Democratic operatives in Georgia were so bent on diminishing Baker, and avoiding looking racist, that they actually recruited another, less well known black to run a sacrificial, uncompetitive Senate race against a popular Republican incumbent. Ideology and a history of independence, both strikes against me, reveals little about why a party stalwart like Meek ended up the victim of efforts to push him aside for a Republican governor who was running as an independent. (Johnny Dupree’s 2011 gubernatorial nomination in Mississippi, by the way, seemed more a concession of defeat by that state’s demoralized Democrats than a real embrace).
Bouie’s thesis also fails to consider why white Democratic voters have shown such resistance to like-minded black Democrats. A law and order conservative like Baker gained no traction with Georgia’s rural conservative Democrats. A liberal like Meek barely captured twenty percent of Florida’s largely liberal white Democrats in the general.
To be sure, Democrats invariably contend that each campaign had flaws that merited their relatively poor showings with party elites and voters. But the “they’re all unqualified” meme sounds terribly artificial in the employment or hiring context; it also minimizes the fact that in low turnout primaries, the actions of party elites are decisive in their own right in bolstering or weakening candidacies. For example, the access to resources that Bouie rightly stresses is not linked solely or even primarily to geography and voting records, but to an aura of viability that is directly influenced by whether the donors who regularly engage party elites receive favorable or unflattering assessments of candidates from those insiders.
It’s simplistic to argue that something resembling conventional bigotry is at fault when elements of the Democratic Party reject or push aside black contenders; but it is no less simplistic to argue that right-wing hostility to healthcare reform and the embrace of voter restrictions is rooted in bias. In fact, conservative antipathy to a liberal agenda at least has an obvious alternative set of explanations, from skepticism of big government and excessive spending in the case of domestic programs, to fears about abuses by political machines in the context of a hot button like photo ID. The fact that moderate and liberal, establishment and more maverick black candidates have all encountered identical obstacles in their own Democratic party is a trend still in search of a defensible rationale (it’s worth noting that Patrick in Massachusetts was hardly the favorite of Democratic insiders in his first race and was heavily aided by Massachusetts’ unconventional party nominating process; that Ford was the second choice of Democratic powers who pushed hard for then governor Phil Bredesen to run for Senate; and that Obama himself was often minimized by party elites until the last stages of his Senate primary).
Bouie, perhaps because he is searching so hard for provable, objective sources for the glass ceiling, stops short of asking a harder question: is it possible that the Democratic Party’s affinity for identity politics gives it a false sense of comfort around race? I would suggest that the party’s confidence that it is advocating policies that are popular with and beneficial to blacks stops it from examining its own poor history of black candidate recruitment and development. Less charitably, backing policies is easier for a party than surrendering the influence and clout of its lead positions.