Who Speaks for Whom?

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic candidates debate in Washington, D.C., March 15, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Joe Biden puts his foot in it, and deep.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W ho among us, in the presence of a man calling himself Charlamagne tha God, would be immune to grandiosity’s temptation?

Mr. God hosts a popular radio show and had as a guest Joe Biden, the presumptive and presumptuous Democratic nominee for president in 2020. During the interview, Mr. Biden declared that any black American having a difficult time choosing between him and Donald Trump “ain’t black.”

Charlamagne tha God is black, as is much of his audience, and Mr. Biden ain’t.

It was an awkward moment.

Some African Americans took offense at Biden’s scolding and proprietary attitude toward them and their votes. Some didn’t: Jemele Hill of The Atlantic declared, “The issue wasn’t what Joe Biden said, because it was accurate.” That is a bizarre claim. Tim Scott, for example, is black. Officially, even: He is listed in the records as the first African American to serve in both the House and the Senate. He’s a Trump guy. I am not entirely sure how this makes him someone who “ain’t black.” That would be news to Senator Scott, who once told Politico’s Tim Alberta: “God made me black on purpose.” (Different God, Charlamagne.) But, in the view of Joe Biden and Jemele Hill, he “ain’t black.” This is of course the familiar tedious parlor game of words about words with no reference to reality. Compelling stuff, I guess, if you are into that sort of thing.

That “ain’t” is pure Biden, too. Biden enjoys mimicking the stereotypical speech patterns of African Americans. He famously told a largely black audience that a Mitt Romney government would seek to “put y’all back in chains!” One wonders where Biden picked up that “y’all” in his natural habitat, i.e., the offices of Delaware-based credit-card companies. I suppose it could have been worse, in at least one obvious way.

The Democratic Party rejoices in being the current political home of African Americans. It has been almost a century since a Republican won the majority of African Americans’ votes in a presidential race, the most recent to have done so being Herbert Hoover. The majority of black voters have been backing Democrats in congressional elections since the 1940s. It is a myth that the racial realignment of the two major political parties happened after the fight over the 1964 Civil Rights Act and as a result of it.

The movement in fact began with the Great Depression and the New Deal, something that Republicans might do well to keep in mind. Republicans tell themselves a very stupid (and offensive) story about black voters, describing the Democratic Party and the welfare state as a “plantation” from which African Americans are too feckless and lazy to liberate themselves. The “plantation” theory — that African Americans, who are on average less affluent than whites, vote for Democrats in pursuit of welfare benefits for themselves — ignores some elementary political facts, e.g. that support for redistributive tax and welfare policies is stronger among wealthy African Americans, who are unlikely to personally benefit from such programs, just as such programs are relatively popular among wealthier members of some other communities. That analysis mostly functions as a bedtime story Republicans tell themselves so that they do not have to think very hard about the actual reasons why the typical Republican candidate cannot get a black vote to save his penny loafers.

Republicans, if they had any power of introspection, might consider such radical notions as the possibility that African Americans mostly vote for Democrats because they mostly prefer the policies associated with the Democratic Party, and that crowds of white Americans rallying around Confederate monuments do not fill black Americans with a sense of comfort and ease.

Of course the Democrats take black votes for granted. The near monopoly on black political allegiance leaves Democrats at times quietly contemptuous of their African-American constituents, and denying that would be foolish and dishonest. If you doubt it, imagine Joe Biden going on Anderson Cooper’s show and doing a stereotypical gay voice when asked about gay voters who might prefer Trump and then seeing the whole thing written off as a joke as the New York Times tries to change the subjection to tax deductions. Imagine the equivalent misbehavior in front of a Korean-American audience or a group of Jewish voters. That would be a career ender. But when the insult is to African Americans, it’s just Biden being Biden.

When it comes to black voters, the best thing the Democratic Party has going for itself is the Republican Party. But coalitions change. It was not that long ago that rural whites were about 102 percent Democratic. It was not that long ago that struggling industrial workers in declining Rust Belt communities were among the most reliable Democratic voters there were. That changed.

There is a difference between working in a political coalition for mutual benefit and subordinating oneself or one’s community to the exigencies of party electioneering. The Democrats may have worked to represent the interests of rural whites as they understood them (that certainly was the view from New Deal, Texas, for a generation) but as the character of the party changed in the postwar years, the Democrats began to discover that the people on whose behalf they presumed to speak were no longer listening to them and no longer interested in having Democrats presume to act as their self-appointed tribunes. Republicans, for their part, watched suburb after suburb after suburb slip away from them as affluent and educated professionals turned their backs on a party that seemed to them too white, too Southern, too rural, too Evangelical, too bumptious. (As a matter of cynical and ironic political calculation, the real problem with the Republicans’ bad reputation on race is not the black votes it has cost them but the white votes it has cost them.) The Republican Party once had a home in the cities and suburbs, and thrived in such places as Southern California, now considered a lost cause for the GOP.

Today’s Democrats believe that it is impossible for them to lose the black vote. Republicans once believed precisely the same thing.

It is unlikely that there will be any realignment in the near term: Republicans would have to ask, for one thing. The fact is that Republicans are perfectly capable of winning elections with very little black support, and if African Americans have to put up with being condescended to by such a cretin as Joe Biden in order to pursue their political interests, they are not entirely alone in that experience. And Biden would not be the presumptive Democratic nominee without black support. The forecast calls for inertia.

But still, the situation is unsatisfactory. In 2012, two-thirds of eligible black voters went to the polls; in 2016, that number declined to under 60 percent, and the black share of the total vote declined even as the black share of eligible voters increased. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Democratic Party in line behind Hillary Rodham Clinton. And Joe Biden is an even less inspiring figure, no mean feat. But Republicans still are faced with the fact that 12 percent of the population is composed of voters who are considerably less likely to believe that the GOP represents their interests than the average American is to believe that horoscopes represent the future.

And so there’s doddering old Joe Biden, telling black folks they “ain’t black” if they don’t support the 77-year-old white guy from Delaware. He’s the best the Democrats can offer to African Americans — and Republicans cannot, for the moment, offer someone they’d prefer.

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