The “[politically] captured minority.” This is a concept introduced by Paul Frymer, a political scientist at Princeton University in his seminal work Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America.
The theory can be summarized as such: Throughout American history, political parties have been able to organize disparate interests, and give voice to concerns of their constituents. In many ways, political parties are essential to those who aren’t part of the elite and who still have needs to be met. After all, if you are the average person living in a town in the Mid-west, far away from the powerful in D.C., you can still have your opinion and thoughts shared through a representative attuned to what your community requires.
However, this sort of framing falls short when we discuss the real history of the U.S., one of racial inequality. In fact, as Frymer explains, black Americans have largely been ignored by the political system. When black Americans enjoyed limited freedom during Reconstruction, there was no other party for them to choose other than the Republicans, and after the civil rights bills were passed in the 1960s, many switched over to the Democrats since that was the party that seemed to care. Yet, at the end, the system overall has learned to take for granted black American political participation. Even though Democrats are now the party of the POC, it’s clear that this doesn’t mean that black and brown Americans are able to connect with them on all issues. During the 1990s especially, when Bill Clinton was interested in re-branding the party and making it more salient to the elusive Independent, him and his political aides avoided going into majority black neighborhoods unless necessary. Their main objective was to reach out in suburban communities, and utilize talking points, such as “crime” and “welfare” to stem the tide of white Americans voting Republican. It was obvious what was being done: The Democrats knew that many black Americans were stuck. The Republican party were of course hostile to black American interests, so they were not a viable option. And in a two-party system, the only other “choice” was Clinton, who despite being the lesser-of-two evils, still behaved very much like a law and order politician, someone who was disconnected from the everyday struggle, and more focused on winning executive office than helping those in his constituency.
Frymer’s work was published prior to Obama’s candidacy and of course, things had changed by the time the first black President took office. In both elections, Obama mobilized people of color as opposed to just expecting them to turn out and vote. He knew that the demographics of the country had changed and therefore, the white voter than Clinton had yearned for was not as viable as before. The white voter, especially one who is middle-class and a homeowner, will remain a vested part of the political machine, but as the Hispanic and Asian populations continue to grow, it would be silly to ignore this growing reality that to win the general election a candidate must learn to navigate race and ethnicity on a national level. Ignoring it would be a detriment, much like what the current GOP has done.
However, President Obama himself has been a complicated example of our modern era. He has championed the rights of the LGBTQ community like no other in the executive branch, Democrat or Republican. He has managed to get more Americans the healthcare they deserve, and done much to prevent the country was truly spiraling into the abyss of another Great Depression. It’s unfortunate but many of Obama’s achievements are difficult to quantify right now, such as what I mentioned with stopping the economy from crumbling. After all, there was no major collapse so therefore, most people didn’t see or hear or feel anything. It’s akin to someone looking up at the night sky and not seeing any stars, concluding that there are no other planets but our own.
Obama, however, has also done things that are problematic. For every speech he’s given to echo the heartache of gun violence, he has sometimes done more to chastise and lecture black and brown Americans (i.e. “radical Islam“). And in the case of Trump and the white radical voters who support him, instead of challenging them for their racism, Obama has done what any typical white center-right politician would do, which is to placate to some hurt working-class stand-in, blaming their hatred on extenuating circumstances of a failing economy and stagnant wages. I wonder if Obama would’ve done the same if it were crowds of black voters supporting someone who might be considered out of the mainstream. I doubt it. But then again, this is politics, and to be successful, sometimes you have to play the game.
This brings us to the current election cycle. Again, we are left with a slew of Republican candidates who are far-right and offer little to no incentive for POC to vote for them. Unless you agree with deporting immigrants, locking up more people of color in jails for marijuana, increasing the wealth gap between rich and poor, and taking away the ACA, then be my guest and go against your own economic interests as a black and brown citizen. I wouldn’t be surprised. But for the vast majority of us, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the GOP who is serious with connecting to our needs. And for that, the only “choice” we have in regards to the election is in the Democratic Party once more.
As I’ve hinted, Obama represents an aberration. He will always be an inspiration for me and countless others. He will always be my President. That being said, his eight years in office proves that change in America is ephemeral. Right now, we are again stuck, left to pick from two major Democratic candidates (sorry O’Malley): Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders.
Clinton’s candidacy can also be a monumental one. Of course, if she wins, she will be the first female President in our history, which is an achievement that shouldn’t be belittled. While the rest of the world, including Pakistan and India, have elected female leaders, we still suffer from our own prejudices. So Clinton has history on her side. Yet, that seems to be it. Despite being a Democrat, she has often been perceived as an ally of Wall Street, from speaking on their behalf to receiving their donations. Even business leaders would prefer Clinton over Bernie and other GOP figures. And in the case of her husband’s term in office, Clinton had also been in support of the crime bill that ended up increasing the prison-industrial complex and thereby, destroying many communities of color.
Now, before I get into why I also don’t “feel the Bern” as much as others, I’d like to point out some things first:
- I consider myself a democratic socialist.
- Socialism to me is the middle ground between extreme forms of communism and capitalism.
- I do believe that all people deserve healthcare, shelter, food, and other amenities that are crucial to our dignity as people.
- The U.S. is a great place to live (for some), and a horrible place (for others). My version of socialism would honor those realities the best they can.
So, here’s why I am not so inclined to enthusiastically support Bernie Sanders.
- He continues to seem in support of far-right policies in Israel. For me, Palestinian lives should be as valuable as Israelis.
- He governed a predominantly white population in Vermont. Vermont doesn’t represent the wide swath of our diverse America.
- In his narratives of class inequality, he often uses talking points from conservatives, in somehow painting the past as a source of legitimate reform in our present. It is true that in the 1950s, people were taxed at higher-rates and this provided the necessary funds to take care of our roads and infrastructure. But it is also true that all this was driven by racial inequalities as well. While white Americans enjoyed prosperity, there were many black and brown Americans and also white working-class who still suffered and faced terror daily from the established bourgeoisie.
- He is a white male. To be honest, I think we’ve had enough of white dudes running the country.
I understand that Sanders has changed over the course of his campaign. I am aware that he’s been to places like Baltimore, that other politicians wouldn’t even care to go (including fellow Democrats). I respect that instead of shutting out Black Lives Matter protesters, he included them in his group. But what still worries me is that it took him a while to really admit that race plays a key component in class dynamics and that, even to this day, he has moments where I tilt my head and think, “Wait, what?” Ex. Like Obama, he still believes that Trump supporters are driven by economic frustrations, instead of their own psychopathic and selfish urge to live in a country dominated by them.
Most importantly, this race proves that despite Obama’s years as President, although transformative, were unable to shake the system into truly opening up options for POC. Unlike white liberals (Chait and his white tears), I don’t blame Obama for this. That would be incredibly dumb and short-sighted (see: Chait and his white tears). But the system itself still needs a massive overhaul.
Maybe what we need are more than two parties. The U.S. is a big country and a parliamentary system can be confusing. Still, the parties we have now do not represent the needs and interests of the modern American voter. Let’s be real here. There is no real Left in this country. The Democratic Party are pretty center-right if you compare them to those in Europe. The Republicans are the National Front (as in France). If you are a POC who is Left, who believes in diversity AND substantive policy reform, you will be left in the cold, factoring in the minuteness of details to come to your decision of who to cast your ballot for.
Ultimately, I will be voting for Bernie, just because I can’t stand having another corporatist Dem in office. But it’s hard not to feel like we’re back in the 1990s, when both parties took for granted people of color and their beliefs. It took protests back then to raise our concerns and it takes protests now. Non-electoral means such as uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson, and social media (i.e. dismantling Islamophobic tropes on Twitter) have been valuable. Still, we are “politically captured” and the “lesser of two-evils” approach remains our diminished guiding light.