The Missing Black Voters.

NYT has a perceptive op-ed piece that still has gigantic blinders on.

The article, in a nutshell, makes an oft-repeated point:  that the support from African-American electorate for Democratic politicians, especially establishment politicians like Hillary Clinton, is immensely important electorally, yet they are very poorly served in terms of policy.  Indeed, the well-to-do white liberals are very averse to offer policy that confer real long term benefits to African-Americans in the long run at relatively low monetary cost such as housing vouchers.

This has an exact parallel on the Republican side:  the so-called “missing white voters.” Working class whites, in the past few decades, have steadily swung in their electoral support to the Republicans, yet their interests are seldom reflected in the policy choices of the latter.  Indeed, the Republican Party is overtly contemptuous of the poor whites.

The NYT piece is wrong in thinking that this neglect has been costless for the political establishment:  in both cases, the parties have been suffering a serious if subtle penalty for their choices–these marginalized voters are “missing” from the electoral process. The key characteristic for the “missing white voters” is that they are, literally, missing:  their turnout is significantly below average.  The same problem holds for the African-American vote, as their turnout has been significantly lower.  The word from the political practitioners is that this problem is far more apparent if the variations in turnout among different subdemographics among African-Americans are considered:  the older, church-going, and female African Americans actually have fairly high turnout while the younger, oft-male, undereducated and impoverished Blacks do not.  Indeed, much has been made of how younger African American activists have a serious bias against political participation.  The former demographic has relatively obvious means through which they can be mobilized–their social networks, particularly their churches.  The latter do not.  They need some proactive reason to turn out. (As far as I know, detailed quantitative studies are lacking, or at least, researchers have not paid closer attention to how turnout rates vary specifically among different subsets of African Americans.  It is known that regular participation in religious activities, for example, elevates turnout a lot.  I have the hunch that the effect would be even greater among African Americans, given the prominent role of African American churches in promoting political activism, but no empirical study seems to pop out in google scholar searches.)

The turnout problem is often seen as a moral problem that contributes to the malaise for various populations, not necessarily the symptom.  Usually, people try to address it by moral hectoring supposedly aimed at raising turnout.  I think this is a serious mistake. Ordeshook and Riker famously argued that voting is irrational.  While making too much of this is silly, it should remind us that active political participation is not the natural state of mankind.  People need some motivation other than their favorite cause winning because their individual votes will have no singular effect on bringing about that outcome.  For all the missing voters, this motivation is lacking.  This is manifest in the raw deal that they are getting from the political establishment, both materially and psychologically.  To insist that this can be countered by mere propaganda without even pretense of seriousness is, quite frankly, insulting.  I cannot fault the young African American activists for turning their backs on political participation.

Some of the blame may be due to the top political leaders, such as President Obama because they did not “inspire” enough.  As someone who never bought into the “inspirational” BS, I think this argument is also unfair.  In addition to the facile attitude that turnout is merely a moral problem, this also ignores that top national political leaders have to play politics for a broad coalition, and even more than the “missing white voters,” who are themselves considered too much trouble for the political insiders to bother seriously catering to, these “missing black voters” make up an even smaller share of the electorate:  even if half the African-American population might belong to the working class, their share of the electorate is no more than 6-7% at most and mostly concentrated in areas where electoral politics are not especially competitive.  From the perspective of the average politician, they are even less valuable than the missing white voters with potential for more trouble.  It is not surprising, then, that vote suppression tactics that often target African Americans unfairly are not vigorously resisted.

I do think that the younger African American activists are making a mistake by downplaying politics, but the kind of politics that they can play are at the level of localities, not national.  Local politics typically feature low turnout:  a relative handful of votes can swing outcomes one way or the other.  Their ability to mobilize voters can be used as bargaining leverage with local politicians, or perhaps they can swing their support behind some “reformers” who could make some changes on small scale.  Perhaps they are already engaged in this endeavor without having been noticed much–but if they have not, they should start organizing in this direction as soon as possible.  Even at the local level, of course, the challenges will be immense:  establishment politicians will have all sorts of tools at their disposal, some fair and legal, others semilegal or downright illegal and quite foul:  many heavily minority-populated cities are notoriously corrupt for good reason.  But this is where they can actually make a real difference, not in national politics–at least not yet.


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