By James Manning
The election of President Barack Obama created a dynamic in Black America that I somewhat expected but find interesting nonetheless. Before I discuss that, let me first start by stating my political philosophy.
I view politics as a series of incremental changes brought about by a continuous push of legislation and election of individuals at all levels of government. A single election is never as momentous as it may seem and rather than keep score from one election cycle to the next, I keep score in decade-long periods.
This is the reason why I never bothered with the question of trying to answer “what does the election of Barak Obama mean to black people.” In 2008, it was simply too early to even begin the thought of the legacy he would leave. And politics, being what it is, there were too many variables(known and unknown) to reach any adequate conclusion.
But there was one negative element that I did recognize at the time of the election in 2008, and it is one that plagues the black community in many arenas besides politics. We lack political engagement over the long haul. Black people tend to expect immediate results and become easily frustrated with the lethargic pace of policy creation.
Considering the history of America, this frustration is warranted. I didn’t see the election of the first black president changing this. In fact, I predicted that it would exacerbate the problem because many of us would stop and say “finally” then wait for the spoils of victory.
The first test came with the 2010 midterm election. With the healthcare debate polarizing the election and the control of which party redraws Congressional districts on the line, this election was as important as the election in 2008 if not more so and black people did not show up to the polls in numbers close to 2008 levels. Although midterm elections tend to draw fewer voters to the polls, the decrease from 13% of voters in 2008 to 10% of voters in 2010 certainly hurt.
Since 2010 I have seen far more people disillusioned with the President. I understand their frustration and in upcoming posts I will attempt to address some of the ways the President is responsible for some of these feelings. However, I believe it is incumbent upon us to analyze where the community fell short in not fully understanding the long game of politics.
Creating a Policy-based Agenda
I can’t go a week in political blab without someone mentioning the “black agenda.” The problem is that no one knows exactly what that agenda entails. It’s mostly a Rorschach test, moldable to fit the person’s own ideology and idealism. This must change.
It’s time to define the black agenda with measurable and concrete objectives, providing a roadmap for politicians at every political level. A legislative package should accompany the agenda so politicians understand what we expect them to pass. We can then measure the effectiveness of these politicians. This allows them to cater to other constituents, but make them accountable to the black community.
Build an Infrastructure
Identifying politicians that will support our cause is the first step. This includes grooming and preparing politicians through PAC’s, Think Tanks, leadership development, and other organizations. This requires money, something most black people don’t have much of. This is where we identify the strongest organization and funnel a majority of the resources through a few well organized entities while continually building up others.
An additional responsibility of these organizations is GOTV efforts for every election. We can’t just show up for the presidential election and think we can make progress. “All politics is local” is absolutely true in that it is just as important to have like-minded local elected officials as it is on a national level.
The recent mayoral election in Chicago is evidence of a need for an infrastructure. Mayor Daley retirement created an opportunity for the black community to elect one from its rank and the community was ill-prepared. The infighting over which politician was a viable candidate, the lack of any agenda on which to run, and an inability of any of the candidates to raise money to compete adequately embarrassed the community. Mayor Daley held the office for 24 years. That’s 24 years in which to build, prepare, train, and raise money; that did not occur. That suggests that the community was either thoroughly bought by the Daley administration or just didn’t take politics seriously beyond personal gains.
Accept the world for what it is
Black people are idealistic. This is why so many saw the election of Barack Obama as a momentous occasion and associated his victory as evidence of something better in the near future. For those of us who pay attention to politics, we knew he was in for a battle and that he would have to fight tooth and nail to get even mundane things through Congress (see raising debt ceiling battles). When I hear Tavis Smiley complain about the lack of focus on poverty and issues facing the black community, there is a certain disconnect in the discussion that I know Tavis is aware of but brings up passingly.
People mention the power of executive orders and ask “why doesn’t the President use them to push the black agenda.” We can look at the healthcare and immigration debate for understanding whole. these are tools available to the President, they are inadequate in solving the problem. First, executive orders are directives for government officials, but without any funding behind them, they have limited reach. Secondly, just as a swipe of the pen can implement a change in policy, another swipe of the pen can undo everything.
Politics is a slow grind, and it is better to pass a partial law than to pass nothing at all. We cannot make perfect the enemy of good. There is always another election and if we do what I suggested with writing the legislation and building the infrastructure, the reality of politics becomes less frustrating.
We can accept the world for what it is when we are aware that we have mayors, state congressmen, judges, governors, secretary of state officials, and grassroots organizations aligned and looking at things from a long term perspective.by