The issue of race has been at the forefront of much of the 2016 campaign, but recently the war of words and images has been taken to a new level.
Hillary Clinton released a video featuring robed Klan members praising Donald Trump, saying he believes what they believe. Her Twitter feed has, since then, been filled with attacks on Trump’s “campaign of prejudice and paranoia.” For his part, Trump said at a Mississippi rally last month that Clinton was a “bigot who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future.”
But leave aside Trump and Clinton for a moment. Their battle is really about a question long raised by candidates, citizens and political scientists: In today’s two-party system, are the political interests of black Americans represented well? Or are black voters “captured” — ignored by one major party and taken for granted by the other?
The captured group theory was put forward by Princeton political scientist Paul Frymer in a book first published in 1999, “Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America.”1 He argued that politicians focus their attention on white swing voters, and that the two-party system is structured to push aside the concerns of black voters2 because they consistently and overwhelmingly favor one party.
“We generally think all voters have influence,” Frymer told me. But just as voters in battleground states are more heavily courted during a presidential election, he said, modern politicians have focused their efforts on “moderate, disaffected whites in the middle — whether you call them soccer moms or NASCAR dads.” Bill Clinton, for example, was a master at signalling that he prioritized white voters’ concerns, Frymer said, pointing to Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” criticising a black rapper and activist.
But let’s not take just Frymer’s word for it. Are black voters really “captured”? They certainly meet one part of the definition: In recent elections, more than 90 percent of the black vote has gone to the Democratic candidate for president.
Determining how well black interests are represented — or even what those interests are — is tougher. In his book, Frymer examined which groups campaigns targeted and how well the agenda of the Congressional Black Caucus fared, among other things. A recent study, “50 Years of the Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics,” looked at how often government action (in this case, spending) matched voters’ policy preferences (based on survey data from 1972-2010) and concluded that “black voices are less equal than others when it comes to policy.” Other studies have shown that modern presidential campaigns make direct arguments about remediating racial problems far less than in the 1970s and 1980s.
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