Monday, speaking to an almost completely white crowd in Ohio, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump posed an important question to all the black voters who weren’t there. Asking them for their vote, he repeatedly said, “What do you have to lose?” What followed was a laundry list of how the federal government and the Democratic Party, sort of interchangeably, have failed black people.
It’s true that crime and joblessness are huge problems in many black communities, and black support of the Democratic Party has not resulted in a life of total equality or perfect ease. So it’s a question worth asking, and one many Republicans have asked African-American voters for years: Why not try voting Republican?
But it’s also easy to answer if you understand the history.
Black Americans have tried voting for the party of Lincoln. Blacks voted Republican almost uniformly until the Great Depression. Then, President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, created government programs to help alleviate the poverty and hunger so many blacks (and whites) were experiencing, and the GOP fought to stymie those programs.
But what really made black Americans turn almost completely against the GOP were the events of 1964 and 1965.
The GOP presidential nominee in 1964, Barry Goldwater, told the nation a vote for the Republicans was a vote to empower “states’ rights” and get the federal government out of people’s business, but white Southern voters weren’t quite ready to hear the message.
Just a few months before, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act. The next year Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Both were supported by a higher percentage of Republican members of Congress than Democrats, and the real opposition was from Southern members of both parties. But suddenly, the Democratic Johnson was the face of Washington overreach, and Goldwater’s anti-federal talk had ripened. The GOP found success touting his ideas, starting with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968, and still does.
The GOP had aligned with the states, the Democrats with Washington. And black voters had aligned with Democrats.
I asked the same question a few years back, and I’m glad I did, but sad I had to. When I joined the Newsday editorial board, I worked beside Alvin Bessent, a black editorial writer who retired recently. I cut my political teeth on libertarian states’ rights views, some of which I still hold, and Alvin is mostly liberal, so we had fun battling. But one day I asked him, “What is it that makes you believe that the all-powerful federal government, as designed by the Democratic Party, is what this country needs?” This, as best as I can recall, was his response:
Because the federal government is the only entity that ever stood with or protected black people in this country. The federal government let us into the white public schools and universities when the states barred the doors. The federal government let us vote when the states blocked the ballot box. The federal government said we had a legal right to jobs and housing when states and localities allowed us to be discriminated against. Again and again, the states and the states’ rights Republicans fought against the rights of black people, and the federal government and the Democratic Party fought for us. And it hasn’t changed. The Republican Party is still, to this day, fighting to let states do what they want, and weaken protections the federal government provides for black people.
That’s just true, and it’s a fine answer to Trump’s question. I hope he has an Alvin Bessent in his life to teach it to him.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.