The Democrats’ Black Problem

Howard Dean can’t catch a break. The guy talks about Republicans in precisely the same way other Democrats talk about Republicans, and everybody makes him out to be a raving Sterno bum. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s weekend remarks differed little in substance, tone or tenor from Dean’s recent complaints about the GOP, but she didn’t get skewered, except by right-wingers like me. She was feted as a future president.

Dean’s most recent controversial outburst — that Republicans are a bunch of Christian white guys — took place at a San Francisco forum for minority activists and journalists. In his own way, Dean reverted to an old Democratic practice: He was playing the race card. But unlike Democrats in other eras, he also acknowledged — as he has in other recent conversations with black and Hispanic party regulars — that black voters no longer love Democrats as they once did. The party takes them for granted, treating them more like the help than the party’s most indispensable constituency. Dean noted that he intended to address the problem by visiting early and often, rather than in the weeks immediately before the next presidential plebiscite.

In subtle and unstated ways, Howard Dean has aired a dirty little secret. Democrats have a growing problem with black voters, and it stems from three sources. First comes the simple fact that government “help” has proved an unmitigated disaster for low-income black Americans. Eighty years ago, black children in such places as New York, Philadelphia and Detroit were more likely to grow up in two-parent homes than whites. Now, 70 percent of the nation’s black children are born out of wedlock, black men comprise 70 percent of the nation’s prison population, black graduation rates lag far behind white rates — and all these numbers have worsened by several degrees of magnitude since Uncle Sam launched the war on poverty.

Second comes the fact that the war on poverty itself degenerated into a vast insult against black Americans. Poverty programs assumed that blacks lived naturally in a state of poverty, lawlessness, ignorance and cupidity — and that there was nothing blacks themselves could do about it. The culprits, after all, were “root causes” such as slavery.

In other words, black Americans couldn’t conquer hardship without white help. It was a small step for left-wing officeholders to treat minority voters as dependents, who owed absolute fealty to their kind benefactors. This explains why conservative blacks receive such vituperation from the likes of Sen. Edward Kennedy. It is as if an ungrateful child had spurned a generous and loving parent, who could only watch in exasperation and declare: “After all I’ve done for you!”

Third, a values gulf has opened between the Democratic Party and black voters. The key Democratic interest groups focus on two causes — prolonging the sexual revolution and suppressing conventional religious expression. The party’s untouchable cause, abortion, has more appeal to white suburban housewives than to more conservative blacks. Ditto for gay marriage, and the growing Democratic hysteria about religion, which dismisses orthodox religious views as “extreme.”

Black voters have trickled away from the Democratic fold without flocking to the GOP. Polling indicates that a growing percentage of black voters identify themselves as “independents.” Democrats don’t want to acknowledge that their hold on the black vote cannot last much longer — say, a decade or less — because their economic and cultural views simply don’t match up with those of black voters in all income classes. The only question is whether Republicans will learn how to talk naturally and conversationally with black voters, and thus will expand their base, or whether they will continue to jibber about marginal tax rates, entrepreneurial regulatory reform and other groaners that have a certain intellectual appeal, but never will persuade skeptical voters of color to say: “At last! A party that says what I want to hear!”

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