Can Changing Parties Change the World?

Most of you know that I spend some time thinking about current events before commenting on them, unless I have absolute clarity about them in my mind and heart. The news of state senator Elbert Guillory switching political parties is something I would have highlighted without hesitation in times past. I would have viewed his decision as a validation of my own path, and I would have taken pleasure in his repudiation of the condescension of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement it represents.

I'm not the same person I was a few years ago, however, and so I've been processing the news much more deliberately than I might have in the past.

I have long been a champion for diversity of political thought and action in the black community, and I believe we are ill-served in the public square by our monolithic devotion to one political party.

From a purely Machiavellian perspective, a group cannot wield political power if they have nothing to give, whether it’s votes, money, or influence. When the black community gives away its only source of political power in the hope they will gain something in return, and they continue to do it for decades even when the returns have been practically non-existent, that demonstrates, in my opinion, a lack of political sophistication.

My primary argument for political diversity is a moral argument. The values that I believe will allow us to flourish – self-governance, strong two-parent families with a mother and father in the home, the voluntary community of churches, charities, civic organizations and other non-governmental institutions, devotion to life at all stages of development, respect for private property, and a commitment to the wisdom of centuries of human history – are not reflected in a party platform that presumes the state must impose itself in all spheres of influence in order to bring about progress. This philosophy, and the policies derived from it, diminish the essential roles of individuals and civil society, the mediating institutions between the individual and the state, in shaping the independence and virtues required of a self-governing society.

Therefore, in practical and philosophical terms, I understand the reaction of my friends who have shared with me the video, which has gone viral, in which Senator Guillory explains his conversion to the Republican Party. The excitement and happiness exuding from every word and exclamation point in their accompanying comments is hard to miss.

My reaction, however, is more muted, and it’s reflective of the ongoing evolution in my thinking about what we can truly expect from American politics in the way of substantive and lasting change.

I’ve often argued that having a black face in the county courthouse, the state house or the White House means very little if the lives in our houses don’t change.

Are more black people finishing school, working in good jobs, or waiting until marriage to have children because their mayor, representative or president is black? Are fewer blacks in poverty, incarcerated, or victims of violent crime? For all of the black community’s emphasis on the political arena, what has really changed?

Yes, it was politics which secured our legal rights as citizens, but the challenges we face today require a different field of battle, one which places more responsibility on us rather than forces external to us.

The Selig Center for Economic Growth projects the buying power of the black community in America will reach $1.1 trillion by 2015. Yet, as attorney and entrepreneur Jeneba Ghatt writes:

Should we be proud of just making up 13% of the total population yet spending at a rate of growth that outpaces the remaining population by 30 percent?

While it is wonderful to acknowledge the report’s data which shows that the Black American demographic is younger, more educated and have higher incomes than commonly believed, what can be said about the fact that we aren’t retaining that wealth for the long term and at a rate sufficient to pass down wealth to subsequent generations?

Ms. Ghatt points out that we are conspicuous consumers, seeking instant gratification and the opportunity to display the trappings of affluence publicly, but we are woefully behind the rest of the nation in savings, wealth creation, and business ownership and growth.

We can’t ignore the legacy of slavery and institutionalized discrimination, which severely hampered the ability of black Americans to acquire and accumulate wealth for most of our nation’s history. As I gently remind my readers, the end of legal discrimination didn’t come until 49 years ago, if you use the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a milestone. I’m sure that it took several more years after that for blacks to realize the opportunities which had become available to them, and learn how to take advantage of them.

It is at this stage, in my opinion, when the fight should have shifted to another front. Carrying my battlefield analogy a bit further, once we had secured our legal rights through the political process, we needed to leave a regiment in place to secure our gains and hold the territory while we launched a major offensive on the economic front. There were significant segments within the black community that needed to be educated on job seeking, career advancement, money management, home ownership, savings and investment – in other words, we needed to begin the process of earning and accumulating wealth that we could pass on to future generations.

I have talked in the past about our need to embrace the “Three E’s” – education, economic literacy, and entrepreneurship. At the time, I stated:

It’s always wise to learn from the success of others, and the successes of immigrant groups that come to America can generally be attributed to their educational attainment, their understanding of personal financial management, and their willingness to engage in the risks and rewards of a capitalistic society.

Are there policies which can encourage greater educational opportunities, economic literacy and entrepreneurship? In some cases, yes. Politics often gets in the way of sound education policy, and hinders the small business owners and prospective entrepreneurs, so there are certainly things that can be done in the political arena to affect positive momentum toward the “Three E’s.”

Better small business policies which create an environment in which measured risk-taking is encouraged, access to capital is expanded, and the burden of government regulation and paperwork are lightened, will aid all small businesses and budding entrepreneurs regardless of race.

Many black politicians across the country, regardless of party affiliation, are pushing for parental choice in education for their children, and many of the most prominent leaders in education reform are black. As one of these leaders, Kevin P. Chavous, a black Democrat, informal advisor to and sometimes critic of President Obama, and a former District of Columbia councilman, states:

Traditional public education is failing far too many of America's children. Yes, there are great public schools and even greater public school teachers out there. But the reality remains. Nearly half of the kids who enter high school drop out, suggesting that meaningful change is needed now more than ever.

Ultimately, however, it’s up to us to make the “Three E’s” happen. We need to foster the teaching of economic literacy in our communities, as many churches are doing through offering financial management courses. Successful business owners could mentor people who want to start and own their own businesses. Local banks could provide wealth management support to help families make sound long-term financial decisions. Consumers could invest in local businesses to help them thrive.

Lest you think I find no significance at all in Senator Guillory’s conversion, let me assure you that I applaud his decision, and it is particularly courageous considering he came of age in the civil rights era, when much of the modern narrative about race and politics was shaped. It is personally meaningful to me because he represents a district in Louisiana from which many of my ancestors and current relatives hail. Perhaps my relatives won’t view me as much of a novelty going forward!

As I inferred previously, I am pleased when the black community shows political diversity, and the trends are more promising today than at any time in recent history. Of note, black historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1933 called for political diversity in the black community, which at the time was almost exclusively Republican, because he witnessed the GOP taking the black vote for granted:

This higher role can be played not by parking all of the votes of a race on one side of the fence…but by independent action. The Negro should not censure the Republican Party for forgetting him and he should not blame the Democratic Party for opposing him.

Any people who will vote the same way for three generations without thereby obtaining results ought to be ignored and disfranchised. As a minority element the Negro should not knock at the door of any particular political party. He should appeal to the Negroes themselves and from them should come harmony and concerted action for a new advance to that larger freedom of men. The Negro should use his vote rather than give it away to reward the dead for some favors done in the distant past.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Juxtapose the party labels and update the word “Negro” to something more contemporary, and he could be writing about today’s black community.

More importantly, however, he believed that politics was a road to insignificance for black Americans, and he advocated prominence in other spheres of American life. As I wrote in a previous essay on Dr. Woodson and “The New Negro”:

Woodson also came out against the public sector positions to which professional blacks of his day aspired, saying, “The few state and national offices formerly set aside for Negroes have paled into insignificance when compared with the many highly lucrative positions now occupied by Negroes as a result of their development in other spheres.” He believed that politics would be ineffective in solving “any serious problem” in the black community unless blacks had the wealth and power that only came from being “prominent in education, business or professional life.” He said, “A class of people slightly lifted above poverty…can never have much influence in political circles.” By building personal wealth and power, and striving to “give the world something rather than extract something from it,” the black professional would find that “he will not have to knock at the doors of political parties but will have them thrown open to him.”

In the final analysis, I don’t see politics as the arena in which victory will ultimately be achieved, for the black community or anyone else. I believe Dr. Woodson would agree with me were he alive today, and if you’re interested in my analysis of his work and how it still has meaning today, please read my previous article. As I wrote then, the themes he promoted throughout his work were self-sufficiency, competence and local action over appealing to government for our salvation.

My hope and prayer is that we will eventually come to the realization that regardless of changes in the political landscape, the privilege of and responsibility for governance rests with us, which is by design, after all. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "We are a people capable of self-government, and worthy of it." The time has come for us to prove it, or let ourselves be governed by “angels in the form of kings” which we know, as Jefferson did, to be non-existent in human history.