Why African-Americans vote for Democrats

Okay, you political junkies — ever wonder how the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, lost the allegiance of African-Americans?

It’s quite a tale and UCLA political scientist John Zaller tells it in the February 23 and February 25 lectures of his current course Public opinion, mass media, parties, and elections (audio feed). It’s the story of shifting coalitions and of the columnists and pundits he calls the “creative elites.”

Here’s the basic plot. After the US Civil War, the Republicans kept the loyalty of African-Americans while white southerners voted mainly with the Democrats. Then, in the 1930s, the ground shifted. The liberal creative elites, writing in magazines like the New Republic and The Nation began to make the case that people who believed in social justice for the working class should also demand social justice for American blacks.

Around the same time, union leaders and African-American leaders began negotiations on issues of mutual interest. The blacks wanted access to union membership, and the union leaders wanted blacks not to continue to be strikebreakers. Eventually, this alliance between ideological liberals, unions and African-Americans led to a dramatic confrontation at the 1948 Democratic convention when white southerners stormed out to create their own Dixiecrat party.

The coalitions shifted, and white southerners began voting with the Republicans and African-Americans began voting with the Democrats. Zaller tells this tale to illustrate how party coalitions form, and how party ideology shifts over time. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Democrats would become the party of the civil rights movement and that Republicans would represent the interests of white southerners. If history had played out differently, the party of Lincoln could have remained the party of the African-Americans.

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