Black people have an awful lot to say about Ben Carson, even if President Ben Carson is pure fantasy. No reason to think otherwise: The legendary neurosurgeon’s bizarre quest for No. 1 gives us little confidence he’s pulling this one off. His Monday announcement in Detroit (you have got to watch it), including an offbeat circus collection of gospel Eminem and a bizarre drill show of aging, pot-bellied soldiers onstage, cements that view.
Does it really matter what African Americans think about Ben Carson? No, not really, so this Washington Post piece on the subject was probably an exercise in futility. Black people aren’t voting for Republicans anyway, much less participating in GOP presidential primaries.
Now, it goes without saying that black people made Dr. Ben. The wild success of Carson’s first book, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, the foundation for two decades of public life and a TNT movie, was pushed by black America’s once quasi-fanatic embrace of the Detroit native’s struggle-to-the-top story. You could find Gifted Hands in many a random black church and Sunday school as something of a second Bible.
But that was before folks got to know political Dr. Ben and that ill-fated 2013 National Prayer Breakfast babble where he blasted President Barack Obama’s health care law—with the president sitting right there watching. At that point, Carson went from favored black son of Motown to alien friend of Rush Limbaugh. With his edgy, oddball rants on race, constantly spiced with an incessant focus on the “black laziness” archetype, Carson only cares about what white conservatives think.
And why shouldn’t he? Carson’s blimp-sized brand appeal snags him 29 percent favorability ratings among black voters, according to last week’s YouGov poll (pdf)—just 1 percentage point of black support ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). (Yes—apparently 28 percent of black voters see something in Ted Cruz.)
He doesn’t care because total black-voter participation during the 2012 Super Tuesday Republican primary was just over 2 percent. Two Southern states with massive black populations, South Carolina and Mississippi, each registered a 2 percent black primary turnout. Republican pollsters tabulating primary exit polls don’t even bother factoring in black voters, frequently classifying them as “n/a.”
Black America’s acute distaste for the Republican brand and its candidates is well-known and documented. There’s probably nothing wrong with that, considering the GOP establishment’s open hostility to black-favored policy outcomes.
Still, how you feel about a political party has little to do with whether or not it works for you. Like corporations mulling over markets, political parties operate as complex business operations with limited cyclical resources. While it’s incumbent upon all political parties like the GOP to pimp themselves in any election as a better ballot alternative, it’s also crucial for politically active populations to strategically position their interests.
At the moment, it’s not clear whether current black political strategy is working all that effectively, since, well, black people largely refuse to participate in Republican politics.
Obviously, Republicans don’t make that an easy proposition. But it’s not making political sense if crucial GOP primary states housing gigantic African-American populations are picking, potentially, the next president of the United States with virtually no black input.
Something about that arrangement screams for an overhaul, and black voters shouldn’t wait around for white Republicans to fix it. Even as demographic shifts will disrupt the GOP’s future plans for White House dominance, they still don’t change conditions in the majority of state capitals run by Republicans in places with a significant black presence. And as long as the practice of gerrymandering congressional districts remains intact, the Republican hold on Congress could continue unimpeded over the next couple of decades.
Should there be a mass exodus of African Americans to the Republican Party? That’s not the point. But there is a process of voter-candidate reciprocity that is often overlooked in popular misperceptions of politics. Ideally, politicians should care only about serving the public good—but it doesn’t work like that. Candidates, elected officials and their parties are creatures of expediency, responding much more swiftly to constituencies that bolster their influence and chances for re-election. You don’t contribute anything to their campaign, so don’t expect them to show up at your block party.
In the case of Republicans, African Americans are demanding a return after making no political investment. No dog is going to run to you if it doesn’t see a snack in your hand; and if it doesn’t know you, it’ll bite. This is pretty much the state of black America’s tragic relationship with the other major half of the American political process.
But what’s missed here is that your party affiliation is not the totality of your personal or political identity. It’s merely the very private tool you chose as a citizen to exercise your right to vote in primaries and therefore have some degree of leverage over party business. Parties are not there to shape policy. They promote their talking points and busily malign the other side.
Perhaps if you decide to run for office or play some kingmaker role in politics, then it’s probably good practice to stick with one party. But if not, feel free to mix it up, especially if you want to have some say in what candidate the other party picks to run your city, state and nation.
Placing every black egg into the Democratic basket might offer immediate short-lived gratification at the voting booth. But that’s mostly in the general election, where options are already limited because we’ve allowed primaries to pick them for us. Hence, black voters are routinely leaving their fate up to white Republican primary voters who have no interest in pushing black political agendas. Nor is it their responsibility to do so. That presents long-term headaches, especially when you are clueless as to what’s happening on the other side—and do little to nothing, beyond complaining, to change it.
Influencing both political parties should be considered a viable and winning strategy for black community interests. It’s not impossible to imagine a Republican Party swayed by black political interests while the exact same thing is happening on the Democratic side. Maybe, one day, we’ll be ready for any change that hits us, since friends will have already been cultivated on both sides of the partisan aisle. This year, however, don’t get mad if Dr. Ben won’t do it for you.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.