In the wake of large Republican gains in this week's election, many in the media are relating a familiar and predictable storyline to explain them: that in the two years since Democrats claimed the White House and large majorities in both houses of Congress, they have overreached, moving too far to the left and alienating the public — especially the moderate and conservative Americans who helped elect Democrats and may now be feeling that they've seen too much change, too fast.
This is an easy story to tell, but the reality is that Democrats lost not because they went too far but because they haven't gone far enough. A big part of why Democrats lost Tuesday is that they haven't accomplished enough to energize and motivate all of the new voters that came out in massive numbers for them in 2008 — groups like African Americans, Latinos and young people. While many of these groups still strongly support Democrats when polled, it's clear that they did not vote or volunteer for Democratic campaigns in the same numbers or with the same enthusiasm seen in 2008.
There is a long list of issues for which Democrats have fallen far short of what they promised to African Americans while campaigning in 2008. Republican obstructionism in Congress has made it hard in some cases for Democrats to get things done. But part of the issue is that Democrats have not fought hard enough in a way that truly distinguishes them from Republicans and gives black people confidence that they care about making a big difference on issues that matter to them.
In the arena of criminal-justice reform, for example, the Obama White House and Democrats failed to deliver (or even try to deliver) on much of what they promised to do to alleviate the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color.
When running for president, Barack Obama promised to institute a ban on racial profiling by federal law-enforcement agencies. Congress and the White House have failed to make this legislation a priority and pass it. Candidate Obama promised to encourage videotaping of interrogations in capital cases but has taken no action on that front. Obama promised to start a prison-to-work incentive program to help former inmates restart their lives and avoid ending up back in prison — but the president hasn't taken action on that front.
When the time came to reform the 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing between crack- and powder-cocaine offenses, Congress reduced but didn't eliminate it, leaving a racist disparity in place. Despite having previously voiced support for fully eliminating the disparity, neither Congress nor the White House fought for its full elimination. Instead they caved in to Republicans who wanted to keep a disparity in place, without even challenging them to defend their position (which has no legitimate basis and no arguments to back it up).
More broadly, on top of all these broken promises, Democrats continue to support failed drug policies that disproportionately target and lock up African Americans and Latinos. The White House and other top Democrats have continued to support marijuana prohibition (and lobbied against efforts to end it). They have also increased funding for federal law-enforcement grants that fuel racial profiling and disproportionate targeting of people of color for drug arrests.
Democrats also haven't done enough to address the devastating economic impact the recession and foreclosure crisis have had on African Americans.
The foreclosure crisis has hit black Americans hardest. Black homeownership peaked in 2004. Since then, it has dipped more than four percentage points to 45 percent, which is roughly twice the decline of the national rate. Last year it looked as though President Obama had a solution. He announced the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) by saying it would "enable as many as 3 to 3 million homeowners to modify the terms of their mortgages to avoid foreclosure." But recent reports show that so far, HAMP has resulted in just over 445,000 five-year modifications.
While the program itself clearly has some inherent problems, the larger issue is that the administration needs to recognize that fixing the foreclosure mess cannot be solely dependent on banks' willingness to participate in the solution. The Democrats need to wield a stick in dealing with the banks, not just the carrot.
Too often, Democrats have pre-emptively compromised with Republicans and powerful, politically entrenched industries instead of clearly stating their positions and fighting hard for the best-possible solutions. This has not only resulted in watered-down, ineffective solutions to the huge problems our country faces but has also contributed to a sense among many Americans that Democrats aren't ready, or simply don't care to truly fight for them.
Black Americans support President Obama and want him to succeed. Moving forward, Republicans are likely to pose even more of an obstacle to the changes Democrats promised, and many will argue that the only way forward for Democrats is to move to the right, chart an even tamer course, and compromise further with Republicans and the large corporate interests they represent.
But listening to the Republicans and Wall Street in the wake of Election Day is not going to bring about the changes we need or help Democrats win in 2012. Fighting harder to deliver on the change promised in 2008 is the only way to make clear to voters that Democrats represent a real alternative to the failed policies of the past. We hope that the Democrats take Tuesday's election results as a signal that now is the time to be bold and lead.
James Rucker is the executive director of Color of Change, an online community of more than 700,000 dedicated to amplifying the political voice of Black America.