This paper makes the case that the time has come for activist groups to abandon business-as-usual tactics and go on the offensive to change the political landscape in Washington, D.C. The growth of this country’s minority vote over the past 50 years, that has been actively suppressed by the political right following the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, has shown the ability to more than off-set the G.O.P.’s decades old strategy of exploiting racial/ethnic conflict for political gain to the ultimate benefit of special interests and the detriment of civil and human rights. By forming a cohesive alliance, the strong inter-relationships between many rights issues makes clear that political changes positively affecting one will also positively affect others. This paper examines the effect of our changing demography in elections, the racial and ethnic targeting of voter suppression laws, the Manchin-Toomey Senate vote vs Blue Wall States vs the State Ballot Initiative, effective deployment of capital, and, unapologetically, a consideration of obstacles in achieving this objective.
The title of this piece is a play on the phrase coined by Democratic political strategist James Carville during Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential run, ‘The economy, stupid’. And regarding the attempts by activist groups to change the national political landscape on such issues as gun violence, voter discrimination, healthcare, income/wealth inequality, immigration reform and so much more, well, ‘It’s the demographics, stupid’. With this country having just observed the 50th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in the fight for African-American voting rights, the minority vote has over the past 50 years grown into a powerful force that, in 2012, showed the ability to more than off-set the ‘Southern Strategy’ and, if fully realized, the potential to flip the South back to Democratic control (no small matter for the progression of human and civil rights), perhaps even sooner than later.
As noted in a previous article, issues such as the above are not independent of one another but rather share common ground in that they carry a discriminatory component and thus an infringement of rights. The opposition to effectively addressing these issues is driven through the exploitation of hatred, fear and bias for political power to the ultimate benefit of special interests. And the opposition is highly partisan in nature, residing on the political right.
How effective has this exploitation been? As just a couple of examples, consider Karl Rove’s strategy of placing same-sex marriage amendments on the ballot in 11 states in 2004 to energize the conservative base to the polls, an effort Mr. Rove denied but former G.W. Bush campaign manager and RNC chairman Ken Mehlman confirmed (a tactic that today has put the party into a dilemma with its conservative base versus broader, especially younger, public opinion). Or the G.O.P.’s successful use of the Southern Strategy, fueled by the anger of Southern whites over civil rights legislation, to completely flip the South from Democratic to Republican control. LBJ’s remark that, with the enactment of civil rights legislation, Democrats had “lost the South for a generation” has proven to be a significant understatement (consider Charles M. Blow’s recent opinion piece on the ‘rigidity of racism’). Following Mary Landrieu’s (D – LA) departure from the Senate there are no more white Democrats from the South.
Having competed at executive levels in the business world (and it is day-to-day warfare), it is done tactically and analytically, pitting strengths against weaknesses to erode a competitor’s market share. As explained in a previous article, a clear weakness of the political right (that also constitutes a threat to it) is this country’s changing demography, a change that threatens its political bread and butter tactic over that past many decades of exploiting racial/ethnic conflict. However, activist groups in the fight against gun violence, immigration reform, and more, play right into their own weakness – many of these issues (see the list in the Discussion section) are largely off radar when it comes to reasons why people vote for Congress. Thus lawmaker’s actions in failing to address, and even obstructing attempts to address, such issues largely go unpunished at the polls.
As but one example (discussed in a previous article), the gun violence prevention movement pumped millions of dollars into the 2014 Congressional midterm races on an issue that one poll showed was held by as few as 2% of the American public as one of the top two reasons why they vote for Congress. Despite that expenditure, both the House and the Senate picked up gains for the political party that obstructs their cause. Regarding the grossly disproportionate effect of gun violence in minority populations and the GOP’s successful use of the Southern Strategy and voter suppression tactics, this writer communicated to a member of Eric Holder’s advisory group (who sat on the panel during my statement at the US State Department last summer on African-American gun violence victimization), ‘If they don’t want them to vote, what’s the impetus to stop the carnage or the profiteering’.
Taken individually, all the shouts, protests and cries over so many injustices become but whimpers in the storm winds of election season. But taken collectively, these issues constitute a systematic assault on this country’s diversity for political power and financial gain; an assault that has resulted in millions of silent deaths in our African-American citizenry alone due to social inequities. For those protests to have effect at the national political level, it is first necessary to have a Congress prone to listening to, and acting upon, those concerns as well as one that can overcome the obstruction. As in most any other endeavor, strength is found in numbers, in forming effective coalitions that bring different and complementary strengths to the table, and (no easy matter) the effective management of those diverse resources.
Analysis-driven tactics are used in the business world because they work, and there’s no reason to doubt that they can be successfully applied here as well. What is being proposed is a ‘derivative’ play, investing in an underlying asset to achieve success across a range of investment opportunities – not an uncommon play in the investment world. And that underlying asset, that has the potential to generate tremendous returns, is our country’s ever expanding diversity.
Our Changing Demographics and Elections
The first three graphs displayed below have been excerpted from this 2012 Washington Post article, ‘President Obama and the White Vote? No Problem‘.
Due to the growth of our minority populations, there has been a steady decline in the white vote as a percentage of the total electorate in presidential elections from 1980 – 2012, dropping from approximately 89% to 72%.
Following the first successful use of the Southern Strategy in Nixon’s 1968 presidential run, the Republican party has relied heavily on the majority white vote. No more than one in twenty Republican voters were non-whte between 1968 – 1988, a ratio not much improved in 2012 with about only one in ten being non-white. The minority vote has been largely accumulating in the Democratic party over the past several decades, increasing from 16% to 44% between 1972 – 2012.
Interestingly, the percentage of the white vote supporting Democratic presidential candidates (presidents do have coat-tails) has remained relatively constant over the past few decades, but has never constituted a majority of the Democratic vote (even failing to reach a majority in 1976 following Nixon’s resignation and public outrage over Gerald Ford’s immediate pardon of Nixon upon assuming office). The percentage of whites voting Democratic was 36% in 1980 and 39% in 2012. Although Ronald Reagan (R) won the 1980 election by a strong margin, so did Barack Obama (D) in 2012, the difference being the contribution of the minority vote supported by a strong turnout of the base.
The following graph, that breaks out the vote by race and gender in the 2012 election, has been used in a previous article and lends credence to the above observations. The female, African-American/Black, Latino and Asian vote was heavily skewed in favor of Obama, more than off-setting a 20 point spread in the white vote for Romney. Thus, with similar percentages of whites voting party line in 1980 and 2012, the difference in the outcomes of the two elections can be attributed to the female and minority vote.
A similar race/ethnicity/gender distribution was seen in the 2014 mid-term election, but strength in numbers was missing; 2014 had the lowest voter turnout since WWII. Not only was the 2014 electorate older and whiter than 2012, what did show up tended to vote more Republican than Democratic (the same decline in support being noted in the 2010 midterm). As noted in a NY Times article, several Democratic candidates distanced themselves from Obama, thus working to demotivate the base that carried the party to victory in both 2008 and 2012; preceding the election, over half of African-Americans polled were not even sure when the election was taking place.
Now, putting this together, what the gun violence prevention movement attempted to accomplish at the Congressional level in 2014 was a virtual impossibility. With women, African-Americans/Blacks, Latinos and Asians already heavily on the side of the political party that in large part supported gun violence prevention legislation in 2013, and with the white Democratic vote holding consistent over the past few decades, the demographic that needed to be moved would, by process of elimination, be a predominately white, predominately male, older, more well-off, population that votes Republican. Good luck with that.
Another way to view the attempt is that the white population, the demographic that more completely benefits from expanded background check legislation (the background check loophole does not explain the grossly disparate effects of gun violence afflicting African-Americans and Latinos), is the same that tends to support the political party that obstructs the cause. Any takers on trying to get those individuals to switch party lines in their vote for US House or Senate based on the gun violence issue?
It’s ‘the demographics, stupid’.
Where the Battle Needs to be Fought: The Racial and Ethnic Targeting of Voter Suppression Laws
In examining the above, is it any wonder as to why Republicans in stronghold and swing states jumped on restrictive voter laws following the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act? The following map highlights states that have enacted voter suppression laws; especially note the concentration in deep South states having a long history of racial discrimination. It was Barry Goldwater’s carrying of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina in 1964 that gave rise to his party’s successful exploitation of the Southern Strategy.
Now, consider the importance of Texas to the G.O.P. – a state that holds over one tenth of the US House majority and where the Hispanic population is projected to surpass the white population by 2020 (Exhibit 8 excerpted below).
Should there be any doubt why notable Texas politicians, e.g., Ted Cruz and Rick Perry (both having presidential aspirations), and House Republicans, have resisted president Obama’s immigration reform initiative?
Manchin-Toomey Senate Vote, Blue Wall States, and the State Ballot Initiative
In an attempt to circumvent the difficulties encountered at the federal level in passing gun violence prevention legislation into law, groups have sought to achieve such at the state level through ballot initiatives. To better understand this initiative, the Manchin-Toomey Senate vote will be examined relative to the political leanings of various states. This exercise is also useful in that even should recently introduced bipartisan legislation in the House (The Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act of 2015) be successful, it would face a fight in a Senate, where Manchin-Toomey failed, that now holds a Republican majority.
The map below depicts the US Senate vote, by state, in 2013 on the Manchin-Toomey bipartisan expanded background check bill where the size of the states have been adjusted for population size. The map makes clear the Senate’s current dysfunction in that elected representation from states holding a minority of this country’s population can effectively block legislation by evoking a procedural rule, the filibuster which was used mercilessly by the Republican Party during the time it represented a minority following Barack Obama’s election. And understanding that gun violence prevention is just one element in a broader family of rights issues, it also demonstrates how a representation elected from a minority of our population can effectively block other rights issues, such as access to healthcare and income/wealth inequality.
The next map is a projection of electoral college votes in 2016 from what have been termed ‘Blue Wall’ and ‘Red Fortress’ states. The map depicts a decades-old trend in how “Republicans are disappearing from the competitive landscape at the national level across the most heavily populated sections of the country while intensifying their hold on a declining electoral bloc of aging, white, rural voters.” This landscape essentially predicts that the next US president will be decided by the Democratic primary (Blue Wall states holding 257 of the needed 270 electoral college votes to win), and (according the reference cited in this paragraph) the chances of the GOP holding the Senate for longer than two years is exceptionally small. The largest Republican victory in decades, the 2014 midterms, did not move this map. The GOP failed to pick up a single Senate seat behind the blue wall in 2014 with the exception of the moderate incumbent Susan Collins (R- ME). The close parallel of these states to those that supported or opposed Manchin-Toomey is apparent.
The next map is a representation of states that have closed the background check loophole (disseminated to this writer by the Brady Campaign in an e-mail advertisement). Assuming the accuracy of this map, those states that have closed the loophole (denoted in light blue and Washington State in green as a newcomer to the group) all reside behind the Blue Wall with the exception of CO which is considered a toss-up state. The map identifies 17 future target states (dark blue), the same number identified in a NY Times article (citing the Brady Campaign as well) that allow ballot initiatives. Notably missing from the target states are those in the deep South (many that have enacted voter suppression laws). As not all states apparently permit ballot initiatives, and, citing the work of the Violence Policy Center, as the five states having the highest gun death rates are all Red Fortress states with weaker gun laws (AK, LA, AL, MS and WY), three of them residing in the deep South, this effort will produce a patchwork of results across states unless a way is found to break the dysfunction in Washington. And consider the undermining of this effort (at least in part), if the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act finds its way into law. Washington State, for example, would be forced to recognize CCW permit holders from states having weaker gun laws. But, there is another flaw in this approach.
A recent NY Times article described the state ballot initiative as an attempt to follow the blueprint of the same sex marriage movement that took hold on a state by state basis. But, having actively opposed NC’s Amendment One (trips to the legislature, fundraising/public awareness events, and authoring numerous articles), this writer finds flawed logic in that approach. What gave the same sex marriage movement its clout was that such a prohibition was held to constitute an infringement of a same sex couple’s rights under the 14th Amendment, e.g., California’s Perry v Schwarzenegger, a matter that is actionable at the federal level (eloquently put in this article by Margaret Hoover).
Now, substitute ‘gay rights’ with ‘gun rights’. What the ‘gun rights’ movement is claiming that placing restrictions on the purchase or carrying of firearms constitutes a violation of an individual’s Second Amendment constitutional rights. Part of the strategy developed in this writer’s Geneva UN work was to turn the tables on the Second Amendment argument by having a second human rights committee rule that the disparate effects of gun violence in our country (especially in women, children and racial/ethnic minorities) constituted a violation of our government’s duty to protect the fundamental right to life. One would think that any politician would welcome the opportunity to debate a woman’s, child’s, Latino’s, or African-American’s unalienable right to life versus the Second Amendment overreach any day of the week and twice on Sunday knowing how that would play out at the polls with important voting blocks.
Deployment of Capital
There is a phrase used in science and statistics that correlation does not imply causation that should be considered in the large sums of money that have been spent in political races on the gun control/gun rights issue. How is it possible for the NRA to have had such an abysmal return (0.83%) on the $11,785,919 it invested in political campaigns in 2012, and just two years later a North Carolina columnist, citing the $5.5 million spent by the NRA to defeat Kay Hagan in the 2014 senate race (who voted in favor of Manchin-Toomey), stating that “The NRA not only delivered retribution against Hagan. It also sent a message to all other politicians that the gun lobby is not to be crossed.” From impotence to threat in just two years? Or was the difference a function of the election cycle and poor tactics?
Hagan wasn’t the only example. Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS – former Congresswoman Giffords political PAC and gun violence prevention organization) was reported to have spent over $2 million in her former district in support of Ron Barber, a former aide of Giffords who was injured during her attempted assassination in 2011. Barber lost to Martha McSally, a candidate that publicly opposed closing the background check loophole, even describing it as not being a loophole – closing that ‘loophole’ is a key ARS objective. McSally carried the former Congresswoman’s district in a close race regardless of the money spent or polling showing that nearly 9 out of 10 voters in that district thought that background checks on all gun sales was an ‘excellent or good idea’.
As another example, the US Senate confirmation of Vivek Murthy for Surgeon General (he had characterized guns as a ‘health care issue’ and was vehemently opposed by the NRA) was hailed as a victory for gun violence prevention advocates. Murthy was confirmed by a margin of 51 – 43 with Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) being the lone Republican to vote for Murthy (three Democrats opposed). The vote occurred in December, 2014, and thus the Senate was the same that successfully opposed the Manchin-Toomey expanded background check bill. The difference here? Harry Reid finally changed the Senate rules on the use of the filibuster pertaining to most, not all, presidential nominations – a move that he took far too long to put into place following the procedure’s unprecedented use in obstructing president Obama’s nominations – the following graph having been subjected to fact checking.
No doubt that the time and money spent on lobbying efforts was critical in the Murthy nomination. But had Reid not made the move to remove use of the filibuster, all the time and money spent on lobbying and associated political activity could not have expanded those 51 votes to the required 60.
There are two points here. First, it is time to question the effectiveness of money being spent on this issue in political races; it’s sporadic performance across varying election cycles argues that other factors are in play. Second, the Murthy confirmation speaks to the importance of finding a political solution to the obstruction.
The purpose of this writer’s work in Geneva last year was different than most. It was really not about advocating for a specific issue. It was about expanding upon, and cementing, the work of the Dream Defenders (that was recognized at the Trayvon Martin Memorial Dinner last month for its activism). The group succeeded in having the UN’s ICCPR human rights committee declare that rampant gun violence in the US, and the expansion of Stand-Your-Ground laws, constituted a violation of human rights. The intent here was to have a second shoe drop, assuring that the ICCPR ruling was not just a one-off, and to firmly entrench the racial element into the picture through a ruling of the UN’s Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination (CERD). Although this writer takes exception to the work of many harmful lobbies, such as the sugar lobby that is effectively destroying the health of our children through obesity and the development of metabolic disorders in early life (see the documentary ‘Fed Up’), or the tobacco industry that is now peddling its poison into poorer and sometimes defenseless foreign markets (recently taken on by John Oliver on his HBO show Last Week Tonight), it is the issue of gun violence (largely the mass shooting events) that attracts much public, media and political attention and, as a result, tens of millions of dollars in financing. It becomes a powerful, and relatively well-funded, issue that can be leveraged to progress the cause of both human and civil rights in our country on a far broader level.
The interrelationships between issues identified by the CERD are striking. The committee’s Concluding Observations identified the following areas where our country is failing in its obligations to eliminate racial/ethnic discrimination:
- Racial profiling and illegal surveillance
- Racist hate speech and hate crimes
- Disparate impact of environmental pollution
- Right to vote
- Criminalization of homeless
- Discrimination and segregation in housing
- Right to health and access to health care
- Gun Violence
- Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials
- Violence against women
- Criminal justice system
- Juvenile justice
- Guantanamo Bay
- Access to legal aid
- Rights of Indigenous People
Gun violence thus finds itself as but one symptom amongst many that are either caused, or exacerbated, by an underlying disease that plagues our country. This writer’s career was largely spent in pharmaceutical research and development. What we try to do in treating disease is to identify and strike at the underlying cause(s) of the illness, not just treat the symptoms. And the above symptoms, tied to the disease of racial/ethnic discrimination, continue to exist because they are allowed to exist at the political level. Thus the need to engage in effective tactics to change the politics. That takes both money and votes. Both exist. And there is no better way to catch a politician’s attention than the potential loss of their job.
No doubt target states need to be identified, but consider the following.
Senator Richard Burr (R – NC) will be running for re-election in 2016 (a presidential year) in a swing state having almost 2.8 million registered Democrats versus 2.0 million registered Republicans and a population that is 22% African-American (versus 13% nationally). The senator has consistently opposed gun violence prevention legislation (and not surprisingly other rights issues such as access to healthcare). In the last NC Senate race (Hagan v Tillis, 2014), despite the reported nearly $1 million spent by Americans for Responsible Solutions for Hagan and the over $5 million spent by the NRA on Tillis, not once was the issue of gun violence addressed in the two televised head-to-head debates between the candidates. NC is additionally cited as having perhaps the worst voter suppression law in the country. Why not, in a derivative play, deploy capital to expand participation in our democracy by the minority poor, helping get them the documentation they need and transporting them to the polls – statistically, for every ten African-Americans helped to the polls, 9 would cast a vote against the politician who is obstructing gun violence prevention legislation (along with healthcare expansion and many others). The investment choice would seem to be a ‘no-brainer’.
Or why not deploy capital in deep South states, such as Mississippi that is 38% African-American, or Texas with its burgeoning Hispanic population, to expand minority participation in our Democracy. Although perhaps not immediately effective in 2016, such could accelerate the process of flipping the House perhaps as early as 2020, another presidential election year which is also a census year where district lines can be redrawn to overcome the Gerrymandering that has created a disproportionate representation of Republicans. North Carolina has been cited as having the 4th worst underrepresentation of Democrats in Congress; based on the percent of votes for Democratic candidates, NC should have sent 7 Republicans and 6 Democrats to the US House instead of the 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats that were elected.
Can human rights be weaponized in changing our political landscape? The answer is likely yes, but there are hurdles.
- Can individual causes be set aside to promote the betterment of the whole? In Geneva, as an example, infighting occurred between what appeared to be an older guard of the African-American wing that took exception to what was felt to be undue attention being paid to indigenous people. This led one African-American law professor to counsel against falling prey to divide and conquer tactics. Comments were also issued about how an individual of a different race should not even pretend to understand another, a statement that ignores the very important and necessary human quality of empathy (the ability to share/feel another’s pain) and is destructive to the building of bridges across people and talents.
- Does tactical expertise exist at important levels? Consider the following comparison in tactics. In developing the world’s largest selling pharmaceutical product, a corporation first had to overtake a first-of-its-kind product that had established itself in the market – no easy matter. That was achieved by exploiting a small difference between the products and winning the battle first in a smaller European market. With that beachhead established and the tactics in place, the rest of the world fell. Now consider the tactics of Senator Feinstein who, with her proposed assault weapons ban in 2013, attempted to ‘take down an 800 pound gorilla with a single shot’. The measure failed without the need of a filibuster. In a matter of national debate this writer was unable to even dialog with that office about the potential to establish a beachhead with the AR-15 rifle (the only rifle used in indiscriminate mass shooting events in 2012, including the highly charged Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre) where statistics from 2012 strongly supported a case of regulatory intervention based on product abuse potential for which multiple precedents exist to limit risk to the American public. And meeting a staffer of that office at an event after the vote, it fared no better.
- Does the expertise exist to effectively deploy capital? Often not a noted strength of government functions. In the business world wondrous things get accomplished on smaller budgets. In fact, a general rule of thumb is to never give a team everything it asks because limiting resource is a driver of innovation. A committed, driven team figures out how to make things happen by tearing apart processes, using tools such as Six Sigma (not invented by Jack Welch but made famous by him during the meteoric growth of General Electric during his tenure) to deliver high quality, on or ahead of schedule at lowest possible cost. If we heard the words that something couldn’t get done, we had the wrong person.
- Are we relying too heavily on celebrities and past activists to drive the political change we need? There is no question that we have American heroes that have participated in important national objectives and civil rights accomplishments, and with such accomplishments they garner media and public attention. But do those backgrounds carry the tactical know-how to successfully damage a competitor in an evolving landscape? The tactics used in Selma in 1965 to force the issue of African-American voting rights (this writer holds MLK, Jr to have been a tactical genius who, at great risk to himself and his followers, brought the hatred and violence of racism into tens of millions of American homes through media) would not be the same today to finish the job.
No doubt there will be some who will take offense to the above. But questioning the status quo should always be a healthy and necessary part of the process. Just this past week the National Urban League released it’s report on the State of Black America – Save our Cities: Education, Jobs + Justice and declared “the state of black America is in crisis”. A crisis that CEO Marc H. Morial may have significantly understated if he has not considered the staggering loss of African-American lives, totaling into the millions, tied to inequality and discriminatory practices in our country; effects that include infant deaths, teen and young adult deaths due to disproportionate violence born of social/economic disparities, a host of chronic health conditions tied to the stress of discrimination, and even decreases in brain tissue necessary to process information in disadvantaged children aged four years and younger. No apology shall be issued here for questioning the status quo and calling for a re-evaluation of tactics.
There is little doubt that, over a long enough timeframe, our country’s changing demography will bring about political change. But considering how damaging discriminatory behavior has been, and the healing that needs to take place, can that change be accelerated? Most likely. It will take the courageous decision of some key players to change focus and engage in negotiations.
If the trends we’ve seen in the past two presidential election years hold, the gun violence prevention movement will likely make political gains (to the benefit of other rights issues as well). And should that occur, no doubt there will be the usual claiming of victories based upon the hard work and financial contributions. But would that work and money really have been the driving force behind those gains?