In 1972 Richard Nixon won 18 percent of the black vote, according to New York Times exit polling.
In 2008, John McCain won 4 percent of the black vote.
The conventional explanation for this has something to do with civil rights and Democrats and the "Southern strategy" followed by Republicans. And, to a large extent, the explanation is probably right.
But part of the reason African-Americans have been trending Democratic recently has as much to do with chance as with fundamental political shifts.
Democrats have had the good fortune of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The two most influential, recognized Democrats of the past two generations are incredibly popular amongst blacks. Bill Clinton was so well-regarded by African-Americans that Toni Morrison called him "the first black president". Today Barack Obama is even more popular amongst blacks than Clinton (the fact that, unlike Clinton, he actually is "the first black president" might have something to do with this).
Republicans haven't had such luck. No Republican presidents have been relatively popular amongst blacks since Eisenhower's time. And even he lost the black vote by a 3:2 margin.
Imagine if Republicans nominated Colin Powell in 1996. He might have cracked the black vote and won 25%; that was how well Michael Steele ran in his 2006 Senate campaign. Or he might have utterly broken the alliance between blacks and Democrats and taken more than 90% of the black vote.
That would have changed politics forever. But as luck would have it, the exact opposite happened. Barack Obama, not Colin Powell, was nominated by the Democrats and elected president. Today it looks like Democrats have won the black vote for another generation.
As you may have read, the Republican Party elite is split on whether Chip Saltsman, who's running for the chairmanship of the RNC, was right to send committee members a CD including a song titled "Barack the Magic Negro." Those opposed see the political danger for the Republican Party in continuing to be the party of race baiters; those who think it's perfectly fine are likely to propel Saltsman to chair of the party. But the fact is, as Paul Krugman explores in his latest must-read OpEd, the GOP's reign as the party of racial backlash has led them to the wilderness in which they currently find themselves, it is not the source of their deliverance.
Forty years ago the G.O.P. decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Mr. Bush as the party's champion, to the Bush administration's pervasive incompetence, to the party's shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision.
If the Bush administration became a byword for policy bungles, for government by the unqualified, well, it was just following the advice of leading conservative think tanks: after the 2000 election the Heritage Foundation specifically urged the new team to "make appointments based on loyalty first and expertise second."
Contempt for expertise, in turn, rested on contempt for government in general. "Government is not the solution to our problem," declared Ronald Reagan. "Government is the problem." So why worry about governing well?
Where did this hostility to government come from? In 1981 Lee Atwater, the famed Republican political consultant, explained the evolution of the G.O.P.'s "Southern strategy," which originally focused on opposition to the Voting Rights Act but eventually took a more coded form: "You're getting so abstract now you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites." In other words, government is the problem because it takes your money and gives it to Those People.
Krugman warns us not to allow the GOP to excuse away the failures of the Bush administration as bad luck or a result of championing a guy who wasn't truly conservative. The fact is, as Krugman points out:
...despite the claims of some on the right that Mr. Bush betrayed conservatism, the truth is that he faithfully carried out both his party's divisive tactics...and its governing philosophy.
Why is this relevant as we approach the beginning of Barack Obama's historic first term? Because in Barack Obama, Republicans have a Democrat who is not declaring that the era of big government is over. In Barack Obama, Republicans may have their worst fears realized: a president who empowers and funds government and proves that when run well, government can do great things for its citizens. Before the President-elect is even inaugurated, however, Republicans are already raising the spectre of Clinton's first 2 years as a cautionary tale for Obama. Yet Obama and Democrats in Congress should not be deterred. As Krugman rightly points out:
But America in 1993 was a very different country -- not just a country that had yet to see what happens when conservatives control all three branches of government, but also a country in which Democratic control of Congress depended on the votes of Southern conservatives. Today, Republicans have taken away almost all those Southern votes -- and lost the rest of the country. It was a grand ride for a while, but in the end the Southern strategy led the G.O.P. into a cul-de-sac.
Mr. Obama therefore has room to be bold. If Republicans try a 1993-style strategy of attacking him for promoting big government, they'll learn two things: not only has the financial crisis discredited their economic theories, the racial subtext of anti-government rhetoric doesn't play the way it used to.
Remember the new conservative coalition that was to provide a "permanent Republican majority?" Today that pipe dream is mostly associated with Karl Rove, but originally it was envisioned by Richard Nixon as the fruit of his Southern Strategy.