One might assume that African-Americans have always trended Democrat along with liberal-minded whites, trades unions, and states like New York and California. But there was a time, not very long ago, when African-Americans rejected the Democrats. Not just in the southern states but in the north as well. However, the US Presidential election of 1936 changed all that.
Democrats courting African-Americans
It was an election which completely re-drew the American political map creating voter blocs that would endure until the 1970s. Why is this relevant today? Because post-Trump, we’re witnessing a major political upheaval in the United States with voter behaviour changing dramatically. But this isn’t the first time there’s been such a momentous change. The year 1936 saw a political settlement overturned that stretched all the way back to the American Civil War.
That year saw Democrat incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt seeking re-election in the midst of the Great Depression. An economic downturn that threw millions out of work and on to the breadline. A horrific period of misery and poverty. Roosevelt’s bold and controversial answer to the slump was large-scale state intervention and spending through what he termed the New Deal.
The New Deal – key to Democrats winning the African-American vote
The Democrats realised in 1936 that they had to seize a generational opportunity using the New Deal to move normally hostile voters into their camp. That included African-Americans. Surely, they reckoned, this community would reward Roosevelt for his great public works? So why did black voters regularly shun the Democrats?
Well, there was a very sound reason.
Seventy years before, the American Civil War had pitched the anti-slavery Republican President Abraham Lincoln against pro-slavery Democrats in the South. After Lincoln triumphed, African-Americans not unreasonably viewed the Republicans as their party. Democrats did themselves no favours by supporting what we would now term white supremacist policies, people, and actions.
Fast forward to 1936 and Democrats now cast themselves as the party of organised labour, intellectuals, and liberals. But one group of voters wasn’t entirely convinced. Many African-Americans couldn’t quite bring themselves to vote for Democrat candidates. A party that in the past had endorsed the murderous activities of the Ku Klux Klan.
Roosevelt wanted a complete image overhaul. He was determined to create a New Deal coalition of voters that would overwhelm the Republicans for decades. African-Americans were key to this objective. As a result he sent members of the administration and senior party figures to American black forums to convince the cynics that Roosevelt’s party was no longer a mouthpiece for supporters of slavery.
The strategy worked and the President romped to victory. The coalition he conjured into being became a powerful electoral force throughout the mid-20th century allowing the Democrats to dominate Congress even when the President was a Republican. For example, Eisenhower in the 1950s and even during the Reagan years.
The New Deal Coalition falls apart
The coalition would eventually unravel as Republican leaders Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan courted Southern Democrat voters by playing on conservative and religious values. And in our own times, the so-called “culture wars” have weaponised issues like abortion and LGBT rights. The African-American vote remains mainly Democrat though some black voters have lined up behind Trump’s populist brand of Republicanism.
Quite what Roosevelt would have made of this is anybody’s guess.