WASHINGTON -- Let's say you're one of those millions of African-American voters still mourning the recent triumph of George W. Bush. Talk of a Republican revolution turns your stomach. The Democrats' defeat has left you dizzy and wondering where else to turn. You might consider the words of Martin Luther King Jr.
"I felt that someone must remain in the position of nonalignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both -- not the servant or master of either," he said in 1960.
Emerging bewildered from the smoking wreckage of the Democrats' recent flameout, some of us can't help feeling like the survivors on "Lost," ABC's popular new drama about a motley band of stragglers on a Pacific island. Actually, Odysseus' path through the Strait of Messina may provide a better metaphor, with black voters struggling to plot a safe course between the monstrous might of President Bush's right-wing wrecking crew and the sucking whirlpool of Democratic indifference.
Given the options, could nonalignment lead to any less promising results in 2008?
According to Michael Dawson, professor of government and Afro-American studies at Harvard University, increasing numbers of black voters are seriously considering independent and third-party efforts. He points to a long tradition of such ventures spanning most of the 20th century -- and most of the country as well.
"Black independent politics have played an important role in Northern cities and Southern states," he told me. "When shut out of formal mechanisms, blacks have either worked with existing third parties or organized themselves to pressure the major parties." He cited a number of examples, including Harlem's election of Communist Benjamin Davis Jr. to the New York City Council in the 1940s and the grass-roots campaign that swept Harold Washington into the mayor's office in Chicago in 1983.
African-Americans' lack of enthusiasm for Republican candidates is a long tradition as well. Most black voters left the party of Lincoln to support FDR's New Deal during the 1930s, and few of them returned. Still, the Republicans of yesteryear were a more ideologically mixed bunch, and their variety helped to pull in some black votes. Dwight Eisenhower, the incumbent in 1956, won nearly 40 percent of the black vote. Four years later, Richard Nixon netted 32 percent of the black vote in a losing cause. But the numbers have continued to go down. Bush got 11 percent of the African-American turnout on Nov. 2, but this was just a 2 percent uptick from his 2000 showing.
In Dawson's view, blacks voting in national elections often face "a choice between voting the second party and not voting at all." My own admittedly unscientific conversations seem to bear this out. I talked to quite a few blacks who voted for John Kerry, a lackluster candidate whose overtures to African-Americans seemed halfhearted at best. Most of them expressed a fervent desire to defeat Bush, but few had much to say about why Kerry appealed to them.
Had Kerry won, they would have found themselves in the same paradoxical situation that Columbia University scholar Manning Marable described during the Clinton years: They would have been "largely responsible for electing a president who in many ways ran on a campaign that tried to distance itself from the party's strongest core constituency."
Dawson described the plight of black voters as a trade-off. "It's very rare that you get a party or a president who is progressive on both racial and economic dimensions," he said, "and African-Americans have often been forced to be somewhat satisfied with one option."
What happens when having one option becomes tiresome? Dawson suggests that a genuine independent political effort has to begin on the local level. "We need to start to systematically have discussions in individual communities about what the major problems are that need to be focused on. In some communities it might be the availability of decent jobs. In another community, like Chicago, it may be to find out the conditions under which a retailer like Wal-Mart will enter the community."
For Dawson, activists who focus exclusively on presidential politics and national issues risk losing sight of crucial ground-level realities. "In the past 35 years, attempts of black leaders to have grand summits have not worked all that well. Not that there isn't a place for them, but it has to begin at the grass roots."
Can black voters who are uncomfortable with both major parties find a home outside of them? Their movements are worth keeping an eye on during the next four years.