The Democratic Party and a lot of black Democrats are finding themselves in the midst of a political identity crisis these days. While the prevailing mood of the party is to become more conservative, black Democrats are feeling scorned, bitter and distrustful. "I don't want anything to do with the national party," one disgruntled black congressman told a party activist recently.
As the party's more conservative wing gains firmer footing, national black party officials are increasingly aligning themselves with other groups in the party that are insisting that Democrats cannot win the 1986 Senate races or the 1988 presidential campaign by sounding like slightly toned-down versions of Ronald Reagan.
"We need a vision that speaks to the needs of the people -- a message of how America can be economically prosperous again -- not just for some, but for everyone," said Democratic National Committee treasurer Sharon Pratt Dixon, adding: "We need a vision and authority that inspires -- then we will increase the share of those who support us."
Other black Democrats share Dixon's feelings. "We cannot back away from the basic Democratic principles, no matter how unpopular they may be," said Virginia Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder at a recent fund raiser, for the "faddishness" of being a new conservative-leaning Democrat nicknamed by some "Atari Democrats."
Party insiders are more blunt. "No one is going after the base -- women, blacks and blue-collar workers," said one. "But blacks and women are no longer satisfied with crumbs. They're coming to the table demanding that power be shared."
Rep. Charles E. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who is running for majority whip, pointed precisely to that new state of mind when he recently revealed part of his purpose in pursuing the House leadership. "I want to show that there is nothing so sacred that blacks cannot touch it," he said.
Recently, black Democrats took a step to enhance their position within the party structure. At a dinner last week, they formally inaugurated the Bethune-DuBois Fund designed to get more blacks to contribute to the financially strapped party and elect black candidates. "Blacks have provided the votes," explained C. DeLores Tucker, who chairs the DNC's 66-member Black Caucus, "but black political leadership is still underrepresented in the finance councils and its inner circle."
Tucker, who has been involved in Democratic Party politics for 25 years, is right when she says blacks have long been faithful Democrats. Since 1932, the year when the Democratic Party became relatively more liberal and the Republicans relatively more conservative, blacks have been the party's most loyal voters. Sticking by the party when many other Democrats deserted in 1980 to vote for Reagan, most blacks continue to see Democrats as most supportive of issues they care about.
While some black Democrats rail at being taken for granted by the party because of their loyalty, Tucker points to evidence of new sensitivity: former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson's new seat on the DNC executive committee, the party's new fair-share covenant with the NAACP, and retention of the party caucuses for blacks, women and Hispanics at a time when DNC Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. has killed several caucuses. "Paul Kirk is becoming more sensitive to the party's most loyal constituency," says Tucker.
But if no Democratic or Republican candidate emerges who is popular with blacks, strategists point out that blacks might launch a third-party or independent candidacy. A January Washington Post poll showed 87 percent of blacks interviewed looked favorably on Jesse Jackson, who finished third in the 1984 Democratic primary sweepstakes and is expected to run again in 1988.
And at last week's Bethune-DuBois Dinner that honored seven black congressmen who head full committees, a number of speakers were united in emphasizing that if the party was disrespectful and unresponsive to black needs, it might see a revolt by its "most loyal constituency."
It would be a terrible mistake for the national Democratic Party to ignore blacks. It might cost them some of the seats needed to take control of the Senate this fall and the presidential race in 1988. It also would cost them the pride of being the party of many Americans. The party's diversity and passion about issues are its strengths and must be part of the vision that needs to be redefined and articulated.