Few demographic groups are more faithful to the Democratic Party than black Americans. But one of the first black billionaires is suggesting that the party has moved so far to the left, it risks alienating them.
While Robert Johnson played a significant role in shaping black culture when it comes to entertainment, some politicos say he is out of touch about the politics of black Americans.
“The party in my opinion, for me personally, has moved too far to the left,” Johnson, the founder of the Black Entertainment Television cable network, told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Tuesday. “And for that reason, I don’t have a particular candidate [I’m supporting] in the party at this time.”
“I think at the end of the day, if a Democrat is going to beat Trump, then that person, he or she, will have to move to the center, and you can’t wait too long to do that,” the lifelong Democrat added.
Johnson’s belief that a centrist Democrat would have the best chance of beating President Trump is a common one, even among some black voters. Former vice president Joe Biden has been leading the Democratic field, including with black voters, for multiple reasons; among them is the belief that he has the best shot at defeating Trump.
Black Americans overwhelmingly back Democrats, even though most black Americans don’t consider themselves liberal. According to a 2018 Associated Press/NORC Center poll, more than a quarter (27 percent) of black voters identify as conservative, and 44 percent consider themselves moderate. Only 26 percent identify as liberal.
While Johnson backed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, he’s since made headlines for praising Trump’s economic policies. And it’s his view that the current economy is helping black Americans.
“I think the economy is doing great, and it’s reaching populations that heretofore had very bad problems in terms of jobs and employments and the opportunities that come with employment,” Johnson told CNBC, commenting on the black unemployment rate reaching its lowest level earlier this year.
“I give the president a lot of credit for moving the economy in a positive direction that’s benefiting a large amount of Americans,” he added. “I think the tax cuts clearly helped stimulate the economy. I think business people have more confidence in the way the economy is going.”
But what Johnson fails to recognize is that most black Americans are not business people, said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, an organization focused on increasing black voter turnout.
“Bob Johnson is not working class. He does not reflect the issue, nor does he even seem like he has the ability to speak to the issues of the working class,” Brown told The Fix. “For him, to make a statement that this tax break has been helpful for black people — where has he been? Under a rock? There’s all kind of reports that have come out that this tax benefit disproportionately benefited the wealthy and not the working class. In and of itself, to make that statement says to me that he’s simply out of touch.”
While many black voters disapprove of Trump’s job performance because they disagree with his behavior and his views on issues related to race, many also view his presidency poorly because the economic policies Johnson praises have not helped black Americans as much as the president claims, said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the Black Pac, a group working to increase black Americans’ political engagement.
“Mr. Johnson is an outlier within the African American community when it comes to the points that he raises,” Shropshire said.
"Frankly the policy positions of the current Democratic field of candidates is aligned with the issues and priorities of those voters. So while Mr. Johnson may share the interests of millionaires and billionaires, he’s out of step with black voters.”
Ultimately, the 73-year-old Johnson may have views of the Democratic Party that are consistent with those of black Americans like himself: affluent, older and moderate. However, black Americans, and thus black voters, are far more ideologically diverse than they are often portrayed to be.
“We do know that older demographics in the community tend to support kind of the establishment Democratic Party,” Eddie Glaude, chair of Princeton University’s African American studies department, told The Fix. “Some are centrist. In 2016 in South Carolina, the broad support was for Hillary Clinton. We see that in the data.
"But we do know that even in South Carolina in 2016, we saw younger black voters breaking differently and voting differently. We see them talk about Medicare-for-all, a livable wage, not just criminal justice reform, but in some cases [prison] abolition. We see folks talking about the Green New Deal and environmental racism. When we look at the Movement for Black Lives, it’s … to the left of what we might see establishment black Democrats backing.”
Johnson may not yet know which candidate he’s backing in 2020. If he rejects the Democratic nominee for Trump, he will almost certainly be an outlier among black voters. Republicans have won only about 10 percent of the black vote on average in the past 12 presidential elections, according to exit polls.