Are blacks moving towards the center as their party lurches to the left?

I think almost everyone who pays close attention to politics understands that white Democratic leftists hold more extreme views than most black Democrats. Studies by prominent African-American scholars confirm this understanding. They also indicate that blacks now hold less extreme views than white Democrats as a whole.

Thomas Edsall summarizes the findings of these scholars, and some related polling data, in this article for the New York Times. He cites the work of Katherine Tate, a political scientist at Brown. She contends that starting in the 1980s:

[P]ublic opinion revealed a distinctive shift toward political moderation [among blacks]. The black opinion shift, I argue, is based on the transformation of African-American politics, away from radical challenges to the political status quo toward inclusive, bipartisan electoral politics.

The Democratic Party as a whole, however, is moving precisely in the direction of “radical challenges to the status quo” and away from bipartisanship.

Edsall says that contemporary polling provides evidence of moderation among black Democrats, at least compared to the views of white Democrats:

The poll data suggests a reversal of traditional roles. More conservative and more centrist Democratic whites were once the tempering force within party ranks. Now, on some of the most controversial issues currently under debate, African-Americans — who make up an estimated 25 percent of Democratic primary voters — have emerged as a force for more moderate stands as white Democrats have moved sharply left.

He cites polling by Public Opinion Research, which conducts surveys for The Wall Street Journal and NBC News. It found that the percentage of white voters describing themselves as very liberal or liberal is roughly twice as large as the percentage of black voters who do so. Conversely, the percentage of African-Americans describing themselves as moderate or conservative is almost twice as large as the percentage of white Democratic primary voters who describe themselves that way.

Self-labeling in these matters can, of course, be unreliable. However, blacks are certainly less liberal than white Democrats when it comes to the issue of abortion. 97 percent of white Democrat primary voters agree that the procedure should be “totally legal” compared with two thirds of black Dem primary voters. A microscopic 3 percent of these whites said abortion should be illegal, compared with a third of their black counterparts.

I’m pretty sure the same trend exists when it comes to other key social issues.

What about economic issues? Here, Edsall finds that blacks remain more “progressive” than white Dems. However, I’m not sure the evidence he cites supports this conclusion. Edsall notes:

Asked to rate the importance to them of jobs and wages, 84 percent of black Democrats said both are “very important,” 20 points more than the 64 percent of white Democrats who said so.

Concern about jobs and wages isn’t necessarily a progressive stance, and certainly not uniquely so. Many conservatives would agree that jobs and wages are “very important.” It is limousine liberals, a “progressive” cohort, who tend to disagree.

It’s also worth noting that, at least as things stand now, President Trump has a strong record on jobs and wages. And the environmental measures being advocated by leading Democratic contenders, especially the most “progressive” ones, would tend to kill jobs.

Polling also shows that blacks Democrats view “Medicare for all” less favorably than white Dems. And they are more likely than white Dems to support a return to pre-Trump policies, rather than “advancing a more progressive agenda than the country had under Barack Obama.”

All of this suggests that Joe Biden’s popularity among blacks isn’t merely the product of his association with Obama. It seems also to be due to the fact that he’s less radical than his main challengers.

One final point in Edsall’s column might be the most significant of all, though probably not in short-term electoral terms. Candis Watts Smith, a political scientist at Penn State, finds that:

African Americans’ attention has increasingly shifted from structural reasons of black disadvantage (e.g., systematic discrimination in the job or housing markets) to individual-based explanations (e.g., lack of individual motivation; oppositional attitudes to school and learning) of these disparities, especially in the post-civil rights era.

If true, we might finally see the African-American community take its next big step forward.

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