In 1988, the late Ed Brown, then-executive director of the Voter Education Project, watched as the Democratic Party ignored blacks’ growing displeasure with Massachusetts Governor and Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. The party assumed blacks had little choice but to support Dukakis since the only alternative would be to defect and vote Republican—an option ostensibly more unattractive than an inattentive Dukakis campaign. The party was wrong: Black voter turnout rate plummeted by nearly 5 percent, the second largest decline for this bloc ever observed.
In the lead up to the 1992 presidential election, Brown admonished an overconfident Democratic Party for again taking the black vote for granted. Lest its short memory fuel undue overconfidence, he famously reminded the party, “The view is that blacks have nowhere else to go, but blacks always have somewhere to go—they can go fishing.”
And the intervening years have largely borne him out. African Americans overwhelmingly back Democratic candidates in presidential and congressional elections—averaging about 88 percent support since 1980. And polling from past elections has shown that blacks are more likely to stay home on Election Day than to switch their vote to Republican presidential candidates. The black electorate mostly votes for Democrats, or not at all. But that may finally be changing.
The most commonly cited explanation for this phenomenon is the “black utility heuristic,” a framework developed by University of Chicago professor Michael Dawson in 1994. More commonly referred to as linked fate, it’s the sentiment among blacks that one’s prospects are ultimately tied to the success of the race. In his seminal book Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics, Dawson argues that because race has been the predominant factor in blacks’ American experience, “it was much more efficient for them to use the status of the group, both relative and absolute, as a proxy for individual utility.” In more practical terms, black voters prioritize the well-being of the group over their individual interests, and consider what’s best for the group as a whole because history has shown them that “we are in this thing together.”
The cohesiveness of young African Americans remains strong, and is the genesis of the increasing social-protest activity in response to issues like the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and aggressive policing of black people nationwide. Yet after several years of surging voter participation rates by black young adults, their turnout fell by nearly 7 percent in 2012. Taken together, these may signal the erosion of linked fate’s effect on political behavior, which would constitute a tectonic shift in how black voters are viewed.
A reliance on heuristics is not unique to African Americans. Nearly every voter employs them to some extent. Tracking every nuance in each statute and every action of each elected official is an enormous investment of time and effort, so Americans tend to rely on heuristics, or shortcuts, that ease their decision-making process. What has set blacks apart is the magnitude and uniformity to which they utilized the racial heuristic in their political behavior, rising to a level not observed in any other voting bloc.
For that reason, linked fate is most evident when examining black voting behavior. The black electorate’s decades-long, near-uniform support for the Democratic Party is an occurrence unparalleled by any other race, ethnicity, or gender demographic in the modern political landscape. As such, the most considered question about black voters in the opening overtures of the 2016 presidential election is whether they’ll turn out to support Hillary Clinton or simply “go fishing.” Any prediction that a significant chunk of the electorate will vote for the Republican presidential nominee is deemed to be nothing more than an interesting exercise in impractical punditry. The allegiance typically occurs despite the demonstrable fact that blacks hold a variety of policy views and are not entirely aligned to the Democratic Party’s platform—a reality best seen in direct-democracy referendums from California to North Carolina where blacks have been split, particularly on social issues.
Linked fate, in a political context, suggests that black voters approach elections with one simple question: Which candidate is better for the African American population? The analysis begins at the most fundamental level by ascertaining which party or candidate is most likely to protect civil rights and support equal access to economic opportunity for blacks. Everything else is secondary. For example, a politician’s stance on renewable energy, free market economics, abortion, immigration, national debt, and role of the military in regional conflicts all pale in comparison to basic considerations of liberty.
African Americans may ask themselves: Can we vote? Can we work? Can we prosper? Can we live? With game-changing statutes like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 being signed into law by a Democratic president and routinely the target of Republican opposition, the Democratic candidate immediately emerges as the preferred candidate. A recent study also shows that when the candidate is black, the effects of descriptive representation raises the level of black voter participation and support even higher—an occurrence confirmed by historical black turnout rates in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
A competing view of linked fate is that black voters are not loyal to the party, but to each other at a deeper level than other races and ethnicities. A centuries-long history grounded in the shared experience of racial subjugation and discrimination produced a common bond among African Americans that leads them to view the world through the same prism. No matter how respectable and educated an African American was in the early 20th century, he or she was unlikely to be granted civil-rights protections until they were guaranteed for the whole race. The remnants of such views are still seen today, most prominently evinced in the Black Lives Matter movement. In short, there is no personal liberty without group liberty.
The uniform support of the Democratic Party may begin to erode in the post-Obama era. New research suggests that the political utility of linked fate has waned. Two recent papers—one from Harvard University and another from Harvard professor Jennifer Hochschild and Yale professor Vesla Weaver—argue that the impact of the linked-fate framework, now over 20 years old, on political views and participation has effectively been overcome by the influence of economic class on policy preferences.
The original conception of linked fate was crafted based on the behavior of black voters who lived through the Civil Rights Movement or were born shortly thereafter. There was more uniformity in the African American experience for the civil-rights era generations. But since then, three new generations of blacks have entered the electorate with a wider range of lived experiences and views than those of their parents and grandparents. Hochschild and Weaver found that income inequality among blacks today is higher than all other racial and ethnic groups, and that blacks with better economic well-being are much less likely to be victims of violent crime than those who are poor. This produces tangible stratifications in the African American experience that has ramifications in black political behavior. The authors also contend linked fate has taken on a form of social, not political, solidarity—and this may be welcome news to Republicans.
While data shows that in 2012, black turnout increased overall, so did black support for the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Black voters over 45 drove the increased turnout since youth turnout decreased—additional evidence of an emerging line of demarcation between generations and their actualization of linked fate. Further, in 2012, for the first time since 1980, a decrease in registered black Independents resulted in an increase in blacks identifying as Republican. The relationship between black voters and the Democratic Party therefore is primed for disruption, and a Republican candidate with the right message may begin it in earnest, provided he or she understands the intricacies of this latest evolution of linked fate.
The late civil-rights icon Julian Bond once said, “I’m old enough to remember when the political parties competed for the votes of African Americans.” For a number of reasons, those days were long gone. But they are due for a resurgence. A younger, diverse, more politically active black electorate is uninterested in having its voice muted by a blind adherence to a partisan loyalty established before its birth. It realizes that the best thing that can happen for African Americans politically is for politicians to actively court the black vote.
Whereas linked fate in the latter part of the 20th century meant political solidarity with the Democratic Party, the 21st-century iteration requires political competition to prioritize black America’s concerns. And much like those young people who marched to obtain passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, this new segment of the electorate will not simply bow out and go fishing—instead, they are willing to go to the mat.