Rick Tyler Needs A History Lesson on the African American Vote

This clip of Rick Tyler of the Gingrich campaign on MSNBC after the Florida GOP primary has been making the rounds. During his appearance, Tyler made outright false claims about the usage of food stamps, giving the impression that President Obama has set some kind of food stamp record and is unnecessarily increasing them. Neither suggestion is true. Not only was Tyler simply wrong on the facts, his entire premise is wrong. A broad range of economists will testify that, along with unemployment insurance, food stamps are the most effective recovery spending. They assist struggling Americans who, being people, need to eat, and the money goes right back into the economy. There’s a reason why farm belt politicians from both parties have championed food stamps: they’re good for rural America on a number of levels.

The story Rush Limbaugh and company like to tell about the president spending lavishly on supposedly African American-centric measures is baseless. According to Census data 49% of food stamp recipients are white, 26% are African American, and 20% are Latino. If there’s any record that it’s in the process of being set here it’s the one for right-wing mendacity.

The food stamps falsehood isn’t the only deceptive part of Tyler’s pitch that shouldn’t go unchecked. Tyler repeated the movement conservative line about the African American vote, a profile in strategic clock starting that, to those who aren’t aware of its complete lack of context, may seem vaguely troubling.

Tyler asserted that 98% of African American vote for Democrats. According to CNN’s 2008 exit poll, 95% of African Americans who voted cast their vote for Barack Obama. Limbaugh-type conservatives use this number to argue that the main driver of African American support for Obama in 2008 was his race. It’s probably not uncommon for a more casual observer to hear the 95% number and think the movement conservatives who echo this line are on to something. 95% may seem high, but when you know the full story it’s actually not surprising or troubling in the least.

Tyler started his clock on election night in 2008. The honest place to start is 1965. That’s the year the Civil Rights Act passed, thanks in large part to the bravery of the civil rights leaders and activists whose work pressured national Democrats to do the right thing. In the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the more progressive Republicans starting becoming Democrats while conservative Southern Democrats, like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, started becoming Republicans. In the following decades the GOP turned to the infamous Southern strategy, which the party, through then-Chairman Ken Mehlman, ended up having to apologize for in July of 2005.

You can draw a straight line from the Civil Rights Act to the present. Few people of any background would support a party or ideology that for decades was explicitly and often virulently opposed to their civil rights; for decades after that fomented a backlash against their civil rights; and in the present day regularly insinuates that the first president who shares their background is inherently less American than his predecessors.

Note that Al Gore and John Kerry also got most of the African American vote. According to exit polls, Gore received 90% of the AA vote in 2000 and John Kerry received 88% of the AA vote in 2004. I guess someone could try to argue that the relatively small increase from around 90% to around 95% is somehow telling, but it really isn’t. 2008 was a great election night for Democrats across the board. After eight years of George W. Bush practically any Democratic candidate had a very good chance of winning the presidency. The Crash of ’08 ensured that the Democratic nominee would win. Run any competent Democrat in that election and they’re going to win and win big among groups that make up the backbone of the Democratic coalition, African Americans being one of them.

On top of all of that was Barack Obama immense political talent and John McCain’s “game change” vice-presidential pick. Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention, though widely seen as well-executed, derided community organizers. The McCain campaign’s rile up the base strategy was predictably going to push African American undecideds toward Obama. Think back to the McCain-Palin rallies of October, at which McCain stood in the middle of the proverbial fevered swamps of Wingnutia. Can anyone claim with a straight face that Steve Schmidt of the McCain campaign was surprised that 95% of African Americans voted for Obama-Biden?

It’s certainly true that our country was long overdue for a minority president. We’re still long overdue for more African American Senators (we currently have none) and Governors (we currently have only one: Democrat Deval Patrick in Massachusetts). The same is true of Latinos and women. If we take more strides toward electoral meritocracy, we’ll see more African Americans, Latinos, and women running for and winning statewide and national office. And yes, the history-making nature of the Obama campaign is part of what made it so inspiring. But the suggestion that his share of the African American vote was significantly more than what you would expect with any capable national Democrat, let alone one with Obama’s skill, isn’t accurate.

And for the record, most Democrats get that slavery, segregation, and discrimination have profound, long-lasting consequences. We’re at our best as the party of a broad working middle class and opportunity for all; a party that celebrates diverse backgrounds. This proud tradition is one of our key strengths, not something to be ashamed of.