The beating heart of the Democratic Party was on display when Al Sharpton addressed the national convention. Sure, other speakers received enthusiastic ovations. But Sharpton got something more. There was rapture in the hall as he delivered (shouted?) his address.
Some wonder why Sharpton was invited to address the convention at all. Unlike Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, he did not arrive with a slate of delegates pledged to him. Further, John Kerry has more reason to shun Sharpton than either Mondale or Dukakis had to distance themselves from Jackson. For all his faults, Jackson did not carry the stigma of having perpetrated a massive hoax like the Tawana Brawley accusations. Nor was Jackson guilty of race-baiting to the point of encouraging a riot, as Sharpton was. So why didn?t John Kerry refuse him a prominent speaking role (as he denied one to his old boss Michael Dukakis)?
The answer is that the Democratic Party secures its base these days through a series of fables. The most potent of these is the Florida fable. It goes as follows: The 2000 election was stolen because George W. Bush, in concert with Jeb Bush, the election officials of the state of Florida and a compliant United States Supreme Court, conspired to simply ?throw out? the votes of African-Americans. Overwhelming majorities of African-Americans (85 percent in one poll) believe this.
But it?s an invention. As John Lott reminds us, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission began investigating charges of voter disenfranchisement in 2001. They investigated every tale of roadblocks, intimidation and registration anomalies. They found not a single African American who had been harassed, intimidated or prevented from voting at any polling place in Florida (though you?d have to read the minority report to learn this, since Mary Frances Berry, a partisan Democrat, is the chairman of the commission).
There was an attempt to prevent felons from voting, and the list Florida officials generated was in error in some cases. But a plot to prevent African Americans from voting? Hardly. Twice as many white voters as black were erroneously placed on the felon list.
In any case, two-thirds more African Americans voted in 2000 than in 1996. Though blacks represented 13 percent of Florida?s population, they accounted for 15 percent of the total vote. That is disenfranchisement? No, the ?Florida was stolen? myth was cooked up by Al Gore to cloak his naked power grab in distinguished civil rights garments.
Sharpton took the Florida myth and wove it into the larger story about civil rights and the Democratic Party. Democrats can be proud of their early record on civil rights to be sure. But while dismissing the party of Lincoln because ?we never got the 40 acres; we never got the mule,? Sharpton sneaked in another myth. We?re sticking with the donkey, he thundered, because ?we got the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act under Democrats.?
Whoa. Lyndon Johnson was the president who pushed through those laws, but he couldn?t have done it without Republican votes. According to Congressional Quarterly, only 61 percent of Democrats in the House of Representatives supported the Civil Rights Act, while 80 percent of Republicans voted in favor. In the Senate, 69 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans voted in favor.
In his speech to the Urban League, President Bush challenged black voters to rethink their reflexive allegiance to the Democratic Party. This the Democrats cannot allow. If African-Americans cease to give huge majorities of their votes to Democrats, the Democrats will never win another big election.
Democrats could pitch their case to African Americans on many issues -- affirmative action, poverty programs, education. But year after year, they choose the cheap and disreputable approach of suggesting that Republicans are racists, that civil rights and voting rights are in peril, and that only the Democratic Party stands between us and a return to Jim Crow.
That?s why Kerry chose to feature the Rev. Al at his convention. The bloody shirt must be waved, and the Brooklyn race provocateur (ordained at age 10) does it so well. From the point of view of leading Democrats, Sharpton may be a monumental liar (he has never apologized to the policeman he and Brawley slandered), a fomenter of race riots and an anti-Semite, but he keeps African-American fears alive -- and that makes him a Democratic star.