Sunday, December 14, 2008

Book Review: In the Balance of Power

In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements in the United States by Omar Ali

In the Balance of Power was a fascinating book. It is, on one level, an historical account of African-American participation in the American political process, written from the vantage point of African-Americans’ history as independents -- outsiders to the political system dominated traditionally by two major parties. It starts from slavery in the 1770s, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the major hallmarks of U.S. history as it relates to African-Americans’ historical struggle for equality: the collapse of reconstruction, Jim Crow and segregation, the Civil Rights movement, the social and cultural upheavals of the sixties and seventies, through the present-day Independent movement of the Ross Perot era and the various organizations that were offshoots of that effort. It culminates in Barack Obama’s historic, insurgent candidacy and win over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in the 2008 Presidential elections.

If one reads the book as a chronological history of African-American political participation, one can still come out with a rewarding experience and perspective. I derived an appreciation for the role of third parties and independent movements in pushing the envelope of political discourse to make certain things we take for granted a reality – the eight-hour workday and civil rights, for example, or womens’ suffrage.

I found myself constantly bowled over by one unexpected historical insight after another on the political activity of African Americans. More than just being passive, oppressed subjects as traditional historical accounts have tended to portray them, African-Americans have a rich history of organized, anti-Establishment political activity dating back to the days of slavery and through modern times.

For most Americans, their familiarity with African-American political activity begins with the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, etc. But African-Americans, historically, have been active participants in the country’s democratic political institutions even at points when they were most marginalized.

As early as the 1700s all the way to the 1900s and beyond, African Americans were forming political parties, having political conventions, running for office, running sophisticated political campaigns and forging alliances with other insurgent political movements and political parties. Most amazingly, there were actual instances of these efforts winning and African-American candidates taking office as early as the 1800s on the local level and even at the state level.

Most telling were the risks and opposition that these efforts faced which can run along the lines of unfair practices to keep them out of participating in electoral politics, restrictions to ballot access, disenfranchisement of their voting rights, to the more crude threats of lynchings, harassment, death threats, and organized mob violence. Most interestingly, much of this opposition was state-sanctioned and came from the highest levels of the major parties at the time.

I also found insightful the later accounts of African-American political participation in the post-segregation era. Martin Luther King Jr. warned of the perils of over-reliance and dependency on one major political party (in this case, the Democrats) and to pin all of one’s hopes and political efforts in that arena. Ali describes a disconnect between younger generations who do not necessarily have a loyalty to nor a perception of the Democratic Party as being the best vehicle for African-American political expression and the old guard of the Civil Rights era who are overwhelmingly loyal to the Democrats.

This disconnect touches upon my own thoughts and interests as an Independent that I have written about frequently. I do not consider myself a Democrat -- I will support Democratic candidates and politics. But I have found that my brand of Progressive politics plays only a marginal role, at best, in the Democratic Party. Moreover, as a Progressive, I do not see myself in any capacity supporting Republicans. Where does that leave me politically but supporting marginal third parties or not voting at all?

This dilemma mirrors the options Ali laid out (p. 151) on the options to African-American political empowerment in the post-Civil Rights era as they evaluate the role of political participation in their community and the Democratic Party:

1) Instigating Black-led reform of the Democratic Party
2) Forming a Black political party
3) Practicing political eclecticism and putting support on whoever can be most helpful to you at the time
4) Charting a course that is most beneficial to the black community and the Republican Party
5) Following the fusion populist approach: building a base for independent politics among African-Americans and creating coalitions with white independents

In the Balance of Power deserves to have a wide readership. As an academic study and as a work of political analysis the book is an example of top-notch scholarship. More than a scholarly work, the subject matter is timely and relevant to current events as:
Increasingly less tied to the Democratic Party, black voters have been looking for new electoral options in the face of bipartisan failures at home and abroad. Sixty-six percent of all Americans believe that “the nation is on the wrong track;” 89 percent disapprove of the job being done by Congress; 71 percent disapprove of the job being done by the president. Among African-Americans, the feeling and experience are even stronger. Whether people are concerned about the failure of our public schools, our health care system, or the war in Iraq, there is widespread recognition that the two-party establishment is either unwilling or unable to address the current state of affairs in a developmental or democratic manner (Ali, p. 2).

The Liberal Arts Dude gives In the Balance of Power five stars out of five.


King Politics said...

Thanks for the review. I need to get this book.

Nancy Hanks said...

Nice review. This is an important book. Agree needs to be read widely... Cross-posted on The Hankster.

Brian said...

Great review LAD.

Insightful as always.

I would say that a race-based political party is probably not an option right now...nor should it be.

But #5. ... the formation of a coalition... Black independents tapping into the larger Progressive, populist sentiment and connecting with White voters (similar to what Obama was able to do) should be the way to go IMO.

I also agree that wider society see's Black civic involvement starting in the 1950's and 60's...

But Black "Civil Rights activity" and political activity goes back to before Frederick Douglass.