The Limits Of Political And Behavior Science Theory
As a general rule, one associates values that are traditional, rather than rational/secular, and that are survival, rather than self-expression, oriented with personal and economic insecurity. On the other hand, values are determined at a quite high level extending to a significant extent to the supra-national level, rather than at the level of the individual. Between culture differences in values dwarf within culture differences in values.
The study of regional cultural differences also tends to indicate that cultural features of a founding population in a region can persist for centuries, even in the fact of substantial immigration.
Historically, African Americans are the population within the United States that has been, both more personally insecure, as evidenced by violent crime victimization rates, incarceration rates and victimization in the criminal justice system, and more economically insecure, as measured by unemployment rates, educational attainment and dropout rates, incomes and household wealth.
Also, until the "Great Migration" from around 1910 to 1970 in the United States, when African Americans migrated in large numbers to industrial cities in the North for manufacturing jobs, African Americans were overwhelmingly residents of the American South (i.e. the former Confederate States).
These deep cultural roots in the American South are evidenced, for example, by the dialect of American English known as African American Vernacular English and in the religious practices of the major African American religious denominations, many of which show the hallmarks of the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1790-1840) that gave Evangelical Christianity in the American South its current character, which is unique in the Christian world (except in places evangelized from the American South).
The culture of the American South, in terms of its values, are in broad stroke more "survival" as opposed to "self-expression" oriented, and more "traditional" as opposed to "secular rational", than those of America's dominant "Yankee" culture of the North and the Pacific states. There are good historical reasons for this, but for the moment, I merely note that this is true and has been for a very long time that probably predates the Revolutionary War by which our nation attained its independence in 1776.
Thus, political theory and the behavioral sciences affords us good reasons to expect that African Americans would have more conservative political values than any other demographic in the United States.
Why Do African Americans Overwhelmingly Have Such A Liberal Political Identity?
Obviously, this didn't happen. It is no secret that formally affiliated Republicans who are African American Republicans are very rare (especially in the South), while African Americans tend to actually vote for Democrats at rates of around 90%, more loyally than almost any other ethnic group or demographic in America.
Why Might We Expect African Americans To Be More Conservative?
At one level, this is highly unexpected. Republicans have become through a process known as realignment that has almost completely run its course at the federal level, almost a Southern regional party.
The Republican party often espouses a vision of the United States as Christian nation and has deep misgivings about the First Amendment's establishment clause jurisprudence, while one of the other most reliable constituencies of the Democratic party are people who have no religious affiliation (often called the "None" and not necessarily atheistic, despite disavowing traditional religious denominations). The Republican party identifies itself as the party of "traditional family values" while the Democratic party identifies itself as inclusive. Likewise, on all manner of issues that implicate the survival values v. self-expression values divide, the Republican party consistently falls on the survival values side relative to the Democratic party.
Naively, we would expect African American political values to more strongly mirror those of the tradition/survival values oriented Republican party, and not the secular/rational/self-expression values oriented Democratic party. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
Similarly, why does the Democratic party, which sees itself as the party of the poor, have the values of a party of the secure middle class and the affluent, and the Republican party, which is widely seen as a party of the rich, have poverty and working class driven values?
Had Malcolm X Prevailed Would African Americans Have Been More Conservative?
One could have imagined another course. African Americans could have embraced the vision of Malcolm X and adopted the deeply conservative traditionalist/survival oriented ideology and religion of Islam, rather than making the commitment to self-expression values and tactics that Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we commemorate on today's holiday, instead.
Neither Malcolm X, nor Martin Luther King, Jr. had a secular vision. Malcolm X was an advocate for African American Islam. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a minister in an African American Christian denomination.
Both men lived at a time when the break down of the traditional African American nuclear family structure was just beginning to become apparent, decades before working class white Americans followed in the footsteps of their African American peers, and both we advocates for strong traditional families.
The moral content of African American religious denominations and the values of African Americans, generally, have until very recently, been as fervently anti-gay, as those of their Southern white evangelical Christian peers.
African American enlistment in the military, especially, the Army, rivals that of Southern whites, and is much higher than that of Northern whites, although African Americans are more often denied the opportunity to enlist due to issues with insufficient academic ability or criminal records.
Then again, it is important to recall, that overall, Protestant Christianity is the most self-expression, rationalist oriented religious tradition in the world, while Islam is the most survival value, traditionalist oriented religious tradition in the world.
While Southern Protestantism (both white and black) is a much more conservative religious movement than European Protestantism, for the most part, it still draws upon and is influenced by liberal views (viewed in a global values context) that are deeply embedded in Christianity's DNA. By embracing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s black protestant religious views, a natural step for a community of African Americans that overwhelmingly shared his religious views at the dawn of the civil rights movement, African Americans were drawn by the influence and by the influence of the Northern Protestant Christians who became their fast allies in the white community in the civil rights movement.
Southern Protestants look very conservative when juxtaposed against a historically continental and Scandinavian European style Protestantism, and against the deep secularism that has emerged from that tradition. But, they remain in the same ethical territory as many white Roman Catholics, and in a territory that places more weight on self-expression (vis-a-vis survival values) than Orthodox Christians, Hindus, Muslim, Latin American Catholics, and African traditional religion practitioners.
White Evangelical Christianity may afford women a subordinate role and have deep seated racism issues, but in the 21st century, they aren't ready to revert women to chattel status or reinstate slavery, as ISIS would like to in the Middle East and Boko Haram would like to in the African Sahel.
Historical Reasons For African American Alienation From Republicans
African American alienation from the modern Republican political party can be traced, fairly clearly, to the outright racism and hostility present in the Republican party which became the new home of segregationist Southerners (the former "Dixiecrats") who wanted to keep first de jure and then de facto and private sector discrimination against African Americans in place. Republicans have, at every step, opposed the integration of public institutions, viable employment discrimination laws, and viable remedies for victims of abuse in the criminal justice system (particularly those like the sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine that disproportionately impact African Americans for no principled reason). Republicans have opposed African American judicial and cabinet nominees (with the notable exception of African American conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thomas). Republicans have favored regressive taxation schemes and weak social welfare safety nets in ways that have done disproportionate economic harm to African Americans. Republicans have opposed history instruction in schools that highlights African American contributions. Republicans opposed making Martin Luther King, Jr. day a holiday.
The Democratic party, in contrast, has had the back of African Americans on issues with strong racial overtones for the last half century or more, has consistently advanced African American economic interests, and has embraced African American advancement in partisan political party offices, as candidates for elective office, and as political appointees in executive branch and judicial branch offices.
How Has Membership In The Democratic Party Coalition Has Changed African Americans?
This coalition, in turn, has mobilized elites in the African American community to back a Democratic party political agenda, and to advocate for and cause the realization of African American community values in the United States, such as efforts to find common cause with Hispanic immigrants, rather than seeing them as threats, and seeing environmental protection as something that personally advances their health rather than as a threat to their jobs, that would not have been natural responses in a vacuum outside the Democratic Party coalition. Similarly, the larger Democratic Party coalition has influenced African Americans in responding to criminal violence in their communities with calls for gun control, rather than easier access to gun ownership (e.g. through restoration of the civil rights of those with criminal convictions).
Put another way, African Americans have largely repudiated the culture of the American South from which their own ethnic subculture has arisen as a parent culture whose standards are relevant to them, and realigned their own subculture with that of the rest of the United States. Following that switch of cultural allegiances, their own conditions of personal safety and economic security have been relegated to second order within community differences in values that also shift the entire community's values modestly in their direction, rather than reinforcing the similar although less intense values of working class white Southerners in a similar conservative direction.
Has Public Policy Changed African American Values?
It is also possible to argue that public policy itself has changed African American political values.
For example, on the issue of health care, there has been a sustained period of time from the adoption of the Medicaid program, until the implementation of Obamacare, where those in poverty had more secure access to medical care, than working class individuals with no health insurance, a substantial share of all working class people.
Affirmative action has made it easier for an African Americans who are ready to go to college to obtain a higher education than an academically comparable working class white person for a sustained period of time
There have been time periods in many places where African Americans have more heavily utilized the social welfare safety net available than comparable poor whites, in part due to better community knowledge of how the programs work, and in part due to a lower degree of distrust of those programs.
These policies and others like them make it possible to conclude that public policy has done more to alleviate insecurity for blacks than for whites for a sustained period of time, muting somewhat differences in absolute physical and economic well being, although this argument does not seem to be the more compelling explanation.
The Parallel Case of Unions
Clear partisan divides on union-management issues, with Republicans being fervently anti-union, and Democrats seeing unions as a core base of support, has likewise influenced the American union movement to devise a political agenda consistent with the larger Democratic party coalition, for example, on the issue of immigration, and has muted activism within the political sphere on issues that put its constituencies at odds with each other, like addressing racism within union organizations with litigation.
Of course, while unions institutionally, are strongly aligned with the Democratic party and against the Republican party, rank and file union members who vote have increasingly been a swing constituency between the political parties. Support from white working class union members, even when it has not risen to the level of majority support, has been important to many recent Republican electoral victories in the Midwest.
Then again, given the declining role of unions in the economy, with private sector unionization levels now below those of the earliest strong legal protections for unions in the late Progressive era, in part for legal reasons and in part for economic ones, the union vote, in general, has become less numerically important and more concentrated in public sector unions that are very different creatures than their private sector counterparts.