Politics Mondays: E-Letter To Dick Morris Re: Will The Rev. Al Sharpton Be The Ralph Nader of 2004?

Your recent article, "Will The Rev Go Rogue" arrived last week with perfect timing. On the very day that your column was published I began hearing the loudest murmurings yet, in the Black community, that a vote for Al Sharpton could be considered as a vote for President Bush in the upcoming 2004 election. I expected that this argument would come, but not this early. That this argument against Rev. Sharpton should arise so soon is a sign, to me, that the White Democratic Party establishment (including premier pollsters and consultants), have already determined the serious strength and implications of Rev. Sharpton's campaign among traditional Black Democrats, potentially politically active Black and Latino "Hip-Hop voters," and the Reverend's involvement with the Committee For a Unified Independent Party's initiative, "Choosing an Independent President 2004" (Senator John Edwards of North Carolina has also engaged the effort).

Your column and the new "a vote for Sharpton is a vote for Bush" mantra that I heard last week, made me think of two things: 1) the experience that we at BlackElectorate.com had in 2000 when we openly endorsed Ralph Nader for President and a Democratic House Of Representatives and 2) a conversation that I had with an Episcopalian bishop in 1997.

In 2000, you may know that we endorsed Ralph Nader for President. It was not an whimsical act, as you might be able to tell from our several thousand-word official endorsement and our engagement with Mr. Nader over the issue of reparations. In addition, I openly pondered Mr. Nader's reluctance to campaign among Black audiences and others with race-cognizant presentations in an opinion editorial entitled, "Race, Class And Ralph Nader." The most interesting response to our endorsement came from Black professional Democrats in Washington D.C. (how appropriate it is for Washington D.C. to have the first primary of the campaign season next January) who side-stepped our argument in support of Ralph Nader in favor of ad hominem (you are selling out the Black community and marginalizing yourself in supporting a fringe candidate) and ad populum ("a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush") attacks. The most pitiful aspect of the professional Black Democrat attack was the sight of reparations advocate Rep. John Conyers, feeling compelled to shout-down the Ralph Nader campaign - the only one for Presidency that openly supported reparations. Interestingly, Black professional Democrats paid more attention to our endorsement of Ralph Nader than our call to mobilize to elect a Democratic House Of Representatives that would have ensured the empowerment of the Congressional Black Caucus in committee and sub-committee chair positions. My primary criticism of the national Black Get Out The Vote Effort (GOTV) in 2000 is that it voluntarily championed the Gore presidential campaign in a manner that overshadowed the more important objective (in my view) of ensuring that Black members of Congress would be empowered in Congress. In a BlackElectorate.com interview, I discussed this at considerable length with Black Caucus member Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), one of the rising younger stars of the Democratic Party.

Your column also took me back to a 1997 conversation I had with a prominent Episcopalian bishop. At a certain point the bishop gave me a history of his church's split with the Catholic Church. As he went into detail over a history that spanned several centuries I began to think to myself of how reactionary the response to the Catholic Church and Pope has been. The bishop virtually read my facial expression and mind and said, "Yes, because we are a reaction to the Pope, we are controlled by him."

That is exactly how I view the majority of the politically-active Black community juxtaposed to the Republican Party. Because Black political activity is so often a reaction to the Republican Party, it is controlled by it. In light of the intense negative feelings that many Black Democrats hold toward President Bush, in particular, it is possible to consider the "vote for Sharpton is a vote for Bush" argument as supporting the thesis that because Blacks react to President Bush, they are controlled by him.

By reacting to President Bush as opposed to a self-enlightened interest, Blacks empower the Democratic Party's metric of political success, over their own. They place partisan interests over the obvious interests of the community. The Black community needs more than what the Democratic Party (or Republican Party) can offer by itself. An obsession with President Bush and Republicans takes the eye off of the prize of access to capital, reparations, real education reform, real political reform, independent solutions to the healthcare crisis (with all of the related racial disparities), and stunting the growth of the prison industrial complex (it is striking to note that Black Democrats have amnesia when it comes to dealing with the fact that more Black men were incarcerated under the Clinton administration than under Presidents Reagan and Bush combined).

You should read my open letter of advice to Rev. Sharpton. I think that Rev. Sharpton is making a mistake by too desperately trying (it appears at times) to position himself as what I call a "progressive partisan." He should be running as the "outsider" that he is. As you wrote, "he must realize that his is far too polarizing a candidacy to attract much white support. If Jackson couldn't win at the height of his popularity in the late '80s, how could Sharpton, less well known and less credible among whites, hope to do so? But if he just repeats the path that Jackson trod so many times, what advantage is there in it for Sharpton?" Rev. Sharpton knows that you are probably correct and in the past he has made similar rhetorical arguments in this vain, raising the issue of whether or not any national Black politician can receive significant White support. Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, not Al Sharpton, will be accepted as the progressive partisan, if Whites are forced to choose. Rev. Sharpton may know this in his heart, but as yet, in my view, he has not adequately campaigned like it.

That doesn't mean the brilliant Reverend isn't making serious progress in the right direction. If you follow the press reports of Rev. Sharpton's campaign (you can find many of them at BlackElectorate.com on a weekly basis) you will notice that he is gaining the most traction among Blacks in the South - in states like Louisiana and South Carolina, when he is viewed as an activist. Many Black leaders in the South are inviting Rev. Sharpton to cities and towns as a means to highlight local, unresolved issues of discrimination and police brutality (frequently at the hands of "White Democrats"). Rev. Sharpton's national stature as an activist and presidential campaign are being used by grassroot Black leaders as a means to cast a public protest vote against the White establishment. In my letter of advice to Rev. Sharpton you will see that I encouraged him to absorb the history of Theodore Roosevelt who, according to historians, considered himself, an "activist-prophet" in his years as a political maverick, when he left the Republican Party in order to become an independent.

Viewing from a distance, I think that Rev. Sharpton has it half-right so far. I think he understands that he gains the most traction among Black voters when he is seen as an "activist-prophet" rather than as a "progressive partisan." Unfortunately I don't think that some of Rev. Sharpton's handlers value Black voters as much as they do others (Could Rev. Sharpton be taking Black voters for granted?). If Rev. Sharpton's advisers could help him couple this "activist-prophet" element with a clear-thinking and articulate economic program for Black America (that deals with the nuances in the Black economy that Democrats ignore or reject), and a firm embrace of the new "Hip-Hop" voters, Rev. Sharpton would be well-fortified to counter the reactionary "a vote for Sharpton is a vote for Bush" argument that is now among us. Rev. Sharpton cannot rely on his professional advisers here - many of the individuals surrounding his campaign and boosting its profile among White liberals were the same individuals that ended up supporting Al Gore rather than Ralph Nader, although their beliefs and convictions told them otherwise. If only in the privacy of his own mind, Rev. Sharpton has to reflect over the points (mostly surrounding the racial dynamics of major issues) where he and his partisan advisers don't fully agree and which might lead to a parting of the ways at the Democratic Party convention.

In the context of the 2004 presidential election, it is with rallying Black Democrats and not appealing to White progressive partisans, where Rev. Sharpton's power ultimately rests. If Rev. Sharpton can formulate a broad, credible and consistent campaign message to Black Democrats and the politically disenchanted that is not cluttered with an awkward and overly transparent outreach (no matter how articulate) to the progressive partisans, he can obtain what you alluded to in your column when you wrote, "If Nader can turn the party upside down by getting 3 percent of the national vote, imagine the bargaining power Sharpton would have if he can draw 5 or 6 percent (half of the black vote)."

I look forward to reading more of your insightful thoughts on Rev. Sharpton.


Cedric Muhammad

Monday, June 16, 2003