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Democracy Now

Hopkins professor Lester Spence on the politics of race and class, and why Republicans may never win another presidential election

Photo: Courtesy Lester Spence, License: N/A

Courtesy Lester Spence

Lester Spence


Under the futon couch in Lester Spence’s office at the Johns Hopkins University, where he’s been associate professor of political science since 2005, there’s a totem of the rigors of academic life: a sleeping bag. Sometimes, to do the things you love—in Spence’s case, wrapping his head around black political empowerment and urban politics in America as an academic and jumping in on the national conversation as a cultural critic—you have to catch winks at work. The all-nighter ethic has paid off: his first book, 2011’s Stare in the Darkness, tackled hip-hop’s political impact; his award-winning teaching has made his Hopkins classes immensely popular; and his academic writings continue apace with appearances on National Public Radio and other contributions to mass media. Seeking insights on the upcoming presidential election and Baltimore’s political culture, we sat down in his office at Hopkins’ Homewood campus for a chat.

City Paper: How long have you been studying presidential politics?

Lester Spence: My field is racial politics, black politics, and urban politics. I’m interested in presidential politics as a citizen but also because we have the first African-American president and because I’m interested in how who’s elected effects and/or is affected by racial politics. I’ve been a card-carrying political scientist—that is, I’ve been a professor—since 2000. I did my dissertation on political participation in Detroit. It was a much smaller type of question, but given the way Obama is trying to reach out to black constituencies, it’s kind of a micro-version of what we’re seeing.

CP: You’ve predicted that Obama is going to win, right? And that’s not shaken?

LS: No. It’s still possible—this isn’t rocket science. I think the FiveThirtyEight Blog [at The New York Times] is really helpful. We’ve got all these polls, so what FiveThirtyEight does is look at aggregated state polls. In Ohio, like six out of seven polls show Obama winning this, and if you’ve got six out of seven polls saying the same thing, it’s likely to be right. On top of that, the structural things that the Republican Party is doing to suppress the non-Republican Party vote—to suppress the black vote, the youth vote, the Latino vote—they are not going to suppress enough votes to overcome that gap. So that’s why I believe Obama’s going to win.

The debates, to me, aren’t necessarily about determining who’s going to win the presidency; they represent an attempt to reconfigure the default approach that American citizens have towards government. The default approach since 1980, since the election of Ronald Reagan, has been that government doesn’t work and that, to the extent that we’ve got problems, they are caused by government, so what we should do is let entrepreneurs and businesses do what they do, because that will create kind of a spillover effect by which we all benefit.

CP: Until it crashes.

LS: Exactly. So what Obama’s goal should be is to not just beat Romney, but to show that that mode of government is bankrupt—to let people see with their eyes, because the proof is all around us. He hasn’t done that to the extent that I believe he should. But, to be fair, Obama and I have different politics. I’m farther to the left than he is.

CP: Romney, at the end of the second debate, just interjected: “Government does not create jobs.” And Obama seemed like he basically agreed. But their policy prescriptions presume that government policy can create jobs.

LS: So the quickest response to “the government doesn’t create jobs” is, “Well, why are you applying for my job? If government doesn’t create jobs, what exactly are you applying for?” Second, I would say, “Well, why did your vice president just write us a letter asking for stimulus money? Because the stimulus actually provides growth.” And he doesn’t need to make the argument; all he needs to do is cut down that position. And that’s where Obama misses. Because he’s drank the free-market Kool-Aid. I mean, hell, I watched the debate on Xbox Live—through the internet. The internet is a government creation! We don’t have the internet without government! Right? So when you say “government doesn’t create jobs,” what the hell are you talking about? That’s the type of thing that it’s on Obama to actually overturn.

CP: How do you think it’s playing among black voters this time around?

LS: The best way to understand the relationship between Obama and black voters is to just think about the relationship between first-term black mayors and their black constituents. So we just think about when [former Baltimore mayor Kurt] Schmoke was elected. Or Coleman Young in Detroit, Maynard Jackson in Atlanta, Richard Hatcher [in Gary, Ind.], Marion Barry [in Washington, D.C.]. When they are first elected, there is this moment of extreme joy. It’s like, “Oh my god, I never thought this would be possible! Look at this—this is just absolutely awesome!” The whole world looks different, a whole range of opportunities open up that didn’t seem possible before. But then, governance kicks in, and politics is extremely messy. The city is constrained by a number of factors—by state factors, by economic factors, by corporations and what they want to do. So the elected official has to deal with nonblack shareholders and partners, and it becomes really hard—and then doubt kicks in and reality sets in. All we have to do is take that and multiply it. So what’s happening with Obama is there’s this moment of extreme joy, but then governance creeps in, and you see that there are all sorts of ways he’s constrained. A number of us still commit to voting for him, but the sheen has worn off. So he’s going to get 90, 95 percent of the black vote, like he did last time, but turnout probably won’t be the same.

CP: Well, that’s the thing—turnout. The marriage-equality question in Maryland motivates a lot of people in black communities, I think.

LS: Yeah, it motivates black religious elites. And it does motivate people on the ground. There’s a brother who works here, a real good brother, he works kind of in security, and the last time I talked to him, he doesn’t know who he’s going to vote for, largely because of the marriage equality issue, and he doesn’t support the position that gays should be able to marry.

CP: And that rubs off on his position on whether he should vote for Obama?

LS: Yes. And when I talked to him, he hadn’t made a decision. But he’s an outlier. The number of people for whom that matters in black communities, above the other stuff, is very small.

CP: But if you’re an active church member and your church leader says this is anathema, is that going to motivate?

LS: No. It’ll motivate some, but in presidential elections there are a whole series of other motivating factors. So these people are worshippers, but they are looking at other things. You are talking about people now who have three images in their homes: it used to be just Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King Jr., now it’s Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama. Most people are going to say, “No. My pastor, I love him, but no, this guy needs to get in again.”

CP: Your doctoral thesis was about Detroit.

LS: It was about gender and political participation in Detroit, about differences between men and women when it comes to politics.

CP: What have you learned about Baltimore on the exact same issue?

LS: Baltimore is like Detroit. The racial demographics are different, and neighborhoods play a more important role in Baltimore than they do in Detroit, but in general the types of networks that people are wrapped up in are very similar. Baltimore and Detroit are both Rust Belt cities, where the people in them tend to be born, live, and die in them. They have deep-rooted networks, deep-rooted ideas about politics, deep-rooted practices.

CP: How does that manifest itself in terms of participation at the polls?

LS: Black women were in networks that readily lend themselves to political participation. The church is important, though not the only institution. School networks—it’s the black women who are raising the kids. Black men were less likely to be part of those networks, and to the extent they thought about politics, they actually thought about it in ways very similar but not the same as conservatives do: politics is parlor tricks.

CP: It’s all dirty pool, so why even play.

LS: That’s it exactly.

CP: So your grandfather knew all the tricks about William Donald Schaefer and how it was all about helping his people, and then it was our turn and Schmoke didn’t do it so well.

LS: Yeah, that’s absolutely right.

CP: Let’s go back to Schmoke, who was a creature of the political class from early on, got a fabulous education, and then basically the capital class invested in him and were like, “Here’s our mayor,” which made him not so much someone that the street-level Baltimorean could connect with.

LS: And that ended up being a challenge for him. He’s part of a large number of technocratic black mayors who were elected either around the same time as he was or a little bit after. There’s him, Dennis Archer in Detroit, Sharon Pratt Kelly in D.C.—there are a number of technocratic mayors who don’t necessarily come from civil rights legacies, who really believe that the city requires a manager with a CEO-type approach rather than someone who has a straight-up, street-fighting political approach. There was a wave of them, and stylistically they didn’t connect with the black working-class constituencies. But there’s this middle- to upper-class black population that loved Schmoke—and still loves him.

CP: Schmoke came up through the system, in essence, so he had some coattails.

LS: Yeah, a lot of those guys did. They rose up through the ranks and they were connected—black-connected.

CP: And Obama, in terms of presidential politics, he kind of came out of nowhere. There’s never been a president like this.

LS: Oh, yes. It’s almost like the universe just opened itself up for him.

CP: Everybody else goes through these paces before becoming president and end up being compromised, having sacrificed principles to advance themselves for the greater good. Obama didn’t have to negotiate all that, so he came in relatively intact. He didn’t start giving it all away until he actually had power as president.

LS: Obama’s core value is bipartisanship and consensus. He believes that bringing people together and selecting ideas from “both sides”of any issue is going to, in the long run, make us all better off because none of us have the solutions. He’s had to compromise that recently, when he realized that these guys have pretty much a scorched-earth approach, and he can’t work with them.

CP: So he ultimately gets no credit for being the consensus-builder and instead, even though he’s a centrist, perhaps leaning to the right, he’s tarnished as a socialist. It’s just bizarre.

LS: That’s right. It’s really crazy. The Republican Party is literally ignorant—on purpose. They are eating themselves. Once you have an institution of a certain size, it is really hard to move them. The Republican Party put their money on xenophobia and tax cuts a long time ago, ’72 at the latest, ’64 or ’68 at the earliest. And once they put their money on that horse, it took on a life of its own.

CP: Most of it is political pandering. They are going after a constituency that will vote for them if they speak in certain ways, but policywise—I mean, you look at the body of Nixon’s accomplishments, he’s like a tried-and-true leftist.

LS: Comparatively, yes.

CP: But he would never crow about those accomplishments, because that doesn’t win you votes from the right.

LS: This is what they bought into, and the demographics don’t bear them out. After this election, it’s going to be very hard for them to win the presidency again. There are legitimate, sound, logical-thinking Republican elites. Like Jeb Bush. I disagree with a lot of stuff he does, but he’s a “reasonable guy.” So let’s say that he ends up being the candidate. The problem is the brand is so tarnished and bankrupt, no sound-thinking Americans are going to vote for them. There are these huge and growing constituencies that would never vote for a Republican—not just black people, but increasingly Latinos. Young people whose first president is Obama and are sane, they are not going to vote for a guy who’s attached to the Republican Party.

CP: Meanwhile, white voters are highly energized behind Romney at a level that hasn’t been seen since Reagan’s re-election in 1984. So, one scenario for future presidential elections is that if you continue to try to energize that shrinking white electorate, you basically turn to xenophobia in coded words.

LS: They are going to turn to that approach because they are going to have to. It’s now the “white” party, we just don’t call them that. But even that white party is complicated because if you split that white vote up demographically, it’s not white women so much as it is white men—and then, it’s really older whites. The younger you get, the smaller that percentage for Romney is.

To be honest, in order for the Republican Party to be viable, given what they’re doing, they need an uptick in white births. So their reproductive-health policies are narrow because they need white women to have white babies in order for the Republican Party to continue to be viable. White women, they know that the later they have children, the smaller the number of kids they have, the more likely it is they are going to be able to have a more sane and straightforward life, and the more likely they are going to be able to provide for the children they have as those children grow older. So if they are faced with, “Well, if I vote for this guy, I’m going to have to pay for birth control, and if I have to make a really hard decision to terminate a pregnancy, I’m not going to be able to do it,” then they are not going to vote for that guy.

They’ve got this election, they’ve got next election, and if they don’t make a signal change, two elections from now, the Republican Party will be bankrupt as a presidential option. They’ll still have options as far as Congress, but the presidency, they won’t win again.

CP: Bill Clinton cherry-picked the best ideas that the Republicans had, believing, perhaps, that they were good ideas, but also recognizing that it’s going to happen—welfare reform, say—so might as well do it. And it became the Democrats’ accomplishment. But the Republicans are going to be, like, well, what of the Democrats’ can we take as our own?

LS: Nothing. It’s tax cuts and war.

CP: Because in their view, it seems, there’s not a single thing the Democrats have that they can agree with.

LS: They don’t believe in consensus, so they won’t steal ideas. They have tax cuts. They have immigration reform, so they can become more xenophobic. They can propose military incursions into foreign nations. And that’s pretty much it.

CP: Back to the issue of voter participation in Baltimore. It’s on the ballot this time around because everybody was suddenly really shocked at the low turnout last year.

LS: I don’t know why. Off-season elections have lower turnout than presidential elections every time. So here, everybody’s blaming Baltimoreans for low turnout when it’s really a structural factor. In the Baltimore mayor case, it wasn’t really a competitive election and it was an off season. If you have the elections all at the same time, you’ll get a significant uptick in turnout. That’s the solution.

CP: So you make the local, state, and federal elections all happen on the same day.

LS: Yep. It will lead to a substantial uptick. There’s other stuff you can do as well, but if you want an easy uptick in voter turnout, you reconcile it with the presidential calendar.

CP: Any other ways to boost participation in the black communities?

LS: Issues. This is something that has to be driven by some group of elites—either elites at the top with resources, or activist elites with what Coleman Young used to refer to as “ass power.” If you put issues on the ballot that black people care about, then they’ll come. And in that way, black people are just like everybody else.

CP: Give a couple of examples of the types of ballot questions that would do this. I mean, I guess they come in two kinds: those that are seen as threatening or those that are seen as being helpful.

LS: If you have something on the ballot that eradicates that whole youth-charged-as-adults, then you’d increase black turnout. Something that speaks to black people’s material interests. In that case, black people’s material interests are probably different than in other communities, because it’s pretty much only black kids that are getting charged that way.

CP: Annapolis issues are harder to play, because you have to get them out of committee, and the General Assembly is drawn from around the state, not just Baltimore City. But are there issues that the City Council can put up as charter amendments?

LS: They already redistricted, but something like that would increase turnout. Some people are organizing around the idea of having some percentage of the Baltimore City budget determined not by the mayor and City Council, but by Baltimore folks specifically. Something like that would increase turnout because it affects people’s bottom line—how they live in the city, what type of resources do they have access to, what types of checks and balances exist. A citizen review board, so that police couldn’t just brutalize some segment of Baltimore citizens without having to come before a board of citizens—that kind of thing would increase turnout significantly.

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