United States Politics

Black Lobbyists

Legislators Leverage their ‘Brands’ for Corporate Interests

By Bruce A. Dixon

Ever wondered what the staffers of Congressional Black Caucus members do after their stints on Capitol Hill? The answer, according to a Huffington Post article by Ryan Grim and Zach Carter, is they do the same thing most of their white colleagues do. They go to work for the big corporations, which fund the careers of their former bosses. They become lobbyists for giant telecoms, for greedy banksters, for military contractors, for agribusiness, Big Oil, Big Pharma, big gentrifiers and the rest, all of which are finding their Black faces and their ties to the Congressional Black Caucus, and the CBC itself especially useful these days.

With Republicans controlling the House and Democrats the Senate these days, Grim and Carter explain, the appearance of bipartisanship is everything. Any measure that passes the House with exclusively Republican support will go nowhere in the Senate, and whatever sails through the Senate on the votes of Democrats alone is guaranteed dead on arrival in the House. But when particularly nasty pro-corporate measures—the HuffPo article cites as examples bills to allow certain kinds of banned derivatives trading, and laws to aid for-profit schools and colleges—when legislative turds like this are passed with lots of Republican votes and a smattering of Democrats, especially Black Democrats, the moral authority of the Congressional Black Caucus protects those measures from attacks by white liberals in the House, the Senate and among pundits, reporters and policy advocates as well.

Nobody nailed the sense of it better than Breaking Brown’s Yvette Carnell, a Black former Capitol Hill staffer herself, with the title of her piece riffing on the HuffPo revelations, “Revealed: How the CBC Leverages Blackness to Work as a Tool for Wall Street.”

But the identical phenomenon is at work not just in Congress, but in virtually every state legislature with more than a handful of Black Democrats, on the governing boards of big counties and in city councils across the country. In Georgia where I live, a recent constitutional amendment designed to dissolve public schools and replace them with charters had substantial Republican support, but would never have passed without the support of key Black Democrats with impeccable “civil rights” credentials, but deeply in the pocket of the charter and school privatization lobby. Whether the issue is the expanding the military budget and surveillance, building nukes in Black communities, the potent combination of Black lobbyists and Black legislators provide vital cover to all kinds of corporate-friendly measures.

Nobody, as we at Black Agenda Report have observed many times before, celebrates the Black Freedom Movement louder, longer, more often and more ostentatiously than the Black political class, and this is why. It’s not just that this struggle led to the concessions allowing the number of Black elected officials to grow from a few hundred nationwide to more than ten thousand in forty years. The fact is, the Black political class’s appropriation of and ceaseless celebration of this era and its struggles—properly filtered and sanitized of course—constantly renews their store of moral legitimacy, keeping their sellout values high.

Politicians who consistently stand up for the poor and oppressed in the halls of power do not attract big campaign contributions, because everyone knows how they’ll vote. Without big campaign contributions they cannot rise to legislative leadership, and their ambitious staffers will not rise either. To be a player, you gotta play, and to get the big money you’ve got to command a respectable price when you sell out. Many CBC members and their employees want desperately to be fixers and players, like those on the TV series “House of Cards,” and they’ve learned exactly how. CBC members, goaded by Black lobbyists, have been so eager to cross the aisle and make deals that they have often been leading co-sponsors and supporters of odious measures attracting few other Democrats. Carter and Grim show that when CBC members jumped on board with Republicans, these measures become law, or influence regulators. When CBC members hang back, most other Democrats do the same.

As the Huffington Post article says, the moral legitimacy of the Congressional Black Caucus, and by extension that of the entire Black misleadership class is nothing but a hollowed out brand. The article is full of quotes from staffers and lobbyists about this or that CBC member’s “brand.” In plain English, brands are purposeful, deliberate, manipulative lies. Branding is a marketing strategy intended to evoke a given response in a target audience, summoning real or imagined memories, tastes, feelings or desires in order to get a response from the target audience which could not be obtained by appeals to fact or logic. When political players proudly admit among themselves that they are mere “brands,” Black politics as a progressive force in these United States is over.

There was a time not so very long ago when Black America was where the left lived. Black politics emanated from the streets, not the suites. This kind of politics from the bottom up projected demands to end unjust wars, for better housing, more aid to public education, public transit and the public sector in general, and for voting rights, so that a class of Black elected officials might look to the interest of the Black masses. Now that a prosperous, empowered and ambitious class of African American officials and lobbyists has been called into existence, it has flipped the script and turned Black politics into a top-down affair. Black elected officials, from state and local level to the CBC and its staffers-turned lobbyists has become the hinge swinging the politics of the Democratic Party and the nation ever rightward.

We said it a while back—Black politics as we have known it is over, because Black politicians and the Black political class no longer believe justice or peace or full employment are possible. They haven’t been working for us for a long time now.

Black Agenda Report, June 4, 2014