As election season begins to heat up, both sides of the political aisle are making an effort to appeal to a historically loyal voting bloc: the Black community. But while Black Americans have overwhelmingly supported progressive candidates for decades, conservatives are desperately trying to configure a way to attract members of the community to the Republican Party. The term for that movement has become known as “Blexit.”
Blexit, or “Black Exit,” is a movement driven by conservatives with a goal of encouraging a massive movement of people of color—specifically Black Americans—from the political left. The word is a play on Brexit, the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union. Blexit activists are attempting to encourage Black voters to become more “self-reliant,” and urge the community to “think freely” and challenge the status quo by abandoning leaders on the left who they accuse of continually seeking out the Black community for votes and then leaving them behind when they take office. Candace Owens, a political commentator who has become the face of Black conservatism throughout the Trump era, is the leader of the movement.
Black Americans are not an electoral monolith, but they do tend to vote in solidarity. In 2012, a study by the Center for Political Studies found that Democratic candidates typically receive between 85% and 95% of the Black vote.That wasn’t always the case. Research has shown that both political parties were nearly indistinguishable in terms of share of the Black vote between 1920 and 1940, when Black Americans’ party affiliations were split. The shift began to take place when Democrats began producing legislation like the New Deal, and after the desegregation of the military. In 1956, 39% of Black voters supported Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson backed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the biggest shift took place. That election year, Johnson received 94% of the Black vote. Since then, no Republican presidential candidate has received Black support of more than 15%. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that 84% of Black people identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, and 8% identify with the Republican Party. Of those numbers, only 3% are actually registered as Republicans.
A “Democrat plantation”
Owens initially called out the Black community’s “blind allegiance” to the Democratic Party in her 2017 vlog series, “How I Escaped the Democrat Plantation.” In the video, Owens claims Black Americans have been enslaved by the Democratic Party for decades.
“The African American community is suffering from a poor memory with a healthy spoonful of indoctrination,” she said in the video. “I mean, from the time that we are raised, we are told, ‘Democrats good, Republicans, bad.’ We repeat that ad nauseam without ever just researching.”
But before the Blexit name was co-opted by Owens, it was actually a separate movement unrelated to politics. Though the term has taken on a new meaning, it originally sprouted in 2016 from Me’Lea Connelly, the former director of the Association for Black Economic Power, and was intended to support Black Americans through their fight for economic independence in the face of racial injustice. The nonprofit ended up sending Owens a cease-and-desist letter in order to stop the bad publicity that had become attached to the name. Despite the letter, Owens has continued to use the term on social media and while hosting Blexit events around the country, allowing her message to spread.
Though the Blexit movement isn’t directly funded by the Republican Party, prominent conservatives have still promoted Owens’ ideas, including Donald Trump Jr. and Donald Trump himself. But even with some notable names attempting to elevate the message, it hasn’t resonated as deeply as some conservatives may want to believe. A 2018 Daily Beast study found that approximately 16% of the tweets that had used the #Blexit hashtag were connected to accounts that had previously pushed Russian propaganda.
Indeed, some Democrats in the political sphere have challenged the sincerity of right-wing Black political movements, claiming that Blexit and other similar causes are solely created to sabotage the impact of the Black vote on the American election system. One of the movements, American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), is a group created in 2016 to advocate for reparations in the form of compensatory payments for African Americans.
ADOS has been accused of masquerading as a progressive movement while pushing a right-wing agenda. The group has advocated for anti-Africa immigration policies, has a large pro-Trump base, and has repeatedly targeted members of the Black community on social media.
Nowhere else to go
While Black Americans have voted in virtual lockstep with Democrats for decades, a large percentage—roughly 40%—identify themselves as moderates. But research has shown that those who believe in the existence of systemic racial inequality are significantly more likely to lean left. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 41% of voters in the U.S. believe white Americans are generally favored over people of color. Of that number, 87% voted Democrat.
“I don’t see Black people moving out of the Democratic Party if the solution is to vote Republican,” said Rukia Lumumba, a human rights activist and executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute. “If the option is to vote Republican, I think that Black folks understand that it is against our best interest. When you look up and down the line of the agenda of Republican candidates, it’s consistently a capitalistic agenda that does not serve our material or economic needs and continues to place Black people in an inferior position as second-class citizens.”
The Democratic Party has been known to prioritize legislation and issues that directly impact communities of color. Recently, House Democrats passed progressive voting rights legislation, aimed at restoring key portions of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. In 2019, they also passed historic legislation to expand the protections of the Voting Rights Act to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Democrats also tend to address and support causes Black Americans care about, including jail reform, ending police brutality, and closing the racial wealth gap. Republicans, on the other hand, have had a difficult time winning over people from marginalized communities.
“America is changing demographically, and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal the way GOP governors have done, the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction,” the Republican National Committee wrote in a 2012 autopsy report. “If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity.”
The Trump administration has made some recent efforts to bring in Black support by highlighting economic successes and literally handing out money to Black people at campaign events, but Republican lawmakers in general have struggled when it comes to addressing issues that matter most to the Black community. Even setting aside Republican policies, the party has a major representation problem. In 2018, Republicans elected only one new woman to Congress. Democrats, on the other hand, elected 22. The proportion of white men on the Democratic side also dropped from 41% to 38%, while the percentage among Republicans rose from 86% to 90%
Even if Black people were to leave the Democratic Party en masse, many Republican lawmakers have made it their mission to ensure Black votes are suppressed by restricting access to early voting, implementing voter ID laws, and limiting the number of voting machines at polling locations. These practices make it increasingly difficult for Black people to vote for anyone, and not just Democrats. Suppression strategies also increase the likelihood of the Black community becoming discouraged by the electoral process and giving up on voting altogether, rather than switching to the Republican Party.
A rocky, but loyal relationship
Are there signs of an upward trajectory in the number of Black Americans latching on to the Blexit movement and gravitating toward conservatism? In short, no. There is no consistent, reliable evidence to support the narrative that Black Americans are swapping their “Resist” T-shirts for MAGA hats in large numbers. That said, there is reason to believe they’re starting to get fed up with some aspects of the Democratic Party.
Recent interviews have suggested Black Americans have been both ambivalent and irritated by Democrats throughout the primary process, accusing candidates of using narrow massaging and key phrases in order to get votes. To add to that, a recent study found evidence that white progressives tend to unwittingly “dumb themselves down” and draw on negative stereotypes when addressing Black people about political matters, a move that likely causes some irritation within the community.
A 2018 Rasmussen poll also found that Black support for Trump had jumped significantly to 36%. However, that number has been dismissed by Democrats as an anomaly, since Rassmussen is one of the few polling firms that frequently shows Trump in the lead when other research has found him behind—which is likely the reason the president regularly cites it. More consistent polling shows Trump slightly gaining some Black support since the 2016 election. But just because a mass exit of Black Americans from the Democratic Party is unlikely, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll always stay put: They just don’t have a better alternative.
“I think that one of the things we really need to be thinking about just overall is about how we create more than just a two-party system,” Lumumba said. “I’m not convinced that this format or campaign that encourages people to leave the Democratic Party is moving in that direction. I don’t believe it provides Black people with a viable option.”
The fact that there are no longer any candidates of color remaining in the Democratic presidential primary surely hasn’t helped momentum. But even with that lack of representation on the presidential debate stage, Democrats generally tend to elect many more Black candidates to public office.
The 2020 election and beyond
Despite widespread accusations of racism, Trump did see a slight increase in Black support in the 2016 election, compared to Mitt Romney in 2012. Trump won just 8% of the Black vote that year. However, things don’t appear to be looking up for his reelection campaign. A recent Hill-HarrisX poll found that a whopping 85% of Black voters said they would back any Democratic candidate over Trump.
Currently, there is a generational divide among Black Americans for the 2020 presidential primary. Older Black people favor former Vice President Joe Biden for the nomination, while younger Black people have shown a slight favorability toward Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The fight for the Black vote will continue into future election cycles. But even with the murky political backgrounds of some Democratic presidential candidates, progressive lawmakers don’t need to worry about completely losing community support just yet. Until Republican candidates are willing to take aggressive steps toward ending voter suppression and addressing the issues that matter most to Black people, the community will remain unmotivated to go elsewhere.