By Jim Clingman
One of the post-election highlights for me was the meeting between Donald Trump and Bob Johnson. Billionaire to billionaire, Democrat to Republican, black to white, businessman to businessman, capitalist to capitalist, meeting on a relatively even playing field to discuss some of the “what now issues” was intriguing to say the least.
After the meeting, Johnson wrote a press release and did several interviews to disclose the particulars of that meeting. While the press summed up Johnson’s comments in one sentence, “Let’s give Trump a shot,” there was much more to it than that. I know that because Johnson graciously agreed to allow me to interview him as well. And during our nearly one-hour conversation he spoke openly about his political position vis-à-vis the election of Donald Trump, and his thoughts, recommendations, and reflections on a black strategy moving forward.
The following are excerpts from that interview:
Jim: Discuss our participation in local and national elections.
Bob: I think when we talk about where black American voters; and therefore black Americans are today, we have to look at it in terms of the politics of a divided nation; we have become stagnant. You have two parties, Republican and Democrat, who get re-elected each year in terms of congressional districts because of the way district lines are drawn, where both parties have safe districts, so there’s no likelihood of being defeated in most cases. And therefore issues become rigid in their positions. Little has changed in Senate seats but pretty much the same where you are going to have some years where the Democrats control the House and or the Senate, some years where the republicans control the house and or the senate. So it doesn’t change very much in terms of the attitude. And if you look at the polls, they show a divided nation, and there’s no such thing as term limits. So this kind of rigid stagnation stays pretty much in place.
Jim: That’s right.
Bob: Then you lay on the other issue that the demographics of the nation are changing where 20 to 30 years ago African Americans were the dominant minority group. Now as you go into 2020 Hispanics outnumber black people, and they are scattered throughout the various states and also divided by cultural ethnicity based on their place of origin. So Mexicans are not the same as people from Central and South America, Puerto Ricans aren’t the same as Cubans. And so you have this dichotomy of populations in the largest minority population that allows them the flexibility based on their cultural attitudes and origin to vote across party lines. They will vote Democrat in some states. They will vote Republican in some states. But it’s not a homogeneous vote, one way or the other. And then you look at us. We are a block vote; we vote 95 percent one way.
Jim: Right, that’s part of the reason that we are ignored or taken for granted by both parties.
Bob: For a while we supported Republicans because of the role they played all the way back to the civil war and probably up to Richard Nixon we were a block in the Republican Party. That started to change with John F. Kennedy when we began to move closer to the Democratic Party, and since that time we pretty much have become locked-in as an appendage of the Democratic Party. The long term problem with that is in a divided nation, where you are locked into one party in a two-party system, and you face a rising minority class that divides its vote across party lines, you ultimately will become marginalized in your voting power. So the black vote is going to be locked into the Democratic vote and therefore ignored by the Republicans; their argument is, ‘We can’t get them anyway so why try to contest for them, in fact ignore them or even actively oppose them.’
Jim: So true and so simple. It’s amazing that more black people don’t see our political situation for what it really is.
Bob: Where the Democrats, on the other hand, see your vote locked in to these perpetual blue states and their argument is we don’t need to do anything about or for this voting segment; we got it, and we can treat it somewhat paternalistically or with patronage, but we don’t have to make any major promises to appeal to black voters because we got them, where else are they going to go. And the result of that is we become marginalized.
Jim: Just where we are right now as the transition begins.
Bob: Yes, we are marginalized in our power, and as other minority groups increase, that marginalization becomes more significant. And so I’m taking the position that the election of Donald Trump basically created what I called a seismic shift in the political situation in the U.S., that we take stock now and see how we can redefine our role in this divided nation, and I say it’s time that we return to the Congressional Black Caucus’ founding principle when those 13 members came together in 1971: Enshrined in a philosophy and ideology by William Clay of Missouri, “Black people should have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.” And my position today is that we should begin to focus on our permanent interests and under that [the] rational you talk to Trump, you to talk to the Democrats, but you talk to them from a vantage point of I’m not your friend, I’m not your enemy. I’m talking to you about my permanent interests and I will then vote and engage you accordingly. That is the essence of why I am where I am today.
Jim: I call it leveraging our voters and our dollars politically to maximize the effect they have in the political process. So I heard you say in one of your speeches once that we need to engage power and we need to present our own agenda and that’s again something I also believe, but lay out for me how you see us presenting our own agenda and engaging power.
Bob: Well that’s the first step to presenting your own agenda Jim, and you’re right, you have to first recognize intellectually that you have the power to do so. You can’t confront power if you do not believe that you have a countervailing power to react or balance that behavior between two opposing power sources. You got to first believe that. It starts with taking the position that we have the ability to effect the outcome of elections. One obvious way is to concentrate on maximizing your voter turnout, which is critical in a democracy. There’s only two ways to change power in any country, either you do it through ballots or do it through bullets. Well we aren’t going to do it through bullets in this country.
Bob: So we are going to have to do it through the ballot by maximizing our voting power and our education about what issues to vote for whether they are state, local or national. So that’s number one. You have to recognize you have the power through your ballots based on your voter turnout. The second thing you have to do is what we have historically done which is vote as a bloc. In order to allow that voting bloc to be strong and meaningful, you can’t just have a voting bloc without knowing what to vote on or who to vote for. I think it’s time that we manifest that voting power by nominating and running our own candidates. We need to think about this in all elections – primaries and generals. We should run favorite sons, since we vote as a bloc anyway. Jessie Jackson did this when he ran at the Democratic convention in the Democratic Party. We should run a favorite son in the primary and we don’t have to run nationwide. We do need to file a candidate, a favorite son candidate in the states where we have significant voting power.
Jim: There is power in numbers, and the two things that mean anything in politics are dollars and votes. And we have a lot of both.
Bob: So you run that candidate in those states and you get enough votes in the primary to be part of the discussion. If you want to run in the Democratic primary, you run in the Democratic primary. If you want to run in the Republican primary, you run in a Republican primary but you run as a favorite son party and you have a discussion or dialog there. Under that scenario it’s even likely that no one gets the requisite votes to give them the Electoral College, if you still have the Electoral College. Under that scenario it throws it into the House of Representatives. Whatever party has the majority, they will vote according to their party loyalty, but we will have demonstrated that our power is going be used to cause a change in the way presidents are elected. And pretty soon both parties will get the message.
Jim: Right. We must find ways to impact the process and then leverage that impact for our own benefit.
Bob: That’s what we need to do. I can make an intellectual case that black Americans ought to form a party. And since I’m into the branding world I’ll just name the party. Just call it the “Permanent Interest Party.” That party will represent black voters and that’s the way we engage this divided nation because white America is divided. On one side you have people who call themselves Republicans and on the other side you have the Democrats. But they are predominately the white ruling class in America. And they are divided.
Jim: That’s right; sounds like flipping the script to me, since we have been so divided in nearly every way except politics.
Bob: You’re right; we are certainly not divided in politics. We are locked into that one group, but we don’t have to be in that one group.
Jim: Should we have an independent black political party? I believe that as well.
Bob: Whites have more wealth than we do. They have more housing ownership than we do. They are employed at greater levels than we are, and educated at greater levels than we are. So we are divided already. The only thing that we aren’t divided against is our ability to vote. So we have to take the one asset we have that we know that we can manipulate and control with our own interests is that to vote. But a vote without a direct ideology or philosophy is not going to be magnified at its highest level of impact.
Jim: Let me ask you this, based upon everything you said, can I assume you believe black people should register as “no party affiliated” as we move forward to develop an independent party.
Bob: Yes. I believe for black Americans to remain in one or the other party group is not in our long term best interests…I believe, whether it happens in my lifetime or whether it happens after that, at some point black Americans will come to the realization that at 45 million people and growing, in a divided country, and rising populations in other minority groups greater than us in voter power and probably economics, we must form our own political power base for the sole purpose of promoting our permanent interest…That’s a very important move I believe black people should make.
Jim: Ok, let’s shift a little bit to economics. You are a business man. I know that’s high on your agenda and do you believe that when it’s all said and done, economics really controls politics?
Bob: We are and have been founded as a free market democratic society. Ownership is a paramount right in the United States. And from ownership comes the right to use your wealth in any way you wish. And from that comes economic power. And economic power manifests itself in political power because campaigns run on money. They run on ideas but they run on money to get those ideas conveyed. And the Supreme Court institutionalized that when they allowed for wealthy individuals via Super Pacs to give as much money as they want. So yes, economic power impacts political power in this society. And therefore black Americans once they become politically united in terms of looking out for their own permanent interests I think from that will flow the use of their economic power to enhance their political power. Right now black Americans, I know, I happen to be one of them, and I give all of my money to the Democratic Party. And over the years I have given millions of dollars to that party. If there were a viable black political party that was focused on the ideology and the philosophy and the permanent issues and needs of African Americans, I would more likely than not turn that same amount of money over to that political party.
Bob: Black Americans have tremendous aggregate income, around $1.2 trillion now, and in that power, in that wealth there’s more than enough money to fund a political party, particularly a political party that’s already united in its interest and therefore already more than likely to vote as a bloc. You don’t have to convince us to vote as a bloc, we do it anyway.
Jim: That’s right; we certainly have been practicing that for decades.
Bob: So when you look at that and how this nation works, if ownership and access to wealth and the right to do with it as you please, then that also translates into your right to use it for your own political interests and your own political well being and your own socioeconomic wellbeing. So, yes, those things would follow. Black economic power strengthens our political power, and political power would help enhance black economic power.
Jim: Excellent, excellent. Your assessment reminds me of something David Walker said way back in the early 1800’s about how he couldn’t understand how we would act so diametrically in opposition to our own interest and you just shared it in that sentiment. Nobody has to convince us to come out as a bloc for others, so why not in our own best interests?
Robert Louis “Bob” Johnson is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and investor. He is best known as founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), which was sold to Viacom in 2001.