British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
The most delusional and divisive claim about President Obama’s election victory came, not surprisingly, from the disgraced Karl Rove, who told Fox News on Thursday that Obama “succeeded by suppressing the vote.” Make no mistake: Rove was talking about the white vote. Earlier that day Real Clear Politics writer Sean Trende had written a piece wondering about “disappearing” white voters, claiming white voter turnout had dropped significantly, by roughly 7 million votes, as whites rejected both parties. Since blacks, Latinos and Asians increased their turnout, as did women and young people, Rove couldn’t be talking about anybody but whites, and particularly older white men.
A quick reality check: Republican pollster Bill McInturff immediately debunked claims of disappearing voters of any color, reminding analysts that as always two days after a presidential election, many votes remained to be counted. The Thursday after the 2008 contest only 58% of the electorate had “turned out;” turnout climbed a bit above 62 percent when all the votes were tallied. In the end, turnout may be down this year, and it may well be mainly among whites, perhaps because of Hurricane Sandy. But to call that voter “suppression,” in the face of genuine voter suppression efforts by Rove’s own party – shortening early voting periods, attempts at repressive voter ID laws – is just another example of the shameless capacity to degrade, project and flat-out lie that is Turd Blossom’s singular political brand – a brand that has, God willing, been terminally tarnished.
But Rove’s wail about “suppressed” white voters reflects his party’s broader outrage that the supposed “permanent Republican majority” he tried to build on the back of Kevin Phillips’s “emerging Republican majority” of the late 60s – the one that used racial appeals to make whites, especially the white working class, its cornerstone – no longer exists. Whites only made up 72 percent of the 2012 vote, down from 77 percent in 2010, and even Romney’s 59 percent of white voters, up from John McCain’s 57 percent, couldn’t make him president anymore.
Republicans will not go gently into that bad night, and thus we are hearing a range of reality-denying reactions, some of them flat out crazy. We’ve seen Rove’s deranged explanation for his party’s shellacking by what John Judis and Ruy Teixiera identified a decade ago as “the emerging Democratic majority:” Obama suppressed the white vote, Rove insists, primarily by running a negative campaign against Romney (John Kerry would like a word with you, Boss Rove). Let’s walk through a few others:
Obama’s emerging Democratic majority consists of slackers and moochers who just want things.
“People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?” Bill O’Reilly said during his Tuesday self-pity party. “The white establishment is now the minority….The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore.” A majority of Americans, O’Reilly opined, “want stuff. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it, and he ran on it.”
The self-satirizing Ann Coulter declared “It’s over. There’s no hope if takers outnumber makers,” reprising the failed VP nominee Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian depiction of the American divide. Rush Limbaugh declared, “I went to bed last night thinking we’re outnumbered. I went to bed last night thinking we’ve lost the country. I don’t know how else you look at this…Conservatism, in my humble opinion, did not lose last night. It’s just very difficult to beat Santa Claus,” continuing the theme of the Obama coalition going to the polls for handouts.
That “the white establishment” built the modern social welfare state (albeit mostly for white people) is lost on O’Reilly, Coulter, Limbaugh and their ilk. That whites make up the vast majority of “takers” is likewise lost on them. But not on uber conservatives like Charles Murray, or the National Review’s dyspeptic hater Mark Steyn. “The fact is a lot of pasty, Caucasian, non-immigrant Americans have also shifted,’ and are very comfortable with Big Government, entitlements, micro-regulation, Obamacare and all the rest — and not much concerned with how or if it’s paid for,” Steyn wrote Wednesday.
No doubt a lot of the “pasty” folks Steyn talked about voted for Mitt Romney, since the red states are the new welfare queens, sucking more from Big Government than they provide in taxes. Don’t expect white GOP voters to process that contradiction in the early stages of grief, however.
The emerging Democratic majority can’t provide Obama a mandate without more white voters.
It’s not only GOP hacks who are saying stupid things about the white vote. Two days before the election Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHai declared that Obama’s problem with whites might make it hard for him to be the president of all America. “It’s possible,” the pair intoned darkly, that Obama “will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000″ (he didn’t). Then they lowered the boom:
“A broad mandate this is not.”
Really? Let’s review. Obama won 93 percent of African Americans, 71 percent of Latinos and an astonishing 75 percent of Asian Americans, a group that used to split between parties. He won a majority of Catholics, Jews and Muslims as well as the religiously non-affiliated (he only lost white Protestants.) He won women and young people. The only group he lost was white people, and particularly older white people and extremely particularly older white men.
Does Obama have really have a problem attracting broad support? Or would the problem belong to the stubborn minority bloc that won’t vote for him, no matter what he does? Do the math, lads.
Unfortunately, it’s not just GOP hacks or their admirers at Politico who are making a version of this argument. In The New Republic before the election, the perennial booster of the white working class bloc William Galston complained that Obama had rejected Bill Clinton’s transformational, transracial appeal for a transactional, racial/interest group pitch:
For young people, lower rates on student loans. For Latinos, announce a non-legislative version of the Dream Act. For gays and lesbians, endorse same-sex marriage. For single women, pick a fight over contraception with the Catholic Church and run a national convention in which the centrality of abortion rights startled even seasoned observers. Bill Clinton’s mantra—safe, legal, and rare—is a distant memory. In its place: “Julia.”
As someone who tends to agree that Democrats shouldn’t write off the white working class entirely, I’m flummoxed by Galston’s pitch. For a guy who seems to think bread and butter issues should be more prominent than cultural ones, he apparently can’t see bread and butter issues if they’re targeted to certain newer members of the Democratic coalition. Lower interest on student loans, the DREAM act, no-cost contraception and health screenings, and even to an extent gay marriage are also economic issues. Galston might also note that the president did best with his cherished white working class voters in Rust Belt states where he delivered for them with the auto bailout and tougher moves on China. In Ohio, one of the states that helped to give Obama his second term, the president only lost white men by 10 percentage points, and he pulled even among white men with incomes under $75,000. (He won flat out won working class white women in Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa).
When did nominal Democrats decide politics shouldn’t be about delivering “stuff,” anyway? What a patrician view of self-government. We pull together to do things we can’t do alone. For most of us, at some times in our lives, that involves getting “stuff” – help with college, or health care, or becoming citizens – that we can’t do alone. Or maybe it’s not “stuff” when it goes to white men?
Even more disappointing Tom Edsall, who normally is smart about class politics, took to the New York Times to lament Obama’s committed appeal to women:
Obama’s decision to devote huge blocks of time and resources to winning the votes of women may backfire, accentuating Democratic liabilities as the party of race and gender preferences and accelerating defections among men. …. Forget race and gender for a moment: focusing on any particular demographic group is likely to revive the image of the Democratic Party as a collection of “special interests” seeking advantage, rather than a coalition supportive of a broader policy agenda. There is some evidence that the strategy of courting women may have done more to alienate males than to win over females. Obama’s tactics vis-à-vis women also risk the loss of some support among economically liberal but socially conservative Catholic voters who find the focus on contraception and abortion – under the rubric of women’s rights – problematic.
Again, Obama won Catholics, although I can’t find information that breaks out white Catholics, which is all certain centrists care about. And again, I care about Catholics as well as the white working class; those are my people. The very smart Ruy Teixiera recently called me an “old-fashioned New Deal liberal” in the New Republic, and I’m fine with that. I do believe in the centrality of economic issues to building a diverse governing coalition. But it saddens me that Edsall and Galston don’t see the extent to which women’s issues – from the contraception mandate to choice to of course pay equity – are also economic issues, and economic issues that help their families, including their husbands if they have them.
Democratic Party centrists and white working class boosters are going to have to catch up with demographic and economic reality if they don’t want to be left behind with Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh. I say that respectfully. But with some concern.
Analysts concerned about the depressed, disappearing or increasingly Republican white vote – and I’m sometimes one of them – aren’t necessarily wrong. We should always care about those who are left out. But looking at the election results, I’ve reached some limit in my capacity to offer advice about how to win over the white voters who continue to reject Obama. The uber-rich and the Galtian weirdos don’t worry me; there aren’t many of them. I care more about the economically marginal who are for some reason anxious about racial change, but I’m not sure much can be done for them.
When I reviewed Pat Buchanan’s last book a year ago, “Suicide of a Superpower,” I marveled that Nixon’s best strategist of the white working class, who went on to work with Ronald Reagan and do some of the same things for him, was reaching the end of his life feeling like a failure, because despite his best efforts to advance the interests of white people, they’d be a minority in the not too distant future. I felt bad for Buchanan, a little, I really did. I can’t really imagine deciding that the America I love is dying if its traditions and its heartbeat pulse within people who maybe look different from me. But that’s how Buchanan feels.
I think whites like Buchanan are a small minority, but there are more of them than I thought. The Next America Project does a lot of great polling on racial issues and found that whites who fear racial change favored Romney 2-1; whites who welcomed it went for Obama 3-2. And for those who think the GOP can solve its demographic issues with a little immigration reform: a later poll found that whites who fear immigrants went for Romney 9-1. (So good luck making a little nip and tuck to your immigration policies, GOP.)
These are the people who back in the 1960s became the self-appointed guardians of American identity, the definers of American exceptionalism, whose tribalism was captured by the old snarl: “America: Love it or Leave It,” one of the signs carried by the Hard Hat Rioters of 1970 as they beat up anti-war activists (which I write about it my book.) But maybe it’s time to say to them: “America: Love it or be left behind.”
I love this country, but would never say “love it or leave it.” It’s not in the liberal nature to issue ultimatums like that, or to define American identity unilaterally. But I think the people who are so angry about the Obama years, who want to take their country back (as if it belonged only to them) do have to face reality: if they don’t love the America that’s being born, that’s reflected in the Obama coalition, they’re going to be left behind. They don’t have to get out, but they’ll be increasingly unhappy living here. That’s their choice. I’ll go on looking for ways to reach out to people who seem genuinely not to understand that there’s a place for them here, to help shepherd them to our common future. The hundreds of Ole Miss kids who burned Obama-Biden signs and spewed racial epithets election night? They’re on their own.
I was moved by Jonathan Capehart’s column Friday, where he featured an African-American reader trying to fight the media’s lazy generalizations about “white voters” as a bloc united against the president.
“I really worry about not recognizing the ‘white guys’ who did vote for Obama and made a difference in the election,” the self-described middle-age, upper-income, highly curious and vocal African American woman from Colorado wrote. “I know tons of them of all ages, income levels, political persuasions and sexual orientations. Just think it is short-sighted if we don’t acknowledge [them], starting with the campaign team.”
I agree with her; there are millions of those guys. There are millions more, however, who disagree. They’re exiling themselves from their own country. How sad for them.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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