Every generation probably has this sense that they live in strange times indeed – what is happening around them is nothing like whatever happened before – everything is unprecedented. That was said a lot in the sixties, perhaps for good reason – or maybe it was too much Bob Dylan. Insofar as history repeats itself, because human nature doesn’t really change, and because we just change the names of our somehow familiar enemies and our typical heroes, each generation is wrong. All crises are pretty much the same crises, repacked and remarketed. We have seen it all before. Martin Luther King was fighting a long-playing battle, using the tactics of Gandhi and others before Gandhi, and also quoting Jesus all along the way. The only thing new there, and unprecedented, was that King won a few major concessions from the entrenched powers. That was new. On the other hand, the world is always changing. Heraclitus said that a man cannot step in the same stream twice or some such thing – time and events flow on ever changing, if ever so slightly. The world is always new. You can’t stop time and you certainly can’t go back and pretend things are just the same as they always were. Nope, you can’t ever be nineteen again, no matter what you wear and what you drive. Things don’t work that way – everything is change, and thus everything actually is unprecedented, if only a little. So really, nothing like this – choose your issue – has every happened before.
Which is it? People come down on either side of this conundrum based on their temperament, their sense of discomfort with things never changing, and thus never getting any better, or their discomfort with big changes, fearing that things could easily become worse and the old ways and the old truths were just fine and should continue to be fine.
That’s why we have liberals and conservatives. Conservatives ask what’s wrong with the old ways, and the liberals have their quite accurate lists of all that was wrong with those old ways. Liberals demand change, and conservatives assemble their own impressive lists of all that could go wrong, and probably will go wrong. if you upset the way things have always run – maybe not smoothly, but smoothly enough. They talk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, while liberals point at the grimy and fetid bathwater itself.
The specific political issue hardly matters. What matters is what makes one uncomfortable, and there’s little way to change anyone’s basic temperament. That’s the core problem. The only way to resolve any particular political conflict at hand is for someone on one side or the other to acknowledge and address and assuage the other side’s core underlying discomfort. One must address what is blocking rational discussion – but that hardly ever happens in the heated back-and-forth about abortion or the debt and deficit or about spending or about almost anything. It really never happens. Instead, each side sneers at the other side’s discomfort, at their failings of temperament perhaps. It’s no wonder most politics goes nowhere.
This only gets worse when something unprecedented actually happens, something where history somehow didn’t repeat itself. That happened in 2008 when we actually managed to elect a black president. No one saw that coming, and there was talk of how this changed everything. America had finally shed its legacy of slavery. Racism was finally dead and gone in America – something the liberals had always wanted to happen and something many conservatives wanted to proclaim loudly and boldly, because they were getting tired of getting hammered on their opposition to all the civil rights stuff in the early sixties and some current positions, and they also didn’t want to talk about many buffoonish bigots in their base. If racism was over and done with no one would bug them anymore. So everyone won. America entered a new age. Fine. No one would consider race any longer, at all, in anything.
This was foolishness, but it did give Republicans a way to argue against Affirmative Action and tax breaks for minority businesses and such things. See – Obama is in the White House so no one needs all that stuff anymore! And it gave them a way to deflect all criticism of many of their other efforts, like blocking certain demographic groups from being able to vote, efforts which might be seen as a bit racist. They could point to Obama, that black man in the White House. That showed racism was over, and also shows that anyone who talks about race now is the real racist, just stirring up trouble. That’s standard fare on Fox News. As much as there were a lot of thinly disguised racial attacks on Obama when he ran for office, this worked out well for the Republicans once Obama slipped behind the desk in the Oval Office.
There’s little way to change anyone’s basic temperament however. There was suddenly no new age of racial harmony in America. Nothing changed. In fact things got worse:
The 2012 election is shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988, with President Obama experiencing a steep drop in support among white voters from four years ago. At this stage in 2008, Obama trailed Republican John McCain by seven percentage points among white voters. Even in victory, Obama ended up losing white voters by 12 percentage points, according to that year’s exit poll.
But now, Obama has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll. That presents a significant hurdle for the president – and suggests that he will need to achieve even larger margins of victory among women and minorities, two important parts of the Democratic base, to win reelection.
Obama can kiss off a lot of white voters this time. We’re back to our old ways:
The slippage among whites is something of a setback for Obama, who campaigned on bridging the racial divide in his election and has sought to minimize rifts that have arisen in his presidency. Although Democrats typically win minorities and fare worse among white voters than their Republican rivals, Obama outpaced previous losing Democratic candidates with both groups. Less than two weeks before the election, the evidence suggests that a much more sharply divided country will head to the polls.
Here are the details:
Dismal support for Republicans among minorities is a long-term problem for the GOP in a rapidly diversifying nation. Fully 91 percent of Romney’s support comes from white voters. At the same time, Democrats cannot count on the share of the white vote continuing to drop as it has in recent years. The share of white voters in the Post-ABC polling is similar to what it was in 2008, when whites made up a record-low 74 percent of all voters.
The erosion of support Obama has experienced since his muted performance in the first presidential debate has been particularly acute among white men, whites without college degrees and white independents, the new tracking poll found.
Those folks are gone now, and there are only guesses about why:
There is no way to tell from these findings what role, if any, racial prejudice may play on either side of the racial gap. But the data suggest that concern about the economy is amplifying the division, as Obama’s decline in support among white voters appears to be closely linked to views of his handling of the economy. And yet minorities have suffered severe unemployment and housing foreclosures in the current economy as well.
Bad times may amplify nascent racism perhaps, but we live in strange times:
In 1988, the last time there was such a prominent racial gap, white voters sided with George H. W. Bush over Michael Dukakis by 59 percent to 40 percent, with nonwhites breaking 78 percent to 20 percent for the Democrat. Were Obama to slip into the 30s among white voters this year, it would be the first time for a Democrat in a two-way race since Walter Mondale did so in 1984, losing white voters to President Ronald Reagan by 64 percent to 35 percent.
Other things amplify nascent racism too, and Laurence Wilkerson, the former chief-of-staff for Colin Powell, offers his suggestion:
My party, unfortunately, is the bastion of those people – not all of them, but most of them – who are still basing their positions on race. Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that’s despicable.
Wilkerson is not shy. All that birther stuff and saying Obama doesn’t understand America and that he’s inherently lazy, as John Sununu has said, will do that, along with Donald Trump’s efforts to somehow prove Obama only got into Columbia and Harvard because he was black, and Ann Coulter recently calling Obama “a retard.” It all adds up over time. Obama’s skin color loses him two percent of the vote, at least that’s the finding from the new Associated Press study – there’s no statistically noticeable difference between levels of blatant and latent racism since the last election:
Overall, the survey found that by virtue of racial prejudice, Obama could lose 5 percentage points off his share of the popular vote in his Nov. 6 contest against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But Obama also stands to benefit from a 3 percentage point gain due to pro-black sentiment, researchers said. Overall, that means an estimated net loss of 2 percentage points due to anti-black attitudes.
The best summary of the study comes from Daniel Politi in Slate:
In the four years since the United States elected the country’s first black president, a majority of Americans express outright prejudice toward blacks. Perhaps even more surprising though is that the numbers have slightly increased since 2008. A full 51 percent of Americans explicitly express anti-black prejudice, up from 48 percent in 2008, according to the Associated Press. When an implicit racial attitudes test is used the number increases to 56 percent, compared to 49 percent four years ago.
The dynamics are clear:
Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to express outright racial prejudice, 79 percent to 32 percent. But the implicit test found that the two are far closer in attitudes, with 55 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans having anti-black feelings. Experts aren’t really surprised by the findings. “As much as we’d hope the impact of race would decline over time … it appears the impact of anti-black sentiment on voting is about the same as it was four years ago,” said a Stanford University professor who helped develop the survey.
We don’t live in unprecedented times, and Andrew Sullivan adds this:
Close to 80 percent of Republican voters expressed “explicit racism.” Maybe that’s why they are comfortable with a candidate from a church whose theology remains based on white supremacy and that barred African-Americans from full membership as recently as 1978.
Sullivan is unimpressed with Mormons, but that’s not the real problem here. Nothing really changed, as the blogger Prairie Weather notes here:
It’s not just about Obama. The evangelical churches across the country and whole sections of the South (even excluding the evangelicals) are ignorantly, viciously, proudly and tenaciously racist. Leave aside the racism for a moment (hard to clean it out of those dark corners, I know) and notice, too, the fascist nature of the folks who embrace racism as though it were their best friend, their bulwark against frightening democracy.
Still, this isn’t as though we’re talking about one clannish family of southern bastards and the rest of us are okay. Racism has long been a part of our culture as a nation. Some people have wised up and are careful not to express their prejudice where they know it won’t be welcome. Talk to them nearer the warmth of their own hearths in Boston, Albuquerque or St. Paul, they’ll feel more comfortable being “honest” about how they really see things.
There’s nothing new under the sun, and you really can step in the same stream twice, and the idea here is that the media also plays a part in all this:
It turns up in whose kidnapping they report to whose rape and murder they don’t much bother with. Or here’s something that annoys the bejesus out of me, even on NPR: black experts are on panels discussing black issues.
But if the segment is about the growing importance of – say, for example – the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, chances are we won’t be hearing from an African American economist, foreign correspondent, or military expert. Mainstream media think and speak white, maintaining the status quo ante 1960 in our culture. The socio-political center of the media has moved sharply to the right and backwards as it has in our politics. The farther right you get, the whiter things become and the more insular, separatist. I think that a significant portion of the media – and perhaps all of the media recently – have been instrumental in giving racists “permission to be more ‘honest’.”
We’re stuck in the fetid bathwater, so to speak. Although some might say that that Washington Post poll and that Associated Press study are inherently racist, just stirring up trouble, as America, with Obama in the White House, is over all that race stuff now. Expect to hear that on Fox News. There is no racism. There cannot be any now.
Sure, but we don’t live in unprecedented times. On ABC’s This Week, Andrew Sullivan decided to get all historical on us:
During this Sunday’s edition of ABC’s This Week, Daily Beast writer Andrew Sullivan claimed that if Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins back Florida and Virginia in the upcoming 2012 presidential election, especially due to the white vote, then the South’s electoral map will look exactly like the pro-slavery United States Confederacy during the Civil War.
This observation came in response to host George Stephanopoulos noting that the latest polls show that six out of ten white Americans intend to vote for Romney.
PBS reporter Gwen Ifill said that “we can’t ignore” the possible factor racial animus may play in deciding the election, noting that the poll indicates that, on some level, people are still willing to admit “racial bias.”
Sullivan then added: “If Virginia and Florida go back to the Republicans, it’s the Confederacy. Entirely. You put a map of the Civil War over this electoral map and you’ve got the Civil War.”
Conservative panelist George Will rolled his eyes.
Sullivan is probably not the first to notice this, and the right will be outraged for a day or two. Then everyone will calm down. It’s kind of obvious, but on the right Doug Mataconis offers this:
Now, I’m not going to deny that there are some opponents of the President who are motivated by his race, to do so would be naive. Of course, it’s also obvious that there are some supporters of the President who are motivated by his race. Personally, I find both groups to be incomprehensible because they’re basing their decision to support someone based on what I consider to be a completely irrelevant characteristic, the color of his skin. What I can’t tolerate, though, are efforts by people like Sullivan to paint anyone who opposes the President as somehow motivated by race by essentially equating them with the Confederate States of America. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to oppose Barack Obama that have absolutely nothing to do with the color of his skin, the fact that you or Sully may disagree with them or the reasons they oppose Obama doesn’t mean that they are racist, and it is the height of political arrogance to equate your political opponents with bigotry in a manner as callous and absurd as this.
I oppose the President. I oppose his economic policies, which I consider to have been largely a failure. I oppose his healthcare plan, which clearly seems to me to be destined to increase health care costs, lower the quality care, and not really solve the problem of the uninsured. I oppose the fact that he has continued his predecessor’s polices with regard to the War on Terror. I oppose the fact that he is running an unrestricted Drone Warfare campaign with essentially no review by any outside authorities. I oppose the fact that he ordered the assassination of an American citizen without due process of law and that he maintains a “Kill List.” I oppose the fact that he wants to institutionalize the War on Terror and essentially make it a permanent part of American foreign policy. Does that make me a racist? Under the logic Sullivan was using this morning, it would seem that it does.
That may be a defense, but most people work in shorthand, because of their temperaments. And look at Sullivan’s maps – the current electoral map without toss-up states and only the states that were in existence in 1861, and the map of the states in 1861, colored for their position on slavery – they match:
Are you not struck by the similarities? …
I think America is currently in a Cold Civil War. The parties, of course, have switched sides since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The party of the Union and Lincoln is now the Democratic Party. The party of the Confederacy is now the GOP. And racial polarization is at record levels, with whites entirely responsible for reversing Obama’s 2008 inroads into the old Confederacy in three Southern states. You only have to look at the electoral map in 1992 and 1996, when Clinton won, to see how the consolidation of a Confederacy-based GOP and a Union-based Democratic party has intensified – and now even more under a black president from, ahem, Illinois.
I find it troubling – and interesting.
Of course Sullivan does not acknowledge or address or assuage the other side’s core underlying discomfort – things had been running smoothly, and then things became worse – and the old ways and the old truths were just fine and should continue to be fine. The maps and the talk of the Confederacy are not really the issue. It’s the core discomfort. That’s what needs to be addressed.
That needs to be addressed because, as Joan Walsh points out, much of this race stuff is not what it seems:
The tendency of politicians and pundits to generalize about white voters is troubling. It’s lazy. The president does well with white voters in some states and horribly in others. He carries certain white sub-groups in some regions, and not in others. We know he’s losing overwhelmingly with white Southern men, particularly those without a college education. In every other place, with every other sub-group of whites, it’s more complicated.
I think it’s dangerous for Democrats to generalize about Obama losing big with “white voters” or to let the media get away with it. If another big truism this week is that perception matters – that candidates’ claiming victory actually helps them politically (which is why the desperate Romney is telling every crowd that’ll listen that he’s going to win) – then why are so many Democrats accepting without pushback the narrative that Obama is hemorrhaging white votes overall?
Maybe it would be better if liberals tried to understand conservatives’ discomfort with all sorts of changes all the time, and get them to loosen up a bit, and if conservatives tried to understand liberals’ gripes with staid and fixed traditions, and tried to get them to appreciate them a bit more. No one needs to sneer.
But then this is America – that’s never going to happen. We live in perpetually strange times.