Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Electoral shift more about embracing Democratic values than transcending race

Last Thursday, I wrote that Obama’s path to victory in this election—a strategy that embraced core Democratic values instead of pandering to the center-right—had left me feeling validated if not vindicated for two decades of advocating just such an approach.

Well, thanks to Stanley Greenberg, writing in today’s New York Times, you can now color me vindicated, too. Greenberg, who was Bill Clinton’s chief pollster and one of the men most responsible for reinforcing the notion of “Reagan Democrats,” has decided to finally lay that frame to rest:

I’m finished with the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County in suburban Detroit after making a career of spotlighting their middle-class anger and frustrations about race and Democratic politicians. . . .

For more than 20 years, the non-college-educated white voters in Macomb County have been considered a “national political barometer,” as Ronald Brownstein of National Journal described them during the Democratic convention in August. After Ronald Reagan won the county by a 2-to-1 margin in 1984, Mr. Brownstein noted, I conducted focus groups that “found that these working-class whites interpreted Democratic calls for economic fairness as code for transfer payments to African-Americans.” So what do we think when Barack Obama, an African-American Democrat, wins Macomb County by eight points?

I conducted a survey of 750 Macomb County residents who voted Tuesday, and their responses put their votes in context. Before the Democratic convention, barely 40 percent of Macomb County voters were “comfortable” with the idea of Mr. Obama as president, far below the number who were comfortable with a nameless Democrat. But on Election Day, nearly 60 percent said they were “comfortable” with Mr. Obama. About the same number said Mr. Obama “shares your values” and “has what it takes to be president.”

I was never comfortable with Greenberg’s attributing all of the Democrats’ problems in Macomb to what is, not to put too fine a point on it, racism. Though I don’t doubt that this segment of voters contains racists, I’ve often thought that this rationale sells these people short, and lets the Democrats off too easy. Pardon the pun, but I felt that the racism Greenberg measured in Macomb was only skin deep.

Missing from Greenberg’s old equation were Democrats able and willing to sell the Democratic brand. It was easy for white voters in Macomb to feel that the Democratic Party had turned away from them because in many ways they had. Running scared since 1972, and more so after 1980, Democrats kept quiet about or even abandoned many of the policies and programs once championed by the party—programs that directly helped working class voters like the ones Greenberg studied.

The void created by the Democrats’ ambivalence to their own legacy was exploited by the continuance of the Republican’s infamous “southern strategy,” and filled by rightwing myths like “the Cadillac-driving black welfare cheat”—myths that were allowed to metastasize into full-blown frames. By the time Greenberg brought his white suburban voters into a focus group, the Democrats were no longer the party of New Deals and Great Societies so much as they were the party of over a decade’s worth of government’s failures. That these failures—especially as they intersected lives in Macomb—owed much to the budgetary, trade, and labor policies of Republicans notwithstanding.

So, naturally, to Greenberg, what he heard in the focus groups throughout the 1980s and ‘90s expressed itself as racism (I’ve moderated enough focus groups to easily see how this “finding” could have emerged). And, naturally, as Macomb voters moved to a place of trust vis-à-vis candidate Obama, Greenberg sees this as an evolution away from that racism.

I don’t believe that adequately explains the shift any more than I believe that the election of America’s first bi-racial president means that racism is no longer an American problem. And I think I now have some statistics to back me up.

If last Tuesday was all about America getting comfortable with one candidate’s race, and little else, then Barack Obama should have outperformed other Democrats running down ticket—many of whom are still the plain old white guys that Greenberg’s groups had rejected. Fact of the matter, however, is that down-ticket Dems did better than Obama.

Paul Krugman highlights the work of Andrew Gelman, who demonstrated that congressional Democrats averaged 56% of the two-party vote, while Obama netted 53%, and where Obama influenced a 4.5% swing when compared with John Kerry in 2004, Democratic races for Congress garnered an average swing of 5.7%.

Specifically in Greenberg’s favorite locale, Macomb County, MI, Senator Carl Levin—considered by most to be a liberal Democrat—grabbed over 63% of the vote. Obama managed 53.4% in the same county. (Of course, Levin had the advantage of incumbency, but it is hard to imagine that his visibility was any higher than Obama’s during the last year.)

The point of all this is to say that if all Barack Obama had to do for these lost Democrats was go on TV a few times and prove he wasn’t some scary hybrid of racial stereotypes, it’s hard to explain the performance of other Democrats this cycle. Even more telling, if previous Democratic deficits were about racism—implied or overt—then what explains how a man of color outperformed his white predecessor in a county that is almost 93% white?

I do not think that Obama’s win in places like Macomb is simply the result of his proving that he puts his pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else. Indeed, that is the added barrier that Obama had to overcome, and not some special advantage. For this demographic, or even for this psychographic, the difference in this race was not race, but reality. Voters like this group in Michigan have suffered badly under Republican rule; the change in this election is that Democratic candidates were not afraid to explain this.

Barack Obama and most of his party’s candidates did something Democrats had failed to do far too often in the last three decades: they criticized Republican ideology while embracing traditional Democratic values. Dem candidates attacked tax cuts for the rich, corporate favoritism, and the cronyism and corruption that have been the hallmarks of Republican rule. Democrats then offered an alternative that emphasized tax equity, and policies that could benefit the many like universal healthcare, energy innovation, green jobs, reinvestments in infrastructure, better-funded schools, and more college aid. In short, Democrats returned to campaigning as Democrats.

Don’t get me wrong, as I said up top, I am thrilled that Stan Greenberg has chosen to put his “Reagan Democrats” to bed. But when Greenberg goes to sing his lullaby, it would be beneficial for future Democratic candidates if he made sure he knew the right tune.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very true. Democrats campaigning as democrats - what a notion! Proving 'what's the matter with kansas' right maybe? Too bad lower Appalachia did move a bit and moved against us. Maybe this has as much to do with the anti-coal sentiment in the democratic party and the pumas in Arkansas. But in general those states that have had strong unions in the past came back to the democrats in a big way. EFCA here we come, and after the Auto bailout failure due to republicans they can kiss the midwest goodbye. Just try and win Ohio I dare you!

7:50 AM  

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