Friday, August 13, 2010

The Democratic Party and the politics of white racism (1 of 2)

Ross Barnett, Governor of Mississippi 1960-64 and a leader of white resistance to desegregation and the rule of law

While puzzling over the strange "concern troll" polemics of Bob Somerby at his Daily Howler site, I was struck by how his thinking on the subject of Democrats and the politics of race resembles a particular strain of thinking among Democrats circa 1992. For one representative version of this line of argument, see the sad 1991 book, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics by Thomas Edsall and Mary Edsall. Here is how Thomas Edsall stated his view around the same time in Willie Horton's Message New York Review of Books 02/03/1992 edition (link behind subscription):

These issues - including, crime, welfare, affirmative action, defendant's rights, the erosion of the family - exploit the combination of racial tension and resentment toward special privileges for the poor, and toward tax dollars going to people who do not deserve them. That such feelings have become so visible and highly charged has put Democratic liberals at a disadvantage. It is hard for Democratic politicians to make political capital out of the sluggish economy and the divisions on the right because too many voters in presidential elections are hostile to their approach to social issues. The contemporary failure of liberalism lies not only in its dramatic loss of majority support but in the vehemence and seeming inexplicability of the sustained rejection by the voters of the Democratic Party and its nominees. The moderately egalitarian New Deal liberalism that produced majorities from the start of the Great Depression through the election of Lyndon Johnson has been undermined by the competition between constituencies and interests that now differ sharply about the meaning of equality. In Birmingham, Alabama, formerly Democratic white firemen angrily oppose still Democratic black firemen over the standards to be met for promotion to lieutenant and captain. In East Los Angeles Hispanic parents claim that whites who fled into the San Fernando Valley twenty years ago are trying to keep Hispanic students out of UCLA.

The leading activists within the Democratic Party, who largely control the selection of nominees, are far more willing than the public generally to allocate resources favoring relative newcomers, whether for education or welfare or public jobs, along racial, ideological, and ethnic lines. The bitterness of the disputes over such matters as municipal contract "set-asides" for minorities and over admission to the advanced "magnet schools" in some cities has made heterogeneity, once the strength of the Democratic Party, a source of destructive political infighting. The demands of Democratic politicians for fairer taxes and new public investment might seem to have obvious political appeal in 1992; but those demands are regarded skeptically by voters who ask: fairness for whom? investment for the benefit of which racial or ethnic groups? or which gender? [my emphasis]
Edsall was and still is treated as a liberal. But this stuff has always read like a "concern troll" conservative pitch to me. In form, he's wringing his hands over the dilemma that the Democrats are committed to social justice in various forms, but are confronted with large numbers of white Real Americans who have unfortunate hostility toward various minorities and poor people.

One doesn't have to look too closely to see the problematic nature of Edsall's approach. For one thing, Edsall concentrated on Presidential elections, at a time when both Houses of Congress, a majority of governorships and most state legislators were Democratic. He uses this clumsy slight-of-hand to claim that "too many voters in presidential elections are hostile to their [the Democrats'] approach to social issues." But was that so? There are mounds of poll data one can parse various ways. But one of the paradoxes of the Republican dominance in Presidential politics from 1980 to 1992 was that on individual issues, including hot-button social issues like abortion, a majority or plurality favored Democratic positions. Asking the question, why do voters support Democratic positions but Republican Presidents get elected?, is a very different question than, how can the Democrats address the fact that so many voters are hostile to their positions on "social issues"?

Cut through the "concern troll" talk and what Edsall was essentially arguing was that for the Democrats to be a competitive political party nationally, that they had to convince voters that they were conservative on "social issues" and not so friendly to racial minorities, either. The surface plausibility of that argument in 1991-2 came basically from three realities: Republicans had won three Presidential elections in a row, and conventional wisdom among the punditocracy was that Old Man Bush was a virtual shoo-in for re-election; the realignment of white Southerners from the Democratic to Republican Party was still a relatively recent thing and conventional wisdom still considered Southern conservatives registered Democratic to be in play in Presidential elections; and, California had voted Republican in the Presidential elections of 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988.

As long as California was a solidly Republican state, the Democrats needed to carry at least some Southern electoral votes to be able to win the Presidency. Whatever plausibility the "concern troll" argument had in 1992, in other words, was largely based on the assumption that California was a reliably Republican state in Presidential election. In fact, California voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Ironically, the racial-fear-mongering Willie Horton ads Old Man Bush used in his 1988 race and to which the title of Edsall article refers, were used by the 1992 Clinton campaign to discredit Bush in the eyes of racially tolerant suburban swing voters.

And in 1994, during the last big wave of xenophobia, Republican Governor Pete Wilson backed the now infamous anti-immigrant Proposition 187. The proposition was so badly drafted that basically none of it stood up in court. But the long-term political effects were dramatic. It permanently and significantly increased the voting participation rate of Latino voters, and it heavily shifted their preferences to the Democratic Party.

It's worth noting in the current context that on race, the Republican Party of 1992 was on the whole considerably more moderate in its outward approach than today. Old Man Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas turned into a public fiasco even though he was approved for the Court (after which he went on to become one of the Court's least distinguished Justices in history). But the nomination also gave Republicans the opportunity to tout the existence of conservative Republican African-American figures. Until Prop 187, the Republicans were working hard to appeal to Latino voters. In 1991, Old Man Bush and other prominent Republicans were very public in opposing the election of Louisiana's Republican Senate nominee, the notorious racist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. That didn't mean they had given up their Southern Strategy of appealing to white voters on the basis of racial fears and prejudices. But they were going on the assumption that to be perceived as encouraging or countenancing open white racism would be electorally detrimental to their prospects.

The Democratic Party realignment in the South today has long since taken place. The question for the Democrats there is how to build majorities. But the Republicans' Southern strategy has given them pretty much a lock on the voters who can be swung by racial resentments and prejudices. So the Democrats' prospects for boosting their support among white voters turns around winning over voters for whom anti-black and anti-Latino prejudice are less important than other issues. And also on winning over the increasing Latino voting demographic. After the passage of the anti-Latino SB 1070 in Arizona this year, polls in Texas showed a significant shift there among Latino voters to the Democratic Party.

And in this environment, people like Somerby expect that the Democrats are going to damage themselves politically if they are vocal about opposing white racism?

Incidentally, I use the phrase "white racism" in particular because white people have never had a problem finding ways to criticize racism among African-Americans are Latinos. For those of us who actually can perceived white racism when it's staring us in the face and shouting in our ears, it's a very familiar refrain that its those people who are racist against us. I don't use the phrase to minimize the harm of anti-white racism. I use it because I want people to know what I'm talking about when I'm talking about white racism.

(Continued in Part 2 tomorrow)

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