I just read Mark Kleiman’s, Ed Kilgore‘s, and Ezra Klein’s recent columns on race in the 2012 campaign. The conversation about the Romney campaign’s scurrilous welfare ads calls to mind this draft column I wrote mid-June but never got around to posting. It seems relevant today.
In 1932, Robert Vann captured the historic turn of black politics by saying: “I see millions of Negroes turning the picture of Abraham Lincoln to the wall.” In our own day, a similar passage might describe a sadder historic turn among politicians and rank-and-file voters. Jonathan Chait has repeatedly noted the freak-out now occurring within an energized core of Republicans responding to rapid demographic shifts within American society. Similar themes provide a leitmotif in Theda Skocpol and Venessa Williamson’s The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.
This panic shows up in other ways, too. The Pew Research Center’s American Values Survey examines citizens’ attitudes regarding many social concerns. Year-to-year, the numbers fluctuate. It’s hard to extract consistent trends. Still, some signs are troubling. In one question, respondents were asked whether they agreed with the statement: “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” In 1991, 94% of Republicans agreed with that statement. In 2009, 83% agreed. This year, only 76% of Republicans did. Pew also asked whether people agreed with the claim: “We have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.” In 1991, 46% of Republicans agreed. By 2009, 50% did so. This year, that proportion reached 59%.
A bluntly-titled 2011 psychology paper by Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers concludes: “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing.” Norton and Sommers argue:
[T]his emerging belief reflects Whites’ view of racism as a zero-sum game, such that decreases in perceived bias against Blacks over the past six decades are associated with increases in perceived bias against Whites—a relationship not observed in Blacks’ perceptions. Moreover, these changes in Whites’ conceptions of racism are extreme enough that Whites have now come to view anti-White bias as a bigger societal problem than anti-Black bias.
As shown in their Figure 1 below, all respondents report steady declines in anti-black bias over time. Yet whites and blacks differ profoundly in their assessment of bias against whites. Among whites, the perceived prevalence of anti-white bias has starkly increased.
At one basic human level, these graphs are unsurprising. As nonwhites attain new political and social influence, it’s understandable that many white people might feel new anxieties about anti-white bias. Racial solidarities and fears are potent political forces, however poisonous they may be, and however contrary these are to the colorblind norms of our constitutional democracy.
Nothing exemplifies demographic and social change more than Barack Hussein Obama’s ascendance to the American presidency, decades before most people believed such a thing was really possible. And race still hinders President Obama’s political fortunes. An excellent recent study by Harvard doctoral student Seth Stephens-Davidowitz studied the local frequency of racist Google search terms to document that Candidate Obama lost considerable support to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Although it didn’t matter in 2008, candidate Obama almost certainly lost several percentage points in voter-support in race-conservative swing states he needs this year.
This was obvious on election night, 2008, if one examined county-level differences in the 2004 and 2008 final tallies. (Thanks to Thomas Schaller for sharing the below map.) Barack Obama was a superior political talent to John Kerry. Obama ran a vastly superior campaign against an erratic, under-financed McCain campaign stigmatized by Bush-era failures in Iraq, Katrina, and the onset of a world financial meltdown that Republicans seemed unable to comprehend or address.
After this tidal wave of Republican misfortune, candidate Obama outpolled candidate Kerry in virtually the entire country, including in many red states McCain easily won. Leaving aside the home cooking in John McCain and John Kerry’s home states, Obama outpolled Kerry virtually everywhere—except within a clear ribbon of race-conservative areas stretching from Oklahoma to Appalachia, touching southern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Yes, these are the main areas identified in Stephens-Davidowitz’s research.
Race obviously mattered in 2008, and will matter much more in the close election of 2012. I have many reasons to lament this as a liberal Democrat. Yet how should Republicans respond to this obvious reality? In some ways, this is a more difficult question.
At the highest levels, Republicans haven’t always been shy about playing the race card. Not every Republican has done so. George Romney–to take the most obvious example–made real political sacrifices to dissent from Barry Goldwater’s stand against civil rights. In this domain, John McCain waged a generally honorable campaign in 2008. Yet the party’s post-1960s conservative center of gravity has often followed a darker course. It wasn’t merely Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.” On the 1976 campaign trail, candidate Ronald Reagan spoke of “a strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy steaks. President George H.W. Bush’s reputation bears the stain of Willie Horton. The list goes on.
This year, Newt Gingrich won ugly cheers from a South Carolina primary debate crowd by ostentatiously disrespecting Juan Williams. Gingrich also spoke of Obama’s “Kenyan anti-colonial” perspective. Donald Trump expresses birther theories at great length.
Mitt Romney has been more restrained. Yet his invocation of the President’s “otherness” is a constant campaign theme. “Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Romney says. That’s sometimes taken as a dog whistle to birtherism. It’s not that, or not entirely that, anyway. It’s also an expression of conservative nationalist braggadocio that liberals rarely share.
Maybe it’s something else, too. Millions of chocolate-ice-cream black folk don’t share the warm glow regarding American exceptionalism, either. How could they? African-Americans were never aliens in the American experience. Rather, as Nathan Huggins put things, they had many reasons to be alienated from this experience, instead. Millions of nonblack Americans understand this reality. If racial animus is a zero-sum game, this can seem pretty frightening.
African-Americans are solidly in the Democratic column. Some segments of white America are all-too receptive to what I’ll just call a “race-conservative” sales pitch. In a close campaign, governor Romney and other Republican candidates thus must decide whether they, too, will turn Lincoln’s portrait to the wall. Romney’s navigation of this morally and strategically tricky terrain will reveal much about his character. Win or lose, it will also shape his historical legacy.