Turning Lincoln’s portrait to the wall

I just read various analyses of 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 posted. It seems relevant today.

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

8 thoughts on “Turning Lincoln’s portrait to the wall”

  1. So if we see millions of working- and middle-class whites turning FDR portrait to the wall, what are we to think? It is at least possible that they have a coherent sense of what they think their self-interest is…

    1. You know, Dave, perhaps they do have a coherent sense of what they think is in their best interest, but the demographic handwriting is on the wall.

      This year, the GOP needs 61% of the white vote to win (according to Ron Brownstein). They may get that and squeak out a win given the sluggish economy, their financial advantage and attempts by the GOP to keep minority voting down. Next time they’ll need 64% of the white vote, then 68%, then 72%. It’s unsustainable.

      For proof, look at California, Nevada and Colorado. All used to be solid Republican states in presidential elections, so much so that George F. Will used to write about the Republicans’ “electoral lock”, which consisted mainly of California and the South. California is gone to the GOP and Nevada and Colorado will be soon. Give it another ten years and Texas will be a swing state if the GOP continues down this track. Check out the population growth in Texas in the last census and the percentage of Latino children in Texas schools. Those folks voting 2-1 Democratic are catastrophic for the GOP.

      It may all be tribal and it certainly isn’t good for the country to divide along racial and ethnic lines, but the Republicans have played this game for forty years now and it’s turning on them.

      1. DB,
        You might be a bit too optimistic. Team R, unlike Team D, is into structural entrenchment. Just wait until a hunting license or a Medicare card are the only acceptable forms of voter ID. And remember: the text of the Constitution forbids voting discrimination by age (18+), race, or gender. It does not forbid, say, property requirements or loyalty oaths. Also remember, the Voting Rights Act is only a statute. And the Constitution in Exile gang is arguing that the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. And finally, remember that Justice Scalia wants to correct all the “mistakes” made by previous Supreme Courts. Baker v Carr? (One person, one vote.) Guinn v. US? (Grandfather clauses.) And so forth.

  2. I’m nobody’s idea of a methodologist, but I’d be careful about drawing conclusions from that Norton-Sommers paper. It’s based on about 200 Whites and 200 Blacks (which they call a “large” sample)”recruited by an online survey research company and paid $5 for participation.” The data points are retrospective guesses. Norton-Sommers were asking respondents in 2010, “How much anti-Black bias was there in the 1950s?” That’s not quite the same thing as asking respondents in the 1950s that question.

  3. You will be amazed knowing some secret facts about Abraham Lincoln

    1.Lincoln suffered depression and avoided carrying knives,

    fearing he would use it on himself.

    2.Abraham Lincoln was a licensed bartender.

    3.Lincoln's assassin was a famous actor and Lincoln himself

    was a fan of him.

    4.Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert, was saved from a train

    accident by Edwin Booth, brother of his father's killer,

    John Wilkes Booth.

    5.Lincoln was the first major leader in the U.S. to feel

    that women should be allowed to vote.

    6.Abe Lincoln is enshrined in the Wrestling Hall of Fame,

    Source : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2VeO5Tl9p0

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