America: the decline of politics, the rise of tribes

Bush was booed for chasing after the votes of certain racial and cultural groups. Obama is cheered for doing the exact same thing.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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About a year ago, Democratic Party strategists discussed how they were going to try to win the 2012 election by forming a new-style coalition.

At the time, Thomas Edsall summarised those views, and described the coalition as such: ‘Voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment – professors, artists, designers, editors, human-resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists – and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.’ You could add young people and unmarried women to the list of targeted groups as well. As Edsall noted, this Obama coalition would represent the end of trying to revive the New Deal coalition forged under Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s, as it no longer would include groups such as unions, blue-collar workers and farmers.

The campaign to re-elect President Obama pursued this ‘new coalition’ strategy over the past year. Specific issues were raised to appeal to certain segments: raising immigration reform to appeal to Latinos, and warning that Republicans would take away contraception to appeal to young women. Obama’s Chicago-based operation created armies of data miners to assist the campaign in raising money, targeting ads, and learning more about swing-state voters. In a process referred to as ‘micro-targeting’, Obama’s team could identify different sub-groups of voters by geography, region and so on, and send them specific messages.

As we now know, the strategy worked to achieve its ultimate goal: returning Obama to the White House. In particular, the key groups in the new coalition voted strongly for Obama: 71 per cent of Latinos, 93 per cent of blacks and 67 per cent of unmarried women. The president was praised for building an ‘inclusive’ group, and in his victory speech he adopted the rhetoric of inclusivity: ‘I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or who you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.’

And yet, for all this rhetoric, the reality was that the Obama campaign did not seek to appeal to all groups equally. As Edsall wrote a year ago: ‘Democratic operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that the party will explicitly abandon the white working class.’ This was quite something when you consider that the party’s image historically has been to stick up for the working man. In the end, Obama won only 39 per cent of all white voters. And perhaps the biggest demographic factor in an election that was starkly divided demographically was a huge abstention rate among whites. Specifically, the number of white voters fell from 99million in 2008 to 92million this time around, while the number of non-white voters remained at similar levels to four years ago.

A comparison with the 2004 presidential election is instructive. In a number of respects, there are many similarities with 2012. George W Bush’s campaign manager at the time, Karl Rove, introduced micro-targeting of groups likely to vote Republican – the same techniques that Obama’s Chicago team used this year. In that year, Bush won the popular vote by a slim margin, taking 51 per cent of the vote – the same percentage Obama won in 2012. But the popular interpretation of the outcome couldn’t be more different. Bush’s operation was seen then (and is still seen today) as an uninspiring, grind-it-out mobilisation of the base of the party at the exclusion of other voter segments, with the hope of getting 51 per cent of the votes. Rove’s methods were considered to be a case of making the best of a not-so-bright situation. In contrast, Obama’s victory is widely talked about as ‘inclusive’ and his operation is described as brilliant. Many say Obama’s win is of bigger significance than his 51 per cent would otherwise indicate.

Post-election, there is definitely a sense that the Democrats’ victory (and the Republicans’ maintenance of a majority in the House of Representatives notwithstanding) heralds a major shift in political life in the Democrats’ favour. This mood derives from two related developments that were highlighted by the election. First, there are demographic trends: the groups that voted Democratic are growing in number, and non-whites in particular are projected to become the majority by 2050. Second, there are the Culture Wars: exit polls showed that voters – especially younger voters –were more aligned with Democrats on social issues. Also, state votes in favour of gay marriage and decriminalisation of marijuana suggested greater liberalisation. Both of these developments appear to benefit the Democrats for some time to come, leading to talk of an enduring Democratic majority or a permanent ‘realignment’.

These trends are real, and do benefit the Democrats, at least in the short term. It does seem like conservatives have lost the Culture Wars. It is easy enough to see the Republicans reversing course and embracing immigration reform (pundits like Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer already did so this past week), but much harder to imagine them changing their views on an issue like abortion without seriously dividing the party.

Yet Democrats shouldn’t get too carried away with this potential advantage. There is, of course, a history of proclamations of new eras of political realignment that never actually materialised. We only have to look back to the early 2000s to find commentators speaking of ‘value voters’ who will usher in a ‘permanent Republican majority’, and Democrats wondering in despair, ‘What’s the matter with Kansas?’.

More to the point, a Democratic Party victory in the Culture Wars doesn’t solve the major economic and political challenges that the US faces. Indeed, the Democrats promoted social issues and their party’s ‘values’ in the 2012 election precisely because they do not have a policy agenda for the future. And a core part of the new Democratic coalition is an environmentalist outlook that is directly opposed to economic growth. The constraints imposed on growth by the elite Democrats are bound to hurt the working classes most, including those of colour within the new voting coalition. They could turn on the elites – or, more negatively, on each other. Declining economic fortunes tend to put pressures on coalition members with different interests. In this regard, Edsall noted recently how ‘black versus brown struggles are already emerging in contests over the distribution of political power, especially during the current redistricting of city council, state legislative and congressional seats in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago’.

Moreover, pandering to specific groups speaks to the lack of a message that can unify. This approach ends up promoting stereotypes of those groups, and treats them as if all they care about are ‘their’ issues. Abortion and contraception are important issues, but it is patronising to think that these issues are the only ones that matter to women. Pushing this angle too hard could lead to a backlash.

So, while Democrats dream of ‘enduring’ majorities into the future, the reality of how they (and the Republicans) have sowed social divisions in the US today gets overlooked. When he first entered national politics at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Obama offered a vision of one country: ‘There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America.’ In his 2012 victory speech, he harked back to that theme when he said: ‘We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.’

And yet, after the election, Obama oversees a country more divided than before. The red state/blue state divide has been further entrenched. Voting results became more polarised by race or ethnic group. Divisions are not a problem if they are based on ideas; but in today’s America, divisions are more about identity and they have a tribal quality. Obama and the Democrats are not solely to blame for this situation, but their electoral strategy has played upon and exacerbated these divides. Romney was rightly criticised for writing off the ‘47 per cent’, but Obama’s writing off of the white working class is somehow interpreted as ‘inclusive’.

We need a politics that aspires to speak to all of the masses, irrespective of their backgrounds, rather than a politics which creates divisions to win narrow electoral victories and then pretends we are all united.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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Topics USA


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