The 2012 election, as I said in the opening post in this series raised a terribly important question:
“Has the culture finally and fully changed?”
For most people that question gets thought of in terms of whether the nation is still committed to “Christian values.” Does it still believe in marriage, family, etc. I do think there was a cultural question at the heart of the election, but I think it is on a much deeper level than stances on specific issues.
So deep was the question, so fundamental that it seemed like the two campaigns were talking past each other. Romney ran a campaign of leadership and issues. Obama ran a campaign that was about, well, Obama. Romney sought to differentiate himself from Obama on the issues of the day. Obama chose to paint himself as the “good guy” and Romney as the “bad guy.” Team Obama pledged early that they would have to personalize the election because they knew they did not have the issues in their favor. But there is something about Obama’s personality and how they executed the campaign that made this more than simply a political strategy.
The personal seems to deeply ingrained in all that Obama does, including his current governance. The month of May, but five months into his second term, has seen Obama pretty much on the ropes. Daniel Henninger:
Tuesday’s meandering mess of a news conference exposed that his first term’s permanent campaign—attempting to reframe all issues to maximize him and minimize his opposition—is going to be inappropriate for the only thing Mr. Obama has got now: a mere American presidency.
Whether Roosevelt, Nixon, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, every second-term president must in time come to grips with the reality that it can’t be about just his agenda or just him. It, the presidency, is unavoidably about offering clear leadership for all the American people and a watching, always unsettled world. If Barack Obama insists it’s about something else, everyone, including him, will have their bags packed for a long 40 months.
Republicans don’t oppose him any less after his re-election, and Democrats don’t seem to support him any more. This week he was reduced to giving a news conference in which he said he’s got juice, reports of his death are greatly exaggerated. It was bad. And he must be frustrated because he thinks he’s trying. He gives speeches, he gives interviews, he says words, but he doesn’t really rally people, doesn’t create a wave that breaks over the top of the Capitol Dome and drowns the opposition, or even dampens it for a moment.
Mr. Obama’s problem isn’t really the Republicans. It’s that he’s supposed to be popular. He’s supposed to have some sway, some pull and force. He was just re-elected. He’s supposed to have troops. “My bill is launched, unleash the hounds of war.” But nobody seems to be marching behind him. Why can’t he rally people and get them to press their congressmen and senators? I’m not talking about polls, where he hovers in the middle of the graph, but the ability to wield power.
I think the key phrase in all those words is Noonan’s, “Democrats don’t seem to support him any more.” “I’m a good guy, he’s a bad guy,” is as old as politics. What is so startlingly different about Obama more than any other preceding player of that game is that a) Obama did not set it aside when it came time to govern, and b) enough people bought it to re-elect him even after four years of non-governance.
These two factors were able to coalesce and function this time because of the rise of identity politics, and specifically the politics of race and religion.
Race has become the thing that no one wants to talk about, but everyone is thinking about fromt eh 2012 election, and the 2008 for that matter. An important fact emerged just recently:
The Associated Press is out with a study of the 2012 election concluding that the black voter turnout rate exceeded the white turnout rate for the first time. It’s almost certainly true that black turnout was higher than white turnout last fall — but that also was true in 2008.
Using census data and exit polling, the AP found that black voters were 13 percent of the electorate even though they make up only 12 percent of the population. White voters represented 72 percent of the electorate, outperforming their 71.1 percent share of the population, but not to the same degree they have in past elections. The total percent of voters in each ethnic group who turned out is not included. Census data on voter turnout will be released in May.
Racial identity was a key player in this game – make no mistake. And therefore it needs to be discussed. The stats are out there, everybody knows them, they just are not discussed in polite company. Although Michael Barone must be applauded for doing so recently in the pages of the Wall Street JournaL
What helped the Republicans more than redistricting was the tendency of Democratic voters to be clustered in black, Hispanic and “gentry liberal” neighborhoods in major metropolitan areas. This clustering has produced huge majorities that have made many large and medium-size states safely Democratic at the presidential level.
Even now I am hesitant to hit on this point too hard. Rather, I am going to assume everybody more or less knows the story and I am going to comment on it.
The thing that is most disturbing about the role of racial identity in the elections of both 2008 and 2012 is how utterly racist it really was. I am not just talking about the “reverse racism” of blacks voting for blacks because they are black. Rather I am talking about that line from Noonan, “Democrats don’t seem to support him any more.” Democrats, in a significant part elected Barack Obama because he is black, but once they have accomplished that goal, they have abandoned him. Part of that is his lack of leadership, but part of it is they fact that all they really cared about was that he was black, and once elected twice, they had made their point and moved on. Is that not the deepest definition of racism? – When all you see is someone’s color?
This may backfire on them. Said Peter Beinert recently:
The point is that liberals need to realize that Democrats aren’t immune from racism. In politics, bigotry isn’t always connected to ideology; sometimes it simply stems from opportunism. And with more minority Republicans seeking high office, Democrats will have more opportunities in the years to come. Dick Harpootlian’s slur against Nikki Haley offers liberals the chance to show that Democrats won’t get away with it.
Perhaps it is a trite point that the party which runs on civil rights so often is the most deeply racist, but it is here so clearly illustrated that it simply must be looked at. But this too is an old story, race has been deeply ingrained in the politics of this nation almost since its founding. From the North/South compromises of the Founding to the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, race is a big part of who we are. American is after all an attempt to forge a nation out of something different. Prior to the United States, nations were accidents of geography and ethnicity. We, for the first time tried to forge a nation from different stuff. We tried to forge a nation out of ideas because we were virtually unlimited geographically and massively diverse ethnically. It must be remembered that the small regional differences (both European and American) that now seem inconsequential to us were enormous gaps at that time.
Prior to the United States, nations formed around men. A leader that rallied a group. The United States on the other hand was to be “A nation of laws, not men.” The QuotationsBook web site attributes this phrase to John Adams as follows:
JOHN ADAMS, Novanglus Papers, no. 7.The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, vol. 4, p. 106 .Adams published articles in 1774 in the Boston, Massachusetts, Gazette using the pseudonym Novanglus. In this paper he credited James Harrington with expressing the idea this way. Harrington described government as the empire of laws and not of men in his 1656 work, The Commonwealth of Oceana, p. 35 . The phrase gained wider currency when Adams used it in the Massachusetts Constitution, Bill of Rights, article 30 .Works, vol. 4, p. 230.
It seems the battle to maintain America is, at root, a battle to maintain this ideal. Yet it is an ideal that even lefties like Beinart are beginning to see us abandon. Such is the price of the politics that Obama chose to play in the general election of 2012. But race was not the only identity factor that Obama played on in 2012. There was also religion. Obama in his “evolution” to the support of same-sex marriage, created a battle of the religious against the “non-religious” as a sub-text of the campaign. A sub-text that rang the Mormon bell without having to overtly talk about it, thus not only energizing a good but of his base, but setting the Republican base at odds with itself. But this is the topic for the next post or two in this series.
One thing that is very important to note here is that Obama was setting the tone of the campaign throughout. Gov. Romney assumed, most of us believed rightly, that his competence would so outshine this sort of identity pandering that he would carry the day. Clearly such was not the case. That is a serious messaging problem – one that must be addressed by those far more adroit at such things than I. I’ll focus on what I know best – religion and politics.