Just Below the Surface

THE ROLE OF RACE IN THIS YEAR’S ELECTION

November 2008 answered once and for all the question of whether the country would ever elect an African American president, even as it opened up new questions about how race would shape President Barack Obama’s political success or failure—including his prospects for reelection in a campaign environment very different from the one he faced the first time around.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has had to contend with intense Republican opposition and a series of nasty, often farfetched attacks on his character and background. Many on the left see racism behind this antagonism. They point to racist signs at Tea Party rallies, racially charged language from GOP presidential candidates, and accusations by conservative opinion leaders, such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, that Obama hates “white culture” and is purposefully destroying the economy to avenge centuries of racial oppression.

In truth, the intense opposition to the president has less to do with race than with politics. Ideological division between our two parties has sharpened in recent decades, and the zero-sum game of politics, where one party’s failure is the other’s gain, favors choosing opposition over cooperation. GOP resistance to the president’s agenda, including policies Republicans once routinely endorsed, is not personal; it’s just business. Yes, opposition to the president on the right has been irrational and hysterical at times, but this tendency predates Obama. The Clinton presidency saw wild conspiracy theories and overheated rhetoric as well. Remember accusations of ties to Arkansas drug smuggling, a congressman recreating the Vince Foster “murder” in his backyard with a gun and a melon, and an impeachment featuring detailed evidence about oral sex in the White House? The modern American right is built for intense oppositional politics, vehemently defending against what it perceives as ever-present threats to liberty by big government and to traditional values by elite secularism. Given the electoral incentives of a Republican Party increasingly dominated by its conservative base and the country’s current economic conditions, any sitting Democratic president would face similar opposition, regardless of his or her race.

But while the larger motivation for the right’s opposition to Obama has little to do with the president’s race, certain accusations leveled against him do tap into racial prejudice. Charges that Obama is really a Muslim, that he wasn’t born in the United States, that he is trying to take the country away from “real Americans,” or that his election was stolen by activists from ACORN and the New Black Panthers all resonate with a significant percentage of citizens in ways they would not if Obama were white. These charges differ from those leveled at Clinton, and the difference is partly about race.

The role race plays in the modern conservative movement, and in the post-civil-rights Republican Party more generally, long predates the election of Obama. It’s something that has challenged Democrats—white and black alike—for some time. Modern conservatism has many elements, but overwhelming evidence suggests that a white backlash to racial changes in the wake of the civil-rights movement is one of them. This is certainly not to say that all conservatives are racist, or that the movement is defined solely or even predominantly by a racial backlash. Yet to deny the role of white racial resentment in the rise of the modern Republican Party and its conservative base is to deny the obvious—indeed, many conservative leaders have themselves acknowledged this racial strain and tried to purge their movement of it.

Since the discriminatory voting practices that disenfranchised many African Americans were outlawed by Congress in 1965, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote. That’s almost half a century in which the average white support for Democratic candidates has been 40 percent. (In this sense, Obama faced the same racial headwinds his Democratic predecessors did.) This does not mean that race is everything; election results hinge on a range of factors. Yet race is an often complex and oblique factor. Studies of the intersection of race, public opinion, and voting demonstrate that white Americans are less susceptible to overt racism than they are to more subtle racial resentments strongly connected to certain policy issues. Public-opinion data show that concern with one’s own racial group and hostility to outside racial groups have a significant effect on how people view taxes, social programs, immigration, crime policies, and other issues. The political right has been the primary beneficiary of this effect.

White Americans have a strong tendency to distinguish between “deserving” and “undeserving” beneficiaries of government programs. Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies, and student loans are associated with hard-working, morally upstanding whites, while housing assistance, Medicaid, and food stamps are associated with lazy, irresponsible minorities. The more taxes are linked to programs that spend money on the allegedly “undeserving,” the more resistance to them rises—buttressed by inaccurate myths about the size and scope of such programs and their actual beneficiaries. Much of the right’s opposition to Obama’s agenda, encapsulated by the Tea Party movement, follows this familiar pattern, creating moments of strange hypocrisy in which Medicare recipients decry “socialized medicine” for the poor, or farmers receiving millions of dollars in crop subsidies show up at Obama events to condemn big-government spending on “parasites.”

Of course, there are perfectly legitimate, nonracial reasons to oppose taxes, social spending, or government regulation. But it is clear that at least some of the positions adopted by a significant number of white Americans on these issues are tied to underlying racial attitudes—and that the political right, crusading against taxes and mosques or for border fences and long prison sentences, draws some of its strength from this white ressentiment. This is why the Romney campaign has made much of the charge, entirely false, that the president is trying to cancel welfare reform’s work requirements, sending your hard-earned money to people who sit at home doing nothing; it’s a message that has successfully drawn white voters for decades. 

So how will this racial dynamic influence Obama’s reelection chances? Regarding his own race, some observers view it as an asset. Not only did Obama’s 2008 candidacy help drive a surge in black turnout, it also excited many white voters, especially young ones, who wanted to be part of history and liked what voting for Obama said about their own racial enlightenment. These voters may turn out again. Obama remains personally popular, more so than historical polling data suggest he should be, given public beliefs about the economy and the direction of the country. It’s possible that many Americans do not want the first black president to fail. 

One the other hand, researchers have established that Obama’s race does spark hostility among some whites, boosting the intensity of GOP opposition and draining off votes in certain parts of the country that would otherwise go Democratic. Race likely cost Obama a couple of points in the popular vote in 2008. In an election environment highly favorable to Democrats, this was not enough to make a difference, but it could be a factor in this year’s contest.

Finally, however, the racial dynamic with the largest impact on the 2012 election has little to do with Obama’s own race. As we have seen, Republicans have long relied disproportionally on white voters, while Democrats have counted on minority ones. As the minority share of the electorate continues to grow, the demographic math looks better for Democrats. In order to survive in the long term, Republicans will either have to attract more nonwhite support, or increase white support even more—something the party has done successfully in many Southern states.  Meanwhile, one ugly short-term reaction to the changing demographics of the electorate is a series of laws across the country, unprecedented in scope since the civil-rights movement, designed to keep large numbers of minorities from voting, on the pretext of confronting an alleged (and in reality wholly fabricated) threat of voter fraud (see “The Wrong Kind,” September 8). This conservative stopgap measure won’t do much to change long-term racial shifts within the voting population, but it might suppress enough minority votes in key states to tip the balance in a close election this fall.

Perhaps more than usual, the 2012 presidential election will be a game of margins—an intense tactical struggle to increase or decrease turnout and success rates among a range of demographic groups. Since many of these groups are racially defined, the election’s outcome will certainly be affected by race, and in ways that go well beyond the president’s own.

Published in the 2012-10-12 issue: 

David Carroll Cochran is Professor of Politics at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. His most recent books are Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War (Orbis) and The Catholic Church in Ireland Today (Rowman & Littlefield).

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