Far too much attention has been paid to race, gender, and class in this election process, but it has exposed certain fault lines, as well as winners and losers, within the Democratic coalition. FDR built his ruling majority on the backs of the segregationist South, blacks and ethnic voters in the North, and academics/classic liberals. The most uncomfortable fit, and the easiest to carve out, was the segregationist South, which Nixon did starting back in 1968. Reagan made further inroads by exploiting lower-class white resentment/fear of busing, affirmative-action, urban crime, and government assistance to the black community. The two coalitions that have remained most loyal to the Democratic Party (blacks and liberals) are also the two groups that have suffered the brunt of Republican attacks since the Republicans first adopted the Southern Strategy. We have been marginalized to the point that even our own side sees us as little more than a danger to the party’s electoral prospects.
For the generation of Democrats that lived through the lopsided losses of 1972, 1984, and 1988, there is nothing more damaging than a war protester or a Jesse Jackson-style public face to the party. Joe Klein, Chris Matthews, and their whole generation of left-leaning pundits, see blacks as a mortal threat to the Reagan Democrats, and they think of academics/liberals as an embarrassment that gives the party a reputation for being soft on crime and national security.
We (meaning blacks and liberals) have been the red-headed step-child of the party for far too long. This is what makes Barack Obama’s accomplishment all the more significant. He’s black, he’s urban, he’s Northern, and he’s liberal. All the cards were stacked against him and he had to compensate by running on a fairly centrist platform, calling for post-partisanship, and playing down his black identity as much as possible.
Of course, he was attacked by liberals for his centrism and lack of raw partisanship, he was attacked by the Clintons for his liberal associations and his black associations, and his minister was used by both the Clintons and the press to try to make him the angry black candidate. But he survived all that.
The winners are, for once, the blacks and liberals that have been the most stalwart supporters of the Democratic Party since FDR built our ruling coalition. But the losers are the Reagan Democrats, the Baby Boom generation (particularly Boomer women), and the corporatists that form the core of the Clinton/DLC machine. And, as someone that has always been taken for granted inside the Democratic Party, I fully understand the pain and bitterness that the newly marginalized are feeling. For a long time, the whole meta-narrative of electoral politics in this country revolved around appealing to white voters from the lower classes, particularly ethnic (usually Catholic) whites, and white voters of retirement age. If you add in the gender disappointment element, you have a cocktail for a serious feeling of loss for the people that fall into those demographics.
They not only feel marginalized and unloved by the party, but they honestly believe that a black man cannot win. That’s not surprising…they don’t think an overt liberal can win, either, and for the same reason. Blacks and liberals are an embarrassment and must be hidden from view at election time.
But that is no longer true. Four things have changed it. The Youth Vote is both indifferent to race and much more racially diverse, and they identify as Democrats in overwhelming numbers. Barack Obama is the perfect representative for their generation. Second, 85% of the country thinks the country is on the wrong track and people are receptive to an argument for change. The old Republican attacks and policy prescriptions do not have the same appeal, nor does their usual fear-mongering. Third, demographic changes have made the electorate less white, less-Christian, and more tolerant of others. And, fourth, technological change has enabled candidates to go around the media, around the union bosses, around the urban mayors, around the big money donors, around the corporate and PAC money, and appeal directly to the people.
Taken in combination, this has changed the rules of the game to such a degree that either a black man, or a liberal, or both can now be elected in this country. And, ironically, this is what I (and the blogosphere more generally) have been arguing all along. This is what the 50-State Strategy was all about. This is what online progressive communities and small donor coalitions are all about. This is what the alternative media is all about. That’s why I’ve been so disappointed to see so many of my colleagues complaining about how Obama has done this. He boycotts FOX News for nearly two solid years and people throw a fit when he breaks the streak. He validates everything we stand for, but he doesn’t engage in Lakoffian framing games or pay due deference to the blogosphere gatekeepers, so people ‘feel lost’ and nitpick every last little thing that Obama does.
Make no mistake. Obama is a multiracial child of Hawaii, an academic/urban/liberal, with a background in community activism. This guy has knocked doors in the inner city, just as many of us have done. He knows our concerns in his bones. And he’s our nominee.
We’re going win this. And a lot of the people that are feeling hurt will soon discover that we have no intention of making them the new red-headed step-children of the party. They’re as welcome as anyone else.