It’s embarrassing to me that Sean Wilentz teaches at Princeton University. It puts a stain on the entire town. Wilentz has spent this entire primary defending the Clintons against accusations that they have deliberately racialized the campaign. Now he comes out and argues that Obama does not appeal to white working class voters. Dishonest throughout, Wilentz makes no connection between the Clintons’ tactics and rhetoric and results like this:
Pike County, Kentucky
Hillary Clinton 12,915 91%
Barack Obama 936 7%
Undecided 196 1%
Rather than look at the results out of Appalachia for what they are, Wilentz launches an unmerciful attack at the new New Left:
Having attempted, with the aid of a complicit news media, to brand Hillary Clinton as a racist — by flinging charges that, as the historian Michael Lind has shown, belong “in black helicopter/grassy knoll territory,” Obama’s supporters now fiercely claim that Clinton’s white working class following is also essentially racist. Favoring the buzzword language of the academic left, tinged by persistent, discredited New Left and black nationalist theories about working-class “white skin privilege,” a vote against Obama has become, according to his fervent followers, “a vote for whiteness.”
Sen. Jim Webb, who is somewhat of a historian/anthropologist/member of the Appalachian culture, doesn’t like to hear people attribute the primary results to racism. His explanation is more nuanced:
“This isn’t Selma, 1965. This is a result of how affirmative action, which was basically a justifiable concept when it applied to African Americans, expanded to every single ethnic group in America that was not white, and these were the people who had not received benefits and were not getting anything out of it. And they’re basically saying let’s pay attention to what has happened to this cultural group in terms of opportunities.”
I like how Sen. Webb is responding to this issue from a political point of view, but he’s parsing beyond what the facts will allow. Pike County, Kentucky voted against Obama because he is black. It’s that simple. If you want to know why they don’t trust black people, that’s an interesting question and Webb’s answer is as good as any I’ve seen. But racism is what explains the results. Others can dissect the causes of racism. And Clinton fed right into this racism by telling the voters of Pike County that she was their candidate and the other guy was a big-city elitist with weird religious ideas.
Despite the fact that exit polls showed the 18% of white voters thought race was important and that 88% of them (state-wide) voted for Clinton, Wilentz says there is no evidence of racism.
In fact, all of the evidence demonstrates that white racism has not been a principal or even secondary motivation in any of this year’s Democratic primaries. Every poll shows that economics, health care, and national security are the leading issues for white working class voters – and for Latino working class voters as well. These constituencies have cast positive ballots for Hillary Clinton not because she is white, but because they regard her as better on these issues.
Really? Ninety-one to seven percent better?
Selectively ignoring exit polls and county results is no way to further an academic career. But Wilentz’s worst error is his analysis of what it takes to win the Electoral College. He goes into great detail to explain to us how important it has been historically to win certain states. None of that matters. All that matters is who gets more Electoral College votes. No one cares which states are in which column, we only care about who has 270 or more votes.
If Obama wins all Kerry states (and he currently leads in the polls in all Kerry states except New Hampshire) then simply winning Iowa, New Mexico, and Nevada gives us a 269-269 tie, which Nancy Pelosi’s House of Representatives will decide in Obama’s favor. Never mind that Obama is currently polling ahead in Indiana and Virginia, and that Clinton is losing to McCain in Wisconsin and Michigan. Wilentz isn’t concerned with facts. For him, winning an election that doesn’t include Kentucky and West Virginia is a betrayal of the Democratic Party’s heritage.
Out with the Democratic Party of Jefferson, Jackson, F.D.R., Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, and in with the bright, shiny party of Obama – or what the formally “undeclared” Donna Brazile, a member of the Democratic National Committee and of the party’s rules committee, has hailed as a “new Democratic coalition” swelled by affluent white leftists and liberals, college students, and African-Americans.
The Democratic Party, as a modern political party, dates back to 1828, when Andrew Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams to win the presidency. Yet without the votes of workers and small farmers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as a strong Democratic turnout in New York City, Jackson would have lost the Electoral College in a landslide. Over the 180 years since then, only one Democrat has gained the presidency without winning either Ohio or Pennsylvania, with their large white working-class vote.
According to Pollster.com’s polling average, Obama is currently ahead in Pennsylvania by 5 points and SurveyUSA has him with a 48%-39% lead in Ohio. It’s odd for Wilentz to make the argument that Obama won’t win in states where he is currently polling ahead. But what’s really dishonest, at least in the case of Ohio, is that Obama needs to win these states. He’d like to win them, but he doesn’t need to win them. He has consistently polled well ahead in Colorado and he has leads in Iowa, Indiana and Virginia. Winning those states while holding Kerry’s states would provide a 292-246 Electoral College victory. Do you think the white working class people of Iowa and Indiana would wring their hands that the Democratic Party won without Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia? I don’t.
Given that Obama’s vote in the primaries, apart from African-Americans, has generally come from affluent white suburbs and university towns, the Gallup figures presage a Democratic disaster among working-class white voters in November should Obama be the nominee.
I didn’t know that Maine, Iowa, Oregon, and Colorado had that many college towns and African-Americans. Once again, Wilentz ignores the regional factor in racial resistance to Barack Obama. It’s as if the only white working class people in the country come from Appalachia. Given that Obama currently has a lead in Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Indiana it’s kind of hard for me to see this looming disaster in November. I’m more concerned with why Clinton is doing so badly in Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Gore won Iowa and Bill Clinton won all of these states. Why is Clinton trailing there?
Culturally as well as politically, Obama’s dismissal of white working people represents a sea-change in the Democrats’ basic identity as the workingman’s party – one that has been coming since the late 1960s, when large portions of the Left began regarding white workers as hopeless and hateful reactionaries. Faced with the revolt of the “Reagan Democrats” – whose politics they interpreted in the narrowest of racial terms – “new politics” Democrats dreamed of a coalition built around an alliance of right-thinking affluent liberals and downtrodden minorities, especially African-Americans. It all came to nothing.
Obama isn’t dismissing white working people at all. But what do you expect him to do? Go to Pike County, Kentucky to fish for votes? Even in a closed Democratic primary he only won 936 votes there. Those people aren’t reacting to his message or lack of message. Their not looking one inch beyond the surface of his skin. And don’t be surprised if he shows up there anyway to explain that he will work hard for their economic opportunity while McCain will only pander to their guns and God and feelings about abortion. It’s not as if Obama is scared of those people. But this is an election and elections involve strategy. You don’t spend your efforts in places that aren’t going to give you more than 10% of the vote even after you’ve secured the most delegates in the race.
Sean Wilentz is a dishonest wanking hack.