My first, kind of visceral, reaction to the shocking and disappointing election returns was that white America, particularly white men, had just thrown a massive temper tantrum. I could further refine this to white Americans living in mostly white towns and suburbs, and out on our farms and up in our remote hills. The Democrats did terribly with white men as a whole, but I think we’ll be able to drill down into the data and discover that it mattered a lot where these whites live.
For a long time we’ve known that whites behave differently when they live in areas, like the South or our cities, where the black population is big enough to actually hold power at the local level, and that racial animosity diminishes considerably when there is no fear of power-sharing. That’s why Barack Obama did so well with whites in Iowa and throughout the Plains and Mountain States in his competition with Hillary Clinton, but did very poorly among whites in places like Mississippi and Georgia and South Philadelphia.
The Democrats’ standing among whites and white men has deteriorated during the Obama Era, and there are a lot of factors that probably can help explain this. If you exclude Jews, Catholics, academics and scientists and young urban professionals, there is very little white support for Democrats, and this is reflected in the makeup of Congress. Finding white male protestant Democrats in the House of Representatives is not an easy task.
The party has experienced a broad change in how its power is expressed over recent years. Because minority members tend to come from safe districts, they’ve accumulated more seniority than their white colleagues in the House and we now see blacks, Latinos (and women) dominating as the ranking members on committees. This has long been a goal for progressives, but it puts a dark face on the party which goes along with our black First Family, our black Attorney General, our black Secretary of Homeland Security, our black Secretary of Transportation and our Latino secretaries of Labor and HUD. This diversity is an accomplishment and a strength, but it also alienates parts of our country that simply don’t live with dark faces or directly compete with them for local power.
This is why Mitch McConnell isn’t joking when he says that the president taking unilateral action on immigration reform will be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. If this alienated white America is rewarded for their very successful tantrum with unilateral executive action on immigration, their rage and frustration will know no bounds.
In fact, it’s hard to argue with the following:
Republicans led by McConnell pledged to use their newfound majorities to stop [Obama’s executive action].
“I hope he won’t do that, because I do think it poisons the well for the opportunity to address a very important domestic issue,” McConnell said in Louisville, Kentucky, as he celebrated a victory in his own Senate race and the GOP’s capture of the Senate.
Some on the right said executive action on immigration could even be grounds for impeachment. Several House Republicans said Obama would make it very difficult to cooperate on other issues if he acts on immigration.
“Him moving ahead like that, I think he’s completely tone deaf to what happened last night,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.
The president probably is not tone-deaf about what happened on Tuesday, but he will go ahead with his promise anyway. It will rile up the white male base and calls for impeachment will grow. The bull will paw the Earth, flare its nostrils, and charge with all its worth.
The Democrats need to fulfill their promise on immigration reform, but they cannot go on like this because it amounts to complicity in a growing racial polarization of our politics. That’s bad for the country and it will allow the Republicans to hold stable majorities in both the House and state legislatures for the foreseeable future.
The Democrats will still keep the presidency most of the time and the Senate at least some of the time, but our country will remain stuck, our government will remain dysfunctional, and the people will suffer. The Democrats have to address middle class economic and social anxiety, and that means they have to focus on class more than race. This isn’t a recommendation that the Democrats make winning over the elusive white male voter their top priority, at least not in the ways this has been attempted in the past. It’s a recommendation that the Democrats begin focusing heavily on the issues that are making middle class folks from all backgrounds so anxious. I’m talking about the fact that people can’t afford college, that their kids can’t afford to move out of their homes, that formerly “good” neighborhoods are being decimated by opioid addiction, and that our infrastructure is crumbling.
Government action can’t be seen as a wealth transfer from the middle-class to the poor or from whites to minorities, but as investment in our communities that used to be made as a matter of course.
The Democrats have to wage what the Republicans derisively call “class warfare” or this country is going to remain hopelessly polarized with no way in sight to stop the rise in income inequality.