Last week, in taking a broad view of the US political process, I ended by describing how president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era coalition of labour unions, racial minorities, Southern rednecks and Eastern intellectuals, backing his “New Deal”, largely survived till the “New Frontier” and “Great Society” social programmes of presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s. But the Democrats were victims of their own success. The American economic miracle made too many have-nots into haves, with little interest in seeing their tax dollars spent on the still-unfortunate.
Further, Americans began to contend over social issues, notably race, sexuality and abortion: a society that does not have to worry about starvation can afford to argue about sex. The emotional arguments about the right to life, the place of religion and race, all changed American politics.
As Northern Democrats took the party in a liberal direction, traditional-minded Southerners, resentful of the progress blacks were making thanks to their own party, began switching sides, finding a more congenial home in the socially-conservative Republican Party. The Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency twice with a “Southern strategy” that wooed the formerly Democratic south by appealing to its traditional conservatism on race and cultural values.
The elections of the 1980s saw the emergence of the “Reagan Democrats” — normally Democratic voters who felt their cultural values and economic well-being were safer in the hands of a Republican president than in those of a liberal Democrat. Liberal analysts despaired that such voters had been seduced by the Republicans into voting against their own economic interests. In his celebrated book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argued that lower-middle-class and working-class voters who were suffering the effects of Republican big-business-oriented economic policies were in effect being distracted by appeals to their cultural traditions — voting for the “wrong” party because it appealed to their social prejudices.
Whenever Democrats pointed to economic issues, Republicans turned up the volume on guns, gays, and God. That formula has worked so well that in the 40 years since Nixon won the White House, only two Democrats — both Southern centrists — have won the presidency, despite the party espousing polices that would benefit a far larger percentage of the electorate than the Republicans would.
But as a famous American president once said, “You can’t fool all of the people all the time”. The voters’ faith in Republican management of the country has been shaken by the disastrous economic downturn presided over by the Bush administration, particularly in contrast with the success of the Democrat Clinton in pulling the US economy out of recession and into boom and surplus. It is now the Democrats who can ask the public Ronald Reagan’s famous question: “Are you better off than you were eight years ago?”
Yet, even here it’s by no means certain that the Democrats will prevail. Republican candidate John McCain has successfully reinvented himself as the candidate of change, however improbable this may seem for a party that has controlled the presidency for the last eight years (and both houses of Congress for six of those eight as well). His running mate, Sarah Palin, a mother of five, caribou hunter and former beauty queen, has energised the party’s conservative base and won over some wavering women voters who see themselves in her. The latest Zogby poll shows McCain-Palin closing the gap in projected Electoral College votes against Obama-Biden. The momentum is undoubtedly with the Republicans.
Obama still has six weeks to turn things around. The debates (the first of three, on foreign policy, takes place this coming Friday) are an obvious opportunity for him, both to look presidential and to spotlight McCain’s weaknesses. The increasing ethnic diversity of the US should work in his favour, as would a strong turnout from the “Millennial generation” — 18-to-31 year-old voters who traditionally have not bothered to vote in numbers as large as the over 65s (who are mostly with McCain).
It is suggested that the voting intentions of the young are not properly counted in much of the current polling, which relies excessively on calling landline telephones, when most of the young rely on their cell phones alone. Obama energised them in the primary race against Hillary Clinton; can he continue to do so in November, despite the compromises he has made in moving to the centre for the general election? The risk is that he may have moved far enough to discomfit the young idealists without doing enough to win over the older white traditionalists, who are still uneasy with the idea of a black man occupying what will still be called the White House.
Still, this election is fundamentally a contest between an older idea of America — embodied in a 72-year-old white Anglo-Saxon Protestant war hero — and a newer reality epitomised by a bi-racial, youthful son of an immigrant. Every significant demographic trend in America — the growing number of people of colour; the increase in ethnic minorities, notably Hispanics; the rising tide of non-Caucasian immigration; and the creation of a “youth bulge” in the population — works in the Democrats’ favour.
But perhaps not yet: the Hillary strategist Mark Penn, in a notorious memo discounting the prospects of a black president, wrote derisively, “Save it for 2050.” The white working-class is still a significant force in 2008; it will be considerably less so when Obama is McCain’s age. But this election could yet demonstrate that the brilliant, once-in-a-generation star that is Barack Obama may have peaked too soon.
What an extraordinary election year this is turning out to be. If McCain wins, it is likely to prove one of the final triumphs for a generation whose assumptions of political prerogative must inevitably yield before long to these new demographic realities. If Obama wins, the torch will again pass, in JFK’s memorable words, to a new generation of Americans. I can hardly wait for November 4.
6 months ago