The Obama Coalition

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Mr. Keller is Spector Professor of History emeritus at Brandeis University, and the author of America’s Three Regimes: A New Political History (Oxford, 2007).

From the 1830s to the 1930s, most presidential elections were shaped by the major parties rather than by charismatic candidates or overriding issues. The great exception was the clash in the 1850s over slavery, states’ rights, and the territories, which divided the Democrats and destroyed the Whigs. But the Republicans quickly replaced the Whigs, and two-party hegemony prevailed thereafter.

Since the 1930s, a new kind of political environment, in which the candidate’s appeal to particular groups coexists with the lure of party identity, has come into being. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal seems to have been the first American political movement to which the term “coalition” was applied. True, FDR heavily relied on the traditional Democratic party of the rural Protestant South and the urban-immigrant North. But by 1936 he had added groups not previously conspicuous for their Democratic fealty: African-Americans most dramatically; organized labor; Jews.

Political coalitions shaped by foreign and domestic developments rather than the traditional pull of party loyalty and regional or ethnic identity are a recurring feature of modern American politics. In the 1950s Dwight D. Eisenhower attracted not only traditional Republicans, but Catholics and new suburbanites, many of whom had been part of the New Deal coalition. Postwar prosperity, the Cold War, and Ike’s personal appeal had a destabilizing political impact comparable to the Great Depression and the rise of FDR. Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 was supported by affluent professionals traditionally labeled Country Club Republicans. Ronald Reagan in the 1980s won classically New Deal Democratic working class voters.

Issue politics frequently wreaks havoc with traditional party loyalties. The third party candidacies of Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace in 1948, of George Wallace in 1968, and of Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, attracted substantial numbers of voters. Ideological takeovers within the major parties--by Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, by Democrat George McGovern in 1972--dramatically revealed the destabilizing political impact of the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s.

With the rise of Barack Obama, coalition-identity politics has taken a new, but in this context not unfamiliar, turn. Three social groups are at the core of the Obama coalition (or, as he often calls it, the “movement”): African-Americans, the college/post-college young, and affluent “progressive” Baby Boomers who came of age in the 1960s.

Black Americans have been voting Democratic for decades, by percentages in the 80s. Obama (despite his untypical background and upbringing) represents that group’s political coming-of-age. His powerful attraction to African-Americans is as understandable as Al Smith’s appeal to Catholics and other immigrants in 1928.

Obama’s age, looks, eloquence, and postmodern cool make him attractive as well to the college-educated young. Here the historical analogue shifts: to John F. Kennedy. Obama’s mix of an unthreatening black persona and academic patina echoes JFK’s blend of Irish Catholic political smarts and Harvard polish.

Boomer liberals, clustered in the media, the academy, law, the entertainment industry, information technology, and financial marketing, have long been starved for a cause, and a sense of political community, of the sort that prevailed in the glory days of the struggles over Vietnam and civil rights. They yearn for a spokesperson who embodies the new, diverse, post-racist America, and the political “progressivism” with which they identify. Obama’s persona combines a deliciously exotic family background (black and white, Christian and Muslim, American, African, and Asian) with his exceptional poise, personality, intelligence, and rhetorical skill. And he has an unimpeachably left-liberal political record. He taps Boomer aspirations with an appeal unmatched since the Kennedys.

Past coalitions were fed by big issues: the Great Depression, the Cold War, civil rights, Vietnam. What stokes the Obama movement? The Iraq war is a contributing factor, but in its scale it is no Korea or Vietnam. And Obama appeals eloquently to widespread public discontent over the state of the nation. Yet that discontent extends not only to Bush’s presidency and the Iraq war, but to the Democratic Congress, the media, big business, and universities, from not all of which Obama dissociates himself.

The dominant note of Obama’s campaign has been his pledge to bring a sundered nation together, to transcend the bitter partisanship of the recent past. Yet his Senate record and his pre-Senate career is of all but unalloyed support for left-liberal Democratic policies. A fair reading of his campaign message is that he seeks independents and Republicans who support his policies, not that he will adjust his views to theirs. In this sense he is something of a stealth candidate, recognized as a man of the Left by the cognoscenti but (unlike Goldwater or McGovern) presenting himself to the electorate as a post-ideological politician.

Neither Iraq, nor global warming, nor the economy have had the centrality in the Obama campaign that might have been expected. His success to date appears to be due primarily to his oratorical power and the freshness of his political personality, as well as a brilliant, well-funded campaign. His mantras of “Hope” and “Change”--even “Change You Can Believe In”--echo the vagueness of the Perot campaigns of 1992 and 1996, and in this sense resonate with the call to arms of the 1976 movie Network: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

But perhaps that is the essence of Obama’s attraction: not programmatic change, but a political style whose very unspecificity allows his constituencies to read into it their diverse hopes and desires.

Is this enough? Can he reach out beyond his core support to attract the additional voting public necessary for electoral victory and effective governance? Does his coalition have the political potential of FDR’s New Deal, or Ike’s modern Republicanism, or Reagan conservatism? Or is it fated to flame out (though perhaps leaving an ideological and organizational legacy), as did the Goldwater and McGovern movements?

That will depend on his crafting a fuller political agenda than he has offered, and/or his capacity to govern from the Left. On the latter count, the record since the 1960s is not promising. Many of the Great Society’s social programs were unsuccessful. Carter’s liberal initiatives went nowhere. Clinton’s initial foray into Ted Kennedy-like liberalism (after a JFK-like campaign) crashed and burned in the congressional election of 1994. Whether or not Obama will be able to respond effectively to the current popular disaffection is equally uncertain.

But these are new times with new problems. And much of the electorate and the policy establishment have little or no recollection of the unsatisfactory past. A decisive electoral victory, and sufficiently large congressional majorities, could conceivably enable Obama to craft a legislative and ideological equivalent of the New Deal, and fulfill Jimmy Carter’s aspiration to dispel the malaise that supposedly afflicts the nation.

But I wouldn’t bet on it. Obama has already substantially moved from the anti-Israel stance of his early foreign policy consultants, and has modified his previous get-out-of-Iraq-now position: sources of potential trouble with his ideology-driven supporters on the Left. Nor is it clear yet what the character of a new course in economic or social policy might be. Barring the trauma of depression or war, the staying power of our political system, and the entrenched character of our institutions, are as likely to limit the impact of the Obama coalition as they did its predecessors.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/19/2008

I believe "by George" is an exclamation which was uttered frequently by George Washington.

It is so perfect having the Democrats unleash two candidates who are so bad at each other, for the benefit of the nation and the world. Each of them is now spending millions in Pennsylvania telling the voters how awful the other one is. Who says there is no Providence looking after America? Who says there is no such thing as "American exceptionalism?" We continue to be the luckiest nation on the face of the earth.

As for my "distortion" of Obama's remarks, just change my word "suggested" to the word "implied" please, and it will correct the problem. I did not quote him literally because it did not seem necessary.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/18/2008

By George, you distorted what Senator Obama said, as you are inclined to do.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/17/2008

You don't seem to realize that we are now living in a nation with de jure racial preferences for government contracting and school admissions, and also with an enormous amount of de facto discrimination in the marketplace, usually called "voluntary" instead of "de facto." A great many large corporations, especially, discriminate in hiring against whites, under self-imposed mandates.

I don't see anything wrong with what I said above, and cannot grasp your point, if there is one. I am not in favor of de jure segregation of black people, and never suggested such a thing. Five of my progenitors fought to end slavery, and one died in the process. My point was two wrongs do not make a right... When he was twisting arms in the senate cloakroom in 1964, several of the Southerners told Hubert Humphrey it would turn out like this, and he said he would eat the statute if it did.

Your reference to my "cling" moment is too cryptic by far, but I suppose it means you think I like to play with guns and go to church? If so, you were getting a bit arrogant, since Obama suggested those who do not play with guns and do not go to church belong to a higher order of mankind than others who "cling" to such activities... By George, I think you were having an Obama moment!

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/16/2008

"And there was nothing glorious about ending discrimination against blacks if that effort had to be followed by a wretched new system of racial preferences. "

Do you really believe that it would be better to live in a world with de jure as well as de facto segregation as opposed to the admittedly imperfect present? If not, then I think you have just had one of heck of a "cling" moment, because that is exactly what you said.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/15/2008

It should be mentioned that Obama hasn't won anything yet, and it's premature to weave him into an historical narrative with others who were elected POTUS.

More troubling, however, is Professor Keller's reference to "the glory days of struggles over Vietnam and Civil Rights." There was nothing glorious about the war started by John Kennedy which cost us the lives of 56,000 soldiers, other than the bravery of our boys on the battlefields. And there was nothing glorious about ending discrimination against blacks if that effort had to be followed by a wretched new system of racial preferences.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/15/2008

Another winning coalition consisted of the northern "War Democrats" and the Republicans of 1864.

Will Riley - 4/14/2008

Sorry, Mr. Keller for mistyping your name in my previous post. Thank you for the post and I look forward to reading your next one.

Will Riley - 4/14/2008

Mr. Heller, I enjoyed reading your analysis. I think you have carefully outlined some general perceptions about Obama, which are widely shared. However, I am somewhat concerned about your portrayal of Obama as a stauch representative of the Left. There are many issues which Obama is clearly far from the Left. He is for example, against any national single-payer healthcare program, what the Left calls "Universal Healthcare". Also, much of the progressive Left is very concered about Democratic Party, especially their corporate ties and concessions. They are concerned about the undue influence of religion and nationalism in politics. I think the case can be made that Obama, like most Democratic senators are centrists. Obama may pander to the left more than most, but his voting record and health care agenda are too far from progressive thought to mark him as an advocate for the Left. Finally, I would add that in my personal experience, Obama's campaign discounts the voices of the anti-war and pro-peace community. While at an Obama rally at Georgia Tech, the Obama campaign prevented me from carrying a peace sign into the rally. They permitted American flags and Obama signs, but told me that my sign was not allowed. They argued that if they let me enter with a sign that said "Peace Is Good", they would have to let in signs with Nazi hate speech. I think there are strong reasons to believe that Obama does not represent the progressive "Left".

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Alonzo L Hamby - 4/14/2008

Right or wrong, this is a typical Keller first-rate analysis.

Read the book.

I've long suspected that Obama is more likely than Clinton to hit speed bumps in the fall. Of course, the lackluster character of the Clinton candidacy may prove me wrong.

Sheldon M. Stern - 4/14/2008

Professor Keller may, of course, turn out to be right about the Obama phenomenon. But, the Goldwater and McGovern examples could be misleading. John McCain is certainly not in a position of strength comparable to that of LBJ in 1964 or Nixon in 1972.

James W Loewen - 4/14/2008

The piece starts out with a bunch of half-formed unsupported generalizations. "From the 1830s to the 1930s, most presidential elections were shaped by the major parties rather than by charismatic candidates or overriding issues." Hm. The Whigs won when they nominated war heroes -- seems close to "charismatic candidates" to me. Or the "New Deal seems to have been the first American political movement to which the term “coalition” was applied." As a statement of linguistic history, perhaps Keller is right, tho he cites no sources, and I suspect "coalition" has been in use for centuries. As a statement of political history, his claim is absurd. Whigs were certainly a coalition c.1840; so were Democrats. Altho Republicans did have anti-slavery as an organizing principle, they too were a coalition, taking in many Know Nothings, rich industrialists, struggling farmers, etc.
Maybe the book is more convincing. Hope so.

Douglas Brian Anchell - 4/12/2008

There is no way a white man with the same background and credentials as Obama could ever be elected to any office in this country.

Look at Obama’s affiliations:

- Senator Meeks who openly hates whites and gays and is listed on Obama’s campaign website as a major Obama supporter and backer and is one of Obama;s super-delegate. Mr. Meeks has been integral in helping Mr. Obama succeed in politics.

- Larry Sinclair claims in 1999 Senator Obama’s arranged to meet him in a limousine, sold Senator Obama cocaine and then gave Senator Obama oral sex. Subsequently Larry and Obama went to a hotel and preformed oral sex again. Mr. Sinclair is testifying in court under oath that these allegations are true.

- Mr. Auchi is an Iraqi billionaire and major financial sponsor for Obama’s rise to power throughout the past years.
While working with Saddam Hussein, Auchi made his fortune through the selling of arms in Iraq and the funneling of money from the Oil for Food program (no wonder Obama voted against invading Iraq). Mr. Auchi should have been tried along side Saddam Hussein for his crimes against humanity.

- Mr. Wright is a racist who hates America and whites with Hitleresque triads. Mr. Wright has been Mr. Obama’s spiritual mentor for over 20 years. Before the media exposed Mr. Wright, Mr. Wright was on Obama’s campaign staff as Obama's chief religious advisor. Mr. Wright and Mr. Meeks are ideologically closer to Karl Marx and Black Nationalism, than to Christianity.

- Mr. Rezko is Obama’s long time friend and a major mob figure. Rezko is NOT known for his civic sense of duty and does not do favors without asking something in return.

- Mr. Ayers of the Weather Underground, a group that killed police and tried to bomb the US Capitol, served with Obama on the board of the leftist foundation called the Woods Fund.
- Mr. McPeaks is Obama’s military adviser and national campaign co-chairman who claims that American Jews are the "problem." and “Christian Zionists were driving America's policy in Iraq to benefit Israel.”

- Michelle Obama trumpets Obama as “the second coming of the messiah,” and also states that she “has never been proud to be an AMERICAN in her adult life".

The list goes on…

How can Obama’s bad judgment to choose to affiliate with criminals and fanatics be justified?

Had Hillary Clinton had any of the above ghosts in her closet, she would have been thrown out of the election long ago.

Hey everybody - am I missing something here?

It is also interesting to note that Obama supporters seems to harbor anger and rage in their rhetoric, is this what they learned from Rev. Wright? Are we ushering into power a new Mussolini?

emma l snacker - 4/11/2008

at "Three social groups are at the core of the Obama coalition (or, as he often calls it, the “movement”): African-Americans, the college/post-college young, and affluent “progressive” Baby Boomers who came of age in the 1960s."

This is simply not true. Obama's support includes many down in the dirt, small town blue collar workers such as myself.

And anyone who thinks his message is vague simply has not bothered to do any research into his platform.

You need to get out more, and hear what working people say. And do some research as well.