MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.
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On Election Day we learned who will be president for the next four years. In the days after Election Day we learned something almost as important: the story that will be told about the election of 2012. The popular story of any election takes on a life of its own, and it can shape the political landscape for years to come.
We can now safely project the winner of this year’s election story contest: Republicans self-destructed by moving too far to the right on issues that matter to women (especially unmarried women), newly empowered Latinos, and still empowered African-Americans.
Among liberal pollsters this pro-Obama coalition (plus the under-30s) is often called “the rising American electorate” (RAE). They are the future, the story goes. The Republicans must face that fact, make the necessary changes, or get ready to become history. Race, ethnicity, and gender are destiny.
But I wouldn’t write off the Republicans so fast. If the story is told this particular way it can actually work to the GOP’s advantage. The 2012 election may become a turning point in our political history, as the story makes it out to be, only if class is added to race, ethnicity, and gender as a fundamental element in the plot.
I came to that conclusion by looking at some numbers that have largely been left out of the popular story.
First there is the most crucial and most often ignored number: seven million. That’s the drop in the number of white voters between 2008 and 2012. Seven million white voters just didn’t show up this year. The big question is whether they will show up four years from now or, just as importantly, two years from now.
In 2014, 20 Senate seats now held by Democrats will be up for grabs, 11 of them in states where Dems are vulnerable. Republicans will have 13 seats up, but only one in a state where a Dem might win. So a large turnout of Republican voters could easily give the GOP control of the Senate.
For the Democrats to retake the House in 2014, they must hold on to all the new seats they won this year -- all in swing districts -- and win at least 18 more, eight of them in leaning GOP districts. A strong showing of Republican voters would prevent that and insure that the GOP gets an even larger majority in the House.
As this year’s exit polls show, Republican success depends on a high percentage of white male voters. And there’s one thing that is sure to bring lots of white men: the currently popular story that emphasizes race, ethnicity, and gender.
It’s already being translated into language that white conservative men understand all too well: Latinos are teaming up with blacks and liberal (code for “loose”) women to take over the country. They’re the reason we are losing the America we once knew and loved. Rush Limbaugh told his millions of listeners the day after Election Day, “I went to bed last night thinking we've lost the country.”
But two years from now Limbaugh will be telling those millions that it’s time for patriots (read: whites) to take back their country. And they will try mightily, simply by showing up at the polls. Ditto for the dittoheads four years from now.
So for those of us who fear this vision of the future, it’s a good idea to look for another story about this year’s election that fits the facts but can blunt the boomerang effect of the “race, ethnicity, and gender” narrative. Fortunately, it’s staring us right in the face.
Pick up the exit poll and look at the category labeled “Family Income.” (The best breakdown is on the FoxNews site, but it’s the same poll all the media used). You’ll see a strikingly simple tale: The more money you make, the more likely you were to vote for Mitt Romney. Under 30K families went 63% and 30 - 50K families 57% for Obama. Among 50 - 100K families Romney got 52% and among 100 - 200K he increased to 54%.
50K, the median family income, is the great political divide. Voters below the median gave Obama 60% of their votes, and thus his victory. And some of them were white men and married women above age 30.
The RAE made up 48% of the voters, and two-thirds of them went for Obama. So 32% of the electorate were pro-Obama RAE voters. But Obama got a shade over 50% of the votes. So some 18% of voters were not part of the RAE yet opted for Obama. Some were folks with graduate degrees, most of them no doubt above the median income. But that leaves the decisive swing voters: several million white men and married women below the median income who voted for Obama.
So the election wasn’t just about racial, ethnic, or gender politics. It was also about the economy, stupid. As Paul Krugman wrote, “the big numbers came from groups unified by economic fear. … While single women and members of minority groups are more insecure at any given point of time than married whites, insecurity is on the rise for everyone, driven by changes in the economy.”
Yet the story of class -- which fits the exit polls as well as the story of race, ethnicity, and gender -- got virtually no hearing in the mass media.
It’s always been taboo in America to talk about class. The myth that “we’re all middle class” has been among the most powerful of all our national myths. Both candidates this year knew that very well, which is why they often sounded so silly as they fought to see who could mention the sacred words “middle class” most often. Barack Obama never talked about helping the poor, only about helping people who aren’t yet in the middle class achieve that normative status.
Historically, Americans have been able to avoid talking about the glaring class divides and tensions in their midst by focusing on the equally glaring divides and tensions surrounding race. It’s almost a cliché among historians to say that, while other nations have dealt so often with class conflict, we’ve dealt constantly with race conflict.
The growing salience of Latinos complicates matters a bit because thoughtful people (and the U.S. Census Bureau) know that Latinos are an ethnic group composed of many racial identities. But many (most?) white Americans see Latinos merely as “brown-skinned people,” making it easy to assume that Latinos, like African-Americans, are a dark-skinned race. So in practical political terms Latinos become part of the story of race as a substitute for class in public discourse.
Feminist historians would be quick to add that gender conflict has been central to public discourse, along with race conflict, throughout American history.
So the popular story of Election Day 2012 reflects a long-standing pattern, unique to the United States, of avoiding talk of class in favor of talk about race, ethnicity, and gender.
The Democrats are just now beginning to talk about the divide between the rich and the rest of us. It’s another big step to talk about the differences between those above and those below the median income -- including the decisive political difference.
But if Democrats don’t take that step soon they risk another major defeat in 2014 and perhaps 2016. Then all the benefits of re-electing Barack Obama could easily slip down the political drain.
On the other hand, imagine this as Democrats’ story of the 2012 election: The winning coalition was a rainbow of folks under median income who saw clearly where their bread was buttered, and it wasn’t on Wall Street or in the corporate offices of Bain Capital.
Then the central question of the elections of 2012 and 2014 might become, “Do you want a government dedicated solely to increasing the wealth and cutting the taxes of the rich while slashing the vital government services we all depend on?,” rather than, “Do you want those blacks, Latinos, and liberal women to take over the country?”
Making class a central issue could get at least some whites, especially men, in the lower income brackets to think of their vote in a rather different light -- not as revenge against the people who are “taking away our country,” but as a chance to continue a move toward the economic justice they deserve as a reward for all their years of hard work.