Friday, October 24, 2008

Race and Presidential Politics: Pre- and Post-Obama

Last year, after Joe Biden opined that Barack Obama was the "first" black presidential candidate who was articulate, smart and telegenic, I concluded that Obama would likely lose the election. My conclusion did not rest on some knee-jerk belief that "Americans are too racist to vote for a black man." Instead, the historical performance of blacks in statewide election contests did not bode well for his candidacy. Biden's statement simply provided gloss to my argument. My prediction triggered very passionate responses from my Democratic colleagues who accused me of lacking "hope." But my opinion rested on a fairly rational reading of U.S. electoral politics.

Despite the media's fascination with Obama's lead in most nationwide polls, presidential elections ultimately turn on the results of state-to-state contests. And historically, very few blacks have won statewide elections. For example, only two blacks, Deval Patrick and Douglas Wilder, have won gubernatorial elections. In 1990, Wilder became the first elected black governor when he won the Virginia gubernatorial contest by only .5% of the vote. Two years ago, Patrick won in blue-state Massachusetts -- a year when Democrats regained control of both the Senate and the House. P.B.S. Pinchback and Douglas Patterson served as lieutenant governors, before replacing incumbents. Pinchback served as governor during Reconstruction, and Patterson became governor of New York this year.

Results of U.S. Senate elections also demonstrate the thin record of blacks winning statewide elections. Although five blacks have served in the Senate, only three earned their seats through statewide elections. In 1966, Ed Brooke won the U.S. Senate contest in Massachusetts, making him the first black person elected to the Senate. Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois won the senate election in 1992, making her the first and only black woman to serve in the Senate. Barack Obama won the Illinois race in 2006 during the Democratic midterm elections sweep. Two other blacks, Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, served as senators during Reconstruction. Both, however, were chosen by the Republican-dominated Mississippi legislature for that role.

With respect to presidential elections, Jesse Jackson was the most famous and successful black candidate prior to Obama. Jackson ran in 1984 and 1988. Jackson finished second behind nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988, and he won 11 primaries along the way. Shirley Chisolm and Carol Mosley Braun also launched unsuccessful campaigns in 1972 and 2004, respectively.

Against this historical backdrop, Obama's candidacy emerged. Although the country has certainly made progress in terms of race relations, race continues to influence voter attitudes. Despite the poor historical record of blacks in statewide election politics, when the Democratic primaries first began, many Obama supporters rejected as utterly cynical the assertion that race would hinder his electability. Ironically, many of those same individuals have invoked racism to rebut critiques of Obama by Hillary Clinton and John McCain and have offered racism (rather than class, gender or other factors) as the only reason why he lost several election contests to Clinton.

Recently, some commentators have argued that only racism could cause Obama to lose the election, but this argument overlooks the fact that since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democrats have only elected one president (Clinton) to two terms. Also, since 1964, Democrats have only won three presidential elections. Clinton won two of these, and Carter, who received a mere 50.1% of the popular vote, won the other, running against Gerald Ford who received harsh criticism for pardoning Richard Nixon. The Democrats simply have not had much success in presidential candidates since 1964. So race might explain why some people, but not all, would decline to vote for Obama.

The intense scrutiny of race and politics during the year's election cycle leaves the impression that race has never mattered in presidential politics until this year or that it only impacts candidates who are not white. But to assume that race has not impacted presidential elections until 2008 would grossly distort the history of U.S. politics. Race has substantially affected prior elections and has, naturally, impacted white candidates. Distinguishing racism against a particular candidate from the issue of race relations helps illuminate this point.

Race, Reconstruction and Presidential Elections
During Reconstruction, the presence of federal troops in southern states allowed blacks to exercise their political rights. At the time, virtually all black votes went to Republican candidates, and blacks who won elections were all members of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party, by contrast, had a monopoly on the white southern vote.

As the southern states were "redeemed" and re-admitted to the Union, Democrats slowly regained more and more power in southern governments. In 1876, the presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was closely divided. Tilden won the popular vote by a 51-48 margin, but the electoral college was in dispute due to a controversy over how to allocate votes from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The elections in those states involved a large degree of violence against black voters and whites who supported Republicans. Previously, President Grant had responded to election-day violence by dispatching federal troops to polling places, but that year, his advisers convinced him to refrain from doing so, believing that this would harm the electoral performance of Republican candidates. Just a few years after the Civil War, the public had grown intolerant of federal efforts to quell southern racial violence. The "Compromise of 1877" gave the election to Hayes, on the promise that he, as president, would remove troops from the South. Although Hayes eventually won the election, race contributed to his popular vote loss, but his concession on race and Reconstruction ultimately gave him the victory. When Hayes assumed office, he withdrew the remaining troops from the South. After the demise of Reconstruction, blacks would not vote in significant numbers in the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1968.
The New Deal Coalition and Race
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's political dominance from 1933-1945 relied on a coalition of southern white Democrats, blacks and other people of color, liberals, urbanites, labor, and religious minorities. The "New Deal Coalition" secured victory for the Democrats in seven of nine presidential elections from 1932 to 1964. Roosevelt gained support of nearly 80% of blacks, who abandoned the Republican party due to Roosevelt's liberal economic policies, which drew mass appeal following Republican Herbert Hoover's presidency and the Great Depression. Roosevelt's scattered embrace of civil rights would keep blacks within the Democratic Party -- and blacks' growing political leverage helped to secure those sporadic gains.

The only blip in Democratic success during this area came when Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidential elections in 1952 and 1956. Smartly, Eisenhower maintained the New Deal policies and supported civil rights, including the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which a majority of the public also favored. The opinion, however, sparked massive southern resistance. In 1957, Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to enforce desegregation of Little Rock High School -- amidst international coverage of racial violence and harassment of black students. Eisenhower received far more black support than any of Roosevelt's Republican challengers, but he never received a majority of black votes.

Race, the Great Society, and Southern Political Realignment
After a century of Democratic dominance in the South, a dramatic realignment took place after 1964. When Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he accurately predicted that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. Johnson probably did more in terms of promoting and endorsing civil rights than any other president in U.S. history -- although Kennedy tends to receive more praise and attention from liberal elites. Johnson's efforts shattered the New Deal coalition and ushered in decades of Republican dominance in presidential politics.

In 1964, Johnson signed comprehensive civil rights legislation, which was already proposed while Kennedy was alive. But Johnson lobbied for and implemented far more civil rights and antipoverty measures than Kennedy ever proposed or endorsed. Many leftists demonize Johnson due to the Vietnam War, but in terms of advancing the status of blacks, he did much more than Kennedy -- or any other presidents since Lincoln and Grant.

Johnson's "Great Society" programs expanded the government's role beyond the New Deal. The legislation included the Voting Rights Act, which enfranchised blacks in the South. Johnson's administration also spent large amounts of money on education, which was a priority in his legislative agenda. His administration created federal student loans and work study programs; it also founded the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Johnson launched a War on Poverty, which expanded the New Deal initiatives in addition to taking on new projects, such as adding Medicare to the Social Security Act, creating Head Start, and forming the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services). Johnson also nominated Thurgood Marshall, a prominent civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, to the Supreme Court. Marshall, a definite liberal, became the first black Supreme Court Justice.

Johnson's programs solidified black support for the Democrats, but they also caused "white flight" from the party. Beginning in 1968, a white backlash from the Great Society programs caused a southern political realignment, which has cost the Democrats a string of presidential elections. The Deep South effectively turned red.

Although nonracial factors explain some of the shift in southern political alliances, race issues do so as well. Southern whites vehemently opposed civil rights legislation, integration, affirmative action, and other race-related policies that the Democrats promoted. Consequently, since 1964, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white voters nationwide. Jimmy Carter is the only Democratic Party candidate who has won a majority of all voters in a presidential election since 1964, but he won by a mere 50.1% of the vote. The Republican Party has received a majority of white voters in all elections since 1964, due largely to white southerners abandoning the Democrats. Only Clinton and Carter -- two white southern governors -- have won southern states since 1964. Gore did not even win his native state of Tennessee.

Race in a Post-Obama World
If Obama wins in November, this would mark a reversal of fortune for the Democrats, but it remains unclear whether his victory would usher in a new "liberal" trend in U.S. politics or whether it would only represent a momentary change. Although Obama's charisma, intellect, and excellent communications skills have helped him tremendously, the poor performance and disfavor of President Bush, the terrible state of the economy, the ineffective campaign of John McCain, public distrust of Sarah Palin, and a very Obama-friendly media have all combined to make victory a strong possibility for the Democrats. Obama's policy proposals do not rank as more liberal than Gore's or Kerry's. Thus, Obama's success does not seem to result from a fundamental shift in the nation's overall political ideology (for a more pointed discussion of this issue, see this link).

Furthermore, Obama still trails McCain in most southern states, which remain red by and large (even if closer than in previous elections). Also, the bulk of Obama's white support comes from women -- who traditionally vote for Democrats. And while the Democrats have registered many new voters and have beaten the Republicans significantly in this regard, a coherent political ideology does not unite those voters. They certainly want "change," which specifically, seems to mean ending the war and not having "a Clinton," "a Bush," "a Republican" or "a white guy" in office. Beyond that, it is unclear what will unite them. Unless this group develops into a reliable and cohesive liberal block, Obama and Democrats after him would face the same electoral landscape that has constrained the party since 1964. Indisputably, an Obama victory would mark an historic moment in U.S. racial history. But as liberals contemplate and celebrate that moment, they should not forget that race has a very long history in U.S. politics. Because Obama's success has not altered the country's fundamental political ideology, race will remain an important factor in national politics in the foreseeable future.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the analysis. What are you saying race is - bigotry?

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Well, racism can = bigotry, but I prefer thinking about racial inequality, or the uneven distribution of opportunity and resources. Some of that is due discrimination, but a lot of it is due to inherited inequality, which we as a society have failed to dismantle.

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