Thursday, November 6, 2008

Free at Last? No!

A lot of liberal commentators have begun to argue that subordinated people are now "free," thanks to Obama's election and the new vast liberal center that propelled him to victory. People who occupy positions of relative social and economic privilege, versus those who experience subordination and discrimination, will likely interpret differently the meaning of the election. Tellingly, I have not seen many women, people of color, or gays and lesbians advocating the view that the political ideology of the country has lurched to the left. While Obama's victory definitely thrills most black people, blacks and whites have a different view of his success. To use King's metaphor, whites apparently believe that we have finally reached the mountaintop; blacks, however, believe that we can finally start climbing.

While many pundits argue that Obama's victories in Virginia, Florida, Indiana, and North Carolina indicate a radical political realignment, these arguments neglect to examine the fine print of the election returns in those states. First, his victories in those states were extremely close. He won Virginia and Florida, for example, by just 3 points, and North Carolina and Indiana by only a hair. Shift 1.5 % of the votes in Virginia and Florida to the GOP and those states become tied. North Carolina and Indiana would become deadlocked by an even smaller degree of movement. Also, Florida has been relatively more purple than other southern states, having voted for Carter, Clinton and maybe even Gore (depending upon how you count the chads and butterfly ballots). Kerry lost Florida to Bush by 5 points, far less than the other regions of the Deep South.

In their collective rush to portray this election as indicative of an ideological revolution, most commentators fail to mention that Obama did not win a majority of white votes nationally; no Democrat has managed to accomplish this feat since 1964. Even in many so-called blue states, a majority or near majority of white voters have voted for Republicans in recent elections, including this one (see this article: link). Accordingly, if blacks and Latinos do not widely vote, if white women retain their electoral flexibility (or "purpleness"), or if white professionals have a more attractive Republican option, then the country could easily go red again.

Finally, many commentators mention Obama's appeal among highly educated professionals. They argue that a coalition of younger, wealthier, educated elites and persons of color can dictate national politics in this new ideological era. This style of argumentation emerged during the Democratic primaries. But the assumption that highly educated people are inevitably liberal betrays history. Most educated progressives want to believe that education causes people to embrace liberal agendas and that perhaps, finally, most voters have now learned that the liberal label works best. But while polling data indicate that educated people tend to support hot-button liberal causes (pro-choice, gay rights, etc.), their approval dissipates on matters that are not merely symbolic to them.

Consider the subject of same-sex marriage -- which true-blue Californians just voted to prohibit. Many young educated liberals support the legality of same-sex marriage, but unless they intend to marry someone of the same sex, their connection to the issue is largely symbolic. Voting in favor of this issue, however, permits them to express their support for gay rights concerns.

By contrast, consider the utter lack of attention paid by Democratic candidates to the issue of resegregation and funding inequality in America's public school systems among Democrats. According to substantial education data (I strongly recommend the work of Professor Gary Orfield), densely blue, liberal, highly educated, professionally populated, Obama-supporting parts of the country (the upper-Midwest, Northeast, West Coast) have the most segregated and unevenly funded public school districts in the nation. Not only are these schools relatively more segregated than those in the Deep South, the level of racial isolation in them actually mirrors the degree of segregation in the South a decade after the celebrated Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Black and Latino students in these school districts also live in concentrated poverty neighborhoods that lack jobs and stability, and many of the schools are vastly underfunded, have teachers with fewer credentials of those who work in wealthier districts, and enroll students who routinely underperform on standardized measures of academic achievement.

Obama's campaign did not specifically address issues of concentrated poverty and racial isolation. Instead, most of his economic policy statements focused on helping the generic "middle-class." Also, it is very hard for Democrats in these resegregated jurisdictions to blame the "evil" Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld monster for this problem. Most blue-state local governments refuse to abandon property tax-based school funding. Liberal, upper-class parents flock to the suburbs where states have built public schools to facilitate their avoidance of inner city school systems. And these parents often resist efforts to equalize school funding or to integrate high-performing schools by expanding poor children's access to those institutions.

While Democrats celebrate the role that Northern Virginia liberals played in Obama's victory, many of these highly educated professionals (along with those in Montgomery County, Maryland) work in Washington, D.C. but reside in the suburbs in order to escape the substandard, underfunded, and largely black and poor school system in Washington, DC. Coastal and Midwestern liberals instinctively demonize and dismiss red-state southern whites. Yet, they often refuse to scrutinize how their own jurisdictions create policies that reinforce invidious patterns of social advantage and disadvantage.

I believe that Democrats should celebrate "our" electoral victory. But we must not delude ourselves into thinking that change is now easy because this trivializes the experiences of people who live in conditions of vast inequality, and it cheapens the hard work of people who have dedicated their lives to advocating social justice. Despite this week's Democrat sweep, voters in several states gave "reality checks" to liberals. In Florida, California, Arizona and Arkansas they stripped gay people of equal protection and liberty. In Nebraska, they banned affirmative action, and they barely failed to do so in Colorado. These votes do not prove that a new-left generation has arrived. On the contrary, they look like "more of the same."

Related articles on Dissenting Justice:

Separate and Unequal Public Schools: "Liberal" Blue States Have Worse Records Than "Dixie"

2008 Is Not 1964: Why Liberal Mania and Conservative Panic Are Nothing But Melodrama

Blacks Less Optimistic About a Coming Liberal Utopia

A Sober Look at a Democratic Sweep

Split Ticket? What California's Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage Means for U.S. Liberals

Strong Support for California Anti-Gay Measure Proves That Many Blue-State Voters Embrace Red Agendas

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