The Magazine

It's Not Race, It's Arugula

Obama's real electoral challenge.

Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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On the way to his rendezvous with destiny, Barack Obama consistently lost white voters, especially of the middle and working classes, to Hillary Clinton--voters variously known as Appalachians or Reagan Democrats, rural voters and white ethnics in the industrial states. Because of this, he lost most of the big swing states that a Democrat needs--Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia (which would have made Gore president in 2000 had he won there), that last by a staggering 41 points. Heading into the general election, in which the weight of the black vote will shrink as compared to its importance in the Democratic primaries, this weakness emerged as the prime threat to his promising candidacy and gave birth to two schools of thought on its cause.

School number one thinks it reflects racial hostility that Obama's opponents--first Hillary Clinton and now John McCain and the Republican party--are doing their best to rub raw. This is a case that Democrats have been making for the past 30-plus years, and its most recent airing came in a long piece in the May 19 Newsweek by Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe. "The real test is yet to come," they warned. "The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968, when Richard Nixon built a Silent Majority out of lower-and-middle-class folks frightened or disturbed by hippies and student radicals and blacks rioting. The 2008 race may turn on which party will win the lower and middle-class whites in industrial and border states--the Democrats' base from the New Deal to the 1960s, but 'Reagan Democrats' in most presidential elections since then. It is a sure bet that the GOP will try to paint Obama as 'the other'--as a haughty black intellectual who has Muslim roots."

In this view--let us call it the Newsweek Doctrine--race is the issue, and the big years in history were 1964 and 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson did the Right Thing, signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and consigning his party to electoral darkness by losing the South for the next several eons. By these lights, bigotry and fear are the main factors, and all the others are thinly masked surrogates for them. If Obama loses, this will be the excuse of the campaign and of the press that supports it.

The second school of thought admits the presence of bias as a contributing factor, but not the most important one. The real cause, it thinks, is a cultural divide among whites that splits them on matters of worldview and attitude into hostile and competing camps. Let us call this rival approach the Barone Manifesto, after its author, political analyst Michael Barone, who crunched the poll numbers for Obama's primary battles with Hillary Clinton and discovered that while the former did exceedingly well with white voters in university towns and state capitals, he did poorly almost everywhere else. From this, Barone broke the electorate down into two large divisions--academics and state employees who live in these places, whom he calls Academicians, and Jacksonians, who live elsewhere, especially in the regions close to the Appalachian mountains.

While the term Academician explains itself, Jacksonian comes from Andrew Jackson, the first of the Democrats' warrior heroes (with an echo perhaps of Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who seems now to have been one of the last). The Barone view is a close cousin to that of political reporter Ronald Brownstein, who identified a split in the Democratic party's candidates between those he described as "warriors" and "priests." In this reading of history, the critical year would be 1968, when the Democrats splintered on crime and security issues, and afterwards became the party of peace (and/or appeasement), of moral equivalence, and of aversion to force. In this reading, the Jacksonians or warriors reject Obama less because he is black than because he is a priest or academician, and they see him as "the other" not because of his name or his background but because of his ideas. "Academics and public employees .  .  . love the arts of peace and hate the demands of war," Barone tells us. "Jacksonians, in contrast, place a high value on the virtues of the warrior, and little value on the work of academics and public employees. They have, in historian David Hackett Fischer's phrase, a notion of natural liberty: People should be allowed to do what they want, subject to the demands of honor. If someone infringes on that liberty, beware."